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Mar 2009 Journal

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Vienna, March 1938: Prepared for the Anschluss

Anschluss. The annexation of Austria takes place on 12 March 1938. Anxiety, apprehension, hope against hope, intimations of violence and fear. But nothing is definite yet. We are with our neighbours, listening to their radio, tense, wordless, nearing despair. We do not possess a radio of our own. My mother got rid of the only one we ever had because my father continually fiddled with the tuning to find foreign stations. Now we share this Jewish tragedy with our non-Jewish neighbours.

Schuschnigg, the Chancellor, is speaking. He tells us that he can no longer resist the pressure to unite with Germany. Pressure from within the country, from his own government, from the people. He resigns and, as soon as he has finished, the Austrian anthem will be played. For the last time, he says. But half-way through, the tempo quickens: it becomes the German anthem. It is the same Haydn melody played at a different speed. And it is followed by public jubilation. We hear people cheering on the radio and we hear them cheering in the street outside.

Although I am only eight years old I comprehend what is happening. I see Dr Richter, my childhood idol, and her elderly parents, weeping and helpless. What will they do? How will they continue to lead their decent lives? And then I see my father - my tolerant and judicious father - rise and strike his forehead and declaim in a voice I have not heard before: ‘It is not a question of how we Jews will live. It is a question of our very existence!’ I will never hear or see the word ‘existence’ again, in English or in German, without hearing and seeing my father, forever in that room, striking his forehead.

The Anschluss is sudden, savage, but not unprepared for. My headmistress is prepared to throw me out of school the next day. She was prepared months before: she would not allow me to take part in the school pageant about the River Danube - not even the least significant tributary was permitted to be Jewish. Our maid is prepared to leave us as soon as she has stolen all she can carry. The emerging local Nazi Party is prepared to confiscate my father’s legal practice. Some of the Party members are prepared to fetch him regularly from his bed to scrub the streets and public lavatories. When he refuses to paint ‘Jude’ on a local shop window, a former client, now wearing the brown uniform, quietly brings my father home and apologises to my mother. She tells him he is brave.

Fräulein, my father’s secretary, is also brave: she comes to see me and to comfort me. Our neighbours are brave: they do not evict us from our home. They could because they are also our landlords. When I have a minor accident Dr Richter takes me to the hospital where Jews are not allowed to go. She tells them that I am Elfi Binks and that I am a relative. When I wake from the anaesthetic I have to remember that my name is Elfi Binks. My beloved Dr Richter survives the war and visits us in England when it is over. She believes that both her parents died of shame.

Overnight we become fugitives. We stay indoors. We no longer meet with friends or relations in coffee houses. My parents do not go to the opera. I had a new pair of skates for my last birthday and I am miserable because Jews are forbidden to use the ice rink. We begin the yearning trail to another country. It will fill all our days for the next 16 months. I become knowledgeable about how other nations control our emigration. I understand what a visa is, a quota, an affidavit, a guarantee. Some or all are needed to get in anywhere. Only one document is needed to get out - our agreement that we willingly leave behind all that we own.

I also experience a sense of relief when the Anschluss happens. What I have been afraid of is here. My earliest memories contain the threat of Hitler. ‘Washing your hair,’ my mother would say when I made a great fuss as a three-year-old, ‘comes straight after Hitler.’ How she must have regretted that remark later. But perhaps, mercifully, she didn’t remember it because the loss of nearly her entire family clouded her mind.

By the time Hitler came to power in Germany I was used to adult conversation. I am an only child – ‘These are not the times to have more than one,’ I heard them say. I listened, I didn’t interrupt and the grown-ups forgot I was there. I knew they were afraid that Hitler would come to Austria. I did not tell anyone that it made me too afraid to go to sleep when my parents went out in the evening. That I secretly made myself lie awake, wait for the last tram, which I knew would arrive at our terminus at midnight, and count their footsteps home, in my mind. When I heard their key in the door I would pretend to be asleep. Now all that is over.

When the Anschluss comes, in quite a different way, I am as prepared as my headmistress.
 

Hedi Schnabl

previous article:Harold Pinter: Words and silences
next article:From illiteracy to remorse (review)