By David Bowes, Wayne, NJ

Memorial Dedication to the Jews of Laa an der Thaya, Austria, June 2005

Background: The Jewish population of Laa, located on the Thaya River due north of Vienna at the border with Czechoslovakia, had lived among the local Gentile population for over 900 years. Very early in their recorded existence, the local ruling royal family granted their small band of Jews equality in all local affairs with other citizens.

Life for the Jews in town ebbed and flowed without significant disruption until the rise of virulent anti-Semitism in the middle 1930’s. Not to be outdone by their German brethren, local teenagers, often members of Hitler youth, became increasingly active. The Jewish population of 33 families, numbering approximately 140 souls within a total population of 4,500, was subjected to increasing threats, humiliating labor observed by local townspeople and boycotts.

After the Austrian population voted overwhelmingly to join the German republic in March of 1938, and following the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, Jews began to leave Laa. Those who could not find a way out after the start of WWII were eventually rounded up and deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

The Austrian government continued to claim until 2000 that they were “victimsâ€? of Nazi Socialism. Memorials to Jews simply did not exist in Austria, as if Jews had never been part of their history.

Recent Events: Until a few years ago, Laa acted like the rest of Austria; Jews were never residents of their ancient town. Then one Sunday morning in 1990 Lena Mullner, a 15 year old Catholic girl, watched Austrian state TV. Why did the program describe Jewish inhabitants and their communal property within her province and town? With the encouragement of her parents, she was driven to perform significant research. There was plenty of evidence and some willing witnesses despite misgivings and warnings from many locals.

Eventually, Lena took first place in a national writing contest with an essay describing her research and won a trip to Israel. Additional publicity led to attention from former Laa Jews who had managed to find shelter in America, Europe and Israel. With new friends in America, the idea of a memorial to the small but historic Jewish community of Laa began to take root.

With significant funding from a family from Bethesda, Maryland and a contribution consisting of funds and a quiet plot located centrally near Laa City Hall, the stage was set by the new Mayor of Laa to hold a ceremony to dedicate a memorial to the Jews of Laa in June of 2005.

Approximately 100 Jews from America, Europe and Israel descended upon the town to attend this unusual dedication. The Mayor officiated and guest speakers included representatives from 3 Laa Jewish families, the Rabbi and Cantor from Vienna and a Jewish historian. My cousin Henry and I represented our family and addressed the crowd of approximately 250 townspeople who stood silently and watched the entire proceeding for over 2 hours. All of these people had either never seen a Jew or had not encountered Jews for more than 63 years.

Our memorial to the Jews of Laa has a brief description recounting their murder at the hands of the Nazis and lists all 33 family names including ours, the Maneles.