80 Years

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Five-meter-tall light installations in the shape of a twisted magen David titled “OT” (“symbol”), created by artist Lukas Kaufman. (Dr. Danielle Spera, Director of the Jewish Museum of Vienna)

The Viennese cityscape of the 1980s was devoid of the numerous and ever-growing signs, symbols and memorials one can find all over town nowadays. After all, “Austrians were the first victims of the Nazi oppression,” we were taught. Although acknowledgement of the graver suffering of Jews was there, the consensus was — “we were all victims.”

Yes, there were the few monuments commemorating the victims of fascism. They reinforced the message, “All Austrians suffered. The Jews were only part of the story.”

And then came the turning point in the late 1980s, set off by the infamous Waldheim affair. Kurt Waldheim was secretary general of the U.N. in the 1970s, and president of Austria between 1986 and 1992. His activities as a German officer during World War II became the subject of intense public debate during his election campaign in 1986, and isolated Austria. Consequently, Austria “owned up,” and admitted its active participation in the Holocaust.

In the early 1990s, when Chancellor Franz Vranitzky acknowledged Austria’s share in responsibility for the persecution of Jews, the narrative started to shift. By then a third generation of post-Holocaust Austrians had incorporated the message of “victimhood.”

The new century has witnessed an ever-growing desire by Austria to rectify its decades-long error and admit its guilt. Today you will find numerous reminders. They take the form of monuments and plaques, markings on the pavement relating to someone’s experience on that street. There is hardly a street without at least one “Stolperstein” — stumbling block — marking the Jewish victims who had lived there.

Germany, on the other hand, immediately acknowledged what they had done, though it was during the protests of 1968 that the new generation demanded real change. Germany, too, is filled with memorials, plaques and monuments, reminding passersby of the past.

This year, Austria and Germany will be marking the 80th anniversary of the terrible night of broken glass, “Kristallnacht” — the Nazis called it in triumph, Novemberpogrom — on the night of November 9, 1938. Numerous events are planned in both countries, both by Jewish institutions as well as government bodies.

But what was it like growing up in Austria and Germany with such a past? What was it like for a Jewish boy to go to school with teachers who served in the Wehrmacht? What was it like for a non-Jewish child to learn what his country had done? Hamodia spoke to several prominent figures in Germany and Austria to learn about their experiences.

NEVER FORGET

Bernhard Bonelli, Deputy Head of Cabinet of the Chancellor’s office, is responsible for the affairs of religious communities in Austria. As a practicing Catholic, he has an appreciation for people who practice their religion. “There aren’t many people in Austria who still live a religious life,” he says, “and that is what impresses me about the active Jewish community in Vienna. In my job, I try to put myself into the shoes of a person whose religious practices are restricted through others.”

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Interior of the Polish Shul in Vienna before the war.

Mr. Bonelli, who had worked in the private sector before joining the government and had no prior contact with the Jewish community, is happy to be involved and meet its members. For him, ensuring that Jews can live comfortably in Austria is just as important as honoring and remembering the victims of the Holocaust. “I can make sure that the Jewish community has their kosher meat, I can work on law changes, and I can do things that have a much higher purpose. At the same time we are active in our responsibility in regard to remembering the past,” he explains. “I have gained immense sensitivity and am so much more aware.”

During his school years in the 1990s, Mr. Bonelli’s awareness of World War II was limited to his own family’s experiences. In late 1944, his Austrian grandmother was driven from her home in Bosnia. “This had a strong presence in our home. My family didn’t really raise the topic of the Holocaust.”

He learned about all that had occurred in history class at the age of 13. “Looking back, I realize that we unfortunately didn’t have any special projects or discussions about what had happened in our country. Even the date November 9 was never marked as anything special,” he relates.

By far the strongest impression was discovering the Memorial for Jewish victims of the Holocaust erected on Vienna’s Judenplatz in 2000.

Quite different is the story of a German boy who grew up in Frankfurt in the 1970s. Professor Michael Formanek, Head of the Otolaryngology Department in the Barmherzigen Brüder Hospital in Vienna, recalls the strong impression his country’s past left on him.

