Hava Nagila in the Austrian Parliament
The Place, the Time and the Name
How does one commemorate the 85th anniversary of the Anschluss? Does anyone actually commemorate the Anschluss? We were discussing this matter, from its philosophical, humanistic, moral and psychological views with my Austrian friends for years. The one thing I know for sure, as the result of this ongoing dialogue: the Anschluss is ever present in a modern Austrian psyche, and commemorations or not, one cannot erase it from there.
Why? Because it was a qualitative change for Austrian society. And the thing with qualitative change per se is that it triggers a different condition. When one talks about qualitative change in a society, a different condition is multiplied. When one talks about qualitative change of a nature which the Anschluss was, this multiplied new condition means pain and trauma. Both ongoing ones.
But this year, at the 85th anniversary of the Anschluss, it was a very different commemoration. It was not a commemoration of the Anschluss, as it happened. But conducted at the date of its 85th anniversary, at the National Ratsaal (Council Hall) of the Parliament of Austria, this special ceremony spoke a volume in all possible ways: its timing, its place, and its name.
One hundred people from Austria, the European Commission, Israel, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, the UK and the US came together to celebrate the first live ceremony of The Simon Wiesenthal Prize in its second year of existence. At the Council Hall of the Austrian Parliament. On the 85th anniversary of the Anschluss. This kind of thing is able to cure even deepest and long-felt trauma, both on individual and social level.
That was obvious from the ceremony and its attendants, both the organizers and the laureates.
I have no illusion with regard to the Austrian far-right Freedom Party and its attitude if not towards the Austrian state’s commitment to fight antisemitism, then to Simon Wiesenthal in particular. It was demonstrated by this party clearly back in the mid 1990s when the city of Vienna wanted to bestow the Honorable citizenship onto two outstanding Viennese Holocaust survivors, Victor Frankl and Simon Wiesenthal. While they did not object to the honorable citizenship of Vienna to Victor Frankl, they did fiercely object with regard to Simon Wiesenthal. Nothing has changed in their attitude even 25 years after.
When the current President of the Austrian Parliament Wolfgang Sobotka in 2020 during the debate in the parliament proposed to name the Prize after Simon Wiesenthal, the Freedom Party objected again, proposing instead the Prize – against which they decided not to fight as it would look really bad publicly and internationally – to be named after Wisenthal’s arch-enemy former socialist Prime Minister of Austria, the best friend of the Soviets and their creature, terrorist Yasser Arafat Bruno Kreisky. When I was told about that debate in the Austrian parliament, I could not help myself, but laughed. Anyone who would remember that ugly long-term stand and struggle by Kreisky against Simon Wiesenthal would figure out in a minute what it was about back in 2020 in that preposterous proposal of the Freedom Party. But the forces of good in Austria won that battle. Good for them. And for us. And for the sanity of the world, too.
But of course, one should not be naive also with regard to the popularity of this party in Austria, especially in its certain regions, and the fact that it steadily gets around 30% of the votes in the country – which is telling. Not to speak about its steadily cosy relations with the master of the Kremlin.
The Simon Wiesenthal Prize, an official recognition by the state of Austria of its commitment to fight antisemitism, to preserve memory of the Shoah, and to support the fostering of Jewish life, is a relatively new feature in Austria. The law about the prize was adopted by the Austrian parliament in July 2020. Then the COVID pandemic mixed up all the plans for its normal proceeding, and the first year laureates were awarded at the online event.
Since the beginning, the intention of the Prize organizers, which is led by the Austrian National Fund, was to conduct the Award ceremonies on another painfully meaningful day, November 8-9th, the day of hideous Jewish pogrom in Vienna back in 1938. It is definitely a strong response to all past, current and future antisemites in Austria, and since this coming November 2023, the Simon Wiesenthal Prize will always be celebrated on the date of that horrific pogrom. To counter-balance it. To make a point. To make it graphically and crystal-clearly. And this is how it should be done.
What was happening at the warm, special, dignified event at the Austrian Parliament on March 13th, 2023, with the ceremony for the second year of The Simon Wiesenthal Prize, was also a counter-balancing. From bad to good, from awful to cordial, from horror to compassion. Those hundred people in the Ratsaal ( Council Hall) in Vienna, and all those who followed the ceremony online, were participating in decisive, clear, highly motivated by the forces of good, principally important process of this applied counter-balancing. Everyone in the hall was grateful, each for its own reason.
