Vienna’s very name evokes Strauss waltzes, ornate cafés, coffee with whipped cream, extravagant formal gardens, and of course the Third Man. If you’re a Jew it also conjures up crowds of ecstatic Austrians shrieking heil Hitler as Nazi troops paraded through the streets in 1938 after the Anschluss that turned Austria into the Ostmark, and made it part of the German Reich.
Fans of everything Viennese will be interested in Vienna: City of Dreams at New York City’s Carnegie Hall and other venues around Manhattan through March 16. But for Jews this is a decidedly mixed bag as discussed in detail in the New York Times.
“Nine-tenths of what the world celebrated as Viennese culture was promoted, nourished, and even created by Viennese Jewry,” wrote Stefan Zweig in his autobiography, the “World of Yesterday”, published posthumously in 1943, a year after he and his wife committed suicide in exile in Brazil.
This was no exaggeration. Although Jews were never a large percentage of the total population, a mere ten percent in the 1920s, they did play a pivotal role, disproportionate to their numbers in the Viennese economy – over 50% of doctors, 75% of bankers, 85% of lawyers, nearly 100% of advertising, and of course clothing, textiles, and jewelry. But actual numbers were never the issue; perceived influence was and is.
Some 130,000 Viennese Jews were forced into exile between 1938 and 1941, the rest, about 65,000, ended up in concentrations camps. At the war’s end in 1945 only 2,000 were still alive — more than a century’s worth of Viennese high culture and commerce utterly and permanently destroyed.
Equipped with this knowledge and a keen sense of history, I was always overtaken by cognitive dissonance whenever I passed the sign for the Jewish Welcome Service that overlooked St. Stephen’s cathedral, in the very heart of the city.
A relic from another era? Not quite. Odd though it may seem, the Jewish Welcome Service is very much alive and now housed in Vienna’s new Jewish Museum on Judenplatz. Founded in 1980 by Leon Zelman, a Shoah survivor from Poland who settled in Vienna after the war, along with the then mayor Leopold Gratz, the JWS’s mission was and is “to demonstrate the existence of an active and self-confident Jewish community after the Shoah.”
No easy task that. Not for nothing does Austria retain a reputation for trying to convince the world that Beethoven was an Austrian and Hitler a German. And the reason the late Simon Wiesenthal chose Vienna as his headquarters for documenting Nazi crimes was to be an in-your- face reminder to Austrians, some of whom still believe the cold-war imposed canard that they were Hitler’s first victims rather than his most loyal partners, of their role in the Shoah.
Of course very few Viennese Jews came back to the city after the war and today’s Jewish community is made up largely of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.
Leon Zelman died in 2007 and the JWS is now run by his colleague Mrs. Susanne Trauneck, who serves as General Secretary. In a telephone conversation I asked Mrs. Trauneck, who is not Jewish, why a Jew would want to live in Vienna. “Why not?”, she asked. She was not being facile: she knows exactly what her countrymen did during the Nazi years and afterwards. “I think it’s important for Jews to get to know Vienna as a modern European city. We have changed a lot since the war and especially in the last few decades”. The JWS is government-funded. Jewish groups come here from other countries all the time with understandable preconceived notions, “but they leave without them”, she said.
In their efforts to accept responsibility for their past and build bridges to the present and future, the JWS manages programs designed to educate young Viennese and re-connect Vienna to Jewish communities around the world. Like other countries whose Jewish citizens were thrown out and killed during the Shoah, the JWS sponsors visits for those who left, and for their children and grandchildren. They also work hand in hand with municipal initiatives such as the Radetzky and Wasagymnasium School Projects. Both schools were Jews only by 1938 and former Radetzky students were invited along with their families to attend the dedication of a memorial plaque at the present Radetzkygymnasium. Other civic programs include Stones of Remembrance, Herklotzgasse 21, and Servitengasse 1938: searching for local traces. ADL and United Israel Appeal Federations of Canada are among the organizations that seek out the JWS for some of their own young leadership initiatives.
But even with all of Vienna’s new-found and sincere good will, there are two elephants sitting in the middle of the café as it were: the ghosts of the Jewish community wiped out in the Shoah, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
Of the former Mrs. Trauneck says she understands why so many Jews think of Europe as a cemetery, but there is a Jewish community here today that we can nurture. Vienna is a vibrant, prosperous city.
The latter raises more questions than it answers and is cause for concern. Anti-Semitism is there and “if you are looking for it you will find it. It will always exist,” opined Mrs. Trauneck. But classical anti-Semitism has been supplanted at least for the time being by anti-Israel sentiment. While it is illegal to spout anti-Jewish slogans in public, the same is not true for anti-Israel slogans. In addition Jews just don’t figure that much on the scapegoat scale in Austria these days: that dubious distinction belongs to Turks, who come to Austria as guest workers.
So while Jew hatred may have gone slightly underground at least in public, the philosophical underpinnings if you will, that foment it are still very much in evidence in the rhetoric of the far right. Where that exists can the overt Jew hatred of yesteryear be far behind?