** war and social upheaval : World War II -- the Holocaust in Austria

The Holocaust in Austria

Figure 1.--The Austrian Jewish woman had her portrait taken with her little boy in the late 1930s sometime before the Anshluss. As with many Vienna Jews, they look thoroughly assimilated. We do not know what happened to them.

Vienna was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. There was a long established and lsargely assimilated Jewish population. Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to cross the border and seize his native Austria (March 1938). The Anchluss was a widely popular step in both Germany and Austria. The country was annexed to the German Reich. Thus the full force of German law was immediately brought into force. This included the Nuremburg and many regulations implementing those laws. German Jews had had 5 years in which to adjust as much as possible to NAZI race laws. Austrian Jews had no such adjustment period. They immediately found themselves subject to these laws as well as the whim of local NAZIs all to eager to enforce them and publically humiliate as many Jews as possible with their new found authority.

Austrian Jews

Austria during the medieval era became an important center of Jewish learning (13th century). The Emperor expelled the Jews (1669). They were not allowed to return until liberal reforms wee adopted (1848). A sizeable Jewish community began to develop, primarily in Vienna. The Jewish population in Austria was in large measure refugees from the anti-Semetic policies of the Russian Tsarist government. Vienna was one of the mot cosmopolitan cities in Europe and Jews made a major contributin to that culture. Austria was the center of a large multi-ethnic empire. There were also Jews in the various provinces of the Empire, many of which became independent or parts of independent countries after World War I. At the peak in the early 1930s, about 300,000 Jews lived in Austrria. There was a long established and largely assimilated Jewish population. Austria had a population of about about 206,000 Jews (March 1938). This was only about 3 percent of the population. The largest community was in Vienna where about 175,000 Jews lived. The Jewish community of Vienna was one of the largest and most prestigious in Western Europe. There were many important synagogues and a dozen Jewish schools. Vienna Jews had an extrodinary recird of culture and learning. The most prominent individual was Freud, but there were many other prestigious individuals. The NAZI Anschluss united Austria with Germany (1938). The NAZIs immediately applied the anti-Semrtic Nuremberg laws. Most of Austria's Jewish community emigrated or were killed by the NAZIs in the Holocaust. There were very few Jews left in Austria when the Allies arrived (1945).

The Anschluss (March 1938)

There was considerable sentiment in both Germany and Austria after World War I to join the two German-speaking states. France adamently refused. Hitler after seizing power revived the issues. Austrain NAZIs were encouraged to promote the idea. Hitler and Austrian NAZIs throughout 1937 demanded an Anschluss with Austria. Belaegered Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg on March 9, 1938, announced plans to hold a plebiscite on the independence of Austria. Hitler used this opportunity to take action against the Austrian State. The NAZIs with the Wehrmacht on the border pressed Schuschnigg was pressed to resign. The NAZI surrogate, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, took over the chancellorship and formed a new government dominated by the Austrian NAZIs. The German Wehrmacht and the SS, armed with list of NAZI opponents, crossed the German-Austrian frontier. Hitler on March 13, speaking before a jubilent crowd in Linz, announced the "Anschluss" (Annexation) of Austria into the German Reich. Joyous celebrations occurred throught Austria. Even while the celebrations were going on, the SS and local NAZIs began rounding up those who had opposed the NAZIs. Violence occured against the Jews. Jewish students and professors were attacked in universities. Jews at random were dragged into the streets to scrub the sidewalks on their hands and knees--surounded by taunting crowds. Austria became the Ostmark within the Reich.

NAZI Race Laws

The Anschluss meant that the full force of German law was immediately brought into force. The "Nuremberg Laws" were introduced in the "Ostmark" (May 1938). This included the Nuremburg and many regulations implementing those laws. German Jews had had 5 years in which to adjust as much as possible to NAZI race laws. Austrian Jews had no such adjustment period. They immediately found themselves subject to these laws as well as the whim of local NAZIs all to eager to enforce them and publically humiliate as many Jews as possible with their new found authority. Not only did The Nuremberg Laws fundamentally change the lives of Austrian Jews, but they reclassified about 24,000 people who had renounced Judaism but had Jewish ancestry as Jews.


