Protesters hold banners opposing new Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the People’s Party and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party during the swearing-in ceremony of Austria’s new coalition government in December 2017. Photo: Reuters / Heinz-Peter Bader.
In a deeply embarrassing setback for Austria’s right-wing coalition government, the country’s Jewish community has announced that it will withdraw from official events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 if law-makers from the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) are in attendance.
“If there will be ministers there from the Freedom Party, and I’m sure there will be, I will not be able to shake their hands, so the Jewish community will not attend,” Oskar Deutsch, president of the Jewish Community in Vienna, told Israel’s Makor Rishon
newspaper on Tuesday.
Founded in 1956 by a former officer in the Nazi SS, the FPÖ won 51 out of 183 parliamentary seats in Austria’s elections last October. Following several weeks of negotiations, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced in December that he would be forming a coalition government with the FPÖ’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. As a result, FPÖ politicians are now at the helm of several government ministries, including the interior and defense ministries.
According to Austrian Chief Rabbi Chaim Eisenberg in the Makor Rishon
report, Austrian Jewish leaders had urged Kurz to hold a more intimate memorial, and thus avoid an invitation to the leaders of the FPÖ.
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Eisenberg said that a memorial in the parliament building would involve the attendance of 500 people. “The community tried to organize it as a small event, and then it is legitimate to ask only the chancellor to attend.”
Austria has marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day since it was instituted
under a UN General Assembly resolution in 2005. Most of the country’s 192,000 Jews fled following the Anschluss (annexation) by Nazi Germany in March 1938, when cheering crowds greeted Adolf Hitler on his entry into Vienna. The nationwide Kristallnacht
pogrom in November of the same year was particularly brutal in the Austrian capital, with the torching of most of Vienna’s synagogues, looting and burning of Jewish-owned stores, and the deportation of thousands of Jews to the Dachau, Buchenwald and Mauthausen concentration camps.
Located on Austrian soil near the city of Linz, Mauthausen was categorized by the Nazis as a special penal camp with a harsh regimen. “Inmates in the punishment detail, for example, were forced to carry heavy stone blocks up 186 steps from the camp quarry,” the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has noted
. “The steps became known as the ‘Stairway of Death.’”
The Jewish community’s decision to pull out of Holocaust remembrance ceremonies comes one week after it reaffirmed its official policy of no contacts with the FPÖ. The policy has been in place since 2000 – the last occasion that the FPÖ was part of a national government.
The text of the resolution affirming the policy noted that the community “continues to maintain no political contacts with representatives of the FPÖ, including members of the government belonging to this party.” The resolution added that the community deals with those ministries controlled by the FPÖ “only on occasion and only at the civil service level” — a policy shared by the government of Israel, whose representatives in Vienna are also likely to avoid the official ceremonies on January 27.
The resolution observed that “about 40 percent of FPÖ deputies in the National Council, several FPÖ ministers and numerous employees in the Cabinet of Ministers and in the FPÖ Parliamentary Club” were members of German nationalist fraternities. The community also denounced the associations of some FPÖ members with neo-Nazi activists and the party’s opposition to Austria’s anti-Nazi legislation.
FPÖ General Secretary Harald Vilimsky said last week that party would continue to “keep our doors open” to the Jewish community “in order to clear up any misunderstandings.”