To my grandfather Armin, who I never met, but from whom I inherited a watch



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Gmünd, March 1938


On the evening of March 11th, listening to the radio, Emmy was immediately aware of the catastrophe looming over their small world.
On the radio I also heard Schuschnigg’s last speech and I knew then that everything was over. Our whole life instantly shattered before my very eyes. I still remember that I stood up and for the first time closed the windows and drew the curtains. Not only had the world changed, but we too had become different, somehow ill. I think a leper must feel as we felt. We knew about the Nazi regime from stories we had been told and knew what to expect. We believed much was exaggeration, but what we did believe was still enough. All night long there was noise and singing in the streets, we wouldn’t have slept anyway, we listened to the radio. All of this happened not too long ago, nevertheless I’ve forgotten most of it. Was this the night of the torchlight parade which my children were not able to see again? Was this the night the German troops and SA’s crossed the border? I do not know. I only know that I begged my husband to take us across the border, to leave everything. My God, women follow their instinct. But my husband did not want to desert the factory, which he had built up from a very small start. Nor the insurances and everything else. He closed his eyes tightly and thought nothing could happen to us. For the much-decorated front soldiers there was special consideration. What would anyone want to do with our faultless lives? There are many Jews living in Germany and they seem to be doing alright. Probably one will not earn as much as before and perhaps the children will have to be sent to a foreign country, but one must carefully think about it all. One must not act rashly.

Soon the Mahlers faced the new reality of Austria after the Anschluss: besides the disturbing and incomprehensible exterior signs which the Germans had already known for years (Swastikas, their acquaintances who greeted them saying Heil Hitler), they were shocked by the ordinary people’s belief that Nazism would bring justice and work into the country.

Even the atmosphere in the factory had become embittered: on the Monday after the invasion all the workers showed the signs of the previous night’s drunkenness. The new factory foreman, who until then had been the representative of the social-democrats, and didn’t himself stand on very steady legs, presented himself to Georg. In the factory everyone wanted to give orders, there was no work done on that day. But worse was still to come.

In the evening [of March 11th] I was at home with the children, my husband was in the factory, when a policeman and an SA man appeared in my home. Where was I hiding my husband? I would be severely punished for any lies. My husband was picked up at the factory and came home under guard. Then there was a house search and anything of any value was confiscated. The little moneybox, my childhood savings book, my jewellery, our important documents, the insurance policies and all the money I had at home. They moved apart the beds, searched through the linen and clothes and each of them tried to be stronger and more knowledgeable than the other. Both later took me aside and neither of them realized that the other had apologized to me. We have to do it. It’s orders. My husband was told to report at the police station every day and then we were alone again. The children wanted to know why they had taken everything from us. Lizzy cried about her golden chain and Henry wanted his money-box back. I believe there might have been two shillings in it. The maid asked how she was going to be paid now. The house looked as if it had been burgled and we all were stunned.

The family’s financial situation changed dramatically overnight: their savings were zeroed or frozen, their main source of income (the factory) had dried up. Altough he kept for the time being, at least nominally, the status of manager, Georg no longer drew any salary. They didn’t even have the money to pay the maid and had to let her go anyway, because Jews were not allowed to have Aryan servants. The woman however returned almost immediately, escorted by the police, because “she could only be sacked when the Party said so”.

On April 1st Georg, the factory manager, was finally given two hundred shilling, a worker’s salary.

The new condition of Austrian Jews put a strain on friendships. Those who remained loyal tried to pass unobserved, visiting them only at night or walking in through the bathroom window. An employée of George’s who did not want to yield to widespread cowardice visited him by day: he was expelled from the party and fired. The children’s new life was even more discouraging:

The children come home from school crying, there was name-calling and stone-throwing, they are excluded from all celebrations and field-trips. During classes they learn what ‘race’ is and what terrible people Jews are. Since there are few Jews in our town, a single helpless child sits in each class as an example of the depraved race. Many teachers are embarrassed by these unpleasant methods being used on innocent children, others think up a few more personal nasty things to ingratiate themselves..
Meanwhile all factories were ‘aryanized’: the Jewish owners had to sell them at a ridiculously low price to new Aryan buyers, if they didn’t want to end up in a concentration camp.

Georg desperately tried to sell his own, manoeuvring amongst the new, muddled and incomprehensible laws and the plethora of new executives, whose tasks and roles, meticulously codified by the new National-socialist bureaucracy, often overlapped, so creating an inextricable tangle of responsibilities.

Hannah Arendt wrote enlightening pages on this “kafkian” aspect of the Nazi regime:
The Third Reich citizen was forced to live under the simultaneous and often contrasting authority of powers in competition , such as the State administration, the party, the SA’s and the SS’s, and he never knew, because nobody told him openly, which of these bodies had more authority. He had to develop a sort of sixth sense to understand whom to obey and whom to ignore at a given time.

The Mahlers’ morale received a new, hard blow when they and their children, practising Christians, were forbidden to go to church. What had been the point of Armin resigning, as early as 1905, from Littau’s Jewish community?

