Leon Zelman was born on 12 June 1928 in Szczekociny, Poland. He survived the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and the Mauthausen-Ebensee concentration camp where he was liberated by American forces on 6 May 1945. Leon Zelman lost his entire family in the Shoah.
After hospital and convalescence in Bad Ischl and Bad Goisern, Leon Zelman came to Vienna in 1946. He obtained his university entrance qualification at a tutorial college and began studying Journalism in 1949, obtaining a doctorate in 1954. During his studies Leon Zelman was an officer of the Jewish Students’ Union, first as social secretary and then as president from 1953-1959. In 1951 he helped found the Das Jüdische Echo (The Jewish Echo) magazine.
In 1963 Leon Zelman took over the management of the City travel agency from the Austrian Travel Agency in order to build up tourism to Israel.
Leon Zelman was the long-serving editor of Das Jüdische Echo, which grew from a small information sheet issued by the Jewish Students’ Union into an influential cultural and political publication read overseas as well as in the German-speaking world. His autobiography “After Survival”, co-authored with Armin Thurnher, the editor of Vienna listing magazine Falter, was published in 1995 and also appeared in the USA.
In 1995 the Leon Zelman Hall was opened at the Rehavia Gymnasium, the oldest secondary school in Jerusalem. A meeting place for Jewish, Muslim and Christian youth, it was co-financed by Leon Zelman’s Dr. Karl Renner Prize money.
Leon Zelman received numerous awards and honours. Among other accolades, he received the Ring of Honour of the City of Vienna in 2001, the Grand Decoration of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria and the Humanitarian Achievement Award 5764 of the Rabbinical Center of Europe in 2004, as well as the Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold of the province of Styria in 2007.
Leon Zelman passed away on 11 July 2007.
On 11 July 2008, the President of the National Council, Barbara Prammer unveiled a memorial plaque to Leon Zelman at the Palais Epstein in Vienna, in the presence of Vice Mayor Renate Brauner, Councillor for Cultural Affairs Andreas Mailath-Pokorny and the journalist Ari Rath. Leon Zelman had long campaigned for the establishment of a “House of History” in the palace, which is an annex of the nextdoor parliament building.
The “Epstein Lectures”, initiated in 2006 by Leon Zelman and the historian Brigitte Hamann are continuing. The lecture series is aimed at illuminating aspects of history associated with Palais Epstein from both personal and academic perspectives.