Behind the Headlines the Jews of Vienna
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Vienna

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“That closed up feeling of the ghetto; the walls, the concentration camp, the shootings, the blood on the side-walks — it was a feeling that we were back in the war.”

This is how Dr. Leon Zelman, a leader of the Vienna Jewish community, described his feelings when two terrorists attacked the synagogue in Vienna Aug. 29 and left two people dead, 18 wounded and psychological scars that will take some time to heal. Zelman was in the synagogue on that Saturday along with some 250 other people celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. He was in New York for a few days last week and during an interview with him I told him of my shock at the terrorist outrage, not only because of the nature of the act itself but because I had visited the Jewish community in Vienna only a month before the tragic event. All the memories of that city and my meeting there with Zelman came flooding back in to my mind when I heard the tragic news.


During my visit, he and the people I met were at ease. Now, as one would expect, anxiety was evident in Zelman’s voice. He stressed that the Jewish community did not panic when the terrorists staged their assault, but began to mobilize their resources. “We held a large demonstration in the square around the corner from the synagogue in central Vienna,” Zelman said.

Many Jews and non-Jews attended the funeral service of the two persons who had been wantonly murdered in front of the synagogue, Ulrike Kohut, 25, and Lotan Fried, 68. Present at the service, Zelman recalled, were the Austrian Vice Chancellor, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Interior and members of the clergy.

The synagogue bombing will have a lasting effect on this small Jewish community which number between 8,000 – 10,000, many of whom are elderly. Many of the building which house Israeli and Jewish institutions had been under security to aver terrorist assaults. Now, security is being tightened even further — a daily reminder of vulnerability to attack by terrorists.

Many Jews and non-Jews in Vienna praised the role of Austrian police in safeguarding these buildings, including the synagogue. In fact, the two policemen guarding the synagogue were themselves wounded by the terrorists but nevertheless managed to apprehend them. Prior to the bombing, two Arab terrorists were caught at the Vienna airport and expelled and the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Vienna was sent packing.


Meanwhile, the synagogue which was attacked will have to be repaired. Many of its windows were shattered and the building’s facade was pockmarked with holes made by the terrorists’ grenade and machinegun fire. Located in one of the oldest sections of the city, at No. 4 Seitenstettengasse, this house of prayer is a rallying point for the community which has maintained and expanded the buildings next door to include a community center and a kosher restaurant — Israeli style — called Caesarea, which is frequented by Jews from throughout the world.

Although badly damaged by the Nazis in 1938, the synagogue is said to be the only one not destroyed by the Germans and is also the oldest extant Jewish public building there. Dedicated in 1826, it replaced the first public synagogue permitted in Vienna which has been opened on the same site in 1811. The structure was renovated by Prof. Otto Niedermoser in 1963. It was from this synagogue, too, that Vienna Jewry paid its last respects to the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, when his remains were exhumed and sent to Israel for final burial.

In its own way, the terrorist attack on the synagogue will probably help unite the community in its resolve to go on, despite its small population — and its memories. The community has survived because it maintained its Jewish identity and cohesion through all the tragic times, because of the relative freedom which Jews have had in Austrian society and because they have been able to become integrated economically and professionally and contributed to Austria’s economy, politics, the arts and sciences.

They are involved in the political life of the country and many Jews are active in the Social Democratic Party which is headed by Kreisky, who is himself Jewish and has a brother who lives in Israel. Many Jews I met were uneasy about Kreisky’s Middle East policy, especially his conciliatory attitude toward the Palestine Liberation Organization. Kreisky was the first Western European head of state to recognize the PLO and its leader, Yasir Arafat.


Despite the sometime political coolness between Israel and Austria, there is much economic and cultural exchange between the two nations and the Israeli Ambassador, Yissachar Ben-Yaakov, is well respected.

Non-Jews follow events in Israel very closely and a perfect example of this was that the number one item on Austrian national radio and TV on June 30 and July I was the Israeli elections. There are also many cultural exchange programs between the two nations and Israeli performers often give concerts in this cultural center of Europe.

Vienna is also the first stop of Soviet Jews leaving the USSR. The newest immigrant group in the Austrian capital are Russian Jews who settle there.

It is noteworthy that in 1938, Vienna was then Europe’s third largest Jewish community. After the Holocaust, the community was rebuilt slowly. A network of Jewish religious, educational, cultural and social service agencies was established.

Today, the Jews of Vienna are not about to flee because of the attack on the synagogue, said Zelman. The Jews have been in Austria for centuries and they contributed much to that nation in the way of a galaxy of famous people. And despite their own self-criticism — about how organized and active they are– they have managed to keep Judaism alive in a city which has had a major impact on Jewish history.

Tomorrow: Part Two

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