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Jews in Austria constituted an important community in Europe, with traces going back to the 9th century. Their history is a series of immigrations and expulsions and a constant struggle for existence. In 1421, about 210 Jews were burned to death by the order of the Vienna Edict, while the rest were driven out. Gradually, they returned, but in 1670 there was another expulsion. At that time, a number of individual Jews were permitted to return to Austria on the condition that they would not form any congregation. Among these “privileged Jews” was Samson Wertheimer, rabbi and banker to the court. In 1782, Emperor Joseph II issued his Edict of Toleration, which revoked many anti-Jewish regulations, but was opposed by Orthodox Jewry because of its interference in religious and cultural affairs and its hidden aim of compulsory assimilation.

Following their participation in the 1848 revolutions, the Jews enjoyed a short-lived period of liberty. In 1867, they attained equal political rights, which they enjoyed until the Germans occupied Austria in 1938.

Jews contributed greatly to the development of Austrian economics, science, art, literature, and media. In purely Jewish matters, they were influenced by eminent scholars whose books were accepted by Jewry throughout the world. Vienna had the largest Jewish community in Austria. Others were located in Graz, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Wiener-Neustadt and the Burgenland area.

The close of the 19th century witnessed the growth of the Zionist movement, due in no small measure to the fact that Theodor Herzl made his home in Vienna and served as literary editor and correspondent for the influential newspaper Die Neue Freie Presse. World War I brought many Jews to Austria from Galicia and Hungary; many remained after the war and exercised a strong influence on Jewish life in Austria. The Anschluss with Germany marked the beginning of the end for Austrian Jewry in March 1938. At that time, when Austria enthusiastically welcomed the German occupation, the Jewish population numbered 185,246. About 178,000 Jews lived in Vienna. By the end of World War II only 7,000 Jews remained: about 128,000 had fled the country, and about 50,000 were annihilated by the Austrians and Germans, many of them in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

There are approximately 9,000 Jews living in Austria, most of them living in Vienna and Graz. A majority of Jews who live in Vienna are registered with the Vienna Kultusgemeinde, central agency of the Austrian Jewish community. Postwar efforts of the community centered around negotiations for restitution and compensation of losses suffered under the Nazis. The Austrian Jewish community has had to contend with a resurgent antisemitism. Provisions for Jewish education have been lagging because of the dispersal of the children and their small numbers. Aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is extremely active in relief and welfare work in Austria, the Kultusgemeinde maintains a Hebrew school, several Talmud Torahs, and a credit cooperative.

Bruno Kreisky, Jew, liberal reformist, and politician dedicated to human rights, served as Austrian chancellor in 1970-1983. Kreisky opposed Zionism as panacea to the problems of the world’s Jews; he cultivated friendly relations with Arab leaders; and had tense relationships with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and other Jewish figures.

Ronald S. Lauder was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as Ambassador to Austria in April 1986 and served until October 1987. During his tenure, Lauder forged strong diplomatic bonds between the U.S. and Austria, while personally repudiating the Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, for Waldheim’s involvement with the Nazi party during World War II.

Austrian Jews have contributed immensely to world thought and culture. Famous Austrian Jews include Sigmund Freud, the revolutionary psychoanalyst and thinker; Gustav Mahler, world-famous composer, and writers Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig, Jakob Wassermann, and famous Viennese Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

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