>Speaking About The Past

>Visited a Saturday morning flea market in the Altstadt last weekend, picked up some used books, including one out-of-print book titled “Man muß darüber reden” (“One Must Speak About It”), a collection of talks given by Nazi concentration camp survivors to classes of schoolchildren (high school age, one assumes, since the stories are pretty detailed) in the 1970s-80s. The book is really an interesting read, not only for the survivors’ stories, but for the questions asked by the pupils — sometimes naive, sometimes incredibly direct, and often questions that an adult would not be able to bring him- or herself to ask out loud.
For me, there was something new in the stories of how they came home after the war — and I find this is a big hole in my knowledge of the holocaust. How did people get home, did they have any help. how were they treated by their neighbors, was anything said about the past? And, the biggest question for me, why did they return to their homes, and not emigrate to other coutries, like many others? Some of the speakers in the book were Jewish, some had been Communists or otherwise politically active somehow against the Nazis, some were simply unlucky. They all, each and every one, spoke of how it was luck that enabled them to survive — luck and solidarity among the inmates, although solidarity alone didn’t help millions of others.
According to some accompanying words from a government minister at the back of the book, these talks are now a regular part of the school experience in Austria. I don’t know if that’s still true, given that the ages of survivors must be fairly advanced now. I need to ask some of my home-grown friends about it.
One often hears that Austrians have not come to terms with its Nazi past, and that may be true but it’s not for lack of effort by liberal-thinking people. There have been steps, small steps, all along the way. They are not always easy to see, especially by us Ausländer who see the xenophobic side of society often enough. But it’s most definitely part of The Discussion, and that offers hope.

>Mein Freund Der Baum Ist Tod

An enormous old tree across the street had been taken down early this morning. It had probably succumbed from the construction work on the underground garage, or maybe city life had just taken its toll on it. Telling my beau about it on the telephone, he was reminded of a 1960s pop song, one of his mother’s favorites, the refrain being “My friend the tree is dead, it fell in the early morning dawn.” The lyrics describe how a favorite tree has been felled to make room for a new modern building — sort of a German “Big Yellow Taxi”.
So I looked up the song and the singer, Alexandra, and found she’d had quite an interesting, if short, life. Born in a German area of Lithuania, expelled with other Germans after the war, married briefly at 19 to a Russian 30 years her senior, also performed songs in French, English, Russian and Hebrew, had a love affair with a Cold War spy, died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 26. Here is her Wikipedia entry and the song clip.

>Discussing racism, back in the 1920s

>My grandfather died before I was born, and my grandmother then married a widower in town who had been lucky enough to have married a woman with family money the first time around. This means that my grandmother, having been born in working-class immigrant circumstances, spent the last 50 years of her life (she almost made it to 92) in a lovely woodland cottage with very nice antique furniture and heirloom jewelry.
The cottage had once been part of a private club, started in 1920 when a group of people bought up several acres of woodland and built summer bungalows there, presumably to drink in peace (during Prohibition) as well as enjoy the country air. The club had disbanded for good some 30 years ago, and the lots were divided up and claimed by their current occupants. When my grandmother died and we took possession of her papers, we found quite a bit pertaining to the club, some of it quite old.
One of the most interesting from this archive is a letter dated August 11, 1926 and written by a club member to one of its officers. I quote the body of the letter in its entirety:

Dear Bob: Because of important business engagements Tues. the 11th I shall be unable to attend a meeting of [ ] Club. Since my talk with you I realize that most items to be discussed at the meeting have to do with actions of mine I regret that I cannot be present. Shall try to make my position clear therefore in this letter.

I am now aware of the animosity towards me since I moved to [ ] and brought Percy over to the unoccupied house because I wanted to make it easy for him to take care of the horses and the work about the bungalow. When I mentioned the fact that I wanted to fix up the house for him I certainly did not try in any way to mislead anyone as to his color — that evidently being the main objection to him. Am only sorry that I did not get to the Club meetings to as to bring it before all the members.

It became my unpleasant duty on the strength of the objections made to him going in swimming with some of his friends to ask him to keep from doing it in the future. He assured me he would not give any case for complaint in the future.

Perhaps I am prejudiced in Percy’s favor, but I feel I have done him an unintentional wrong — stirred up in him a feeling of bitterness because of this evident dislike to his color. We have appreciated him so much and have noted the whiteness of his character — that it has really spoiled our desire to stay here.

As soon as we can dispose of the horses which we are now trying to do Percy intends moving back to town and when necessary repairs are made to our home in town we shall also be going over. This will possibly be the end of August.

Would appreciate having a statement of what I owe the Club so that prompt settlement may be made.

Cordially yours,

I find this letter a fascinating glimpse into the prevailing attitudes about race in the 1920s, including the well-meaning racism of the writer — he seems to have had his heart in the right place, yet he refers to his employee only by his first name, and refers to the “whiteness of his character”. I do not hold this against him — this was, after all, 1926. It’s just interesting to me. What do you think? — Comments are welcome.