Speech of Austrian Vice Chancellor Dr. Michael Spindelegger General meeting of the Austrian Friends of Vashem Plenary hall of the Austrian National Council, 12 March 2012
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Madam President of the National Council,
Madam Minister of the Interior,
Your Excellency, Ambassador of the State of Israel,
Mr. Chairman of the Board of Yad Vashem Jerusalem,
Esteemed representatives of the Austrian Friends of Yad Vashem,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to express my sincere thanks to you for inviting me to the annual General Meeting of the Austrian Friends of Yad Vashem and for giving me a first opportunity to speak here.
I was myself very deeply moved when I visited Yad Vashem on 17 February 2010 where together with survivors of the Holocaust, Austrians doing their Memorial Service and a group of the Austrian Friends of Yad Vashem, I had the honour to lay a wreath in the name of the Republic of Austria in the Hall of Remembrance to honour the victims of the Holocaust.
We all know that Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is the most significant memorial to the Holocaust in the world, a memorial of symbolic importance researching and documenting the Holocaust scientifically.
In my capacity of Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister of Austria it fills me with pride and joy to know that there is a group of Friends of Yad Vashem here in Austria that has excelled with exemplary initiatives and commendable activities for more than a decade. I would like to offer a special thank you in particular to the Schuster family for their exemplary commitment in the interest of disseminating the values represented by Yad Vashem and for filling the mandate bestowed upon us by Yad Vashem with life. Their outstanding work is an essential contribution to the solemn commemoration of the Holocaust and the people who fell victim to the crimes of National Socialism, and it is also a highly valued socio-political contribution to the fight against any attempt to push the remembrance of the Holocaust and the lessons we have to learn from it into the background or to even to deny them.
Ladies and gentlemen,
On this day we must also look back with great regret to the annexation of Austria by Germany in what is known as the “Anschluss” that took place precisely 74 years ago. The disaster of National Socialism and the Holocaust is part of our Austrian history and has become part of our Austrian identity. As a consequence, Austria bears a very special responsibility that I as am very much aware of as an Austrian, but even more so as the Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister of the Republic of Austria. We must constantly address the question of what we can and must do to prevent such atrocities from being repeated. Numerous examples, not least in the more recent history of the world, remind us how conditions that may lead to the establishment of terror regimes can occur at any time and become effective and we must therefore never cease to fight against such developments.
To ensure that the Holocaust and the lessons it teaches us, and above all the memory of Jewish victims, remain rooted in our conscience, we must share the historic knowledge of this, but we also need to create and preserve the right set of values based on it. In this context I consider it to be particularly important to establish a connection between the teachings of the Holocaust and our society today. I welcome the many initiatives taken by the governmental offices in charge and other institutions in Austria which fill these initiatives with meaning and keep them alive, such as the “erinnern.at” teacher training institute.
My Ministry is committed to ensuring that such initiatives are also taken at the international level – allow me to give you some examples of our efforts in this field:
Austria attaches great importance to supporting the International Holocaust Task Force; in 2008, Austria held the chair of this organisation and we have been one of the central players ever since. The agenda of the Task Force includes, among other things, the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity, the fight against anti-Semitism and xenophobia and the encounter with witnesses from that terrible period which is of major relevance especially for the young generation. Austrian projects in the field of training and education, awareness creation and Holocaust research enjoy a high reputation within the International Holocaust Task Force.
Another focal area of our efforts in this field is the dialogue between cultures and religions that is indispensable and will continue to be so in future. My Ministry has for years been working on creating awareness for intercultural dialogue and tolerance by taking carefully chosen initiatives and on condemning any emergence of resentments. We strive to contribute our share to strengthening human rights, democracy and rule of law and reducing ethnically or religiously motivated prejudice. Please allow me to take this opportunity to refer to the initiative of the Alliance of Civilisations that has proven to be of particular value in the context of multilateral dialogue. The next forum of the Alliance will be held in Vienna in February 2013 and representatives of states and civil society are going to discuss items such as youth, education, migration and media with the objective of illustrating good practices and developing concrete projects.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It goes without saying that our relationships with Israel play a central role in these foreign policy efforts. We aim to bring the people of the two states closer together and to promote mutual understanding. The bringing together of young people is key in this context; encounters of this kind are of special relevance for the future. The respective provisions are laid down in the Memorandum of Understanding on cultural and educational cooperation between Austria and Israel for the years 2011 to 2014. The promotion of knowledge about the Holocaust – in particular among young people – is another explicit objective of this Memorandum.
We also work towards intensifying professional and private contacts at the level of students and professors, especially at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that accommodates an Austrian Study Centre and an Austrian library. At this university there are also two chairs dedicated to Austrian studies, the long established Cardinal Franz König Chair in Austrian Studies and the new Teddy Kollek Chair for the study of cultural aspects of Vienna and Jerusalem that was set up in 2011. These professorships are the tangible expression of our conviction that the transfer of well-founded historic knowledge and the resulting set of values is one of the most eminent cultural tasks both with regard to shaping our relations to Israel and to the education of our children and youth.
Another positive aspect of these relations is the fact that Yad Vashem is still striving to appreciate the deeds of Austrians who helped Jews during the Holocaust, even though this could have meant danger for themselves and their families by distinguishing them as “righteous among the nations”. Let me give you two examples from the most recent years: Johann and Maria Schatz from Upper Austria and the Posch family from Eastern Styria.
And we must not forget the role that Austrians play who do their civilian service in Israel. Their valuable mission at memorials, among others also in the archives of Yad Vashem, in nursing and old people’s homes is of a highly positive symbolic relevance.
I am pleased to note that initiatives for positive relationships with Israel are not limited to the level of the federal government alone but also taken at the level of the Austrian provinces. The province of Upper Austria is particularly active in the field of youth and cultural exchange and annual encounters with former Upper Austrians. These are precious human contacts that are also positively reflected and taken up in the official bilateral relations.
Please allow me to end on a very personal note: All people of good will who, like myself, have visited Yad Vashem will understand that there is no alternative to the fight against anti-Semitism, hatred and prejudice. This is the fundamental message of Yad Vashem, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who support and share the mission of Yad Vashem in Austria, especially the chair and members of the Association of the Friends of Yad Vashem in Austria, but also the supporting and contributing public and private institutions and organisations and all the individuals involved in this initiative. I would like to wish them every success for their indispensable efforts now and for the future.
I invite all those who are interested in joining the Austrian Friends of Yad Vashem to become members and support the work done by the memorial and research centre Yad Vashem.