“In school it was an oft-repeated topic,” Formanek recalls. “We had the yearly anti-fascist week, when we would watch documentaries, survivors would come and lecture about their experiences, and so much more.

“To be confronted with all this horror at the age of 10 leaves a lifelong imprint on a person,” he explains. “This was not a singular experience; everyone at our school felt this way. We had many discussions about how our people could have committed such heinous crimes. The Holocaust was not only taught in history class but in many other courses.”

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Exterior of where Polish Shul stood before the pogrom. An apartment building is there today. (Gryffindor/Wikimedia)
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memorial plaque on the former site of the Polish Shul.

When Professor Formanek speaks to Austrian colleagues his age, their experiences seem quite different. “While the Holocaust was intensely discussed in Germany, the Austrians only mentioned it in passing. History lessons in Austria seemed to concentrate on the 16th and 17th centuries, while in Germany the most important topic was the Weimar Republic and how it culminated in a nation that went so far as to perpetrate the crimes of the Holocaust.”

His mother, who grew up in Vienna after the war, didn’t recall the Holocaust being mentioned in school. Back then, Austria was deeply entrenched in the narrative of the “victim myth.” “Even my Austrian grandmother, who was a staunch socialist, used to say, ‘We were the first victims,’ because that was the national narrative straight through all political parties in Austria,” he says.

Growing up, Formanek had personal relationships with members of the Frankfurt Jewish community, and often played sports with Jewish children, who became his friends. But when it came to discussions of the Holocaust, he was quickly shot down: “You cannot have an opinion, you don’t understand,” or “Your family didn’t suffer; you didn’t lose anyone in the Holocaust.” He notes, “I absolutely agree with this sentiment, but it also caused me to feel like I could never be included.”

All these experiences instilled in him a desire to go to Israel. After starting his medical studies in Vienna and Berlin, he continued at the Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv.

“Of course I expected to be treated with hostility as a German, but the opposite occurred. There were only positive reactions, especially from Holocaust surivors. They shared memories of their childhood in Germany and what they endured during the Holocaust.

“Perhaps the stark difference to German Jewry who were living surrounded by the tragic history and those in Israel is the fact that they live in their own country.”

Although Formanek very much wanted to remain in Israel, the position he was offered was not in the field of his specialty and so he ended up relocating to Vienna.

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Beis Zion shul in Berlin before the war. (Kahal Adass Jisroel of Berlin)

GROWING UP – GROWING STRONG

There is a stark contrast, not only between those who grew up in Germany and Austria, but also the era in which they were raised.

In my youth I was very aware of the history of my surroundings. I knew that a Jewish family had lived in the very apartment we were inhabiting. The Belzer Kloiz in Vienna had been across the street from our home. I recall being fascinated by a booklet listing all the Jewish institutions that had existed in our area. Building after building had housed shuls, shtieblach, butchers, soup kitchens, charity offices, and the list goes on. All of them gone — vanished from the city’s landscape after a night of shattered glass and shattered lives, broken furniture and broken bones, burnt shuls and burnt hopes. The night that marked the beginning of the horror that was to come in the next six and a half years.

On the other hand, growing up in the 1960s, Mr. Yitzchok Binyomin Neumann, a prominent member of Vienna’s Jewish community, experienced a very different society. “No one ever mentioned a word about what happened in Vienna. I had no idea that the shul I was davening in was part of a complex of the imposing Leopoldstädter Tempel, which was destroyed on November 9, 1938.” In those days there was not even a simple plaque commemorating the house of prayer that had stood there and had been destroyed.

Mr. Neumann spent his first years in a Jewish school founded by the Joint (the Joint Distribution Committee), but when it closed down, he had to switch to a non-Jewish school. “We were eight children in a school of over 700 students! There was no open animosity, but I definitely was made to feel like a ‘foreign body.’”

His principal felt an affinity for Jews and ensured that no core subjects were taught on Shabbos and that exams were not scheduled during Yamim Tovim. “My classmates did not like that one bit. They would always comment on the fact that I was given — in their eyes — preferential treatment, with comments like ‘There goes the Jew again.’”