The Gestapo began arresting prominent anti-NAZIS immediately after arriving in Vienna. As there was not yet concentration camps established in Austria, many of these individuals were transferred to exusting German cobcentratiin camos. The first transport of these individuals was to the Dachau concentration camp in nearby Bavaria (April 1, 1938). It is known as the Prominententransport, or the transport of prominentb Austrians. The transport totaled 150 men and included many notable political figures and NAZI opponents, including Christian Socialists, monarchists, Social Democrats, communists, and others. About one-third were Jews.

Dachau Transports

The NAZIS began expelling Austrian Jews through both physical and psychological terror as well as organized transports. The principal goal at first was to rob Jews of their property and expel them from the Reich ratherv than mirdering them. The NAZIs organized numerous transports to Dachau made up of mostly of Jews. We are not sure precusely how the individuals in these eaely transports were chosen. They do not appear to have been whole families, although I have only incomplete informatuion at this time. There were severalntrans ports with up to 600 Jews (May 31 and June 3, 1938). Dachau was not a death camp in the sence of the camps establisheed in Poland during World War II. bIt was a horrendous place where the SS guards delighted in tormenting their Jewish prisonors. Arriving Jews were cursed and beaten. The SS reffered to them as "Lazy Jew- and priest-ridden coffeehouse riff-raff". The first Austrian Jew to die in Dachau was Hans Kotanyi. He was co-owner of a noted paprika mill. His SS tormentors drove hm to suicide (April 28, 1938). Josef Kende was the first Austrian Jew to die at Buchenwald (October 24). The later date is because Buchenwald was only opened in 1937 the SS began to send Austrian Jews to Buchenwald after Kristallnacht.

Jewish Property

The Holocaust began in Germny with The elimination of the civil rights for Jews and the theft of their property. This involved the gradual but systematic theft of Jewish real estate, businesses, and other property for the benefit of non-Jews. At first there was 'pressure' to sell their homes and businesses at fire sale prices. They gradually became forced sales in which Jews often received little or no proceeds from the 'sale'. Arier (Aryans) Germans were basically provided a legal process for stealing Jewish property. The process was Arisierung (Aryanization). Theft of property may sound like a small matter in comparison to what followed, but it was an important part of the process. Stripped of property the Jews were even more defenless and less able to flee the country. It was also terribly demoralizung. This process was conducted over several years in Germany. In Austria it occured within a much shorter period of time after the Anschluss. Austria was the first country seized by the NAZIs and thus established the precedent and procedures for the Aryanization process implemented in the many other countries that the NAZIs would occupy. In Austria the NAZI used the legal tools privided by Reich law, but even before this could be implemented, estatic Austrians began ransacking and plundering Jewish property. NAZI authorities issued regulations against looting, but there was little enforcemnent. Along with the looting, Jews were also publicly degraded and humiliated on the street. Jews were forced to scrub the sidewalks and streets with with brushes surrionded by cheering onlookers enjoying the spectacle. Thousands oif Jews were arrested. Many Jews dispairing of their future committed suiside. [Witek and Safrian] NAZI officials quickly soon systematised the theft of Jewish property. Within weeks of the Anhsluss, the Decree on the Registration of Jewish property required Jews to register assets of more than RM 5000 as ell as pay substantial taxes (April 1938). Jews had to prepare detailed property declarations of all their assets. This included real estate as well as art, furniture, and household objects This was then sized. NaZI officials night keep the best items and often auction the rest. The process was further systemized by creating the Vermögensverkehrstelle (Assets Transfer Office) (May 1938). The whole process was even more frightening because so many men (heads of the household) had been arrested and transported to Dacau and other conebhtration camps. This system which SS functionary Adolf Eichmann in the Jewish Department, Section II/112 of the SD, helped implement would be the model for looting Jewish property throughout NAZI occupied Europe. Eichmann would be put in vchsrge of deporting Austrian Jews which led to more propety to be processed. The desire to systemize the process was not to protect Jews, but rather to ensure that NAZIs officials and the NAZI state go a substanhial share of the proceeds. Austrians began denouncing their Jewish neighbors. Landlords began terminating leases. In addition the theft of their property and the firing of Jewish professionals and workers meant many Jews could not pay rents. Large numbrs of Jews had to move into cramped quarters which meant that they could take very little of their furtiture and household property with them. Much of this was documnted in the photographic record. One photograph showed a store room filled with pianos removed from Jewish homes. Another photograph shows a warehouse full of boxed Jewish belongings. And we see crowds including children attending house sales of Jewish property. We also notice newspapers with classified ads from Jews trying to sell their belonings before they were seized. Most of this took place in Vienna here most Austria Jews lived. [Botz]

