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Camp in Austria Was First Contact for Jewish Refugees Heading West

September 26, 2005
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When my family left the Soviet Union in November 1989, we were among the first wave of Jewish refugee families to reach Kinderdorf, a summer retreat in this small rural Austrian town. Nestled between hilly green pastures, Kinderdorf has six buildings that together can house about 150 people.

The buildings usually sit empty in autumn and winter. But for a five-month period starting in October 1989, Kinderdorf was rented out by the Jewish Agency for Israel to house refugees from the Soviet Union, most of them Jewish, with a smattering of other religious minorities. Those making aliyah to Israel were processed directly through; those seeking entry to the United States were sent on to a similar camp in Ostia, Italy.

Gresten was my family’s first encounter with non-Soviet society. We, along with all the other families there, had left the Soviet Union at the height of the product shortages that swept through our country during the perestroika reforms of the mid-to-late 1980s.

Gresten’s apparent wealth dazzled us. My mother, Nellie Levine, remarks that the women who worked in the camp kitchens seem so well dressed and carefully groomed “they could pass for professors or businesswomen.” Men would walk through the camp ogling the new cars parked at the Toyota dealership as if they were Apache helicopters.

Most refugees stayed at Kinderdorf for a month or less. Everything was organized for us: three meals a day, no need to cook. There was no need for cash, so none was handed out. We lived an isolated life and did not interact much with the locals, but from what we could see from the outside, the neatness and meticulousness of the Austrian people was still an immense culture shock.

Christine Liobl has been manager at Kinderdorf for two decades and is the only staff member left who worked with the Jewish refugees. She estimates that 600 people went through the camp in five months.

The only difficulties were caused by the organization overseeing the refugees’ transfer. For some reason, she says, buses would come to pick up and drop them off in the dead of night, rousing not only the staff, who had to find beds for the new arrivals, but the entire camp.

Because everyone lived in such close proximity to one another — three or four families separated by a single curtain — whole buildings would be awakened with a flurry of movement.

In the middle of the night, “they would ring my door and would say, ‘We have 18 more people for you,’ ” exclaims Liobl. After she complained, the Jewish Agency started giving advance warning of their arrival. But the buses still arrived at night.

Kinderdorf’s use as a refugee camp was a new arrangement, and Liobl was worried about not being able to anticipate or fulfill the refugees’ needs.

She recalls one woman who asked with a worried expression, as she stepped off the bus that brought her from Vienna, “Are we welcome here?”

Of course, Liobl answered.

“We’ll get off then,” the woman answered.

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