Jewish Journalist Tapped As Next U.S. Envoy to Austria

Henry Grunwald was a teenager when he fled his native Vienna in 1940 to escape Nazi occupation. Twenty-eight years later, he is expected to return to Vienna next year as the next U.S. Ambassador.

Although Grunwald, editor-in-chief of Time magazine, will not be the first Jewish ambassador to Austria — the current ambassador Ronald Lauder is also Jewish — his background and the current political situation in Austria makes Grunwald’s nomination particularly significant. Last year the Austrians elected as President Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, who has been accused of involvement in atrocities while serving in the Germany Army from 1942 to 1945. Earlier this year the Department of Justice placed Waldheim on its “Watch List” of undesirable persons which bars him from entry into the U.S.

Grunwald, who was scheduled to retire from Time at the end of the year, reportedly apparently resigned from Time last week. He could not be reached for comment.

Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of international relations for the American Jewish Committee, praised Grunwald as a “world-class act, a man of first-rate intellect. To appoint him as Ambassador to Vienna is a sing that our government is both concerned to what is happening to Austria-U.S relations and the extent of our desire to try to heal the relations so strained because of the Waldheim business,” he said.

Tanenbaum said the real issue is what Grunwald does with the Austrian people, not what he does with Waldheim, who as President has only ceremonial functions. Grunwald could be a source of moral confidence and support to the small Austrian Jewish community. He could also help Austrians deal with repression and denial of their Nazi past, he noted.

“A Henry Grunwald who comes into the scene with skill and sensitivity can help advance that whole movement of facing the past and dealing with it,” Tanenbaum said. “There’s an enormous amount of work that can be done by very diplomatic, statesmanlike building of bridges there and mobilizing constructive democratic forces in the society and helping bring the weight of American democracy behind that of the democratic forces in Austrians.”

But Rabbi Marvin Heir, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said Gunwale will have to walk a “tight rope” by minimizing contact with Waldheim. “He can’t be known as a trailblazer in bringing bout Waldheim’s rehabilitation. He has a dilemma in accepting the job. He has to be clever enough to signal to those people in the Jewish community that he is not appeasing Waldheim,” Heir said. “Mr. Grunwald has a lot of work to do. He has to minimize contact. So long as he’s a shadow, he can’t act as a broker.”

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, agreed that “his objective is to walk that thin line which distinguishes Austria from Waldheim.”

But he added: “It is symbolic that not only do we have an Ambassador who is a Jew, but in addition, an Ambassador who is a refugee. The symbolism of that will not be lost on the Austrians nor should it be. I think America is saying to Austria that there are dark shadows of your past that have recently seen the light of day. Mr. Grunwald will be the living remainder of that shadow.”

NEXT STORY