Now that formal peace has come to Austria and, with it, sovereignty, it becomes more important than ever to understand the country where such a large part of the recent Jewish past lies buried. The view Benno Weiser offers is an inside one, glimpsed through the eyes of a native who renounced Austria and was, as a Jew, renounced by her.
The hitchhiker I picked up on the Arlberg Pass was Viennese, with all the honeyed politeness and eagerness to please of a Viennese. There wasn’t much traffic that afternoon in early May, and he was very grateful. Having noticed the French plates on my little Renault, he made some flattering remarks about France.
“I’m not French,” I said.
“I thought not,” said he, “your German is too good. You must be German. Bavarian, I presume.”
For the next few moments I had to concentrate on passing a big truck ahead on the winding road. My companion took my silence to be a confirmation of his statement, and he immediately began celebrating the German-Austrian comradeship in arms during the recent war; a Bavarian had been his closest buddy in the army. I was amused by his flexibility, and said I was not a German.
“Well, where do you come from, if I may ask?”
“At the moment,” I answered, “from the United States.”
“America!” he exclaimed. “Where would we be without America? The Marshall Plan, Point Four—what a terrific, generous, idealistic country!” After all, what had the Russians done for Austria? But America! What great guys Eisenhower and Dulles were, and Truman and Acheson too! He was taking no chances.
When he had finished I said, “Look here, let’s finish this game. This country used to be my home. I was kicked out. I’m a Jew.”
Though startled for a moment, he did not lose his presence of mind. “Frankly,” he said, “if you hadn’t admitted it yourself, I never would have believed it.”
That’s where I came in, I thought. Here we go again. There had been the Anschluss, a war, defeat, “liberation,” and occupation; there had been destruction, death, destitution—but otherwise nothing had changed. I remembered the story of the man who, receiving a wire that his mother-in-law had died in Vienna, had cried jubilantly, “Wien bleibt Wien!” Vienna remained Vienna. The greatest compliment my companion could pay me, a chance stranger, was that I could pass as an “Aryan.”
I was born in the Austrian empire, just about the time it began to disintegrate. In 1918 my birthplace became part of Rumania. I began my career as a refugee at the age of nine months. My father was in the army, and my mother was unable to take both of her children with her in her departure from my native Czernovitz for Austria proper, so my grandmother, then visiting us, took me along when she returned to Poland. I was restored to my family in Vienna two years later, and had acquired in the meantime two grandmother tongues, Polish and Yiddish. I forgot Polish very soon, and later had to re-learn Yiddish, but both left their mark on my early German. I was teased about my intonation by classmates and teachers, and straightened it out in later years. But I never adopted the Viennese dialect. I wanted to speak impeccable German, but stubbornly refused to disguise myself in order to be taken for Viennese-born—or anything other than the Jew I was.
Nevertheless, I shall probably always feel myself to be a Viennese. A Jew had no reason to think of himself as an outsider in a city that owed so much of its physiognomy, fame, and atmosphere to Jews. No one described the sentimental, charmingly frivolous, and weak-willed man of Vienna with more insight and affection than Arthur Schnitzler, a Jew. There was also Stefan Zweig, probably the most widely read of any Austrian writer. And there were Franz Werfel, Felix Salten, Richard Beer-Hoffman, Peter Altenberg, Hermann Broch, and scores of other Jewish writers who lived in postwar Vienna and made it a literary center. Hugo von Hofmannsthal was part Jewish.
The Viennese theater was, to a great extent, a Jewish affair. Though most of the actors were Gentile, the great playwrights and directors, among them Max Reinhardt, were predominantly Jews. To Viennese music, Gustav Mahler, the German-born Bruno Walter, Arnold Schoenberg, E. W. Korngold, and Fritz Kreisler contributed immeasurably. At least every other Viennese hit tune that has survived is the work of a Jewish composer of the rank of Oscar Strauss, Leo Fall, Emeric Kalman, Paul Abraham, Ralph Benatzky. Even that most beloved and typical of all Viennese songs, the “Fiakerlied,” was written by a Jew. And the Strausses of waltz fame were of Jewish descent.
If Vienna up to World War II was a mecca for students of medicine, much of the credit likewise belongs to Jews. To pick a few names out of many, there was Landsteiner, who discovered blood-types; Otto Loewy, now in this country, who won the Nobel Prize for his discoveries in the field of muscle chemistry; Bela Schick, likewise now in the United States, who devised the test for diphtheria named after him; Pirquet (a half-Jew in Nazi terminology) who discovered the test for tuberculosis named after him; Rudolf Kraus, discoverer of precipitin; koller, discoverer of cocain anesthesia for the eye; Freund, who blazed a trail in the therapeutic use of X-ray; Heinrich Neumann, the otologist; the anatomists Zuckerkandl and Tandler; the pathologist Erdheim; the histologist Marburg; the pediatrician Knoepfelmacher. And there was, of course, Sigmund Freud, and his disciples. Not without justification did the caustic Karl Kraus, another Jew, define psychoanalysis as the appropriation of the Confessional by the Jews of Vienna.
