A last-minute change of mind ensured I attended an awfully interesting lecture. The subject was a family history. The family was one of many, torn apart through migration. Of this family, members managed to migrate – while others were left behind in Nazi occupied Austria.
We know people like Stefan Zweig and Sigmund Freud were able to migrate. We forget, they were not isolated men but part of a family and extended family. Some migrants or people who applied for migration were allowed into the US, Australia, other states throughout the world.
But then as now: countries picked and choose. Not rich enough? Not young enough? Not fit enough? Sorry, then you are not welcome.
This lecture told the story, a recovered history, of a family who were once part of upper-class bourgeois Viennese life and society. The uncovering and discovery started over two years ago.
An elderly American woman contacted a local university department. The woman had these boxes in the attic. The boxes had ended up in her attic when her mother had been taken into a care-home. The boxes had remained in the attic, but now the woman contemplated moving.
The boxes contained letters, a few documents, some photos. The problem was, the woman had migrated with her family to the US, aged seven. As is so often the case with migrants and refugees: she had forgotten her original, native language. She could no longer read these letters. Could someone from the local Pennsylvania State University help out?
A professor decided to help, without charging anything for the translations of the difficult handwriting scrawled on sometimes disintegrating paper: an act of kindness. But then, she became hooked and immersed in the slowly revealing story and its mysteries. Over two years later, there are still mysteries to be solved. Yet, with hard work and some luck, this summer a book may finally be published about a Jewish, Viennese family – torn apart during the Second World War.
The basis of the story will be the letters. The letters cover roughly two years and were written by the grandmother of the present owner, to her daughter who is the present owner’s mother. The letters end in 1942, when this Viennese lady was deported. The professor was able to trace her to Theresienstadt; even finding the building where she died.
The story told during the lecture, was of course sad – but also fascinating. For a start, the father of the present letters’ owner, had been deported to but was released from a concentration camp. He swore never to speak German again, ensuring his daughter no longer knows the language.
Despite all the restrictions and difficulties, the family managed to migrate to the US. As in so many cases: their journey was a long one and went through various countries.
When one hears about the increasing difficulties Jewish people left in Vienna, Austria, any part of the Nazi Reich, had to face … When one realizes how all letters by anyone living in that Nazi Reich were censored, that there would have been spies everywhere and self-censorship was necessary when writing, how difficult it was to get letters sent at all – by using different people and routes through various countries. It is a surprise a family who had settled in the US received any letters at all.
Of the extended family, other members managed to migrate and survived. A few left well before the “Anschluss” in 1938 and ended up in other countries. One of the fascinating discoveries was, that a few members of the next generation ended up living in the US. As one apparently remarked: “… unaware I had relations already living here!”. .
Once the book is published and available, it will not be just another fascinating, academic story. It will not simply discuss a nearly forgotten sad chapter in history. It may also help others, interested in tracing their family’s history, whether they belong to the large group of Jewish families, torn apart by WWII and only hearing year later what happened to those they left behind. It may also inspire members of other families spread over countries and continents, whose ties were broken through migrations for different reasons, to start uncovering their own histories..
Lecture: “With Love from Vienna”, contextualizing Daily Life of Elderly Jews in Vienna after the Anschluss; B. Brandt, Senior Lecturer Pennsylvania State University, Fellow at NIAS till 31st of January 2017