Our 7th meeting of the Austrian Encounter took place on July 1-5, 2003 in Vienna, at the Zeitgeschichte Institute, which is part of the University of Vienna. We had decided to meet just a few months earlier, and twelve people had said they would come, but only nine participated. One woman cancelled a few days before because of back problems, her friend never appeared, emailed or wrote, and another prospective member emailed after we had started that her car had broken down.
We had only one man, Samson Munn, who had founded and initially facilitated our group. We had two American Jews and two Viennese Jews, one of whom was a child survivor, one child of a DeathÕs Head SS officer, two others clearly from the perpetrator side, one with mixed background, including an imprisoned resistance fighter and active Nazis, and a Sinti woman whose mother survived Auschwitz very emotionally damaged, and whose father was in the SS. We had two new members, and two members returned after three and four years. We spoke mostly in German, with occasional English translations for Samson and me, so I didnÕt always understand everything that was said, and sometimes misunderstood. All but one of the Austrians spoke English well, and she understood English relatively well.
Imbalances were difficult for some, with only one man, only one clear child of a perpetrator, only one gypsy, and a child survivor and a granddaughter of a perpetrator who had no clear connection to Austria. Many of us missed the previous participants who were unable to attend this year. Samson and I were the only Americans and the only ones who had participated in all 7 encounters.
In terms of our new participants, E, age 72, is a child survivor who was 8 years old when she left Vienna with her mother in July of Õ39. Both of her parents were Jewish. Her father was a photographer who taught photography to Jews who wanted to emigrate. They were Socialists and became Communists. He got a loan for his studio from the Communist Party so that he could do illegal work for them like making microscopic lists and smuggling them to Germany. He had a passport, but no visa. Her mother had a passport and visa for England. He had difficulty leaving his home, but promised to join them in England in a year. Her mother left her father to save herself and her 2 children and ŌlostĶ him. In 1941, he got an affidavit to go to the US, but didnÕt have enough money to go. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and sent to Poland and eventually to Auschwitz. Her fatherÕs father and 2 brothers went to Auschwitz, but 3 sisters survived and are in Israel, New Zealand, and England, and her motherÕs sister also stayed in England.
She blamed her father that he abandoned them, because he had promised he would come and didnÕt. The family was in a Communist community in England. They returned to Vienna, where she married a non-Jewish Viennese man whom she later divorced. She felt that she never had a childhood once she left, and she lost her home as well. She finally feels that she can stay in Vienna. Now she has 3 grandchildren, ages 18, 14, and 8, but does not want to tell her youngest, the ŌJewĶ in the family, about her history, to not burden him.
M is 60 and lives in Munich. Her paternal grandfather, who was born in 82, was director of IG Farben in Wuppertal during the war. Much has been written of IG FarbenÕs role during the war, but she was just starting to explore it. Her family had been relieved when the Nazis came to power when her father was 12. Their car had been shot by Communists during a time of unrest, and they wanted a regime change. She knows little about her parents; her father died suddenly at 53, when she was 27 and just starting to ask him questions. Her mother had built a wall around her and Ōknew nothingĶ. He had been in charge of deciding what research projects would be undertaken, and was proud of some of the successes like the discovery of antibiotics that took place under his leadership. In 1945 he was arrested by the Americans and accused of genocide, but they later dropped the charges and found him not guilty for lack of evidence. No family members were present at his last hearing, and she is still researching what really happened. She was 1 of 9 grandchildren, and the only girl, so she was his favorite. He died of stomach cancer in 1954. Her father defended his father: he suffered so much, was found not guilty, and then died. Four months ago she discovered letters written by him while in prison; although they were censored, she has tried to read between the lines.
MÕs father was lucky during the war. As a result of having had polio, one leg was shorter than the other and he was a doctor, so he was sent to the country where there was a shortage of doctors. He worked with patients with TB, which he also caught and was then sick for 2 years. He worked at an outpatient clinic at a subsidiary of IG Farben. He had tried to avoid being in the Nazi Party, and was happy when the war was over so that they could read whatever they wanted again. Still, he was strict, and his wife and children were afraid of him. He never loved her – males were more important to him (like her 2 brothers) – he always said that girls feel and boys think. His mother was primitive and uncultured and he stopped talking to her for 6 months after she had laughed at his fear when their Christmas tree caught on fire when he was 6.
On the evening before we officially started, we agreed to allow our first two days to be filmed by Gernot ______, who had made a film about LÕs mother, which we watched. The theme was initially reconciliation, and would include our group and people on both sides of more recent conflicts. However, after listening to our reactions to the concept of reconciliation, Gernot is unsure of the direction of the film.
