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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.2 (2003) 366-368
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Reclaiming Heimat: Trauma and Mourning in Memoirs by Jewish Austrian Reémigrés, Jacqueline Vansant (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001), 245 pp., $34.95.
Refugees from Nazi-era Austria and Germany have received considerable attention from cultural historians. 1 Jacqueline Vansant takes a more individualistic approach, analyzing and interpreting the published memoirs of seven Jewish refugees. All were among the 5 to 10 percent of Jewish Austrians who returned permanently after the war ("reémigrés"), and all but one of these seven did so within five years after the war ended. Vansant attempts to answer the question that such life stories evoke in many observers and in most Jewish survivors and refugees: "To those from German-speaking Central Europe, the homeland itself had been the heart of darkness.... How could they return to live in a country in which a genuinely popular government had wished to murder them?" 2
The author's subjects were all adults at the time of the 1938 Anschluß. The memoir of Franziska Tausig, a housewife, ends in 1947, immediately upon her return to Austria (making her story a poor choice for inclusion in the book—the readjustment process is one of the most interesting aspects of reemigration). The others achieved professional success, even eminence, in postwar Austria. Three were well-known writers: Hilde Spiel, Elisabeth Freundlich, and Ernst Lothar, who was also a film and theatrical director. Hans J. Thalberg became a high-level diplomat, Stella Klein-Löw was elected to the Austrian Parliament, and Minna Lachs was a teacher and school principal.
These reémigrés came from cultured, comfortable homes. Most were highly educated, several with doctoral degrees in law, philosophy, or psychology. Their politics were left-of-center, and their Jewish ties, if any, were to tradition rather than religion. Only three of the seven had deep roots in Vienna, while four were born in the eastern provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After their stable and pleasant world was shattered by the rise of Nazism, three fled to the United States, two to Great Britain, and one each to Switzerland and to Shanghai. We might understand their eventual return to Austria if they had been unable to adjust to their new environments, but most were reasonably, or even very, successful in their land of refuge. Yet, as Vansant shows, their strong bonds with the German language, Austrian history, or Viennese identity left them unable to stay away. Her [End Page 366] insightful discussion of Heimweh ("homesickness," although the word connotes a much more profound anguish) illustrates how the experience of being cast out of the community left such refugees with feelings of self-alienation and self-contempt.
The subjects' return to Austria was as traumatic as their departure. Vansant excellently depicts the repulsive combination of enduring antisemitism, hypocrisy, and self-pity of postwar Viennese society. The returnees found little welcome from their compatriots. Those who went back to help build a socialist or communist Austria were rejected even by their political allies. Austrians had begun to redefine themselves as "the first victims of Fascism," rapidly forgetting the enthusiasm with which many had greeted the Anschluß. Jewish reémigrés were unwanted reminders of the truth. As Thalberg wrote, "Whenever they spoke of the 'catastrophe,' they meant 1945. For me, the catastrophe had occurred in 1938, and 1945 was the year of happy fulfillment" (p. 53).
Most Viennese resented emigrants who had spent the war years in a safe country while the Reich was devastated and impoverished by the war it had started. Hilde Spiel remembers meeting a waiter she had known before fleeing Vienna. He said to her "Frau Doctor did the right thing by going away. The bombings alone—three times they set the entire city in flames" (p. 67). The phrase "going away" ignored the loss of possessions, livelihood, citizenship, even of the right to live, which impelled the Jews to leave; Jews who insisted on reminding their compatriots of these unpleasant truths...