In Vienna there is a small Jewish community of about 10,000
which, in recent years, has been living in relative
tranquillity. Now, with the establishment of the new
government that includes the rightist party of Jorge Haider,
the Jews are apprehensive. Although they don't express their
misgivings and are trying to continue their regular lives,
deep down their feelings are rather unpleasant. Their
stomachs churn and memories rise up to the surface.
The Jewish community of Austria includes both young and old
people. There are those who survived the Holocaust and there
are those who are familiar with war scenes only from stories
told them by relatives who survived.
Within the community there is a dispute regarding what the
future holds. Some believe that the storm will subside and
that they will soon return to their routines, while others
believe that the new government with the Freedom Party will
not be like previous, democratic ones which ruled since the
There is also a debate over Israel's reaction and its
decision to recall its ambassadors to Austria for an
unlimited amount time. Some say that this reaction is
nonessential and hasty, while others feel that Israel behaved
correctly and that it is important to inform Austria and the
world that Israel will not remain silent in the face of
racism and the inclusion of a racist and extreme party in the
government of any country in the world, and especially one
with a history like Austria's.
The world at large has also reacted harshly. The European
Union condemned the new government and downgraded relations
with Austria, and the United States also recalled its
ambassador. It is not known yet whether this will be a
sustained, long term policy or is merely the initial reaction
that will soon pass. After the government was sworn in there
were noisy street demonstrations in Austria and elsewhere in
Among the Jews, talk of leaving Austria has begun. As always,
on this issue, the young generation is quicker to think about
leaving the country, while the elderly even though they say
that they are very upset by the situation, are more inclined
to stay because it is difficult at an advanced stage in life
to take up the wanderer's staff.
Shimon Wiesenthal, the well known Nazi hunter, lives in
Vienna. Last week, Austrian President Tomas Klestil wrote him
a letter in which he apologized and explained that according
to the Austrian constitution, it was impossible to prevent
the establishment of the new government coalition together
with Haider. Wiesenthal doesn't agree with the Austrian
president. He also dismissed the claim that new elections
would only strengthen Haider's party.
Wiesenthal announced that he is not leaving Austria. At the
same time he said that he is happy that his children and
grandchildren don't live in Austria but in Israel, and don't
have to fear antisemitism or fascism.
Austria had some 185,000 Jews in 1938 when Hitler annexed the
country, with the enthusiastic support of most Austrians.
Many leading Nazis, including Hitler himself and Eichmann,
were Austrian-born. Nearly 70,000 Austrian Jews were killed
in German death camps, and 70,000 more were driven out of the
country. After the war, however, the Allies referred to
Austria as Hitler's first victim.
Before the Freedom Party joined the governing coalition, the
president of Austria's Jewish community, Ariel Muzikant, had
been vociferous in his condemnation of Haider, to the point
where Haider had even threatened to sue him.
Since the swearing in of the new government, however, the
Jewish community has not taken a formal stand.
Today, most of Austria's Jews live in Vienna, and most are
Holocaust survivors, displaced persons or refugees from
Eastern Europe and the Middle East and their descendants.
Haider's party came in second in last October's elections,
capturing just more than 27 percent of the vote. It was the
best showing by a far right party in Europe since the end of
World War II. Generally such parties garner no more than
about 15 percent of the vote.
Most members of the Jewish community are believed to have
voted for the Social Democratic Party, the Greens or the tiny
During the campaign, Haider's platform was not openly
antisemitic, but his strident xenophobia raised fears that
antisemitism could become a byproduct of his rhetoric,
particularly as an undercurrent of antisemitism still
persists among some sections of the Austrian public. In the
past Haider has made statements in support of Nazism, but in
recent months he has backtracked. Nonetheless, his rise to
power has awakened old feelings.
"I get it on the street," said a young rabbi who preferred
not to give his name. "People will laugh and point. The
atmosphere was cold, is cold and will be cold. It will never
change unless the people change."