Encounter in Vienna: A shared context and discussions of murder

Strangers who in normal circumstances would never have met, talking not about Vienna but about murder.

 KRISTALLNACHT RALLY, aka ‘November Pogroms,’ 2022.  (photo credit: SUSAN KENNEDY)
KRISTALLNACHT RALLY, aka ‘November Pogroms,’ 2022.
(photo credit: SUSAN KENNEDY)

Anyone seeing us in the Hotel Stefanie in Vienna’s 2nd district would have been hard-pressed to say what we had in common.

Among us were four formal Brits, a reserved South American couple, a lively American woman with arty glasses, a trim, conservatively dressed Canadian lady, some garrulous Israelis, and a bubbly blonde mother and her daughter, whose name tags read “McNally.”

We had only one thing in common and were about to spend a week together exploring that one thing.

Strangers who in normal circumstances would never have met, talking not about Vienna but about murder.

Who was murdered by whom, where, when and how? We all knew why.

 STONES OF Remembrance in the 2nd district. (credit: SUSAN KENNEDY) STONES OF Remembrance in the 2nd district. (credit: SUSAN KENNEDY)

Real-life Cluedo in the shmaltzy Hotel Stefanie, a stone’s throw from the Danube.

The dinner

At 7:30 that first evening, we were ushered into the dining room by Susanne Trauneck, our host from the Jewish Welcome Service (JWS).

Wine was served and speeches made. Susanne said how happy she was that we had come and how Austria loves Jews and wants them to come back. Milli, who accompanied the group throughout the week, said similar things, albeit from a Jewish perspective.

As the food started to arrive, the atmosphere lightened up.

The Jewish Welcome Service

All 40 of us (spouses and some kids included) were guests of the JWS. Our unifying characteristic was that we all had an Austrian-Jewish parent who had been forced to flee Austria during the Holocaust, and most of us had grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who had been murdered.

I’d never encountered Jews like those at my table. Two prison governors from the Isle of Man, a midwife, a ceramicist, and a man in open-toed sandals from Oxford. How could they possibly have a Jewish parent, far less be Jewish or have anything to do with the Holocaust?

It took me the best part of the week to understand how and why many of these people had come to be invited to Vienna. And how many shades of Holocaust descendants there are, and how it affects their lives. By the end of the week, my preconceptions about identity, context, meaning and family had been shaken up.

I didn’t feel differently about Austria or the Austrians, but I was beginning to think differently about human relationships, about how the past informs our present, even if we only have the vaguest idea about it, and how we all want to understand our parents as a means to understanding ourselves better.

The itinerary

The package I was handed when I checked into the Hotel Stefanie contained a detailed itinerary. Forget Klimt, Kokoschka, Kuchen. We invitees weren’t being taken to any of the charmed Vienna attractions. Our days were dedicated entirely to the Holocaust and to our own personal search for facts, understanding, and resolution.

The only light relief offered was an excursion to Baden, which in fact turned out to be more of the same. A spa town 10 miles out of Vienna, Baden was once dotted with Jewish-owned villas; a place where middle-class Jews went to relax, take the waters, and enjoy leisurely strolls along tree-lined lanes leading into the Vienna Woods. 

Like the capital itself, Baden without its Jews seems like an empty soulless shell, a sad vestige of its former self, a bourgeois Biedermeier fiction built on nothing.

Our third day in Vienna coincided with the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Night of the Broken Glass, when almost 100 synagogues across Vienna were attacked, plundered and burned. I was told that Austrians don’t refer to the night of November 9, 1938, as Kristallnacht but as the November Pogroms because crystal evokes celebration. 

Although attendance at the evening’s march from Ballhausplatz to Judenplatz wasn’t included on the itinerary, a group of us went anyway. Around 1,500 people, many from Vienna’s Jewish community, and Israelis living in Vienna, as well as the Israeli ambassador, walked the three kilometers to Judenplatz, where a commemoration ceremony was held. The Austrian press boasted that almost 2,000 people had attended. In reality, the turnout was meager, especially since over half of those marching were Jews.

I wasn’t surprised to read in a report for the first half of 2021, put out by the Antisemitism Reporting Office of the Jewish Community of Vienna, that the number of antisemitic incidents had doubled from the same period the previous year.

