Hannes Richter

Leon Zelman (1928 – 2007)

Hannes Richter

A Life in Service of Remembrance 

Leon Zelman
Leon Zelman, Holocaust survivor,  passed away in Vienna on July 11 at the age of 81 after a prolonged illness. As co-founder and head of the Jewish Welcome Service, he was a bridge-builder and exceptional figure, and he left behind a lasting legacy as a passionate architect of reconciliation.
Born in 1928 in Szczekociny, Poland, Zelman survived the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Mauthausen-Ebensee. He was liberated in May 1945 by U.S. forces and came to Vienna in 1946. After graduating from secondary school, Leon Zelman began to study journalism at Vienna University, completing his doctorate in 1954. In 1963, Austria’s leading tour operator,  Österreichisches Verkehrsbüro, entrusted Leon Zelman with the task of managing the City Travel Agency to develop Austrian tourism to and from Israel.

With the support of the City of Vienna, he co-founded the “Jewish Welcome Service” in 1980 to promote tourism with Israel. Due to his tireless efforts the organization’s project “Welcome to Vienna” has made it possible to invite more than 4,000 Austrians exiled from the country in 1938 to return to Vienna and visit their native country with their families. In addition to many special projects, the Jewish Welcome Service also organizes exchange programs for young people from Israel, the U.S. and Austria.

Leon Zelman was one of the founders of Jüdisches Echo (1951), an annual journal serving as a forum for Jewish culture and politics with articles by well-known Austrian and international writers. As an active voice in the discourse provided by the Theodor Herzl conferences in Vienna, Zelman added substance to the dialogue and discussion of difficult issues. In recent years he dedicated his efforts to have the Palais Epstein on the Ringstrasse turned into a “House of History,” a project that much to his regret was not realized.

Leon Zelman spent a lifetime promoting Austria’s awareness of the significance of Jewish traditions in culture, science and intellectual life, while bringing new life to Vienna’s Jewish community. Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer referred to him as a “moral authority” in Austria, President Heinz Fischer praised him for “transforming the suffering he had to endure as a witness to the Holocaust and as a concentration camp prisoner into activity, love and zest for action.” Toward the end of his life, he received many awards, including  the Grand Decoration for Services to the Republic of Austria.