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News Analysis: Austrians Warily Confront Wartime Role Against Jews

Robert Liska, vice president of the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities, sits behind his desk in his family’s downtown Vienna furrier business and smiles.

“The whole matter speaks for itself,” he says of the outcome of last week’s auction of Jewish property that had been plundered by the Nazis.

The extraordinary sale raised more than $14.5 million for the benefit of Austrian Holocaust survivors — more than four times the pre-sale estimate.

“We are very happy that such an amount of money was realized,” he adds.

“But above that, what was important to us was to show people in a public, poignant, penetrating way what happened to people just like them.

“Especially here in Vienna, the objects on sale would have been owned by people just like you and me.

“This sale,” he says, “did things that pictures of concentration camps and the war won’t do.”

The auction was held just two weeks after the Freedom Party, the strongest far- right party in Western Europe, made strong gains in Austria’s European Parliament elections.

The auction provided a strong reminder of a past that Austrians have long tried to ignore.

It also came at a time when plans to erect a downtown monument to the 65,000 Viennese Jews killed in the Holocaust have provoked emotional debate and focused attention on Austria’s continuing uneasy relationship with its past.

Austria has, to say the least, a troubled relationship with its wartime role, which it has only really begun to confront openly during the past 10 years.

Hitler’s Reich annexed Austria in 1938; Hitler, who was born in the Austrian town of Braunau, was cheered by hundreds of thousands of Viennese when he entered Vienna that year in triumph.

Numerous top Nazi officials were Austrian, and anti-Semitic Austrians eagerly joined in the harsh persecution of the country’s Jews.

Nonetheless, postwar Austria was declared by the Allies to be “the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression” — and the country jealously maintained and promoted this identity throughout the postwar period.

It was only in the early 1990s that Chancellor Franz Vranitsky publicly admitted that Austria had been a willing servant of the Nazis — a sentiment he reiterated on the eve of last week’s auction.

“We know [Nazi] crimes were possible because we supported the system which made the Holocaust possible,” he said. “I and many Austrians do not want to cover up and be silent.”

The auction closed a decades-long controversy over Austria’s delay in returning the seized art and other property to Jewish ownership after the works were returned to Austria by the Allies at the end of the war.

But that is just one facet of the complex Jewish-Austrian relationship.

“Living in a place like Vienna in the center of Europe, nothing happens without the weight of history,” says Liska. “History vis-a-vis the Jews is compounded generation to generation with more problems. This is a society with a long history and a heavy load on both sides, both Christians and Jews.

“It makes it difficult to relate on a normal footing, there is either a reaction against or a bending over backwards the other way.”

As an example of the bending toward Jewish concerns, this week marks the start of a huge, month-long festival of Austrian Jewish culture in London that was sponsored by the Austrian government.

“I know that in the light of recent history, a festival of Austrian Jewish culture sounds like an oxymoron, but Jewish cultural life in our country is reawakening,” Emil Brix, an Austrian diplomat who conceived the festival, was quoted as saying.

But there are cases where Austrian attempts to come to terms with its past have provoked controversy.

Liska’s office is only a few hundred yards from Judenplatz — Jews’ Square – – the centuries-old plaza that was the heart of Vienna’s medieval Jewish ghetto.

Half of the square is closed off for archeological excavations that have uncovered the medieval synagogue that was burned down in 1421 during a pogrom that lasted months and saw hundreds of Jews burned to death or set adrift on the Danube in boats without oars.

During the terror, about 100 Jews committed mass suicide in the synagogue.

On one house on the square a Latin plaque erected later in the 15th century still states that the flames purged the sins of the “Jewish dogs.”

It is here, on the initiative of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, that the city decided two years ago to erect a monument to the city’s Holocaust victims.

The design, by British artist Rachel Whitehead, is a stark cement cube, which represents a room turned inside out.

The initiative has sparked conflict both among local Viennese and also from within the estimated 14,000-strong local Jewish community.

“The Viennese ask me where the monument is going to be, how big it will be, and so on,” says a woman who gives guided tours of the synagogue excavation.

“They say it will obscure the view of the Baroque buildings, that it will be out of place.

“History is made up of good and bad,” she adds. “Some people only want to remember the good parts.”

Some local people called the planned monument a security threat for the neighborhood. Other critics said the stark modernity of the design would be too sharp a contrast with the surrounding buildings.

From within the Jewish community came other protests.

Some feared the monument would become a lightning rod for anti-Semitic acts. Others said the monument should not be in such a prominent position.

According to some in the community, such protests demonstrated a continuing ambivalent identity or a “don’t-rock-the-boat” policy among Vienna’s Jews, particularly given the new political ascendancy of the country’s far right.

Liska disagrees with the critics.

“I think that the monument should not be out in the outskirts somewhere, and that it should not match the surrounding Baroque buildings,” he says.

“It should be something of a thorn in the flesh. It’s not the Jews who need the monument — Jews remember forever.”

At the moment, the $500,000 project is on hold.

The synagogue excavations, which eventually will be turned into a museum, are more extensive than predicted.

Excavation work has halted for the winter, and a final decision regarding the monument and its position will be made next year after the archaeologists finish their work.

“The authorities would love the Jews to say the final word, to give the death knell” to the project, Liska says. “I hope it will not happen.”

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