THE AUTHOR recounts a recent visit to Austria and the ghosts of the past, amidst the quiet and beautiful rural life..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Recently, I was invited by this newspaper to write a travel piece focusing on summer family holidays in southern Austria. Which I did, and had a very enjoyable week in the Corinthian and Salzburgerland regions, enjoying the wonderful Alpine scenery, extremely friendly local hosts, and perhaps more schnapps than is to be recommended.
Accordingly, on my return, I wrote a positive article on the fun that could be had holidaying in this region. Occasionally, my opinion articles in these pages generate some hostile talkbacks – which is the price to pay for having the temerity to attack our right-wing government’s disastrous policies – but I wasn’t expecting any comments on an innocuous travel piece.
How wrong I was. Straight away the talkbacks came in, listing how many Jewish deaths Austrian Nazis were responsible for in the Holocaust; the incredibly high percentage of Austrians on Adolf Eichmann’s staff and, of course, the fact that Hitler was born in Austria. One talkbacker even claimed “Austria is the most rabidly anti-Semitic country on the planet. Why any Jew would want to spend 5 minutes in this place is beyond me.”
Well, actually, the facts are a little different.
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s 2014 global survey into the most antisemitic countries, Austria doesn’t make it to the top 10, which is exclusively comprised of Middle Eastern and North African countries, with the West Bank and Gaza Strip heading the list.
In fact, Austria doesn’t even top the list of antisemitic European countries; although trailing far behind Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom, the ADL survey showed that Austrians harbor far less antisemitic attitude than the Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, or even Italians and Spaniards.
Does this mean we should avoid Greece, Italy or Spain as desirable holiday destinations? Where does one draw the line? The Spanish Inquisition? The Roman destruction of the Second Temple? But the purpose of this article is not to defend modern-day Austria or gloss over its war-time history; it’s more to raise the question of how deeply we should view the present through the lens of the Holocaust.
One evening during my trip, the group of Israeli journalists I was traveling with had dinner with our hosts in the local town’s most prestigious restaurant. The food was excellent, the wine perfectly suited to each course, and the conversation lively, reflecting our interest in the region, places to visit, local dishes to try and so on. And then one of our group turned the discussion to the Holocaust and basically asked our hosts: what did your grandparents do during the Shoah? I felt then, and said so, that this was an inappropriate conversation for what was meant to be a festive dinner to mark the desire on the part of our hosts to encourage Israeli tourism to the region.
More than 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, why raise it, in a social setting, with people who are distanced by two generations from the evils that took place then? This is not to say one should turn a blind eye to history.
One of the more absurd places we visited, and which I didn’t write about in the travel piece as I can’t see it being of any interest to Israeli tourists, was a members-only shooting club situated on the shores of a lake. What sets this club apart from others is that hand-painted targets are set across the lake and are reflected in the water. The shooters aim their rifles at the targets in the water, with the idea being that bullet jumps off the water, much like a skimming stone, and then hits the real target.
On the ceiling of the clubhouse are the targets, featuring a different image each year, that have served the club over the more than a 100 years of its existence.
It’s fascinating to see how the pictures on these targets have changed over time, from paintings celebrating the Austrian- Hungarian empire to more modern ones marking members’ 50th wedding anniversaries and so on. So of course I searched the ceiling for targets from the war years to see what images were depicted then.
For some reason – either the club didn’t function in the war years or someone had a reason to take them down – there were no mementos from that period. The 1936 target featured a very idealized image of a young Aryan boy and girl in traditional dress, so I have my suspicions as to how the imagery developed pre- and post-Anschluss.
But that’s history, and it’s important we look forward as opposed to constantly looking behind us. Today’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, for as long we as we have survivors among us who can tell their story, is an important day in modern Israel’s calendar, but it is only one day out of the year, and should not be the day that defines how we, as Israelis, view the world.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.