Up until this trip, I had a negative association with Austria and it’s relationship with the Jewish people. I thought about the Von Trapp family from the Sound of Music, images of Hitler and the Nazis rolling into Vienna and taking over the entire country, and I imagined a dark and gloomy cloud hanging over this city. But after my experiences yesterday and today, my perspective has shifted significantly. Our guides from ARZA World Travel made a very important point at our opening dinner last night – a trip to Central Europe; to Vienna or Budapest or Prague, cannot just be about memorializing the Holocaust. Of course, there is no denying or escaping the Holocaust’s influence on the history and cultural make-up of these cities, but Vienna’s Jewish history is so much deeper and more significant than just it’s Holocaust-related elements. Today confirmed that for me.
Our day began with a visit from the Israeli ambassador to Vienna, Talya Lador-Fresher. She spoke to us for an hour about the relationship between Israel and Austria and while she asked that most of the conversation be off-the-record, here are a few take-aways from our meeting.
- As of last year, Israel and Austria have had diplomatic relations for 60 years – that’s a long time! In other words, relations were established quickly after WWII. Israel wanted to create a quick avenue by which survivors could move to Israel and so Israel set up its first mission in Salzberg after the war to facilitate the process quickly and easily. Vienna was a hub for Jews to get to Israel after WWII.
- She reiterated that while Israelis tend to see Austria as associated with the Nazis, she has learned just how rich the Jewish connection to this country really is and that Austrians tend to associate Israel with the Arab/Israeli conflict AND high tech ventures.
- This past year, 600 Austrian teachers spent two weeks at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to learn how to teach the Holocaust. That’s the second largest group of non-Israelis to engage in such a learning, Germany being the largest group.
- There are 14 ministers in the Austrian government and Ambassador Lador-Fresher is hopeful that by later this year, she will be able to account for 11 of those ministers having traveled to Israel at some point in the recent past.
- She is the first female Israeli ambassador to Austria.
- The right-wing Freedom party in Austria, which has gained much power over the past years, is a complicated party. It had its start with Nazi-affiliated leaders and yet today, the only Jewish member of the Austrian parliament is from the Freedom party and the leader of the party is looking to normalize relations with Israel and the Jewish community in Austria. At the same time, there are still many people who affiliate with the party who are antisemitic. As of now, Israel does not have a relationship with the leadership of the Freedom party. It’s more complicated, but that’s all I can share.
- The refugee crisis is affecting Austria, just as it has affected many European nations. The largest influx of refugees to Austria has been from Afghanistan (not Syria, as is the case with other countries) and a major question is how to define an asylum seeker vs. a refugee. Austria seems to be against opening its borders to any more refugees and it sometimes takes three years to determine the status of those who have already entered the country. For those who are not granted refugee or asylum status, they must be returned to their country and that alone can prove very difficult (understandably – who would want to go back to a country from which they fled?!)
After our visit with the Israeli Ambassador, we got on the bus and headed to the Vienna Temple (Stadtempel), the only surviving synagogue from pre-WWII days. It has been an active synagogue for over 200 years and in addition to its gorgeous design, holds a lot of Jewish history and remains an active Jewish community to this day. We met Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister, who serves as the rabbi of many communities in Austria, and heard a lot about the community from one of its members who told us the following:
- Of the 8,000 Jews in Austria, about 7,500 live in Vienna and the other 500 are spread out in small communities throughout the country.
- The synagogue we visited was tucked away on a side street and had to be built deep wtihin a building because at the time it was established (1826), non-Roman Catholic places of worship weren’t allowed to be recognizable from the street. In other words, they had to be hidden away from plain sight. This gorgeous space has been used ever since (except during wartime) and a mixed community of Jews still prays there every week.
- The 1920s were the height of Jewish life in Vienna, with approximately 200,000 Jews living in the city. When the Nazis came to town in March of 1938, there were 180,000 Jews and actually, many got out and survived before times got really bad.
- The Shema melody that most synagogues use today was established in this synagogue in Vienna. In 1826, a famous cantor, Salomon Sulzer, joined the community and he composed many famous Jewish tunes that are still used in prayers today. Sulzer also partnered with non-Jewish composers to create pieces of music and Schubert, a famous classical composer, wrote a few pieces of Jewish music for Sulzer. It goes to show that there was a vibrant relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish musicians.