I definitely felt at home in Vienna. But though as a youngster I wore Alpine leather shorts and a gray-green loden jacket, the national costume, the countryside was another matter—the Austrian peasant, the Styrian mountaineer, and the yodeling Tyrolean were hopelessly prejudiced. Lovely as the Austrian mountains were, I could not look at an imposing peak without wondering whether the hostel on its slope adhered to the “Aryan paragraph.” Hotel owners, restaurateurs, chambermaids, waiters, porters, and busboys were, I knew, all confirmed anti-Semites. The more money they made from Jewish tourists, domestic and foreign, the more anti-Semitic they seemed to get. Salzburg, whose famous artistic festivals were founded by Max Reinhardt, was one of the most anti-Semitic towns in Austria, and a joke has it that its inhabitants used to shout “Heil Cohen!” in the summer and “Heil Hitler!” in the winter.
So when vacation time came, I usually chose to travel abroad. Abroad I felt more Austrian than in Austria, and it was pleasant to be an Austrian abroad. Austrians were, and still are, well liked—because, I suppose, they are not considered Germans, but “the transition from the Germanic to the civilized.” Abroad, gaiety is attributed to all things Austrian. Wine, women, and song spring to the mind, the music of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and, of course, the operettas of the Strausses and Lehar. The reality of all this, the tradition of the “dancing” Congress of Vienna of 1814, belongs more to the past than present. But not even the terrible war started by an Austrian, and in which Austrians had, proportionately, no less a record of sadism and barbarism than Germans, has been able today to dispel the Austrian reputation for Gemütlichkeit and friendliness.
I, for my part, had no reluctance in the pre-Hitler days to exploit this reputation on my visits abroad. I did not have the feeling of being an impostor. I was certain that the two hundred thousand Jews of my country had contributed more by far than their share to Austria’s popularity, and that this was as much due to Freud, Zweig, and Mahler as to its yodelers, skiers, and zither players.
As it happened, Jews in those days felt more secure in Germany than in Austria. There had long been a Judenfrage in Austria, though between 1918 and the rise of Nazism it was by no means oppressive: if in Rumania and Poland anti-Semitism could be compared with T.B., in the Austria of those years it amounted to no more than a chronic cold. Outside the universities, it seldom meant more than epithets, hostile remarks by a drunkard, or occasional unfriendliness from officials. The endemic anti-Semitism of Vienna was mitigated by the city’s equally endemic Schlamperei; so that Karl Lueger, its outspokenly anti-Semitic mayor of pre-1914 days, could defend his friendships with Jews with the famous words: “I decide who’s a Jew.”
Nonetheless, it was hard for a Jew to obtain public office or to be promoted once he had one, and he was handicapped in an academic career. Also, it was rather difficult for a sensitive Jew to embrace Austrian nationalism, with its Teutonic orientation. Though the little country, and especially Vienna, contained a mixture of peoples, the heroic legends we learned in history class were all Germanic.
It was in Vienna, too, that the highly assimilated Theodor Herzl came to the conclusion that assimilation was unfeasible in the long run and that the Jewish solution lay in an independent state. But it was the Dreyfus Affair that was the decisive shock, revealing as it did that Jews could still be baited even in Europe’s most advanced democracy. One had needed no such shock as far as Austria was concerned.
Was it an accident that the most rabid anti-Semite of all time was an Austrian? The German contribution to Hider’s mania was only the thoroughness of its application, not the original madness of it. Dislike of the Jew was more deeply rooted in the Austrian than in the German, which made the effort of many Austrian Jews to flee from their Jewishness particularly frantic. Under the monarchy the preferred method was through conversion, mostly to Catholicism. (A great number of the Jews mentioned in this article were baptized.) Under the republic it became escape from religion altogether. The official name for this was “exit from Jewry,” which meant ceasing to be a member of the Jewish community. The popular excuse in terms of principles was provided by the Social Democratic party, which had an anti-clerical tendency (though very few of its Gentile members actually left the Church). Many of the party’s leaders and thinkers were Jews, but to most of Austrian Jewry socialism represented, at least subconsciously, a way of assimilation rather than an economic or political doctrine. On the other hand, Vienna produced only three Zionists of world stature besides Herzl: Rabbi Z. P. Chajes, Robert Stricker, and Adolf Boehm.
My “Aryan” classmates in high school were largely German nationalists, with a few Nazis among them. We Jews got along quite well with them, even so. The Nazis were against Jews in the abstract, but not against those they knew personally; we hated the Nazis, but not the fellow students whom we kidded, played with in the school gymnasium, and allowed to copy from our papers during tests. Things became rough only with the rising tide of Nazism in Germany, and they became particularly so at the University of Vienna, where no Anschluss was necessary to establish a Nazi regime. There, the student body was made up of youths from the Austrian provinces as well as from Vienna, so that the German nationalists and Nazis had a solid majority. In the liberal professions especially, where Jewish competition was most keenly felt, anti-Semitism became much more than a vague expression of political leanings—it was a practical way of preventing Jews from getting their degrees.
A few professors would set higher standards for Jews than for Gentiles, but most of them had too much professional rectitude to go very far in this direction. The task of reducing the proportion of Jewish graduates was left to the “Aryan” students themselves, who would from time to time gang up for physical assaults on Jewish students. In addition to being in the overwhelming majority, they had the advantage of the offensive and could choose the times for their attacks, which made the chances of Jewish self-defense very small. Nor were the police permitted to interfere; ironically enough the regulation excluding police interference had been established centuries before in order to prevent the kings and emperors from violating academic freedom. The republic continued to grant this privilege to the universities of Austria, and an end was put to the abuse only by the dictatorship of Doll-fuss and Schuschnigg, whose fascist tendencies did not prevent them from being violently anti-Nazi.
