A Walking Tour through Vienna’s Forgotten History as a Transit Hub During the Cold War

When you stroll through the city centre of Vienna at any time of the year you will notice the guided tour groups at all the famous sights, for example St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Hofburg or along the Ring. Most tours focus on the city’s imperial past and all the connected places and personalities, such as the Habsburg family and the various composers and painters. However, Vienna has many more stories to tell. Take for instance the city’s long and rich history of immigration. Without the large number of workers from Bohemia and Moravia, the imperial government would not have been able to construct all the splendid buildings tourists marvel at today (and Viennese surnames would be less diverse). The same is true for workers and their families coming from Yugoslavia and Turkey decades later, who not only kept the country’s economy going but also greatly enriched Vienna’s cuisine. Unfortunately, there are no walking tours of which I am aware that provide insight into these aspects of the city’s history.

Another aspect of Vienna’s history related to migration and deserving of wider recognition is Vienna’s role as a major transit hub for refugees from the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. During my research into the Polish refugees of the 1980s, I realised that I regularly pass places of importance to them in my daily life. The majority of these places are located in or near the city centre, but may often go unnoticed as most do not stand out. They were mostly (but not entirely) separate from the places that were used for the transit of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel and other countries at the same time.

One could start a tour of the locations at the Central Station, which in 2012 replaced the historical Südbahnhof where trains used to arrive both from the south and from the east. Poles used to come to Austria in a number of different ways: The train connection between Warsaw and Vienna, via Czechoslovakia, was a major line of transportation between Poland and Austria. By 1968/69, a large number of Poles of Jewish descent had already left their home country by train after having been the target of an antisemitic campaign by the government. In the 1980s, the Chopin Express, going back and forth between the two cities, was full of refugees, petty traders, journalists, diplomats, smugglers, underground activists and spies. The train service even continued after the introduction of martial law in Poland. Furthermore, a large number of Poles came in cars, which they sold afterwards (this provided them with urgently needed starting capital for their new life in the West). Others joined bus tours for tourists or pilgrims and abandoned their group en route. A few even arrived by plane at the airport in Schwechat.

The next stop on our tour is the Polish church at Rennweg 5a, where newly arrived Poles could get in touch with their compatriots. From the train station you can get there either by taking the tram or walking through the park of Belvedere palace. The church was built in the 18th century and has been administered by Polish-speaking priests since the late 19th century. The church was not only a place for pastoral care but also for practical advice and political activism. When martial law was declared on 13th December 1981, many Poles spontaneously assembled in front of the church and started a demonstration, marching to the Polish embassy in the district of Hietzing. However, members of Poland’s Ukrainian minority seemed to have their own support network. Some Ukrainians from Poland, who emigrated to Canada via Austria, told the anthropologist Patrycja Trzeszczyńska that they were hosted by a Ukrainian already living in Vienna, who was known for helping co-ethnics[i].

The Polish Church at Rennweg 5a. Credit: Daniel Jerke.

Continuing our tour, we walk towards the inner city, cross the Ring and enter the narrow alleyways east of St. Stephen’s Cathedral where the police branch responsible for dealing with foreigners (Fremdenpolizei) had its headquarters. The police branch had stations all over the city but the best-known office was at Bäckerstraße 13 (the building is now ironically occupied by the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ division working on migration and integration). The law obliged foreigners to register with the police within two weeks after their arrival. However, many were unaware and submitting an asylum claim was curiously not considered to be a proper registration. That led to situations in which Polish citizens were granted asylum by the Ministry of the Interior but simultaneously handed a note by the police to leave the country immediately (the former overruled the latter). Nevertheless, some Poles avoided contact with the Austrian state institutions altogether, sometimes presumably out of distrust after having had bad experiences with the state back at home and sometimes because they were engaged in illegal activities, like moonlighting, smuggling or prostitution. If caught, they could end up in jail at Roßauer Kaserne (now hosting the Ministry of Defence[ii]) and be threatened with deportation.

Although you could theoretically apply for asylum at a number of state institutions, most Poles did so directly at the Traiskirchen refugee camp, 25 kilometres south of Vienna. The former army barracks had been turned into a refugee camp after the arrival of thousands of Hungarian refugees in 1956 and has remained in use ever since. The camp, however, was (and is) chronically overcrowded. Therefore, a large number of asylum seekers were housed in hotels and inns while they waited for the decision on their asylum claim. Although the accommodation was mostly located in rural areas in the eastern parts of Austria, a few asylum seekers were housed in Vienna. In 1981, when more than 29,000 asylum claims were submitted by Polish citizens, the defunct (and now demolished) Josef-Afritsch-Heim in Hörndlwald, in the south-eastern corner of the city, or the Hotel Laxenburg, in the vicinity of the central train station (the former Arbeiterheim Favoriten that is currently refurbished to become the local headquarters of the social democratic party), were used for that purpose.

Although there were minor exceptions, the Austrian asylum system was almost exclusively geared towards organising the refugees’ transit during the Cold War. The vast majority of Polish refugees did not want to stay in Austria, but rather to be resettled in other Western countries. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, a variety of international organisations opened offices in Vienna to assist in that. In 1989, a magazine for Polish exiles issued in Vienna listed twelve different organisations and institutions refugees could turn to in order to get emigration advice[iii]. From the police station at Bäckerstraße, it is just a short walk to the office of the International Rescue Committee at Herrengasse 6 (directly opposite the Ministry of the Interior), or the Caritas at Nibelungengasse 1 (next to Karlsplatz). The most popular countries of destination for Polish refugees (the United States, Canada and Australia) expected refugees to register with one of these organisations first, in order to do the paperwork before they were invited to an interview in one of the diplomatic missions.

From either of the two former offices, we head north-west to the most important diplomatic missions. The US consulate responsible for immigration was located in the so-called America House at Friedrich-Schmidt-Platz 2 behind the town hall, while the Canadian embassy was situated just a few hundred metres away, facing the University’s main building (formerly Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Ring 10, now Universitätsring). Over the entirety of the 1980s, thousands of Poles (in addition to many more people from other countries of the Soviet bloc) went through that procedure, and were finally admitted to both the US and Canada. Nevertheless, thousands also remained in Austria, of whom most settled in Vienna. Some had been turned down by the missions and did not want to return to Poland, others preferred Austria over countries overseas, due to its proximity to Poland. In some cases, they stayed after having found a good job or a spouse in the meantime. These people formed the backbone of Austria’s Polish community that continued growing in the 1990s and 2000s, but that’s a story for another walk…

Header image via Wikimedia Commons (CC ShareAlike 3.0): Arkadenhaus (1882) von Dionys Milch und Heinrich Hellin, Friedrich-Schmidt-Platz 2, Wien-Innere Stadt, by Buchhändler

[i] Trzeszcynska, Patrycja: Diaspora – Pamięć – Miejsca. Ukraińcy z Polski z lat 80. XX wieku w Kanadzie. Studium etnograficzne. Kraków 2019, p. 95.

[ii] The building’s name was spelled Roßauer Kaserne until 1999 when it was changed to Rossauer Kaserne. Nowadays, it’s officially called Rossauer Kaserne Bernardis-Schmid.

[iii] Sierpień ‘80 (Pismo Niezależne) – Biuletyn Polsko-Austriackiego Klubu Informacyjno-Kulturalnego, 12.11.1989. (Scans in the possession of the author).

Tags: Migration