‘The Last Witnesses’

The Last Witnesses helps to counteract any lingering denials, and to keep the memory of the Shoah alive in Austria and around the world.

The now-91-year-old Ari Rath in 1989, during his days as ‘Jerusalem Post’ editor-in-chief (photo credit: DAVID BRAUNER)
The now-91-year-old Ari Rath in 1989, during his days as ‘Jerusalem Post’ editor-in-chief
(photo credit: DAVID BRAUNER)
It is no secret that the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling. That is something of which Matthias Hartmann has been keenly aware for some time.
Three years ago, he decided that something had to be done to ensure that the horrors of that time would not be forgotten, and that some of those who got through the Nazi era alive and are still with us got a least a modicum of recognition.
In 2013 Hartmann was the director of the Burgtheater, the Austrian national theater. It was exactly 75 years since Kristallnacht, and it was high time that the atrocities were unveiled to generations of Austrians – particularly the youngsters – who probably had little or no knowledge at all of the events which took place 70-plus years earlier right there, in Germany and Austria.
Hartmann contacted Doron Rabinovici, an award-winning writer and historian who was born in Israel and moved to Vienna with his family at the age of two, in 1964. The idea was to get a group of survivors together and have Burgtheater actors relate their stories while the survivors sat at the back of the stage listening.
Towards the end of the performance each survivor came forward, in turn, and added something of their own – a firsthand account of their experiences, prior to and during World War II. The show is called The Last Witnesses.
Despite misgivings about the project’s pulling power, the theater production ran almost 30 times – mostly in Austria, but also in Germany – and all the shows were sold out. There was also a performance at the Austrian parliament.
The work was eventually filmed, by ORF, Austria’s national public service broadcaster, and the result is due to be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on June 23 (7 p.m.), with the support of the Austrian Embassy. The film is in German with Hebrew subtitles, and the screening will be followed by a panel discussion.
“I chose the survivors and composed the text,” explains Rabinovici. “Matthias Hartmann and I staged the whole project.” The witnesses include 86-year-old Lucia Heilman, who survived with her mother in hiding in Vienna.
Their non-Jewish protector, Reinhold Duschka, was later honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.
The doyen of the group is Marko Feingold, who survived Auschwitz and today serves as president of the Jewish community Salzburg. Feingold is 103 years old.
The only one of the seven survivors who is no longer alive is Ceija Stojka, a Roma who survived the Nazi regime in Austria. She died at the age of 80, just before the premiere of the play.
The rest of the witness lineup includes 86-year-old Theresienstadt survivor Rudolf Gelbard; 91-year-old retired Israel journalist, and former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, Ari Rath; 88-year-old Vilma Neuwirth, who survived the war in Vienna; and the playwright’s mother, 82-year-old Suzanne-Lucienne (Shoshana) Rabinovici, who, together with her mother, survived the Vilna Ghetto, two concentration camps and the death march to Tauentzin.
The writer had a natural starting point for the daring and emotive venture.
“First and foremost, I wanted to ask my mother if she would participate in the project. I contacted the other survivors only after I obtained her consent.
I knew, whatever I can ask of my mother, I may ask of the other survivors too. My mother was my criterion. She was my touchstone.”
Rabinovici wanted his mother and the others to tell something of their story in their own way. It provided Shoshana with a rare opportunity to display the product of literary skills she developed as a child.
“I wanted her to read her Yiddish poem, that she wrote as a young girl when her father, my grandfather, was murdered,” continues Shoshana’s son. “No great actor of the famous Viennese Burgtheater could read it the way she can. After all, the incomparable Yiddish of Jewish Vilna is her mother tongue. This is her story. This is her pain. These are her own words.”
Shoshana says the fact that the play was unveiled in Vienna is of the greatest importance. “All these years Austria denied that it had been one of the perpetrators, and perceived itself as being a victim of Nazism.”
The octogenarian Viennese-born Israeli says she was heartened by the turnout at the Burgtheater. “There were lots of young people who came to the performances, and there are older Austrians as well who know the truth and also came to the show.”
The response may have been heartwarming, but it was not a walk in the park. After all these years, dredging up the terrible memories of her distant past, and proffering them to an Austrian audience was an emotional trial. “It was very tough, for all of us,” she says. “We did not enjoy it. Every time we did the show we all went through our suffering anew.”
That was an act of unparalleled courage. “We did it as a sort of mission,” Shoshana continues. “When we were at the Austrian parliament, I told them there that we received this inheritance to do the show, and to relate the events we experienced. It is the command we were passed by those who were murdered. All those people who perished always told the others, ‘You have to tell the world about this, so that it doesn’t happen again and so that people remember this.’” Rath was in the Austrian capital, where he was born, when I caught up with him. He was preparing to go to New York, together with Rabinovici, to attend a screening of the film on June 21. Rath was in good spirits, although disappointed that he won’t be able to be at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on June 23.
He says he was very fortunate to escape the clutches of the Nazi regime. “My father had already been in Dachau and Buchenwald and he had been beaten there,” Rath recalls. “We left for Palestine on November 2, 1938.”
That was just one week before Kristallnacht. “We were very fortunate,” says the nonagenarian.
Like the others, Rath went through an emotional mill with The Last Witnesses project. “It was quite a challenge for me to come back to Vienna and appear on stage and tell my story. I still have a hard time with the Austrians,” he says, noting that there is still much work to be done to set the record straight. “You know, half of the Austrians voted for the racist candidate in the recent presidential elections.”
Even so, Rath says he was encouraged by the response to the performance. “There were lots of youngsters in the audience. That was very moving.”
Like his mother, Rabinovici says he has an important mission to carry out, on a day-to-day basis. “To live as a Jewish writer in Austria means, for me, never to deny my Jewish identity and the Jewish memory. Vienna was a center of anti-Semitic politics and persecution. After 1945 Austria did not confront its past.”
He says that The Last Witnesses helps to counteract any lingering denials, and to keep the memory of the Shoah alive in Austria and around the world. “To set the memories of the survivors on the stage of the main theater was a triumph. Here and now, it was possible to speak about the Austrian Nazi past and also to show how long it took Austria to come to terms with its past.
“The project finally forced the society to listen to the memories of the survivors.” 
For tickets and more information: *9377 and jer-cin.org.il/