20 November 2015

Notes from Vienna

My former NYC neighbor, Elizabeth Danto, has for the past two years been living in Vienna. She wrote this in early October:


I live in Vienna and for the last few weeks, I’ve been walking up Liniengasse in the 6th District to look at the newly renovated train station called Westbanhof, at the intersection of Mariahilferstrasse and. Most of the “migrants” arrive there, and though I regularly read the newspapers flashing their neon headlines about the hordes and hordes, I generally find nothing of the kind. Now I saunter through Westbanhof and its parks almost every other day, sniffing the air and looking at the posters, and find myself not only less distraught but actually far happier than I expected to be. And finally, after weeks of disinformation about the refugees arriving in Austria after escaping Syria and other countries hostile to humanity, the N.Y. Times got it right.

I have been watching liberation in the making.  Some governments, especially Hungary, are behaving very badly. For lots of their people though, this exodus is a deliverance; it may be a geopolitical disaster but it is not a human tragedy. It is wonderful that people can escape tyrants and land here. Sometimes Vienna feels like the last safe place on earth. Certainly that was one of my own motivations in moving halfway across the globe.  It’s a socialist city; you can feel in the bones.

Vienna is a quiet city. We know that a group of arrivals have come in only when we hear ambulances whirring down Gumpendorferstrasse.  But as soon as the news broke that the immigrants were leaving the Budapest train station on foot, car pools formed to go pick them up. Those in trains come mostly into the Westbanhof or the Hauptbanhof. I visited the Hauptbanhof last Saturday, and the kids had toys and big teddy bears and were playing in the station’s "mini Kunstler" (little artist") child play area. Most of the adults were on their cell phones (Wifi and phone charging stations are free, yes for migrants too). They looked stressed but not miserable. No one is too happy, of course; it feels like any airport or railroad station where people have been waiting too long.

"Muslims and Refugees Welcome"
Men hang in groups and women in other groups with children. About those photos that seem to show only men, or only women and children? Well, most come from cultures where women don't much mix with the men. Young women are simply not seen. Most of the arrivals seem to be families who are given the option of staying in Austria or moving on to Germany, no questions asked. In the area where one drops off donations, the men, generally, line up for assistance. Tables are laid out with water, food, socks, soap/toothbrush packs and toys. Once in a while a server from a nearby restaurant will walk along the tracks and hand out Chinese food containers or slices of pizza. Groups also cluster in the small parks on either side of the station; many are reading the information brochures or working on forms, or simply sleeping. Finally. Some arrivals are sleeping out in the open at the makeshift camp in Traiskirchen. A local right-wing Blatt complained that people were turning up at Traiskirchen in order to "politicize" the issue but you don't read much of that anymore because not only do the Austrians turn up to politicize, they also bring their children to politicize them, too. By the way, all the residents of Traiskirchen now have accommodations.

There have been collection points around the city for a few weeks now asking for clean clothes, shoes and backpacks. Almost all the food and clothing stores are running donation systems. My neighbor Claudia who teaches kindergarten said she's getting new arrivals every day. A huge pro-immigrant march was scheduled for October 3rd and our adored transgender winner of last year’s Eurovision contest, Conchita Wurst, was to lead the rally in song. [Update: Thousands rallied.]

Remember, the Viennese have been through this before. They’ve learned that support is to be shared by the government and the religious organizations. The Catholic organization, Caritas, has been superb. But each major religion has a state-supported organization, a "Kultusgemeinde" like the Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft. The Israelitische Kultusgemeinde had an interesting article (in German, sorry, but parts of their site are in English) defending the Austrian Chancellor, who had recently been criticized for comparing the present situation to the Holocaust. A new portal, How and Where to Help, connects all the major charities and the government services, with opportunities to provide clothes, serve food, offer rides and beds and so forth. There are daily requests for specific kinds of assistance. Yesterday it was for interpreters. Today the requested donation was men's winter clothing. And toys, always toys.

Much of the police effort is going toward chasing down the traffickers, most of whom seem to come from Bulgaria and Romania. People turn over their life savings to the "schleppers" as they are called in German, only to be stranded, starved or killed on their way to safety.

And yes, Germany is taking on hundreds of thousands of the refugees because the country is desperate for workers. The birthrate is the lowest in Europe despite the kind of family benefits that would make Bernie Sanders blush. On the other hand, Germany just stripped Greece of its remaining financial infrastructure, and Merkel's demand for privatization meant that a company based in Frankfurt now owns all the airports in Greece.

What I do find appalling is the endless stream of horror photos of the arrivals. How exploitative can you get? Competing for the Pulitzer prize at the expense of human suffering is cynical and dangerous, and smells of the self-serving ambition of politicians who thrive on resulting false narratives. One of the more infuriating narratives is the distinction between the "good," the "political" refugees as opposed to the "bad," "economic" refugees. This alleged political dimension does not interest the Viennese in the least.

No one knows what the situation will be in six weeks. Municipal elections in Vienna will take place on October 11, and depending on whether the pendulum has swung to the racist Right (as the media predict) or to the supportive Left (which I think is much more likely) the need for moral support will have altered. And much else as well. [Update: Social Democrats remained in power.]

Meanwhile there's the area by the tracks themselves, where the men stand around, waiting, and women in hijabs are sitting here and there. Two signs, one in Arabic, one in English, explain that food and water are available, as well as medical help and translators.

The signs say:

We are doing our best to help you.

You are safe.

The City of Vienna.