The Column: Exchange student from Vienna teaches me something, too

Sometimes events conspire so that, as much as you want to live in the present, you get caught up in the past. That’s what happened to me when my family recently had an Austrian high school student staying with us for two weeks. It was Oliver’s first time in the United States. It was also his first time meeting a Jewish family — and that is why I couldn’t help but look at our interaction with him through a historical lens.

There’s a very good reason why Oliver, almost 16, had never met a Jewish family before. There are only 7,000 to 15,000 Jews (depending on whose statistics you use) among metropolitan Vienna’s population of 2.4 million. There is statistically an extremely small chance that Oliver would have a Jewish classmate or friend. However, had he been alive during the years just prior to the outbreak of World War II and the Holocaust, he would have been much more likely to know some of the many Jews who lived in the city. There were 185,000 Jews in Vienna in 1938.

There aren’t many young Jewish people in Vienna these days, as I learned firsthand when I visited in 2007 at the generosity of an organization called Centropa (, which documents the oral histories and family photographs of Jews who remained in Central and Eastern Europe after the war. I brought my family along with me on the trip, so my kids had a sense of where Oliver is from. The thing they remember most from Vienna is that there were “keep off the grass” signs everywhere. Needless to say, that was a real bummer for three active boys.

It was actually that hyper-orderliness of Vienna that was off-putting to me. The next summer, Centropa took me to Berlin, where I felt much more at home. To be sure, I felt guilty enjoying myself in the city that was once the Nazi capital, but there was something more cosmopolitan and edgy about Berlin that put me at ease. There also was the fact that the Germans began to confront their culpability for the Holocaust far earlier than did the Austrians.

Oliver, of course, had nothing to do with what happened almost 60 years before his birth. He’s an easygoing, friendly young man who speaks rather good English and seemed not to have experienced any culture shock upon his arrival in California (nor much jet lag, for that matter). After all, he’s been watching American television shows his entire life, so I guess we didn’t seem too foreign to him.

According to Oliver, the highlights of his two weeks in the Bay Area with his class from his Vienna high school (through a cultural exchange program) were going to classes at Palo Alto High School for a couple of days with my teenage sons, and shopping excursions to San Francisco’s Union Square with his group. They apparently have Abercrombie and Fitch in Vienna, but it was far more fun to drop $180 on two must-have shirts in San Francisco.

For me, however, the most important part of Oliver’s stay was his being with us for Shabbat dinner. Although I usually practice Jewish rituals with other Jews, there have been instances in which I have celebrated a Jewish holiday or lifecycle event in the presence of non-Jews. But they were either practitioners of their own religion or somewhat familiar with Jewish customs, or both.

Oliver, on the other hand, comes from a completely nonreligious family, and he had never been in a Jewish home or witnessed a Jewish practice until he stood with us around the table on Friday night. Needless to say, I felt far more self-conscious than I usually do as I lit the Shabbat candles, blessed my children and recited the Kiddush.

That self-consciousness faded quickly as the horrible news of the murders of four Jews at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, France broke a few days later. Although some beg to differ, many believe that this attack was yet more proof that Jews are no longer — and have never been — welcome or safe in Europe.

No one knows how things will play out in the big scheme of things, but I am glad that at least in the small picture, my Jewish family was able to welcome and befriend a young European. I can only hope that it will be these little things that will ultimately matter.

Renee Ghert-Zand lives in Palo Alto and is a freelance journalist covering Israel and the Jewish world for a variety of publications. She blogs at

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.