Compromise: Returning to Vienna after the war – Jewish Herald-Voice

Posted By on July 11, 2021

After losing family, prosperity and careers in the Shoah, why would a Jewish survivor choose to return home to Vienna after the war?

After returning, Jews discovered that Austrians, as a whole and individually, did not welcome them back. In fact, the Austrian government excluded the vast majority of Austrian Jews from qualifying for benefits as victims of fascism.

Why then did Jews choose to stay? How did survivors confront the challenges of re-launching a life in a place where, a decade earlier, most Austrians eagerly welcomed Anschluss, the union of Austria into Nazi Germany?

Historian Elizabeth Anthony tells the story of those Jews who returned to Vienna in The Compromise of Return (Wayne State University Press). Anthony is director of the Visiting Scholar Program at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

To be clear: the majority of Austrian Jews who survived the Shoah remained abroad after the war. Around 5% of the prewar Jewish community chose to return.

Anthony describes four distinct cohorts and four distinct patterns of return. The first returnees were some 5,500 Jews who survived underground in Vienna. This cohort, known as u-boote (submarines), concealed their identity during the war with forged papers. They were protected by friends and relatives.

The second group of returnees were some 1,700 internment camp survivors. Both the u-bootes and the camp survivors arrived soon after the wars end. They imagined reclaiming their familiar homes. They arrived in a Vienna a city that lacked infrastructure, resources, skilled labor, energy sources and food.

The third group of returnees were political activists, survivors who were active Social Democrats and Communists. This cohort survived abroad with the assistance of their political organizations. They arrived a year or two after the wars end. They imagined helping to build a democratic, autonomous Austria.

The fourth group of returnees were survivors who lived abroad during the war years. This group included doctors and lawyers. (Some 62% of all lawyers in Vienna in 1936 were Jewish). They imagined rebuilding their professional careers in postwar Vienna.

The Austrian Provisional Government, under Karl Renner, sidestepped culpability for Nazi war crimes by placing total blame on the Germans. Renner ignored the reality that the majority of Austrians supported union with Germany and enthusiastically welcomed German troops into the country.

Renner recast Anchluss as the occupation of a foreign power forced on innocent Austria. According to this logic, Austria ceased to exist after 1938 and was not responsible for Nazi crimes. Occupied Austria was liberated by Austrian resistance fighters and the Red Army.

In that version of history, all Austrians were victims. No particular group of Austrians could be singled out as victims. As Anthony documents, the Renner government passed a Victims Welfare Act in July 1945 that included assistance to those who were persecuted on political grounds and for resistance fighters.

It made no provision, however, for those who were oppressed on the basis of race, religion and nationality, writes Anthony. Renners concerns about the nations pain, suffering and damages never included the loss of nearly two-hundred thousand Austrian Jews to emigration and murder.

Non-Jewish Austrians generally showed no sympathy for Jewish ordeals under the Nazis. Some displayed outright hostility. Many had been, and still were, enthusiastic Nazis and participants in aryanization policies. Some 60,000 apartments in Vienna had been aryanized. But, no Austrian political party took up the recovery of real estate and businesses stolen under Nazi laws. Quite the opposite:

Austrian politicians castigated Jews for having abandoned their country during crisis and having enjoyed comfort and safety abroad, while Austrian soldiers were forced to fight and die in the Wehrmacht. Some politicians even blamed World Jewry for not coming to Austrias aid at the time of the Anshluss.

As a result, few Jews regained their residences and businesses.

Most Viennese Jews who returned stayed. They felt they had no reason to engage in deep philosophical discussions. Vienna was home and they wanted to go home.

The writer Jean Amery (born Hans Chaim Mayer in Vienna) argued that Austrian Jews had not lost their homeland. It had never belonged to them.

The majority of Austrian Jews who fled the Nazis remained in their adopted countries or immigrated to other nations. Those who returned to Vienna met with an antisemitism that characterized home since the election of Karl Lueger as mayor in 1895. They accepted that antisemitism as something to which they were accustomed to navigating. And, they accepted the Austrian victim mythology.

In contrast, Amery experienced an immense sense of betrayal and loneliness as a result of Austrias shift from autocratic rule to democratic governance. Amery felt that during this transformation, many unspeakable wrongs were left unpunished.

As a victim of the Nazis, he made a powerful argument against forgiveness and forgetting in a book of essays, Beyond Guilt and Atonement.

Amery, it seems to me, provides the perfect response to the sense of compromise that pervades the returning community portrayed in Elizabeth Anthonys excellent history.

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Compromise: Returning to Vienna after the war - Jewish Herald-Voice

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