How did Jews remain in Austria after being treated so terribly?

“How could they live in a country where they’d been treated so terribly?”

Posters saying, "Don't let Nazis rule" during a protest in Vienna, 2018 (photo credit: LEONHARD FOEGER / REUTERS)
Posters saying, "Don't let Nazis rule" during a protest in Vienna, 2018
“What? There are still Jews in Austria?” the journalist and author Anna Goldenberg would constantly hear from New Yorkers who tried to make sense of her Jewish identity and Austrian accent. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors who remained in their birthplace, Vienna, after the war,” she would respond.
“How could they live in a country where they’d been treated so terribly?” would be the follow-up question, to which the author would have no adequate answers.
In I Belong to Vienna, Goldenberg embarks on an investigation to shed light onto her family’s history and their decision to stay, presenting a vivid picture of the day-to-day life of Viennese Jews under Nazi occupation. The heroes of Goldenberg’s story are her grandparents, Hansi and Helga. During Nazi rule, Hansi was taken in by an Austrian doctor who hid the boy in his apartment, while his family perished in the concentration camp and ghetto of Theresienstadt. Helga, on the other hand, was sent to the camp together with her mother and younger sister, from where they managed to escape before its liberation. The family returned to Vienna, where they rebuilt their lives despite everything.
Granddaughter Anna finds herself living in New York more than 70 years later, pondering her decision to leave Vienna.
“But it was only in New York that I really began to feel like a historical anomaly – and realized I had to deal with the past if I wanted to understand why my grandparents stayed in Vienna.”
Hansi’s and Helga’s stories run in parallel. Golderberg tells the day-to-day life of her grandfather in his hiding place in an apartment in central Vienna; his escape to the foreign, Nazi-occupied city outside the apartment; and the heartwarming life-long friendship and son-and-father relationship developed between him and Josef “Pepi,” the doctor who took him in.
Helga’s transfer to the ghetto and concentration camp of Theresienstadt is thoroughly documented in the form of a series of interviews. The survivors meet in Vienna following the war, each carrying deep scars, yet both thirsty for embracing the life that stood ahead of them. They later immigrate to New York State, but after a brief sojourn, decide to return to their home city.
“Jewish doctors invited the Jewish couple, but not their non-Jewish friend,” her grandmother recounts of her experiences in the suburbs of New York, where the couple worked as physicians in the 1950s. “‘I had had enough of that during the war,’ says Helga. So rigid, racist social conventions certainly played a major role in their decision to return to Europe.”
In her family archives she finds correspondence among the extended family surrounding their growing concern about the fate of their lives and country, attempts to immigrate, supportive messages and growing desperation – pieces that serve as testimonies to their resilience and unwavering hope. Reflections on the meaning of home and preservation of memory are at the center of the story of the couple who bravely confronted their past.
“I’ve been looking at my problem with New York from the wrong angle,” the author writes. “For a long time, I thought I wanted to go back to Vienna because I felt lonely. But what if I felt lonely because I wanted to go back to Vienna? Has a part of me, perhaps unconsciously, realized long ago how very privileged I was to even have a home where I felt welcome?”
Through lost letters, documents, forms and other family memos, Goldenberg pieces together an important historical record of the day-to-day dealings of those who survived. At times, the journalistic investigation clashes with personal memories in a discordant tone, in detriment to the fluidity of the narrative. Moreover, the rhetorical questions – seemingly meant to advance the narrative and instigate curiosity – rob the reader of the experience of plummeting into a world she has meticulously resurfaced.
The vivid, WWII Viennese world takes shape thanks to her thorough research. Goldenberg digs into every decision, every form submitted to the authorities at the time, from visa requests to school records. The amount of data gathered by the author is, however, at times overwhelming and counterproductive to the narrative’s flow. On the other hand, it is what turns the memoir into an important and accessible document of the period following the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria.
Goldenberg’s memoir and family tell a story of remaining: remaining together under the most tenuous circumstances, remaining alive despite coming face to face with unfathomable horror, and remaining rooted to a city while having the world question the decision. Helga’s and Hansi’s bravery and optimism transpire through the pages. Their thirst for life grants the reader a radically different angle into the lives of “those who stayed,” providing above all a valuable lesson on belonging and the will to overcome.