And everyone was inter-connected, in a rare co-experience of shared emotions and attitude. Finely performed Jewish music by Jasmin Meiri-Brauer and Hannis Raptis, especially the song in Yiddish, framed the event in a distinct way. Tactful, warm, involved in the best way, the ceremony carried on by well-known Austrian journalist Lisa Gadestätter, reflected both respect and compassion. Reading from his soon to be published and long-expected memoir in honor of well-known public figure Karl Pfeifer who passed away very recently, with his widow present in the audience, was performed by a well-known Austrian actress Martina Ebm warmly and meaningfully. Due to his friendship and work with Simon Wiesenthal, I knew and maintained contact with Karl for many decades. His forthcoming memoir is a truly important contribution in the collective Austrian consciousness today.
I had many reasons to feel grateful, too. With an event like that, and in a wider context, the reason for officially introducing The Simon Wiesenthal Prize by the state law of Austria fifteen years after Simon’s passing, and conducting it with such responsibility and clarity, one has a tapestry of emotions. But most of all, I was constantly thinking of Simon and his family, both him and them are our dear friends. It was a real homecoming of the great man who lived most of his life in Vienna and who struggled there all those years. I wrote about it previously, not so long ago. And now I saw it with my own eyes. Now Simon has finally returned to the place where his incredible work was conducted for over 50 years.
Although The Simon Wiesenthal Prize is quite a recent initiative existing for a couple of years by now, the interest it arose among the people and organizations worldwide is quite impressive, in particular, given the factor of a total shut-down of a normal life due to the covid pandemic for the same two years. Despite our remote mode in everything, more than 260 projects from 30 countries participated in the Prize for the year 2022. It does show several encouraging things: the people’s and the organization’s interest, and don’t in the thew Prize only, but in the very work it requires, the actuality of this work, the relevance of all those issues evoked by Simon Wiesenthal’s legacy, the necessity of building the bridges in between the generations, and also an overwhelming necessity of implementing living memory as an integral part of our life, today, every day. To assure tomorrow. Those are not slogans, but the utter need.
It is not without a reason that senior Austrian officials are telling me that ‘it is so very important that the law ( on The Wiesenthal Prize) was passed here, and that it has become a reality’. In my opinion, the Austrian initiative of The Simon Wiesenthal Prize has all potentials to be expanded and to become a pan-European initiative, to make the point, to emphasize the necessity, to proceed with public recognition of the things and people who still ought to be recognized and remembered for their past and present efforts in the field of humanity, the quite-essential field of human life.
Among those over 260 applicants, the Jury of the Wiesenthal Prize in Vienna selected several finalists, three in each category, with great and important organizations like Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism, working in Sweden for years in recognition of the Holocaust education, and some others. On March 13th, 2023, the laureates were declared and awarded among them. I am not familiar with the work and record of all of the laureates, so I will concentrate on those whose great work, noble stand and special message and knowledge have made the biggest impact on me personally.
Waltraud Barton, distinguished Austrian woman, founded IM-MER, standing for Initiative Malvine – Maly Trostenets Remembrance, back in 2010. During those twelve years, two of them during the pandemic, this public private initiative achieved the memorial erected in Maly Trostenets, the place in Belarus, near Minsk, where ten thousands Austrian Jews were deported and killed. The memorial did not appear until 2019, and possibly it would not appear unless Waltraud Barton would work in the way she did for this important historical milestone.
On the day of the 85th anniversary of the Anschluss, speaking while receiving her Simon Wiesenthal Award 2022, this great woman said the following: “Until the 1970s, nobody spoke here in Austria about the fate of the ten thousands of Austrian Jews murdered in Maly Trostenets in the Shoah. They did not exist. The place did not exist. The murder did not occur. As if. The whole thing, a terrible and sizable crime, was practically unknown to the wide public here in Austria, and it has not been in discussion at all. But in fact, ten thousand human beings, Austrian and Jewish, were denounced, detained, arrested, collected, and forcibly sent to their death in Maly Trostenets camp in Belarus. The point is that ten thousand of other people, their compatriots, neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances did denounce them, sending them to their horrible death. And we should remember it, understand it, and address it.” I cannot agree more.
