Volume > Issue > Reconciliation in Austria

Reconciliation in Austria

Reluctant Return: A Survivor's Journey to an Austrian Town

By David W. Weiss

Publisher: Indiana University Press

Pages: 189

Price: $20

Review Author: David C. Stolinsky

David C. Stolinsky M.D., who is of the Jewish faith, lives in Los Angeles. He is retired after 25 years of medical school teaching at the University of California at San Francisco and the University of Southern California.

David Weiss, a medical researcher and professor, once vowed that he would never return to Austria, his birthplace. Why he changed his mind makes for enlightening and moving reading. He was born in Wiener Neustadt, in which — despite its name meaning “new town” — Jews lived since the Middle Ages. The town wall includes Jewish tombs, which were placed there when the Jews were expelled in the 15th century and the Jewish cemetery was destroyed. Jews later returned to the region and prospered, despite discrimination. Weiss’s father had been a captain in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, then became the chief rabbi of the region, responsible for overseeing the Jewish portion of the religious instruction that was required in public schools. (Such religious instruction did not prevent some Austrian Christians from participating in the Holocaust; religious education is like vaccination — it is helpful but may not protect against massive exposure to infection.) Grandfather Weiss had been court artist and a friend of Emperor Franz Joseph. Weiss was in high school when the Nazis took over, as approved by a vote of over 90 percent of Austrians.

After the Anschluss the family went into hiding. One day there came a knock at the door. A uniformed militiaman stood there. Weiss’s father tensed (as he would continue to do till the end of his life whenever there was a knock at the door). The militiaman quietly explained that he was the elder brother of David Weiss’s classmate, and that, when their father had been unemployed, David had often given the younger brother half his sandwich to eat at school. Now the man told the Weisses they must leave at once to avoid arrest. Here was a case of bread cast on the waters (or a sandwich shared at lunchtime) being returned a hundredfold. With the help of a former art student of Grandfather Weiss’s, they obtained American visas and fled from Europe.

It’s notable that Weiss refers to those who aided Jews as “gentiles.” Yet the book makes clear that at least two of the three persons responsible for saving his family were Christians. The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe by Samuel and Pearl Oliner (Free Press) shows that most such rescuers were committed Christians, motivated by their religion to care for others. Many nonreligious persons were active in the anti-Nazi underground but were less active in rescue; they tended to be individualistic patriots. (Is it that anger may suffice to fight tyrants, but love is needed to save victims? Perhaps combating evil requires both anger and love.)

Eventually the family came to America, where Weiss became a leading immunologist on the Berkeley faculty. He was active in liberal causes, but during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, an activist colleague declared that statehood for the Palestinians was more important than the lives of Israeli Jews. Disillusioned, Weiss abandoned political activism, returned to his Orthodox Jewish origins, and — feeling rootless in America — moved with his wife and American-born son to Israel.

One sympathizes with his decision to live in the land of his forebears. Yet I wonder whether he would have felt more at home in America if he had surrounded himself not with secular liberals — who tend to be hostile to Israel and to religious values in general — but with believing Christians, who are among Israel’s strongest supporters. Given his background of persecution, one can understand his mistrust of Christianity. But Weiss notes that under Nazism, the demonization of Jews “soared free of any enshroudment….” Why? And again, “that animus sprang out into the light of day, like a demon held captive too long….” Held captive by what? Anti-Semitism, which had been propagated by Christianity but held in check by Christian scruples, was let loose in all its fury by an anti-religious, fundamentally pagan Nazi state. Hitler, indeed, proclaimed that he was not a Christian, because Christianity was rooted in Judaism. The weakening of American Christianity thus makes me anxious: What forces of racism, wanton killing, or other evils may be freed from its restraint? Still, given Weiss’s mistrust of Christianity, it is remarkable that it was devout Christians who induced him to do what he had resolved never to do — return to Austria.

One day in his Jerusalem office Weiss received a call from Helmuth Eiwen, the pastor of a small Protestant congregation called Ichthys Community. It is a Freikirche, a “free church” unaffiliated with either Catholics or Lutherans (Austria’s two official churches) and hence viewed with indifference or suspicion by nonmembers. Apparently Austria, like some other nations, learned so little from the Holocaust that it still believes itself competent, or worthy, to decide which religions are officially acceptable. But before we Americans feel too superior, let us recall the Branch Davidians and admit that Austrians are not the only ones who learn little from history.

