I came with my parents to Vienna on a heritage trip to see where my grandparents lived and my mother was born before they fled the city in December 1938, just after Kristallnacht.
My grandmother passed away twenty years before the trip when I was a young adult. I remember her telling me about her beautiful apartment just off of Ringstrasse, the famous street that looped through the center of town. She spoke of her governess, her walks in the mountains with her classmates at the edge of the city and the wonderful life the family had.
She had also spoken fondly of Kaiser Franz Josef, of whom I knew nothing. Only years after she died in preparing for the trip did I look him up to see that he was the emperor in Austria when she moved to Vienna as a young child. I audibly gasped when I saw that my grandmother had the same name as one of the emperor’s daughters, and was further shocked to see that my Grandma named my mother after the Archduchess’s daughter.
I was both excited and curious to see her city.
My parents, sisters and I stayed at a hotel on Taborstrasse where my grandmother’s eldest sister had a shoe store before the war. That side of the canal had wide buildings but narrow streets which made it feel more residential than the more regal side of the canal which had the Ringstrasse, the opera house and famous hotels. This neighborhood continues to house most of the city’s Jews – about 8,000 today – and kosher restaurants. It was also around the corner from my grandmother’s first apartment where she lived until her marriage.
We walked to the building, entered the open front door and climbed the stairs of the very wide and somewhat worn large building. In the 1910’s and 1920’s, this building housed many of my grandmother’s relatives, as she was the youngest of thirteen and many siblings married and got apartments right next to the family.
We knocked on the apartment door and explained to the older couple living there why we had come to visit. They were very welcoming and showed us around the small apartment and balcony which had views of the surrounding buildings.
We then continued across the canal to the more affluent side of central Vienna where my grandparents moved after they were married. The stories I heard in my youth led me to believe that my grandparents lived along the Danube River, but the address made clear that their home was actually along a canal which weaved through the city center. At first we walked on the grand Ringstrasse to get to the apartment but it was clear from a map that walking along the canal would be more direct and switched course.
We were all very excited to find the apartment. It was a large corner building with floors which must have been at least twenty feet tall. The first floor of the building on the canal front had a restaurant and retail stores, while the side street was completely residential.
We located the buzzer to her apartment and saw that it was now a law firm. The receptionist seemed nonplussed by our request to come up and buzzed us in.
It was at that moment when we saw the etching in the large wooden double-doors: Jew.
Our excitement melted. The fabricated images of my grandmother’s happy years living in Vienna were washed away by the reason she left.
I rubbed my fingers along each letter to consider whether the vandalism was recent or historic. The engraving was deeper than the surface but not deep through the wood. There was no sawdust or sharp edge to the ‘J’ which was carved the deepest.
Did my grandparents see this? Did my grandmother come home one day after pushing my mother in a stroller along the canal in mid-1938, just after the Nazis were welcomed into Austria in the Anschluss to see that someone was watching her? This fancy apartment was only a quarter of a mile away as the crow flies from her first apartment in the Jewish section of town: was it the local Viennese people who didn’t want her in the neighborhood?
We pushed the thoughts away, entered the building and rode the ornate elevator to the third floor.
The receptionist let us into the apartment and allowed us to roam. The apartment took up most of the floor including the whole front of the building overlooking the canal. We checked out each room, now reconfigured from a very large apartment for four people to a law firm to handle twenty, almost none of whom were present. While many of the walls were original, I could not imagine where or how my grandparents, mother and uncle lived in the space. Only the dining room which served as a large board room provided a seamless setting for the ghosts of my grandparents.
We thanked the receptionist and left.
I stopped at the front door of the building again and took a picture. And then a few more.
Was antisemitism still breathing in Vienna? Was it embedded into the fabric of the city, to emerge as pogroms now and again? In the 1420’s the city’s residents confiscated the Jews’ possessions, burned 200 Jewish adults at the stake and converted the children to Christianity. Under the guide of the cross or orders of the Fuhrer, the city seemed ripe for a match to incinerate its Jews.
My grandparents survived the Holocaust by fleeing Europe a few weeks after the Nazis burned their city’s synagogues and Jewish stores in November 1938. While some of my grandmother’s siblings did not leave and died in the Holocaust, I had never considered my mother or grandparents “Survivors” as they did not go into the concentration camps or have numbers tattooed on their arms like some of my friend’s parents. My grandmother spoke with such love of Vienna, not of pain and torture.
But indeed there was a tattoo. Not on her body, but on the place that she loved.
While the Nazis stole the humanity from Jews tattooing their bodies with numbers, they also marked her home and city. She was not Viennese at all. She was a Jew.
That is the heritage of the Jews of Europe.
More than the government-placed plaque marking the place where the city burned its Jews 600 years ago and the commissioned sculpture of a Jew on his knees scrubbing the streets 80 years ago, the markings on the walls by the people of Vienna reveal the hatred that enabled the slaughters to take place.
I came to Vienna excited to see my grandmother’s city, only to discover it was never hers at all.
Related First One Through articles:
Subscribe YouTube channel: FirstOneThrough