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Jewish Welcome Service

Connecting with my roots in Vienna

I wanted to visit to honour the grandparents I never knew and see where my mother had grown up.

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Have always been hesitant to visit Vienna, the place from where my grandparents were sent to their deaths and from where my mother and auntie survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

But several years ago my family had commissioned a “Stolperstein” plaque, the brass memorial plate replacing a cobblestone in front of my grandparents’ old apartment. I wanted to visit to honour the grandparents I never knew and see where my mother had grown up.

I heard through friends of an invitation program established in 1980 by the Viennese Municipal Council that had twice yearly brought Shoah victims (including those who had to flee Austria) to visit Vienna. The program is now also open to Shoah descendants – first and second generation, so the children and grandchildren of victims. This is how I came to apply.

The trip, airfare and accommodation and most meals are so very generously paid for by the organisation. Austria, at least at the governmental level, acknowledges that Austrians collaborated with the Nazis, and they face up to this fact.

The week-long activities in October last year were beyond expectations. We had guided tours through the old Jewish quarter of Vienna and its rich Jewish history. We visited Shoah memorials such as the Wall of Names that lists the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were murdered. We also visited old Jewish cemeteries where many of the attendees found the names of relatives.

Tours of Vienna’s major historic sites made evident how often a Jewish story was attached to them – such was the contribution of the Jewish community to Viennese life and culture.

A fascinating tour stop for me was visiting Cafe Central, in the centre of the old city of Vienna. This eloquent and opulently decorated cafe was frequented by a “who’s who” of the 20th century, to name a few: Trotsky, Stalin, Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl and, unfortunately, a young Hitler. You could feel the history and imagine the avid discussions that took place there, in true Viennese cafe society style. Beware, to get a table requires lining up or getting there early!

Highlights included three separate receptions in three palaces: one with the mayor, another a federal cabinet minister and another with the President of Austria, footage of which was shown on a major TV channel that night in its news bulletin.

Sadly, all dignitaries referred to the October 7 terrorist attack; it was unavoidable, but they unequivocally stated their support for Israel and the Jewish people. Our group of 20 – from the UK, Australia and the USA – would have been significantly larger if not for the cancellation of Israelis who were unable to fly out.

Spending a week with fellow descendants was cathartic and bonding, reinforcing the shared history that links our communities worldwide. The Welcome Service, I should add, also undertakes research activities and school and university education programs within Austria.

The Welcome Service has a website for those interested in knowing more or registering for the invitation program: jewish-welcome.at

Joel Hochberg is a member of the Sydney Jewish community.

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