Vienna, 1938: The Sabbath of Remembrance

A reflection.

Hedi (the first young woman from left, not wearing a headcovering) and her sister, Pippi, (to the right, with the black beret) join other women in scrubbing the streets of Vienna on March 12, 1938 (photo credit: VOTAVA/IMAGNO/PICTUREDESK.COM)
Hedi (the first young woman from left, not wearing a headcovering) and her sister, Pippi, (to the right, with the black beret) join other women in scrubbing the streets of Vienna on March 12, 1938
Last year my wife and I were back in London. It happened to be Shabbat Zachor or the Sabbath of Remembrance, which falls just before the festival of Purim.
This special Sabbath aligned with the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei. At the very end of the reading, there is a verse that describes the cowardly attack of the Amalekites on the weakest of the Jewish people, who were straggling along on their way out of Egypt through the desert. There is an obligation on both Jewish men and women to attend synagogue on Shabbat Zachor to hear this verse read. The parasha is read before Purim because there is a belief mentioned in the Talmud that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. In Jewish tradition Amalek has always been associated with antisemitism and Jew hatred of the worst order.
On that Shabbat in our former synagogue, the experience had a special resonance because of the speech given by one of the congregants. He was Michael White, an old friend who delivered the somewhat unusual dvar Torah. He stood up and began to deliver an intriguing history lesson. He told of how in 1898 when Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem, there was one notable absentee from the line of dignitaries who had come to greet him. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, arguably the then foremost leader of the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem, did not show his face. Rabbi Zonnenfeld would not attend because he followed the view of the Vilna Gaon who, 100 years previously, wrote that Germany was indeed Amalek.
Michael explained how he had come across the writings of a British-born political philosopher and fanatical Germanophile, Houston Stewart Chamberlain who died in 1927. His major work, The Foundations of the 19th Century written in 1899 in German, set out his extreme views on antisemitism. In the book he also propounded his theories on Germany as the master race and Lebensraum.
Michael went on to reveal that Hitler was a great admirer of Chamberlain and made the reading of his work de rigueur for all his Nazi disciples. More shocking was the fact that the very same Kaiser who visited Jerusalem was also an admirer and friend of Houston Stewart Chamberlain.
Michael then began to talk about his own family history. His grandparents Rudolf and Zeren Klopper lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Vienna at 22 Blumauergasse. The Kloppers had four children, Lizzi, Hedi, Otto and Pippi. On the 12th of March 1938, the Anschluss was declared and Germany annexed Austria.
“For the Austrian people this was carnival time.” Michael told the congregation. “The crowds that greeted the troops showered them with flowers. This so-called invasion subsequently became known as the Blumenkrieg, the war of flowers.
It’s impossible to imagine the fear that was felt by the Austrian Jews, the majority of whom lived in Vienna, on that dreaded day.”
Michael described how Nazi thugs barged into the Kloppers’ apartment and grabbed his mother, Hedi, who was 20 years old, and her 19 year-old sister Pippi. They were taken outside and frog-marched a few blocks from their home to the corner of Zirkusgasse and Heinestrasse, where, together with other Jews, they were forced to scrub the pavements in front of a baying crowd.
“My mother and aunt both passed away in the 1990s” Michael told the congregation.  “They had no idea that press photographs had documented their terrible experience that day. Somehow about 8 or 9 years ago, I came across two pictures of one particular group. Unbelievably, my mother and aunt featured in those photographs.”
He then proceeded to unfurl a large sheet of paper, onto which two giant-sized black and white images had been printed, showing his mother and aunt on their knees scrubbing the sidewalk.
There was stunned silence as Michael continued, “Just three or four years ago I made quite an astonishing discovery. While consulting a 20th century Judaica calendar on an unrelated matter, I happened to take a look at March 12, 1938. What screamed off the page literally took my breath away. The 12th of March 1938, the day the Germans marched into Austria, effectively the beginning of the end for the Jews of Vienna, was Shabbat Zachor.”
To a hushed audience Michael, went on to emphasize how Shabbat Zachor of the Jewish year 5698 had special significance for his family and for all the Jews of Vienna.
