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PM hails Austrian leader’s ‘powerful’ Holocaust speech

Netanyahu thanks Sebastian Kurz for decision to establish Vienna memorial site for 66,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, from left, wait for the start of a commemoration on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the connection to Hitler Germany, the so-called Anschluss, at the Hofburg palace in Vienna, Austria, Monday, March 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, from left, wait for the start of a commemoration on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the connection to Hitler Germany, the so-called Anschluss, at the Hofburg palace in Vienna, Austria, Monday, March 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday praised Austria’s leader, Sebastian Kurz, for a speech in which he acknowledged Vienna’s complicity in the Holocaust and announced the creation of memorial to Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis.

“I commend Chancellor Kurz for his very powerful speech and for his determination to combat anti-Semitism. We accord great importance to his intention to advance a series of cabinet decisions regarding Holocaust education and commemoration,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

Netanyahu’s comments come even as Israel is boycotting leading members of Kurz’s government, from the far right Freedom party.

“Yesterday the Austrian government decided to establish a memorial site in Vienna with the names of all 66,000 Austrian Jews who perished in the Holocaust,” Netanyahu added. “Thank you, Sebastian, for your leadership.”

On Monday, Kurz delivered a speech at a memorial state ceremony in remembrance of the Holocaust, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss — Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria.

As Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the controversial far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) looked on, Kurz described Austria as both a victim and a perpetrator.

“Today we must also remember that there were many people in Austria who did nothing against National Socialism and far too many who even actively supported these horrors,” Kurz said.

“Austria used to see itself as the first victim of National Socialism. That is certainly true for all those who fought in the resistance, whom we cannot thank enough, and who will always be shining examples,” he went on.

“But . . . the ones who stood in such great numbers and celebrated in March 1938 in Heroes’ Square were no victims,” he said, referring to crowds of Austrians who happily cheered as Hitler arrived in Vienna to celebrate the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria.

During a ceremony in Vienna on March 15, 1938, a delegation of Sudeten Germans greet Adolf Hitler and Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, right. (AP Photo)

“The ones who watched and participated when their neighbors were robbed, expelled, and murdered were no victims,” Kurz said.

“Remembering in an honest way means admitting the truth,” the 31-year-old politician went on. “At that time, many Austrians supported a system to which people with disabilities, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, people with different political views, resistance fighters, and many more fell victim. Above all, this system murdered over 60,000 fellow Jewish citizens and displaced around 130,000 from their homes.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Austria’s then-foreign minister Sebastian Kurz in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

For too long, Austria has been dishonest about its past, Kurz said, adding that, given the country’s role as perpetrator, the government needs follow up its words with concrete actions. His government has therefore decided to create a memorial site dedicated Austrians who suffered during the Nazi era, he announced.

“However, commemorating is not enough. We also have to learn from the past,” he went on, saying that Austria must actively protect democratic core values that combat extremism and intolerance.

“I personally find it unfathomable that almost a century after the Shoah anti-Semitism still exists,” Kurz said. “Austria bears a special historical responsibility in this context: to support Jewish life in our country and to protect it against all forms of anti-Semitism.”

Anti-Semitism has to be fought “every day,” whether it has existed a long time or has been “has just been imported,” he said.

Austria’s historic responsibility does not end at at the country’s borders, the chancellor added. “We also have a special responsibility to the State of Israel and the security needs of the Jewish people there — more than we have practiced in Austria in the past.

He concluded his speech, saying, “For only if Jews can live without restriction in peace and security can a ‘never forget’ become a ‘never again.’”

On Tuesday, a day after the speech, Kurz hosted Austrian Holocaust survivor Kurt Tutter, who has for years called for the establishment of a Shoah memorial in central Vienna.

On the same day, Kurz also meet with Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem to discuss bilateral relations.

In December, Kurz’s People’s Party entered a coalition government with Strache’s Freedom Party, which, Israeli officials and Jewish leaders argue, has many members who espouse anti-Semitic and xenophobic views.

Israel decided to not engage with officials affiliated with the FPOe. However, a Foreign Ministry working group, headed by Rotem, was created to review this policy.

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