After the suppression of the uprising of the Social Democratic Schutzbund in February 1934, which the dictatorship itself had provoked, and after an abortive Nazi revolt in July of the same year, in which Dollfuss was assassinated, his successor, Schuschnigg, put Austrian Nazis in concentration camps. At the same time there was not much significant change in the status of Austrian Jews under Dollfuss and Schuschnigg, except that flight into Catholicism again became fashionable, having become once more an almost absolute prerequisite for certain jobs on the government payroll. Though the Schuschnigg regime had few sympathizers among Jews, they had, in the face of the Hitler threat, to pray for its survival.
When, in the late afternoon of March 13,1938, rumors ran through the streets and coffee houses of Vienna, and we rushed home to wait for an important broadcast that, according to constant announcements, was forthcoming—we felt that something precious and dear was at stake: our status as full citizens of Austria.
On the radio at least, the Austrian republic died beautifully. While we waited, Haydn’s Emperor Quartet was played, with its variations of the tune that, with different words, had become both the Austrian and the German national anthem. It was to the accompaniment of that beautiful hymn that we were transferred from the “Sei gesegnet ohne Ende” of the Austrian republic to the “Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles” of Hitler’s Germany. Then came Dr. Schuschnigg’s farewell address telling us that German troops had just marched across the border. At the end of his speech there were tears in the eyes of all of us who had gathered for the family Sabbath eve dinner. The tears were not for ourselves alone; some went for Austria—she had, to be sure, been an unhappy love for us, but a love nonetheless.
For opportune reasons, the Anschluss was viewed by the outside world as Germany’s rape of Austria, and after the war Austria exploited this conception. But I cannot think of it without remembering the story of the woman who on her second appearance in court as a victim of rape told the bewildered judge, “I rape very easily, your honor.”
So did Austria. Some of her Catholic rulers opposed the Anschluss with heart and soul, but the rank and file of the dictatorship’s para-military arm, the Heimwehr, found it rather easy to go over to the Nazis. (The present Chancellor of Austria, Julius Raab, was one of the Heimwehr’s founders.) The Heimwehr had fascist leanings anyhow, being nationalistic to the hilt—and Austrian nationalism was always Germanic. If the Heimwehr troupe and the clericofascists had not been openly anti-Semitic, it was only because they did not despise contributions from the Jewish industrialists and businessmen who saw in them a dike, however insecure, against Nazism. But it was hardly necessary to stir them up against the Jews. As for the Austrian Social Democrats, they hated the Dollfuss-Schuschnigg regime with such intensity that its disappearance did not evoke any regret on their part, even though it meant the disappearance of Austria. Their hatred of Austro-Fascism, which was near, became for many Austrian Socialists an inducement to accept the Nazis, who were less near, or seemed less near. In any case, resistance to the Germans would have been suicidal.
But nobody who saw the throngs that hailed the Wehrmacht and Hitler in Austria could honestly view the Anschluss as a “rape.” Austria might have been only 25,35, or 40 per cent Nazi on the eve of the Anschluss, but hardly one out of nine Austrian Gentiles was without a swastika pin in his lapel the day after the Germans arrived.
Austrian Jewry was despoiled, if under German supervision, mostly by Austrians—both old Austrian Nazis and Austrians who had jumped on the Nazi bandwagon. Most of the commissars put in charge of Jewish enterprises were Austrian, and most of the purchasers of Jewish property—at a fraction of its true value—were Austrian (what they paid went into blocked accounts and not to the Jewish owners). Most of the SA and SS men who later liquidated Austrian Jewry physically were Austrian, though some of them had received their indoctrination and training in Germany. Austria contributed a fair proportion of the staffs of Hitler’s concentration camps, their killers, torturers, and bullies. Last but not least, the crowds that on the morrow of the Anschluss assaulted and humiliated Jews in the streets of Vienna and elsewhere, were entirely Austrian. What happened during those days will remain Austria’s eternal shame.
I am aware that mobs are mobs everywhere. What distinguished the Austrian mobs of March 1938 was their size—and the social and cultural level of many of their members. Hitler let loose the scum wherever he went, and the scum of Eastern Europe may have behaved worse than the scum of Austria. But west of Poland nobody, not even the Germans, matched the Austrians in what they did to Jews. Leaving Austria in September of 1938, I had to spend several days in Germany, and I still remember the sense of relief that I had there.
At that time Hitler had ruled Germany for almost six years, and Austria for only six months. With a knapsack as my only luggage, without a swastika in my lapel, I was easily recognizable in the West German border towns as one of the many Jews then trying to cross over into Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, or France. But I do not remember a single derogatory remark or unfriendly gesture; even the Gestapo man whose advice I asked—because I had official permission for my transit—was friendly and helpful. It struck me that his anti-Semitism must have been impersonal. That of the Austrians was quite different.
Nevertheless, one of the first things I tried to do once I reached my ultimate destination, which was South America, was to get rid of the German passport that had been issued to me (since Austria no longer existed as a sovereign state). What I felt about the behavior of my fellow Austrians was beside the point. To be listed for all practical purposes as a German seemed to me too offensive in view of what Germany had brought upon me and my fellow Jews. I had been an Austrian citizen both by birth and by residence, and I preferred to remain one rather than bear the label of a country to which I had never belonged, and which had become in my eyes the epitome of every frightfulness. But it was not always easy to convince the Ecuadorian authorities that I was an Austrian and not a German.
