My Vienna-born mother still remembers the palpably frightening atmosphere she sensed as a little girl in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
Exactly 77 years ago German and Austrian storm troopers, and members of the general public, went on the rampage across their respective countries, smashing and looting synagogues and Jewish homes, businesses and schools. Close to 100 Jews were killed on the night between November 9-10 and around 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps.
Gita Weinrauch Kaufmann was also around, in the Austrian capital, for that horrific event, although thankfully she managed to escape to the United States together with her parents and siblings. That was a rare occurrence, especially as they didn’t get out until 1940, when World War II was raging and Jews in all Nazi-occupied countries were being systematically persecuted and murdered.
While the Kaufmanns began to find their feet in the New World, their relatives – Kaufmann’s aunts and uncles and grandparents – were left behind and managed to send letters to the States. It is those letters, and ones written by Kaufmann’s parents from the States to their beleaguered relatives who were trapped in Austria and Poland, that inspired a documentary called Shadows From My Past, principally made by Kaufmann and her husband Curt, who died four years ago. Austrian filmmaker and producer Dieter Pochlatko was also instrumental in bringing the project to fruition, as was Austrian historian Oliver Rathkolb.
Last week, Kaufmann received a tribute at a special Kristallnacht commemoration program in Brooklyn at New York City College of Technology (CUNY).
Kaufmann accepted the 2015 Distinguished Lifetime Humanitarian Achievement Award on behalf of herself and Curt. Former honorees include Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, whose better known works include the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Denver Art Museum, and Nobel laureates Roald Hoffman and Gunter Blobel.
Although Shadows From My Past is not exactly the most polished end product, it is an emotive work and contains some important historical footage.
The A-lister interviewees include the likes of racist Austrian politician Jorg Haider, who was killed in a car crash in 2008, and former Austrian president and United Nations secretary general Kurt Waldheim, who died in 2007 and whose WWII activities were suspiciously skirted around in an autobiography he published in 1985 leading to allegations of knowledge of Nazi atrocities, if not taking an active part in them. Late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal is also interviewed by Kaufmann and the film’s celebrity roll call also features the likes of current Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Schonborn and 91-year-old Vienna-born former Hollywood studio chief and multi-Oscar Award winner Eric Pleskow.
Kaufmann and her family got out at the last minute – literally.
“I was born in Vienna, and escaped on the day we were going to be deported to Dachau,” she says. “If we hadn’t received the affidavits that allowed us to leave for the States, that day, I’d not be around now.”
The exchange of correspondence had been carefully stored at the Kaufmann family home for over half a century before Kaufmann and her husband Curt, who taught himself film editing, got to grips with the written material which included the letters Kaufmann’s parents had sent their entrapped relatives and which found their way back to them several years later.
Shadows From My Past was sparked by an invitation, in 1998, by the Bruno Kreisky Foundation to read the family letters at the University of Vienna.
“We received the invitation on our fax machine, in German,” recalls Kaufmann. “We thought it was another rejection of our screenplay. We dealt a lot with German producers. I couldn’t understand why we were getting Bruno Kreisky Award for Outstanding Achievement In Human Rights. We didn’t even apply for anything.”
The surprise announcement also afforded Kaufmann the opportunity to return to Vienna for the first time since she and her family escaped the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth.
“That’s how the work on the documentary began,” she explains.
Even so, Kaufmann say she didn’t quite jump for joy.
There was a lot of emotional baggage to be sorted before she and her husband could board the plan for Austria.
“I hesitated about going back to Vienna. I consulted Michael Berenbaum [project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC]. I wondered if it was right to go back, after all that my family went through, and he said that, if it’s for consciousness raising, I have to go back.”
Although she was only four years old when she left Vienna, Kaufmann says she has fond memories of being spoiled by the members of her wider family, and also by the family cook.
“I was the only girl, so I was fussed over a lot,” she notes. But she has some terrifying memories too. “I do clearly remember the night they arrested my father, and remember even more clearly when we went to visit him in the hospital.”
Kaufmann’s father was arrested by the Gestapo and severely beaten which, says Kaufmann, ironically saved his life.
“He was treated at the Rothschild Hospital, which was the only Jewish hospital left then, and while he was there the Nazis would come to our home every day, bang on the door, and shout ‘where’s the Jew!’ My father was in hospital for two-three months and that turned out to be our good luck; otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.”
Rathkolb was the key to getting the Kaufmanns back to Vienna and, consequently, to kick-starting Shadows From My Past, a shortened German-language version of which has been shown at schools throughout Austria, while the full-length work was screened at last year’s Vienna Jewish Film Festival and also at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC.
“Oliver is head of contemporary history at the University of Vienna,” says Kaufmann. “His specialty was [Austrian history from] 1945 and I thought what’s the big deal about 1945? 1938 is when it [Nazi persecution of Jews] all broke out. Then I realized it was because the Austrians did not do anything to make up for the [Nazi] past. They just kept quiet about it and let Germany take full responsibility.”
Kaufman says that Rathkolb helped to change that lamentable state of affairs.
“I think he has done a lot of work in trying to get the truth told in Austria. I think that’s why we were invited back to Austria, not because of the letters, but because he was one of the few Austrians trying to get the truth told about their country, instead of this mythology about them being a victim [of Nazism].”
In addition to the now departed important historical figures among the interviewees, Shadows From My Past also includes some thought-provoking material. Former member of the Austrian resistance Fritz Molden, for instance, notes that it wasn’t only the Austrians who welcomed the Nazis, and that countries like France, Holland and Norway happily collaborated and even arrested Jews and helped to do the Nazis’ dirty work. He could have added Hungary and Latvia to that list.
Initially, Kaufmann talks about meeting the likes of Haider and Waldmann equanimously but, surely, she must have felt some emotion when she encountered people who – to put it diplomatically – may not have had a particularly good view of Jews.
“I learned a good lesson from my mother,” recalls Kaufmann. “I taught English at a university in Upstate New York and I had an Austrian student who wanted to meet my mother. I warned my mother that she had to behave herself [and not blame the student for the Holocaust].
The student came over and my mother just told her that it was because of her that she was in America.
With that kind of a background that was a good lesson for me. You have to keep your cool.”
Kaufmann would, naturally, be delighted if Shadows From My Past, unpolished warts and all, made it to one of the various film festivals in this country.