Photo: Amos Ben Gershom (GPO)

‘Jews have right to live anywhere in peace’

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and his Austrian counterpart Dr. Alexander Van der Bellen attended a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in Vienna yesterday.

The service was held in the Judenplatz (“Jewish Square”) of the Innere Stadt, that had been the center of the Jewish community from the Middle Ages until WWII. The national anthems of both countries were played, and the Chief Rabbi of Vienna read the Kaddish prayer for mourners before an audience of local residents, Holocaust survivors and members of the city’s Jewish community.

The presidents laid wreaths on behalf of the State of Israel and the Republic of Austria at a monument to Holocaust victims created by British artist Dame Rachel Whiteread. The reinforced concrete cube sculpture of a library meant to convey the spiritual dimension of the Jewish people, with its volumes turned inside out to signify the destruction of the Holocaust.

In his remarks, President Rivlin said, “In this very place, Judenplatz, the Jewish community lived in Vienna until the ‘Viennese Decree’ exactly 600 years ago. Here in Vienna, Jewish culture flourished. Here, the Zionist movement was centered. And here was the center of the Haskala (the Jewish Enlightenment)  and Hebrew literature. 180,000 Jews lived here until the Anschluss [Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938]. They played a key role in local and global culture. Only a few hundred had survived by the time the city was liberated by the Red Army. The Jewish community was almost completely destroyed. And burnt in the fire of the crematoria were respect for humanity, love of humanity, liberty, mutual responsibility and human solidarity.”

He added, “Austria did not wake up one morning to the swastikas of the Third Reich. Anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia had been incubating for years. That is how the horrors were born – out of apathy and disregard.”

Recalling the Fifth World Holocaust Forum held last year at his official residence, President Rivlin said, “We gathered in Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel, leaders and heads of state from around the world to voice our shared responsibility and commitment as members of the family of nations, to pass on the facts and the historic lessons of the Holocaust to future generations. We pledged to remember, to take responsibility to wage a determined and uncompromising war on any expressions of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia and on the desecration of human dignity in any form, because ‘Beloved is man for he was created in God’s image’ (Avot 3:14).”

Turning to effects of COVID-19, the Israeli leader remarked that, “The global pandemic which has attacked us since then has only emphasized our shared commitment and the need for human solidarity, caring, compassion. I cannot deny the joint global effort to fight the virus has given me hope. Hope that we have, perhaps, learned a lesson about the overriding commitment to be there for one another in times of trouble.”

“In the spirit of that hope, and in the spirit of this remembrance, we stand here today in the Judenplatz in Vienna. The place from which tens of thousands of Jews left, never to return. May the memories of our brothers and sisters be forever engraved in the hearts of the entire world,” concluded the Israeli President.

President Van der Bellen of Austria told those gathered, “Our two countries share the experience of the Holocaust, where many people – too many people of my country – became criminals. Austria officially recognized its part in the Holocaust late, very late. Only at the beginning of the 1990s.”

“For me, the fight against anti-Semitism and racism is very important. Nazi anti-Semitism and racism did not fall from the sky. They were here before, buried deeply in Austrian society. The Holocaust was the dreadful peak,” he said, adding, “Therefore, it our strong and commonly held desire, and even our duty, to oppose any resurgence of inhumanity, racism and anti-Semitism decisively and without compromise.”

“Our aim today is to allow Jewish life without interference in any place – Israel, Europe, Vienna or any other place. It is the right of the Jewish people to live in any place I peace and safety,” underscored the Austrian leader.

The Holocaust remembrance ceremony followed a working meeting in Vienna between the visiting-Israeli President and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz. During the meeting, Rivlin expressed his thanks for Austria’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism with a new national strategy, and for its support for Israel regarding the International Criminal Court.

The Israel leader is amid a short visit to Europe at the invitation of his counterparts. According to an official Israeli government statement, he will focus on highlighting the dangers presented by the rising power of Lebanon-based, Iranian terror proxy Hezbollah, the intensification of Iran’s nuclear project and discriminatory actions by the International Criminal Court.

Before traveling to Vienna, President Rivlin began his tour in Berlin for talks with Germany’s President Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday. Before returning home later today, he met with President Emmanuel Macron of France at the Palais de l’Elysée, the French presidential palace, in Paris.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi accompanied Rivlin to brief the European presidents on security matters.

Prior to departure, President Rivlin described “This important diplomatic visit I am taking, together with the Chief of Staff” as “highly significant at this time.”

“Europe is showing an extraordinary commitment to the security of the State of Israel and to preserving the stability of the Middle East and we appreciate it deeply. There is currently an opening of hope that moderate voices in our area will strengthen and we will do everything possible to allow those voices to be heard,” he asserted, while warning, “But at the same time, extremist voices – especially Iran – are threatening to undermine this stability. It is important to ensure that the international community is ready, determined and uncompromising, to oppose Iran’s nuclear plans and its support for terrorist organizations that threaten Israel and regional security.”

Explaining that his “agenda for this trip also includes the misuse of the International Criminal Court against our soldiers and citizens,” the Israeli leader underscored that, “Our soldiers are part of us – our children and grandchildren – and we trust our European friends will stand with us on this important issue.”