“You have a German passport,” said the legal adviser of the Ecuadorian Foreign Office in 1943.
“I did not ask for it,” was my answer. “My country was invaded.”
“All right,” said the Ecuadorian. “Where were you born?”
“In Czernovitz,” answered I.
“What country is Czernovitz in?”
“Oh, please,” I begged, “don’t go into that. We’ll only get lost.”
But he insisted, and so I said, “When I was born in Czernovitz, it was in Austria. After World War I it became Rumania. On the eve of World War II the Russians occupied it. During this war the Germans conquered it, and now the Russians have reconquered it.”
“In this case,” said the legal adviser, after due deliberation, “you are for me, at best, a White Russian.”
I was a little exasperated, and said, “Look here, when I was born in Czernovitz, it was in Austria. When I moved from Czernovitz to Vienna, both Czernovitz and Vienna were in Austria. I did not emigrate. Czernovitz did.” That did it.
But if I stuck to my Austrian citizenship because I did not want to be either German or stateless, distance in time and space has not made the dark prints in my memory fade. There were, of course, those sentimental Viennese songs like “Wien, Wien, nur Du allein” that you sang when a nightclub pianist happened to play it because you knew the words. You sang it, in full awareness of its treacle and falseness, in memory of your youth, not the charms of a town or a country. But news of Austria in the headlines or over the radio hardly awakened any more interest in me than news of any other European country. Once I had wanted to love her. Then came resentment, and even hatred. Now only indifference was left.
It took my hitchhiker a few minutes to recover from the disclosure that I was Jewish. Then the emotion I must have been showing as I gazed at the landscape struck him. In what seemed to be genuine surprise, he asked, “Aren’t the Jews supposed to have no Heimatsgefühl?” And he stuttered apologetically, “I mean aren’t they cosmopolitans?”
“I suppose,” I answered, “that it’s only natural that a man should love the place where he was born. Only his fellow man can change this feeling into bitterness. But there’s nothing now to keep me from feeling the beauty of this landscape. After all, the mountains didn’t pin on swastikas, the trees didn’t don brown shirts, and the rivers didn’t shout Heil Hitler!”
My companion tried to explain himself. He did not say that he had not been a Nazi, but he asked me to remember the miseries of pre-war Austria, the thousands of unemployed, the despair of the “little man.” Small wonder if some thought that little Austria joined to big Germany could improve its lot. Yes, there was a celebration when the Germans came, but six months later everyone was already fed up, and then the war came. Who the hell had wanted a war? He had been in the army for five years, and a prisoner in Russia for another five. Who would give those ten wasted years back to him?
After a lull in the conversation he asked how much I was paying for my hired car, and when I told him I saw him mentally multiply the dollars by twenty-five, which made a rather staggering sum in Austrian shillings. Then he made an effort to convince me that not all Austrians were Nazis, and not all Nazis anti-Semites. He was non-committal, however, about his own past.
When I dropped him at his destination he stood for a moment looking at my little car, evidently thinking of what it was costing me. Then he said, “You can be sure of one thing. We Austrians don’t hate anybody any more. We just envy.”
It took me four days, because I dawdled, to reach Vienna. As I drove into the city the old distances and sizes seemed amazingly shrunken, and I found myself on the central Ringstrasse much sooner than I had expected. The city looked like a toy model of the one in my memory. But things had changed in fact as well as appearance. There were gaps among the houses like missing teeth, and everything seemed somehow a little out of shape. Even the Opernkreuzung, which in bygone days had bustled with traffic, and was still the busiest intersection in Vienna, looked abandoned. With pounding heart and a feeling of sadness, I drove into Leopoldstadt, the old Jewish section where my family had lived. There had been a lot of war here, and the scars were not well healed. Once Leopoldstadt had teemed with Jewish life, but only now, when there were no Jews left in it, did it look like a ghetto.
Nine years after the war’s end, the elevator was still out of order in the house where we had lived, and the windows overlooking the backyard were still boarded up, darkening the hallways. The streets looked strangely empty, yet there were just as many people living in Leopoldstadt as before. Only one store sign bore a name I remembered. Leopoldstadt had become strange, too, to many of the people still living in it.
Among the very few people I called on were two women who had worked for us as maids and who had remained loyal to the family in the months after the Anschluss. Tears sprang to their eyes when they recognized me. Yes, those were the good old days. Yes, the Nazis were gone, but they had left ghosts behind. Who knew whether these ghosts would ever disappear? Gone was neighborliness and trust, the good will and sincerity of the people next door. Life had become drab and empty.
Continuing to pursue memories, I visited my old high school. It was a moment I had long anticipated. Somewhat to my irrational surprise, the building was still standing. And I found out that my old math teacher was still alive, retired now and on a pension. I had a cup of coffee with him in a coffee house. We talked about what had become of the other teachers, and I noticed that he mentioned only the “Aryan” ones. I had to ask him point-blank about the Jewish teachers. It was obvious that he had to refer to a completely different file cabinet in his mind: the difference between Gentile and Jew had become so engrained that, even a decade after the Nazis, Jews remained another category of human beings.
Then I asked, “What’s Vienna like without Jews?”
“Aren’t they back?” he answered, astonished.
They were 9,000 out of 180,000. One did not have to be a teacher of mathematics to realize that this made no more than 5 per cent. Even so, he did not seem happy about the 5 per cent. “There’s Herr Leopoldi, for instance,” he said, referring to a popular composer-pianist who had returned from exile in the United States. “When he landed in New York he knelt down on the pier and kissed the asphalt. He should have stayed there.” Then he added with a smirk, “But when he came back to Austria he kissed the ground, too.”
