Behind the Headlines Refusing to Forget the Past
Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines Refusing to Forget the Past

Download PDF for this date

Vienna, said Leon Zelman, executive director of the city’s Jewish Welcome Service and organizer of the “Vanished World” sequence of events here, “is a very geopolitical place. It’s the window” to the West and to the East. “The Jewish community represents world Jewry at this frontier.”

The community is a tempest-tossed one. There is an estimated 14,000 Jews in Austria, mostly in Vienna, out of a population of seven million Austrians; no survey has yet been done. The number of Jews registered with the Jewish Gemeinde (official community) was variously given to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as 6,500 to 8,500 and several numbers in between.

The community is very mixed. Only about 1,000 Jews remain of the old Austrian-born generation; they are elderly and many are poor. The rest — Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Russians, Iranians — came or returned to Austria en route to somewhere else. (After the war, Austria was the main transient point and first refuge for East European Jews, one million of whom passed through the city, and remains so to this day.)

Some Jews who passed through Vienna, like Zelman, fell in love with the city. A Mauthausen survivor at 17, Zelman found in Vienna a “family” in the circle of young Social Democrats who are now the leadership of the country. Other Jews somehow got stuck in limbo here — wishing but unable to go somewhere else. Many have adapted and adjusted; others still see Vienna as an “overnight hotel” even though the nights have stretched into years.


Estimates of the number of Soviet Jews in Vienna differ — ranging from 1,500 to 4,000 — but there is agreement on one thing: all of them came back to Vienna from Israel. These include many originally from the Caucases, Georgia, Bucharia, and Bessarabia.

“It is the Russians who are providing the community with a middle generation,” said Dr. Jonny Moser, a City Councilman and Holocaust researcher. “There eventually would not be any Jews left here if not for the Russians.” Most of the children in the community–there are at least half a dozen Bar Mitzvahs every week — are Russians.

Karl Pfeifer, editor of “Gemeinde,” the community’s official publication and a member of its Executive Council, told JTA the Russians “have no deep Jewish roots and usually they don’t register with the community.” At first the community ignored them, he said, then many people began to feel they should be integrated. “Some are,” he continued, “but most don’t want to be,” although some Georgians and Bucharians are beginning to register. Chabad, the Lubavitcher movement, has established a synagogue for the Georgians with a rabbi who speaks their language.

Prof. Anne Kohn-Feuermann, a member of the community’s Executive Council and a psychiatric social worker by profession, told JTA that the Soviet Jews find adaptation very difficult. “Many are from Asiatic Russia. This is a middle-European way of life, very different from what they’ve known.” Now a volunteer social worker in the community, she counsels Russian Jews who, she said, have work difficulties — “they are used to being told what to do.”

Still, some of them have succeeded, as their green-grocer market stalls on Mexicoplatz and shoerepair shops testify. These occupations contrast with those of other Jews in the community, who work as engineers, doctors (mostly in gynecology and internal medicine), lawyers, government officials, and business executives.


Severe as they are, the problems of the Soviet Jews are mild compared to those of the estimated 800 Iranians, the vast majority of them women and children who had to leave the men in their families behind when they fled.

Some of the women from the main (Stadttempel) synagogue on Seitenstettengasse Street (built in 1824) have started a program for the children, and invited them and their mothers for Shabbat and Chanukah programs. Most wait for U.S. affidavits — which have to come from relatives — on the three benches at the American Consulate labeled “for Iranian applicants.”


Although only 10 percent of the community is Orthodox, all 10 synagogues and prayer-rooms are run along Orthodox lines. In addition to the Stadttempel and the Chabad shuls, there are two run by Agudat Israel, one in the building of their former rabbinical seminary, which also houses a mikvah; one Mizrachi; and the rest of various tendencies in between. There are no Reform, Conservative or Reconstructructionist synagogues.

The spiritual leader of the Seitenstettengasse shul, Rabbi Chaim Eisenberg, is also the community’s chief rabbi. The ultra-Orthodox, he said, regard his synagogue as something akin to Reform. But this reporter, who attended Friday evening services there on the night Kristallnacht was observed — during which time New York Mayor Edward Koch and World Jewish Congress vice president Arthur Hertzberg spoke — found it to be strictly Orthodox.


In addition to its religious activities and active cultural programs — such as concerts and lectures — the community holds a great many social functions. The fact that the focus of these social activities is almost entirely on fund-raising for Israel is something Zelman viewed with concern and criticism.

The fancy parties organized by the schlichim in Vienna, by israel Bonds, the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayesod, he said, exclude old people and young people who don’t have money. Many educated young people, Zelman added, feel alienated from this scene generally.

“The Israelis’ policy,” he told JTA, “is only to raise money — they give the feeling that this is all they want from us. They don’t do any educational work — they forget that teaching should run parallel–there should be give-and-take, not just take.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund