The Building’s Auschwitz Tattoo

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:

Austria’s View of Kristallnacht

Wearing Our Beliefs

Watching Jewish Ghosts

The Termination Shock of Survivors

The Holocaust Will Not Be Colorized. The Holocaust Will Be Live.

The Long History of Dictating Where Jews Can Live Continues

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The Termination Shock of Survivors

Summary: As survivors of the Holocaust decline rapidly in numbers, the attacks on the veracity of the Holocaust, and on Jews and the Jewish State have begun to rapidly escalate. Survivors’ stories are not just reminders of evil actions, but serve as protection from evil ideas. Like the sun’s solar winds that beat back interstellar particles, we have approached the Termination Shock, where the sun’s influence is rapidly fading.  Will evil ideas once again proliferate when survivors cannot speak?

Holocaust denial began immediately after World War II. US General Dwight Eisenhower was keenly aware of the risk of deniers openly challenging historical facts and ordered the liberation armies to record the atrocities found at the concentration camps. Decades later, movie producer Steven Spielberg began to record the testimonies of Jews that survived the attempted extermination of the Jewish people to add personal histories of what transpired.

But the movies of the camps and recorded testimonies are a step removed. Ideally, one interacts with the survivors themselves to truly understand the evils and horrors of the Shoah.

Many Jewish schools developed programs such as Names Not Numbers and Witness Theater to connect today’s youth with Holocaust survivors.  The students interviewed survivors and helped retell their stories of life before, during and after World War II through film and theater.

namesnotnumbers1namesnotnumbers4
Names Not Numbers at SAR Academy, 2014

The programs were more than teaching moments for the children. The human interaction with the survivors became a bond with the past and a protection from potential risks in the future. Learning about world events from only history books can leave a distance from the topic.  However, engaging directly to living history cements lessons into those children for their lifetimes. Those lessons are of life and death.

THE HOLOCAUST AND ANTISEMITISM TODAY

One of the shocking things that students heard firsthand from survivors was how “normal” life was for Jews in Europe. In Germany and Austria, sophisticated societies had Jews among the elites including university professors, artists and financiers. Overall, life was decent before the Nazis came to power.

While it may have once been convenient to think of German society as primitive to harbor such evil anti-Semitic feelings, Germans were highly educated. The history of Germany shows that hatred comes in all formats: primitive and sophisticated; rich and poor; from the powerful and the meek.

Pure hatred stems from a conviction of complete superiority (Germans called Jews “Untermench“) coupled with the belief in the cause of completely controlling people.  When a society with such sentiments attains power, atrocities follow.  Education and employment are no shield, despite what the Obama administration says today.

Echoes of the Holocaust have returned loudly today. The calls of “the Nazis were right” outside synagogues in Europe; the comparison of Israel to the Nazi state and Israeli PM Netanyahu to Hitler; the sale of Nazi-themed merchandise in large department stores; UN agencies calling out NGOs defending Israel as comparable to Nazis; mainstream US papers trivializing the Holocaust by comparing it to the Palestinian Nakba have become commonplace. Further aggravating the situation was the press’s refusal to label the incidents as antisemitc. Even US President Obama refused to call the killings in a Parisian kosher supermarket an attack against Jews. Attacks have become invisible in their motivation and assume the role of the new normal.

A chorus that Jews and Israel consider themselves Ubermenchen that seek to control Palestinian Arabs, world banks and media have again gained appeal in a repeat of historic anti-Semitic trope. The inversion of victim-and-attacker gives rationale for assuming the role of attacker and attacking the victim.

THE PROTECTIVE FORCE

Right after the Holocaust, in December 1948, the United Nations developed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UNDHR. Its goal was to serve as a bright red line declaring that every individual has basic rights that must be protected. Every Holocaust survivor that walked the planet was a symbol of this important declaration.

Survivors are the beacons of the UNDHR.

  • Holding a survivor’s hand is a reminder of their humanity.
  • Hearing their histories is an opportunity to reflect on society.
  • Retelling their stories is a means of incorporating the reality.

Survivors are living defensive forces against evil run amok.

TERMINATION SHOCK

Our world is not only reliant on the sun for light and warmth. Life on Earth would not exist without invisible shields of magnetic fields emanation from the Earth itself and solar winds from the sun. The solar wind deflects the interstellar ionized particles that continually bombard our solar system which would make life impossible.

But those invisible forces only go so far. As they peter out, space itself becomes choppy and dangerous as the solar winds are compressed. The Termination Shock is that point where the protective barriers begin to give way to the hostile forces of the universe.

As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindle, the important message they carry has begun to fade. The Termination Shock of Survivors is leaving their stories as lines in history books, which people can opt to read, ignore or doubt. The beacons are going dark and the universal message they carry is growing faint.

Survivors are not only protection for Jews against the world. They are a reminder for everyone: for Jews about Jews and non-Jews; and for the world about Jews and non-Jews too. But the world is already growing deaf and blind.

The calls for the eradication of people must not be allowed to stand.  But they do. Iran’s call for the destruction of the US and Israel should be grounds for expulsion from the United Nations.  Hamas’ call for the killing of Jews should be the immediate and automatic withdrawal of all UNRWA staff from the Gaza Strip. But they don’t.

It is no surprise that Hamas refuses to allow the teaching of the Holocaust in UNRWA schools or that the Iranian regime loudly denies the Holocaust. However, it is shocking that the world is getting ready to take the next backwards steps in annulling the UNDHR by empowering these very same entities.

Thousands of survivors are yet alive, but the lessons of the Holocaust and the significance of the UNDHR is becoming localized to the handful that are already receptive to the message.  Where will the world be when we pass the heliopause, and are no longer protected by the invisible power of the Survivors?


Related First One Through articles:

Jews in the Midst

Austria’s View of Kristallnacht

An Anti-Semitic “Tinge”

The Holocaust and the Nakba

Abbas’s Holocaust Denial