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Behind the Headlines Refusing to Forget the Past

November 30, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Jewish Gemeinde, which operates out of new offices next to the main synagogue on Seitenstettengasse, is the official body of the Jewish community and is recognized as such by law.

Jews who register with the community pay it a percentage of the amount of money they pay in government income taxes. The government allocates the Gemeinde 1 million Schillings (about $50,000) a year plus paying the salaries of the top 16 executives (out of a total of 150 workers).

Some of the community funds go to help the elderly: to run the community’s old-age home, which has 70 residents and 40 patients; to pay for three-week summer holidays for the elderly and for various cultural activities such as the Sunday afternoon “coffee-house” where traditional Jewish and Viennese and Israeli music is played in a Jewish atmosphere “to give the feeling they are not forgotten”, and for supplements to old-age pensions.

The money also goes for the upkeep of the Jewish cemeteries and burial grounds, including the one established inside the city by the community in 1517. This small cemetery’s few score tombstones were spirited away by the community during the Nazi years and buried in the Central Cemetery, which has Jewish and non-Jewish sections. In 1981-83 the old cemetery was restored according to the original plans found preserved at a monument production workshop nearby.


The Gemeinde also partially supports the Zvi Perez Chajes Schule (day school). The government pays the general studies teachers’ salaries as well as part of the Jewish studies teachers’ salaries. These are supplemented by the Jewish Agency’s Department for Torah Education. The department helped finance the school when it began operating in 1980.

The school, in its new building dedicated this month at a special ceremony with the participation of top government officials, has 140 pupils up through fifth grade, with a new grade being added each year. The curriculum, which has a religious direction — all the little boys wore yarmulkas — includes six to eight hours of Jewish studies per week. The building itself served as a deportation assembly-point during the war.

The community also supports a half-dozen Talmud Torahs and kindergartens, and a Jewish student organization with 250 members (155 at university). There are also two youth groups — Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist Zionists; and Bnei Akiva, the Religious Zionists, both run by shlichim from Israel.

Leon Zelman, executive director of the Jewish Welcome Service of the City of Vienna, has high praise for the Hashomer shaliach, Dan Biran, who was the first to take Jewish children to see Mauthausen. He told JTA of his worries about young Jews being “so well-off economically, they will want to forget their past,” and stressed the importance of teaching Jews their history and culture.

The Jewish Gemeinde holds elections for its 24-member exective council every four years, using eight polling booths in various parts of the city. The executive council chooses the Chief Rabbi. Voting is by parties, with some of the parties being the same as those in the general elections.

After the Liberation, the community was dominated by Jewish Communists. The Social Democrats took over in the 1950’s, and headed the community for 30 years. Then came the mini-revolution two years ago, which overthrew the Social Democratic group and installed a new coalition.

This coalition, which was spear-headed by Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi-hunter, includes Mapam (Socialist Zionists), Herut (Revisionists), General Zionists, a group around Wiesenthal, and another group called “The Younger Generation.”

Some Viennese Jews refer to “The Younger Generation” as “our version of Yuppies.” These young Jews are in their late 20’s, born to DP’s, Poles, and refugees from the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Many were educated at the French School. Gerhard Bronner, one of the last political cabaret artists in Vienna — it was a Jewish business before the war, he said — feels “the young, especially the wealthy ones, have created a ghetto of their own.”

Karl Pfeifer, leader of Mapam in Vienna, and Avraham Magits, his counterpart from Herut, said they did not find anything untoward in working together closely although their political ideologies were so far apart. Magits told the JTA: “The main task of the Jewish community is to solve local Jewish problems.” He charged the Social Democratic leadership “didn’t represent Jewish interests.”


“Winds of change” had begun blowing in the community long before the coalition was formed, said Pfeifer. It was then-Chancellor Bruno Kreisky who inadvertently served as a catalyst for the “mini-revolution” because many Jews objected to his pronouncements about Israel and the Mideast and to the fact that the Social Democratic leadership of the Jewish community did not speak out against them. One thing the coalition is doing is emphasizing cultural activities — concerts, lectures — every two or three weeks, drawing an attendance of about 200. Pfeifer said:

“We belong to a Jewish minority. Our existence in this country is ambivalent. A lot of young people share my view that we have tried everything to be assimilated and it’s better for us now to have our own existence as an ethnic, cultural and religious minority.”

(Next Week: Part Four)

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