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Beis Zion shul in Berlin today. (Kahal Adass Jisroel of Berlin)

Mr. Neumann recalls the sentiment “we were the first victims” repeated at school. The one exception was his gym teacher, who once told the class, “We killed six million people.”

“Actually, many teachers had been in the Wehrmacht and fell into Russian captivity during the war. They would often bemoan the ‘terrible’ conditions they had to ‘endure,’”

“Once a classmate noticed a book I was carrying that had alef-beis, and told me excitedly that he had something at home with the same lettering. The next day he came to school carrying half a sefer Torah, saying, ‘My dad found this during the war.’ I took it from him and made sure that it ended up in the genizah.”

Within the Jewish community, too, the topic of Vienna’s horrendous past was not mentioned. The community, comprised of Holocaust survivors, most of Hungarian descent, had an awareness of what they had personally endured. “Shabbos before Shavuos, the entire shul had yahrtzeit,” he recalls, referring to the mass deportation of Hungarian Jewry in 1944.

For Claudia Prutscher, vice president of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG — Jewish Community Council) in Vienna, the experiences were similar. “I did not have any awareness of what had occurred here, it was all hushed up back in the 1960s. The topic was never raised at school and rarely so at home.”

Although her parents did speak about their Holocaust experiences, it was not a topic that permeated their lives. Her mother had fled Vienna with her own mother as a little child, and her father hailed from Prague. Although aware of her Jewish lineage, she never had lessons or a connection with Judaism growing up.

“My parents wanted to live quiet, uncomplicated lives in Vienna,” she explains, “so I did not go to a Jewish school or learn anything about my religion. They never watched Holocaust-related films, only light things. Back then I thought it shallow, but now I believe it was unbearable [for them] to face. “My mother had this inner fear that we would be identified as Jews,” Claudia continues. “We once received a letter from the IKG and she was concerned that the postman now knew that we were Jews.”

Although her family name was not typically Jewish, people quickly discovered her background. “When my father tried to purchase a vacation home, he got the message that he was not welcome there.”

In the next decades, Claudia married and had children, a role that she felt very fulfilled with. “It left me no time to busy myself with my past or my heritage.”

“But things changed around the time my mother passed away,” she says. “My Jewish life began in the year 2000. And along with my religious identity came the realization of the tragic history of this city.”

Coming face-to-face with this reality as a grown woman was not easy. “It hit me deeply. I was overwhelmed with an immense feeling of sadness, especially when I realized what my own family had endured. To think that a man-made earthquake had shattered all Jewish life in this city.”

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Jewish community collection, displaying klei kodesh of destroyed shuls. (Jewish Museum Vienna)

GERMAN JEWRY

Dr. Doron Rubin, president of Kahal Adass Jisroel in Berlin, grew up in a suburb of Stuttgart in the 1980s and attended a non-Jewish school. “Though Judaism wasn’t part of my daily life yet, I received private lessons and we celebrated Jewish holidays,” he recalls.

His heritage rarely came up among his friends, although everyone knew that he didn’t celebrate Christian holidays and that he went to visit his grandparents in Israel every summer.

“I was once attacked by a known troublemaker, obviously out of anti-Semitic sentiment,” Doron relates. “But when we went to the police, the officer said ‘Well, as a Jew you will have to get used to this kind of thing.’ As appalling as this statement was, back then we didn’t pursue it. The only reaction my parents had was to contemplate moving away.

“In school we were taught about the Novemberpogrom and about the Holocaust, and visited concentration camps. But most teachers did not teach it with an attitude of ‘this is what our grandparents did,’ and no one asked how this could be possible. Rather it was absorbed with a certain detachment. Only once do I recall a teacher saying, ‘Ask your parents or grandparents what they did at that time,’ but I don’t think anyone came back with an answer.”

OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE

Canadian born, Rabbi Josh Spinner, executive VP and CEO of The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, moved to Germany in the summer of 2000.

