Behind the Headlines Refusing to Forget the Past

Leon Zelman, the executive director of the Jewish Welcome Service of the City of Vienna, is an enthusiast. It is doubtful whether anyone else here could have come up and followed through with such an innovative idea as holding a multi-media series on the culture of European Jewry in Vienna, which was once a major spawning ground for the virulent anti-Semitism that destroyed that culture. The “Vanished World” series has been a success, drawing even greater audiences than Zelman had expected.

“Something has changed in Austria,” Zelman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The younger generation “wants to know” about Jews. Three years ago, the Jewish Welcome Service began a program in the schools and on television about Jewish writers. Starting with seven school lecturers, it now has 100.

“When the young people started to learn about Jewish culture, they wanted to learn about Jews,” he said. “They made associations — they asked why Freud left Vienna. Many young people hadn’t known that he was Jewish.” Now, he said, “the children are pressing the teachers” to learn more, and are questioning their parents and grandparents about the Nazi era. “We opened a door and the young people pushed through it,” he said.

ISSUE OF ANTI-SEMITISM

Zelman believes young Austrians are cultured, open-minded and liberal — and feel anti-Semitism is none of these things. (A recently-published university survey does, indeed, show that the rates of anti-Semitism are lowest among the youth. See December 3 Bulletin.)

Other Jews feel that anti-Semitism has simply become latent rather than overt. Political cabaret artist Gerhard Bronner said, “I’m quite content when they say (anti-Semitic remarks) behind my back. When they don’t say it to my face — that’s progress.” And Holocaust researcher Dr. Jonny Moser observed that the difference between the pre-war and post-war periods is that today a Hasid can “walk down the street in full regalia and nobody will harass him as a Jew.”

Moser noted that while there is growing anti-Semitism in extremist groups on the right and left, there is no anti-Semitic party in Austria. Neo-Nazism is outlawed. It was during the regime of then-Chancellor Bruno Kreisky that a law was passed making it a crime to malign a religious or ethnic group.

EFFORT TO EDUCATE THE CITIZENRY

The government and various institutions make an effort to educate the citizenry, particularly the youth, about Nazism. The Archive of the Austrian Resistance Movement has a collection of 17,000 documents, publishes books, and maintains a permanent exhibit regarding the Nazi era, exiled Austrians, and neo-Nazism. It has 10,000 visitors a year, many of them students, according to Dr. Siegwald Ganglmair, an Archive official. “Children ask a lot about the climate of terror,” he said.

The Ministry of Interior maintains the museum and memorials at the Mauthausen concentration camp. An estimated 206,000 individuals were imprisoned there between 1938 and 1945 and over 110,000 perished. Only three of the original group of 2,600 Jews deported there survived; additional thousands of Jews sent there in 1945 from Hungary and elsewhere also perished. The gas chamber and crematoria are in the basement of what is now the museum. The exhibit provides a detailed history of Nazism and the camp.

Over 350,000 pupils have visited Mauthausen, said Zelman, including a group of 300 blind children. The idea for the school visits came from the Ministry of Education and Teachers Association, not the Jewish community, he said. Last year’s group of new army draftees took their eath at Mauthausen.

Schoolchildren also regularly visit the Austrian Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt, capital of Burgenland, a wine-growing and resort area about an hour from Vienna and close to the Hungarian border. The museum is housed in a mansion built by Samson Wertheimer, a court Jew and the chief rabbi of Hungary, at the end of the 17th century.

THE AUSTRIAN JEWISH MUSEUM

The museum has on display rooms of documents, portraits, maps and various artifacts. Part of the museum is a small chapel which was Wertheimer’s private shul. During the war years, the Torahs were hidden behind the wooden lattice mechitza (partition between the sexes during worship) and thus saved.

Prof. Kurt Shubert, head of the University of Vienna’s Institute of Jewish Studies, was the curator for the museum. In addition to the displays on Jewish history, there is an exhibit on the Anschluss (Germany’s take-over of Austria in 1938) and another on Zionist history entitled “Alt-Neuland” (Old-New Land), after Theodor Herzl’s utopian book of the same name.

Shubert said that he had learned Hebrew in 1941 “as a protest. When I saw Jews forced to scrub the streets on their knees, I felt I wanted to do something in solidarity.” But Shubert did more “in solidarity” with Jews than learn Hebrew. As an air-raid warden in Vienna during the war, he managed to save the entire library of the Jewish Rabbinical Seminary in Templegasse — 20,000 volumes. He had the books brought to the safe refuge of the University’s Institute for Oriental Studies.

Prof. Jacob Allerhand of the University’s Institute of Jewish Studies told JTA there are 200 students taking classes there in modern Jewish history, Hebrew literature, and elementary and advanced Yiddish. In addition to the masters and doctoral candidates, there are many students who take the courses because they are interested in learning about Jewish life. Most of the Yiddish students are teachers of German.

‘WANT TO KNOW ABOUT JEWISHNESS’

One student told Allerhand that “when I read Mendele (Mocher Sforim, the 19th century Yiddish and Hebrew author) “it touches my heart.” Another read I. L. Peretz’s “Sh’lom Bayis” (Domestic Tranquility) to her anti-Semitic father. And, he continued, a third student told him, “We grew up in a school where we had no Jewish friends. Now that it’s impossible to know Jews, we want to know about Jewishness.” Allerhand concluded: “It’s a new generation. They want to know about Jewishness.”

The commitment of the Austrian government to helping this process along may be seen in the fact that high officials attended various opening ceremonies of the “Vanished World” series of events. It may also be seen in the fact that Austrian President Dr. Rudolf Kirchschlager spoke at the official dedication of the Zvi Perez Chajes School. He said: “We have to think about the past as well as the future. In 1941, the last children were deported from Vienna. The opening of this school is a victory against the destruction of the community.”

NEXT STORY