The scoop

Austrians are bending over backward to tell the world that they love Jews and want them back. They are giving Austrian nationality to Jews whose families once lived in Austria (but were forced out and/or murdered during the Holocaust), and there are Jewish schools, kindergartens, clubs, an old age home, a community center and plenty of kosher restaurants, butchers and bakers to welcome newcomers. All are closely guarded by security staff stationed outside the premises day and night.

The two receptions on our itinerary – the first at the City Hall, and the second at the Federal Chancellery – were carefully choreographed PR events. We Jews were paraded up fancy staircases and served wine and cake by immigrant waiters (Serbian, Turkish, Slovakian) while enthusiastic speeches were made in our honor. Hands were shaken and photos taken.

“You should feel at home here,” Veronica Kaup-Hasler, executive city councilor for cultural affairs and science, told us. “We hope that you will consider becoming Austrian citizens,” gushed Federal Minister Karoline Edtstadler. A handful of the invitees had already taken out Austrian citizenship, primarily as a way of gaining entry into Europe after Brexit.

The politicians looked pleased with themselves, whereas the invitees, for the most part, looked tired.

The two receptions were largely interchangeable. The speeches could have been written by the same speechwriter. Hannah Lessing, the high-profile secretary of the Austrian National Fund (for Victims of National Socialism), appeared at the Chancellery and added a welcome splash of color. Her speech was followed by that of Oskar Deutsch, president of the Jewish Community of Vienna for the past decade, who spouted statistics and told some specious good-news stories.

With the PR over, we were left to do what we had come for: to find out what had happened to our relatives in the 1930s and early 1940s; to visit family graves in the Zentralfriedhof (main cemetery); to see the newly installed Shoah Wall of Names and check whether our own family members were inscribed on it; to get a feel of the Jewish-Vienna our families would have known; and, most importantly for many, to have a meeting with Susanne Uslu-Pauer and Irma Wultz of the IKG archive, two of the most engaging people in Vienna.

The IKG Archive

We were informed by email that getting an appointment at the archive was difficult and were requested to send in our questions well in advance. Some people actually did so.

At breakfast each day, I met invitees who’d been impressed by the help they’d received at the archive. John had questions about his relatives’ textile business; Vivien asked about her family’s cinema; Trudy about her grandparents’ millinery store. Marion asked for her grandmother’s former address near the Augarten.

On my penultimate day in Vienna, when the weather turned cold and grey, I wrote to Irma Wultz requesting an appointment. The response could not have been more gracious.

Within the hour I had an appointment for that same evening.

Inconspicuously located on Desider-Friedmann Platz, the archives were the high point of my trip.

Uslu-Pauer and Wultz spent over an hour generously answering my questions. Which Kindertransport was my father on? Organized by whom? What was his last address in Vienna? When had his mother been forced out of the Aryanized Goethehof?

What I hadn’t realized until the moment Irma handed me some Xeroxed sheets of paper was that my paternal grandmother was one of five siblings, all but one of whom met their deaths in Auschwitz. Two of them managed to flee to Amsterdam, where they started families, but they too were rounded up and murdered in that camp. 

The saddest story was that of Zita Bernstein, my father’s aunt, who fled Vienna in 1938 and married Ernst Rosenbaum in Amsterdam in June 1941. Their son Harry Ronald was born in Westerbork camp on a freezing winter’s day on January 18, 1944. They were gassed together in Auschwitz on October 8, 1944; she at 33, her son at eight months.

What’s in a name

Staying in the 2nd district, we stumbled across Stolpersteine all the time. Literally meaning “stumbling stones,” these brass plaques bearing the names of individuals who were deported and murdered are fitted into the pavement outside the person’s last place of residence.

Currently, there are 3,500 such plaques at 800 addresses. In a way, these stones serve as surrogate graves, since most of the victims have none.

On a tour of Jewish Vienna, we were told that some locals try to conceal the plaques with flower pots or bicycle racks.

Shamefully, in my opinion, these Stolpersteine are not commissioned or paid for by the Austrian state but by family members of the deceased. The Austrians go out of their way to tell you that they clean and repair them, but maintenance isn’t the same as installation.

I think of them as stumbling blocks for the Austrian government.

The memorials and the museums

There are plenty of memorials for dead Jews in Vienna. The most recent addition, the Shoah Wall of Names, is more moving than most because it is so stark. Opened only a year ago in the Ostarrichi Park adjacent to the old Vienna university campus, on the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, this oval memorial consists of huge stone slabs engraved with the names of around 65,000 Austrian Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

We arrived on an overcast morning. Leaving the bus, we went in search of the names of our dead, alphabetically listed on the slabs. A few participants discovered family members they hadn’t known existed until that moment. Maggie McNally, daughter of Herbert Rindl, discovered more Rindls.

