By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
All Swanee Hunt, Denver philanthropist and U.S. ambassador to Austria, wanted to do was write a newspaper column about her newest musical creation: "The Witness Cantata." Then she used the word "suffering" in a closing paragraph. Now she's suffering for it.
As Newsweek reported it, Hunt's March 24 column in the Austrian right-wing daily Die Neue Kronenzeitung allegedly "compared the suffering of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to the misery Austrians endured after World War II." Newsweek associate editor Carla Koehl--using a report filed from the magazine's Berlin bureau--wrote that the column drew "ire from home" and characterized the incident as "American diplomacy [taking] a nosedive."
The Washington Post had broken the supposed story with a piece headlined "Ambassador's Column Stirs Up Ruckus." And the State Department scrambled to put together a full press-briefing kit on the issue.
The trouble is, where's the ire?
It appears to have come from one source: Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of European affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Baker was in Vienna when the column was published, read it and--taking umbrage at its wording--immediately sent off a letter to the State Department. When he hadn't heard back in a few days, he shared his concerns--and his letter--with a Washington Post reporter. The rest is history.
Or an example of how history shouldn't be written.
No other complaints have been lodged about the column by Jewish, Holocaust, or any other organizations--in the U.S. or Vienna. In fact, when asked to comment on the column, officials at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tole-
rance in Los Angeles say they don't understand what all the fuss is about.
"The column clearly does not warrant [Baker's] interpretation," says Sybil Milton, senior historian at the Holocaust Museum. "I don't find anything offensive in it."
It's certainly not the "ruckus" described in the Post story. But then, Hunt never expected any ruckus at all. "The column was written the same week as the fifty-year anniversary of the Allied bombing of the opera house [where the cantata was premiering that night], the statehouse--most of the city," Hunt says. "I just wanted to recognize that." (See the full text of her column on page 10.)
But Baker, after reading the column, accused Hunt of "liken[ing] Austria's `suffering' with that of a Holocaust survivor and with Jesus on the cross" and found the additional fact that she had done so in the Kronenzeitung "incredibly offensive."
"She reinforced the Austrian myth that Austria was somehow a victim in the Second World War rather than one of the perpetrators," Baker explains from his D.C. office.
Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Office of Special Investigations at the U.S. Department of Justice (which prosecutes Nazi war criminals), strongly disagrees. "You need to stand on your head to read it that way," he says. And in a letter to Hunt herself, he writes, "No fair-minded reader could conclude that your column sought to equate (or even to compare) the suffering of Jewish victims of the Nazis with the fate that befell Austria upon the arrival of the western Allies and the Soviet Union in 1945..." Rosenbaum wrote the letter to Hunt after coming across the Newsweek item and being "shocked."
Margolis doesn't see the comparison--or the implication--either. "I'd be interested to find out what he thinks is offensive," he says.
Milton is less charitable about Baker's complaint. "It's either a colossal misunderstanding or a tempest in a teapot," she says. "[Hunt's] public position and her activities are unambiguous--she received an award from the Anti-Defamation League just last week. I don't think you need more than that."
And Milton is furious with the coverage Hunt received at the hands of Newsweek. "Aren't there enough real things out there that require one's attention without spending time on this?" she says. "This is truly a non-story."
Not according to Newsweek.
Carla Koehl has no apologies. "Of course it's offensive," she says, referring to Hunt's column. "Why aren't you offended?"
Koehl admits, however, that the word "compare" was probably not the best way to describe what Hunt did in her column. "In the space that we had, that was the only way we could characterize it," Koehl explains. "But we stand by the story we wrote."
Al Kamen, the Washington Post reporter who wrote the original story about the "ruckus," also says he found the column "offensive" but refuses further comment, saying, "I don't want to become part of the story I wrote."
In the center of the storm, Swanee Hunt--a Southern Baptist whose husband, Charles Ansbacher, is Jewish--sounds more hurt and perplexed than angry at all the bad press. "I in no way compared the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust to that of Austria," she says in a telephone interview from Vienna. "I never have, and I would not ever compare an experience to the targeting of Jews as a group. That went beyond suffering and into evil."
Her column, she says, runs in the Neue Kronenzeitung--a paper Baker called "right-wing and anti-Semitic" and Newsweek termed "far-right"--because it's an opportunity to reach 2.7 million Austrian readers who don't usually hear American views or voices.