Elie Rosen had never really listened as a child when his grandparents told him and his cousins to keep their heads down. He knew they had survived the Holocaust but he believed the world’s vow of “never again” and saw no reason for his generation of European Jews to fear.
That changed when a man wielding a baseball bat came after him in front of his synagogue in Graz, Austria. The building had been repeatedly vandalized and while Rosen managed to reach his car and escape unharmed physically, he was shaken to his core.
“After the attack, those warnings of my grandparents had kind of a flashback,” he told CNN. “This made me very, very sorry and brought tears to my heart and to my face,” he said.
“Being physically attacked is a different dimension than being verbally attacked, which I am used to because anti-Semitism has risen in the last year.”
Violence and oppression against Jews and their faith has been a constant in Europe, but recorded incidents of anti-Semitism have been on an alarming rise, partly fueled by lockdowns to stop the spread of coronavirus.
In Rosen’s home of Austria, there has been the highest number of anti-Semitic attacks since the country started recording them 19 years ago.
Benjamin Nägele, secretary general of Jewish Communities Austria, said its figures showed a 6.4% rise in reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2020, even though he says many people do not report every time someone uses a slur against them.
“We’ve seen a worrying trend not only in Austria, but throughout Europe when it comes to anti-Semitism, he said.
Nägele said the verbal aggression comes first because it is so easy, especially online. “You can do it anonymously. You can do it a lot of times without fearing any prosecution,” he said. “And then you get encouraged to do it more, to be more aggressive, to actually add insult to injury and, at some point, get so radicalized that you then transfer it to the real world.”
Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission’s anti-Semitism coordinator, said the issues were ancient but there had been a new impetus to some of the hate.
“Anti-Semitic conspiracy myths have been there for centuries,” she told CNN. “Whenever there is a pandemic, they have come to the fore again. What we see is that, for example, during Covid, anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy myths have increased significantly on social platforms.”
As people marched in protest against strict lockdowns imposed by their leaders, the German RIAS organization, which tracks anti-Semitism, noted Jewish tropes among the placards.
At one event in Bavaria, RIAS said, demonstrators held up a photomontage of people being forcibly vaccinated by people wearing uniforms bearing what looked like a Star of David and the word “Zion.”
In another case in Berlin, a man appeared to accept the false conspiracy theory that the pandemic was caused by Jews, shouting at two identifiably Jewish pedestrians, “Are you not ashamed, what you did, you Jews?” RIAS reported.
More than a quarter of the anti-Semitic incidents documented were related directly to the coronavirus, the group said in its annual report.
The violence between Israel and Hamas in May this year again fueled anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany, RIAS found, with all Jews being targeted for the actions of Israel’s government and military.
“Stop doing what Hitler did to you,” read one sign in English held up during a pro-Palestinian march in Berlin, the group said.
Benjamin Ward, deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Europe division, agreed that anti-Semitism was often cyclical and propelled by events in the Middle East. But he added, “If we look more broadly at the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Europe, we see that it’s much older and also much wider. it’s really a European issue.”
Across Europe, anti-Semitic attacks have been rising for years. France has seen numerous attacks – in 2012, three children and a teacher were gunned down at a Jewish school in Toulouse; in 2015, four people were shot dead and others held hostage in a kosher supermarket in Paris; in 2018, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor was killed when she was stabbed 11 times and then had her Paris apartment set on fire.
Jewish cemeteries from France to Poland are regularly desecrated, and nine out of 10 European Jews believe that anti-Semitism is on the rise, according to a survey by the European Commission.
Different ways to deal with hate
In Brussels, Rabbi Albert Guigui is one of those responding by trying to hide his very identity, to look less Jewish.
“Of course, I wear a yarmulke at home, but outside I prefer to cover my head less conspicuously,” he said, talking of the baseball cap he dons most days. “It’s not healthy to live in an atmosphere of fear and where you feel hunted.”
As those with living memory of the Holocaust pass away, Guigui worries more hate will come.
“There is concern precisely because there is no longer that barrier of memory,” he said. “Before, people couldn’t openly express their anti-Semitism because the memory of the Holocaust was there to remind people where such words lead. Now there’s been a liberation of the very speech that generates acts.”
Back in Austria, Karoline Edtstadler, the country’s minister for the EU, said the government was worried because although it was trying to tackle the upsurge in anti-Jewish hate, the numbers of incidents online and in real life kept rising.
“The positive thing, of course, is we have to foster Jewish life,” she said.
That’s the new tactic of Rosen, who’s bucking the advice of his grandparents and choosing to stand tall as a member of Austria’s Jewish community, that now stands at about 15,000 people, a fraction of the 220,000 Jews estimated to have lived in Austria before the rise of Hitler.
He says his grandparents’ approach of keeping a low profile after the Holocaust, or Shoah, was understandable but misguided, and it was time to show and introduce others to Jewish life and traditions.
“The post-Shoah society of Jews often thought that being silent, not being too loud, would lead to a higher acceptance of Jews in the main society,” he explained, before saying that clearly did not work.
“I will tell my son or young Jewish people to proud of being Jewish and not to be silent.”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, a photo caption misidentified the memorial to a Berlin synagogue looted in the Nazi era.
Journalist Adam Berry contributed to this story.