Despite their almost complete annihilation during World War II, the Jewish communities in Austria – and especially the Vienna Jewish community, 98 percent of Austria’s Jewish population – have regained a religious, cultural and economic strength unimaginable in 1945. From being considered Liquidationsgemeinden (communities to be liquidated – by its members) without any future, whose members even tried to conceal their Jewishness from their gentile neighbors, they have become a thriving religious, cultural and economic entity that acts self-confidently and forthrightly in the political and cultural arenas, are firmly ensconced in the surrounding society, and are actively involved in the affairs of European and world Jewry (e.g former IKG president Ariel Muzicant was for many years vice president of the European Jewish Congress; Kashrut Europe (KE) and the Union of Mohalim in Europe are based in Vienna, and the latter is also presided by Rabbi Shlomo Hofmeister from Vienna).
Until the late 1970s, for most Jews in Austria, except for the community leaders, the fact that they were living in the country was an “accident of the war,” which had left them, against their will, in the “land of the perpetrators.” Although they stayed on for various personal reasons, it was always their intention to leave (in most cases for Israel), and they never consciously decided to settle there permanently. Instead, they saw themselves as “sitting on packed suitcases.” But during the following decade, they opened themselves up toward the surrounding gentile society and developed a “feeling of belonging to their environment” that enabled them to come out proudly as Jews and become an integral—though not assimilated—part of the local society, in which they not only do not feel threatened but believe that they have a future.
Moreover, although the Vienna Jewish community is relatively small (about 8,000 registered members), it has since the 1980s engaged in a massive drive to expand Jewish infrastructure – from eating to learning and praying – and a vital and visible Jewish life. The extent of infrastructure even exceeds significantly larger communities in other countries. In contrast to many communities in Europe, the Vienna community has also reached a high degree of communal unity.
This overview will delineate the reconstruction of Jewish communal life in Austria after 1945, and shed light on how these developments came about and what factors shaped community reconstruction.