Viennese Resurgence

‘We are a small, strong community on the rise,’ says Jewish community president Ariel Muzicant.

Viennese Jewish community (photo credit: Steven Stotloff)
Viennese Jewish community
(photo credit: Steven Stotloff)
ON A CRISP SATURDAY MORNING IN DECEMBER, an elderly couple slowly limp by a policeman with a sub-machine gun strapped across his body on an empty cobblestone street in Vienna’s historic quarter.
Just off the square and up the street from the city’s Grand Synagogue, police vans with two officers inside survey the road, ready to thwart any threat.
In the past Vienna’s beleaguered Jews were threatened by Christian and Nazi persecutions; today they are under siege by a melange of native extremism and Muslim hostility. And just recently, a senior Israeli official added to their woes when he embraced their far-right adversaries, dubbing them friends of the Jewish state.
Despite such hostilities, the Viennese Jewish community has refused to relent in the face of such adversity and emigrate to more hospitable lands free of the turmoil that has plagued this city that was once Europe’s cultural and intellectual mecca.
Wedged in between two ordinary apartment buildings, the Grand Synagogue with its Beidermeyer architecture would be just another inconspicuous edifice on the street if it were not for the several plainclothed security officers keeping close watch over its entrance. A visitor to the synagogue was bombarded with questions when trying to enter for Sabbath services. After a thorough examination of his passport and a quick test of his knowledge of Jewish history, a guard then waves a metal detector over him in search of hidden weapons, in violation of Jewish Sabbath laws prohibiting the use of electricity.
Such security measures have been in place since the Abu Nidal Organization – a terrorist group that splintered-off from Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization – besieged the synagogue with a combination of machine-gun rounds and grenades, killing two and wounding 30 at a bar mitzva ceremony on August 29, 1981.
As one officer interrogates this visitor, another whispers in Hebrew discreetly into the microphone that protrudes from his sleeve. The officer eyes a man with a red yarmulke with bright fuzz at its rims approaching. But he is no Jew on his way to services, it turns out. Passing the guards, he puts on a baseball cap, turns around and yells “Dogs! Dogs!” in German before he continues up the road.
Inside the Grand Synagogue about 100 congregants sit scattered among a multitude of wooden pews. The cantor’s voice echoes within the cavernous oval-shaped sanctuary. Held up by 12 large marble pillars, the room is illuminated by light peering through the glass dome at its apex.
In between prayers, Alexander Mandelbaum, a child survivor of the Plaszow concentration camp in Poland and now a 68-year-old physician, says living as a Jew in Vienna requires giving off an air of confidence. “The key is walking puffy-chested and head held high,” he says.
“We are a proud community, and people let us be when we portray ourselves as strong. You fear him,” he adds. “And that is exactly the attitude the Jewish community has embraced.”
Descending from the elevated ark with a Torah against his chest, Rabbi Chaim Eisenberg makes his way through the synagogue. As he greets worshipers who extend the corners of their prayer shawls to kiss the holy scrolls, the rabbi stops before this visitor, obviously surprised that the tight security allowed him into the synagogue.
Breaking from singing Psalms, he stops beside this visitor and exclaims, “Oh, they let you in?!” THERE HAS BEEN AJEWISH COMMUNITY IN AUSTRIA since the 10th century and the oldest-known synagogue dates back to 1204. During the medieval era, Jews held positions in the chancellery, minting money and managing the country’s financial affairs. Yet despite the key roles they held in society, they were always persecuted and frequently expelled from the country.
The 13th century brought the first of numerous blood libels against the Jews, leading to widespread pogroms. At the same time, extensive social discrimination prohibited Jews from engaging in such everyday industries as selling clothes. With no legal rights, they were dependent on charters regulating their status and the whims of rulers to live in Austria for more than 500 years.
Their precarious position in Austrian society was often tested, leading to disastrous results. In the 15th century, Franciscan fanaticism led to the expulsion of Jews from Austria, highlighting a pattern of expulsion and return that would last until an 1848 revolution brought the Jews permanent rights enshrined in law. The suffering the Austrian Jews endured led their sages to dub the country “eretz hadamim” or Land of Blood. A law permitting only the eldest son of each Jewish family to marry is an example of the severe anti- Semitic currents in Austria, which helped diminish Vienna’s Jewish community to 452 members by 1752.
