To speak about the Jews of Vienna is for me to speak about an overwhelming helplessness. It means to speak about myself, too. I’m not Jewish, but Sigmund Freud was, and Arthur Schnitzler, and Gustav Mahler, and Otto Bauer, and Joseph Roth, and Arnold Schönberg, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alexander Zemlinski, and Karl Kraus, and Theodor Herzl, and Alfred Adler, and Siegfried Marcus, and Jakob Wassermann, and Egon Friedell, and Hugo Sonnenschein, and Elias Canetti, and Hermann Broch, and Stefan Zweig, and Bruno Kreisky. These people and many others I could mention, have had a considerable influence on my thinking, on the way I perceive and on the way I live. And they all lived in Vienna as I do.
These are names you may be familiar with. I could also speak about my friend Ilse Aschner, who did not even know, that she was Jewish. But the Nazis told her, as so many others, who were made to Jews, because they had Jewish ancestors. Ilse managed to escape in the last minute. Her parents could not. To speak about the Jews of Vienna means to speak about Ilse Aschner’s parents, too, and about the nameless others, whom I didn’t get the chance to know personally, because they were killed before I was born. At the beginning of the century 200,000 Jews lived in Vienna. Nowadays there are only approximately 10,000 Jews.
To speak about the Jews of Vienna means to speak about millions of European Jews and their fate, which the Viennese Jews had to share. Was it really fate? Not really, neither was it an accident, nor was it an isolated event. It was a systematically prepared and deliberately organized and performed extermination of millions of men, women and children, based on a long European tradition of Christian and political anti-Semitism. To speak about the extermination of the European Jews means to speak about the exterminators, the perpetrators of a scenario that has been rehearsed intellectually and psychologically throughout centuries. There were variations, but the purpose was the same: the decimation of a distinguished European minority.
The history of the Jews of Vienna is not only part of Viennese history, it belongs to European history. The history of the European Jews, however, especially on the verge of catastrophe is specific to Viennese history.
At the end of the 12th century the first considerable influx of Jews to Vienna began. Shortly thereafter 16 Jews were killed by people who had the blessing of the Pope to murder them in the name of Jesus Christ. Following the burning of Johannnes Hus (1415) Duke Albrecht V ordered the complete expulsion of the Jews. The poorer ones had been abandoned on the Danube river. But 120 wealthier women and 92 men were burned outside the city wall. People cheered. We shouldn’t shake our heads. After all we have not found a way to stop this cheering on while others are killed.
The property of the Jews was confiscated by the Duke. The Synagogue was destroyed, its stones were used to build the University of Vienna. There is no sign of cultural greatness which is not at the same time a sign of barbarity, said Walter Benjamin. The history of the University of Vienna is a striking example of this notion.
We are told that the Jews came back to Vienna under the special protection of the Habsburgian emperors. But they didn’t come back. Other Jews came. There were many places in Europe, especially in eastern Europe, where pogroms against Jews were the order of the day. In 1649, after the rebellion of the Cossacks, an estimated 100,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine. Some Jewish refugees came to Vienna, which seemed to be a relatively secure place at this time. But twenty years later about 500 Jewish families were expelled by the next generation of Viennese. The emperor was no longer able to protect them. Again this was not the end of Viennese Jewry. For financial reasons the emperor invited wealthier Jews to come back. Slowly a new Jewish immigration to Vienna began.
After the revolution of 1848 civil rights were extended to the Jews as well. Based on this achievement the Jewish immigration to Vienna especially from the eastern parts of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy increased and brought the largest contribution of Jewish people to the city of Vienna. Freud, Schnitzler, Kraus, Herzl are children of this wave of immigration. The Liberalism of the 1880ies which served as the impulse to the immense cultural and scientific prosperity in Vienna at the turn of the century, stems from the Jewish immigrant traders, entrepreneurs and businessmen.
