I was born in Vienna, Austria in the month of January in the fateful year of 1938. In March of 1938, Hitler and the Nazi army marched into the city, changing our lives forever. By the summer of 1939, my father had succeeded in bribing enough Nazi officials to procure visas and passports for us. My parents, my brother and I managed to escape the Holocaust by going to Uruguay, spending the seven war years there until we were able to come to the United States in 1946. We lived in Richmond, Virginia with the members of my mother’s family, who had somehow survived by escaping.
In the month of January, 1988, when I celebrated my fiftieth birthday, I was living in Springfield, Illinois. I had been married, raised six wonderful children, some of them were already married, and three of them had children of their own. I recently been through a divorce after twenty-two years of marriage and was making a life for myself by myself. I had a good job, a nice home, great friends, good health and a comfortable life. I considered myself very fortunate.
Suddenly, my past came up to strike me in the face—the past my family and I had overcome and almost put behind us. It was the fiftieth anniversary, not only of my birth, but also of the Anschluss. That word has little meaning for most people in the world, but, to Viennese Jews, it is a word that is highly charged. The Anschluss happened when I was five weeks old. I had always thought that Anschluss meant that Adolph Hitler had invaded Austria, conquered the city of my birth and forced a Nazi regime on the whole country.
Kurt Waldheim was elected chancellor of Austria in the mid-eighties, and, even though it was discovered that he was a part of the Nazi government, he still remained in office. This seemed like a strange aberration to me. Although this matter made international news, in Springfield, only a few Jews spoke of it at all.
In 1938, 10% of the Viennese population was Jewish, and my family thought they were an accepted part of the Austrian population. I was about to find out the truth. The truth was that the citizens of Vienna welcomed Hitler into the city with cheers and parades celebrating Austria’s annexation to Germany.
On Public Radio one Sunday morning in March, 1988, I heard a rebroadcast of Hitler’s march into Vienna in March 1938. In the background, I heard the music and the cheering of the Viennese people. It sounded like a joyous celebration, and it was a shocking and devastating thing for me to hear.
It never even occurred to me that the people of my birthplace could have done such a thing. Hitler’s antisemitism and the suffering he had already caused to German Jews were well known already. How could our neighbors be happy that he was extending these horrors into Austria?
My parents were already dead in 1988, so all the questions that arose in me went unanswered. The only person of my family in my parents’ generation who was still alive was my Aunt Hedy, who lived in Florida. She was the youngest of seven children and had been a sickly child and an emotionally fragile adult. A few months after the Anschluss, the despair she felt about what was happening to her people caused her to attempt suicide, and she was hospitalized and reported to the Nazis. She was expelled from Vienna because she was labeled as a troublemaker. With the help of a Jewish agency, she was able to go to England, where she lived during the WW II as a servant to a rich British family. When the war was over, she came to the United States and lived in our house with us until the 60’s, when she married and moved to Florida.
In March of 1988, the month of the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss, I found out that Aunty Hedy was in the final stages of cancer. I went to be with her in her last week of life. Although Hedy had never discussed the war years with me, at the end of her life, in and out of consciousness, that was all she could talk about. She cried out about the injustice of Hitler, about her poor parents who were murdered in the concentration camp, about the family she lost and her poor brothers and sisters who had to flee and give up their homes and businesses. She relived the tragedy over and over in those final days, and I sat by her side and cried with her.
At her funeral, which was held in Richmond, Virginia, where we had lived together, I saw the rest of the Richmond survivors of the Holocaust. These people were my parents’ friends. They expressed their condolences and recalled to me the days when they came to Richmond after the war and met my family, all of whom were now deceased. I realized at that moment that I was now the elder of my family and the one who had to carry the story forward to my children and grandchildren.
After the funeral, I returned to Springfield, Illinois, to my home and children and my grandchildren. I was about to have another rude awakening. One of our synagogues and the Jewish Federation building were spray-painted with hateful anti-Jewish slogans. Here it was again! Fifty years later! In the United States! In my hometown! A nightmare relived.
It was at this moment that the mayor of Springfield, Ozzie Langfelder, the father of thirteen children, all raised in the Catholic Church, came out as a Viennese Jew! He was seventeen years old when his father walked with him across the Austrian Alps to escape the Nazis. He somehow made his way to Springfield, Illinois, married an Irish-Catholic woman, and lived as a Catholic. His father lived with him in Springfield for the rest of his life. It further turned out that Ozzie’s wife was related to my son-in-law!
Ozzie Langfelder, a Jew and a relative? Amazing! He came to speak at a special service of solidarity that took place in the synagogue that had been defiled. He renounced the hateful acts and told his story of how the Nazi soldiers had stormed into his home and taken his mother away, and how he and his father escaped. It was truly an amazing evening, and it stirred up so much emotion in me. After the ceremony, I came forward and let him know that I was also a Jewish refugee from Vienna who hadescaped the horrors of Hitler. It created an unexpected bond between us.
The following month of April brought Holocaust Memorial Day, and I went to the Old State Capitol in Springfield to sit through the commemoration speeches and to listen to the survivors recounting their memories of the death camps and the unspeakable tragedies and suffering they had experienced. I sat and cried and realized once again how close I came to their fates.
The rest of the year was also dotted with more anniversaries of WW II events that had reached their fiftieth anniversary; each of them struck me emotionally. There was, for the first time, an interest in what happened in Austria in 1938 and then spread throughout Europe in the early forties. Until then, the Holocaust had gone under the radar for fifty years. People wanted to forget the atrocities committed in that period of human history. Some felt that it did not pertain to them, some were running away from feelings of guilt, and the victims just wanted to forget. Now it was finally time for everyone to face the immense tragedy that occurred.
A new history lesson was added to the curriculum in the local schools. A movie about the Holocaust, called Shoah, made in 1985, was shown in all the Springfield public schools, the Jewish Federation printed thousands of copies of study guides to be made available to the school district, and I helped to distribute them. I was asked to speak to some high school classes about my experience as a Holocaust survivor.
The horrific history that was part of my family history was suddenly running after me, pulling on my coattails!
It was a very difficult year. It felt somewhat vindicating to finally have the historic events receive the attention they deserved, but it made for a year of mourning for me. I could never again see myself as just another American, blending in as an ordinary citizen. I was now an out-of-the-closet Holocaust survivor. It wasn’t as if I had ever wanted to hide my life story. It just didn’t come up in normal conversation. Now I had to decide how my history would affect the rest of my life.