Austria mourns for Leon Zelman

Leon Zelman, the head of the Jewish Welcome Service, died aged 79 at Wilhelminenspital in Vienna on 11 July 2007. Born in Szcekociny (Poland) in 1928, he lost his father after the occupation by German troops in September 1939. His mother starved in the ghetto of Lodz. In 1944 he was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp together with his younger brother, who was killed there. Leon escaped the gas chamber because he pretended to be two years older. After detention in different concentration camps he was liberated in Ebensee in 1945. After three years of a difficult recovery, he studied journalism at the University of Vienna and became active in the Jewish Students’ Association. He founded “Jüdische Echo“, which to date is one of Austria’s most important periodicals. His historic achievement was the foundation of the “Jewish Welcome Service Vienna“ (JWS), an organisation that builds bridges between the displaced Austrian Jews (and their descendents) and their former mother country, encouraging them to visit Vienna. Since 1980 the JWS has invited about 4,000 persons expelled by the Nazis to visit Austria. Until his death Zelman considered it a crucial political task to raise the awareness of young people. He received high official awards, such as the “Great Badge of Honour for Meritorious Service to the Republic of Austria” and the Ring of Honour of the City of Vienna. On 13 July 2007 Leon Zelman was buried in a tomb of honour of the City of Vienna in the Jewish section of Vienna’s Central Cemetery. Leading representatives of the state and government paid tribute to the deceased. President Heinz Fischer described Leon Zelman as “an exceptional personality” and stressed his achievements in the framework of the JWS, a non-profit organisation wishing to contribute to a better understanding between Jews and non-Jews. Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance Wilhelm Molterer mourned for the “activist and bridge builder“. In his speech held in the Hall of Ceremonies of the Jewish Religious Community at the Central Cemetery Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer emphasised that Zelman had never tired of standing up against anti-Semitism and building a culture of remembrance. “He wanted the world to become a better place and overcame evil with good“, said the Chancellor. This places him in the elite company of personalities like Nelson Mandela. Vienna’s Mayor Michael Häupl also dedicated very personal words to Zelman. With Leon Zelman and his cheerful, sometimes “rough” character, an irreplaceable person had been lost who had survived the unsupportable without “surrendering himself to vengeance or hatred”. In a low voice Häupl added: “I do not know how such a wonderful person could develop from the unsupportable“.

© Federal Chancellery