The liberal ideas of the French revolution, with its emphasis on citizens’ rights, led to a brief moment of optimism. Between 1780 and 1790, reforms were instituted, abolishing many of the social and legal restrictions that plagued Austrian Jewry. Instead of ostracizing the Jews, the government now tried to assimilate them. A handful of Jews acquired nobility status in 1821. Others played an integral role in fomenting the 1848 revolution – which spread from France – by pushing for greater press freedoms and equality for all.
But just as their lot was improving, matters would reach their nadir when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.
The 165,946-strong Viennese Jewish community (and a much smaller number who lived in other Austrian towns), virtually disappeared during the Nazi occupation, though they were given a choice of which their fellow Jews from Central and Eastern Europe were deprived. In 1939, the infamous SS colonel Adolf Eichmann told the community that if its members did not emigrate within a year, they would be sent to Poland. Of these, 128,500 took his warning seriously and emigrated, while another 65,000 – composed of native Austrian Jews and foreigners who fled there – were shipped off to die in the gas chambers of the concentration camps of Dachau, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.
After the war, only 1,747 returned. However, the demise of the Nazi Reich did not improve matters much. Never officially invited back, the Jews were discouraged from returning and greeted with slogans such as, “No Place for Immigrants.”
They received no help from the Austrian government and were denied any form of restitution.
Unlike countries such as Germany and even France, Austria has had difficulty coming to terms with its Nazi past. Former Nazis have found their way into senior positions in various governments.
In 1970, Jewish chancellor Bruno Kreisky’s government included six former Nazis. And the election of Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi who served under executed war criminals, to the Austrian Presidency in 1986, sparked outrage among Jewish communities throughout the world. As a result, Israel downgraded diplomatic ties and many Western countries barred him from entry.
Even the end of the Cold War did not dampen Austrians’ enthusiasm for its Nazi past. The late leader of the far-right Freedom Party Jorg Haider, who held his position from 1986 to 2000, often made pro-Nazi comments. In 1991, he beamed about “the decent and proper employment policies” in Nazi Germany. In 1995, Haider met with former SS officials and commended them.
Austria’s population has always been strongly anti-immigrant, and a poll conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2002 found 19 percent of Austrians harbor anti-Semitic sentiments. Haider’s ability to play on popular fears that the country was losing its Austrian character and was besieged by non-European immigrants helped lead his party to parliamentary victory in 1999. The European Union responded by ostracizing Austria, with all of its leaders severing cooperation with the government for seven months.
Despite the adversities it has faced, the Jewish community has slowly built itself up since the Holocaust with Jews, foremost among them Kreisky, occupying several important positions in society.
Oscar Bronner founded the major Austrian daily, Der Standard in 1988, the most widely read among university-educated Austrians.
Simon Wiesenthal, Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, managed his crusade from a small office in the Austrian capital.
Playwright Elfriede Jelnick was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004 for taking on social issues like Austria confronting its Nazi past and women’s rights. Martin Schlaff, the financier of Jericho’s now defunct Oasis Casino, has thrived amid international controversy, being accused of bribing former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, as well as maintaining links with Russia’s Gazprom.
Other famous Jews from history were Viennese residents.
Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was a Viennese Jew whose ideas stemmed directly from his feelings of alienation in his society, as well as his coverage as a journalist of the Dreyfus trial in France.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychiatry, popularized behavioral concepts like the Oedipus complex and the ego. The Nazi invasion forced him to flee to London.
IN 1991, AUSTRIA FINALLY CAME TO TERMS WITH ITS past when chancellor Franz Vranitzky apologized for its role in the Holocaust and later visited Israel, declaring Austrians needed to remember their role during World War II.
Still, the Viennese Jewish community has to grapple with both the native as well as imported hostility. Arab terror groups and vigilantes have attacked local Jewish sites on several occasions. The most recent attack took place during Hanukka celebrations in 2009 when a Chabad rabbi had his finger bitten off by an Arab assailant, who was later arrested.
Members of the community, though, say it’s not Austria’s small Arab population they fear. Instead, it’s the almost 250,000-strong Turkish population that poses the greatest threat to Austrian Jewry.
