Can a city come to terms with its past?
Anti-Semitism in Vienna
There are many reminders of Jewish life in Austria, and especially in Vienna. In 2001, the General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism was established on the basis of the Washington Agreement in order to enable a comprehensive resolution to open questions of compensation for victims of National Socialism on the territory of the present day Republic of Austria. Both institutions pursue a common goal: The recognition of Austria's special responsibility towards the victims of the National Socialist regime.
The Jewish renaissance in Vienna began in 1848 and lasted until the start of World War II. Jews were granted civil rights, partially due to their participation in the 1848 civil war and were allowed to form their own autonomous religious community, which served the Jewish population of Vienna and of Austria as well. Vienna also became a center of the Haskalah, a movement toward secular enlightenment.
The contribution of the city's Jews to music, literature, visual arts, and theater at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth was immense. The idea of establishing the Secession art association, and constructing its magnificent art nouveau gallery, was born in Berta Zuckerkandl's salon.
Composers such as Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, and Alexander Zelimsky were leading figures in Vienna's musical life. The list of Viennese writers and journalists of Jewish origin is long and distinguished, and accounts for a major part of twentieth-century Austrian literature. Arthur Schnitzler, Peter Altenberg, Karl Kraus, Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Torberg, Hans Weigel, Elias Canetti, Jura Soyfer, Hilde Spiel - each name stands for a specific chapter in Austrian literary history.
The birth of Nazism caused yet another dramatic rupture in the historical development of the city in general and its Jewish community in particular. Before 1938, the Jewish community was one of the largest in Europe numbering some 185,000. After 1945, a small but active Jewish community reestablished itself again; today, it comprises about 7,000 members – of the 10,000 to 12,000 Jews who live in Vienna at present.
During the past two decades, the city has stepped up efforts to face up to the history of Jews in Vienna, including both positive and negative aspects, and to reexamine Vienna’s Jewish heritage. In addition to the Jewish institutions that have sprung up over the last few years – thanks to the support of the City of Vienna – a number of museums and memorials evoke the city’s Jewish heritage.
Is Austria, by taking such concrete measures, finally coming to terms with its past?
Jewish Vienna Today
The traditional religious center of Jewish life in Vienna is the Vienna City Temple. It is the only synagogue that survived the pogrom of November 1938. The building complex at Seitenstettengasse 4 houses not only the synagogue, but also the offices of the Vienna Jewish Community, the Vienna Chief Rabbi, the editorial offices of the official community newspaper Die Gemeinde, the Jewish community center which stages various events and the Library of the Jewish Museum.
Near Seitenstettengasse, in the heart of the so-called “Bermuda Triangle” – a popular bar and restaurant hotspot – there is yet another focal point on Judenplatz which confronts visitors with Jewish life past and present: the Shoah Memorial and the Judenplatz Museum, opened in fall 2000.
On the way from Seitenstettengasse to Judenplatz, you pass the Old City Hall (Altes Rathaus – Wipplingerstrasse 8, 1010 Wien), where the Documentation Archives of the Austrian Resistance are located; they document the crimes of National Socialism and include important materials about right-wing extremist and racist developments in Austria.
Long pursued half-heartedly, the issue of compensation and restitution of the victims of National Socialism has been addressed at various levels in the past decade. The appointment of the Austrian Historical Commission in 1998 at last marked the creation of a body to scientifically and comprehensively investigate the whole complex of expropriation of Jewish property in all areas of business and society.
On January 17, 2001 the Republic of Austria committed itself to reparations under the Washington Agreement that compensate for property and assets that were stolen during the Nazi era. Under the Austrian General Settlement Fund Law (“Entschädigungsfondsgesetz”), a general fund was set up in 2001 to comprehensively address open claims regarding compensation for victims of National Socialism.
Jewish Vienna Then
The signs of Anti-Semitism's approaching collapse are increasing:
Vienna is still the stronghold of anti-Semitism, and Dr. Carl Lueger, the Burgomaster, its most notorious exponent in Europe. For nearly three years the administration of the Austrian capital has now been in the hands of the anti-Semitic party, but the signs of its approaching collapse are increasing.
Upon the head of Dr. Lueger, that greatly overestimated man, the shadows of evening are already beginning to descend. Only a year ago the interesting face and slender figure of "handsome Carl" were to be seen in a hundred representations of every kind; women displayed his picture in brooches and medallions, every barrel organ in the suburban courts and alleys, and every band in the Prater beer gardens, played the "Lueger March" amid frantic applause.
Today Lueger's portrait is hardly anywhere to be seen, the notes of the "Lueger March" have ceased to assail unwilling ears, and the barrel organs have taken out the Lueger plate. In office anti-Semitism still is, but on the minds of the befooled million a light has begun to break. Lueger's lieutenants--Schneider, Gregorig, Gessmann and Vergani---feel this change even more than their leader himself. Indeed the Christian Social leaders, who on every opportunity were hailed by the multitude, now feel no longer even safe; their houses have to be watched day and night by the police. Now the people's leaders have to be protected from the people by the police.
To any critical observer it has been clear that the anti-Semitic regime could not last long. It is a peculiarity of this singular movement that it soon works itself out. Germany first started it. But the movement makes no progress there; in fact, it is now less than it was ten years ago.
But from Germany anti-Semitism, nevertheless, made its way first to Russia, her Polish provinces, and to Rumania. There the ground had been well prepared as even before that time society and legislation had been anything but favorable to the Jewish race. It had always held an exceptional position, and been tolerated only. In those countries, the anti-Semitic doctrine resulted merely in violent but isolated outbreaks of the mob against the Jews. Such fits repeated twice or thrice resulted in an influx of pauper Jews into England and America; but for about ten years little or nothing has been heard out of this movement.
The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Copyright Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2010