Vienna presenting itself as city of choice for Jews

That Vienna is a good place to be if you're Jewish is just one of the lesser-known attractions city officials hope to present.

For most visitors, stately Vienna evokes images of the blue Danube, of waltzes and minuets, of Mozart and Freud. But Vienna as a city of choice for Jews? As it prepares to woo New Yorkers next month with a series of cultural and business events in the Big Apple, Vienna is putting the spotlight on its less-known qualities - among them, a decades-long campaign to make Jews feel welcome in a city long associated with Hitler and the Holocaust. That Vienna is a good place to be if you're Jewish is just one of the lesser-known attractions city officials hope to present during the four-day "Vienna in New York" presentation sponsored by the City government beginning March 4. The program also touts Vienna's successes in urban renewal, waste management and attracting innovative industries. But the heart of the tour is how the city has been making amends for its Nazi past - paying out reparations, returning stolen property, and even helping set up a "Jewish Welcome Service" that has funded hundreds of return visits from Austrian Jews who fled the Nazis since its foundation 27 years ago. Both Vienna and Austria have funded the rebuilding of synagogues, Jewish schools, memorials and other institutions serving the capital's 7,000-strong Jewish community. "Everything is OK, I feel good here," said kosher bakery and grocery store owner Raphael Chai Malkov, who moved to Vienna from Israel in 1989. "I hope it will stay this way." A quarter of the 12 planned events deal with Jewish themes - a visit to a Brooklyn Hassidic community by representatives of Vienna's Jews; a discussion of "Contemporary Jewish Vienna," and the premiere of the Austrian film "Zorro's Bar Mizwa." "The Jews that live today in Austria see Vienna's improving record on a day-to-day basis" said Paul Chaim Eisenberg, chief rabbi of the capital's Jewish community, when asked about the tour's partial Jewish focus. "But Jews in America cannot feel this, so the Jewish part is basically to bring the message that Vienna is a lot different now than it used to be." The problem lies less with Hitler's Vienna and more with the decades that followed. Neighboring Germany was quick to recognize its guilt - and to make amends, both through apologies and compensation. Post World War II governments paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in retribution to Holocaust survivors and their relatives. Property confiscated from Jews was returned, school books focused on the horrors of the Nazi regime, and political leaders were prompt in acknowledging their country's guilt. Not so Austria. It was annexed by the Germans in 1938 - allowing it to claim after the war that it was the first victim of Hitler. Never mind that the vast majority of Austrians supported the Fuehrer's claim to their country, and that on a per capita basis more Austrians than Germans were Nazis. It was the scandal around President Kurt Waldheim's denial of his wartime service with a unit associated with Nazi atrocities that started the debate about Austria's own past. Since then, dozens of political leaders have acknowledged their countrymen's complicity, reparations have been paid, and apartments and art works returned. "We have a strong moral responsibility to make amends," said Vienna Deputy Mayor Renate Brauner, in explaining Vienna's efforts. "And we have to make sure it never happens again." To be sure, there have been blips - notably the popularity of the far-right Freedom Party that includes some members associated with the anti-Semitic scene. But word has slowly been getting out about Vienna's image as a city that welcomes Jews. "When I got off the plane I felt anger," Kitty Goldberg of New York said of a 2005 visit organized by the service - her first time back since she fled Vienna as a 10 year old in 1938. "But I changed. The people are so friendly." Still, there is evidence that the city's focus on its changed attitude toward Jews is not misplaced. "I remember a visiting Jewish professor from New York a few years ago," said one Vienna city employee who asked that her name not be used because she was not authorized to speak on the topic to the media. "We had a hell of a time convincing her that she would not be lynched."