The story made a deep impression on me. I knew his mother Hedi in her later years. A tall, quietly spoken, impressive-looking lady, I remember being a Shabbat guest in her house in my single days. I recall her telling the story of how she had met and married Michael’s father. After struggling to acquire an exit visa to work as a domestic worker with a family in the UK, Hedi Klopper arrived in London in May 1939 with very little English. One day she was on a bus trying to make her way to the Jewish neighbourhood of Golders Green. She was having difficulty trying to explain things to the conductor. A man sitting behind her came to her rescue. He spoke German and moved to the seat next to hers.  They chatted all the way to Northwest London. Six weeks later on the 3rd of September, on the day that Britain declared war on Germany, Hedi married Charlie White. Born in 1906, his family originated from the Poznan region of Poland on the Prussian border halfway between Warsaw and Berlin. The family had settled in South Africa and then returned to live in Germany, where some years later they were expelled as enemy aliens when the First World War broke out. Ironically they were allowed to settle in Britain because they were Commonwealth citizens. Anxious to know how the story ended, I asked Michael to tell me what happened to his mother’s family.
“My grandparents fled Austria illegally sometime in 1941 at the time when any ‘permitted’ exits ceased. All Jews still living in the Reich (namely, Germany and Austria) were forced to wear the yellow Jude badge. Rather than wait around for the inevitable deportations that were to follow, my grandparents smuggled themselves on foot from Vienna to Budapest, hiding by day and walking under cover of night. The fact that my grandmother was a Hungarian national helped, but my grandfather’s non-Hungarian status is what eventually led to his arrest by the Hungarian Nazis, who marched the captured Jews east, where they were handed over to the Germans in late 1941. He was incarcerated in the Galician city of Chartkov, the last known place of his life. He was either shot there or sent to the Belzec extermination camp.”
In the last few years the family has succeeded in setting up a brass Stolperstein (memorial stone), which is embedded in the sidewalk outside No. 22 Blumauergasse in Vienna’s second district.
Hedi’s sister Pippi (pictured in the notorious photo) devised an illegal route out of Vienna that got her past the Nazi guards in Germany, Belgium and to Spain where she managed to secure a passage to Argentina. Lizzi, the eldest made it to Palestine in late 1940 on an illegal ship together with her husband, a four-year-old son Peter and a newborn baby Uri, who was born on the refugee ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. Her husband died in 1947. Michael’s two cousins are both alive and well, and living in Israel.
Michael’s uncle, Otto, also managed to escape illegally. He succeeded in reaching the UK, where he was interned in an enemy alien camp, but then somehow managed to obtain a visa to the United States. He raised a family in Long Island, New York,     where the family still live.
But it is Grandmother Zeren’s survival story that deserves the last word. Michael explained, “My Grandma lived in Budapest until 1944 when the Nazis finally occupied Hungary. When the Nazis arrived she went north to hide in the mountains. She somehow passed herself off as a Christian and was holed up in a convent. For whatever reason, in early 1945, knowing that the Russians were on their way, she decided she had ridden her luck enough and returned to Budapest. Believe it or not, she presented herself at Gestapo headquarters offering her services to the Gestapo who were busy packing up and destroying evidence ahead of the Russians showing up. She claimed to be a Hungarian citizen, whose family had been killed in the bombing of Dresden.
She had no papers to prove anything. She was fluent in Hungarian and German, and needing all the help they could muster, they took her at her word and gave her a job; and that is how a Jewish woman, working right under the noses of the Nazis, was able to survive the last months of the war in relative safety.”
After unsuccessfully trying to settle in the UK, Michael’s grandmother joined her daughter Lizzi in Israel. She lived with Lizzi and her second husband, Artur, and her two grandchildren in Tel Aviv until her death in 1960.
Today Michael and his wife Josepha are active members of the Finchley Synagogue. They are blessed with children and grandchildren who all live in London. His sisters Judith (sadly deceased) and Ruth were married and had families of their own, some of whom live in Israel.