“Maybe he’s very sensuous,” I answered, simply in order to say something. There would have been little use lecturing the seventy-year-old man. Yet he appeared moved by my visit and certainly wanted to be friendly—among other reasons because, as it later turned out, he expected a donation. Obviously, he was not aware of how he sounded.
I found the same lack of sensitivity on this particular subject in other Viennese. The killing of Jews was over; they no longer wore yellow stars and were not being deported and gassed. But even people who had always been friendly with Jews, and had remained so, were not entirely immune to the “devaluation” they had undergone by virtue merely of the fact that for seven years there had been an open season on Jewish lives in Austria.
My old teacher at the Anatomic Institute, now its highest ranking associate professor, whom I visited next, could by no means be considered an anti-Semite. He received me with open arms. He had been dismissed by the Nazis in 1938, and because he had remained faithful to his Jewish sweetheart, who had been in my class at medical school, he was jailed for “race defilement,” while she was sent to Auschwitz. Then he was released from jail and drafted into the army, as a mere medic, owing to his “political unreliability.” Captured by the British in Africa, he had spent a few years in a P.O.W. camp in the United States, where he had run into trouble because he belonged to the anti-Nazi minority among the prisoners. He had returned to Vienna in 1945, found his old sweetheart, who by some miracle had survived, and married her.
I repeated the question I had asked my old mathematics teacher: “What’s Vienna like without Jews?” He was taken aback, thought for a while, and then said with a chuckle, “You see, Herr Kollege, we manage. Oh, yes,” he interrupted himself, “the other day at the theater they put on Linen from Ireland. You probably remember that one of the characters is supposed to speak with a Jewish accent. He did it badly.”
Austria was indeed managing without her Jews. The universities were now only average. The theater was still very good, thanks particularly to its surviving pre-Nazi actors, whose ranks had been swelled by some Jewish repatriates. But all the plays were old or imported. Not a single one by a living Austrian playwright was being performed. I did not have the time to find out what was going on in the literary field, but I was able to get some notion from the Viennese papers. Most of them, though retaining their old prestige-laden names, had become provincial and were written in a mechanical, colorless German. What, apparently, had remained almost as good as ever was musical life.
In the 20’s Hugo Bettauer had written a novel, The Town without Jews, about what Vienna would be like if the anti-Semites had their way. His fantasy was not completely realized, but only because the gap left by the departure of the Jews in the Austrian economy was being filled by American money. But the novelist (who was shot to death a few years later) had not been too far off.
Vienna was still charming to tourists who, if ignorant of the old Vienna, could take the new provincialism for the old Gemütlichkeit, and enjoy the low prices, rich food, magnificent views, the lively theatrical and musical life, and the inexhaustible supply of sentimental songs, which benefited by age the way cheese and wine do. True, most Austrians seemed to feel that they had lost something, but it hardly occurred to them that that something might be, in part, the liveliness and cosmopolitanism of the Jews. So many things had changed since the Anschluss, the war, the “liberation,” and the occupation that it was hard for them to isolate the factors accounting for their mental discomfort.
The occupation, the Russian side of it, might have played a part. It was certainly a nuisance, though people seemed to have become accustomed to it. “What’s it like living so close to the Iron Curtain?” I asked my old professor at the Anatomic Institute. “Well, Herr Kollege,” he said. “We know that we have to die, but we live as if there were no death. The same way, we live as if there were no Russians.”
Yet there was a great amount of uneasiness. Many people I met had either tried to emigrate or were toying with the idea. There were many difficulties in their way. The American quota for Austria was small, and filled for years to come. Also, there was the fear of a strange land on the part of those who lacked money and connections. But the woman who approached me during an intermission at the Academie Theater was certainly not an exception. Apparently, she had seen me arrive in my foreign car, and she started the conversation by asking where I was from; her husband was chatting with some other people a few yards away. Then she asked me whether it was true that, in the United States, Negroes could not live wherever they wanted to. “What makes you so interested in that?” I asked her. She answered, “I wouldn’t mind leaving my husband here and marrying some American Negro sergeant in order to get out of here.”
Visiting one of the famous Heuriger cafés, I suddenly realized something that I had been unaware of during my old days in Vienna. The café life, the singing, the gentle intoxication produced by the Heuriger (new) wine, the intimacy, and the Gemüt-lichkeit were all part of a scheme for escaping reality, and had been serving that purpose since long before Hitler and the war. Under the gaiety produced by alcohol and music lay a real sadness. Gay Vienna belonged to the past, and its people were just acting out roles and doing the expected. The thought that the men singing at the tables around me might be the same who, ten years before, had murdered Jews like myself in Eastern Europe, began to spoil my pleasure. During my entire stay in Vienna I could not look at one of the attractive, well-filled-out girls in whom the city abounds without wondering how she would have reacted to a Jew ten years earlier.
I found out that the Jews who had come back to Vienna to stay did not feel very differently from me. Their number was small. Of nine thousand, only about two-thirds were originally Austrian, the rest having been brought in by the war and its aftermath. One-third of the native Austrian Jews now back in the country live in homes for the aged or on pensions. Of the remaining four thousand, some had stayed in Austria throughout the war and miraculously survived. Consequently, the number of actual returnees is very small, probably less than 2 per cent of all those who departed. And even this 2 per cent includes many Jews who spent their exile in Shanghai. These figures speak for themselves. Most of those who returned did so for practical reasons. Some had been owners of factories that they managed to get back. Others were lawyers, actors, and writers who, for reasons of age or language, could not make an adjustment abroad.