After having spent two years working with young Jews in Minsk, Belarus, Ronald Lauder offered him a position in Germany — one he couldn’t refuse. Mr. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007, has spent decades investing in rebuilding Jewish communities all over Europe.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, wanting to define themselves as an open and tolerant Germany, the reunited country opened its doors to Russian Jewry. Mr. Lauder was looking for someone to establish institutions and programs to help them. Rabbi Spinner’s success in kiruv and his fluency in Russian made him the perfect candidate.

“Several years earlier, when I first started working in Eastern Europe, a friend and I had the opportunity to spend Yom Kippur with a small Jewish community,” he recalls. “But the members would only attend Kol Nidrei and Maariv. Shacharis and Mussaf would have to be said biyechidus. I did not know if that was the right thing to do, so I approached my Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Dovid Feinstein, who told me — ‘if you can go then you must go.’ Not everyone is able to do something like that, even if it is for the right reasons.”

Recalling his Rosh Yeshivah’s words, he realized that the same held true for going to Germany. Not many people can bear the thought of going to live there. But, knowing the urgency of the work and knowing that he could, therefore he would.

The clincher came on the last Shabbos he spent in Minsk. A young boy whose family had left Belarus for Germany years earlier was visiting, and he lamented the fact that while he lived in Minsk there had been no program in place for Jewish children, and now that there finally was, he no longer lived there.

To Rabbi Spinner this seemed like a sign from Above. “I asked him, ‘If I come to Germany and arrange such programs, would you come?’ Without a moment’s hesitation he replied, ‘Sure, and I would bring my friends.’”

All this, along with his own father’s blessing, Rabbi Spinner knew he was making the right decision. Today that young boy and his friends have families of their own, leading frum Torah lives, and some leading communities of their own in Germany.

At first, Rabbi Spinner spent time in communities all over Germany and got a sense of what was needed. Before actually settling in Berlin, Rabbi Spinner got married. He and his wife, Joelle, moved in the summer of 2000. One of their first decisions was to open the Lauder Yeshurun Yeshiva that very Elul. These first steps mushroomed into today’s thriving community of Torah families in Berlin and all across the country.

Today Rabbi Spinner runs the Lauder Foundation. He occasionally still teaches, having passed that torch on to other capable people. “I sometimes miss working with young people, but my main focus is on working with young leaders, promoting Europe-wide initiatives for Jewish life.”

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Hannover memorial

‘HOW CAN YOU LIVE THERE’?

This is a question most Jews living in Germany and Austria are faced with when they travel to larger Jewish communities.

In the first decades after the war, most Jews didn’t make a conscious decision to settle in either country. Many were simply “sitting on their suitcases” waiting to go elsewhere, but for various reasons those plans never came to fruition. Others moved for reasons such as kiruv, rabbanus, kollel, chinuch, and schools.

Over the years I have met Holocaust survivors who fled Vienna and never came back. Some are appalled that a Jew could even consider living there while others are of the opinion that while they themselves could never live again in a place that spewed them out with such hatred, the sweetest revenge was to show the Austrians “we are here to stay.”

“When people ask me why I live in Berlin,” Rabbi Spinner says, “I answer that I do it for the chinuch of my children. As strange as it sounds, it is true. The benefit my children have growing up with a sense of achrayus for Klal Yisrael is tremendous.

“Living in Vienna or Berlin we do not forget that we are in galus,” he continues. “This is a fundamental thing mentioned in the tochachah; something people in many larger communities have forgotten.”

His biggest challenge was when his children were still young and they would inquire about memorials. His young daughter once wanted to know what the “Stolpersteine” (stones that bear the names of Jewish victims) were. “In that moment, not knowing how to explain it to a 4-year-old child, I said, ‘It’s nothing’; afterward, I was consumed with guilt,” he admits. “How could I brush it away with such words when it was not ‘nothing’, but rather, it was everything!”

“When I once asked a young Russian man who was interested in Yiddishkeit why he wasn’t living in Israel,” he adds, “he told me, ‘Do not judge us for the decision of our parents.’”

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Statue of Jew forced to wash Vienna’s streets as part of the Memorial against War and Fascism, Vienna.