The awarding Waltraud Barton with The Simon Wiesenthal Prize 2022 for the Civic Engagement to educate the public about the Holocaust tells to me that a private initiative of an individual can achieve a great result, and much needed impact to the society – in this case, in both Austria and Belarus, and in the entire Europe, the ongoing historiography of the Shoah. This is what matters, and Waltraud Barton’s consistent effort proves that it is possible.
The story of Maly Trostenets deserves its own essay, and I will address it soon. This is just to say that it was the largest Nazi concentration death camp on the territory of the USSR, the camp in which was annihilated the largest number of victims in the Soviet territory, and by the number of murdered people, Maly Trostenets is the fourth largest Nazi death concentration camp in Europe after Auswchitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. It is also the place where the commemoration happened not before 70 years passed, from the part of the Belarus authorities, with the memorial erected there in 2015, and not before 74 years passed from the side of Austrian authorities, when the memorial was erected there in 2019 following the incredible effort of Waltraud Barton and committed work by the Austrian National Fund.
At the Wiesenthal Prize ceremony, Ms Barton also spoke about the necessity of the Holocaust Museum in Vienna as ‘a central place to address all those issues. We need such a place. We request this central site of remembrance’. Again, it responds to the wishes of so many, including survivors, and all generations of them and their families. It also responds to common sense, actually. And to the path in which post-Holocaust knowledge would be formed at the stage when this knowledge will be carried on by the Shoah second and third generations.
The Simon Wiesenthal Prize 2022 for Special Civic Engagement to combat antisemitism and to educate the public about the Holocaust was won by hearts. There were hearts of the Israeli Zikaron BaSalon organization, Commemoration in a Living Room, led by Sharon Buenos, and the team of great Israeli young enough people who had a brilliant and perfectly working idea: to invite the Holocaust survivors not to the official premises and not for an official events but to the private houses, with its atmosphere of ease and comfort and where people in a manageable quantities would come to listen them as one family. What we saw on the screen during the ceremony was sincerity and love, as well as warmth, unity, natural atmosphere, and fantastic feeling of a family united during many of those meetings.
With pride and love, I saw the best of Israel in what and how Zikaron BaSalon does – and so was the jury and everyone involved. To the degree that the EC Coordinator in fight against antisemitism and for fostering Jewish life Katharina von Schnurbein, who is also a Chairperson of the Simon Wiesenthal Prize jury, shared with us a good news that the Zikaron BaSalon idea would be since now on implemented in six European countries as a pilot project.
This one is a very good pilot project, indeed. As we all who deal with the Shoah know, many survivors never talked about the Holocaust because they just could not. To open up about such sheer horror, one needs to have a kind of personality which can sustain talking about it, returning to it, opening up about it, remembering again by telling and sharing, reminding oneself, returning oneself to that unspeakable horror. So, it is very far from being doable and even thinkable for a predominant number of people who went through this horror.
Aharon Appelfeld, the most tragic writer on the Shoah, in my personal perception, never could overcome the barrier of telling or writing about reuniting with his father after almost 20 years during which each of them was thinking that the other one is dead. My husband’s grandmother Sofia Reiss who lost her eldest daughter with her entire family in the Shoah in Ukraine did not speak about it ever. Michael’s step-father Igor Oshman, who was a heroic young Jewish partisan from Belarus who even liberated a small concentration camp there with four of his friends freeing his mother from there, did not speak about it either. My grandma Adel Chigrinsky who lost her younger sister, aunt and uncle, did not speak about it much as well. My grandfather Abram Jelovitch, who lost many of his relatives, was dead-silent about it. My great-aunt Eleanore Rose who lost her son Alex, a brilliant and promising doctor who contracted typhus taking care of the prisoners in the DCP camp, could not bring herself to converse on it. Eleanore who has also lost in the Shoah a half of her family including her first cousin Alma in Auschwitz, her uncle Edouard in Theresienshadt, his wife Emma, the youngest sister of Gustav Mahler, as a direct consequence of the Hitler’s seizure of power, Alma’s mother, Mahler’s other sister Justine, as a direct consequence of the Anschluss, Alma’s father, famous musician Arnold Rose as a direct consequence of the Shoah, in 1946, after hearing the details of Alma’s death in Auschwitz, did not speak about her family in the context of the Holocaust at all. She only spoke on pre-Holocaust period. She just could not.