In the Theater in der Josephstadt, I saw The Teahouse of the August Moon, translated into German by Oscar Karlweis, a Jew, who acted in it along with another Jew, Hans Yarai. One of the Gentile actors had been head of the Nazi cell in that same theater, and I wondered how they felt playing opposite him. I asked an acquaintance who had returned from the United States, but had retained his American citizenship, and married a young Viennese Gentile, how he felt as a Jew living in Vienna. He answered, in his wife’s presence, “Oh, it’s very simple. All you have to do is close both eyes and ears.” We went to the Kobenzl bar, which enjoys a beautiful view of Vienna’s lights at night. After we had sat down, he said, “You know, I always have the impression that people feel uneasy when I come in. I don’t know what they think. Do they wonder how I survived or why on earth I came back? Maybe I look like a ghost to them—and who’s comfortable in the presence of a ghost?”
I talked with a Jewish lawyer who had been prominent in the Social Democratic party. He was a typical Viennese. We paid an afternoon visit to his special Heuriger. As I saw him look, glass in hand, down past the vineyards of Sievering at the church towers of Vienna rising out of the mist, I understood how much a part of the setting he was. He had spent the Hitler years abroad, and he made no bones about why he had returned. “Look,” he said, “I’m too old to fight with prepositions in a foreign language. I’ve been a lawyer for forty years. Why should I be a handy man or a sales clerk somewhere else if I can practice my profession here?” A little surprised by the amount of time which he devoted to me, I asked him, “And how is social life?” He looked at me and said, “Social life with whom? My Social Democratic colleagues? Oh, yes, we meet at official receptions, but I don’t want to visit their homes, or have them in mine. They’re no better than the others. As a matter of fact, I think that the only Austrians who’ve learned a lesson and feel a little closer to the Jews are the Catholic leaders who suffered under the Nazis.”
Among the Jewish returnees I also found quite a few people from Israel. They had returned at the height of Israel’s austerity period to the goulash pots of Vienna, mostly with the idea of getting their restitution claims settled. They were careful to retain their right to return to Israel, but their presence has somewhat dampened the admiration that, according to Arieh Eshel, Israel’s consul in Vienna, was felt in official circles for “that other type of Jew,” the Israeli. There were some cranks and misfits among these returnees. In Tel Aviv, a few weeks later, the Austrian consul, Hartl, mentioned the complaints that one of them, before leaving for Vienna, had made to him about the Israeli government. “But I told him that Hitler hadn’t succeeded in making an anti-Semite out of me, and that he wouldn’t either.”
There is no question about where Austria stands vis-à-vis Russia. Her traditions and civilization, the chance that the presence of Russian troops has given Austrians to judge Soviet society, the proximity of the satellite “paradises,” and—more than anything else—her own interests make her entirely pro-Western. Besides, the new Austria is a democracy—with a vengeance.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which I saw at the Burgtheater, had an informal prologue, penned by the management, that drew a parallel between witch-hunting in the United States now and then. Such amazing self-righteousness and complacency could be explained in part by a selective amnesia that enabled the Austrians to regard themselves as victims, and nothing else, of Hitler’s war. But this feeling of superiority to America was also part of a Europe-wide phenomenon, a feeling of Schadenfreude over the colossus’ imperfections, a way of “getting even” with a too powerful friend.
I caught a glimpse of the confusion attending upon all this when I finally located a Nazi classmate who had survived. There had been no bad feeling between us personally during our high school days. Later on, when he was studying philosophy at the university, he had come over to me one day and warned me that there was going to be an anti-Semitic brawl. Now we met at a Kaffeehaus. He looked trim and well, though he was limping as a result of a war wound. He had become a teacher.
“What are you teaching your pupils?” I asked him.
He said innocently, “History.”
“History isn’t mathematics,” I said. “It’s not an exact science. Where do you put the emphasis, especially when you come to the last twenty years?”
He looked at me with amazement and said, “You know, I never thought of that. I teach ancient history, and never touch on the modern period. And now that I think of it, I’m rather happy I don’t have to.”
He told me that his world had collapsed with Germany’s defeat. He had been ready then to re-learn. There seemed to be something superior in democracy, after all, since it had defeated Hitler’s Germany. But as time passed he had become more and more confused. It had turned out that the main mistake Hitler made was not to win the war. In retrospect, victory did not seem to have been as unattainable, and thoughts of it not as insane, as in the actual days of the collapse. After all, the atomic bomb was first thought of in Germany. With a little more luck, she could have developed it in time to win the war. Hence Germany did not lose because democracy was better than totalitarianism—or because it was impossible for one nation to rule over all the others. That this was no chimera was shown by the fact that the Soviets now controlled almost half the world. Hitler could have saved the world from Communism, and had it really been so smart of the West to support the Russians?
He really would not know how to decide which was more useful, democracy or totalitarianism. Freedom? Well, it was a beautiful word, but it seemed as though freedom was not faring so well under democracy either. As it looked from where he was sitting, freedom in America, too, was limited to those who supported the regime. Wasn’t the question of democracy and totalitarianism to a great degree a matter of words? He understood that as a Jew I could not be completely open-minded about the question. And incidentally, many of his comrades felt that one of Hitler’s biggest mistakes had been to attack both Knoblauch and Weihrauch—garlic and incense—meaning the Jews and the Catholic Church. But this was not a question of ethics—just of tactics. And leaving the Jewish question aside, wasn’t democracy just a word that could be invoked with the same elasticity as God?