At the same time the advanced form of anti-Semitism, its radicalism and its application as political demagoguery, was developed in Vienna. For Georg Schönerer, a radical anti-Semite, the Jews personified all the evils of the world. On March 3, 1888, he and his gang devastated the editor’s office of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt and rampaged the Jewish employees. Schönerer had to go to jail. He also lost his noble title. After he was released, 21 members of his fanatical nationalist party (Alldeutsche Partei) were elected into the Reichsrat, the Austrian Parliament.
My mother remembers Schönerer. She was a little girl, who grew up on a small farm in the northern part of Austria, not far from the Czechoslovakian border. The scenery is idyllic. Nowadays many artists settle there. Schönerer was the owner of the castle of Rosenau. He used to ride through the neighboring villages and give candies to the children. My mother still can’t believe that this friendly man should have been so malicious.
Another anti-Semite, who’s influence was much stronger than that of Schönerer, was Karl Lueger, the popular Mayor of Vienna. Because of his notorious anti-Semitism the Emperor Franz Joseph refused to support Lueger’s nomination as Mayor. But Lueger was reelected. Franz Joseph refused again. And Lueger was elected again. After the fifth election Franz Joseph saw no alternative to Lueger’s nomination.
Lueger was the creator of a rhetorically polished political demagoguery against Jews. He was something of a modern politician. He did not always believe, what he said. He agitated against the Jews because he realized that anti-Semitism was a widely accepted attitude. He had good private contacts with Jews and never rejected a dinner invitation in a wealthy Jewish house. Many Austrian tradesmen, small merchants and shopkeepers, victims of the modernization and industrialization, welcomed the simple explanation that Jews are responsible for their fate. The Jews were either the big capitalists or the Marxists. Of course there were wealthy Jewish businessmen and with one exeption the leaders of the Socialdemocrat Party, the so called Austromarxists, were Jewish as well. But there were also thousands of poor Jewish immigrants from the eastern parts of the empire, who did not fit the image of the crafty Jewish businessman or the radical Marxist. They were simply hated because they were different.
Lueger was a politician in a very modern sense. He practiced the politics of sentiments. His maxim was: Let’s increase the prejudices and fears if they are able to bring in the votes. For him political power justified any means. I, myself, don’t believe that Karl Lueger would have allowed the persecution of the Jews, but his political rhetoric contributed to it. Lueger was very successful in developing an excellent welfare system which served as an example for many European cities. Many of the financiers of this renewal of the city were Jews. Lueger said: I decide who is Jewish.
At this time in Vienna there lived a young unsuccessful painter, a mediocre student, a man who was not as popular as he would have liked to be. His name was Adolf Hitler. Hitler admired both Schönerer and Lueger. What he tried to do during the twenties, namely to combine Lueger’s anti-Semitic rhetoric with Schönerer’s deep hatred of the Jews, he unfortunately succeeded in doing during the thirties. Hitler claims in Mein Kampf that he learned his anti-Semitism in Vienna from both Schönerer and Lueger.
To speak about the Jews of Vienna means to speak of the persecutors, about millions of Germans and Austrians and some others who helped them practice the hitherto unthinkable. It means speaking about two generations who’s thinking was informed by this irresponsible political rhetoric, from which some are still not able to disentangle themselves. Im speaking about my parents‘ and grandparents‘ generations, I’m speaking about myself.
Let me tell you one strange experience. I grew up in a region without Jews but still with latent anti-Semitism. It was as if Schönerer still was riding through the villages, spreading his political poison by distributing candies among the children. There were no Jews, but my father told anti-Semitic jokes. I didn’t understand them, but I repeated them, because these were the jokes of the adults. On Sundays, after the catholic mass, the men crowded into the local inns. While the women at home were cooking, the men told heroic stories of the war. The old enemies were still the enemies and the old friends, the Nazi-Germans, were still the friends.