On his last evening in Vienna, invitee John Haim stopped at the Westbahnhof to see the Kindertransport memorial which commemorates the 10,000 children sent to safety in England. In his words: “I asked several people (not all Austrian) whether they knew what the Kindertransports were. Not one of them did.”

Although the Holocaust memorial sculpture in Judenplatz – Rachel Whiteread’s monolithic one-story building covered in books – was much vaunted when it was unveiled over two decades ago, the fact is I saw no one give it a second glance. A more vivid reminder of the once-active Jewish community that lived in the city can be found in the basement of the adjacent Jewish Museum, where the remains of a 15th-century synagogue are displayed.

The takeaway

The absence of the people that made Vienna a city of magnificent culture – the Jews – is strongly felt. Vienna today feels soulless and provincial. The music and song, heart and warmth, energy and life, are all gone.

I walked through the Karmelitemarkt which my father had crossed daily – a market whose vendors included Jews. Participant Susan Shooter’s grandmother, Klara Feuerberg, whose days ended in Treblinka, had a chicken stall at that market. There are no Jews there today, just plaques, including one to Herzl, and Stolpersteine.

The echo of Jews is felt everywhere. By the turn of the 20th century, 44% of the privately owned lots on the Ringstrasse had Jewish owners whose grand family villas can still be seen in and around the Ringstrasse today.

On the last day I went to see the Helmut Newton retrospective at the Kunstforum. The Berlin-born photographer fled Germany after being arrested during Kristallnacht. Yet here he was, like so many other Jews whose lives and works dominate the museums in the city, being feted. The previous day I’d visited the Freud Museum. The café there was brimming with people, the bookshop doing a brisk trade. Freud himself managed to leave Vienna in 1938, paying a huge ransom for the privilege. Three of his sisters were murdered in Treblinka, and one perished in Theresienstadt.

For light relief, I visited the Beethoven House, only to discover that “in order to create the new museum, the National Socialists expelled the Jewish family living in Beethoven’s favorite apartment. The couple, Josef and Josefine Eckstein, was deported to Theresienstadt, and on October 23, 1944, they were moved to Auschwitz and murdered.”

The find which best brings home the absence of Jews and their culture in Vienna was the Exilarte Center for Banned Music, whose stated purpose is “to bring back the music of composers silenced by the Nazis.” The center is a testament to the energy, creativity and resourcefulness of Viennese-Jewish musicians, whose photos and bios line the walls of the center’s entrance.

The upshot

Forty people drawn from diverse walks of life spent a week together in Vienna, courtesy of the JWS.

What I learned from my week there was that the search for identity and meaning never ends. That the Nazis rendered successive generations contextless. That even people who aren’t Jewish (and have never met Jews in their lives) and who have (seemingly) moved far away from their parents’ pasts, or never knew about those pasts, who have successful careers and loving families, are still searching for meaning, context, understanding.

Maggie McNally, who on the second day showed me the book she had written about her father, grew up in a Christian home in the north of England. Her brother, Tony Rindl, is a priest. Herbert, their father, never spoke much about his past but left an amazing diary behind when he died. That diary was the spur which prompted the family to discover more about their father and his history. 

I asked Maggie if it had been difficult growing up with a father who had lost so much of his family and whose identity was so complex. “My father wasn’t difficult, but my mother was really strict,” Maggie said. “We had to be model children to make up for all he had suffered. Our mother was a history teacher and knew what our father had been through.”

The books

Three of the people in my group had written books about their families. They were perhaps the three people I would have thought least likely to have done so. Trudy, Vivien and Maggie are all family-oriented professionals leading full lives. None considers herself Jewish, and none has a Jewish spouse.

In Vienna, I finally understood that it doesn’t take a family drama or dysfunctionality to make a person feel she needs context and meaning. We all wrestle with issues of identity, we all wonder about our choices, and most families have secrets which loom larger the older we get.

The need for continuity and connection was deeply apparent at the cemetery, where participants cleared weeds from the graves of relatives they had barely heard of, prayed for them, and committed themselves to maintaining the graves.

The JWS week showed me that we are all in this together. I mean in life. When it came down to it, the tango dancer from Uruguay was no different from the accountant from London, the prison governor no different from the art assessor. We came in the spirit of love and inquiry, and came away a lot richer for having met others on the same quest. 