NEW YORK (Jun. 23)
Austrian President Kurt Waldheim’s decision not to run for a second term has been met with relief by Jewish organizational leaders, one of whom called “Waldheim’s political demise” a “great victory for decency.”
Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, which led an international effort to uncover Waldheim’s Nazi past, also said Friday that his decision not to run for another 6-year term as president “lifts a great burden from Austria.”
The international campaign by Jewish and non-Jewish groups, led by the WJC, may actually have boosted Waldheim’s standing in Austria in 1986, where voters were incensed over what they perceived to be attempts by outsiders to influence their internal affairs.
The WJC’s efforts culminated with a public announcement just prior to Waldheim’s election that he had been “part and parcel of the Nazi killing machine.”
On Friday, Singer expressed hope that Austria and the Jewish people will now “open a new chapter.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, followed Waldheim around the world for years to dramatically expose his Nazi past. Weiss called Waldheim’s decision not to run again “a moral victory.”
David Harris, American Jewish Committee executive vice president, also reacted with “approval and profound relief” to Waldheim’s decision, noting that this “will certainly remove a cloud that has blighted Austrian-Jewish relations these past several years.”
Waldheim “has impaired relations between the Austrian and Jewish peoples,” agreed Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
INSISTS HE KNEW NOTHING
“We earnestly hope that, as a result of this welcome news, relations between Austria and the Jewish people can be placed on a more stable basis,” said AJCommittee’s Harris.
While Austria and Israel have formal diplomatic relations, Israel recalled its ambassador five years ago to protest the election of the former Nazi to the prominent, though largely ceremonial, position.
Waldheim’s decision not to run again has been tied to pressure from within Austria over concern that his re-election could hurt Austria’s attempts to join the European Community.
Waldheim, 72 years old, has been treated as a pariah by Western leaders for hushing up his World War II service with a German army unit.
His only official contacts have been with Arab and Islamic leaders, and Pope John Paul II.
Waldheim was stationed in Salonika for many months in 1943, as 48,000 Greek Jews were deported to Birkenau. He insists he knew nothing about it.
No personal involvement in the deportations was established, but historians and journalists researching in Greece later insisted that he must have known about them.
He claimed in his autobiography that he spent most of the war as a student at the Consular Academy of Vienna University because he had been injured on the Russian front in 1941. He included no reference whatsoever to the time he spent in Salonika.
In March 1986, the Austrian news magazine Profil reproduced Waldheim’s military registration card with endorsements suggesting he belonged to the Nazi brown shirts, Hitler’s quasi-military street fighters.
Profil said Waldheim served in the Balkans from 1942 to 1945, much of that time under Gen. Alexander Lohr, who was executed for war crimes in 1947.
The magazine article, and the WJC campaign, forced Waldheim to admit that his earlier explanations had been false.
After his election, Waldheim was put on the U.S. Justice Department’s “watch list” of people to be refused entry to this country because of their association with Hitler’s regime.
(JTA correspondent Reinhard Engel in Vienna contributed to this report.)