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Comments by U.S. Congressman on Holocaust Spurs Squabble with Austria

Austrian diplomats in the United States have taken issue with an indictment of their country’s attitude toward the Holocaust by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.).

“I am tired of being told that Austria was the first victim of Hitler, when in fact Austria was the first ally of Hitler,” Lantos, a Holocaust survivor born in Hungary, said last month at the Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration in Los Angeles.

Speaking after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lantos concluded, “I look forward to the day when Gov. Schwarzenegger will be in Vienna to help open a Holocaust museum there, where it is so long overdue.”

After the speech, Eva Nowotny, Austria’s ambassador to the United States, sent Lantos a letter pointing out that former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, in a speech to Parliament in 1991, “acknowledged guilt and responsibility for the atrocities committed by Austrian citizens during the Holocaust, a speech which has changed Austria’s official position forever.”

Austrian Consul General Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal in Los Angeles, who attended the event at which Lantos spoke, said the congressman’s criticism would have been on the mark 15 years ago, but not today.

“I was born in 1957, and when I went to school we learned nothing about the Holocaust,” he said. “But now, all schools have a mandatory three years of Holocaust education.”

Nevertheless, Launsky-Tieffenthal credited Lantos for helping accelerate the turnaround.

There have been several issues that have strained relations at times between Austria and Jews — and Austria and Israel — in the post-war era.

Much strain surrounded Kurt Waldheim, the secretary-general of the United Nations and later president of Austria, who served as a Nazi army officer during World War II.

More recently, participation of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, led by Jorg Haider, in the Austrian coalition government prompted Israel to recall its ambassador from Vienna.

But Launsky-Tieffenthal cited a long list of actions by his government since the early 1990s, including various restitution funds Austria provided for Holocaust victims, criminal laws targeting neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, and close cooperation with Jewish organizations in Austria and the United States, in arguing that Austria had changed.

A showpiece of that change is Austria’s national service program, in which young Austrians are excused from military service to work as volunteers for Jewish organizations or Holocaust museums around the world for 14 months.

Nowotny acknowledged that her country didn’t have a Holocaust museum, but she cited two Jewish museums in Vienna and educational exhibits at the site of the former Mauthausen concentration camp and elsewhere in the country.

When asked by JTA for comment, a spokeswoman said the congressman has been in touch with the Austrian Embassy regarding the matter.

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