REMEMBER – DO NOT FORGET

At a time when there are only few Holocaust survivors left and sentiments like “let’s move on, we have sufficiently discussed the Holocaust” are increasing within segments of German and Austrian society, the need for education on the Holocaust and awareness of anti-Semitism has become all the more urgent.

For Bernhard Bonelli it is clear. “My first suggestion to anyone saying, ‘It is time to stop talking about the Holocaust’ would be to tell them to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. I will never forget the sight of the barracks and chimneys for as long as I live. To stand there and realize that human beings were capable of something so horrific, that such a thing was even possible!

“It is important to have monuments to remind us,” he continues. “To educate our youth about the past in order to make them aware of the dangers of hateful rhetoric. As long as anti-Semitism is prevalent, it is our mandate to continue raising awareness. Not only because of Austria’s past, but also because of the current atmosphere of intolerance.”

Austria has come a long way in the past decades. “Our schools visit the Mauthausen concentration camp and participate in various projects,” Bonelli says. “The Minister of Education is currently working on a comprehensive curriculum regarding Holocaust education. We must always be aware that our democracy stands on a fragile foundation and must be preserved. Bigotry has no place in a liberal society.”

Professor Formanek shares a similar view. “There are very few things one has a right to move on from. I think the issue nowadays is that there is constant access to terrible tragedies all over the world, and people become immune.

“As a child, we had no television at home. We would spend the weekends reading newspapers and discuss each topic for hours! Who does that nowadays? I often tell my son not to take everything at face value and ask me when things seem unclear.”

Formanek bristles at the term “Wiedergutmachung” (reparations). “There is no such thing as ‘reparation.’ How does one repair that which is gone? It can never be brought back. The only way to ‘repair’ is by raising constant awareness in our children and teaching them how far things could go.”

“Never stop talking about everything that happened,” says Claudia Prutscher. “Constantly come up with new projects and activities commemorating the Holocaust and what happened here in Austria. Even if reactions will be, ‘Oh, not again, how much more can we hear about it?’, constant dripping wears away the stone.

“We live in fearful times, especially with the Freedom Party in the government. There is grave danger of it happening again if we do not constantly remember. If we cease to talk, the other side will rise, and then it will be too late.

“For us Jews, the strongest weapon is pride in our identity,” she continues. “With all our energy we must constantly repeat — we are here. Stand up and don’t hide. And most importantly,” she stresses, “keep an eye out for each other. We are one nation. In times of tragedy we come together; we should do the same for joyous occasions. This is the bond that strengthens us. And obviously, security is of vital importance.”

For Mr. Neumann, remembering means continuing to do what Hashem asks of us. Not to dwell on what is gone, but to build and grow. “Vienna has come very far; the Jewish community today is light-years away from the one I grew up in, and may we continue to grow.”

For Rabbi Spinner, the only value for a Jew to look back is to acknowledge how much has been achieved in the past decades, and to use that as a springboard to accomplish in the future. “We Jews remember by integrating it into our lives,” he says. “For example we remember yetzias Mitzrayim by eating matzah. Zachor means you have to live it. It has to be a part of you.”

Dr. Doron Rubin feels that Germany has been doing a good job in commemorating the events perpetrated during the Holocaust. “I recall one year walking in a main shopping area on November 9 and seeing posters on the storefronts depicting shattered glass, which shopowners had displayed.” In his experience, the very people who say things like “let’s stop talking about the Holocaust” are the ones who urgently need to be educated.

“We should never move on,” Dr. Rubin asserts. “There are always lessons one can learn from history, but the Holocaust is something that was perpetrated by people from this country. It is so much more important to keep it alive, to find new ways to bring awareness.” Dr. Rubin himself is involved in a project where a Rabbi and an Imam bring Muslim students to visit the Jewish community and learn about their life. Discussions about the Novemberpogrom and the Holocaust as a whole are a big part of the experience, though he feels that Jewish children in Germany are constantly aware of the history of their surroundings.

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Berlin Holocuast Memorial.

REVIVAL

Most of the hundreds of shuls burned on that dreadful night were later torn down. Apartment buildings stand in their stead.

