By Liam Hoare
Identity, belonging, Europe, and Israel are the themes of the Israeli-Austrian writer Doron Rabinovici’s latest novel, Elsewhere, the first of his fictions to be translated into English. Born in Tel Aviv in 1961, he moved to Vienna with his family in 1964 where he still lives and works. In addition to his novels, which focus on Jewish themes and issues of memory, Rabinovici has made interjections into Austria’s political scene as a founding member of the campaign against anti-Semitism, Republikanisher Club – Neues Österreich. As a historian, he is the author of Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna.
I met Doron Rabinovici on a Friday afternoon in mid-August at Café Korb in Vienna’s Innere Stadt, an establishment whose interior has a decidedly 1950s vibe about it. The city was experiencing a heat wave at the time so we sat outside, ordered cold drinks, and talked for around an hour about Elsewhere, as well as the place of Israelis in Europe and the act of writing fiction in German.
* * *
Tell me about your latest novel, Elsewhere.
Someone who lives in various places and who, everywhere, does not feel at home and is against the consensus because he’s sympathetic and always hears the other voice fascinated me. It’s a book about feeling at home; about the fact that the main protagonist feels at home where he is the stranger and finds out that to be at home is in the end where things bother him most.
You have on the one hand the Israeli scientist who tries not only to be an Israeli, to be a Jew, and the Austrian scientist who tries desperately to become a Jew, to have been a Jew from the beginning. In the end, the Israeli who always thought he knew who he was does not know who he is and the Austrian also does not know who is. It’s a big story of destruction of nationalities and family myths.
In what way is the discussion of memory different in Austria than in Israel?
In Israel, the main question is, ‘How could this happen to us? Why did this happen to us?’ In Germany the question is, ‘How could this happen in our society?’ In Austria, the question is, ‘What does this have to do with us?’ because after 1945, Austria believed that they were the first victims of Nazism. This was their explanation, and in this respect the Jews were a problem because if you wanted to be the first victims, the Jews were a disturbance.
Why would an Austrian want to become a Jew?
This over-identification with the victim was not only an Austrian phenomenon, but in Austria and Germany, the past is such a big topic – and it has to be. The Jewish victims were murdered in such a barbaric way that they are the innocent victims, so one way to deal with that is to have an over-identification with the victim. It helps in a certain way to understand what happened but if you don’t overcome that and understand that you have to deal with your own history, it can be a trap.
Are Israelis today part of European Jewry or something distinct?
In the beginning, when young Israelis come here, they are not part of the Jewish community. They even think they don’t want to be because they don’t want to become Jews in Europe – they want to be Israelis in Europe who will go back eventually. Most of those who come love Israel but just want to have success outside of it, as business, musicians, scientists.
But after a certain time, Israelis start to feel a little bit more traditional, they go to the synagogue on the high holidays, they try to find partners, and so on. They become a part of the Jewish community, although perhaps the more Israeli part of the Jewish community. They start to find religion more important because they ask themselves, without it, what is Jewish about me?
The other tendency that we mustn’t forget is that the Jewish communities themselves have become more Israeli in recent decades.
In terms of writing fiction, are there things you can do in German that you can’t in Hebrew?
This is a hypothetical question. My Hebrew is not a literary Hebrew – not at all. It’s a simple, colloquial Hebrew, a childish Hebrew, whereas my German is the language I live in. I have a deep, emotional link to German as a language and this bond has something to do with the ambivalence, with the fact that so many bad things have been said in German too.
What do you like about writing in German?
I started reading German drama very early on in my childhood. My parents’ bookshelves were not filled with typical children’s books but I found one [The Three Soldiers] by Bertolt Brecht. I read it aloud to myself, and then I read his plays, and this literature of Heine, Brecht, Frisch was a literature of contrast, of combat. This was fiction that was already very articulate, opinionated, directed, but very good, and it took me. I was fascinated by it – I couldn’t stop. I always had the impression that this was the real literature.
How have you seen the Jewish community in Vienna change over time?
When I came here as a child, I was a sabra. I was an Israeli kid. My role models were not victims – my role models were Jews that were fighting. It was very clear that Europe was some kind of cemetery, a mausoleum. It was just the rest of us, and it was clear that we would not stay here. Why should we? And Vienna then was quite a grey city because we were the end of the world and next to us was the Iron Curtain.
Then came the Jews from the Soviet Union, and in the 1970s, the Jewish community changed because families decided they did not want to be Jews inside the home and citizens outside. They wanted to be Austrian and Jewish: they wanted a school, they wanted a home for the elderly. In the beginning they did not want a museum but it turned out to be an important place for them, a place of new Jewish identity and of identification with the old Jewish Vienna. This Jewish spaces and Jewish culture is very important.
This is the city of a certain experience, the old Jewish Vienna. It was a cradle of modernity, with Jewish thinkers, Jewish writers, but it did not succeed because it was murdered. This Jewish Vienna is a symbol for our Europe of multitudes and multiculturalism. It makes us listen to the other. It shows us that some minorities can be the origin of modernity, of creativity, and inspiration, and it also shows us the threat that these minorities always live under. It shows us how precious what we have today is and how easily it can be destroyed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.