Yad Vashem apologizes for guide confronting Austrian leader over FPOe

Israel’s Holocaust museum says tour guide who criticized Sebastian Kurz’s far-right coalition partner in Valley of the Communities did so on her own account

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz during a visit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, June 10, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz during a visit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, June 10, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yad Vashem apologized to Austria’s ambassador in Israel after one of its tour guides confronted Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz with a statement made by a representative from the far-right Freedom Party, his junior coalition partner, The Times of Israel has learned.

Kurz last week participated in an extensive tour of Jerusalem’s main Holocaust museum, including a visit to the Valley of the Communities, which pays tribute to the thousands of Jewish communities that were destroyed by the Nazis.

In front of rolling television cameras, Yad Vashem’s Austrian-born tour guide Deborah Hartmann, told Kurz and his entourage that the Freedom Party still includes politicians “that need to be explained what the Holocaust was, what kind of catastrophe we’re talking about.”

Hartmann, who heads the German Desk of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, was referring to Andreas Mölzer, who is seen as a key ideologue of the Freedom Party, though he is no longer an active member in the party.

In a television interview, Mölzer had scoffed when a Jewish panelist said that family members of Holocaust victims have the right to choose who they want to attend annual memorial ceremonies.

Hartmann also said that the Freedom Party, known by its German acronym FPOe, was responsible for 30 anti-Semitic incidents since November 2017, according to reports in the Austrian media.

Kurz did not respond to Hartmann’s criticism, apparently uncomfortable holding political discussions in a museum dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. (In various interviews with Israeli media, Kurz did not shy away from addressing the FPOe, saying that the party is making efforts to investigate and rid itself of its problematic past.)

The head of the Austrian Jewish community, Oskar Deutsch, who is usually very critical of the FPOe, defended Kurz during the Yad Vashem visit, highlighting his dedication to fighting anti-Semitism in Austria.

Austria’s ambassador to Israel, Martin Weiss, complained to Yad Vashem officials over Hartmann’s behavior, saying it was inappropriate for her to confront Kurz with political arguments during a visit to Yad Vashem’s Valley of Communities, according to two sources familiar with the episode, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A few days later, Yad Vashem sent a “letter of clarification” to Weiss, which stated that Hartmann acted on her own accord and that it was not the museum’s policy to mix Holocaust remembrance with politics, according to the sources.

Weiss declined to comment. Vad Vashem did not reply to several requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the Austrian government does not seem to bear a grudge against Hartmann, who has spoken to official delegations from German-speaking countries for years. A day after Kurz’s visit, Austrian Education Minister Heinz Faßmann attended an additional tour, led by Hartmann.

Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz (R), with Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum Chairman, Avner Shalev (C), and Austrian Education Minister Heinz Fassmann (L), in Jerusalem, June 10, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

During Kurz’s visit, Austria’s Education Ministry and Yad Vashem signed an educational agreement allowing hundreds of Austrian teachers and educators to visit Yad Vashem for educational seminars.

Kurz is considered a good friend of the Jewish state, and last week pledged to advocate on its behalf in the European Union. He also garnered much praise in Jerusalem for his unprecedented admission of Austrian complicity in Holocaust crimes and for his vow to not to tolerate anti-Semitism in any form.

“You are a true friend of Israel and the Jewish people,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Kurz. “We deeply appreciate the steps taken by the Austrian government and the Austrian parliament in recent months.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

At the same time, the Israeli government continues to boycott the FPOe, his coalition partner, due to the party’s neo-Nazi past and current xenophobic policies.

During their June 11 meeting in Jerusalem, neither Kurz nor Netanyahu brought up the FPOe being a part of Austria’s ruling coalition.

President Reuven Rivlin, on the other hand, told Kurz in their meeting last week that, “even in today’s complex reality in Europe and throughout the world, it is impossible to accept elements who hold views that support the State of Israel but also hold racist or anti-Semitic positions,” according to a readout provided by the President’s Office.

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