Menu JTA Search

Former Ambassador Recalls Difficult Stint in Vienna

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

“Austria is not a country, as people believe, made up just of anti-Semites. There are also good people,” Ronald Lauder believes.

But the man who just returned from an 18 month tour of duty as American ambassador to Austria also says “not enough people spoke out forcibly” about the Kurt Waldheim affair.

Lauder, 43, was honored here Thursday night with B’nai B’rith’s first Jacob K. Jayits Leadership Award for his comportment during one of the most trying times for an American and a Jew to hold that post.

The keynote address was given by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, a native of Vienna, who said of Lauder’s Vienna stint, “To be an ambassador under such circumstances must have been one of the most difficult things… and he came out with flying colors… Not everybody can go through such an advanced course in all the problems of our time as he has done.”

Lauder received his award from Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who told the gathering at the Grand Hyatt Hotel that Lauder “separated the Waldheim affair from all other matters and concerns, and spoke to the government about the troubles of the Jewish community and the fight against anti-Semitism.”

Wiesenthal, who said that Lauder looked him up just days after his arrival in the Austrian capital, spoke of Lauder’s trips to Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and his particular devotion to the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, which has been in great disrepair and is the object of an international campaign to raise funds for its renovation and revival.

WENT TO ‘EVERY SYNAGOGUE’

During the year and a half that he spent in Vienna, Lauder made certain to be recognized as a Jew and to involve himself with the Jewish community. “I went to every synagogue there is in Vienna,” he told the JTA.

He personally got interested in a school in Vienna for the children of Soviet Jewish immigrants, giving money to expand its program and include adults in religious, education and social activities. Lauder was drawn to the problem of assimilation of Soviet Jews living in Vienna, and spoke to teachers and rabbis there, Wiesenthal said.

Among them was the Vienna-based Lubavitcher rabbi, Jacob I. Biederman, who gave the invocation at the B’nai B’rith dinner.

Lauder has begun plans for a foundation to be based in Vienna for the education and preservation of the culture of Eastern and Central European minorities.

Wiesenthal said that Lauder also traveled to the cemetery where his grandfather is buried in Yugoslavia, and was “shocked” about the dilapidated state of the graveyard. Lauder asked the town’s mayor for a promise to put the cemetery into a “respectable state again.”

Lauder also visited Poland and has given money to the aged Jewish community of Krakow, Poland, for Jewish religious and cultural events there.

A tall man with a winsome smile, Lauder is friendly and easy to engage in conversation. He said before the dinner he believed that Waldheim is secure and that “if a new election were held tomorrow, he would be re-elected.”

Lauder’s grandparents had emigrated from within 150 miles of Vienna at the turn of the century, and he said he had come to Austria with a certain feeling of “coming home.” He said he has returned here because “I felt I wanted to come back to the United States.” However, when asked directly if the Waldheim affair colored his decision, Lauder told the JTA “yes.”

Lauder is to be succeeded in this position by another prominent Jew, Henry Anatole Grunwald, former editor in chief of Time magazine, and an emigre from Vienna immediately preceding World War II.

Lauder described the current situation in Austria as “complicated.” He admitted that although “many Austrians are anti-Semitic, many are not, many do not know the word bigotry. I have met some of the bravest, most courageous people in that country. I hope they can play a role in Austria’s future.”

NEXT STORY