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In Austria's Jewish Community, Some Who Fear Muslims Are Drawn To The Far-Right


There's an election tomorrow in Austria that's being closely watched across Europe. Austrians could elect the European Union's first head of state from a far right party. The first leader of the Freedom Party, back in the 1950s, was an ex-Nazi. As Joanna Kakissis, reports this election holds special significance for Austria's small Jewish community. And she's been speaking with Jewish voters in Vienna and found some surprising reactions.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: At a kosher supermarket in Vienna's Jewish district, Ruth Winkler is putting up posters of presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen.

RUTH WINKLER: We had a poster here. But you see they have moved some posters, not only ours.

KAKISSIS: Van der Bellen is the independent liberal-leaning candidate running against Norbert Hofer. Winkler, an Orthodox Jewish teacher, worries that Austria's next president could be Hofer, someone from a party with Nazi roots.

WINKLER: Yes, they want to claim that they are OK. Yes, yes, of course. They want to disguise a little bit.

KAKISSIS: She says the Freedom Party, which Austrians call the FPO, likes to blame outsiders for the country's problems. And Muslims are just the current targets.

WINKLER: If there wouldn't be a Youssef, it would be about Yosef. And if there wouldn't be a Mohammed, it would about the Moshe. So if the - if wouldn't have the Muslims to target, it would be us.

KAKISSIS: Vienna was once a mecca for Jewish intellectuals like psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. But the rise of Nazism forced many to leave. Tens of thousands of Austrian Jews who did not leave died in the Holocaust. About 15,000 Jews live in Austria today.

But for some Austrian Jews, the government's decision last year to accept 90,000 refugees, mainly from the Middle East and Afghanistan, is more of a worry than far right politicians. Michael Kaner is a Jewish web designer. And he believes Muslim immigrants are teaching their children anti-Semitic values.

MICHAEL KANER: The greedy Jew, the Jew with the big nose who's always after the money, who's controlling the economy and who wants to rule the world - these are anti-Semitic things we got rid of in Europe.

KAKISSIS: That's why Kaner is supporting Hofer. The Freedom Party even has one Jewish number of Parliament, David Lasar, who has taken party members to Israel. Writer Peter Sichrovsky, a former member of the European Parliament was actually the first Jewish number of the Freedom Party. He joined in 1996, he says, because he was tired of Austria's two mainstream parties dominating politics.

PETER SICHROVSKY: You couldn't get a job without the support of one of the parties. You would join a sport club that was connected to one of the two parties. If you wanted a cheap apartment in Vienna, you had to become a member.

KAKISSIS: Sichrovsky left the Freedom Party in 2002 after populists took over.

SICHROVSKY: They don't offer solutions in economics. They don't offer solutions in education. All they do is using the anger and the frustration and pour oil into the fire, as you say.

KAKISSIS: His son Ilja Sichrovsky now organizes an annual conference that brings together Muslims and Jews from around the world. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.