“Please don’t misunderstand me,” he finished. “I don’t presume that I know the answers. I admit being confused. Things seemed so simple the day after the collapse. They have become confusing recently. If democracy is really so superior, look at what it is doing to France. If Germanic racial superiority was really such a myth, look at the amazing recovery of Germany.” Was the question of right or wrong really so decisive in international politics, or was it the question of weak or strong? Was it really such a silly ambition to be the strongest country in the world? Was the United States doing so badly in that role? It was certainly not much fun being an Austrian. It had been more fun making history than teaching it. But these were things that had only come to his mind just now, because, frankly, without my questioning, it would not have occurred to him to think about them. He certainly did not know all the answers. Did I?
I noticed one essential difference between Austrian and German behavior. Up to 70 per cent of the tourists in Europe who come from inside Europe itself are Germans, and I came across many of them in hotels, restaurants, etc. Most German tourists, whether or not they recognized me as Jewish, felt some need to apologize for the way the Nazis had treated the Jews. The Austrians did not. After all the worst Nazi crimes in Austria had been committed after the Anschluss, and by the Third Reich, not by Austria. The fact that tens of thousands of Austrians had been enthusiastic minions of Hitler, and thousands of others had directly benefited from the confiscation of Jewish property had been quickly forgotten. And after all, what did happen to the Jews of Austria? Sixty thousand of them had been deported and killed. So what? War was war. Four hundred thousand Austrians had died and nobody was making any fuss about them. The Jews who managed to flee did not escape Hitler and persecution alone; they had also escaped the war. They were now living abroad and could even afford to travel thousands of miles in order to revisit their old country.
A woman teacher I gave a lift to, and whom, because she seemed intelligent, I told I was an ex-Austrian Jew, asked me when I had left. I said, “In September 1938.” With genuine admiration, she exclaimed, “How clever!” She did not associate my departure from Austria with my fate as a Jew under the Nazis. She failed to grasp the fact that I had not just moved to another country, but had emigrated in order to escape concentration camps, deportation, death. It was just cleverness, Jewish cleverness perhaps, that had made me leave while she had stayed behind and got stuck in a war.
I got an even clearer view of what went on in the mind of the Austrian “Aryan” when I visited my father’s old store. A neighbor had taken it over, thereby enlarging his own store. “Oh yes,” said the owner’s wife, “we remember your father.” Then she grew a bit apprehensive about what my visit might mean. When it turned out that it was just a sentimental one, she was visibly relieved and told me about how she and her family had suffered during the war. They had been bombed. Then, apparently, following a sudden impulse, she added, “Isn’t it funny? We who stayed behind were bombed, and those who left want restitution now!”
The Austrian government’s cheap game with Jewish demands for restitution (about which COMMENTARY readers learned from Hal Lehrman’s “Austria and the Jews” in the October 1954 issue) is a tricky and cynical one, but it cannot be called undemocratic—if democracy means expressing the will of the majority. I do not know to what extent the decision to pay reparations to Israel was supported by popular feeling in Germany. But I have no doubt that some such feeling existed somewhere in Germany. It is altogether absent in Austria. Adenauer’s step was certainly prompted in part by political expediency, but it also had a great deal of honest moral conviction behind it. Not the slightest bit of shame tinctures the shabby dodges with which the Austrian government has met Jewish demands for a settlement like the German one.
The committee for Jewish Claims on Austria had asked for a token sum of twelve million dollars. (Existing Jewish unclaimed and heirless property alone in Austria is estimated to amount to two hundred million dollars.) But even this was refused by the Austrian government, which for a while offered such sophistical pretexts as its unwillingness to make religious or racial distinctions, or its “technical” inability to settle any claims until six months after the signing of a peace treaty. Yet the same government drew up an elaborate plan for compensating former Austrian Nazis who had suffered under de-Nazification, and it took the joint veto of the Allied Control Council to prevent this impudent plan from going into effect.1
The Austrian government would never have agreed to negotiations in the first place had not Germany established an example. For a while it tried to follow this example, on the assumption that what was good for Germany might be good for Austria too. But the Raab regime’s negotiations with the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria broke down early last year, shortly after the State Department temporarily suspended American aid to Israel. It was as if the Austrians had suddenly discovered that the Jews were not so powerful, after all, in the United States.
The American Jewish Congress charged during Chancellor Julius Raab’s trip to this country that the “insultingly casual treatment” of the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria was prompted by certain secret clauses in an agreement between his People’s party and the neo-Nazi League of Independents to use heirless property to compensate ex-Nazis.2
Yet the Austrian Social Democrats have no better record on this issue than the other two parties. Their action has only served to complicate matters and make it easier for the Raab government to stall. The Social Democrats have made their support for Jewish claims dependent upon the satisfaction of demands for compensation by Social Democrats who suffered under the Dolfuss-Schuschnigg regime. This would mean putting the Dolfuss-Schuschnigg regime on the same footing as the Hitler one—a tough proposition for Raab, who once belonged to the Dolfuss-Schuschnigg group. Social Democratic leaders, when pressed by socialists from other countries for a more positive stand, have countered that they would only play into the Raab government’s hand by supporting Jewish claims; he would then get all the neo-Nazi votes. Raab’s final offer of a little more than a million dollars in satisfaction of Jewish claims was, as we now can see, an expression of Austria’s collective immorality, not merely his own party’s.
