Auslander in Austria

What it’s like to be young and Jewish in Vienna

Tamar Morali  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tamar Morali
(photo credit: Courtesy)
These days, Jewish communities in various parts of the Diaspora have to contend with some tough challenges to their Jewish way of life. Few of them, however, have to bear the weighty baggage of Jewish youngsters growing up in German-speaking countries. The 11thgrade students I met recently at the ZPC School in Vienna appear to carry their historical burdens pretty well and are remarkably well-connected with Israel and with their Jewish identity.
So, how do Viennese 16-year-olds, who attend a Jewish school, deal with the Holocaust? Does it play any part in their lives? Is it an ever-present cloud or a subject to be avoided so that they can just get on with their lives? “We are very well aware of the Shoah,” says Ruti Plishtiev. “We have many memorials around here and, every Saturday, when we go to our youth organizations [the girls in the class go to Bnei Akiva], right next to the snif [branch] there is a huge [Holocaust] memorial. It looks like a huge square but if you look closer, it looks like lots of books stapled together.”
A large percentage of Vienna’s Jewish community originates from the former Soviet Union, and there are very few youngsters in Vienna today whose families lived in Austria before the Holocaust. Plishtiev’s classmate, Bini Gutmann, is one of the exceptions.
“My grandmother comes from Vienna, and she was in Shanghai during the war,” he says. “Her father was arrested in the November [1939] pogroms and then they left for Shanghai. They came back in 1947 because the Austrian government said that if they didn’t return they’d lose their citizenship. My grandmother is 85 now. She always wanted to go to live in Israel or America but she never did. She isn’t happy here.”
There are quite a few stories of Austrian and German Jews who fought in their national armies in World War I, many with distinction, and who believed their efforts on behalf of the Fatherland would grant them immunity from Nazi persecution.
One of Gutmann’s relatives was among those who were brutally disillusioned.
“My grandmother’s uncle was in the Austrian army in the First World War, and he even got a medal for bravery, and he said, ‘They’ll never kill me because I have a medal and I have done so much for this country.’ He stayed in Austria and he was killed.”
Daniel Wanne’s grandmother also comes from Austria, and still lives there. She originates from the Tirol region but moved to Vienna when she was 12. “She was actually supposed to go on the Kindertransport to England. She even had a ticket, but someone in the community took the ticket from her and gave it to someone else,” explains Wanne. Incredibly, Wanne’s grandmother survived the war in Austria.
“Her father wasn’t Jewish, so she thinks that’s how she was allowed to stay in Vienna,” he surmises.
“She lived a relatively normal life, even though she had to wear the yellow star. She worked in a sewing factory. She still lives in the family home, from all those years ago.”
Vienna-born Natali Ellashvili’s mother moved to Austria from Georgia in 1993 and met Ellashvili’s father in Vienna. Ellashvili’s connection with the Holocaust goes back three generations.
“My great-grandfather was in the Russian army during World War II,” she says, “but he was a religious man, so when the Germans saw him he didn’t shoot – he just threw his gun away. They took him to Poland and he was put in Auschwitz or Treblinka, nobody knows. He survived.”
Tamar Morali knows even less about her family’s past. Although she doesn’t have the most Georgiansounding name, her father, who was born in Germany, has some Georgian roots. Her mother comes from Israel. The German side of her family went through the Holocaust but Morali says she knows very little of what they experienced, although she would like to know.
“My great-grandparents died a couple of months ago, but no one in the family talks about what they went through in the Holocaust. I am afraid to ask. I have a lot of questions, but it is not so easy.”
Sami Schrott has had an easier time learning about the Holocaust, although not all the members of his family are as forthcoming. “My mother lived through the war in Vienna with her parents, but I don’t how she survived. She doesn’t like to talk about it,” says Schrott. “Her father was in Theresienstadt but he loves to talk about his experiences there, and I want to hear his stories. Every week I hear another story, but when he starts talking about it my grandmother leaves the room. She doesn’t want to remember.”
Galileo Batko-Klein has familial connections both with the Holocaust and with this part of the world, and has quite an international mix in his lineage.
