…it has evoked memories of the Nazi Anschluss of Austria for me
As I watched in horror the attack on the Capitol on January 6, I reflected on what triggers a time of terror in one’s life. For me, it was the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany when I lived in Vienna. The events in Washington and what has been learned in the aftermath bring back the memories of that time in my life.
I was seven in March of 1938. On the evening of March 11, the mood in our apartment was tense; the Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg was to speak to the nation, and all of us clustered around the radio. As the speech unfolded, its import became clear: he was resigning under pressure from the Nazis. My grandparents, mother, and uncles began to cry. I had never seen grownups cry; it frightened me. We were Jewish; they knew what awaited us. I had an inkling.
Vienna’s website recounts
The terror started immediately. In the first few hours after the “Anschluss,” tens of thousands of people were arrested in Vienna alone. A large part of the resistance movement was eliminated right in the beginning. The first transports to the Dachau concentration camp left Vienna on 1 April 1938.
The first to suffer were two of my uncles. They had gone out, been cornered by one of the roaming mobs, and forced to scrub the sidewalk on their hands and knees.
We lived in Leopoldstadt, in the heart of what had been the Jewish ghetto. They were terrified whenever they had to go out again. Our daily lives began to be shaped by fear.
My one oasis was my Montessori first-grade class and my beloved teacher, Trudi. Then, overnight, that was gone. As they had in Germany, the Nazis closed all Montessori schools. Within 24 hours, I was in an unfamiliar public school. The contrast could not have been starker: from a warm, caring environment to regimented rows of kids sitting stiffly in a grey space. The teacher walked the room, ruler in hand, and hit kids who gave wrong answers. There had been no physical punishment in the Montessori school. I was a good student, and the work was easy, but I lived in terrible fear that this could happen to me. Worse was about to happen.
It quickly became clear that my mother’s position was perilous. She was a Montessori teacher, but worse — she was politically active in left-wing groups. Her life was at risk if she did not get out, so she left Vienna, and my world was upended. I had never been away from her. Grandparents, uncles, and my father, who lived nearby, tried to comfort me. But the foundations of my existence were crumbling.
The rest of my family worked desperately on trying to find ways to get out. A month after my mother left, my father got permission to go to France, having been promised a visa to the United States. He could not get permission to take me. My mother’s sister and her husband and son managed to flee to Switzerland. My uncles were increasingly anxiety-ridden, unable to find a way to get out. My grandfather, a respected functionary of the Jewish Community (the Kultusgemeinde), felt he had an obligation to remain and serve.
Weeks filled with rumors, fear, and anxiety passed. Whispers of Mauthausen, a new concentration camp opened in April and a mere 100 miles from Vienna, inspired terror. Word trickled through — mail had become unreliable and dangerous — that my mother had managed to reach Paris after crossing multiple frontiers without papers. My father, interned in a refugee camp in the French countryside, hoped to be allowed to go to Paris to wait for his U.S. visa there. And in mid-July, my grandfather learned that there might be a way of getting me out! A group of Jewish children was to be allowed to leave Vienna for a month of camp in Switzerland. (Allegedly, there was an obligation for them to be brought back to Vienna at the end of the month. I do not know whether this was true or a subterfuge for an early form of Kindertransport.) He would try to get me into this group.
There was great urgency. I needed papers: proof of identity, nationality, birth certificate, exit visa, and a passport. Each of these came from a different bureaucracy; each office was in a different location. And the train was — literally — about to leave!
My grandfather’s solution was to hire an “expediter,” a man who had what the Viennese called “Vitamin C,” here short for connections. He arrived to pick me up early in the morning; he was youngish and quite dashing looking in a leather jacket, and he had a motorcycle! The entire day we raced from one office to another; it was my first time on a bike, and I was thrilled. That was the good part; I was also terribly ashamed. At each of the offices, there were long, long lines of people waiting.
He would march straight to the head of the line with me in tow and, showing his credentials, cut in. Understandably, people glared at us in fury. Glared at me. I was involved in doing something shameful. Eighty-three years later, I can still feel that shame. It may be part of the price for my surviving the Holocaust.
On July 21, 1938, I received my Austrian passport. A day or so later, my grandfather put me on the train to Switzerland. There were several dozen other children and a few accompanying adults. I knew none of them, and I did not know where we were going. I had never been to Switzerland before.
Postscript: This segment of my life journey ended — via Heiden, Zurich, Paris, and New York — in December 1938 when I arrived in Indianapolis, Indiana, with my father. It would be 1952, then serving in the U.S. Army, before I saw my mother and Vienna again. We had been separated in 1938, and she had survived the war in France and Switzerland before returning to Vienna in 1945. All four of my uncles managed to escape, as did my grandmother. My grandfather died in Vienna.