Helmut Zilk, mayor committed to the fringes of Vienna society

Vienna Mayor Helmut Zilk was injured by a letter bomb. Dr. Vilmos Wecsei also attended a press conference afterward. Vienna Mayor Helmut Zilk was injured by a letter bomb. Dr. Vilmos Wecsei also attended a press conference afterward. (AFP/getty images/file 1993)
By William J. Kole
Associated Press / October 25, 2008
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VIENNA - Former Vienna mayor Helmut Zilk, who lost part of his hand to a letter bomb in 1993, died yesterday. He was 81.

Vienna's Wilhelminen Hospital said Mr. Zilk died yesterday morning after becoming ill while on a recent vacation in Portugal. His health had been deteriorating for some time.

"One must make friends with death . . . and I had a beautiful journey through life," he said in a televised interview in 2006. He was speaking not long after undergoing surgery to have a pacemaker implanted and was undergoing regular kidney dialysis. Mr. Zilk said he had no regrets.

Mr. Zilk lost part of his left hand when he opened a letter that had been rigged with explosives and mailed to his home in December 1993.

Authorities later tried and convicted right-wing extremist Franz Fuchs of sending pipe and letter bombs targeting refugees and minorities - and officials such as Mr. Zilk who supported them.

Fuchs - dubbed "the Austrian Unabomber," after the American mail-bomber Theodore Kaczynski - hanged himself in his prison cell in 2000 while serving a life sentence for the string of attacks, the most high-profile of which was a bombing that killed four Gypsies in 1995.

Despite the severity of the attack, Mr. Zilk remained committed to those on the fringes of Austrian society, and often was seen greeting supporters with his damaged hand wrapped in a silk scarf. Retreating from public life, he said, would have meant that "the other side won," something Mr. Zilk refused to let happen.

"Austria is no Nazi nation, and it's also no anti-Semitic nation," he declared in 1990 while opening an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art devoted to prewar Austria.

Mr. Zilk, a senior member of Austria's center-left Social Democratic Party, enjoyed broad popularity in his decadelong tenure as Vienna's mayor from 1984-94.

Leading Austrian politicians mourned Mr. Zilk's death yesterday.

Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer praised Mr. Zilk's "human greatness" for showing understanding and tolerance of Austria's embattled racial and ethnic minorities.

"He was one of the first politicians to build a bridge to our Eastern neighbors, and thus placed one of the most important foundation stones for the internationalization of Vienna," said Vienna's current mayor, Michael Haeupl.

Born in Vienna, Mr. Zilk completed advanced studies in German, psychology, and philosophy and joined the Social Democrats in 1950. He began his career in journalism, working as ombudsman for the mass-circulation daily Kronen Zeitung and for Austrian national broadcaster ORF before going into politics in 1978.

Mr. Zilk leaves his third wife, the former stage actress Dagmar Koller.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday.

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