The DP Problem

Austria and the Legacy of the Holocaust
by Robert S. Wistrich

The DP Problem

The East European Jews (four-fifths of them from Poland, the others from Hungary, Romania, and the Czech lands) who crossed the Austrian border after 1945 were fleeing pogroms, impoverishment, and imminent Communist takeovers of their countries. The displaced persons (DP) camps in Austria, as in Germany, soon turned into recruiting grounds for Jews to be smuggled illegally into British-controlled Palestine. The American zone of occupation in Austria (as in Germany) was noticeably more favorable for this activity than the DP camps under British jurisdiction, as U.S. military authorities generally turned a blind eye to the Jewish Bricha (flight).

The perception of a problem with Jewish DPs helped revive Austrian anti-Semitism after the war and contributed to blurring any residual Austrian sense of sharing in Nazi guilt for the Holocaust. At a time of food shortages, there was resentment that Jewish refugees in the American zone were receiving special accommodations and better rations than many Austrians had. Jews, it was claimed, engaged in black market activities (Schleichhandel) and were responsible for spreading venereal disease. The Socialist Arbeiterzeitung deplored the influx of “hordes of illicit foreign traders and desperadoes,” “unwelcome guests” and “wretched, unemployed and overly excitable Jews whose presence inevitably promoted anti-Semitic whisperings,” which, if unchecked, would provoke a fascist backlash. Both Austrian press reports and archival sources reveal that Jewish DPs were commonly considered cheeky, provocative, and undisciplined, and that they were frequently accused of petty crimes such as stealing milk, fruits, and vegetables. There were mounting calls to expel these foreigners, “parasites,” and Volksschädlinge (a Nazi term) from the Tyrol and Vorarlberg. In these Alpine areas the Jews represented only about 1 percent of the 65,000 DPs, but they were singled out by Marincovic, an anti-Semitic deputy, for allegedly exacerbating the bad food and housing situation. In the years between 1945 and 1948, though the Jewish DPs throughout Austria at no time averaged more than 10 percent of the total, the focus was on them, and their numbers were often grossly exaggerated.

In Salzburg (Upper Austria), Bad Ischl, and Badgastein the presence of Jewish DPs was blamed for the decline of tourism. It was also alleged that they were a burden on taxpayers, though their upkeep was in fact paid for by the U.S. military government and American Jewish organizations. Popular hostility was rife, leading to clashes in Trofaiach, Judenberg, Kapferburg, Admont, and Gnadenwald. Austrian police had to put down a riot outside a hostel for Jewish refugees at Bad Ischl. There were synagogue desecrations in Graz and a public outcry against the black market dealings of Jewish DPs in the Salzburg region.

American surveys of opinion in Vienna, Salzburg, and Linz in 1947-48 provide a rather grim picture of Austrian opinion, no doubt exacerbated by the DP question. Nearly a quarter of the Viennese thought that Jews had got what they deserved under the Nazis; about 40 percent of the population in all three cities thought the Jewish character was responsible for anti-Semitism; 43 percent of the Salzburgers, 34 percent of the Viennese, and 47 percent of the Linzers believed Jews had it too good in the DP camps and that they were “profiteers” (Nutzniesser) living at the expense of the indigenous population. A year earlier, another American survey had indicated that about half of those polled in Linz, Salzburg, and Vienna thought the Nazis had gone too far with the Jews but that “something had to be done to place limits on them.” A similar percentage opposed the return of Jews to Austria, as against only 28 percent who favored it. These Austrian responses are not notably different from those recorded in the Bavaria, Hesse, and Baden-Württemberg regions of Germany. Indeed, Rabbi Philip Bernstein, Jewish adviser to the U.S. military government in Germany, stated in May 1947 that if the Americans were to withdraw, there would be a pogrom. Both in Austria and Germany there was deep resentment against the alien influx (Überfremdung).

The German and Austrian backlash was particularly strong in rural areas where there had traditionally been very few Jews. The local population in Bavaria (where 93 percent of the Jewish population were DPs) or in the Alpine regions of Austria could not fathom why they should host foreign Jews for whom the American military government demanded special treatment. In the Salzburg region (also in the American zone) in 1947 there were some 30,000 foreigners from over forty nations, including about 14,000 Jews. And this was an area that never had more than 300 Jewish inhabitants between 1867 and 1934. True, this had not prevented Salzburg from being a hotbed of pan-German racism and anti-Semitism long before the Nazi period, and precisely this deutschnational tradition sharpened the backlash against the Jewish DPs, who allegedly exploited the misery of the local population. It is, however, important to note that immediate postwar anti-Semitism in Austria (and Germany), which did not include pogroms, was not as lethal as in neighboring Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Romania. Of course, had there been no Allied occupation, the story might well have been very different. Prejudice was high, with half of all Germans polled in 1952 disclaiming any responsibility for the wrongs done to Jews, opposing restitution, and blaming Jewish characteristics for anti-Semitism. At the level of popular prejudice there was no major difference between Germany and Austria.

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