By: Elisheva Kohn  | 

Headlines Are Not Just Headlines: Reflections on the Nov. 2 Terror Attack in Vienna

In recent months, I have grown accustomed to witnessing events of great significance from afar; my screen, whether via Zoom, online newspaper outlets or social media, has served as a blaring window into The Incidents That Shaped 2020. Protests, coronavirus outbreaks, political crises in the U.S. –– these all seemed highly relevant to my life, though also somewhat removed, perhaps due to the sheer distance between myself, a student watching world events through a screen, and the context surrounding these events. On the afternoon of Nov. 2, however –– after I returned from Vienna to campus in New York –– I found myself following the news in horror, geographically distant yet so close to me, as yet another “2020 Moment” unfolded: Vienna, my hometown, was the target of a terror attack. For hours, the residents of Vienna hid in fear, as news outlets and social media channels released updates (many of them including fake news and inaccurate reports of death counts) and bloody videos of multiple shootings in the city. 

Sitting at my desk in Washington Heights, I sat glued to my screen for hours, watching awful footage of the numerous shootings that took place on the streets that I know so well and love. Witnessing these events through a screen from a safe distance did not instill a sense of security in me — on the contrary, I felt like I was completely helpless. 

Seitenstettengasse — the address of the main synagogue in Vienna and the center of the Nov. 2 attacks — is a street both familiar and meaningful to me. I have walked this street an infinite number of times to go to shul, visit my grandparents or have a Wiener Schnitzel in the nearby kosher restaurant. On Nov. 2, it was the center of attention as Austrians around the country watched a terror attack unfold. For hours, people in Vienna hid –– some in obscure places, such as the Opera House –– as a counterterrorism operation was underway. My grandmother was walking just a few meters away from where shots were fired and ran to hide in a nearby building, where she stayed until 3 a.m. before police officers came to walk her home. Total chaos ensued in the interim. Nobody knew how many terrorists were on the loose, how many victims there were and whether or not people could leave their hiding places. The feeling of utter helplessness made me panic –– I  wanted to do something and contribute in some way or another, but realistically speaking, a 20-something-year-old college student across the ocean is rather useless in a counterterrorism operation. 

Nov. 2 was not the first time Seitenstettengasse witnessed a tragedy. In 1981, two members of the Jewish community were killed in the very same street in a mass shooting and grenade attack during a bar mitzvah. One of the victims, Sarah Kohut, was killed by Abu Nidal terrorists as she jumped in front of my uncle, only three years old at the time, to shield him from a grenade moments before it detonated. My uncle named his daughter after her. May Sarah’s memory be a blessing. 

I remember some terror attacks more vividly than others; in 2012, a terrorist killed a rabbi and three schoolchildren at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, prompting 12-year-old me to reflect on what it means to be a Jew in Europe. The photos that emerged after the 2014 attack on the Kehillat Bnei Torah shul in Har Nof still haunt me until this day. In 2015, the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Paris was put under a siege, just days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. More recently, a mass shooting took place in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, marking the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the U.S. As we approach Chanukah, the Jewish community mourns the victims of the horrific stabbing in Monsey, NY, and the shooting in Jersey City, NJ, which took place exactly one year ago. I am listing these events because they struck me in a particularly intense way for various reasons, which are beyond the scope of this article, though I very much acknowledge that readers may have been more affected by other tragedies, such as anti-Semitic terrorist attacks and school shootings in the U.S. Either way, tragic headlines, which are really just brief virtual summaries of real-life tragedies, ought to instill within us a true feeling of empathy and solidarity towards our communities.

In the months leading up to the attack in Vienna, I read hundreds of headlines about tragedies that had struck all over the planet. In most cases, I briefly reflected on these events, perhaps even discussing them with friends and family, before moving on with my life. In retrospect, I am taken aback by the borderline indifference I felt when reading these stories; the only possible explanation I have –– and it’s a poor excuse –– is that there were simply too many awful stories this year. When the headline concerned my hometown, however, I cared ––  a lot.  

In a year that has been dominated by numbers –– infection rates, electoral votes and unemployment rates –– something that might seem distant to a reader living on the other side of the planet hits home for a Vienna native watching the city she grew up in fall into utter chaos. It is this observation that prompted me to reevaluate how I had dealt with all the other events that shaped 2020 –– events that, one may argue, have affected an even greater number of people, including myself. On Nov. 2, I felt torn; as a political science major who had taken numerous classes on terrorism and security, I knew that my feelings –– fear, uncertainty and the inability to focus on my computer science midterm which was literally taking place at the same time as the attack –– were precisely what terrorists hoped to achieve by committing attacks. Wasn’t this a moment in which I should, for the sake of not letting terrorism win, feel just a bit more indifferent?

When terror strikes in a place you call home, you are not able to move on, and perhaps that feeling ought to teach us a lesson: We should not  passively stand on the sidelines as the world experiences tragedy after tragedy, even if we are only able to witness them through a screen. Rather, we should take action, however small, to address the situation. Indeed, on Nov. 2, friends, professors, classmates, rabbis, acquaintances and colleagues reached out to me to inquire about how my family was doing. When I asked my computer science professor whether I could start the midterm late because I was not able to function while my grandmother was still in hiding and things seemed so uncertain, he responded with grace. My grandfather, whom I spoke to multiple times that night, comforted me (though he was the one who had to sleep over in a different district because he couldn’t go home), emphasizing that Vienna had been a safe city up until that point, and that we should just be grateful for our health and that we have benefitted from such a lovely city for a long time. 

Nov. 2 was objectively a rather awful day. Nevertheless, it was also a testament to how supportive my family, friends and random-people-I-know-from-YU are, and to some extent served as a wake-up call. Headlines are not just headlines, but a call to action, a prompt for empathy and solidarity. Nov. 2 taught me that reaching out to people who may have been affected by something I read about in the news could go a long way, and it reaffirmed my wish to pursue a meaningful career that will –– in some way or another –– contribute to global security. Above all, Nov. 2 proved, once again, that the Viennese community is resilient and united in the face of terror. 


Photo Caption 1: Seitenstettengasse, a few days after the Nov. 2 attack in Vienna
Photo Caption 2: A memorial plaque honoring the victims of the 1981 terror attack in Vienna, just steps away from where my uncle was saved.
Photo Credit 1: Jonathan Kohn
Photo Credit 2: Jonathan Kohn