Three Viennese Stories: Past, Present, and Future
By Liam Hoare
Five Anglo-Austrian Holocaust survivors gathered at London’s JW3 Jewish community center last week with Christoph Weidinger, Minister Plenipotentiary at the Austrian Embassy in London, and historian and educator Trudy Gold to share their memories of Vienna and reflections on Holocaust memory and education in Austria.
Their recollections of Vienna were a mixture of love and darkness, a time in their lives when everything was forever until it was no more. “I remember the cozy, gemütliche Vienna,” Otto, now well into his 90s, said, referring to the sort of comfortable, middle-class world of parlors and coffee houses. George recalls a very happy childhood, as part of a very assimilated family who were scarcely aware of their Jewishness. Freddie – whose life story was made into a BBC documentary last year – played the cello as a child, and together with his two siblings formed a kind of familial ensemble that played music after Shabbat dinner.
This innocent Vienna was pulled out from underneath them in 1938: they were expelled from their schools, to be educated in Jewish-only surrounds where Hitler Youth thugs waited for them at the gates; their parents’ businesses were requisitioned and Aryanized; they were evicted from their homes and moved across town. Most the survivors at the event in London got out in the nick of time on the Kindertransport trains to Britain. Their families were not so fortunate. “Every time you hear the life story” of a survivor, Weidinger said, “it’s like a piercing through the heart.”
Weidinger was keen to persuade the audience of Austria’s progress on Holocaust remembrance and the acceptance of blame, particularly among the young, whom he termed the ‘new Austria’ that emerged out of a change of attitude towards the Nazi past in the 1990s. (How fair a deception this is of Austria at the present time is a matter of dispute, one that is, however, best saved for another time.) The survivors themselves reported positively of visits they have taken to Austria in the last decade, in order to speak to, by their accounts, receptive and engaged schoolchildren about the Holocaust by telling their own stories.
These returns to Vienna were in part enabled by a program called A Letter To The Stars, an initiative of the Austrian government to bring Austrian Holocaust survivors back to the country – to their former homes, schools, and favorite places – as part of a broader project of commemoration and memorialization. Part of the work of A Letter To The Stars was getting these survivors into schools, ideally in the city or region from which they were forced out, to speak with students about their experiences. Those lectures were to be documented and archived under the title, “The Last Witnesses.”
The survivors expressed regret that, after a few years of activity, the work of A Letter to the Stars more or less fizzled out and their visits to Viennese schools came to an end. (Project Xchange superseded A Letter to the Stars in 2010.) Still, all of them continue to tour British schools and tell their stories. As one of the survivors remarked, “All we can hope to do is get ourselves involved in educating young people and teach them what is right and what is wrong.”
Der Standard recently reported on the work of the Jewish Welcome Service Vienna (JWS). For twenty-five years, its central program has united those who were expelled during the years of Nazi annexation, as well as (increasingly) second- and third-generation expellees, with the Austrian capital.
Founded in 1980 as an initiative of then-Mayor of Vienna Leopold Gratz and Jewish journalist and activist and Holocaust survivor Leon Zalman, JWS was founded “to demonstrate the existence of an active and self-confident Jewish community after the Shoah.” Today, Vienna’s Jewish community numbers around 8,000 and is mostly made up of those who came from eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the central Asian republics in the decades following the Holocaust.
The Invitation Program began later and “the scheme is aimed at enabling Viennese who were expelled by the National Socialists an opportunity to once again experience their birthplace and former home town.” This year’s program, however, marked the first time that only second-generation expellees participated, and increasingly (for demographic reasons) the work of JWS is geared towards students and young people. Still underwritten by Vienna’s city government, JWS also funds public cultural and educational projects related to the expulsion of Jews from 1938 onwards.
The walls of the Jewish section of Vienna’s central cemetery have been defaced with swastikas, Die Presse reported. Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, the official Jewish community of Austria, told the paper that “Nazi graffiti is an expression of anti-Semitic aggression and must be prosecuted.” The incident, first reported on Tuesday, occurred less than a week before presidential elections in Austria, which the far right has the possibility to win.