As I drove south from Vienna toward Italy, the scenery was of singular loveliness. The Semmering, the mountains of Styria, and the lakes of Carinthia evoked boyhood memories of camping and hiking. The return to my past had brought no new revelations. Things had turned out much as I had expected—or had I approached them with too many preconceived notions? Was it possible for any one with so many old memories of it to visit this country with an open mind?
Could there be such a thing as charming people who just happened to dislike Jews? I tried to be fair. This country had had a tragic history. It had lost two wars, was impoverished, and had been so ever since I could remember. Life was hard. And the Austrian temperament was different from the German. The Germans were go-getters, the Austrians were Raunzer who liked to complain and criticize, and would prefer letting things go on the same way than be deprived of the chance to complain. They had not been the masters of their own destiny for many a year. They were little men who struggled hard for a little security. An old saying came to my mind: Austrian civil servants didn’t earn anything, but they were sure to earn it. And Austrians loved to be civil servants. I remembered the remark of my first Austrian hitchhiker: “We Austrians don’t hate anybody any more. We just envy.” I saw this as the new motto on the Austrian flag: “We don’t hate. We envy.”
It seemed to me that most Austrians were neither good nor bad, but simply weak. Their political opportunism, their partly simulated, partly temporary, partly genuine enthusiasm for the Anschluss, their cruelty towards Jews when such cruelty was legal, their exaggerated politeness—all these seemed to me to be rooted in fundamental weakness of character.
That the Jews who had managed to escape and survive should now appear to the Austrians to be the real winners was understandable. Austria has all the charm of the Old World but it is Old World with all its limited horizons and restricted possibilities. Most of the people now living in Austria are, in spite of the beauty surrounding them, frustrated and plaintive. The pariahs of yesterday, on the other hand, had not only gone elsewhere but they had also gone ahead, fulfilling the prophecy that the meek shall inherit the earth. Jewish refugees from Austria might, depending on their age, feel nostalgic from time to time, and they might say, “Happy we are, but glücklich we are not, but on the whole they are doing much better than the “Aryans” still in Austria. Many refugees have reached comfortable positions. Their children are growing up in an atmosphere less poisoned by anti-Semitism than theirs was. Most of them live in places less precarious than next door to the Iron Curtain.
But even if this could be said of all Jewish refugees from Austria, and even if there were not—as there are—thousands of elderly, impoverished ex-Austrian Jews who have nothing but their restitution claims, Austria’s attitude until recently would still be proof of her moral bankruptcy. What is asked of the Austrian government is not charity but actually, in view of the amount involved, only a token payment, ridiculously small for a country enjoying an unprecedented boom, thanks to foreign aid. The new sovereign Austria has a chance now to turn over a new leaf in its relations with Jews. Should Austria continue her present attitude the response can only be contempt, and the tourist who has no special stake in Austria might ask himself whether seeing Austria was worth the price of coming into contact with Austrians.
As I crossed the Italian border at Tarvisio, I felt that whatever sentimental accounts I had left with my old home had all been settled now, and that not even curiosity remained. It was raining, and lightning flashed across the gray sky as I drove towards the Dolomites. It was unusually dark for the early afternoon, but I knew that beyond lay the sunshine and warmth of Italy.
1 According to Mr. Kurt Grossman of the Jewish Agency: “The U.S. Department of State stated in a press release in 1952 with reference to this projected legislation that it ‘was greatly disturbed to have received reports on the above legislation when restitution and general-claims problems of Nazism still have not been resolved by the Austrian Government.’ In the same year, U.S. High Commissioner Walter J. Donnelly stated that he was ‘disappointed to find legislation for the relief of ex-Nazis preceding that for their victims.’ In explaining his veto two years later, the British High Commissioner said, ‘It is under these circumstances—before certain victims of the Nazi oppression have had their wrongs set right—that we are requested to give approval to these two laws before us which are designed to relieve former Nazis who had participated in that oppression from the legal penalties imposed upon them by Austrian legislation, promulgated with the unanimous approval of this Council.’ Dr. Herbert A. Kraus, a parliamentarian of the neo-Nazi League of Independents, advised Chancellor Raab ‘simply’ to ignore the veto. This advice was followed implicitly when Raab announced a month later that the former Nazis would receive ‘advance payments’ from the Austrian government against the day when such legislation was ultimately passed.”
2 Raab, during his visit to the United States, made some angry statements about what he called “well-organized questioning on the topic of Jewish restitution demands by journalists.” From a man of his background and mentality, such a remark hinted at Jewish domination of the American press. He also said, in the untranslated part of another interview, that Jews were “good businessmen” about whom nobody had to worry. In order to make some answer to the barrage of reporters’ questions, he asserted that Austria would settle Jewish restitution demands on its own terms, regardless of pressure from abroad. Nevertheless, the reaction of American Jewry to Raab’s visit (there was a Jewish boycott of the receptions in his honor) has made the Austrian press and government a little pensive. The just signed treaty reestablishing Austria’s sovereignty seems to have further softened the government’s position on restitution, but actual claims settlement has not yet begun, and there’s no way of telling whether this time the government will indeed implement its latest sentiment in practical fashion.