Biography 26.1 (2003) 153-155
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In the acknowledgements which preface her book on Austrian reémigrés, Jacqueline Vansant informs us that "in addition to learning the dialogic nature of writing a book, I have also come to realize the importance of not taking myself too seriously when working on a very serious project." Indeed, what is striking about this contribution to exile and memoir studies is the modesty of its approach, always seeking to allow the émigrés to speak for themselves, while nevertheless providing a lucid structural and analytical [End Page 153] framework which enables the reader to see the experiences of these émigrés in the context of the time, and in psychological, literary and philosophical terms. Vansant focuses on the memoirs of seven Austrian réemigrés: Hilde Spiel, Ernst Lothar, Stella Klein-L¨ow, Hans J. Thalberg, Minna Lachs, Franziska Tausig, and Elisabeth Freundlich. Forced to go into exile in either the United States (Lothar, Lachs and Freundlich), England (Spiel and Klein-L¨ow), Switzerland (Thalberg), or Shanghai (Tausig), these Jewish emigrants made the by and large unusual decision to return to their native Austria after the end of the war. Vansant shows how the experience of anti-Semitism around the time of the 1938 annexation of Austria by Hitler, and the subsequent emigration to a strange country, shattered the sense of belonging to an Austrian Heimat which, as assimilated Jews, these emigrants had. "Racially," culturally, and linguistically, they found themselves suddenly excommunicated.
The great merit of Vansant's book is its exploration of their attempt to reconnect to that Austrian Heimat in post-war Austria. This was made all the harder by the tendency of Austrians to see themselves as a national community of victims—notably of Hitler's "occupation," service in the Wehrmacht, and Allied bombing. In such an "imagined community," to use Benedict Anderson's phrase, the "real" victims, namely the Jews and political opponents of Nazism, were felt to be an intrusion, reminding the Austrians of things they would rather forget. Thus it came to be that Jews were once more excluded. Remarkably, some reémigrés did manage to find a sense of belonging in post-war Austria, but this sense was not necessarily as "Austrian"; Stella Klein-L¨ow, for instance, found her point of orientation within a socialist collective. Vansant demonstrates that it was above all by turning to a written exploration of past and present that the reémigrés sought to reconnect to traditions and inheritances from which they had been so savagely disconnected. The memoir became a bridge, a source of attempted retrieval; but it also expressed a consciousness of irretrievable loss, turning pain into language. There was also the hope that in writing these memoirs, the reémigrés might alert the Austrian population to the emotional trauma of past, and indeed present, exclusion. That most of the reémigrés considered here only wrote their memoirs after 1980 may imply that, before 1980, such a hope may have been naive.
Vansant has written a study which, in its balance of scholarship, pellucid thinking, and clarity of presentation, makes for a fascinating read—and not least in those chapters where Vansant explores the use of body metaphor and "body language" in the texts, as the writers seek to articulate the impact of their experiences. Reading her book, it becomes clear just what a wide range of functions memoirs—which Vansant rightly distinguishes from the more [End Page 154] linear and directed structure of biography—can serve: from the personal and therapeutic, to the historiographical, socio-critical, and appellative. It is to be hoped that Vansant's book will find a wide readership.
Bill Niven is Reader in German at Nottingham Trent University. He recent books address Germany's attempts to come to terms with the legacy of national socialism, Facing...