Born again?

Controversial writer/politician Peter Sichrovsky reflects on a new theatrical production of his book, Born Guilty.

born guilty 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Born Guilty Web site)
born guilty 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Born Guilty Web site)
As writer Peter Sichrovsky sat at the head of a long table for an informal discussion at Ben-Gurion University's Center for Austrian and German Studies last month, he looked poised, almost fortified. And perhaps necessarily so. He came to the country this time - one of his many regular visits - to watch a new theatrical adaptation of Born Guilty, his 1988 book of true-story monologues delivered by children and grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators.
Despite his confident air, it wasn't always so casually that he visited. His link to Vienna's Jewish community and Israel was ruptured in the mid-'90s when he took a position as general secretary of Jorg Haider's extreme right-wing Austrian Freedom Party. Jews in Austria and Europe, some of whom had already questioned Sichrovsky's literary interests, simply couldn't understand the move.
Born in 1947 to Jewish parents who found refuge from the Nazis in the UK but returned to Vienna after the war, Sichrovsky spent much of his childhood listening to the stories of his Holocaust survivor elders and learning school lessons from ex-Nazi teachers. "I was surrounded by children whose parents only yesterday had wanted to murder my parents," he writes in Born Guilty. In an interview, he explained that his mother and father "lost everyone," in the Holocaust: "Their parents, brothers, sisters - no one was left except them."
Sichrovsky takes pride in his Jewish roots, boasting of his great-grandfather Heinrich Ritter von Sichrovsky, "one of the most prominent members of the Viennese Jewish community" and founder of Austrian railways.
His initial interest in the children of Nazi perpetrators led him to conduct several interviews that together were published as Born Guilty. The subject's appeal, he said, comes down to "the issue of responsibility," that is, "how it could happen, why did it happen, who are the people who did it and, even more interesting, who are the ones who did not do it." His curiosity seems well founded. But for those who were already concerned about Sichrovsky's interest in Nazi families, his next step - in the direction of politics - seemed to many a confirmation of negligence toward Holocaust victims, including his own relatives.
In a typically complex response to the question regarding his Jewish identity, he said bluntly, "There is no reason to define myself." Yet defining and defending himself is precisely what he has been obliged to do in the face of the backlash by Jewish communities against his political affiliation with Haider. The Freedom Party and its leader, who made anti-Semitic remarks and employed highly questionable policies, were anathema to Jews. How a child of Holocaust survivors could ally himself politically with Haider was beyond comprehension for most.
Sichrovsky, however, tells a different tale. When asked about his connection to Haider, he said, "I never had a personal connection to [him], I was never friends with him, but I respected him as one of the most intelligent and interesting politicians in Austria." In 2000, published a vehement attack on Sichrovsky: "No decent Jew," the Web site states, "would want to shake hands with either Haider" or with Sichrovsky, his "court Jew." In response to such condemnation, Sichrovsky elegantly replied that, still today, "I understand and accept any political criticism. I understand that for many people it was the wrong political party, but I will never accept that it was wrong because I am a Jew."
"I didn't care about the hateful attacks from Jews in Austria and Israel," he said. "I had my opinion about [Israel] and enough friends who did not follow the more primitive reaction to my political decisions."
Sichrovsky also said that his political aim was not to support Haider by joining the party, but rather to step in as a representative of "the liberal party within the party," with the hopes of leading the liberals into succession. "My condition was," he said, "that Haider himself would step down as leader of the party to give the liberal wing more space and give us a chance to move the party to the [political] center."
In 1999, Sichrovsky's aim was achieved, and the party surfaced "with no right-wing slogans, no anti-immigration," and "it presented itself as a young new party with new political ideas." In 2002, he said, "when Haider came back and took over the leadership - then I resigned." Haider died in a car accident in October 2008. Accusations against Jews that his death was an assassination appeared on the Internet.