Pastor Eiwen was searching for the surviving Jews of Wiener Neustadt, and their offspring, to invite them to return for a week of reconciliation. (Correctly, he did not say “forgiveness,” which might imply that one can properly forgive wrongs done to someone else.) Eiwen felt that Austria had sinned in expelling and killing its Jews, and an act of reconciliation was needed before God’s favor could return. Curiosity overcoming reluctance, Weiss invited Eiwen to his home for a Sabbath meal. After the blessing, salt was sprinkled on the bread. Weiss explained that this recalls the High Priest sprinkling salt on the sacrifice in the ancient temple, and that salt stood for permanence. In the current context, the bread might represent the more numerous Christians, and the salt the less numerous Jews, still a sign of permanence, with both being needed, together yet distinct, to fulfill God’s plan.

Pastor Eiwen’s plan for group atonement is inspiring, but it is troubling in that it implies group guilt. For centuries, Jews were punished for real or imagined crimes of other Jews, so the idea is especially worrisome in this setting. People often do not get what they deserve in this world — sweet children die of cancer while horrible people live to a ripe old age. But what of nations? In 1933 the Great Depression was at its nadir. On January 30 Germany named Hitler to lead it, and on March 4 America inaugurated Roosevelt. Twelve years later, Germany was disgraced, defeated, and in ruins, while America was honored, victorious, and prosperous. Clearly, the choice of leader played a crucial role in the outcome. But peace-loving nations like the Netherlands were also in ruins, so leaders or policies do not always determine outcome. In any case, all Germans and Austrians, even anti-Nazis, suffered the consequences of their nations’ choices. Perhaps one should say group consequences rather than group guilt. Thus Pastor Eiwen could be viewed as striving to mitigate these consequences.

Then Weiss was contacted by Pater Johannes Vrbecky, Prior of Neukloster in Wiener Neustadt, which despite its name (“new cloister”) had been a Cistersian abbey since 1444. Father Vrbecky discovered that his uncle had married a Jewish woman, whose family had died in a camp. He located her surviving daughter, which “opened for me a piece of my own history.” One might wish that we could empathize with all humanity, but for most of us, a personal connection is helpful, and we can use all the empathy we can get. Fr. Vrbecky invited Weiss to visit the Neukloster, promising to serve kosher food. Weiss finally overcame his reluctance, which he realized was based on hatred, and agreed to join the other survivors and visit the place of his birth. Impressed by Pastor Eiwen and Fr. Vrbecky, Weiss felt obliged to distinguish the “contaminated crowd” from these “unstained individuals.”

Still, I am uneasy with the resemblance of “contaminated crowd” to “blood” in Nazi ideology, as exemplified by the rhyme “Was er glaubt ist einerlei, in der Rasse liegt die Schweinerei” (What he believes makes no difference, the swinishness is in the race). When we say that Austrian anti-Semitism is “a thing of the blood” (as Weiss does) — or when we encourage “ethnic pride” or take children from loving adoptive parents and place them with biologic “fathers” who never cared for them — are we not flirting with racist ideology? When advocates of assisted suicide and euthanasia talk about “poor quality of life,” do they not see the resemblance to the Nazi notion of “life unworthy of life”? Is not the greatest danger that in our attempt to overcome evil, we imitate it? Weiss admits that as a boy he feared and envied the Hitler Youth uniform.

Among the events of the week was a concert of typically Jewish “Klezmer” music, but played by a non-Jewish trio. The leader revealed that his father had been a Nazi official: “We cannot bring the dead to life, but their spirit, yes, that is in their songs, we sing for them, a reminder, there is fire in the ashes, maybe another beginning.” The warm embrace of the participants and the cooler reactions of other townspeople are revealing. Fr. Vrbecky invited Weiss to attend Mass and in the homily expressed his joy at the presence of his special friend, the son of the town’s last rabbi. But later that day a swastika was sprayed on the cloister wall.

Nonetheless, religion, which had been misused to drive a wedge between people, was now used to bring them together. The logo of the week’s program included a verse from Isaiah, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” It was printed in both Hebrew and German.

Weiss summarizes the reconciliation: “We are caught up in a connectedness for which we were not prepared and which we did not seek.” What kind of people made this “connectedness” possible? It was the same kind of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust — sincerely religious people who embrace all humanity in their circle of concern. How does one raise children to become such people? Not, I believe, by obliterating every trace of religion from daily life, by stressing economic success as the only goal, by fracturing society along ethnic and economic lines, and surely not by incessant exposure to dehumanizing TV and video games. We Americans are doing our best to rid ourselves of the potential rescuers and conciliators, but — who knows? — we might need them again.

Was anything changed by this remarkable week? I believe the world is like an algebraic sum. One can increase the total either by adding love or by subtracting hate. Both were accomplished by the people of Ichthys, the brothers of Neukloster, and David Weiss and the other former residents of Wiener Neustadt. We hope that our lives will not be touched by terrible evil, but we all do and will have less dramatic opportunities to follow their example.

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