Fallout From Ebensee

In response to Austrian teenagers’ assault on Holocaust survivors, commentators call for politicians to speak out against racism

Abraham Sonnenfeld and Karl Markovic

Austrian actor Karl Markovic (right) and concentration camp survivor Abraham Sonnenfeld, May 9, 2009, at a memorial for the liberation of the Ebensee camp | Photo: Reinhard Hoermadinger

On May 9, a group of French survivors of the Austrian concentration camp at Ebensee in Upper Austria returned to the site of their suffering to pay their respects to those who were never able to leave.

The survivors of Ebensee, a sub-camp of Mauthausen, have had 64 years now to try to come to terms with what happened in the 1940s, where, under the vicious control of camp commandants Georg Bachmayer and Otto Riemer, thousands of people were worked to death as slave laborers or sadistically tortured until they collapsed – the bodies then left in piles outside the huts for days before being incinerated at Mauthausen. In all, around 20,000 people are estimated to have died in the camp’s 18-month existence.

The elderly French visitors had every right to hope that the hateful ideology of Hitler now belonged to a darker age – an age that surely should have been buried for good in 1945. They should have been able to expect that their solemn trip of remembrance would be a dignified event.

Instead witnesses report that they were insulted by several Austrian teenagers dressed up in military garb shouting Nazi slogans, and then shot at with plastic bullets. One survivor was apparently injured on the cheek by a pellet and another person was hit in the forehead.

The perpetrators were arrested and face prosecution. But the events have led to some serious soul searching in Austria, where anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism is hitting the headlines with uncomfortable regularity. As the news broke of the events at Ebensee, a report emerged of a recent school visit to Auschwitz in which Austrian pupils made crass jokes in the gas chambers in the presence of death camp survivors. According to a report from the group who organized the visit, entitled ‘The March of Remembrance and Hope,’ one boy commented that “Jews should just be gassed.”

Far right politician Heinz-Christian Strache has dismissed the events of Ebensee as the youthful excesses of mere “scallywags” (Lausbuben in German). Strache was reelected as the leader of the Freedom Party on May 16, with 93 per cent of the delegates’ votes.

Yet the problem may go much deeper than that. A survey recently cited in the Viennese alternative weekly Falter reported 22% of young Austrians saying that they wouldn’t want to live next door to a Jewish person. And, in a move that has left tourism officials cringing, Austria made more negative international headlines when a family of five was turned away from the inn Haus Sonnenhof in the Tyrolean resort of Serfaus. The grounds given were that the hotel had had “bad experiences” with Jewish guests in the past.

In this climate, the leading voice of the Jewish community in Austria, Ariel Muzicant, has complained of a political and cultural climate that made light of extreme-right activity. His views have been echoed by Willi Mernyi, the chairman of the Mauthausen Komitee Österreich a remembrance organization that is dedicated to fighting fascism, racism, neo-Nazism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism. Mernyi is currently training 35 more guides to lead school groups around Austria’s former concentration camps in order to sensitize young people to where racial hatred can lead.

One of them is the 22-year old Sara-Lydia Husar, who takes groups on three-hour tours around Mauthausen and tries to bring across some of the horrors of the Nazi system. The work is hard psychologically, she admits, especially when she has the impression that some of the pupils are not interested, or are even disdainful. Some boys will fool around as a natural reaction when faced with such a traumatic subject and she has to draw her strength from the majority who react positively to the experience. Mernyi says he is looking for more funding for some additional projects, which include an advisory center where people can come for advice if they see a family member or close friend drifting towards right-wing extremism.

Willi Meyni has no patience for those who make light of the events at Ebensee. Just weeks before the assaults on the French pensioners, the Mauthausen camp itself was defaced by graffiti. Mernyi fears further escalation if there isn’t a strong and meaningful reaction to the recent events.

Newspaper commentators have been calling on the Austrian political elite to speak out strongly on issues of racial hatred. That such clarity is needed is highlighted by an anti-mosque rally in Vienna organized by a middle-aged woman called Hannelore Schuster, who thanked those present for marching with “us Nazis,” going on to describe the term as a “title of honor.” That Freedom Party leader Strache had seen fit to appear at such a rally was disturbing for many Austrians.

On May 18, nine days after the Ebensee attacks, Chancellor Werner Faymann condemned Strache’s election campaign for the EU elections this June. The Freedom Party ran an election advert in the Neue Kronenzeitung tabloid paper claiming that if forced, it will try to stop the EU accession not only of Turkey but also of Israel. Israel is not a candidate for accession and in an interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard, Faymann concluded that the move could only be designed to exploit anti-Semitic sentiment. According to Faymann, Strache had become a “preacher of hate.”

Those strong words will have gone some way to answer the charge of the Austrian Jewish community that there is a political indifference to anti-Semitism. Now, according to Willi Meyni of the Mauthausen Komitee Österreich, it is time for positive action in the name of tolerance to follow such words.

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