As we walked through the city center towards the Jewish Museum, we stopped briefly at a memorial in honor of those who perished in the city from the Black Plague. The Black Plague led to two famous words/phrases still used today:
- When someone sneezes, we say “Bless you” or in German “Health”. That’s because during the plague, whenever someone sneezed, they were immediately assumed to have the plague and people prayed for their health and recovery.
- When people were thought to have been infected, they were locked away in a house or room for 40 days. The word for forty in Italian is ‘quaranta’. The word ‘quarantine’ comes from the word for ‘forty’ and stems from the 40 days people were sequestered when assumed to have been infected with the plague. And 40 is a significant number in Judaism – 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai, 40 years of wandering in the desert, 40 days of the flood, etc. In other words, there were religious reasons why people were quarantined for 40 days and it all stems from Jewish roots.
Our next stop was the Jewish Museum, which happens to be the first Jewish museum in the world, established in the 1890s. The main purpose of the museum is to teach non-Jewish Austrians about the history of the Jewish people in this country and I have to say, they do an excellent job. The Executive Director was a famous news broadcaster in Austria and then some years ago, she decided to dedicate her time to upgrading the museum and really helping tell the rich story of the Jewish people in Austria. There are many famous Jews who spent time in Austria and specifically, in Vienna. To name a few:
- Sigmund Freud
- Theodore Herzl
- Victor Frankl
- Gustav Mahler
- Franz Kafka
- Simon Wiesenthal
After lunch in the outdoor market in the center of the city (full of great restaurants of all varieties), we met with the Charge d’Affaires of the American Embassy, Eugene Young. He leads the U.S. Embassy in Austria, promoting a close and productive U.S.-Austrian partnership and furthering the friendship between the Austrian and American people. We learned a few things from him:
- There are 300 US companies operating in Austria.
- Austria is facing its highest unemployment rate in many years though the economy is still in stable condition
- There’s been a slight rise in antisemitic actions in Austria, though it’s not clear if that’s the result of a larger Muslim refugee population or a general fear of anyone/any group that is considered an outsider. There were 465 antisemitic incidents in 2016 in Austria, whether that be internet postings, graffiti, etc.
- Young loves Vienna and believes the US is well off by maintaining strong ties with Austria. He feels like they do a lot of incredible things both educationally and economically for their people and he thinks it is one of those countries that is overlooked by US citizens.
- Based on the recent election in our country, there is deep skepticism among Austrians about the US government and American citizens. It is too early to tell what relations will be like in the future, as Young said they are still waiting to hear from the new administration about the government’s strategy on dealing with international relations. He isn’t the only one waiting to hear…
Our full day ended with a visit to the only liberal/Reform community in Vienna. It is called Or Chadash, has been around for 25 years, and is located in the 2nd District, a traditionally Jewish area of Vienna. We met with their new rabbi, who was just ordained from seminary in London this past year, along with two board members of the community – an Israeli and an Austrian. I learned that as united as the Jewish community is in Vienna, it’s still a divided community in many respects, similar to any other Jewish community you would visit. Let’s be honest, all Jewish communities have fractures and divisions – it’s built into our nature. This small community draws Jews from around Austria, not just Vienna, and regardless of how many (or how few) show up, they have Shabbat services every Friday night and Saturday morning. They have a respectful, yet up-and-down relationship with the established Jewish community (who’s synagogue we visited earlier in the day) and they are working hard to bring more people into their community, as the majority of Jews in Vienna (and in Austria for that matter) are mostly secular who would find comfort and familiarity in the services offered at Or Chadash (each service is in English, Hebrew, and German).
It was a massively full day but I walked away having a much deeper respect for the longevity, creativity, resiliency, and strength of the Jews of Vienna and Austria. We do ourselves and the Jews of Austria a disservice when we focus on the Holocaust and the loss of 65,000 Jews from this country. Yes, it was a terrible loss, but there has been such vibrancy in this country for so long and the Jews continue to prosper in this land. There is a Jewish story here that must be told and shared.