ACCESS mission to Austria

By Matt Lebovic

To visit and begin to understand a country like Austria, I needed AJC’s young adult ACCESS program. Not only would I never have visited Austria without AJC ACCESS, but any solo visit would have paled in comparison to the experience crafted for nine participants – including myself – during June’s second ACCESS mission to the alpine republic.

Our group spent a week meeting with some of Austria’s most fascinating leaders and learning about the Jewish community’s revival. Based in Vienna’s former Jewish district, we toured some of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods and structures and, in the process, learned about the stormy Austrian past. Interested in exploring Austria’s relations with the US, Israel and other countries, we approached our meetings with a global scope, fitting for ACCESS.

Our group was hosted by Vienna’s Jewish Welcome Service, created to connect Viennese Jewish refugees from the Nazis and their descendants to the city. In addition to AJC ACCESS director Alexis Frankel, we were accompanied by Tobias Aigner, a long-time volunteer with the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service and year-long ACCESS Fellow in AJC’s New York Headquarters.

Bookending our mission were meetings with two of Austria’s most prominent journalists, both of them Jewish. First up was Eric Frey of The Standard, who spoke with the group about Austria’s Jewish community before, during and after World War II. Participants asked candid questions about the country’s relationship with Israel, anti-Semitism, and coming to terms with the past.

At the end of the mission, we met with famous Austrian-Israeli journalist Ari Rath. At 88-years old, Rath treated participants to an overview of his relationship with Austria and Israel. Having lived and helped shape the dramatic “Jewish century” first-hand, Rath put Austria’s relationship with Jews and Israel into perspective, including his own reacceptance of Austrian citizenship after decades of refusal.

Diplomatic highlights came in two of Vienna’s most impressive buildings, Parliament and the Rathaus (City Hall). Our meeting with National Council President Barbara Prammer in Parliament included content on Austria’s foreign policy in the Middle East and the role of women in European politics. Down the Ringstrasse boulevard at City Hall, we met with Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, city councilor for culture and science, and the Jewish Welcome Service’s vice president.

Throughout the week, we visited sites of Jewish interest in Vienna. The Jewish Museum engaged us with a “treasure room” of the city’s famed Judaica collections and exhibit on Jewish humor. At the Centropa office, we learned about the organization’s use of digital technologies to preserve Jewish memory in Central Europe. Another Jewish highlight was Kabbalat Shabbat services in the City Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship to survive the Nazis, and Shabbat dinner hosted by local families.

The most challenging day of the trip was a visit to Mauthausen, the Nazis’ notorious concentration camp close to Linz. Our guide spoke a lot about the camp’s role in civil society and the choices made by individual Austrians during the war. As a forced labor camp holding prisoners from all over Europe and Russia, Mauthausen was notorious for its quarry with “the stairs of death,” and a brutal punishment regime.

Mauthauhsen recently underwent a dramatic restoration, with new memorial facilities constructed. Our group was particularly intrigued by the field with diverse national memorials, and the ways in which Nazi victims from many nations – including Jews – remember their victims at the site.

Back in Vienna, we probed the war years with an eye toward nuance. A tour of the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance revealed ways in which Austrians worked for and against the Nazis after 1938. We also examined current examples of radical groups with anti-Semitic, or otherwise racist agendas, with the help of an expert in hate groups. A walking tour of the former Jewish neighborhood – the Second District – illustrated ways in which the destroyed Jewish past is remembered through public art, municipal plaques and other visible expressions.

We had many intriguing encounters with Jewish memory, including the city’s Holocaust memorial based on bookcases with the books turned inward, found in the old Jewish square. The theme of books continued across town at Parliament, where we met representatives of the National Library.There, researchers are finding and returning books confiscated from Jews more than seven decades ago. We heard the stories behind several of the books and were among the first people to see them as the staff readied for outreach.

At one of Vienna’s three kosher restaurants, we met with Israel’s ambassador to Austria, Aviv Shir-On. The ambassador told us about many fascinating aspects of his work, including working with parliament to recognize “righteous gentiles” from the Holocaust, and partnerships between Austrian universities and Israel. Though home to just several thousand Jews, Austria – like most of Europe – has a keen interest in Israel and the Middle East in general. Some members of our group – including myself – had participated in an ACCESS Germany Close Up mission, and were able to compare issues faced by Israeli diplomats in Germany and Austria.

Keeping with the ACCESS mission, we spent an evening with young Austrian diplomats at a winery in the city hills. We learned about the Austrian foreign-service and the paths these peers of ours in global outreach took to get there. Another “global” highlight of the mission was meeting with Ilja Sichrovsky, founder of the Muslim-Jewish Conference (MJC). ACCESS has been a key partner in MJC’s mission to bring young Muslim and Jewish leaders together to begin to dismantle stereotypes and collaborate on projects.

As you can probably discern, a week with AJC ACCESS is a singular experience. Our days were packed with engaging conversations and exploring a society few of us knew much about. There is little down-time on an ACCESS trip, but the rewards are innumerable. It’s hard to imagine a more engaging or inspiring seven days abroad.