Special Interview Dark Memories of Vienna

For Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss and Sister Rose Thering, their trip to Vienna to protest the inauguration of Kurt Waldheim as Austrian President was a nasty confrontation with undisguised anti-Semitism and, for them, an underscoring of what they perceived were their reasons for the trip.

Among the memories they brought back with them are vile epithets, reported widely by the on-scene press, hurled at them during their outdoor demonstration and hunger strike, and, for Sister Rose, a Dominican nun, a humiliating strip-search at the Vienna airport prior to her embarkation for the return flight to the United States.

The Orthodox Jewish rabbi and Roman Catholic nun have been friends and political activists together for many years, Sister Rose having learned of Weiss’s activities on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

She works with the Interreligious Task Force for Soviet Jewry, and is a board member of the National Coalition of American Nuns. Since 1968, she has also been on the advisory committee of U.S. Bishops for Catholic-Jewish Relations. At Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, she teaches Jewish-Christian studies, a field she has worked in since 1953.

Sister Rose has visited Israel 28 times. She re-rembers particularly the time, II years ago, that she took her mother, then age 84, with her to Yad Vashem. "Rose," she recalls her mother telling her "you almost have to be ashamed that you’re of German background."

The statement shocked her into an even stronger awareness of the Holocaust than she had previously, motivating her all the more to work tirelessly in the field of Christian-Jewish understanding. She remembers watching programs on the Holocaust with her mother, discussing its history, its causes, and the need for activism.

A CALL TO ACTION

Waldheim’s election was a call to action by both Weiss and Sister Rose. Joined by Nazi-hunter Beate Klarsfeld, Glenn Richter of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, Father David Bossman, provost of Seton Hall and a professor in the department of Jewish-Christian studies, and two young men, an Israeli and an Austrian non-Jew, they spent what they described as on "open Shabbat" in the Jewish quarter of Vienna, the first ever, according to Weiss, praying, singing, eating out-of-doors to demonstrate a lack of fear and a pride in their Judaism.

During that time, Weiss told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, they engaged about 1,000 young people–passersby–in dialogue. Different views were aired, he maintains, in a friendly, constructive manner.

After Shabbat, the group moved to the area in front of the Presidential Office on Bollhaus Platz, "near where Hitler spoke when Germany annexed Austria," Weiss explained.

Dressed in striped prison uniforms, the Austrian-non-Jews wearing a yellow star marked "Jude," and Sister Rose wearing a dark suit and the large crucifix interwoven with a Star of David which she always wears, the group began a hunger strike, proclaiming this with signs reading "Hunger Strike of Conscience." That’s when "things became ugly," Weiss recalled.

He remembers "terrible anti-Semitic slogans that I’ll never forget. ‘We should have gassed you,’ ‘We’re going to hang you from lampposts,’" he recalled, looking pained. He remarked on an older man who, he said, stopped and, with pride, showed a picture of himself in his wallet, wearing a Wehrmacht uniform.

A ‘PARTICULARLY UGLY’ PART

Following the inauguration ceremonies, the group remembers Waldheim passing them and looking. They recall it as a "particularly ugly" part of their demonstration, people hissing and chanting anti-Semitic slogans. Weiss insists the group was refused police protection.

Waldheim’s election, said Weiss, "was a vindication for Austria. I realized that many older Austrians voted for Waldheim because they could not vote against themselves." "You, the Jew, you’re creating anti-Semitism. You don’t want to forget," he quoted.

Weiss drew a parallel between the cause of Soviet Jewry and the protest of Waldheim’s election. "Anti-Semitism knows no boundaries. The problem of Soviet Jews knows no boundaries. It’s not just a Russian problem. This was not just an Austrian problem, and not just a Jewish problem. Because 95 percent of Austria is Catholic, it was critical that I be joined by Catholic clergy in speaking truth to power, to translate empathy to action."

Both Weiss and Sister Rose commented at length on the fear they felt emanating from the Jewish community of Austria. The small group was unable to even rent a table and chairs from any Jews, although they were easily able to do so from their hotel. Weiss was careful to mention that the Jewish community of Vienna was receptive to them on Shabbat, mentioning particularly Rabbi Chaim Eisenberg, who "was especially gracious. But it’s an absolutely frightened Jewish community," he said.

A HUMILIATING EXPERIENCE

Sister Rose and Father Bossman returned to New York later than Weiss. At the Vienna airport’s baggage inspection, Sister Rose told JTA, "I went through just like everyone. Then, on the other side of the X-ray arch, someone pulled me into a curtained booth."

Sister Rose wants to be sure it is understood that she is both accustomed to strict security checks and welcomes them. In the 28 times she has been to Israel, she emphasized, "I appreciate the security of El Al airlines. It has been most humane, polite and gracious. El Al security personnel make eye contact and seem to apologize to the person."

But, she recalled, "when I went into the curtained booth, no questions were asked." She thought she would just be frisked, but a thorough body search was conducted after stripping her. She was never told why it was being done. "I began to feel what Jews must have felt when they were stripped and sent to the gas chambers."

Father Bossman hadn’t even seen her vanish, and didn’t know where she was. The two of them had been put ahead of other people in the line without explanation. They have since made diplomatic inquiries to find out the reasons for the treatment.

The Shabbat following their return to Vienna, Sister Rose spent the day with Weiss’s family and congregation in Riverdale, The Bronx. The rabbi and the nun addressed the congregation following the services and described their experiences in Vienna.

Sister Rose said her purpose for going "was to lend a Christian voice to this protest, because I feel that Christians did not speak out enough during World War II." She pointed out that "Christians and Jews were united in this protest of prayer and fast, demanding an international investigation into the charges made from many quarters that Mr. Waldheim’s role during the Nazi Holocaust is sufficiently clouded as to require a thorough investigation.

"My voice and actions of protest, joined with Avi Weiss and others, called for justice on behalf of all those Jews–six million–Catholics, Protestants, homosexuals, minorities, elderly, handicapped, dissenters and resisters, whose lives were unjustly and brutally snuffed out by the Nazis and all who joined Hitler’s henchmen during the period 1933-45. They are gone, never to speak for themselves.

"Very few Christians spoke out during those terrible years. So how can anyone remain silent now, when Kurt Waldheim, a member of the Wehrmacht, the Brown Shirts, sets himself up as a model to govern? Kurt Waldheim was involved in that Nazi war machinery … He belonged to the same group–the SA–that destroyed the 42 synagogues in Vienna … The vote for Waldheim was really a vote for human indecency, because he lied."

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