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At Chanukah, Austrian envoy reaches out to U.S. Jews
Washington Jewish Week / December 21, 2011

By Larry Luxner

Who would have imagined, 70 years ago, that a high-ranking diplomat from Austria — birthplace of Adolf Hitler — would someday invite leading Jewish officials to the Austrian Embassy in Washington to light a menorah and recite blessings in Hebrew?

Some might see irony in such a ceremony, but Hans Peter Manz, who’s been Austria’s ambassador to the United States for only a few weeks, says Monday night’s Chanukah celebration — staged a day before the holiday actually began — is part of his government’s efforts to reach out to Jews both here and at home.

“I’ve already decided to make this an annual tradition,” Manz told about 75 guests attending the symbolic ceremony, which was co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. “My relationship with the Jewish community is not new; this has been a large part of my job for many years.”

Jeremiah Baronberg, co-chair of AJC’s Access DC program, noted that “this program is not the first, not the second, but the third time we’ve been hosted by you at the embassy here. This is really a unique relationship, and we’d like to build similar relationships with other embassies, as well as with ethnic and religious communities.”

Baronberg then joined fellow Access DC co-chair Eddie Cohen and David Farber, president of AJC’s Washington board of directors, as Ambassador Manz lit the traditional menorah for Chanukah, and Farber explained the meaning of Chanukah to his guests.

“The history of Chanukah dates back to 156 B.C.E., when Greece controlled the land of Israel in every aspect. Matityahu and his five sons were zealots. They rose up and started a revolution and conquered Jerusalem,” he said. “What’s wonderful about this story is that in addition to the historical event, the rabbis somewhat hijacked the story and turned it into a story of miracles — of light conquering dark, of taking back our cultural and religious traditions. That’s what the holiday has come to mean for us today.”

After the speeches and the blessings, guests noshed on kosher stuffed peppers, pumpkin soup, cheese, crackers, fruit, kaiserschmarrn with prune compote, apple strudel, sachertort and cream Chantilly prepared by Austrian master chef Wilhelm Jonach. They also enjoyed traditional Chanukah jelly doughnuts known in Hebrew as sufganiot.

Manz, 56, was born only nine years after Hitler killed himself and Germany surrendered, ending the European phase of World War II. But the Viennese diplomat — who has a deep sense of history — noted that Jews had always been part of the fabric of Austrian society.

Among prominent 19th-century Austrian Jews were composer Gustav Mahler, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and philosopher Martin Buber. Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, studied at the University of Vienna. Immediately prior to World War II, some 250,000 Jews called Austria home; nearly all of them died in the Holocaust.

But even in the postwar period, neo-Nazism and anti-semitism didn’t entirely vanish from public life in Austria. In 1986, Kurt Waldheim was appointed president of Austria, despite having served as an officer in the Wehrmacht. It wasn’t until July 1991 when the Austrian government finally recognized its role in the crimes of the Third Reich and began to rebuild synagogues and Jewish libraries at state expense.

Nobody mentioned the Holocaust in public remarks Monday night, but in a later conversation with WJW, Manz acknowledged the Shoah’s obvious importance in Austrian-Jewish relations.

“You have to deal with it. This is something that will never go away,” he said. “I think we might reach a point where tensions are relaxed so that we can fully come to terms with each other and our own history. This is something we’re trying to achieve. We’ve worked very hard to redress the wrongs as much as possible, but the real loss can never be compensated for, though over time, we have succeeded to some extent to find some measure of justice.”

He added: “This [Chanukah] celebration is not a cheap way of making a gesture. This is exactly what we don’t want to do,” he said. “Rather, we want to truly work together as friends, without forgetting what has gone on before. We must find a way of living with our past.”

Manz, formerly Austria’s ambassador to Switzerland, also served as deputy chief of mission at the United Nations, and at the Austrian Embassy in Tehran. He said that during his tenure in Vienna as diplomatic advisor to the federal chancellor from 2000 to 2007, his government completed a landmark agreement to compensate Jews for forced labor as well as the loss of bank accounts, property and household goods.

“We tried to cover everything that had not been done earlier,” he said. “We introduced the so-called general settlement fund, roughly $210 million, to be distributed to survivors and their heirs, for the loss of household goods without too much burden of proof. The law allowed for restitution for any ‘Aryanized’ property that had ended up in the hands of the Austrian government.”

In addition, he said, the Austrian state helps maintain Jewish cemeteries at taxpayer expense because there are too few Jews in Austria today (an estimated 12,000 to 15,000) to watch over them.

Manz says the danger today in Austria — and throughout most of Western Europe — is not so much anti-semitism as Islamophobia. That’s manifested through the rise of far-right, anti-immigration parties as well as laws such as the one recently passed in a November 2009 referendum in Switzerland that forbids construction of minarets. That constitutional amendment was approved by 57.5 percent of voters, and only four of Switzerland’s 26 cantons opposed the move.

“I think it is a hallmark of societies that are on the one hand extremely well-off and on the other hand feel threatened that they tend to lose a lot of their self-proclaimed values. This is a dangerous thing for civilization today, and that goes for the United States as well as Europe,” said Manz.

“We usually work together well and show solidarity and tolerance when it’s the worst of times, but when we’re actually having it good and feel threatened, our future is less secure, and there’s a tendency to look for scapegoats. This is a large part of Jewish history in Europe — that we blame other people for our own faults, or try to exclude them. This is far and away from being mainstream, but the seeds are there. We must continue working for tolerance on all levels. The threat is far from over.”

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