A Frightening Perspective: Eastern European Anti-Semitism Seems Too Alive and Well

by Robert I. Evans

There’s nothing like a trip outside of the United States to get different perspectives on life across the globe! With that as our approach last month, my wife and I took a riverboat along the Danube River in Eastern Europe with plans to roam around castles, listen to Mozart music, and discover cities that rivaled the architectural beauty of Paris.

Unfortunately, we learned that anti-Semitism is very much alive in 2012 and today’s Eastern Europeans can still emulate anti-Semitic attitudes that characterized pre-World War II Europe.

Starting in Prague’s Jewish Ghetto before making our way to the Danube, we marveled at how the city’s Jewish section has remained largely intact, although not as a Jewish “address.” Jews were expelled multiple times from here but the names of Holocaust victims are highlighted at the Pinkas Synagogue; at least semblances of Jewish life remain, if not an actual community to support it.

Our visit to nearby Terezin shocked us. Originally created as a fortified town in honor of Empress Maria Theresa in the late 18th century, Terezin provided Hitler with a ready-made concentration camp. The area is best known because of a Red Cross site visit during WWII, where the Reich staged soccer games, concerts, and other activities reflecting “normal” life. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of interred occupants at Terezinstadt were shipped to Auschwitz and other extermination camps.

Within the memorial sections of the site, children’s drawings ripped our hearts out, these simple first-hand testimonies of the dehumanizing conditions and their hopeless fates. We felt chills as we toured a “hidden synagogue,” where Jews tried to uphold our sacred traditions even in the worst of conditions. The cramped, darkened space sent a harsh message about the conditions of our ancestors, almost too sad to be believed.

Even as we “heard the cries of our ancestors” in those cramped Terezin quarters; we were utterly shocked to witness the ballyhoo of a wedding on the grounds. In an area of so much suffering, historically recognized for the noxious role it played in our people’s extermination, an obviously non-Jewish couple chose to celebrate one of the happiest days of their life at what is now consider a “government venue” that hosts many communal events. How insensitive!

In Austria’s Salzburg, famous for “The Sound of Music,” we heard the defense that “Austria was Hitler’s first victim and that Austria was neutral.” While we knew that Hitler was Austrian, and that Germans marched in and overran the country, we expected more modern-day compassion rather than historical defensiveness. Because our daughter-in-law’s mother was born in a displacement camp outside Salzburg after World War II, we questioned our 30-year old guide about the non-Jewish farmer who hid her brothers. Our guide guardedly asked if we were Jewish, and then expressed surprise that anyone would have saved a Jewish family in those times!

As we moved through Eastern Europe, our eyes and ears opened wider, especially when we went to Vienna’s Jewish Quarter. Today nothing but edifices remains, a scant, touristy shadow of the formerly robust community. No synagogues, no kosher butchers, no schools … and very few Jews. We wandered the streets containing high-end apartment buildings where in the 1930s the most sophisticated, educated Jews lived, creating an intelligent culture full of revolutionary thinkers and artists. Three times, Vienna’s Jews were wiped out. Today there is almost nothing left of this formerly brilliant community. It brought chills to us.

But Budapest presented even more significant contrasts about what is today, and what once was. The Jewish Ghetto was barely more than a tourist destination, and at the Dohanny Synagogue, the second largest active synagogue building in the world, we were struck by the graves in the synagogue’s courtyard that the Nazis forced Jews to dig. We had received alerts about anti-Semitism in Budapest today but we had been unprepared for what we felt. That big, beautiful complex that could house so many worshippers; today, it is almost always empty.

Our middle-aged Jewish guide at the synagogue was afraid to talk about difficulties facing Jews today. Coincidentally, a 97-year old Nazi who killed 16,000 Jews at the end of WWII and has been living openly – thanks to the help of other Hungarians – was outed while we were in Budapest and is only under house arrest. What about those who hid him after the war ended and their complicity?

