Austria’s Endangered Community

By Ariel Muzicant

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.
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In 1938 the Austrian Jewish community, one of the richest in Europe, numbered 200,000 souls. After the Holocaust only a handful remained. Neither the Germans nor the Austrians felt responsible for rebuilding this once flourishing community, nor for restituting communal property that had been Aryanized.

For nearly four decades after World War II, the organized Austrian Jewish community underwrote its operations by selling off most of its restituted property. Since 1980, Austrian Jewry’s representative body, known in German as the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, has financed its operations by taking on an increasingly large debt burden.

Now, however, the organized Jewish community here simply does not have enough funds to pay for the services it offers to the community. By the end of this month, barring a change of heart by the Austrian government, we will have to liquidate some of its institutions in order to continue its operations. Our last reserves have been used up.

We have asked the Austrian government for nearly 60 years for restitution or a yearly subsidy to maintain the communal infrastructure. The government’s record to date has been abysmal: Of the 97 synagogues that stood before World War II, only six have been rebuilt and nothing has been returned except for some empty, destroyed properties. And the international negotiations conducted among the Austrian government, U.S. State Department, Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and American diplomat Stuart Eizenstat have led to an agreement which totally neglects the needs of the Austrian Jewish community.

Under the terms of the agreement, it is conceivable that the Habsburgs — the family that ruled the vast Austrian empire for centuries — and other aristocratic plaintiffs will receive restitution while the Austrian Jewish community will face insolvency and individual Holocaust victims and their heirs will receive only a few thousand dollars each.

Even the small amount for which the Austrian government is willing to compensate aging Holocaust victims and heirs is being held up. All further payments on the funds are currently being blocked because of existing class action lawsuits in American courts.

For the last two years we have pleaded with the government to reconsider its position toward compensating the organized Austrian Jewish community. Because the government of Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel has been unwilling to take responsibility for ensuring the existence of a representative Jewish body, the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde was forced to file its restitution claims against the General Settlement Fund set up under the negotiated international agreement.

The class action suits will have more and more raison d’être, since our organized communal claims will necessarily reduce the total funds available to compensate individual Holocaust victims and their heirs — a travesty that could be avoided were the Austrian government willing to address directly the claims of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde.

The government has responded to our pleas by suggesting a willingness to fund specific “future projects,” in the words of education and cultural affairs minister Elisabeth Gehrer. But closed-down synagogues, schools and social institutions, as well as laid-off security employees, religious teachers — and our chief cantor — cannot be replaced by “projects.”

Austria is one of the richest countries of the world. It has played a very special role in Jewish history over the centuries. It was a place of emancipation for millions of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. It has spawned Jewish intellectuals and artists, from Sigmund Freud to Arthur Schnitzler, from Theodor Herzl to Gustav Mahler. Today Austria continues to serve as a center for Central and Eastern European Jewry. Yet today it will not recognize its obligations, and its organized Jewish community is in danger of collapse.

With Jews in Argentina starving and Israelis facing the daily threat of terrorist attacks, it is difficult for us here in Vienna to make a claim for the conscience of world Jewry. But Jews everywhere must let the Austrian government know that a democratic state that constantly refuses to live up to its past cannot be a respected member in the family of civilized nations who respect human rights.

Ariel Muzicant is president of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, the representative body of Austrian Jewry.

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