VIENNA (Jun. 23)
A small group of Jewish demonstrators, wearing mock uniforms of concentration camp inmates and singing “Am Yisrael Chai,” gathered outside the office of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim for an hour and a half Thursday to protest the meeting between Pope John Paul II and the Austrian head of state.
The group later staged another demonstration outside St. Stephen’s Church, where the pope was conducting mass, while some bystanders shouted “Heil Hitler” at the demonstrators.
The pope arrived here Thursday afternoon for a five-day official visit to Austria. He called on Austrians “not to forget the past,” and Vatican sources said he plans to refer on several occasions to Austria’s role during the war.
The pope held the first of two meetings with Waldheim Thursday evening. They are scheduled to meet a second time next Tuesday at the end of the papal visit.
Their meeting on Thursday was to be followed by a reception for the foreign diplomatic corps, hosted by Waldheim in honor of the pope.
The Israeli charge d’affaires in Vienna, Israel’s ranking diplomat here, was not scheduled to attend the reception. Israel has not had an ambassador in Austria since Waldheim’s election in the summer of 1986.
The pope was scheduled to visit the Mauthausen concentration camp on Friday, where he will recite mass. He is scheduled to meet Friday morning with six Jewish community leaders from Vienna, Graz, Linz, Salzburg and Innsbruck.
The American group of demonstrators protesting here calls itself Zachor/Coalition of the Concerned, and is headed by Rabbi Avraham Weiss, a Jewish activist from Riverdale, New York.
Other groups in the coalition are the North American Jewish Student Network and the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which is also headed by Weiss.
They held signs that included a blow-up picture of Waldheim with a senior SS general and other Nazi officers in German-occupied Yugoslavia in 1943, and an enlarged version of the U.N. War Crimes Commission warrant for Waldheim’s arrest.
Nazi-hunter Beate Klarsfeld also joined the group in demonstrating against Waldheim.
The group plans to demonstrate at Mauthausen. They had previously demonstrated in Vienna at Waldheim’s inauguration in 1986, and in Rome during his visit to the Vatican last year.
The Austrian Jewish community is taking a cautiously watchful position on the papal contact with Waldheim.
Paul Grosz, president of the Federal Association of Jewish communities, indicated Wednesday that the community would speak out if the pope goes beyond his diplomatic obligations toward the head of a Catholic state and praises Waldheim.
In New York meanwhile, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, an expert on Catholic-Jewish relations who has had important contacts with the Vatican for more than 20 years, cautioned against over-reaction to the pope’s visit to Austria.
He said he was advised by Vatican authorities that papal contacts with Waldheim will be kept to a minimum.
Tanenbaum, who is director of international affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said, “It is important to keep in mind some basic facts about this papal visit and not allow extremist hysteria and stridency to overwhelm wisdom and common sense.”
Tanenbaum pointed out that Austria is 87 percent Catholic, and that this is a pastoral visit to the Austrian people. It is a centuries-old Vatican policy for the pope to meet with other heads of state with which the Holy See has diplomatic relations, he said.
However, Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, called Tanenbaum’s remarks “shameful” and an “embarrassment.”
Steinberg said that the Tanenbaum’s assertion that the pope’s meeting with Waldheim reflects “an absolute protocol minimum is absolutely wrong.”
He said that foreign dignitaries “have routinely visited Austria and explicitly refrained from having meetings with Waldheim.”
Steinberg said that what was particularly troubling was Tanenbaum’s suggestion that “peaceful expression of conscience concerning the lessons of the Holocaust can be vilified as ‘extremist hysteria.'”