The official Austrian Holocaust Memorial Day event took place in the Palais Epstein, next door to the Austrian Parliament in Vienna last Thursday. Since the Austrian government consists of a coalition between a conservative party and the far-right Freedom party, the situation was rather awkward. The official Viennese kehillah, the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (IKG), declined to attend, as they were not prepared to participate in a Holocaust memorial event with a far-right party. However, as the President of the Austrian Parliament, Wolfgang Sobotka, said in his speech at the beginning of the event, he had an obligation to invite every party and each party had an obligation to send representatives. It was a strong message that all the parties had indeed attended. However, the fact that the IKG had chosen not to come was also a political statement, which shows how still deep the wounds left by the Holocaust are and the responsibility which the Austrian government and people have to try to heal them. In his speech, Mr Sobotka achnowledged the responsibility which the Austrian people had for the part they played in the Holocaust.
There were very few members of the Orthodox kehillah in attendance at the event. Hamodia’s correspondent, who was one of them, said that the atmosphere, whilst moving, was also rather uncomfortable and politicized. She explained that there were four Jewish speakers, each of whom had experienced the Holocaust, with three of them originating in Vienna, including one man who had been born in a cellar in 1944, whilst his parents were in hiding. Other survivors who had been invited declined to attend, due to the presence of the Freedom party. The conversation between the speakers was led by Dr. Danielle Spera, director of the Jewish Museum in Vienna.
Whilst the event is a significant one, to remember the kedoshim and acknowledge the part that Austria played in the Holocaust, the presence of a far-right party, including its leader, Austria’s vice-chancellor Heinz Christian Strache, changed the focus of the event.
Later that day, Mr Ariel Muzicant, former president of the IKG, spoke to the media about his non-attendance of the event. He said that he had apologized earlier to Parliamentary President Sobotka for not going and said that many members of his family were murdered in the War. He felt that he could not sit at event to remember them, with people who are members of a party, some of whose members deny the Holocaust, or express anti-Semitic sentiments.
One of the highlights of the event, which according to our correspondent “saved the whole ceremony”, was the recital of Kel Maleh Rachamim, by Chazzan Mordechai Fixler, which “reminded everyone why they were actually there.”
Over the weekend, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz publicly acknowledged the role which Austria played in the Holocaust, echoing Mr Sobotka’s sentiments, “Austrians were also actors and were associated with atrocious crimes of the Holocaust. We bear a clear historic responsibility that the new government clearly recognizes.”
The views of the Freedom Party were brought further into the public eye last week when it was revealed that a senior politician from the party was linked to a fraternity songbook containing lyrics which glorified the Holocaust. Udo Landbauer, who was a top candidate in the Lower Austria state elections, has denied any knowledge of the text, saying he was only a child when they were published. He is deputy head of the student fraternity Germania, which is responsible for the songbook. Due to proportional representation, Mr Landbauer automatically won a seat in the state government. However, State Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner has refused to work with him.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Freedom party, Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, condemned any form of anti-Semitism in a statement on Friday.
Updated Tuesday, January 30, 2018 at 5:17 pm