“I have grandparents from Hungary and a grandmother from the USSR, and my father is from Poland and my mother is from Israel, because her parents made aliya after the war,” he says. There’s more. “My father’s father was in a concentration camp – I don’t know which one – and my grandmother’s mother was in the Communist party in the USSR, and she fought against in the Germans in the Red Army.”
BY NOW it has become clear that the fresh faces sitting opposite me in the 11th grade classroom hide a veritable encyclopedia of 20th-century Jewish history.
Most of the youngsters feel strongly about Israel and keenly follow developments here via TV news and on the Internet. Some have relatives here and say they often get one version of Israeli current affairs via the media and another from the people they know in Israel.
Several of the teenagers feel a particular bond with Israel and want to join the IDF after they graduate from high school. “I go to Hashomer Hatza’ir [Zionist youth movement] here in Vienna,” says Batko- Klein, “and I want to make aliya after school and serve in the Israeli army.” Tamar Morali says she wants to do the same.
Ido Shvartsman has already “done time” in Israel and says he is keen to serve in the army. His parents made aliya from the former Soviet Union in 1985, but Shvartsman was actually born in Russia while his parents were on vacation there. He made aliya when he was one week old and grew up in Israel until he was six, when his family relocated to Vienna.
“My grandfather spent 10 years in Siberia, and after that he decided to make aliya,” says Shvartsman. “He was probably sent to Siberia because he was Jewish. The Soviets were not much better than the Nazis.” The Shvartsman family maintains a strong bond with Israel.
“We go there three times a year,” he continues.
“Israel is like a second home for me. We still have Israeli citizenship, and I am quite fluent in Hebrew. I think joining the army is the most important thing you can do to help Israel.”
Growing up Jewish in Vienna is, of course, not only about the not past but also about living in a country that has had its fair share of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic politicians. There are anti-Semitic groups in Austrian society to cope with as well, and Janet Shimonov says she has experienced anti-Semitism firsthand.
“I was at the subway station with some other girls from the school and there were these Austrian and Turkish kids and they looked at us in a threatening way. We got into the elevator and then one of the kids jumped in and he was saying all these terrible things and he was going to take his belt off and hit me. I was scared, and no one else in the elevator tried to help me.” Luckily, a security officer appeared on the scene and dealt with the would-be assailant.
Morali says she is very aware of the dangers of anti-Semitism in Austria and is wary of looking too obviously Jewish.
“There was a Chabad rabbi, it was on Hanukka, and he wanted to light a candle on the hanukkia. It was in Stephanplatz [in the center of Vienna]. A guy came and bit the rabbi’s finger off. Now he only has four fingers,” She adds, “I am scared sometimes.”
Morali says that the situation is worse in Germany. “I come from Germany and when I was little, in school, the other kids would stare at me when I ate my kosher food. You know, there was documentary recently and they said 25 percent of Germans don’t want the Jews there.”
Wanne has a different take on the situation in Vienna. “I don’t wear a kippa outside school, but I could,” he notes. “I wear a chain with a Magen David, and I am not worried about that.”
Gutmann does not feel intimidated either. “I am Austrian, but I also feel I am an Austrian Jew. I don’t hide that and people are okay with it,” he says.
Most of the students have non-Jewish, as well as Jewish, friends. Morali says that despite her concern over anti-Semitism, she feels it is important to mix with non- Jewish Austrians.
“When I was eight years old I moved to Vienna because my parents were afraid that I wouldn’t know a thing about Judaism,” she says. “So I started to go to ZPC High School and I learned to write in Hebrew and to improve my speaking.
With time, after seven years, I noted that I only have Jewish friends in Vienna. None of them were non-Jewish! So I told my parents that I want to change schools, to meet new people that are non-Jewish.
After one year I became such a different person – in a good way. I felt free and unwatched with the non-Jewish people because with Jewish people it feels like they are looking at you at everything you do. My parents decided to take me back to the Jewish school again... I actually don’t know why they did that.”
Batko-Klein says it just makes more sense for Jews to socialize with Jews.
“I have mainly Jewish friends because I am in the Jewish socialist movement Hashomer Hatza’ir. I am also learning in a Jewish school. But it is not important for me in which religion someone believes. It just happens that I have that many Jewish friends. But I should mention that it is comfortable to me to have Jewish friends because they understand me better in different aspects. Anyhow, I also have non- Jewish friends, but just a few.”