VIENNA (Apr. 24)
For a couple of days they behaved like good kids, these American youngsters who were showcased not only for being Jewish but primarily as grandchildren of former Austrian citizens who had been chased out of their home country after the Anschluss in March 1938.
One hundred of these descendants, as young as 16 and as old as 30, had been invited for a 10-day visit to Vienna. They willingly expressed their feelings about being here in the former home of their forefathers. They gave interviews and were filmed for a television news report on the project.
But standing in front of the gate to the Mauthausen concentration camp, their patience came to an end.
Two young girls chased away the TV crew, making clear that they did not want the media present at all. They were here to commemorate and wanted to be left in peace.
The young people listened to the explanations of the guide with anger, horror and tears in their eyes. It was a wet, cold day in April when these kids from the New World heard statistical figures about the barbaric acts that had taken place in the heart of good old Europe 50 years ago.
Holding each other by their hands, embracing one another, they learned about the ghastly methods the Nazis used to exterminate people.
“I am shook up, I feel sick, imagining that 200,000 people entered this camp and exactly half of them were killed systematically,” said Rachel Ruderman, a 23-year-old custom jewelry designer from New York City.
‘NEVER HAD THE STOMACH TO COME’
Her grandfather had a small shoe repair shop in the second district of Vienna, where most of the 180,000 Viennese Jews lived before World War II.
Marjorie Zohn, a 20-year-old drama student from Boston, described her feelings as tears ran down her cheeks and her voice trembled.
“I think it’s very important for me to be here.” she said. “My father has never had the stomach to come here, but he told me that Mauthausen was one of the most sinister camps. So I feel that I have been here for both of us.”
Dr. Leon Zelman, a survivor of Auschwitz and Mauthausen who now heads Vienna’s Jewish Welcome Service, an organization catering to tourists, initiated the project and convinced Austrian Airlines to sponsor it.
“Austria has never said ‘Welcome back to Vienna’ to those former citizens who were forcefully driven out of this country. Now we are trying — late but hopefully not too late — to help bridge the horrible gaps of the past with a good will gesture of today,” he explained.
More than 1,000 Austrian families applied to host at least one of the 100 kids participating in the program. Many potential host parents were deeply disappointed when their offer was turned down.
U.S. Ambassador Henry Grunwald, himself a young Viennese Jew expelled in 1938 from school and country, welcomed the “young ambassadors” in his home and advised them to write about their impressions of Austria.
The participants’ itinerary included sightseeing tours on the Danube, visits to the Austrian Parliament and the central synagogue of Vienna, and an address by Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky.
“He gave us a very heartfelt welcome,” said Zohn, the drama student, “and he told us about our ambassadorial mission. We should let people know that Austria, the country and the people, have changed.”
Said Zohn, “Maybe this is a step in healing, for a wound which can never be healed.”