In my role as Next Generations Manager for The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) I was privileged to accompany this group of children of Holocaust survivors and refugees fro Vienna, in June 2022.
No upsurge in Covid cases, heatwave or flight chaos was going to mar the success of our second-generation week-long heritage tour of Vienna at the end of June. We were guests of the Jewish Welcome Service Vienna (JWS), which has invited refugees, survivors and their families back to Austria for over 40 years.
Shoah Wall of Names
Many were moved to tears to find relatives’ names among the list of 65,000 murdered Austrian Jews on the new Shoah Wall of Names, an imposing memorial unveiled in November 2021. Some of our members eager to tell their family stories were interviewed by film crews and journalists at the wall, while others, such as Eric Cohen who speaks to students in and around Liverpool, were happy to answer questions from visiting school children.
Susan Burns, whose father escaped from Vienna in 1939, brought her grandmother’s diary to the Shoah Wall of Names. Susan said, “It was my dream and wish to take my grandmother’s diary that she started at 16 until she was taken away with the rest of family, to hold up against her name at the memorial wall, and thanks to AJR and JWS, I did so.”
House of Austrian History (HDGÖ
We escaped the scorching heat with a guided tour of the House of Austrian History (HDGÖ), the republic’s first museum of contemporary history. Our guide explained the towering wooden horse wearing the brown cap of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (SA). The Waldheim-Pferd, or Waldheim Horse, appeared at demonstrations in 1986, when Kurt Waldheim ran for the country’s presidency, playing down his role in the Wehrmacht during WW2 and claiming he had never joined any Nazi organisation. His opponents remarked that only his horse had been a member of the SA.
In the need of something a bit lighter after a morning themed exclusively on Holocaust history, we were shown other exhibits including a ski lift to represent Austria’s winter-sports tourism industry; the dress worn by Conchita Wurst for her Eurovision winning performance in 2014; and an invitation to suggest ‘What is worth fighting for?’ on a colourful post-it note.
Reception at the Hofburg
The HDGÖ is situated within the Hofburg complex so it was just a small stroll over to the Hofburg Palace for our date with the Federal President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen! As we waited patiently for our host to arrive, we soaked in the opulent décor of gilded almost-everything, huge sparkling chandeliers, and decorative wooden floor. Probably not to everyone’s taste, but most appropriate for a presidential palace. In his welcome, the President told us, "I am particularly pleased that you are here today. It shows that, despite everything, you have or are looking for a connection to today's Austria.” That connection could have been our parents’ place of birth, the grandparents’ home or synagogue where they married (although most were destroyed in the November pogroms of 1938), the station where our parents left on the Kindertransport as young children, or the courtyard where relatives were held before being deported to the concentration camps. It is also applying for Austrian citizenship, which many of our group had already done.
AJR Chairman, Mike Karp, the son of a Kind from Vienna, thanked the President for his hospitality and presented him with copies of My Story books of our members from Austria: Gabriele Keenaghan, Charlotte Lang, Dr Kurt Simon, Ernest Simon, George Vulkan, and Father Francis Wahle. It was an emotional moment for me as the project lead for ‘My Story’, which had been the brainchild of my dearly departed colleague and friend, Carol Hart MBE.
After the speeches and presentations, we were treated to a reception when the President was happy to pose for selfies, followed by a mini-tour of the State Rooms (an ingenious way to get us in the right direction for the exit!).
Photos below: copyright Laura Heinschink HBF
Aspang Railway Station Memorial
Our city tour took us to the Aspang Railway Station Memorial in Leon Zelman Park (Zelman was the founder of the JWS). Aspang was the point of departure for the deportation transports and some members of our group realised their relatives had been on the same transport to the camps, which they found to be of some comfort. The railway station was demolished in 1977, replaced by this memorial of two concrete tracks leading to a sombre dark box symbolising death and oblivion, designed by Viennese artist duo, PRINZpod.
Next stop was the Kindertransport statue at Westbahnhof, a bronze of a young boy sitting on his suitcase in the middle of the concourse of this busy railway station, while commuters rush past without even noticing him. It was created by Venezuelan-born London sculptor Flor Kent and inaugurated on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss in 2008. Susan Burns told us that the young boy had been modelled by the grandson of a friend in London! Four members of our tour were descendants of Kinder and particularly touched by this memorial.
Our final stop of the morning was the Hundertwasser House. The artist behind this striking piece of architecture was Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000). Hundertwasser and his Jewish mother avoided persecution by the Nazis by posing as Christians. Hundertwasser was baptized as a Catholic in 1935 and, to remain inconspicuous, he joined the Hitler Youth. In happier times, Hundertwasser designed incredible buildings with this signature use of colour, lack of straight lines and abundance of greenery, which I found similar in style to the work of Gaudí. Opposite the Hundertwasser House is the Hundertwasser Village, a mini shopping-centre where even the toilets are on brand!
That afternoon we visited the ‘Museum for the Child’ Kindertransport exhibition, run by our guide, Milli Segal, which features exhibits of AJR members Bertha Leverton, Else Shamash, Eva Lorimer and Vera Schaufeld. As we waited for our minibus to arrive after this visit, Ruth Ramsay was shocked to realise we were standing outside her mother’s kindergarten, which she had been looking for earlier but unable to find!
