Jews have lived in the Austrian capital, Vienna, since the 12th century. At the dawn of the 20th century Vienna was one of the most prominent centres of Jewish culture in Europe.
Vienna has an important place in the story of the Boys. It was home to 13 of the children brought to the UK between 1945 and 1946 and some of the youngest members of the Boys. Jona Spiegel (now Jackie Young) was born in Vienna in December 1941 and was just three years old when he arrived with the first group of the Boys in August 1945.
Like many of the members of the Boys born in Vienna, Spiegel had been deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia.
Vienna was also the home of child psychologist Anna Freud, who played an important role in caring for the younger members of the Boys.
In 1934, 174,034 Jews lived in Vienna making up 9% of the city’s population. The community represented all social classes and consisted of highly assimilated Jews as well as Orthodox. All political persuasions were also represented.
The Jewish question dominated Austrian politics from the creation of the state of Austria after the First World War to the Anschluss with Germany in 1938. It was rejected or adopted to suit political parties’ needs. Politicians regularly scapegoated the Jews to obscure their own failings, which drove antisemitism to new heights. The overwhelming majority of the country’s Jews lived in the capital Vienna but the political rhetoric was so widespread that you could be antisemitic without ever having met a Jew.
The Austrian Nazis wanted unification with Germany and opposed the Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss not just for his general political outlook but were furious that he had signed a loan deal that ruled out such an Anschluss.
The Nazi’s were not alone in thinking that Austria’s economic woes – among the worst in Europe - would only be solved by a unification with Germany and the Nazi party membership grew significantly after the 1929 Wall Street Crash and Hitler’s accession to the Chancellorship in Germany.
The party was then outlawed and its members took refuge in southern Germany, among them Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, Franz Stangl, the future commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, and Odilo Globocnik, the future head of the SS and the Lublin Police.
After Germany annexed Austria in the 1938 Anschluss, the Austrian Nazis returned home triumphant. Eichmann was appointed the head of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Vienna. Persecution and humiliation of the Jews began immediately with the intention of driving Austria’s Jews to flee the country. In the months that followed 120,000 Jews left Austria.
It was extremely difficult to leave the country and a substantial departure tax had to be paid. It was also hard to obtain a visa to enter another country.
Many of the children who left after the Anschluss were helped by the Central British Fund, who brought the Boys to the UK after the Second World War.
When the decision was taken at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 to annihilate the Jewish population, the Jews who had remained in Vienna became victims of the Holocaust.
Of the more than 65,000 Viennese Jews who were deported to concentration camps, only about 2,000 survived.
In 1946, only 4,000 Jews remained in Vienna but the population swelled as Jews fled from antisemitism and communism in eastern Europe in the post war years.
After the liberation Austria housed approximately 300,000 refugees in displaced persons’ camps across the country.
Vienna was a centre for the Jewish underground who helped Jews leave Europe on route to the British controlled Palestine Mandate. Severe restrictions on Jewish immigration led many Jews to try to reach the territory illegally.
It was only in the 1980s that the Austrian government made the first explicit statement in parliament concerning the participation of Austrian citizens in the crimes of Nazi Germany.
Vienna has a Museum of Jewish history and a Holocaust memorial. A new memorial to the 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered in the Holocaust was under construction at time of writing. Austria also has an extensive Holocaust education programme.
Around 7,000 Jews live in Vienna today, the vast majority of them came as refugees from the former Soviet Union. It is one of the reasons that the story of the pre-war Kindertransport is little known in Austria.