“If we read people’s memoirs of the buildings important Jews lived in, a lot of them do not exist anymore. We are trying to tell the stories of what has been lost.”
In 1995, as excavation work began on Judenplatz for the Shoah monument Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal had asked Austria to build, the centuries of old city streets were peeled away to reveal the remains of a medieval synagogue.
“Finding the foundations was like a miracle,” said Danielle Spera, director of Vienna’s Jewish Museum. “This is cultural heritage at its best, especially relating to a piece of Jewish-Austrian history that is largely ignored by the public.”
In a 1420-1421 pogrom, Vienna’s Jewish community was expelled or annihilated and the synagogue destroyed, its stones used to build the old university.
“Jewish history in Austria is one with a lot of ruptures,” Spera said, “so much of it has been erased.”
The greatest loss was the “brain drain,” the long, extraordinary list of scientists, writers, intellectuals and artists who were forced to leave the land they loved.
“Where would Austria be today if it had not been for the Shoah? So many [Austrian Jewish] Nobel laureates now live in the United States or Israel.” Spera’s father was one of the few Jews who managed to escape deportation and remain in Austria. Of those who left, most never returned.
“After the war, the Jews were gone and there was no invitation by any politicians to ‘come back.’ This did not happen, as so many buildings, artworks, companies and cars had been Aryanized. There was no awareness, nor eagerness in Austria to find out the truth.”
There has been a recent endeavor to have plaques put on buildings previously owned by Jews. In most cases, restitution pleas went unanswered. Families got no compensation, or very little after years of legal wrangling. The Palais Ephrussi was sold by the family in 1950 for a mere $50,000.
A former, much beloved ORF moderator, Spera, 61, spent a year in the US in 1987 as a foreign correspondent, the year the US placed Austrian President Kurt Waldheim on a “watchlist” of suspected war criminals following revelations that the former UN Secretary General had misrepresented his Nazi past. Despite being elected, discussions over his claim of only having done “his duty” led to national soul-searching. Austria finally reassessed its role under Hitler’s regime, coming to terms with its Nazi past.
At the time, Spera was often asked, “How can Jews live in Austria?” She finds that question easier to answer now.
Today, “Austria is a great multicultural society; it has changed a lot,” she assures me. “I have yet to find a better place to live.”