DESPITE ALL of the criticism, recently the currents have changed, if only slightly. The 18-month-long success of the Tel Aviv theatrical adaptation of Born Guilty, directed by Boaz Trinker and performed in Hebrew by a powerful cast of young actors, including Trinker himself as Sichrovsky, indicates that time may hav
e softened many of those harsh allegations against the writer. The general public has not only welcomed Sichrovsky into Israel, but now literally applauds his work, which brings to light the burden of responsibility placed on the offspring of Nazis, as well as the many psychological issues characteristic of the generation.
"People were fascinated and very interested," he stated of responses to a show he attended at Tel Aviv's Kolisot Theater. Still, however, it didn't sway everyone. "Many in the audience were very critical about my political work, and I accept this, as long as they talk to me. I just have a problem with those who think they are better people because they have a different political opinion and boycott me." To such Israelis, he said, "I don't need any angry reaction against people who are narrow-minded and with a limited democratic potential."
With all of Sichrovsky's literary interests and political moves accounted for, the connection between his decision to run for a seat in the Freedom Party and the writing of Born Guilty becomes clear. "Maybe I'm an optimist," he said to The New York Times when he was elected in 1996, "but I believe in the innocence of the second generation." His message still holds true.
Fast-forward 20 years. Boaz Trinker, a student at Nissan Nativ's actors studio in Tel Aviv, listened hard to Sichrovsky's message when he retranslated and reworked Born Guilty for a new stage production. In an interview following a one-time performance at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on January 6, Trinker explained that he came across the first adaptation of Born Guilty in Israel (produced in 1988) through a friend who found the manuscript in a Jerusalem archive. Upon reading it, Trinker said, it seemed like "a great dramatic text for theater and the issue itself was fascinating to me." He soon realized the great number of "disturbing parallels between second and third generations on their side and our side," referring to Nazis and victims.
Trinker is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and hence carried personal experience into his powerful adaptation. Comparing the hush-hush attitude of both ex-Nazis and survivors, he said, "I always knew I was the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, but I never heard this from my grandparents. I found this silence so interesting." Born Guilty, then, was "a way for [Trinker] to approach this subject" on a personal level.
The differences between the book and the theater adaptation, according to Trinker, have to do with all that has changed since the Holocaust - both morally and historically. Like Sichrovsky, who said that after the book's long exposure around the world, "it has a different message. In the time from the Nazi era to democracy, there has not only been an improvement but a total change, a turn to the opposite form of government, from evil to good within one generation."
Trinker said that his adaptation offers a new, "modern angle on the subject," one that deals, not with the horrors, but with how these horrors are approached today. And more than that, "it's a universal issue," he said. "Children inherit a situation from their parents and they have to deal with it," making reference to children of IDF soldiers who "were handed down the Israeli/Palestinian conflict." Trinker's production in part attempts to answer the question "How do we feel knowing that our parents were soldiers?"
Also like Sichrovsky, who wrote in Born Guilty that the primary difference between the children of Holocaust survivors and the children of Nazis is "that the former do not have to live with the fear and suspicions of what their parents had done during the war," Trinker explained, "It's easier talking about these issues here than in Germany. We have more freedom and the right to explore them," where in Germany (and Austria for that matter) shame and silence often prevails.
The Beersheba production of Born Guilty was an especially important one, as it was dedicated to the late Prof. Dan Bar-On, perhaps the first scholar to seek out responses from the children and grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators beginning in the 1980s. According to Prof. Mark Gelber, chairman of the Center for Austrian and German Studies at BGU, Bar-On's work - particularly his book Legacy of Silence - "ultimately emphasizes the necessity of dialogue," not only between Germans and Jews, but also "between Israelis and Palestinians, between partners who may disdain the very idea of approaching the so-called other, the enemy."
Bar-On, Gelber said, rejected such a notion and "promoted dialogue in the most difficult and sensitive situation." Bar-On's work has already elicited a domino effect powered by individuals such as Sichrovsky and Trinker, who understand, as the former said, that although "the Holocaust is a part of Jewish history," it is nonetheless the case that "we all have to live with it. Every generation within its own understanding."