With Conflicting Emotions, Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants Return to Vienna

Photo credit: Schaub-Walzer

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

Second cousins Guillermo and Ronald Weinberger had never met until a couple of weeks ago, when they found themselves in Vienna, enjoying coffee and Sachertorte together in one of city hall’s opulent salons, at the invitation of the Jewish Welcome Service.

Founded at the end of 1980 by then-mayor Leopold Gratz and the prominent lawyer and Holocaust survivor Leon Zelman, the Jewish Welcome Service facilitates the return of exiled Austrians (and their children and grandchildren) to the city from whence they were displaced. They also bridge the gap between survivors and their descendants and the institutions that can aid them, in matters from reclamation of citizenship to employment rights, restitution of property and access to archives.

Like all of the participants who visited Vienna at the end of April, Guillermo and Ronald share in Austria’s capital a common root and shared story of dislocation and reconstruction. Ronald’s father – who is currently aged 95 – left Vienna for Israel in 1939, where he served in establishing the Israeli air force, opened a dental clinic, met his wife (who herself was from Berlin), and had Ronald. Guillermo’s grandfather owned a series of stores in Vienna and parents, made refugees in 1938, came to settle in Montevideo, Uruguay. His parents first returned to Vienna with their son in 1959 and Guillermo has been visiting with some regularity since 1983.

“It’s almost like a hometown for me, the familiarity of it,” Guillermo told me. Though Ronald and Guillermo had known of each other – a discovery made over the years in the process of researching their respective family histories – the prospect of seeing one another face-to-face was, for them both, the spur to come to Vienna. “The main reason was to meet a piece of the family you knew existed but you’ve never met,” Ronald said.

On this particular visit, the Jewish Welcome Service arranged meeting their guests with ESRA – a state agency that exists specifically for victims of National Socialism – as well as the government agency responsible for immigration. At the same time, they were invited to an audience with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen at the imperial Hofburg Palace and visited a traditional ‘Heuriger’ or wine tavern – a balance of experiences intended to give people something of a flavor of the country.

These survivors and their descendants found themselves in Vienna at a confusing and contrary time. The country is once more governed by a coalition of center- and far right. Since they joined the government in December, there have reportedly been 23 incidents of anti-Semitism within the ranks of the populist Freedom Party. At the same time, it is part of the government’s program to expand the right of citizenship restitution and dual citizenship to second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors (though this has yet to be implemented) and they have recently committed themselves to constructing a new Holocaust memorial in the form of a ‘wall of names’ in the center of the city.

When Alexander Van der Bellen addressed the guests of the Jewish Welcome Service at the presidential palace, he spoke of the conflicting emotions that surely come with returning to Vienna, either as a Holocaust survivor or the descendant of one. Though a rhetorical theme of the week, my conversations showed that though this is true for some, it was not for others. Guillermo came here with “mixed feelings because I know the history,” he said. On account of the stories he inherited from his father, “I have a pretty good picture. He liked coming back to Vienna but he had no illusions about the people. He would say, ‘Yes, I like to come to Vienna but I don’t need to look at their faces.’”

Ronald Brawer’s father grew up in Vienna playing water polo and his parents operated a couple of fur businesses in the city. He was in Switzerland at the time of the Anschluss, but not long therefore, he, his parents, and his brother and sister managed to obtain visa to get to Buenos Aires, Argentina. After living there for a year, they moved again to Montevideo. During the Second World War, Ronald’s father and his brother, Walter, volunteered for the United States army, which took the family to America – New York specifically – where they managed to reestablish the fur business they had lost after the Anschluss. In the War, Ronald’s father was stationed in Germany and his role involved the interrogation of German prisoners of war, while Walter was in the 10th Mountain Division in the Italian Alps.

“In talking to other second generation [Holocaust survivors]” on this trip, Ronald told me during the group’s visit to the wine tavern, “I found they had the same experience that I had, which was that their parents were very reluctant to talk about anything that happened. I almost never asked them because I had this intrinsic sense that they didn’t want to talk about it. I regret it now.” To the best of his knowledge, Ronald’s father never returned to Vienna – though Walter did.

“He’s been [to Vienna] three times: the last time with myself in 2009,” Vivian, Walter’s daughter and Ronald’s first cousin, told me. “He was fine, he got excited. He went to his old school, he saw kids outside and they asked him where he was from and told them he was living in Charlotte and one of the kids said, ‘Oh, so you know the Panthers!’ I think my father was more excited that they knew who the Panthers were.” Vivian doesn’t think he experienced the conflicting emotions of which Van der Bellen spoke, perhaps because, she theorized, her father often spoke or recalled his exit from Austria as a kind of adventure (a feeling not shared by her mother, a Holocaust survivor from Germany who got out to New York).

Vivian’s father has recently passed and said coming to Vienna has brought her a little closer to him and his history anew. “I have no connection [to Vienna] other than a historical one – it’s not as if I have this feeling of, ‘Oh my god, I’m home!’” Ronald said. “Although hanging out with the people from the Jewish Welcome Service, I’ve learnt of their experiences were similar to my dad’s.” Ronald told me he planned to go in person to find the site of his father’s family’s old store, while Vivian will return to her dad’s old school. In these addresses, there are tangible connections to Vienna that almost all these Holocaust survivors and their descendants shared – and they are the sort the Jewish Welcome Service is looking to foster.