Hannes Richter

The Austrian-American Councils of the United States

Hannes Richter

When Prof. Fritz Molden, President of the Auslandoesterreicherwerk from 1970-2005, produced a documentary about ‘Austrians Abroad’ (“Auf Rot-Weiss-Roten Spuren”), he conceived the idea of creating the ‘Austrian-American Regional Councils’ (AAC). Originally six such councils were established in the United States for the purpose of exploring common interests and encouraging a strong networking base for the many diverse Austrian clubs formed by immigrants throughout the USA to maintain and nurture their cultural heritage.

Juliana Belcsak, who headed the Northeast Council, soon realized how difficult it was to oversee the fifty states within these six regions, and a consensus was reached to form additional AAC state chapters. A few years later, Belcsak saw the need to create a much larger AAC umbrella organization to better network and serve all the Austrian clubs in their respective communities. The main aim was to help and learn from each other and to provide a strong support group for the communities where Austrians worked and lived. Through volunteers, fundraisers and support groups, the AAC seeks to present a positive image of Austria by helping with local, state and federal needs. Today, the work of AAC reaches beyond the United States to Mexico and Canada. The members hold annual meetings usually in the Fall around the time of the Austrian-American Day, with the support of the World Federation of Austrians Abroad.

Fundraising and Humanitarian Activities

Today twenty-seven Councils remain very active – from East to West, from North to South, as well as in Mexico and Canada. Austrian-American Council volunteers are raising funds for important humanitarian and community causes. Together with the Rotarian Gift of Life Program and with the generous assistance of Austrian Airlines in the form of free flights, AAC was able to bring children to the United States for life-saving open heart operations, and to convince doctors to perform these operations on a pro-bono basis. Great efforts were made to raise funds to support handicapped and abused children and women, to support victims of the 9/11 tragedy through the Twin Tower Fund, and later to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Early on, the councils raised the money to build a school for American Indian children at the San Javier Reservation in Tucson, AZ, later supplying the school with computers. AAC also came to the aid of the small devastated community of Gorne Dubica in Bosnia by having a church bell made in Innsbruck, Austria, and having it delivered on Christmas Eve, mounted on a wooden hoist, positioning it where once a church had stood.

Working closely with the Austrian Cultural Forum, AAC provided countless opportunities and venues for Austrian artists to perform in the United States. Through their “Academic Forums” and “Economic Roundtable Conferences,” AAC was able to arrange for high-level speakers, such as chancellors and foreign ministers, top officers from the United States War College, UN Ambassadors, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General George A. Julwan, as well as former head of the Austrian National Bank Dr. Maria Schaumayer, among many others, in order to keep audiences up-to-date on current events. Major fundraising efforts continue to provide scholarships for full-time university student exchanges as well as high school exchanges. Likewise, AAC makes yearly donations to SOS Children’s Villages.

Ms. Belcsak also recalls the difficulties that arose following the Austrian election in 2000, when Mr. Haider’s Freedom Party joined the federal government. Funding for all scholarship programs was frozen and student travel to Austria canceled. With the concerted efforts, however, of AAC, Prof. Molden, former Mayor of Graz Mr. A. Stingl, and the then Austrian Ambassador to the United States Peter Moser, these programs could gradually be re-established. This provided AAC with a perfect opportunity to re-emphasize the apolitical status of the Austrian-American Councils, serving as people-to-people organizations and based on the friendship of both countries.

The Austrian-American Day

In 1997, AAC was able to establish by Presidential Proclamation the “Austrian American Day” to be celebrated each year on September 26. It was on this day in 1945 that a conference was convened in Vienna and, with the strong support of America, a treaty was signed that freed Austria from Soviet occupation and paved the way for the first Austrian post-war government. In order to establish this special day in the U.S., over 4,000 letters were written by AAC members throughout the nation to senators, members of the House of Representatives and governors of all fifty states, culminating in a huge success. “Much gratitude went to Senator Mike Enzi from Wyoming for his enormous efforts on our behalf and to then Austrian Ambassador Dr. Helmut Tuerk as well as to all the tireless members of the Austrian-American Councils,” Belcsak recalls. Austrian- American Day was proclaimed by President Bill Clinton, who praised the enormous contributions Austrian immigrants have made in the past 200 years, helping the United States achieve its great economic, industrial and cultural strength.

In 2003, the Federation of Austrians Abroad honored Juliana Belcsak, President of the Austrian- American Councils as well as of the Sister City Program, with the “Austrian Expatriate of the Year Award” in recognition of her extraordinary achievements fostering a strong Austrian- American friendship. Juliana Belcsak lives in the USA since 1964 and is the Managing Director at Rundt's World Business Intelligence, a country risk analysis service in New York.