Filming represented issues of trust, control, and being watched to various participants. Some wondered whether our participation in this encounter is for ourselves, or to teach others. The subject was difficult enough for some to address, especially the new participants, and they were somewhat hesitant about having a distraction.
We addressed the issue of whether or not reconciliation is possible. Some are cautious about that term. Someone said that we were here talking about the unforgivable. Another felt that forgiveness is important for inner peace. We questioned and started to answer why some of us were participating in the group. For the child survivor, she shared that she has learned to live in Austria, where suddenly her people were not supposed to live. She said, ŌI accept them here; thatÕs as far as IÕve gone.Ķ Later, after a few days, she said that she has finally forgiven her parents for breaking the promise that her father would join them. In sorting out the concept of pardon and reconciliation, she realized that for her, the path there is her goal.
After meeting from 10-10 on the first day, many of us went to Mauthausen concentration camp on the following day, along with the filmmaker. One of our members had been in charge of collecting oral histories and of creating a new exhibit there, and she offered to take us there together and show us around. We drove to Mauthausen in 2 cars. Coincidentally, all of the Jews were in one car, because we 2 Americans were staying with a Viennese Jew, and some of their family came along, including a 21-month old baby. We arrived at noon as planned, but the others had decided to stop first to eat, since they had left later and were hungry. Our only cell phone was in the trunk, where most of our things were stored since the car was so crowded. We phoned after we arrived and were told they would come in ½ hour, but they arrived 1½ hours later. Meanwhile, we were waiting in the hot sun and were also hungry – at a camp where some of our relatives starved, so our emotions were already heightened. We felt forgotten and abandoned and disrespected – when we were in a difficult enough situation, and our guide was in the other car. One person later said the driver (filmmaker) was hungry, and that was more important than the fact that we were waiting for them.
As usual, poor communication among us was an issue, partly due to language and culture, but also values, expectations, and time. The following day, we processed what happened. There were things at both a conscious and an unconscious level. We dealt with issues of hierarchy of activity, trust, who cares about someone elseÕs welfare, the value of time, priorities, our difficulty at being at this concentration camp at all, and learning about what happened there. It was important part of our experience together – as was processing it afterwards, even for the 3 people who had not joined us the previous day.
As difficult as this excursion was for some, it was an important experience to share. We were proud of EÕs work, and it was helpful that she toured us around. It was very moving for me to go through the museum, and the gas chamber and crematorium with someone from the other ŌsideĶ – and to walk down the Stairs of Death with the Sinti woman, well aware that her uncle was there, and perhaps one of my relatives was here or in a similar situation. I later learned that my fatherÕs uncle, and possibly other relatives, died at Mauthausen. The inmates had to carry rocks weighing up to 100 pounds up the long stairs, barefoot or with badly fitting shoes, trying hard not to stumble and become a parachuter – people who fell or were pushed over the huge cliff to the quarry below. There are now up to 8000 visitors per day at Mauthausen in the summer, which demonstrates the shift in consciousness in Austria.
We also all participated in another happier event. On Friday afternoon, we attended one of the memberÕs graduation ceremony (Sponsion) together as a recognition and celebration of receiving her Masters degree, having written her thesis on the Austrian Encounter. Her family still refuses to read her work and her siblings did not come to the graduation. Her mother, husband, and daughter were there, and it was an interesting experience to meet and talk with her mother. We also had met another memberÕs mother, who had worked with my mother in 1938 at the American Consulate in Vienna, and remembered her right away.
We acknowledged that our parents are getting older and are dealing with various health problems, which we discussed mostly during breaks rather than in the group. We had the opportunity to meet the two previously mentioned mothers, listened to the story of a Jewish father, and heard the stories of the Sinti mother in the film. We talked a little more about our mothers this time, especially on the perpetrator side, and their inability sometimes to acknowledge and deal with their familyÕs and countryÕs participation in these events.
For me, it was great that the two previous members returned to the group; we had missed their perspectives, and I appreciated their changes over the years. We all have made significant progress over the years. We noticed and acknowledged some of the changes we had made since we met; many are more self-confident and outspoken, and have dealt with many of the issues we had previously brought up. Some stories we had already heard many times before. The new participants are just starting to deal with their histories, and this work was relatively new for them. It was also interesting to notice what previous members chose to share and not share this time in the group.