As the heatwave peaked at a sweltering 32c we decided to split our walking tour into two manageable sections. We set off early for the historical centre with our guide, Walter Juraschek explaining the significance behind monuments such as The Wedding Fountain, the only statue with a Jewish image not destroyed by the Nazis, depicting a Kohen Gadol marrying Mary and Joseph. We passed through JudenGasse on our way to the Holocaust memorial in JudenPlatz. Designed by Brit Rachel Whiteread, the monument represents an introverted, non-accessible library, the countless editions of the same book stand for the 65,000 victims and their life stories. Once Walter explained the symbolism, the memorial suddenly appeared powerful and impactful.
Although there wasn’t much respite from the overwhelming heat once evening fell, we nonetheless met at Karmeliter Market (reminiscent of Tel Aviv) to tour the 2nd District, Leopoldstadt. Today, it’s where you find kosher restaurants and Chabad, and many brass memorial stones (not called Stolpersteine in Austria) and other signs of remembrance of the Jewish history pre-Anschluss (when the Nazis marched in on 13 March 1938). At the Turkish Temple and the Leopoldstadt Temple, Walter pointed out light symbols in the form of an intertwined Star of David which mark the former sites of synagogues destroyed in the November 1938 Pogrom (the Austrians do not consider the word Kristallnacht strong enough). Catharine Withers discovered memorial stones for four relatives outside the Leopoldstadt Temple and many knew their grandparents had married there. Shortly after, we succumbed to the heat and decamped to the vegan ice-cream shop opposite Hotel Stefanie, which dates back to 1600 and is where we were staying.
Tour participants had requested information in advance from the Jewish archive and likewise for those wishing to find family graves in the Jewish cemetery on Friday morning. As twilight approached we made our way to the Stadttempel (stopping on the way for a group photo), the only synagogue which survived the November pogrom due to being behind a façade of houses. The stunning interior more than makes up for the plain exterior: designed by theatre-architect Josef Kornhäusel, its domed ceiling is sky blue with a galaxy of stars and a golden sunburst. We were warmly welcomed by the community for the Shabbat service followed by dinner at the community centre. And it rained! At last, we got a break from the heatwave.
With no official itinerary on Saturday we were free to discover some of the cultural delights of this incredible city. I wanted to see the outstanding art collection and beautiful gardens of the Belvedere Palace. I took the scenic route through the Stadtpark, past the golden statue of Strauss and watched the open-air Viennese Waltz class taking place. There's not much graffiti in Vienna, where the building are incredibly clean, but this exception on the statue of Karl Lueger, former Mayor of Vienna, got my approval. Lueger was a huge antisemite, who was admired by Hitler. The Schande (Disgrace) protest to remove the statue is supported by artists & activists including Holocaust survivors.
Meanwhile, at the Belvedere, the art did not disappoint. Renoir, Schiele, Van Gogh, Monet… they’re all there, but to stand in front of Klimt’s The Kiss, after walking through a city full of a million mugs, scarfs, fridge magnets, tote bags et al with the same image, was a treat.
Alas, our trip was coming to an end, but not before a private tour of the Jewish Museum by their Education Director, Hannah Landsmann. Our group were particularly interested in the digital board showing reconstructions of the 25 Viennese synagogues destroyed in 1938, and Theodore Herzl’s bicycle, of course. In the evening we enjoyed our last schnitzel and strudel at a typical Austrian winery.
As AJR Next Generations Manager it was my pleasure to accompany this trip. My particular highlight was AJR Chair Mike Karp presenting the President of Austria with copies of My Story books, the testimony project I have been honoured to run. It was an emotional week but being in a group with other second generation and able to share this incredible experience with those from similar backgrounds enhanced the whole trip. I hope it will be the first of many such heritage trips for our members and want to thank Susanne Trauneck, Secretary General of the Jewish Welcome Service and her colleagues for welcoming us to Vienna.
From the participants:
Ruth Ramsay managed to sum up the feelings of most of us:
"How lucky were we to have had the opportunity to be a part of this unique event - all sharing a common bond and blending together. It was such a comfortable group and the memories of what we shared will remain forever - replacing the feeling of being alone in our personal history. It was also such a positive experience with so many highlights despite all the surrounding sadness and I hope it gives some closure to some of you. It certainly did for me.
However, the knowledge gained by visiting the Wall and Graves in Vienna, combined with seeing the community positively thriving, weighs heavily, as a reminder of was lost.
I was amazed and surprised by the amount of information the different organisations had prepared for us.
Throughout my life, the subject of family fate was never mentioned and with no family at all, I had researched over the last 3 years during Covid time in order to try to establish and create a family tree. Not only have I found 2 living cousins who also provided me with documents and photos, but all my research will go to the new Glasgow Jewish Archives Centre in Garnethill Synagogue who have been focusing on how the refugee community came to Scotland and the contributions made."
Rita Hockman said, “Names and numbers have suddenly become real people. Being on this trip has been enlightening and revealing. I didn’t expect it to be so.”
Catharine Withers said, “Despite the different details in our family stories there are so many parallels of which I was previously unaware. Our shared Viennese heritage was an unexpected comfort, despite its heinous past. I’m struggling to forgive but I will never forget.”
Sidney Baginsky said, “We thoroughly enjoyed our week in Vienna and thank AJR, the Jewish Welcome Service and all who contributed to the event. The visit to hear the President speak at the Hofburg Palace was very much appreciated.”
Michael Brandman said, “The Wall and the President's reception were indeed memorable but what stands out for us is meeting the lovely other members of the group and hearing their own experiences.”
Sue Smeding said, “I’ve been made to feel special on this trip. That my family story matters. The fact that the President spent an hour with us speaks more than words.”