Jun 2014 Journal

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An illustrious heritage

A ceremony held recently at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s National Library marked the launch of an elegant volume entitled Vienna Stories: Viennese Jews Remember the 20th Century in Words and Pictures. The book, which contains photographs and first-person accounts by Holocaust survivors originally from that city, was published by Centropa (Central Europe Centre for Research and Documentation), an organisation dedicated to preserving the memory of individuals whose lives were affected by the Holocaust.

In true Viennese tradition (and possibly also because the Vienna State Parliament and City Council were involved), the event began with delicious light refreshments, including strudel and plenty of Kaffee und Kuchen. After the approximately 100 guests had eaten their fill, we were invited to take our seats as the presentation began.

Edward Serotta, who hails originally from America, was instrumental in establishing Centropa in Vienna in 2000 and still runs it from there. He started the evening’s proceedings by screening a short film about one family from Austria, the Brodmanns, based on family photographs and a sound track in which the surviving member of the family, Kurt, describes his family’s history and what happened to its various members. By this time, the Austrian Ambassador, Franz Josef Kuglitsch, had joined us after being delayed by traffic and his driver’s lack of familiarity with the geography of the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. He gave a brief address on behalf of the Austrian authorities.

The film is one of several on similar topics which have been made by Centropa and are being shown in various languages throughout Europe, the USA and Israel. To date, the organisation has conducted and recorded 1,200 interviews, digitised 22,000 photos, made 40 multimedia films, and is involved with 600 partner schools in 16 countries. In other words, the message about the Holocaust and its consequences is being preserved and transmitted to teachers and pupils all over the world. One indication of its success, Mr Serotta noted, is the fact that today Kristallnacht (Pogromnacht) is marked by numerous ceremonies throughout Austria, whereas only 30 years ago it was scarcely commemorated at all. Moreover, young people all over the country are evincing a growing interest in the subject of the Holocaust.

Taking as its motto ‘Stories are universal and stories connect us all’, Centropa regards it as its mission to record the stories of Holocaust survivors, and the book it has produced briefly recounts those of more than 60 of them. Survivors were interviewed also in other European countries, principally those of Eastern Europe, ranging from the Balkans to the Baltic, and it is hoped that additional books will follow.

Vienna Stories is divided into several sections, each one lavishly illustrated with photos of the individuals concerned. The Introduction is followed by sections entitled ‘The World We Lost’, ‘Our World Destroyed’, and ‘A World Rebuilt’. In a revealing epilogue, Edward Serotta describes the process of establishing Centropa in 2000 in a corner of his living room in Vienna, since when it has expanded to the point that it now has offices in several European cities and a wide and distinguished list of donors. A copy of the book may be purchased from office@centropa.org

Inspired by the event, I proceeded to read Stefan Zweig’s beautifully written (and translated) autobiography The World of Yesterday and came away with what I hope is a clearer understanding of the events and Zeitgeist of the period.

Because, when all is said and done, fin-de-siècle Austria, and Vienna in particular, saw the spectacular blossoming of the Jewish contribution to intellectual, artistic and musical life. Among its most prominent figures were Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig. This illustrious heritage is worthy of commemoration and we were informed that Vienna’s newly inaugurated Jewish Museum, supported by official municipal and national bodies, is spearheading efforts to ensure that it is not forgotten.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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