Nov 2005 Journal

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A letter to the stars (book review)

Vienna: Jugend und Volk, 2005, 320 pp. www.lettertothestars.at (in German)

Almost two years ago I received, via the National Fund, a letter from Vienna asking for information about my grandfather, who, as an itinerant teacher of religion, had been a key figure in the scattered Jewish community of an area in Lower Austria known as the Mostviertel (Cider Area). The pupils of an agricultural school, the Francisco-Josephinium of Wieselburg, had carried out a project of researching the entire community through survivors around the world to gain an exact picture and, more important, to build a bridge to the survivors - but without forgetting for one moment the crimes committed against them and their families. But the schoolchildren had done more than this: they had rehabilitated the ruined Jewish cemetery of the area and created a memorial to the victims of the Shoah. I thought a project like this was well worth supporting and sent the teacher in charge both information and photographs.

Returning from a holiday abroad in June, I found to my delight that I had been sent a beautifully produced book that was a real revelation. The work done by the pupils in Wieselburg, it now turned out, was only part of a project carried out by thousands of pupils in over 400 schools and colleges throughout Austria. They had contacted, by letter and in some cases personally, many of the diminishing number of survivors. In some cases, close friendships had ensued between the refugees returning to Austria to visit 'their' researchers and the youngsters and their families. The book, which is, in fact, the second part of a series begun in 2003, contains a small selection of over 60 family and personal histories, lavishly illustrated with black-and-white photographs of the young researchers, sometimes together with their 'subjects'. I was delighted to see my own family history and pictures among them. I spent most of my pre-Hitler summer holidays at my grandfather's home in the country and they had printed pictures of those days, supplied partly by myself and partly by a neighbour with whom I played as a child, now an old lady in a home in the same area.

In addition to all this, there are excellent photographs of a large rally of young people on the Heldenplatz, where thousands of balloons with messages to the victims had been symbolically released - 'A letter to the stars' - and of a memorial meeting at Mauthausen concentration camp where pigeons with messages to the 100,000 murdered there were released. The young people have also planted a large field of sunflowers in memory of the victims. The book contains a number of messages and articles by Dr Klestil, the former Austrian president, Simon Wiesenthal, Hannah Lessing and others.

I believe that the importance of the developments symbolised by this book cannot be overestimated. This generation will occupy decisive positions in Austria in the years to come. With their actions, they have no doubt learned an enormous amount. At last, if belatedly, an important section in Austria is facing the past in a way that will surely help in the battle to prevent any resurgence of the evils we all experienced.
Ernst Flesch

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