In Vienna, Volunteers Unite Austrian Jewish Community During COVID-19

In Vienna, Volunteers Unite Austrian Jewish Community During COVID-19

Robin Kratz (left) helped lead a team of Austrian Jewish volunteers to help the most vulnerable Jews in Vienna.

Robin Kratz (left) helped lead a team of Austrian Jewish volunteers to help the most vulnerable Jews in Vienna.

By: Robin Kratz - Former Secretary-General, Austrian Union of Jewish Students

It might sound strange to say it, but I’ve never felt so personally fulfilled as I did during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Robin and his mother.

When everything started here in Vienna, I felt very alone — my nephews were too young for me to safely see them, and my parents too old — and so I threw myself into organizing community volunteers. I remember waking up on March 13 and seeing people carrying piles and piles of toilet paper through the streets of the city. It was like a dystopia. But somehow, being the crazy guy on the phone with other volunteers and making deliveries from the pharmacy to the old-age home made me extremely happy.

On that first Friday the 13th, when everything changed, Austria released a lot of new laws, new restrictions on how we should behave. We were told to only leave our homes if absolutely necessary and instructed that people over the age of 60 should be on total lockdown. My friends and I came to the understanding that this was our time to do something.

We saw it as our responsibility to act, and so we called the Jewish community and told them, “Listen, we want to help buy groceries. We want to help with babysitting for working parents. We want to assist however we’re needed.” Fortunately, the community supported us in our initiative and so we began calling people in risk groups. “Look, it’s a jungle out there,” we said. “We want to know how you’re doing, and we want to help you.”

From there, we got to work. We bought groceries, packed bags, drove around to deliver supplies — even getting past police checkpoints with official ID cards from the Jewish community that proved our work was life-saving and essential. Some people wanted food, some needed medication, and some need psychological assistance — and so we reached out to Jewish doctors and psychologists, who in most cases were our parents. They couldn’t say no to us. That’s how it happened — volunteers would spend 12 to 14 hours a day calling community members. By the time September came around, we were still in contact about everything from emerging needs to what time prayer services are for Rosh Hashanah.

We reached out to 3,500 people, and ultimately, about 100 volunteers worked to assist 800 people who needed help. In the first two and a half months of the pandemic, not a single member of the community died — not from coronavirus, not from anything. I don’t want to say we’re magicians or anything, but I do think the fact that we called at-risk people and lent an ear and gave them a shoulder to cry on made people know they weren’t alone.

I’ve lived in Vienna my whole life, and both my parents were born here, too. They met each other in Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement that I also participated in as a kid. My grandparents were from four different countries — one grandmother from Ukraine and the other from Switzerland, and one grandfather from Slovakia and another from the same Romanian city where Elie Wiesel grew up. Family rumors say they knew each other, but everyone from that town says that because what else are you going to say? My great-uncle says he was Wiesel’s classmate, but I’m not sure I believe it — Elie was 10 years older than him.

Robin (right) and his family.

Despite my roots in Eastern Europe, I have a limited connection to all that, and not speaking the language doesn’t help. My grandparents were all Holocaust survivors — with my Ukrainian-born grandmother an Auschwitz survivor who came to Austria after the war and totally switched to German, even though the little German she knew came from what she picked up in the concentration camp and Yiddish being her mother tongue.

Growing up in Vienna, I attended a non-Jewish school, but I still felt very Jewish. Many of my classmates were Jewish, as Vienna has a big minority of Bukharian Jews, as well as many Jews from Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova. My senior year of high school, the principal approached me and said, “We have a big Christmas tree, but we’d also like to have a menorah for Chanukah. Can you help with that?” I felt very appreciated.

I was also involved in a German Jewish youth movement, going there on makhanot (camps) and seminars. It was a great opportunity for me to learn all about an entirely new society. In Austria, we have four Jewish communities, but only one (Vienna) has more than 100 members. In contrast, Germany has 100,000 or 200,000 Jews, and they’re spread all over. If you grow up in Vienna, you basically know everyone your age because you’ve seen them around the community, at Chanukah parties, etc. But in Germany, you might only know the five people your age from your community, and then at your first seminar, you meet so many new people — different families, different denominations, different traditions.

After high school, when I was at university, some friends of mine told me to join the Austrian Union of Jewish Students — a partner organization of the umbrella European University of Jewish Students (EUJS). That’s how I got to know JDC, through Junction, the pan-European partnership between JDC, the Schusterman Family Foundation, and Yesod. Junction funds and supports EUJS and the local student unions, creating and initiating programming that engages young adults in the community.

For me, Junction is a quality stamp of sorts. If I get an invitation to a seminar in some city I’m not particularly interested in visiting and I see that the co-organizers are EUJS and someone else and Junction, I know there are good institutions behind it. I can trust it will be a cool, diverse, and progressive program.

Robin (left) poses for a photo at one of Vienna’s synagogues.

I’m glad to live in Vienna, and despite my city and country’s history, I don’t see Austria as any worse of a place to be a Jew than any other country. It’s just that we have a different past, one which we can never forget. I am always aware that I walk on streets that Jews had to wash with toothbrushes 80 years ago. That will never be forgotten.

The Jewish community of Austria barely has any “Austrian” Jews. The Austrian Jews of 1938 primarily either went to concentration camps or fled to what was then Palestine or the U.S. The people who came after the war were mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, people who saw Vienna as the first safe harbor after the Iron Curtain. As they sat there waiting for the affidavit that would let them continue their refugee journey to the United Kingdom or the United States, some people started businesses or families in Vienna and just stayed here. That’s my story — my family never wanted to live in Vienna, instead seeing it as just one stop before immigrating somewhere “normal.”

I love living here, but still, I don’t consider myself an Austrian Jew. First and foremost, I am Jewish and then Viennese. I like the city I grew up in. I was raised with a strong, large community, with good people. That’s what we’re all striving for.

Now I’m left wondering how I’ll be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and what lessons my city’s Jewish community will learn from our experience. Just like my grandparents were metaphorically always sitting on packed suitcases, I sometimes joke that I’m constantly sitting on a mask, and I don’t think that will stop for years. I’ll be the guy with a basement full of PPE waiting for the next pandemic to come.

What I hope our community realizes and remembers is that we are only measured by how we treat our most vulnerable.

What I hope our community realizes and remembers is that we are only measured by how we treat our most vulnerable. What I’ve appreciated about this strange time is how patient and kind so many were to each other. I now know I can rely on many people, that they’re there for me and there for our community. We have each other’s backs, always.

Robin Kratz, 23, is the former Secretary-General of the Austrian Union of Jewish Students and a second-year student studying social work at Vienna’s University of Applied Sciences.

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