(Wien 1917 – Auschwitz 1943): Zionist and educator
An Austrian Janusz Korczak
Aron Menczer was born on 18 April 1917, the fourth of six sons of Simcha and Bluma Menczer, who moved from Galicia to the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in around 1900. They settled in Leopoldstadt, today Vienna’s 2nd District. He attended grammar school until the age of 16, after which he worked for various companies. Like several of his brothers, he also became involved in the Zionist youth organisation “Gordonia”. He learned Hebrew and Jewish history there, among other things, and developed an interest in Palestine. Since he was good with children, he became a leader (Hebrew madrich), leading the Gordonia youth camps and getting involved in the Youth Aliyah, which prepared young people for a future life in Palestine.
The “Anschluss” of Austria to the German Reich in 1938 brought great change. On the one hand, the Youth Aliyah became one of the last hopes for people who were desperate to flee the German Reich; on the other hand, it was tolerated by Adolf Eichmann as means of expulsing the Jewish population. At the age of 21, Aron Menczer was appointed as Director of the Youth Aliyah School at Marc-Aurel-Straße 5 in Vienna’s 1st District, becoming a significant figure for Jewish youths in Vienna, especially since Jewish children and adolescents had been banned from attending school since 1939. Between 1938 and 1942, the school on Marc-Aurel-Straße was the only place where Jewish children could feel safe and did not have to fear persecution. The educator Menczer managed to create an oasis there for the children and adolescents in the midst of their persecution and, later on, deportation.
In early 1939, Aron Menczer accompanied a youth group to Palestine, but returned to Vienna against his family’s advice in order to help other Jewish children and young people leave the country. In the years that ensued, he succeeded in bringing thousands of Jewish children out of the country, saving their lives. Most of them reached Palestine, but others were able to flee to Scandinavia or were taken to Great Britain aboard kindertransports. He also accompanied visa-less children who were brought illegally across the border into Yugoslavia, before it was occupied. Even after the Youth Aliyah was dissolved, he continued to organise meetings in private homes – although they had since become illegal – until 1942.
On 24 September 1942, Aron Menczer was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Once there, he worked with the Zionist youth association Hechaluz, gave lectures and organised communal Shabbat evenings. When a transport arrived in Theresienstadt on 24 August 1943 carrying 1,264 orphans intended for a prisoner exchange accompanied by 20 carers from the liquidated Bialystok ghetto, Aron Menczer and a number of others volunteered to look after the children. When the prisoner exchange failed to materialise, on 5 October 1943 the 1,196 surviving children were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau with their 53 caregivers and murdered in the gas chamber immediately upon their arrival on 7 October.
In November 2012, the City of Vienna unveiled a memorial plaque to Aron Menczer at Marc-Aurel-Strasse 5, and on 10 September 2021, the “Aron Menczer Educational Campus” was opened in his honour in Vienna’s 3rd District.
Literature and sources
Joanna Nittenberg, Benjamin Kaufmann (eds), Trotz allem … Aron Menczer und die Jugendalijah, Vienna 2013.
Bundespressedienst (ed.), “Auf Wiedersehen in Palästina”. Aron Menczers Kampf für die Rettung jüdischer Kinder im nationalsozialistischen Wien, Vienna 1996.