To create a special inviting and comforting atmosphere for the Holocaust survivors as Zikaron BaSalon did, and to do it for over ten years, from 2011 onward, it really is to materialise that fragile, precious, disappearing memory of the Shoah in the most gentle, humane, kind and warm atmosphere. It is a great service to humanity.
Not surprisingly for an event on the Shoah, one of the themes discussed there was fear. 94-year old wonderful Lucia Heilman told us that fear has become and left in her life as a prevalent emotion throughout her life, to the degree that she could not bear to hear a sound of an innocent doorbell ever, and had had to switch it to something less ordinary to cope with it. It is interesting how certain strong emotions experienced by different people quite independently from each other can interconnect them at a certain period of time, originating completely new phenomena of mutual understanding. A couple of years before the ceremony of the Wiesenthal Prize now, the President of the Austrian Parliament Mr Wolfgang Sobotka in one of his interviews shared that overwhelming fear which was experienced by his father in full, and which he is also experienced and knew quite well with regard to a high-resonating and loud sounds, including a door-bell. Later in the ceremony, the Chairperson of The Simon Wiesenthal Prize jury, the EC Coordinator in the fight against antisemitism Ms Katharina von Schnurbein also shared that the horror of being a witness of the murder of one’s own family which was shared with her by one of the survivors her family knew in Germany, is still with her all her life.
This is our inner emotions which makes us mutually understanding and interconnected at a certain stage of our life. Interconnected in that special way which is unbreakable, to me.
And then, the Special Tribute to the contemporary eyewitnesses which was concluding the official part of that unique event not only brought tears to every pair of eyes watching it, without exception, but also it repeatedly choked the voice of a synchronic translators, and they are top professionals who can sustain a lot. Yes, we all see many ceremonies alike. And many of us participated in them, too. But every time when you are together and closer with the people who went through the Shoah, you feel as if you are transferred into some other dimension, literally. This is my personal experience, as well.
When a few years ago, I was enormously honored to be one of the people who were invited to light the candles at the Yom HaShoah ceremony in London, and found myself in between two survivors, I could barely stand straight, as there was such an energy around me that I was barely withstanding it. The same was at the ceremonies in the Lithuanian Paneriai in that forest of horror where at very least 70 000 murdered there Jewish people are laying down, and you are being there with some of those who survived and do not actually know where on earth you are standing. The same happened at the RAI head-quarter in Rome where I was extremely honored to share the podium with the great Italian Holocaust survivor whose story was told in person, quietly, but with such detail and such pain that made all over-packed hall cry and feel totally transferred back in time.
There were so many those one-to-one meetings with the survivors in my life, starting from Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna from the end of the 1980s onward, in New York and Washington DC, in Chicago and Boston, in Seduva and Vilnius, in Warsaw and Jerusalem, in Herzliya and Haifa, in Paris and Bordeaux, in Sydney and Melbourne, in Budapest and Tallinn, in Riga and Cracow, and every single time I feel that powerful, disarming transportation in time which is a great emotional lesson, every time unique one. It is because the energy of the Shoah did not disappear. Due to the enormity of the crime, it is still there. Also, due to the abrupt violence regarding the souls of the victims, their torment is still palpable. This is what we are experiencing still today, more than 80 years and four generations after. Those who are destined to feel it.
And the people gathered at the Ratsaal of the Austrian parliament did feel it, all of us together and everyone in particular. It also resulted from the way this part of the ceremony was done. The Simon Wiesenthal Prize 2022 honored four survivors, Lucia Heilman from Austria, Wanda Ablinska from Poland, Tswi Herschel from Israel, and Jackie Young from Great Britain who was not personally present at the ceremony. All those people were children during the war, from just one year old Tswi Herschel when the Second World War broke out, to 9-year old Lucia Heilman at the time of the Anschluss.
