Die Jüdische - July 13, 2003

What is Austrian Culture?

The destruction of Austrian Jewish culture is not a past phenomenon – it’s a modus operandi. Contemporary politicians have a proven talent for paying lip service to the cause of Jewish culture, yet how many among them will raise a little finger to support its survival, let alone its development.

Jewishness comes in as many forms as there are Jews. Some Austrian Jews identify strongly with the IKG (Austrian Jewish Community) as a religious, political, or cultural hub. But others aren’t members and some may have never even set foot inside a synagogue. Yet all are members of this society, who visit daily the same establishments – cultural, commercial, municipal. The IKG is part of the synthesis of Jewish culture that is part of the synthesis of Austrian culture.

Assimilation is a personal matter. No one has the right to insist on the assimilation of another, because difference – whether religious, aesthetic, or political – belongs to the matrix of a free and open society. Integration is something else - a public responsibility that requires acceptance, equality, and the will of the integrating organism – the social majority and its political representatives – to enable the incorporation of its diverse members within its multifaceted, dynamic identity.

One hears a lot of praise for dead Austrian Jews. Nostalgic exhibitions, tributes, and monuments erected to reflect on or celebrate Austria’s “great Jewish past” are not only significant for residents, they tend to hold appeal for tourists, too, and are often supported by the government. But aside from worthy commemoration, they also uphold a new stereotype: one of Jewish irrecoverableness. Meanwhile, periodic Wiedergutmachungsfeste (Festivals of Amends for National Socialism – like the recent “Letters to the Stars” gala unleashing of 10s of thousands of message-bearing white balloons to popular musical accompaniment) offer a stage for political pomp and palliative relief from the burden of 20th century shame. In combination with the fact of the government’s unwillingness to support living, albeit fledgling Jewish culture, such displays reinforce a disturbingly traditional message: “The only good Jew is a dead one.”

The Jewish Theater of Austria is a case in point. One of the first undertakings of its kind, not only in Austria, but in all of “western” Europe since the late 1930s, it’s also unusual in that it treats Jewish identity as a living component of Austrian identity. Yet for years, it has been consistently denied any support from the Federal Government “as a matter of principle” (from a letter by the director of the government “Arts Section”) and from Vienna’s Sprechtheaterbeirat (“unworthy of public support”).

Some time ago, I proposed the rescue of a would-be landmark Jewish site in Vienna - formerly a noted Jewish Theater in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt, erected at the turn of the century by an eminent Jugendstil architect, Oskar Marmorek – himself an Austrian Jew. A cultural mausoleum since its NS seizure in 1938, it was concealed from physical view and public memory until its accidental rediscovery only a few years ago. Unless this unique site is renovated and preserved now, it may be lost to us forever. In the 21st Century, destroyed for the second time.

The IKG stands for active Jewish life and its possible future in the fabric of Austrian culture. Is such a future possible without support from the powers that be? The tendency of government to go on destroying Austrian Jewish culture and its heritage, while singing the laurels of the dead, suggests that it is not.

Warren Rosenzweig

© 2003 Warren Rosenzweig