Austrians averse to military service can work against anti-Semitism
Reprinted from the Indiana Jewish Post & Opinion
By ERNEST G. HEPPNER
There will never be atonement for the misdeeds of the Holocaust – certainly not by monetary reparations, but I recently encountered in Austria a program for young citizens that is worth noting.
Austria has added to its scenic beauty something even more beautiful – a sincere effort to replace denial of its role in the Holocaust with the true history of that period.
Project Gedenkdienst (Memory Service) is an Austrian alternative to military service, whose participants serve at major Holocaust institutions. The government-funded program is the brainchild of Dr. Andreas Maislinger, a lecturer in political sience at the University of Innsbruck, who worked for 15 years, beginning in 1977, to make his idea a reality. His lobbying at first was fruitless. The president and parliament not only rejected the notion, but they insisted on trying to maintain Austria’s dubious claim to being the ‚first victim‘ of Nazi Aggression, (even though Nazis occupied the Rhineland before they marched into Austria without having to fire a shot).
Ironically, it was under the presidency of Kurt Waldheim that this attitude changed. The strong opposition, first to Waldheim’s candidacy in 1986, and later to his presidency, marked the beginning of a public confrontation with the past, a re-evaluation of National Socialism (Nazism) in Austria and the country’s role in the war and the Holocaust. In 1991, Maislinger’s Legislation was enacted and he began to organize Project Gedenkdienst as an independent, though largely government funded, foundation. It has become a unique international network that assists Holocaust museums and archives. In addition, the Austrian government is attempting to reach out to world Jewry as part of a conscious effort to follow a new direction in the post-Waldheim period.
Although I was intrigued and impressed by the efforts of these young people, I found it difficult to ignore the coupled wrongs of Austria’s long history of theologically based anti-Semitism and especially the Austrian government’s shameful delay in admitting its participation in the policies of the National Socialist German Workers Party (better known as the Nazis).
I met the Gedenkdienst members on a visit to Austria that I had made with some misgivings, after vowing on a visit 15 years earlier never to return to that scenically beautiful country because of the anti-Semitic Austrians I encountered there.
I returned in May 1995 at the invitation of Project Gedenkdienst , as one of the speakers at an international conference on ‚Flight to Shanghai,‘ dealing with the emigration of Austrian and German Jews to China during the Hitier years. One of the Project Gedenkdienst members, Matthias Kröhn, had been doing research at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, where he encountered documents pertaining to the fascinating Shanghai Ghetto story, about which I had written in my book, „Shanghai Refuge.“ The conference had been Kröhn’s proposal.
I was loath to return to Austria and expose myself to any type of anti-Semitism, no matter how subtly expressed. However, as president of the Council on the Jewish Experience in Shanghai (CJES), the international Shanghai ghetto survivors organization, I felt it my responsibility to go.
While preparing for the conference, I received an invitation from the Austrian government to come to Vienna and to meet with leading members of the Jewish community and government officials. Although I could spare only a few days, I gladly accepted this interesting invitation.
On May 26-28, 1995, historians and survivors from China, England, France, Israel and the United States met in Salzburg for the international conference to present the various aspects of the temporary haven that Shanghai provided for Austrian and German Jews during the 1930s and ’40s. The audience, consisting mainly of teachers and students from nearby universities, participated in lively discussions while a film crew documented the events on videotape.
Conference participants agreed that it was an important event, and a stepping stone to further research on this unique period in recent Jewish history. I cannot praise enough the convenors who made it so succesful; dedicated young Austrians who, in lieu of military service study at Yad Vashem in Israel, the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Ann Frank House in Amsterdam and the memorials in Auschwitz Birkenau and other places. Their work toward reconciliation with Holocaust survivors and their descendants demonstrates that Austrians are beginning to face up to the fact that many of them were collaborators, not victims during the Holocaust. Gedenkdiensters are part of Austria’s effort toward a better understanding of recent history.
Thanks to some briefing given me before the conference by Gary Geipel, a research fellow with the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, I knew a little about Austria’s unique problems. One of the items he gave me was a Nov. 16, 1994 article from the Austrian newspaper „Der Standard,“ by Eric Frey, who pointed out the election losses sustained by the liberal Social Democratic Party and the People’s Party and the gains made by Jörg Haider’s right-wing Freedom Party.
From Salzburg, I went to Vienna, where I met Frey and discussed with him Austria’s economic and political situation.
The Austrian govemment gave me splendid cooperation through ministerial counsellor Angelika Kadlec, who assisted me with my agenda and made my appointments. Among others, I met Dr. Georg Haber, director of Vienna’s Jewish Museum which opened in Novernber 19093 at the initiative of the city government. Haber made me aware of an impressive exhibit of the museum, „The Powers of Images – Anti-Semitic Prejudices and Myths,“ taking place at the Vienna City Hall.
An official of the Israeli Embassy at Vienna pointed out to me that Israel and Austria enjoy mutually beneficial economic cooperation and that hundreds of Austrian children regularly visit Israel.
I was surprised to find on my appointment list an organisation dedicated to the anti-Nazi resistance movement. After Meeting with Dr. Wolgang Neugebauer, director of the Austrian Resistance Archives, his assistant showed me through the imnpressive library and huge documentary collection.
These organizations and efforts seem to embody a new spirit in Austria, a new willingness among younger Austrians to confront with honesty their country’s past. One of the volunteers from Project Gedenkdienst cited to me the example of his parents. Originally they were upset that their son, instead of joining the military, began his work at the Holocaust memorial Museum in Washington.
„They have visited Washington and have seen Schindler’s List and discussed the issues it raised,“ he told me. „They would never have talked about this five or ten years ago.“
Austrian anti-Semitism was not a Nazi import from Germany. The Nazis built upon the long-standing religious and economic prejudice Austrians had been practicing, adding to it merciless violence and oppression.
I do not delude myself that Austrian anti-Semitism is dead. Although officially eliminated by the government, it still exists in the minds of many Austrians especially older citizens.
However, their government now is publicly acknowledging the need to remember, and to remember accurately. Not until 1988, 50 years after the Anschluss (Hitler’s takeover of Austria), did many Austrians start to admit Austria’s share of guilt for the crimes of the Third Reich. Chancellor Franz Vranitzky in 1991 explicitly stated that Austria shared responsibility for the Holocaust. He discarded all the previous denials in 1993 in a speech at Hebrew University in Israel, admitting that many Austrians joined the Nazi machinery and stating that all Austrians have a responsibilty „to remember and to seek justice.“
Several plaques and memorials in Vienna recall the Nazi reign of terror and its victims. From 1948 on Jews from countries of the Iron Curtain sought asylum in Austria. Austria has offered asylum to Iranian Jews during the past few years and has quietly absorbed, and is still absorbing a significant number of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Reviving 543 years after its annihilation is a small Sephardic community that re-established itself in May 1992 and founded a Sephardic Federation. There now appears to be a realistic chance for the revival of a multi-cultural and diverse Viennese Jewry.
It is understandable that most Jews whom the Nazis expelled did not return to their homeland after the end of the war. The Viennese Jewish community remains small. Before 1938 it could boast 185,000 registered members. By the end of 1991, it had 7,000 members, plus 5,000 who are not affiliated. There are two kosher restaurants; and the Jewish Institute for Adult Education has established itself as one of the focal points in Vienna’s cultural life.
Is there a fresh wind blowing in Austria? I hope so. I believe the older generation cannot easily shed its long held prejudices; however, I hope younger Austrians, like those of Project Gedenkdienst, with the help of the Austrian government, will succed in their endeavors. Time will tell. I may even consider returning to that beautiful country as a tourist.