Kristallnacht (November 1938)

Kristallnacht or the "Night of Broken Glass" was a vicious NAZI pogrom directed at NAZI Jews. A Polish-born Jewish Jew, Sendel Grynszpan, wrote to his soon describing how he had been expelled to Poland and mistreated. His son Herschel was a 17-year old youth living in Paris. Disdraught by his parents' treatment, he shot the Third Secretary of the German Embassy, Ernst vom Rath. As a reprisal, Hitler personally approved a massive assault on Germany's Jews in their homes and attacks on Jewish stnagoges. The attacks began early on November 10. Members of the Gestapo and other NAZI organizations such as the SA and the Labor Front were told to repprt to the local NAZI Party office and were given their instructions. They then moved out ramsacking Jewish shops and synagoges and setting firm to them. Groups of NAZIs broke into Jewish homes, looting them and destroying property that they did not want. Pets were killed. About 30-100 Jews were killed. About 20,000 mostly men were dragged off to the Buchenwald, Dachu, and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. The orgy of violence exceed even what the NAZIs had planned. This was of copncern because the NAZIs hoped to eventually seize the property. The Jews were thus required to repair the danage to their shops and homes. When the NAZIs realized that Jewish property was insured, Goering issued a decree requiring that insurance payments made to the German Government. An additional 1 billion mark fine was imposed on the Germany Jewish community.


Some of the last Jews to get out of Germany were the children brought out through the Kindertransport. This was the transport of Jewish children out of Austria, Czecheslovakia, and Germany. The British Government, horrified at the outburst of violence in Kristallnacht agreed to eased immigration restrictions for certain of Jewish refugees. Two charitable groups help organize the program: the British Committee for the Jews of Germany and the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany. Together these groups persuaded the British government to permit children under the age of 17 to enter Britain from Germany and German-occupied territories (at the time what used to be Austria and Czecheslovakia). The limit on the number of children was that private citizens or organizations had to guarantee to pay for each child's care and education. The British Government refused to accept any financial responsibility. The Government also insisted that the children would have to eventually emigrate from Britain. Not the most hostpitable conditions, but at least they were out of Germany. The Government agreed to permit the unaccompanied children to enter on a simple travel visa. Parents or guardians were not permitted to accompany the children. There were also a few infants cared for by the older children. About 10,000 children were saved--the largest group of children to be saved from the NAZIs. Most were aided by Jewish charitable organizations, but Quakers and other groups also helped. The experience was traumatic for the children, especially the younger ones, who did not understand why they were being separated from their parents. The children had to say a final goodbye to their parents and families for a long train journey to England and numerous checks by NAZI authorities. Most were never reunited with their families who were murdered in the NAZI death camps. The older children were put up on hostels, many of the younger children were adopted.

