Austrian President Thomas Klestil concluded a three-day visit to Israel this week, acknowledging his nation’s role in the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Addressing a special session of the Knesset on Tuesday, Klestil said full acknowledgement of his country’s complicity in the Holocaust was long overdue and that his country should do more to compensate Jewish survivors.
“All too often we have only spoken of Austria as the first state to have lost its freedom and independence to National Socialism, and far too seldom of the fact that many of the worst henchmen in the Nazi dictatorship were Austrians,” Klestil said.
“No word of apology can ever expunge the agony of the Holocaust,” he said.
While not making any specific pledges, Klestil told the Knesset that his country should consider following the lead of Germany and make reparations to the victims of the Holocaust.
“For far too long we have not done enough, and perhaps not always the right thing, to alleviate the plight of the survivors of the Jewish tragedy and the victims’ descendants,” Klestil said.
Klestil’s visit signaled a vast improvement in Israeli-Austrian relations, which were strained by the 1986 election of Kurt Waldheim to the Austrian presidency, a position he held until 1992.
Waldheim was a Nazi intelligence officer stationed in the Balkans during the war. He has been implicated in the deportations of Jews and reprisal killings of anti-Nazi partisans in the region.
In a meeting with Klestil earlier this week, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres raised the issue of reparations for Austrian Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
More than 190,000 Jews lived in Austria before World War II. By 1945, less than 2,000 remained, as thousands fled or were deported to Nazi camps.
Klestil also met with the families of missing and captured Israeli servicemen who hoped he could use Austria’s ties with Iran and Syria to obtain information about the MIAs’ whereabouts.
Klestil, along with Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock, who accompanied him on the trip, played down questions about the danger of growing support for right-wing extremists in Austria.
Austria’s far-right Freedom Party posted dramatic gains in parliamentary elections held in October.
Austrian Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who also accompanied Klestil to Israel, said Austria’s younger generation was more willing to confront the country’s wartime past and that Klestil was setting an important example by visiting the Jewish state.
During his visit to Israel, Klestil did not meet with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in Gaza or with other Palestinian leaders at Orient House, the PLO’s headquarters in eastern Jerusalem.
Officials in Klestil’s delegation said talks with Arafat were not scheduled because of the president’s already tight itinerary, not because of Israeli pressure.
But President Ezer Weizman said he had asked Klestil not to meet with Arafat during this week’s visit.
“He’s my guest and with all due respect, he should stay my guest, period,” Weizman told Israel Radio at a reception in Klestil’s honor.
Palestinian officials reportedly protested by boycotting a meeting with Klestil on Tuesday at an Austrian hospice located in eastern Jerusalem.