Matters have become worse in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, in which the Israeli army attacked a boat in international waters near Gaza, leading to the death of nine Turks.
Today, Viennese Jewry has also grown exasperated by Israel’s behavior. A December 2010 meeting between Deputy Minister for the Development of the Negev, Ayub Kara, and Heinz-Christian Strache, Haider’s successor as chief of the Freedom Party, has earned Israel only scorn from Austria’s Jews. Kara extolled Strache’s leadership.
Ignoring the party’s praise for Nazis, the Israeli minister – a Druze member of the Likud party – said nothing he had heard of the organization led him to conclude that it “isn’t kosher.”
The community responded angrily. In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Viennese community president, Ariel Muzicant, rebuked the Israeli government. “We feel betrayed and are outraged about this behavior of Deputy Minister Kara,” Muzicant wrote. “I consider this a shame for the State of Israel and a betrayal of the murdered 65,000 Austrian Jews and the 6 million martyrs of the Shoah.”
Reached by phone, Muzicant went even further, telling The Report that Kara is “a stupid Israeli deputy minister who came to Vienna and declared he checked their statute [the Freedom Party] and they are nice guys, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Muzicant is familiar with the Freedom Party’s tactics, having been on the receiving end of Haider’s barbs. Haider publicly asked how someone named Ariel “can have such dirty hands,” referring to both his name and that of a laundry detergent sold in Europe and the Middle East. Defense Minister Herbert Schreibner, also a member of Haider’s party, weighed in, insinuating that Muzicant’s Jewish background granted him special rights allowing him to close favorable real estate deals.
The personal attacks against him, have not dampened Muzicant’s high spirits about the state of Austrian Jewry. “We are a small, strong community on the rise. We are not scared and will confront the challenges facing us as a united community. We are proud and we want everyone to know that.”
According to Muzicant, about 9,000 people belong to various Jewish organizations and synagogues and another 9,000 Jews reside in the city without affiliating themselves with the community.
Among the Jews are those who remember the Holocaust and remain fearful of Austrian society, in stark contrast to the post-war generation raised not with memories of atrocities, but in the shadow of a strong Israel.
“I walk around with a white kippa everywhere I go,” says Michael Kvitelashvili, a 24-year-old college graduate. “Though there are acts of anti-Semitism, I am not worried to be openly Jewish.”
AS PEDESTRIANS SHUFFLE BY THE GIANT Christmas tree last December in front of the snow-capped, St.
Stephan, the 11th-century Gothic cathedral in the heart of Vienna, a small group of Jews gather around a 10-foot metal candelabrum to celebrate the festival of Hanukka. Two DJs blast Israeli tunes on a stage behind the large menorah, as its light bulbs burn bright.
Children dance around excitedly, their sidelocks twirling in the air. A crowd of about 100 spectators clap to the rhythm. Passersby kneel to photograph the joyful youths.
Among the crowd are three Iranian Jews on vacation. “With our community back home under threat today, it is nice to see Jews able to celebrate openly in a place that has not always been kind to them,” says David, a 20-year-old from Tehran, who prefers to give only his first name. “We have to hide our Jewish identities in Iran and something like this could never happen there. This event gives me hope. After all, I think that’s what this holiday is about.”
As at the synagogue, security is pervasive, although more discrete, in the large open square. As soon as this reporter takes out his bright yellow notebook, three plain-clothed officers descend on him, wanting to know what interest he had in the Jewish celebration.
“Security is tighter here tonight than usual,” says Tal Shahar, a 24-year-old Israeli. “The truth is we usually don’t notice the protection around us.”
Born in Israel to an Austrian family, lucrative employment opportunities and Israeli stress persuaded Shahar to return to his ancestral homeland. “The fighting in Israel was too much. All the politicians did there was hate their adversaries. I wanted more calm.”
Most of the revelers disperse by about 9:30 at night, but the circle around the menorah remains strong. With the children gone, much of the crowd – mostly gentiles – begin to dance themselves, seemingly unaware that they are listening to Hebrew music.
“The flame is always burning in Vienna,” says Flora Hirschal, a Hebrew teacher, as she points to the menorah. “It is wonderful to see so many Jews celebrating here tonight.”