Shalom, Austrian President Thomas Klestil

By Ruth Weinberger

Published July 16, 2004, issue of July 16, 2004.
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Some 36 hours after his rather sudden death last week, I received a personal letter from Austrian President Thomas Klestil.

In his letter, Klestil wrote that he fully intended to fight for the Jewish cause until his very last day in office. The envelope was postmarked July 2, which turned out to be his final workday. Before the letter arrived here in New York, the Austrian president had died from a severe heart attack, only days before he was scheduled to retire.

Klestil’s letter was a response to a thank-you note I had sent him after having translated his June 18 opinion article on this page, which argued that “antisemitism is often disguised as anti-Zionism.” I felt it was time for me, as an Austrian Jew, to thank Klestil for his efforts during the last 12 years to reach out to Jews in Austria and around the world.

In 1994, Klestil became the first Austrian president to visit Israel. In his speech in front of the Knesset, he unequivocally declared Austria’s active participation and guilt in the Holocaust. These and similar efforts throughout his presidency made my being an Austrian Jew easier.

Being an Austrian Jew is different from being an American Jew or an Israeli, and it is not only because my country happened to play a key role in the murder of European Jewry, or because my mother tongue happens to be German. It is different because far too many American Jews and Israelis find it incomprehensible that an Austrian Jewish community exists today, and that Austrian Jews can maintain a dual identity 60 years after the Holocaust.

More than once, the well intentioned and well educated have asked me, “How can you still live in Vienna?” or told me, “You can’t be Jewish and Austrian at the same time.” My identity, I was being told, is mutually exclusive.

After more than three years of living in New York, the capital of world Jewry, I have grown accustomed to such accusations against my home. I have tried to accept them, to rationalize them by trying to remember that many American Jews grew up with a resentment toward Austria and the German language. Deep inside of me, though, these words still hurt. What would Theodor Herzl and Sigmund Freud say if they heard comments like that?

My aim here is not to argue that growing up Jewish in Vienna was always easy. Of course there were incidents in high school and university that I would rather not remember. And to be sure, I sometimes felt homeless in my own home. But Austria has changed over the last 15 years, and these are not just the words of an apologetic.

In 1991, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky initiated the nation’s long-overdue process of acknowledging Austria’s role in the Holocaust and denying the all-too-convenient lie that Austria was Nazi Germany’s first victim. Did this acknowledgment come too late? Of course. In last month’s elections for the European Union Parliament, Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party received 76% fewer votes than in the 1999 federal elections that brought the party to power. Does it mean that Austria’s current right-wing government is something to be proud of? Of course not. Do American Jews and Israelis, then, have free moral license to ignore the efforts that many Austrians are making? I am not so sure.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Vienna, I took a history course titled “Nazi Propaganda.” As part of the course syllabus, the class traveled to the memorial site at the Mauthausen concentration camp, where approximately 40,000 Jews were killed during the Holocaust. At Mauthausen, one of my classmates approached my husband, an Israeli American who had joined the class trip, and, in a trembling voice, asked for forgiveness. She was in her early 20s, born more than 30 years after the end of the war. In the same class was a man in his 70s. During the 1940s, he joined the Hitler Youth and was dragged into the Nazi movement. More than half a century after the Holocaust, he went back to school to try to understand how he had been blind enough to follow the Hitler Youth. He, too, apologized.

Stories like these usually do not make headlines in the United States or Israel. The focus is generally on the bad, because we all know that Haider and Waldheim sell. Sure, there is antisemitism in Austria, but there is also antisemitism in the United States and elsewhere. Pointing fingers may make Americans Jews feel good about their “Never Again-ness,” but it does not really accomplish a whole lot.

In my letter to Klestil, I told the president about my grandfather, who was forced to emigrate in 1938, shortly after his brother became one of the first victims of the Nazi regime in Austria. When the war ended, my grandfather returned to his small village about an hour’s drive outside of Vienna. Despite everything that had happened in the interim, his love for Austria never disappeared. That was his home, and that is where he wanted to raise his children.

My grandfather was a living example of the enlightened Jewish Austria. He was not willing to give Hitler the final victory of having no Jews remain in his homeland. So I wrote to Klestil that my grandfather would have been proud of him, that he would have been proud of his Austria today.

If the Austrian president can believe in me, then I can and will believe in Austria.

Ruth Weinberger, a native of Vienna, is a historian and researcher at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

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