In the eyes of the Nazis, therefore, being a Jew was an indelible brand, which you carried on you for all your life.

What did the children think, who were brought up as Christians and could no longer go to church? We were careful not to speak or ask and I don’t know any more. We all tried so hard not to let the others notice, we were so sorry for the others that we forgot about ourselves, and so it was not so bad. Also, it all happened so fast. One day the minister came to our house to assure my husband that there were no racial theories in the church, only Christians. It’s alright, the Aryan paragraph might keep us out of the “Animal Rescue League” but church-going cannot be forbidden and my husband must continue to belong to the Presbyterian congregation for the children’s sake. He suggested that our son become a minister, where there are no questions about races. A few days later he came back in the dark to ask us not to come to church.
If the about-turn of the Gmünd Presbyterian minister was probably caused by pressure from his superiors and if he was later on partly redeemed by his commitment to warn the Mahlers of impending danger and to keep up at least a correspondence with them, much stricter judgement must be passed in general on the attitude of the Austrian and German churches, both Protestant and Catholic, about anti-Semitism. As for the Lutherans, I have only to quote the declaration of Bishop Otto Dibelius, the general superintendent of Kurmark’s diocese, belonging to the Evangelical church of Prussia: “One cannot help noticing that Jews have a decisive role in all the most corrosive manifestations of modern civilisation”.

A review of sixty-eight Sonntagblätter (Sunday religious weeklies) between 1918 and 1933 shows the centrality of the Jewish subject, invariably dealt with in a hostile tone.

Even Catholic publications, addressed to laymen, clergy and theologians, justified the wish to eliminate Jewish “foreign bodies” from Germany. The antisemitic measures were “an act of self-defence against the harmful characteristics and influences of the Jewish race”. As Goldhagen remarks, “never did a German bishop, either Catholic or Protestant, speak publicly in favour of the Jews”, as instead did several representatives of the French and Italian clergy.


Finally the Mahlers found a buyer for the factory. He was an old acquaintance of Georg’s, who had become a big shot of the party, Obersturmführer of the SA. He dined with them and then obtained from the District Leader of the National-socialist party, not a written guarantee (it was against the party’s policy to put such a promise in writing), but his word of honour that Georg, being indispensable to production and also a much-decorated front officer, would be able to work without any interference, and that his family would also enjoy the complete protection of the party.

In spite of these promises, a few days later the humiliating sign reading “Here live Jews” was hung on the garden gate. Anxiety now ruled Emmy’s existence, she worried constantly about her children.


If the children are out, I fearfully await their return. Once the youngest one comes home with a bloody nose. He has been hit by a stone. He pleads with me: could he perhaps not be called Henry any more, since that makes him a Jew and he does not want to be a Jew any more?

I wait for the older ones, they often arrive home out of breath because a gang of teenagers has chased after them.


The Mahlers helplessly watched the escalating antisemitic violence, which skimmed over them without affecting them personally. A little, old bleeding farmer was chased through the town carrying a board around his neck: “This Aryan pig buys from Jews”. Someone nailed shut the door of a highly-regarded Jewish lawyer, who could not get out for two days. The first deportations to concentration-camps and the first evictions began.

Suddenly danger for Georg became more tangible. Warnings from friends who had remained loyal multiplied: a worker from the factory, the Presbiterian minister. Some previously fired worker wanted to take revenge, getting the ex-owner into a concentration camp. Even the national-socialist district leader explained that the situation had changed: the factory was now working on ammunition needs and had to be made judenrein; he did not remember having ever promised protection.

Neither Georg nor Emmy managed to sleep any more. They listened to the quiet breathing of the sleeping children and thought of how to get out of the nightmare.

My husband does not sleep, I hear it. He is waiting, like me, for “them” to come and get him today, tonight, as yesterday they got the little shoemaker, who committed no crime but that of being a Jew, as the banker the week before. Nothing happened to him, but I believe that on a night like that he finally decided to leave his job. The next morning he explained to me that he was going to Vienna to find a replacement and I stayed in Gmünd alone.
Prohibitions for Jews increased further and became a mass of exclusions amongst which it was increasingly hard to find a way out. It was forbidden to go to the barber, to buy in this or that shop.

One day things came to a head. A friend from the police went to see my aunt in the dead of night and informed her that they would all be deported within three days because of the threat of spying. They had to leave as soon as possible.


I am sending the children to notify all other affected families and we all pack with feverish speed. We all know there is no return. There are important papers to be guarded, letters to be burnt. Only the bare essentials are to be taken, what we can carry, and on a Saturday afternoon at two o’clock the garden gate closes for the last time behind us.

At that time I believed I would never again be able to laugh or cry. I believed that I was now going into the wide world without a heart. It was just nonsense. After all, I took my children with me. At the station there were troops from the Sudetes Mountains, there was singing and gatherings. The train was overcrowded and we got to Vienna at 12.30, six hours late.




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