During this time my father listened attentively to these war stories. He seemed to regret that he was not able to tell his own heroic stories, because he had not been old enough to join the German Wehrmacht. He bought magazines about the heroic German army and saw movies about the war. He resented that most of them were produced by the Americans. He became an admirer of general Rommel and on Sunday mornings after mass, in the inn of the village, he began to speak about the war. And the others were astonished that he knew more heroic stories than they did.
There was another farmer, our neighbor, who never spoke about the war. But everyone knew he had participated on the eastern front between Poland and Stalingrad. When he was asked, he just said: There is nothing to tell. But once when he was drunk, he was asked again to tell about the war. Suddenly he began to cry. His lower lip trembling, he started to tell that he did not fight against soldiers. He shot civilians. His company burned down houses and he shot at the women who tried to escape with their children.
Although everyone was aware of this side of the Second World War, it was taboo to speak of the fact that the German Wehrmacht was involved in the National Socialist extermination program. You can imagine that his story did not bring him the highest respect.
I often thought back to this experience in the tavern. I realized later that my father, who suffered because he had been too young to participate in the war, could not take seriously the old man who suffered because he had participated in the war.
To speak about the Jews of Vienna means to speak about the extinction of a great culture. The British author George Clare who became famous for his internationally acclaimed novel Last Waltz in Vienna, was born in 1920 as a Viennese Jew. He first returned to Vienna 1945 as a soldier of the British Army. He observed that post-war Vienna has become very provincial.
To speak about the Jews of Vienna means to speak about a huge absence. I felt this even when I was studying in Vienna in the seventies. I did not study in the old University constructed of the stones from the Jewish Synagogue. Nevertheless I became aware that the newer university, the Ringstrassenbuilding, was still affected by the discrimination and expulsion of the Jewish scholars. This university where only decades ago several Nobel prize winners had worked, was now dominated by academic small talk and intrigue. Without its Jewish academics and scholars the University of Vienna lacked in critical intellect.
To speak about Jewish Vienna for me also means to speak about my rediscovery of Jewish Vienna in America. I would like to tell you of my appreciation of Egon Schwarz, whom I met in St. Louis, of Frederic Morton, whom I met in New York, of Hans Zeisel, whom I met in Chicago, of I.D.Spenser, whom I met in Hamilton, Ontario, of Lilli and John Kautsky, whom I met in St. Louis, and of Jakov Lind, whom I met in Oberlin.
Next year would be the 80th birthday of Jean Amery. He was born in Vienna in 1912 as Johann Mayer, the son of an impoverished family. His father died in the First World War. He studied History and Philosophy in Vienna. It was not important to him that he was half Jewish, but it became important to him in 1938. He emigrated to Belgium where he joined the resistance. While distributing leaflets he was arrested. He was tortured in prison. Since he didn’t release the names of his comrades he was deported first to Auschwitz, later to Buchenwald and finally to Bergen-Belsen, where he escaped execution, however. Although he survived the Holocaust, he became a late victim of the Holocaust. Throughout his life he could not come to terms with what happened to the European Jews, to him and to his family. He couldn’t stand the post-war forgetfulness of his fate. When you have been tortured, said Amery, you stay tortured your whole life long. The Holocaust had made him homeless. In 1978 Jean Amery came back to his native country, only to commit suicide.
I do hope that Germany and Austria have learned their historical lesson. With regard to Austria, however, the Waldheim affair shows that there is still a lot to learn. There are still too many people unaware of what they and their forefathers have done. The extermination of six million Jews and the killing of millions of others is a very high prize to pay for the democratization of such small countries as Germany and Austria. I feel optimistic that we are learning to accept our culpability and that we shall not forget what has happened.
If human rights, the dignity of every human being, are not the common sense of the overwhelming majority, the minorities live under a constant threat. And anyone can suddenly become part of a despised minority.
To think about the Jews of Vienna means to think about ourselves, about our achievements, about our capability for a successful coexistence with all these diverse cultures it means to think about our capabilities for peaceful solutions in the face of threats and conflicts. To think of the Jews of Vienna, after all, is to think of our future.