A Guest From Vienna

This column was first published as “Exchange student from Vienna teaches me something, too” in JWeekly.

Sometimes events conspire so that, as much as you want to live in the present, you get caught up in the past. That’s what happened to me when my family recently had an Austrian high school student staying with us for two weeks. It was Oliver’s first time in the United States. It was also his first time meeting a Jewish family — and that is why I couldn’t help but look at our interaction with him through a historical lens.

There’s a very good reason why Oliver, almost 16, had never met a Jewish family before. There are only 7,000 to 15,000 Jews (depending on whose statistics you use) among metropolitan Vienna’s population of 2.4 million. There is statistically an extremely small chance that Oliver would have a Jewish classmate or friend. However, had he been alive during the years just prior to the outbreak of World War II and the Holocaust, he would have been much more likely to know some of the many Jews who lived in the city. There were 185,000 Jews in Vienna in 1938.

There aren’t many young Jewish people in Vienna these days, as I learned firsthand when I visited in 2007 at the generosity of an organization called Centropa (Centropa.org), which documents the oral histories and family photographs of Jews who remained in Central and Eastern Europe after the war. I brought my family along with me on the trip, so my kids had a sense of where Oliver is from. The thing they remember most from Vienna is that there were “keep off the grass” signs everywhere. Needless to say, that was a real bummer for three active boys.

It was actually that hyper-orderliness of Vienna that was off-putting to me. The next summer, Centropa took me to Berlin, where I felt much more at home. To be sure, I felt guilty enjoying myself in the city that was once the Nazi capital, but there was something more cosmopolitan and edgy about Berlin that put me at ease. There also was the fact that the Germans began to confront their culpability for the Holocaust far earlier than did the Austrians.

Oliver, of course, had nothing to do with what happened almost 60 years before his birth.

Click here to read more.

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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