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."
"What am I supposed to be offended by?" asks Gerald Margolis, director of the Wiesenthal Museum.
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.
State Department spokesman Aric Schwan echoes the sentiment. "I've been trying to convince ambassadors to do more of this sort of public writing," he says. "It's a way to reach more people in the country with America's message." He calls the Newsweek story "tragic" and adds, "This national magazine went on a secondary source and then really wrote this negative, stinging column." He also takes exception to Newsweek saying that the State Department "may issue a statement distancing itself from [Hunt's] column."
"Newsweek didn't contact anyone here..." he says. "I would have been the appropriate and obvious source, and I never talked to them. And the State Department is not distancing itself from anything."
In fact, he says, Assistant Secretary Richard C. Holbrook just fired off a letter to Newsweek "taking exception" to the story.
It is unclear just why Rabbi Baker reacted so strongly. According to Marc Fisher, author of the upcoming book After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History and Washington Post Berlin bureau chief from 1989 to 1993, Baker is no hothead. "Normally, he's an extremely cautious guy," says Fisher. "He's someone who knows that part of the country really well...and for him to speak out that way must have meant he was really upset. I've seen him through the whole period of neo-Nazi attacks in Germany, and he was critical, but he was careful about criticizing the government. He used to tell me it really didn't pay to slap them around in public--you had to build working relations."
Building working relations is exactly what Swanee Hunt says she's trying to do. "I hope I'll be working alongside the American Jewish Committee for the rest of my life," she says. She has written to Baker explaining that she never did and would never make the sort of comparison of which he accuses her. In her letter, she goes on to admonish Baker, saying, "I wish...you had contacted me if you had concerns about my positions or my actions. Trial by national press doesn't seem to be a fair or helpful way for us to go about promoting the values we both care so deeply about."
Baker is unimpressed. "I don't think her letter clears it up," he says. "You still have that explicit reference to fifty years ago and Austrian suffering. You still have the association of victims."
Milton is stumped by that attitude. "They suffered, period," she says. "Are they disqualified because they're Austrian? This is nonsense."
This is a translation of Swanee Hunt's March 24 column in the Vienna newspaper the Neue Kronenzeitung:
"During Lent, our thoughts naturally turn to spiritual matters. Through the years, many have expressed these thoughts musically. I've done so myself, with `The Witness Cantata,' based on `the seven last words of Christ.'
"The cantata will have its European premiere tonight at the Augustinierkirche at 19:30 in Vienna and Sunday night at 20:00 at the Mariahilferkirche in Graz.
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"I'm dedicating the performances to my dear friend and mentor, Victor Frankl, who's been such an inspiration to me. In fact, the message in Man's Search for Meaning is really the message of my music--that suffering can be a source of meaning in our lives.
"Although the cantata is a traditional form, I've used it to bring the message of the Gospels forward to contemporary times by drawing on several modern sources--the Russian poet Anna Akhamatova, a victim of Stalin's horrors; the German-American poet Theodore Roethke, who suffered from mental illness; and the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. These writers all speak with the passion and engagement that arises from suffering.
"Fifty years ago Austria suffered in a way unfathomable to most Americans. But it was our privilege to participate in the resurrection of this beautiful land through the Marshall Plan.
"Maybe this cantata is best understood as one more American saying, `I care.'