Around the Jewish World: Sephardi Immigrants Boost Austrian Jewish Community
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Around the Jewish World: Sephardi Immigrants Boost Austrian Jewish Community

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“You seem to be a nice guy. What are you doing living in Austria?”

That’s a question Paul Grosz, the president of Vienna’s Jewish community, says he now expects from foreign visitors.

“It’s not taboo for a Jew in London or New York to say I’m British or I’m American, but it’s quite different to maintain I’m a good Jew, but I’m also an Austrian,” he says.

But despite the skepticism from outsiders, Grosz believes in the future of Austria’s Jewish community — which has received a population influx in recent years from Sephardi Jews.

He would not have dared to make such a statement at the end of World War II, when the memory of the Austrians cheering the 1938 Nazi Anschluss marching into their country was raw.

The once-proud Viennese Jewish community — one of the wealthiest in Europe, home to a thriving cosmopolitan community that boasted intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl and the composer Gustav Mahler — had been reduced to a shambles.

The 20-year-old son of a furrier was one of some 2,000 Jews — out of a prewar population of 180,000 — to have survived the war in Vienna.

Grosz owed his survival partly to the odd circumstance that his mother – – though Jewish — was abandoned soon after her birth, and her birth certificate was signed by the local parish priest.

Today Austria’s Israelite Religious Community, as the official Jewish community is called, number 8,000 dues-paying members. There are another 8,000 unaffiliated Jews, Grosz estimates, living in the country. About 90 percent of Austria’s Jews live in Vienna — a proportion that is similar to the prewar distribution — with smaller communities in Salzburg, Innsbruck, Linz and Graz.

Many of the properties and businesses confiscated by the Nazis have been returned to the Jewish community in the decades since the end of the war. Rents on these properties and other enterprises now provide the Jewish community with 90 percent of its income.

Those funds pay for a first-rate Jewish school system, from kindergarten through high school, which is attended by two-thirds of the Jewish youngsters in Vienna.

Grosz also points with satisfaction to the community-run Vienna City Temple, the only one of 90 prewar synagogues to survive, a community center, youth football clubs and a soon-to-be-completed sports center.

There is a strong Chabad presence and educational system in place and a variety of social and religious institutions.

Jews point with particular pride to the Jewish museum, which was originally founded as the first of its kind in the world, in 1869. Closed in 1938 by the Nazis, it was re-established in 1989, and reopened in new quarters in 1993.

The museum is financed almost entirely by Vienna’s municipal government and attracts some 100,000 visitors a year, says Georg Haber, the museum’s managing director.

The majority of Austrian Jews — like their German counterparts — are immigrants, or children of immigrants, from former Communist countries.

These immigrants arrived in three major waves: The first wave came from Poland after the anti-Semitic outbreaks of 1948; the second from Hungary after the failed uprising of 1956; and the third from the former Soviet Union between the late 1960s and 1990.

Prominent in the latter group are immigrants from Bukhara, in Central Asia, who have large families and form a tight sub-community.

Thanks largely to the high birthrate among Bukharans, and among smaller groups of fellow Jews from the Caucasus, “we have had more births than deaths during the last two years,” says Grosz. He predicts that shortly Sephardi Jews will take over the main leadership post in the Vienna Jewish community.

In the 1990s, Austria clamped down on both Jewish and non-Jewish immigration, and Grosz has had a difficult time trying to gain entry for the remnants of the Bosnian Jewish community.

This restrictive situation may change radically in the next few years as the European Union mandates free movement and immigration among its member-states.

When that happens, says Grosz, Austria will be the first stop for new waves of both Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and Slovenia.

As a result of this immigration and natural population increases, the organized Jewish community in Austria will expand rapidly over the next 10 years, perhaps nearly doubling in size from 8,000 to 15,000 affiliated members, says Grosz.

With all this in mind, Grosz says confidently, “The Austrian Jewish community is now a permanent fact.”

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