Vienna opera comes to terms with its purge of Jews

A famed conductor, a lowly laundress, singers, dancers, musicians. Jews, part Jews, or married to Jews, they were all a valued part of Vienna's opera family until the Nazis came.

A famed conductor, a lowly laundress, singers, dancers, musicians. Jews, part Jews, or married to Jews, they were all a valued part of Vienna's opera family until the Nazis came. First to go was ballet teacher Risa Dirtl. She was a 14-year veteran of the Vienna State Opera. But her husband was Jewish - and so she was purged just three days after Austrians thronged a huge central square in their capital 70 years ago to accord a delirious welcome to Adolf Hitler. "The directorate is obliged to inform you that you are relieved of your duties as ballet school teacher, effective immediately. Heil Hitler!" says Dirtl's yellowed notice note dated March 16, 1938. Part of an exhibit entitled "Victims, Perpetrators, Observers," the brusque letter of termination is only one of hundreds of documents on display reflecting the fate of "racially impure" opera employees or ones with spouses fitting that category after Austria was absorbed by Nazi Germany 70 years ago. Within weeks, 95 people were purged and the exhibit - part of larger nationwide commemorations of the "Anschluss" - mostly focuses on them, documenting not only careers that came to an abrupt stop with the Nazi takeover but lives that sometimes ended in a Gestapo-run death camp. Conductor Bruno Walter, associated with some of the greatest Vienna opera productions of the 1930s, was perhaps the most famous victim. Because he was abroad, Walter escaped the direct consequences of the Anschluss. But his daughter was temporarily detained by the Nazis and even though he lived until 1962, Walter never again conducted at the opera. On the other end of the scale was Margarete Altarass. Listed as a "laundry caretaker," she is 14th on a list of employees let go because they were Jews. In-between were orchestra musicians, opera soloists, office clerks, stagehands and others interspersed through the opera structure. Their fate was shared by German Jews. But Jews there were stripped of their jobs, homes and human rights relatively slowly, starting with the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935. In contrast, the Anschluss in Austria released a tidal wave of pent-up anti-Semitism that swept away many of the rights of Jews here within months. Now a US citizen living in Los Angeles, Edith Arlen Wachtel was 12 and a student at the opera's ballet school when word came that she was suddenly no longer welcome. I'm sorry but you are herewith let go," she recalls the note to her and other Jewish ballet students. "It shattered my sense of who I was, after being encouraged to harbor the dream of someday dancing on the State Opera stage." At about the same time, dozens of store clerks at her father's department store who had never showed the slightest sign of backing Hitler suddenly started sporting Swastika lapel pins and the family chauffeur disappeared with the vehicle after looting the family's summer residence and declaring: "No Jew will ever again enter this car." On the lists of those slated for dismissal, each careful tick mark dividing them into Jews, half Jews or quarter Jews represents a life shattered. Still, opera director Ioan Holender, a key architect of the exhibit, urges visitors not to focus only on the "Victims" and "Perpetrators," but also to pay attention to the "Observers." "The last category is the most important," he told The Associated Press, alluding to the overwhelming majority of Austrians who looked away while their friends, neighbors and colleagues were terminated - at the workplace, and many ultimately in the gas chambers or forced labor sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps. "When the Jews cleaned the streets of Vienna with tooth brushes, most of the others just looked," said Holender. "Then, after the war, they could say 'I never touched anyone; I just looked!"' That attitude of feigned innocence was for decades symptomatic of how Austrians sold their role in Nazi history. Postwar generations grew up learning that their country was Hitler's first victim through the "Anschluss." And because the victorious Allies swallowed the victim story, Austria never underwent the thorough de-Nazification process that Germany was subjected to, allowing those who served Hitler to survive in their positions or regain them just years after the war. The exhibit focuses on one of these; trumpet player Helmut Wobisch. A registered Nazi even before the party became legal with the Anschluss, he was listed by the Gestapo as a "well-informed" whistle blower within State Opera ranks. Dismissed at the end of the war because of his Nazi sympathies, he was rehired in 1950, appointed a professor of music in 1958 and awarded a high state medal for his services to Austria nine years later. Today, a street bears his name in his hometown of Villach. Not until the early 1980s did politicians, historians and educators start exposing the sordid truth - the vast majority of Austrians voted for the "Anschluss"; more Austrians than Germans per capita were members of the Nazi party, and not only Hitler but some of his most notorious henchmen were Austrian. Much effort has been extended since then. The government and key industries have paid out tens of millions of euros (dollars) to Holocaust survivors or their relatives and real estate, artworks and other property stolen by the Nazis have been returned to their Jewish owners. While Austria's Jewish community now numbers only 10,000 compared to the 200,000 before the war, it has strong government support. Still government leaders emphasize that Austria's debt will never be fully paid. "No compensation can ever diminish the wrong that the Nazis did to our Jewish fellow citizens," said Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer earlier this month in a speech to parliament marking the anniversary day of the Anschluss. "No payoff can undo the inexcusable." Still, not all are repentant. At its height eight years ago, Austria's right-wing FPO party, whose supporters include those nostalgic for the Nazi era, had 27 percent voter support, hoisting it into government as the majority coalition partner. It retains close to 10 percent backing among the electorate even after fragmenting several years ago. Opening the opera exhibit, Gusenbauer noted that while the opera "is ready to face up to its past even if it was painful at times, such institutions in Austria in 2008 are sadly still the exception." Appointed 16 years ago, Holender smiled wryly when asked whether lingering anti-Semitism and xenophobia in the Alpine republic had led to his reluctance to speak out more strongly in the past about Austria's refusal to come to terms with its history. "It's true, we are aware of where we live," said the 72-year-old, alluding to his Jewish and Romanian roots. Still, he suggested that the nation had come a long way in making amends. It says something about today's Austria that I have become the longest serving director of the opera house," he said.