Top members of the Austrian government were in attendance Monday at Vienna's Great Synagogue, the Stadttempel, on the 30th anniversary of a terrorist attack by Arabs against Jews who were celebrating a Bar Mitzvah.
Speaking at the ceremony were members of the Austrian parliament, government officials, and the Chief Rabbi of Austria, Paul Haim Eisenberg, who conducted prayers and said Kaddish for the two victims of the August 29, 1981 attack. It was the second time in two years that the synagogue had been attacked by Arab terrorists.
The attack, which security officials said was premeditated, was carried out by by two supporters of the Abu Nidal terror group, as a large group was celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of Jan Stiller, son of Austrian textile magnate Alfred Stiller.
Security officials said at the time that the terrorists were aware of the event, and chose to attack the synagogue on that specific day in order to kill as many Jews as possible.
The attack was unsuccessful, as a group of Austrian commandos, in coordination with Vienna police, managed to keep the terrorists outside the synagogue compound after a quick-thinking officer shut the gate to the building. A gun battle ensued, with two Jews on their way to the synagogue for the Bar Mitzvah killed in the crossfire – a mother trying to protect her baby, and an elderly man - and 21 injured.
One of the terrorists, Marwan Hassan, was injured and arrested on the spot, while the second, Hussham Rajeh, fled on foot, pursued by police. Rajeh led police on a chase through the city, shooting indiscriminately and throwing hand grenades at pursuing police.
He was eventually caught, and after interrogating him, security officials uncovered a major terrorist cell that was forming in the country, which had planned numerous other attacks against “Zionist targets” in Austria. Rajeh was also indicted for the May 1 slaying of Heinz Nittel, head of the Austrian-Israel Society.
The Stadttempel was built in 1825, and was the only synagogue to survive the Nazi occupation of Austria intact. The synagogue is built into a into a block of houses and hidden from plain view of the street, because of an edict issued by Emperor Joseph II that only Catholic places of worship were allowed to be built with facades fronting directly on to public streets.
Ironically, this edict saved the synagogue from total destruction during the Kristallnacht in November 1938, since the synagogue could not be destroyed without setting fire to the buildings to which it was attached.