Vienna says with the first March of Life: Am Yisrael Chai

The first March of Life in Vienna took a route through the heart of Vienna’s Favoriten district to commemorate the Hungarian Jews who were forced to work here under brutal conditions during the Nazi era. At the same time, it sent a clear message of solidarity for Israel and for Jewish life in Austria with the message “Am Israel Chai”. Together with 300 participants, the Israeli ambassador David Roet and March of Life founder Jobst Bittner were joined by Chief Rabbi Jaron Engelmayer and National Council member Martin Engelberg.

The starting point of the March of Life was the Expedithalle on the site of the former Ankerbrot factory, where the organizer, the Christian free church Wunderwerk, celebrates services today. Head pastor Benjamin Brestak recalled the history of the building: The Jewish brothers Heinrich and Fritz Mendel had founded the Ankerbrotfabrik here in 1891. “But then in 1938 there was Aryanization [and] the founding Mendl family was expelled from Austria”. “Around 200 Hungarian Jews, children, senior citizens [and] women were deported from their villages [to Vienna] for forced labor […] and all this a year before the end of the war!” To bring this story to life, a report was read out by Rivka Junger, a granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors whose ancestors had to perform forced labor in the bread factory. Her family also kept silent for a long time: “Back then, we all lived in the silence of the 6 million dead.”

Johannes Fichtenbauer, a Catholic deacon in Vienna and head of the TJCII organization, used his personal story to illustrate the extent to which families in Austria were entangled in the guilt of National Socialism and how this still has an impact today. He explained that he was influenced at a young age by his grandfather, who was a high-ranking Nazi and never regretted his actions. Despite turning to the Christian faith, the turning point only came decades later, when he took part in a repentance march in 1995 to commemorate the death marches of Hungarian Jews: “When I arrived in Mauthausen, I was able to let my tears flow, my hatred of Jews burst out of me and was washed away at the same time.”

With these impressions, the March of Life started in front of the Expedithalle and led through the 10th district with Israeli and Austrian flags to the Bloch-Bauer-Promenade. At the closing event, David Roet, the Israeli ambassador to Austria, warned of the growing anti-Semitism: “If you don’t fight this hatred, it will eventually affect you too!”

Chief Rabbi Mr. Engelmeier gave an insight into the current situation of Jews worldwide after the Hamas terror attack on Israel: “How should we feel when terror is rewarded in the international community?” He asked what other way than self-defense there could be for a state if the neighboring terrorists want to destroy it. Marie-Louise Weissenböck, Chairwoman of Christians Standing by Israel Austria, recalled the hostages still being held in Gaza and lamented the lack of an outcry from the world. Jobst Bittner, founder and president of the March of Life, summarized the message: “We declare together that we stand in solidarity and friendship with Israel at this time more than ever before, regardless of Israeli politics!”

At the end, there was once again room for a core concern of the March of Life, the confrontation with personal family history under National Socialism. Ester Lang, Simone Waldert and David Reiner acknowledged the Nazi guilt of their ancestors in Austria. David Reiner said: “We are shocked by what our great-grandfather did as a policeman in the ghetto in Krakow. But we are grateful that we can raise our voices for Israel today, that we can be friends. We love the Jewish people, we love Israel and we say: Am Israel chai!”

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