Austria, Jews and the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Anschluss

Marina Plistiev, a Kyrgyzstan-born Jew, has lived in Vienna for 34 years but still doesn’t like to take public transport.

She recalls the day in 1986 as a teenager when she and her four-year-old brother, whom she’d collected from school with a fever, were told to get off a tram for having the wrong tickets, and nobody stuck up for them, apparently because they were Jews.

“With me (now), you don’t see I’m Jewish but with my children you see that they’re Jews. They get funny looks,” she told Reuters at Kosherland, the grocery store that she and her husband started 13 years ago.

While Austria is one of the world’s wealthiest, most law-abiding and stable democracies, the anti-Semitism that Plistiev senses quietly lingers in a nation that was once a enthusiastic executor of Nazi Germany’s Holocaust against Jews.

After decades of airbrushing it out of history, Austria has come a long way in acknowledging its Nazi past, and the 75th anniversary on Tuesday of its annexation by Hitler’s Third Reich will be the occasion for various soul-searching ceremonies.

But Jewish leaders who fought hard to win restitution after World War Two are on guard against a rising trend in anti-Semitic incidents, occasionally condemned by Austrian political leaders but seen more generally as a regrettable fact of life.

Austrian Jews have grown more vigilant as hooligans have verbally abused a rabbi, Austria’s popular far-right party chief posted a cartoon widely seen as suggestively anti-Semitic, and a debate has opened on the legality of infant male circumcision.

A new poll timed to coincide with the anniversary found that three of five Austrians want a “strong man” to lead the country and two out of five think things were not all bad under Adolf Hitler. That was more than in previous surveys.

The history of Vienna — once home to Jewish luminaries of 20th-century culture such as Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Arnold Schoenberg, but later Adolf Eichmann’s testing ground for what would become the “Final Solution” that led to genocide of 6 million Jews — means its Jews are always on the alert.

Today Austria’s Jewish community of 15,000 is diverse, formed mainly of post-war immigrants from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

But before Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, the “Anschluss”, Austria’s Jewish population was 195,000, the same size as present-day Linz, a provincial capital not far from Hitler’s birthplace.
Two-thirds of them were driven out in the “Aryanisation” program immediately following the Anschluss and all but about 2,000 left behind were killed in concentration camps. Today’s Austrian Jewish community is almost entirely in Vienna.

Austrians, many of whom had wanted a union with Germany, maintained for decades that their country was Hitler’s first victim, ignoring the fact that huge, cheering crowds had greeted Hitler in March 1938 with flowers, Nazi flags and salutes.

Within days of March 12, tens of thousands of Jews and dissenters were under arrest, imprisoned or packed off to concentration camps. Jews were shut out of jobs and schools, forced to wear yellow badges, and had their property confiscated.

The IKG, Austria’s official Jewish organization, says the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Austria of which it knows doubled last year to 135.

The anti-foreigner Freedom Party of Heinz-Christian Strache, who posted the disputed cartoon, consistently scores above 20 percent in opinion polls and has a chance of joining a coalition government after elections this year.

Still, many Viennese Jews freely stroll through the streets in Orthodox garb, especially in districts such as Leopoldstadt, the former Jewish ghetto where many Jews live again today.

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