Austrian leader visits Yad Vashem, Western Wall
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Austrian leader visits Yad Vashem, Western Wall

On first visit to Israel since becoming chancellor, Sebastian Kurz vows to ensure 'horrific crimes' remembered

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz lays a wreath during a ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, during a state visit in Israel, June 10, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz lays a wreath during a ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, during a state visit in Israel, June 10, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz signed an agreement of principle at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center on Sunday to ensure that the institution gets access to the Austrian State Archives and the Mauthausen Memorial and can copy Holocaust-related items from either.

Visiting the Jewish state for the first time since becoming chancellor — he visited twice while serving as foreign minister — Kurz also paid a visit to the Western Wall, a rare move for the leader of an EU country.

Kurz announced Sunday that Austria would contribute to the creation of a new Holocaust heritage collections center at Yad Vashem.

The center will provide extra storage and preservation labs for Holocaust-era artifacts, artwork and documentation held by Yad Vashem.

“As chancellor of Austria, I have to state that Austria and Austrians carry a heavy burden for the shameful crimes committed during the Shoah,” Kurz said, according to a readout from Yad Vashem.

“But let me assure you that we Austrians know that we are responsible for our own history. It is our duty and obligation to ensure that the Shoah will never happen again and that my generation and succeeding generations will never forget these horrific crimes,” he said.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz poses with Nadav Peres, grandson of Israel’s late ninth president, Shimon Peres, at the latter’s grave on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, June 10, 2018. (Yosef Avi Yair Juha)

Austrian Education Minister Heinz Fassmann, who is accompanying Kurz, signed an extension to an educational agreement between Yad Vashem and the Austrian education ministry that will allow hundreds of Austrian teachers to visit the Jerusalem institution for educational seminars.

Kurz also paid a visit to the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Despite being the holiest site Jews can pray a and a a major tourist attraction, foreign leaders rarely visit the Western Wall, as it lies across the Green Line in East Jerusalem, on land the Palestinian claim for their own state.

The visit was officially described as “private” because of political sensitivities, echoing a similar trip to the site made by US president Donald Trump in May 2017.

Sebastian Kurz at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on June 10, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/Foreign Ministry)

Kurz also laid a wreath on the grave of Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres, at the nearby Mount Herzl ceremony.

Kurtz, 31, told the late president’s grandson Nadav that Peres had been a role model for him and had encouraged him in his career by telling him that the world belonged to the young.

During this visit, he will also meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, among others, aiming to strengthen bilateral cooperation.

On  Monday, he will take part in a conference of the American Jewish Committee.

Conspicuously absent from his delegation is Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, which is Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party’s junior partner in the governing coalition and which has anti-Semitic roots.

Israel officially boycotts the Freedom Party, known by its German acronym FPOe, due to its neo-Nazi past and xenophobic positions, though Jerusalem has signaled readiness to reassess that policy.

Some members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party advocate normalizing ties with Strache’s party, a move Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the local Jewish community adamantly oppose.

On Sunday, Holocaust survivor organizations again pressed Netanyahu not to normalize relations with the Freedom Party, as Kurz has requested, the Walla news site reported.

“This party, which is identified with the extreme right in Europe, has a neo-Nazi past,” the organizations wrote.

“Anti-Semitic views find expression in the official announcements and publications of the party,” they said. “Don’t forgo the fundamental values ​​and the lessons of our bitter history for narrow economic or political interests.”

Some 63,800 Austrian Jews perished in the Holocaust.

Before leaving for Israel, Kurz and Strache attended an event to mark the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Joined by President Alexander Van der Bellen, they laid a wreath at Vienna’s Memorial against War and Fascism “in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust, one of the darkest chapters in Austria‘s history.”

“It is our responsibility and profound determination to fight against all forms of antisemitism and to ensure that a ‘never forget’ becomes a ‘never again,’ government spokesperson Peter Launsky said. “Especially during the memorial year 2018 it is important to promote an active commemorative culture.”

On Sunday, Kurz tweeted from Yad Vashem that it was “always moving” to be there and that Austria had a responsibility to fight any form of anti-Semitism.

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