I did not know where to look first during that incredible part of the ceremony: to the faces of those precious people, standing in front of us, or to the heart-wrenching and warming at the same time incredibly sensitive presentation that had been prepared about them by the Austrian National Fund and presented by its terrific Secretary General prof. Hannah Lessing. One has to have a special talent to go through all the wealth of the existing material to produce such a laconic and such compelling presentation of the four people, with the life story of each of them worth a novel. It was attentive and loving, factual and dignified, with photographs of the people on the stage in their senior age as children at the time of the events of the tragedy and surviving.
That’s why we all cried. That’s why the voice of the synchronic translator cracked not for once during that part of the ceremony. That’s why there was a standing ovation in the Austrian parliament Council Hall at the end of it.
I would remember the scene and those four survivors whose story Hannah Lessing was able to tell and show us in such a special way, for the rest of my life. Fantastic Lucia Heilman who reminded me of my grandma, and who spent six months out of four years hiding in total darkness. Lucia became a doctor, and her intellect and fairness was beaming throughout the audience. Modest Wanda Ablinska whose life story is so utterly tragic, but still she expresses her grace. Great Tswi Herschel who did make the point, in German, on how extremely meaningful it is to be honored at such an occasion on such a day and in such a place. Absolutely.
Quite appropriately, the organizers did emphasize that in the face of the four honored contemporary witnesses of the Holocaust honored in Vienna at The Simon Wiesenthal second Prize ceremony, the organizers honor them all. Exactly the point.
The Human Factor: People Who Made It Possible
This special evening would not be possible without direct input of a part of their heart by the people who had made it possible. The President of the Office of the Parliament of Austria Mr Wolfgang Sobotka has made honoring the Holocaust victims and addressing the Holocaust memory his mission. On the personal level. It could be felt and understood from his speeches and comments at the ceremony, and also it comes from hard work to establish the Simon Wiesenthal Prize and assuring the name for the Austrian state recognition of the Holocaust as a phenomena from the point of view of decency.
Hannah Lessing who leads the Austrian National Fund is not only devoted to the memory of the Holocaust. She has become an expert on it, and she is a visionary, too, importantly so.
Katharina von Schnurbein is known all over Europe and beyond it for her firm stand against anti-Semitism and many of her initiatives, all working, to make everything humanly possible to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is alive and that prevention of antisemitism is enforced.
Tellingly, all those people do have their personal reasons and motivation to drive them in this uneasy way. Mr Sobotka’s grandfather was an open Nazi, and his father was deeply traumatized by this fact and also by the Second World War and its Austrian dimension. So, their grandson and son took upon himself the mission of recuperating the sins and the tragedies it led to.
Hannah Lessing’s grandmother was murdered in Auschwitz, and her father, world- famous photographer Ernst Lessing who managed to escape to Palestine just before the war and returned to Austria after it, never spoke about it, as did many of our relatives and acquaintances who went through that horror.
Katharina von Schnurbein’s family lived in Regen, the part of Bavaria where there was a vivid Jewish community before the war, and a ghost of it, without a possibility to gather minyan, after. Katharina was ten years old when she heard the story from a 50-something member of that remnant of the community on how he survived. “ I was ten years old, just like you, Katharina, when my family was murdered. My father and my mother. We all were forced on our knees on the edge of the ditch, and then there was a fire. I do not know how, but I, being alive, jumped into the ditch along with my dead parents. And waited there, until dark, when I managed to get out of there and find the shelter. So, I was just the same age as you are, Katharina” – that man whose von Schnurbein’s family knew in their home-town, told her. “From that time on, I feel motivated to do everything in my power so that it would never ever happen again, and that we all would understand the lessons,” – Katharina von Schnurbein shared at the discussion part of the ceremony.
There is nothing like a personal experience. We all know that. But it feels differently every time, and it works in its own ways, too. I only know that being grounded into personal convictions, and being motivated by personal reasons, especially if it has to do with our recent history and our humanity, such movements of a human souls is the very best warrant for our efforts’ efficiency, its sincerity, modesty and deep, conscious, faithful implementation of what we all are destined to do in our life.
