A Life in Service of Remembrance

Der Standard (07/12/2007)

The head of Vienna’s Jewish Welcome Service has passed away. As bridge-builder and as an exceptional figure, he is praised by all sides

The elegant, almost eighty year-old man, who could often be seen crossing  Stephansplatz from his office on the way to Café Europe, was often greeted by many people he didn’t know. “Professor Zelman, many years ago you held a lecture at my school which I have never forgotten,” the Holocaust survivor was told.

After having been liberated from a concentration camp close to Mauthausen in 1945, Leon Zelman fought his entire life against forgetting. And he tried to build bridges of reconciliation between people of the country from which so many of the persecutors had their origins and the survivors among those who were persecuted. Tuesday evening Leon Zelman passed away in the Barmherzige Brüder Hospital in Vienna following a grave illness.

Remembrance as Mission
Up until a few months ago, he could’nt stand still. In cafes around Vienna he explained to journalists his latest project of trying to convince politicians of establishing a “House of History” located next to Parliament to represent and research racism and intolerance. He failed in his attempt, but Zelman didn’t fail in directing criticism at the Social Democrats who had become a substitute family and home to the boy from the Polish Stetl Szczekociny orphaned by the Shoa.

There were three principles which Zelman repeated over and over again: First, as a survivor, he saw his life’s mission in keeping remembrance of the Shoah alive. Second, “Auschwitz didn’t begin in Auschwitz,” that one has to remain alert to all forms of hatred toward minorities. Third, something which Zelman emphasized equally often - is one must not overlook the fact that Hitler’s regime, by murdering the mentally ill, “also committed crimes against its own people.”

The idea of collective guilt was something fully foreign to him. And because Zelman delivered his message to many with such engaging cordiality, he was received positively at a time when  paralyzing silence clouded all discussion of the NS era.

The journal, Das Jüdische Echo, (1951), which Zelman edited until recently, had its beginnings as a newsletter for university students and developed into a “European cultural forum” appearing annually. Highly respected intellectuals such as Friedrich Heer and Hilde Spiel wrote many of its articles, and in most recent times renowned politicians and journalists contributed to it as well.

In the Ghetto of Lodz
One time the son of the former NS mayor of Lodz wrote movingly of his experiences as an adult when revisiting the city where so much suffering was caused by a ghetto erected by the Nazis. Leon Zelman, together with his parents and two-year-younger brother, Schajek, was imprisoned in this ghetto. The father was killed, his mother starved to death, and Leon took over the responsibility of raising his younger brother. Later, while in Auschwitz, he added two years to his age to ensure his survival as someone fit to work, (even after 1945 his date of birth was stated as being 1926). One morning Schajek was gone. The Nazis had sent him to the gas chambers.

The severely shocked Leon landed in the death march on the way to Ebensee, one of the sub-concentration camps belonging to the “Archipel Mauthausen,” as he describes  in his memoirs, “Ein Leben nach dem Überleben,” published in English as “After Survival.” He was liberated on May 6, 1945, measuring 178 centimeters in height and weighing only 38 Kilos. Zelman often told others that he had basically wanted to emigrate to the USA, but he suffered from tuberculosis and was, therefore, refused entry.

Thus, he went to Vienna, repeated courses in order to graduate with a Matura and studied journalism. During a visit to the hospital, he met Peter Strasser - at that time head of the Socialist Youth and later member of the National Council until his early death in 1962 and considered a hopeful candidate for the Austrian Social Democrat Party. The circle surrounding Strasser, to which Heinz Nittel also belonged, accepted Zelman as one of their own. He learned to appreciate a prejudice-free Austria and never stopped praising Vienna as being open to the world, defending the country everywhere he went, including the USA and Israel. In 1980, with support of the City of Vienna, he began the “Jewish Welcome Service,” initially promoting tourism with Israel.

The Bridge Broke
Time appeared ripe for Zelman to promote Austria’s coming to terms with the past. In 1984 he was the initiatior of the Vienna exhibition, “Sunken World,” which displayed  the stetl he knew during his childhood. But in 1985 the bridge cracked when the Minister of Defense, Friedhelm Frischenschalger, shook hands with the war criminal, Walter Reder, after being released from prison - something which received worldwide protest. During the following years, with the Waldheim affair and the rise of Jörg haider the world began breaking. But instead of giving up, he brought more and more Jewish survivors and their children for short visits to Vienna in order to show them a different Austria.

His last project, the “House of History,” which he pushed for being housed in the Ringstraße’s Palais Epstein, was turned down despite all efforts. But for someone from the stetl whom the Nazis wanted to get rid of, he gratefully accepted numerous honors toward the end of his life. The Grand Decoration for Services to the Republic of Austria was one of them, also an honorary doctoral degree which was bestowed upon him by the University of Vienna.  He confronted issues head on and was hard to stop, even using the occasion of such events to deliver the message “that we must continue to fight against Hitler because we cannot allow that also remembrance be destroyed.”