Austria in Israel

The Austrian ambassador lives in a Herzliya Pituah house rumored to have been bought by Meyer Lansky in the 1970s.

October 3, 2007 21:44
3 minute read.
Austria in Israel

austrian home 224 88. (photo credit: Eyal Izhar)


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Austrian Ambassador Kurt Hengl acknowledges that it has not always been easy representing Hitler's homeland in the Jewish state. As a long-time diplomat now on his third posting here, he has experienced three crisis points in Israeli-Austrian relations. The first was in 1973 when, as a young diplomat, he was the cultural attaché and Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky infuriated Jews around the world by closing down a transit point for Soviet immigrants under terrorist pressure. "There was a big demonstration in Tel Aviv and they brought me a white rabbit as a sign of cowardice," he recalls. "I refused to accept it." On the second and third occasions, the revelation of UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past and later the political successes of extreme right-wing politician Joerg Haider, who joined the Austrian government, Israel withdrew its ambassador to Vienna. "You have to have a leather skin and an open heart," Hengl sums up his relationship with Israel and especially with Holocaust survivors. "We have an organization of Austrian Holocaust survivors and we try to look after their interests," he says. As for the other members of his delegation, he says he has a good team; they all love Israel and respect outbursts of distress and frustration. He also tries to be even-handed with respect to the "troubles" here, opening his home for charity events for both Arabs and Jews, and admitting that it is very hard to stay cold and detached when children are blown up on a bus or families are hit by mortars on a beach. The residence, which was bought by the embassy in the early 1970s, is a magnificent home on one of the main thoroughfares of Herzliya Pituah, just opposite a street named, somewhat ironically Kedoshei Hashoah (Holocaust martyrs). The ambassador told me of a rumor, very widespread in Herzliya in the '70s, that the house had been bought by Meyer Lansky as his retirement home until Golda Meir threw him out of the country, not wanting it to be a haven for gangsters. While I really wanted to believe this story, my journalistic instincts told me I had better check, and I called Phil Levene who had lived next door then. He quickly disillusioned me about the rumor. "It was built by an American stockbroker and he never moved in," Phil told me. However, the house remains a monument to '70s interior design, with dark variegated marble floors and rough stone walls. The bright turquoise tiles on the front patio are also very typical of the period. "We feel it's an ensemble and are very reluctant to change anything or break it down in any way," says the ambassador. The well-tended garden has many nooks and crannies, rockeries and tropical corners, while at the center the large swimming pool dominates and looks particularly appealing on sweltering summer days. Both the ambassador and his wife Jacqueline use the pool, and often receptions are held around it. The main entertaining room looks over the front garden and has a striking curved wall, behind which a pantry is situated for organizing all the food that is brought out during parties. This room is on the first floor, reached by a staircase from the formal entrance which flies the Austrian flag and sports a portrait of the chancellor. The sitting area is at the top of the stairs facing the rounded wall, and the coffee table is laid with fine Augarten Austrian china and white starched napkins. Delectable apple strudel is being served. An old German glass-fronted vitrine displays a selection of unusual items, including souvenirs from other postings in Venezuela and Portugal. Concerts are often given in the elegant sitting room, and as many as 280 people can fit in and listen to recitals given on the decorative art-nouveau piano standing against the wall. The most recent was a concert in aid of Schneider Children's Hospital in Petah Tikva. The next sitting corner has a variety of tub chairs, all upholstered in different bright materials, while at the end of the room sectioned off from the main room is the nearest thing to a private study area. The dining room has a massive table and elegant Thonet chairs. From here one can step out onto another small balcony with a pastoral view of orange trees and cloudless sky. "It's difficult to imagine you are in a crisis zone here," says Hengl. Several local painters and craftsmen, both Jewish and Arab, are represented in the decorative items around. "The relationship between Austria and Israel has not always been an easy one," said Chancellor Alfred Gusenbacher when he visited at the beginning of September. But Kurt and Jacqueline Hengl have worked tirelessly to improve that relationship. Do you feel you own one of Israel's most beautiful homes? Please e-mail:

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