Further Transports

The Austrian transports peaked for a time in November as a result of the Jews arrested during the Kristallnacht pogrom. An estimated 3,700 Vienna Jews were transported to Dachau. Other transports took Austrian to Buchenwald. The number of Jewckilled before Kristallnaht was relatively small. After Kristallnacht the number of killings in the camps escalated and usually at least some were Jews. Through 1938 and most of 1939, it was still possible for Jews gto get out of concentration camps if they had money and could obtain visas to enter other countries. After thev NAZIs launched World War II (September 1, 1939) this was no longer possible. The SS began killing Jews at Buchenwald, although it was still relatively small numbers in comparison to the industrial scale killing to followc at the Polish death camps. The killings at Buchenwald, however, are seen by many as the beginning of the Holocaust.

Invasion of Poland (September 1939)

The Germans more than any other military, correctly assessed the lessons of World War II. The War in Europe began in 1939 when the German blitzkrieg smashed Poland in only a few weeks. The invasion was made possible the preceeding week when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. The Panzers crossed the Polish frontier on September 1 along with a devestating strike by the Luftwaffe. The Polish Army and Air Force was shattered. Over 1 million German soldiers surged into Poland. Hitler emerged from the Reich Chancellery in a new grey uniform with his World War I Iron Cross. In a speech at the Reichstag before cheering NAZIs he declared, "I myself am today, and will be from now on, nothing but the soldier of the German Reich." Whithin 6 days Cracow, the center of Polish nationhood, fell. Pincer movements began on September 9 to encirle the major remaining Polish forces. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack from the East. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18. Warsaw fell a few days later after a ruthless bombing assault. The Blitzkrieg tactics that were to prove so devestaing in the West during 1940 were all on display in 1939. Neither the British or French showed much attention, abscribing Polish defeat to military incompetance. The French had promissed the Poles an offensive in the West. It never came. [Fest, pp. 602-603.]

World War II

With the Anchluss, Austria ceased to exist and Austria participated in World War II as a part of the German Reich. Thus the Austrian war experience is essentially the same as that of Germany itself. German laws and regulations became operative in Austria. Austrians were enrolled in the German military and thus were involved in the major battles of the War as German soldiers. Here we dicuss aspects of the War that specifically affected Austria.

Transports East

The NAZI conquest of Poland provided a place that Jews could be deported competely under NAZI control. Gettos were quickly established as well as construction begun on many new concentration camps. The NAZIs in eatly 1941 began expeling Jews for what they indicated was resettlement in the East. About 48,000 Vienna Jews were deported to ghettos and concentration camps. Many of the early transports were to ghettos established in Poland after the NAZI occupation. After the death camps were fully opperartional in mid-1942 many of the transports were destined there. Only about 1,700 Jews in these transports survived.survived.

Baldur von Schirach

Hitler appointed theformer head of the Hitler Youth movement, Baldur von Schirach, the Gauleter of Vienna. He played a major role in the destruction of the city's Jews. He talked about fighting to the end, but wisely left Vienna before the Russians stormed the city.


Austria's Jewish community was descimated. By the end of thec war there were only about 5,500 Jews left in Austria. Most had survived by hiding. Many left Austria during the occupation.

Individual Experiences

The experiences of Austrian Jews are horrifying. The accounts we have found are beyond human comprehension. And unlike German Jews, they did not have several years of exoerience with the vNAZIs to prepare. Here we are collecting the personal experiences with the NAZI Holocaust of individual Austrian Jews. We would be very interestedin any additional information HBC readers can provide.

Austrian Jewish Community

Few Austrian Holocaust survivors returned to their country after the War. Austria's small Jewish comminity was rebuilt by Jews from other countries who decided to settle in Austria, mostly in Vienna. Esimates suggest that about 7,000 Jews now live in Austria (2006).


Botz, Gerhard. (1992) "The dynamics of persecution in Austria, 1938-45." in Robert S. Wistrich, ed. Austrians and Jews in the Twentieth Century: from Franz Joseph to Waldheim (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp. 199-219.

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

Simpson, Max. E-mail message, October 3, 2008.

Witek, Hans, and Hans Safrian. Und keiner war dabei: Dokumente des alltäglichen Antisemitismus in Wien 1938 (Vienna: Picus, 2008).

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Created: February 20, 2004
Last updated: 12:23 PM 5/15/2018