December 18, 2018

You seem to be a nice guy, so what are you doing living in Austria?

“You seem to be a nice guy, so what are you doingliving in Austria?”

It’s a question that Paul Grosz, the president ofVienna’s Jewish community, has come to expect from foreign visitors,and he responds indirectly and somewhat wearily.

“It’s not taboo for a Jew in London or New York tosay I’m British or I’m American, but it’s quite different to maintainI’m a good Jew, but I’m also an Austrian,” he says. “To maintain thatbalance is quite a job in itself.”

Nevertheless, agrowing number of Jews in Austria are coping with their dualidentity, to the point that Grosz can declare confidently, “TheAustrian Jewish community is now a permanent fact.”

Grosz himself would not have dared to make such astatement in 1945. Then, the 20-year-old son of a furrier was one ofsome 2,000 Jews — out of a prewar population of 180,000 — to havesurvived the war in Vienna.

He owed his survival partly to the oddcircumstance that his mother, though Jewish, had been a foundling,and her birth certificate had been signed by the local parishpriest.

Austria’s IsraelitischeKultusgemeinde (Israelite ReligiousCommunity) today numbers 8,000 dues-paying members, with another8,000 unaffiliated Jews, Grosz estimates, living in thecountry.

As before the war, about 90 percent of Austria’sJews live in Vienna, with smaller organized communities in Salzburg,Innsbruck, Linz and Graz.

Similar to the situation in Germany, thepreponderance of Austria’s Jews are immigrants or children ofimmigrants from former communist countries, who arrived in threemajor waves. The first wave came from Poland after the anti-Semiticoutbreaks of 1948, the second from Hungary after the failed uprisingof 1956, and the third from the former Soviet Union from the late1960s through the 1980s.

Prominent in the latter group are immigrants fromBukhara, in the Asian hinterland of the former Soviet Union. Thankslargely to their high birthrate, and that among smaller groups offellow Sephardic Jews from the Caucasus region, “we have had morebirths than deaths during the last two years,” says Grosz. Hepredicts that, shortly, the Sephardim will take over the mainleadership post in the Vienna Jewish community.

Since Austria clamped down on immigration, Jewishor non-Jewish, earlier in the decade, Grosz has had a difficult timetrying to gain entry for the remnants of the Bosnian Jewishcommunity. This restrictive situation may change radically in thenext few years as the European Union mandates free movement andimmigration among its member states, including Austria.

When that happens, predicts Grosz, Austria will bethe first stop of new waves of Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants fromthe Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and Slovenia.Coupled with natural increases, Austria’s organized Jewish communitywill almost double in size, from 8,000 to 15,000 affiliated members,in the next 10 years, Grosz believes.

Before the war, Vienna’s Jewish community wasperhaps the wealthiest in Europe, and over the decades, many of theproperties and businesses confiscated by the Nazis have been returnedto the community. Rents on these properties and other enterprises nowprovide the Jewish community with 90 percent of its income, theremainder derived through assessments, according to income, of itsmembers.

The revenue pays for a first-rate Jewish schoolsystem, from kindergarten to the equivalent of senior high school,attended by two-thirds of the Jewish youngsters in Vienna.

Grosz also points with satisfaction to thecommunity-run Vienna City Temple, the only of 90 prewar synagogues tosurvive Kristallnacht; a community center; youth football clubs; and asoon-to-be-completed sports center.

There is a strong Chabad presence and educationalsystem in place, and the various landsmanschaften and Sephardicgroups, representing different immigrant strains, maintain their ownsocial and religious institutions.

At present, all Jewish organizations andinstitutions, across the political and religious spectrum, are partof a unified communal structure. This may change, Grosz fears, as therift between the fervently Orthodox and more liberal streams ofJudaism widens.

A point of pride is the Jewish Museum, which wasoriginally founded as the first of its kind in the world, in 1869. Itwas closed after the 1938 Anschluss by the Nazis, re-established in1989, and reopened in its new quarters in the Palais Eskeles in1993.

The museum is financed almost entirely by themunicipality and attracts some 100,000 visitors a year, mainlynon-Jewish, including regular tours of school classes, says Dr. GeorgHaber, the museum’s managing director.

Worth noting are a series of 21 dramatic hologramsthat chronicle the history of Jews in Vienna. Also impressive is thecollection of ritual objects and artifacts from all over Europe thatwere confiscated by the Nazis for their planned “Museum of an ExtinctRace” in Prague.