- Reclaiming Heimat: Trauma and Mourning in Memoirs by Jewish Austrian Reémigrés
Jacqueline Vansant has written a sensitive and nuanced account of how seven Austrians wrote about their experiences of exile from and return to their homeland (Heimat). She characterizes the nine books of these seven authors as a “select body of memoir literature” and devotes her own analytical and interpretive efforts first to explaining what [End Page 149] they all have in common: all were born Jewish, all “experienced the Anschluss [the integration of Austria into the National Socialist state of Germany in 1938] as life-threatening and were all adults at the time they left Austria,” and all returned to Austria permanently after 1945 (pp. 15–16). Their commonality tells us, in turn, about such fundamental historical and cognitive issues as the nature of home, familiarity, and personal identity, the nature of memory and the act of remembrance, the act of writing and its relation to social and even political authority, and above all, the personal impact of this past century’s terrible legacy of suffering and loss. Vansant deserves credit for gathering in one book this gifted array of writers and this rich array of themes, and she does justice to her own central concern, which is to highlight the difficulties of both defining and “reclaiming” a sense of homeland for so marginalized and persecuted a group as Jewish Austrians. If her account left this reviewer wishing to dispense with the hermeneutics and go right to the memoirs themselves, then that is all the more to her credit. She has brought an important, if “select,” body of writing to our attention, marked it out from the flood of memoir literature, much of it Holocaust-related, and provided us with concepts by which to understand it more deeply.
In Vansant’s telling, the fundamental problem that faced these writers as they sat down to recount their past was the shattering of their sense of belonging which the Nazi era wrought upon their lives. She relies heavily on another Austrian writer (not one of her memoirists), Hanns Maier, a.k.a. Jean Améry, to account for this shattering. Améry’s own experiences included, of course, not only persecution and exile, but extended torture at the hands of the Gestapo followed by imprisonment in Auschwitz—all of which he survived, but hardly intact. In Améry’s postwar writings, his essential message was one of loss and destruction to the point of, literally, no return. One could not recover what had been lost and taken and tortured away from one, neither one’s previous identity, nor one’s physical and social space in a society, nor one’s connections to other human beings with whom one used to associate. Although Vansant acknowledges the gulf dividing Améry’s total despair from the essentially hopeful stance of her memoirists (return is, in their cases, an expression of hope), she uses his extreme conclusions to understand at least some of what her own memoirists faced. Her chapters—on the meaning of Heimat itself, on narrative authority, trauma and mourning, and reclaiming the past—understand the writing of the memoir itself as an act of recovery against such odds. Among her most interesting contributions, at least for this historian, was her juxtaposition of the Austrians’ own process of public memorializing of the war era—a process of massive denial and self-exculpation—with the experiences of these returning exiles, who could not possibly recognize their own lives in so white-washed a history.
The book’s strength resides in the sensitivity and detail of Vansant’s readings, but it suffers, unfortunate in so compact a work, from repetition, stylistic clumsiness, and too much literary and psychological jargon. We do not need to see the pronoun “we” or the word “other” constantly in those scary quotation marks, the use of which is clearly [End Page 150] intended to signal an act of interpretation (e.g. the “ejection” of the memoirists “from...