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Vienna — He was referring to the so-called Waldheim Affair of the mid-1980s, in which President Kurt Waldheim was outed as having hidden his knowledge of German atrocities during his wartime past as a Nazi military officer. The case triggered a long-suppressed international debate about Austria’s history.
Austrians, many of whom had wanted a union with Germany, maintained for decades that their country was Hitler’s first victim, ignoring the fact that huge, cheering crowds had greeted Hitler in March 1938 with flowers, Nazi flags and salutes.
Within days of March 12, tens of thousands of Jews and dissenters were under arrest, imprisoned or packed off to concentration camps. Jews were shut out of jobs and schools, forced to wear yellow badges, and had their property confiscated.
DEMANDING, NOT BEGGING
Ariel Muzicant served as president of Austria’s official Jewish organisation, the IKG, from 1998 until last year.
As a young activist during the Waldheim affair, he was key in persuading the IKG to break with its low profile and tackle the backlash of anti-Jewish feeling that the affair unleashed.
“I did not just go and beg. I told them: ‘These are our rights as a Jewish community. These are our demands.’ I wasn’t what you would call a very silent, docile president,” he said.
Muzicant’s drive led to the restitution of Jewish property, laws to recognise Jewish institutions and customs, and the rebuilding or new construction of schools and synagogues.
Things are not perfect, he said, but they could be a lot worse. “Vienna is one of the most beautiful places in the world. If you’re not Jewish, there’s no better place to live.”
Muzicant’s successor at the IKG’s helm, Oskar Deutsch, has a less confrontational approach. “You don’t want to escalate it,” he said. “But it’s a short way from words to deeds.”
The IKG says the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Austria of which it knows doubled last year to 135.
More common than overt attacks in Austria, where strict laws ban Nazi symbolism and parties, are appeals to shared prejudices through remarks or actions that go mostly unchallenged.
The anti-foreigner Freedom Party of Heinz-Christian Strache, who posted the disputed cartoon, consistently scores above 20 percent in opinion polls and has a chance of joining a coalition government after elections this year.
Still, many Viennese Jews freely stroll through the streets in Orthodox garb, especially in districts such as Leopoldstadt, the former Jewish ghetto where many Jews live again today.
The IKG, while condemning anti-Jewish actions anywhere, is hoping to take advantage of the comparatively favourable position of Jews in Austria to boost its depleted population.
It is working with the government to bring at least 150 Jewish families a year into the country, and has already helped some 20 families from neighbouring Hungary.