This year we addressed issues relating to September 11th, especially for those living in the US. An Austrian woman living in New York City decided not to become an American citizen and give up her Austrian citizenship, as she was about to do. I have gotten very involved in the peace movement, and feel I must do something to change US politics and not be a bystander. We also acknowledged how similar to Germany in the early 30Õs it currently feels in the US now, with our rights and freedoms gradually being taken away, and the great fear of immigrants.
We also discussed extreme positions and how dangerous they can be, even if well intentioned, such as the ecology movement. Some had difficulty when people impose their standards on others and ŌmakeĶ others feel guilty. We acknowledged our helplessness that the world isnÕt noticing the destruction of our environment. We dealt with ideologies that view issues as being black or white, and what it meant in our families to have strong absolute beliefs. Someone said she wanted the personal freedom to choose for herself. Another woman asked whether freedom is an illusion. We discussed what it means to be an activist. Someone said that to change the world we must change ourselves first.
Once again, we addressed the role of victim and perpetrator, and how the roles can change, how we feel about what happened in our own families, and how others view us. We especially addressed whether we label ourselves and each other as victims or as perpetrators. We discussed at length whether we feel that one of the fatherÕs was a perpetrator or a bystander. We realized our desires to identify with others and to belong to a group, which affected people in different ways. Feeling that we do not belong is what keeps us isolated and keeps us from getting close. Some also felt it was important to feel acknowledged, appreciated, and recognized.
Another issue is how much the children of perpetrators want to know about their fatherÕs activities. How much do they push themselves and family members to learn the truth and whose truth is it? Participants have struggled with this issue over the years. One member went to a family reunion on the perpetrator side, and was pleased with how nice and appropriate the children of the convinced Nazi were. Another member shared that she found her fatherÕs diary with pages torn out, but the addresses of his friends were there. However, she chose not to try to contact them.
An issue for her is how much to deal with this part of our history and how much to deal with the nice parts of our lives.
The Sinti woman expressed her great longing for her father, whom she has met only twice in her life. She said that even if he had killed many people, she would pardon him. She has such a longing for him, but he wants nothing to do with her. Likewise, the child survivor realized, after this week, that there are things she canÕt forgive – but she has forgiven her parents for their false promises to be reunited after the war.
We discussed what was and wasnÕt discussed in our families. Some people brought up the burden of listening to each otherÕs stories, and the horrors of the Holocaust. One participant explained how difficult it is for the children of perpetrators to listen to these stories when invited for Ōcoffee and cakeĶ. Yet, despite some participantsÕ difficulties, we had respect for each other and for our stories. We even took a look at the walls we build around ourselves – and our parents built around themselves. Some expressed interest in tearing down our own walls.
This year we touched on many issues, but did not take the time to explore in depth. Partly this was because we spent the first three days of our meetings introducing ourselves, and then just had one day remaining. Three participants were religious and wanted to talk about their faith and the role it had played for themselves in dealing with their pasts. We touched on what it means when we disagree or get upset with each other, and how difficult conflict is for some of us to handle. Some expressed a need to address the issue of breaks and the intensity of the group, and setting limits for ourselves about what we want to do and hear.
On our last day, we decided, again, to try to meet in Northern Ireland next year with people on both sides of their conflict. We would like to learn from each other, for example, their issues of trust and the roles of their church and culture. Some of the Austrians had concerns about understanding their dialect. We thought of other groups we might also invite to be eligible to apply for a grant from the EU. Otherwise, we might meet with Dan Bar-onÕs original German group or just on our own in Vienna.
We shared some interesting experiences together and sometimes had very different reactions to our discussions and how we experienced the group. I was somewhat disappointed that the 3 people cancelled at the last minute, and that we did not delve into as many new issues as I had hoped. It is challenging to incorporate new people, reintroduce ourselves, and redefine our group expectations and process every year. For many of us, previous members are still very much a part of the group, and we missed them. Still, we all felt that we had learned something from our time spent together as we continue to understand and process our shared histories. I enjoy the safety we have established in this group, and the friendships we have built, bound by our shared histories. We each contributed to the group, and support each otherÕs continued growth in dealing with the past and living our lives today to the fullest.
I always enjoy being in Vienna, visiting my favorite spots there, and walking the same streets that my ancestors walked. We agreed that next year we want to meet in Northern Ireland, and learn from our common experiences. WeÕll see if we are able to work that out and which group members will decide to participate next time. Hopefully, we will have some more consistency, but if we have some new members, we need them to be from the perpetrator side, to provide more balance. In any case, IÕm proud of the changes we all have made in our lives.