But some locations are home to new kehillos today. In Vienna, the main tract of the Leopoldtstädter Tempel, which originally had three wings, was destroyed during the Novemberpogrom. The southern wing remains intact, and today houses the Agudas Yisroel shul, cheder and kindergarten. In the 1990s, the IKG constructed an apartment building as well as the Esra Centre in the main square. Four pillars, in their original size, were erected as a memorial in front of the complex.

There is no trace left of the world-renowned Schiffschul — which today is the site of a parking lot — although there are two shuls in the adjacent building, which had served as the kehillahs offices before the war.

In Berlin — among several synagogues which partly remained intact — the Rykestrasse Synagogue, built in the early 1900s, today houses two minyanim, one in the main building and a smaller one in the front.

Rabbi Spinner relates plans that are underway to restore the Beis Zion synagogue in Berlin within the next year. Mr. Lauder, who has an immense appreciation for repairing damaged edifices to their original glory, will be funding this project.

“More than hanging on to the memory of a building,” Doron Rubin says, “is the importance of what happens inside these walls — active Jewish life. Jewish children learning and davening, running around and playing.”

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TORAH ALIVE IN VIENNA

Several years ago, I was walking down the street and discovered pieces of a page of Gemara strewn all over the pavement; presumably they had fallen out of someone’s sefer. I tried collecting the holy sheimos, but the previous night’s rain had caused many scraps to be stuck to the pavement. After asking a she’eilah, I was told to do my utmost to gather every last bit. So I ran home to grab a brush and immediately set to work. Kneeling on the floor, I suddenly had a déjà vu. Here I was, in the middle of the day, scrubbing a street in Vienna’s Jewish district. But unlike my brethren, who were forced to wash Nazi slogans with corrosive detergent with their bare hands, I was scrubbing for Hashem’s honor. Instead of watching Nazis trampling on sifrei Torah on these same streets. I was gathering these holy words to fulfill a mitzvah. The streets where Jews and our Torah had been humiliated and tortured are the same, but Torah is alive here once again. – Rifka Junger

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COMMEMORATIONS

Among the various events planned in Austria, the Jewish youth commission will host the yearly “Light of Hope” march. They will carry candles from the Heldenplatz, where Hitler first greeted his Austrian constituents, to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial on Judenplatz.

The Austrian government will be hosting 75 survivors flown in from Israel. They will stay for a week. “This past June when Chancellor Sebastian Kurz visited Israel, he met with Austrian Holocaust survivors and invited them to come visit Vienna,” Bernhard Bonelli said. “As one of the organizers, I felt the week around the 9th of November to be appropriate. Indeed, 75 survivors will be participating in a Parliamentary event commemorating the victims of the Novemberpogrom.” The group will also be visiting schools and share their memories with the younger generation.

On November 9, 25 locations of Vienna’s 98 destroyed shuls will be marked with five-meter-tall light installations in the shape of a twisted magen David, titled “OT” (“symbol”), created by artist Lukas Kaufman. Dr. Danielle Spera, Director of the Jewish Museum of Vienna, explains that the idea came in collaboration with a journalist after the opening of the 2016 exhibition, “Viennese Synagogues: A Memory.” “It was a long and arduous journey gaining permits and funding from the Nationalfond, as well the federal government, among others,” she says, “but it was important that we have a noticeable and unifying reminder of what existed and was subsequently destroyed.”

In Germany, the Zentralrat der Juden (General Council of German Jewry) is hosting a commemoration in honor of the anniversary. The event will be attended by various dignitaries of the Jewish community and the government. Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the president of the Zentralrat Dr. Josef Schuster, are expected to deliver speeches.

Thirty schools in Germany, and even some from Poland and Mexico, had competed in a country-wide contest, “Making Memories Visible,” and presented their projects last week.

In various cities across Austria and Germany, numerous other events are scheduled. But the greatest gesture of all will be when Yidden will gather in shuls across Austria and Germany on Friday night, November 9, and joyously greet the Shabbos Queen. – Rifka Junger