Mazel tov!

The historian Shoshana Duizend-Jensen was awarded this year’s Leon Zelman Prize on Wednesday evening.

Wiener Zeitung, June 13, 2019

German original:

She seems quiet, elegant, almost fragile. But actually she is loud, stubborn and very convincing. She does not become abusive, but finds clear words. She moves between the secular and orthodox world and has created her very own place: Shoshana Duizend-Jensen. This year, for the seventh time, the Leon Zelman Prize was awarded on June 12, for it was on this day in 1928 that the late Holocaust survivor, bridge builder, founder of the Jewish Welcome Service and publisher of the periodical Jewish Echo, Leon Zelman, was born.

The ceremony takes place every year in the city senate session hall in the Vienna city hall. There are many steps to climb and if I recall the ceremonies of the past years, it was often a very hot day, just like yesterday. And this—in this case nice—Groundhog Day feeling grows when you finally arrive in the (air-conditioned) hall and see many friendly and familiar faces. Yesterday when Shoshana received her prize, the number of familiar faces present was even bigger than at previous events. Her family and friends from the Jewish community, as well as historians and representatives of civil society came to congratulate her.

The Leon Zelman Prize is awarded to individuals or initiatives that actively support the remembrance of the Shoah and the dialogue between present-day Austria and the survivors of National Socialist persecution, and in particular their descendants, in the spirit of Zelman. However, the prize also honors a commitment to civil, standing up against anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia.

Making the disappeared visible

“The prizewinner Shoshana Duizend-Jensen has for many years been dealing comprehensively with the deprivation of rights, robbery, expulsion and persecution of Viennese Jews. In her work as a historian, Duizend-Jensen makes destroyed and disappeared Jewish life visible in the city and highlights the many empty spaces that arose in Vienna during the Nazi era, but also after 1945. Through her exhibitions and publications, she contributes to sharpening and raising public awareness of the Shoah and its consequences. Her commitment and empathy are reflected not only in her scientific work and its presentation, but also in her involvement in civil society in helping refugees,” the jury explained, awarding the prize to Shoshana this year.

Much of what Shoshana represents is addressed here. As a historian in the Vienna City and State Archives, she has for years endeavored to trace and document Jewish life in Vienna until 1938 (also to be read in her many entries in the Vienna History Wiki), but also to build bridges to the present and to point out the failures in the post-war decades. It is not enough to take young people around Mauthausen on an obligatory visit, she says, “I would like to help confront young people with Jewish destinies and Jewish institutions that have disappeared in their living and school environment, and in this way bring the past to life.”

Since the responsibility for what happened during the Nazi era did not end in 1945, Shoshana was touched by the fate of those who fled Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to come to Europe in 2015. She had the urgent feeling of wanting to help, of having to help. To this day she accompanies an Afghan family within the framework of “Shalom Alaikum – Jewish Aid for Refugees”, but, humble as always, she says she knows that there is still much more to be done.

But there are many more facets to Shoshana’s life. Judaism did not fall into her lap. Her Jewish father Bernhard “Bobby” Jerusalem, later Jensen, died before her birth, and so it was growing up with a tragic missing part and without mentioning the tragic family history that finally made her want to convert to Judaism. It is not an easy endeavor—converting to Judaism requires years of learning and showing that one is complying with the Torah’s rules and prohibitions. However, for Shoshana that was and remains important. Today she is one of the first women to belong to the temple board of the synagogue in Seitenstettengasse.

Fight for compensation

In other respects, too, she had to fight from an early age on. Originally, Shoshana (she was born in Vienna in 1961) wanted to become a kindergarten teacher. Due to her impairment, however, she was denied the opportunity to train. Shoshana was born with deformities on both arms, hands and on her heart. The reason for this—just like her origin—was to be revealed to her only when she was an adult. During her pregnancy, when her husband died suddenly and unexpectedly, her mother had taken the drug Softenon (with the active ingredient thalidomide, which had been sold in Germany as Contergan without prescription since 1959) in order to be able to sleep.

Nevertheless, Shoshana graduated from high school and studied history, political science and Jewish studies. Still, she fought for compensation for many years. In 2008, together with two other women, she founded the Austrian Thalidomide self-help group (Selbsthilfegruppe der Contergan- und Thalimodidgeschädigten Österreichs), which finally succeeded in obtaining one-off compensations for thalidomide victims in Austria.

For Shoshana’s mother, Hedwig Jensen, the impairment of her daughter was “such a heavy emotional burden that she never spoke to me about it,” says Shoshana, all the more since she, like her father, was a doctor herself. The relationship between the two women is nonetheless affectionate, which is why one could really feel how emotional Shoshana was when she thanked her mother during yesterday’s ceremony; Hedwig Jensen had come to the city hall at the age of 93 and was somewhat shaky on her feet, but visibly proud of her daughter.

Against the distortion of the present

Shoshana is also a keen protester. She has often participated in demonstrations and marched on the streets in recent years, first when it came to the continuous deterioration in the way refugees were treated, and later when the Austrian Freedom Party became involved in government. For her, “never again” is not just an empty phrase. For Shoshana, it means standing up against injustice for everyone affected. If a protest falls on a Saturday, she joins it despite Shabbes yet makes sure to still observe the resting orders. Instead of taking the subway to the protest march, she walks. Even if it is cold. Even if it rains.

The laudatory speech was held on Wednesday evening by political scientist Barbara Serloth, with whom Shoshana has been friends since her student days. Shoshana highlighted everything that had been taboo, she emphasized, and: “In her work Shoshana brings the past into the present.” At the same time, she repeatedly points to the indifference and continuities of values in the Second Republic. “People like Shoshana work not only against forgetting the past, but also against the distortion of the present.”

Dear Shoshana, from me as well at this point: A warm Mazel tov!