We have visited other countries in Eastern Europe and Russia but our thoughts returned to lessons we need to remember: man’s inhumanity to others has all-too-often focused on Jews. How easily we live today in the U.S.! We take our lives and safety for granted and forget to remember our jeopardy as Jews … even in the best of times and in the best of places.

May we all understand and be reminded of our place in history, even in the 21st century and in America.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrp; EHL Consulting Group Blog: biggiver.wordpress.com

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  1. michael shire says

    I am appalled at the description of Jewish life in the European cities that Robert Evans describes. Jewish life is actively re-emerging in all the cities he mentions particularly amongst young adults. Prague now has two active non-Orthodox synagogues, Budapest has one, Vienna has one. Jews live and work and raise Jewish families in these cities many of whom have come to live there specifically either from Israel or the FSU. The shadow of the Shoah of course continues to cast dark shadows on all of these places from a Jewish perspective but there is much to celebrate about the re-emergence of Jewish life in Germany and Poland and the Czech republic. Antisemitism is not an active component of life in these countries and it would do us all well to differentiate our feelings for the past from the real Jewish life experiences of the present. We all need to highlight and support the wonderful work of Rabbi Koty Keleman in Budapest and Rabbi Walter Rothschild in Vienna in developing Jewish life and bringing Jews and Judaism back into the mainstream of intellectual and cultural Europe.

  2. Harold Erdman says

    I agree with Michael Shire and am stunned by the diatribe of fear offered up by Robert Evans. I just returned from Budapest yesterday and had spent some time in Prague plus smaller towns in Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia exploring family roots. All the towns that we visited support the preservation of Jewish memorials with local public funds and non-Jews see resurgence of Jewish communities as a sign of their own freedoms post-communism.
    But let me digress…. in 1972 I moved from the south to attend college in Philadelphia –first stop Hillel House and for the first, but not the last time I met many people who saw antisemitism around every corner. Later , I’ll never forget, a fellow Jew was assigned as my new job trainer. He told his wife that he could not work with an anti-Semite ( me) because this “southerner” said: Its good to have a lot of Jews here. Are there Kosher restaurants ?” ( I had removed my kippah and tefillin before leaving the house). Since then there have been no Pogroms in South-Eastern Pennsylvania.
    Yes, there are Nazis still at-large and KGB thugs (murderers of people without regard to religious affiliation) with government jobs as well as in the Hungarian parliament I’m sure there is a StormFront Chapter in some of the places we visited but we are NOT talking the government or church sponsored anti-semitism of the past. . I’m sure we will find unthinking insensitivity, if we search. Oh, I did meet an Austrian who called his country’s Defense Department –the Ministry of War — and followed it a few sentences later with —Austria is small ” for now” ! ps. It was bad English ,not aggression.
    I would invite Mr. Evans to revisit his trip and his fears. The Avinu Malkeinu speaks to a Xenophobia that starts insidiously deep within ourselves…effecting our perceptions of the world and visa-versa. An early L’shana Tovah to everyone…….

  3. Jeff Kopelman says

    My wife and I were on the same riverboat cruise down the beautiful Danube River. We were anticipating the magnificent structures and seeing and hearing the history of the cities of Prague, Vienna and Budapest. The trip was billed as an opportunity to feel and live the history of one of the most beautiful
    area of the world. In that, the cruise did as advertised.

    What we saw relative to the Jewish way of life was not exactly on our itinerary. World War II has been over
    for more than 60 years. The hope was that the once prominent Jewish community had returned to some of the former greatness we had read and studied about.

    This we did not experience. Yes, there are Jewish people living in Eastern Europe and there are Jews trying very hard to bring back the Jewish popullation and all of the contributions that come with them. However,we were devastated to find how few Jews are left in these areas.

    The anti-Semitism that the Jewish people have experienced is still alive and well. Young Jews are not staying and the Jews who left years before have chosen not to return. The reality that struck me the most was seeing all of the empty synangogues. The once vibrant Jewish population has dwindled to a shadow of itself and as much as I want to, I cannot see it having a prominent place in these countries as in the past.