And then, Simon Wiesenthal’s presence on that day, at this ceremony. It was simply vital. His granddaughter Racheli Kreisberg who came for the ceremony and related events from Israel, and who does a lot of work for years to ensure his great grandfather’s legacy and his mission ongoing, mentioned very justly: “In Israel, we used to think and speak that ‘every man has a name’. It is very true. But at the same time, I would like to emphasize that every man has a family, too, and it is hugely important.’
It is so very true. Not only a family is a nucleus of life, but in the context and in consequence of the Shoah, a family’s very existence has a double meaning for Jewish people, in generations. I remember very vividly how Simon Wiesenthal was telling me how he lost in the Shoah his entire family, which, accounting the family of his wife Cyla, was 89. Eighty nine people in two families combined. A deserted landscape of life for those two people who, husband and wife, additionally, lost each other during the war, presuming that the other was dead, and lived with that knowledge for a while until finding each other by a sheer coincidence. Not , not a coincidence. A providence.
I remember how Simon told me that he and Cyla had no family members to invite to their only daughter Paulinka’s marriage. And in the way he spoke about it, you can tell that Cyla and him were haunted by this fact decades after their daughter Paulinka’s wedding.
In their turn, Paulinka Wiesenthal and Gerard Kreisberg have several children and many grandchildren, and Gerard has told me many times how special it feels every time when the large family gathers together, and how every single time he remembers Simon and Cyla and their loss of the entire family, and thinks with unbounded gratitude about the restoration of the Simon and Cyla’s lost family in its second and third generations.
From this point, Gerard and Paulinka’s daughter Racheli’s line on family and its essentiality for all those affected by the Shoah in generations, has become an important over-tone for this commemoration of Simon Wiesenthal’s legacy in Vienna eighteen years after his passing, as well as Racheli’s ongoing project on introducing young generation to the real addresses of real Jewish families who were living before the Shoah on the concrete addresses in Vienna, and possibly, the other cities and countries.
During these walks, the students are learning about the concrete families’ destinies, developing direct connection with our history, and their personal feeling of it. What can be better, more memorable, and more lasting learning?
‘My grandfather was always so busy. When he and grandmother were coming to their vacation to spend with us in Israel, in a day or two, the grandfather would start to say: “I need to return home, to Vienna. I have urgent matters to attend. I need to return and get back to business,” – Racheli was recounting in the warm and personal discussion part of the ceremony.
And we, everyone who had an honor to know Simon Wiesenthal, felt that he was there and smiling on his devoted granddaughter’s recollection.
Gratitude was the prevailing feeling at this special ceremony. Everyone was grateful to everyone else. Organizers to the laureates. Laureates to the leaders of The Prize. Public to the survivors who are strong moral examples for many of us.
The 94-year old Lucia Neilman said in her beautifully modest, calm and wise way: “Simon Wiesenthal was a great man. A small ray of his great light is beaming over my head now. And I am incredibly grateful for that. This light will keep me on”. I do not know how one can express one’s gratitude better.
Racheli Kreisberg said with a disarming smile, simply and family-like: “ I never met so many people together who would appreciate, understand and praise my grandfather. I know that he is here and knows it, he feels our presence, and he can see what’s going on here”.
I was thinking at the moment that we all felt the presence of Simon there, too, very much so. I thought that he would not be surprised about what has happened almost twenty years after his passing in the city where he lived and worked for so long and so hard, and where the prize in his name now exists in a nation-wide way and is awarded to the best of the people and organizations who are trying to continue his legacy.
I think that Simon would be very glad, he had that charming child’s part inside himself, and he would be immensely glad about the Prize in his name and the way in which good people conducted it. But he won’t be surprised, as I see it. Because he always knew that he was doing the right thing. Necessary, difficult, tragic, dramatic, dangerous, demanding in all and every way. But the right one.
And now we all saw it. Never before the sounds of Hava Nagila was sounding in the Parliament of Austria so amicably and so meaningfully. Because, it never sounded there before, in the first place. Until March 13th, 2023, on the 85th anniversary of the Anschluss, at the ceremony of The Simon Wiesenthal Prize.
My warmest thank you to all the organizers, laureates and participants.