December 23, 2003|By Hans Knight

THE OTHER day, a strange sound wafted over the small, sylvan town of Moedling, just south of Vienna, Austria. It was a sound the town had not heard in 65 years.

It came from the throat of a bearded young cantor who stood in front of a microphone in the crisp open air. He was singing the kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. It was not easy on the ear. Songs from tortured souls seldom are. But it seemed a fitting finale in the circumstances.

The occasion was the dedication of a memorial to the old synagogue that had served the Jewish community since 1914, until the town's Nazis burned it down during the Kristallnacht in the fall of 1938.

I can still see the flames creeping up to the Star of David, while the firemen carefully doused the adjoining buildings. A large crowd of townspeople watched in fascination. Some were silent; others cheered. Police wearing swastika armlets cheerfully mingled with brown-shirted storm troopers. The streets resounded with murderous slogans blared from loudspeakers mounted on trucks bearing the banner "Anti-Semitic Club." Strictly speaking, the temple arson wasn't new; there had been a dress rehearsal for it right after the Anschluss on March 12, 1938, but the burners were too clumsy to finish the job.

Now, six and a half decades later, the scene was different. Instead of the synagogue's crumbling ruins, there was a narrow empty lot flanked by an imposing apartment house and a modernistic light beacon. And, in the empty space between, there stood the new monument. On a massive granite block perched an iron menorah with seven candle holders. The menorah was bent in the middle to signify that, though the faith remained imperiled, it was not broken.

As the monument was unveiled, a low murmur went up from the assembled crowd. They were a motley group. They had been invited by the Moedling government to take part in the 1,100th anniversary of the town's founding, especially to witness the memorial's dedication. About 30 people had accepted the invitation.

They came from Israel, England the United States, Australia. Most were in their 70s and 80s. All were Holocaust survivors, with a sprinkling of sons and daughters. They sat in front of the former temple site on chairs put up by the Moedling town fathers. Local politicians from the seven different parties made fine speeches, united for once by the theme of reconciliation with their former Jewish fellow citizens. All voiced the hope that the survivors ("our honored guests") would find some comfort in the changes that had occurred in the beautiful town.

The speakers included a Catholic priest, a rabbi from Israel and a Protestant minister. The survivors listened to it all in silence, some with lowered heads as if lost in memories of their shattered childhood. About 150 onlookers had gathered at the periphery. An old man with blue eyes and thin white hair seemed to fight back tears.

"I was 15 when the war started," he said to a survivor. "I was ordered to help an anti-aircraft battery load up their guns. What did I know? What could I do? I see these Jewish people now, and all I can say is I am sorry for what happened to them." His wife joined in. "Yes, I am sorry, too. This is a good ceremony for the town. The young people should learn from it."

A young man, maybe 18, sidled up to a survivor. "Excuse me," he said politely. "I cannot understand why so few people like you tried to escape the Nazis." The survivor was over 80. He put a friendly hand on the youth's shoulder. "You see, my friend," he said, "most of our parents believed that such lunacy could not last very long. So they waited till it was too late for them."

A woman from Israel had a different encounter with her Moedling past. "Here I was, walking back to the hotel and this old lady kept staring at me," she said. "It turned out we had gone to school together. She said, `You, know, I was very active in the female Hitler youth corps. I mean, I was very young then and didn't understand much of anything. Then, when I was 17, they sent me to Poland to guard some Jewish prisoners in a camp. Well, it opened my eyes a little. I really felt some unjust things were going on. Yes, that was not nice.'"

The woman from Israel said to me, "I looked at my former schoolmate and I wondered, `How many relatives of mine did you kill? How many did you torture?' I turned away from her without a word. I never saw her again."

The Moedling organizers, from the mayor on down, treated their guests like kings. They put them up in Moedling's best hotel, and they chauffeured them to Vienna to meet with welcoming Austrian dignitaries in the old imperial palace.

Toward the end, a small group of survivors walked up the hill to the gigantic, ancient St. Othmar church. From a stone wall outside you could see the charming clusters of red-roofed houses caressed by gardens and the Vienna woods.

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