Vienna Jewish Archive Tells Tale of Nazi Annexation

A radioclip by Frank Browning

Play online: Radiofeature (7.38 min) (English)

(NPR National Public Radio, July 14, 2007)


Copyright © 2007 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


Much of the information historians have about the Holocaust comes from the Nazis, who were meticulous record keepers. Most Jewish documents were destroyed. But now an enormous stash of papers and photos has turned up in an abandoned building in Vienna. They tell the personal stories of the city's Jews and reveal how so many of them managed to escape the death camps. Many of these documents are now on exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Vienna.

Frank Browning visited the museum and has this report.

FRANK BROWNING: It was a classic Viennese spring evening. The cafes were buzzing and the national opera was performing "Tristan und Isolde."

(Soundbite of opera "Tristan und Isolde")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (Foreign Language Spoken)

BROWNING: Kitty Bee(ph) and her office girlfriends decided to go to the theater after work. Her account is read by a guy at Vienna's Jewish Museum.

Ms. KITTY BEE (Resident, Vienna): It was the fall of the House of Romanov. We really did enjoy the play. They sang the hym of the revolution. It all ended well and with big applause. We walked out into the biggest nightmare ever.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BROWNING: It was March 7, 1938, the Anschluss. On the half-moon balcony in the former Imperial Square, Adolf Hitler declared Germany and Austria unified, and the Austrians cheered.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. ADOLF HITLER (German Chancellor; Fuhrer of Germany): (German spoken)

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Ms. BEE: The German Nazi occupation had taken place without a fight, on the contrary, into open arms of Austrian citizens. The Austrian police wore armbands with the Swastika motif and the brownshirts blocking the streets and traffic - singing, yelling, going wild - and what they said was kill the Jews.

BROWNING: Kitty Bee, now an old lady, is one of those who escaped to Austria to America. The record of her escape was found among 800 cardboard boxes stacked floor to ceiling in an abandoned apartment owned by the Jewish Community of Vienna. The year was 2000, just before the building was to be sold off.

Lothar Hoelbling, the chief archivist, had been told there were some old files there that he might want to look at.

Mr. LOTHAR HOELBLING (Chief Archivist, Jewish Museum): So we entered, in fact, this empty apartment in this building of the Jewish community in the 15th district. And what we found - first day we have been working in this apartment, we already found a complete or nearly complete set of deportation list that were produced by the National Socialists in relation with the deportation of more than 48,000 Jews in Vienna.

BROWNING: Deportations meant death camps. But even more important, says fellow archivist, Ingo Zechner, were hundreds of smaller boxes.

Mr. INGO ZECHNER (Archivist): A card index produced by the immigration office of the Jewish community Vienna in 1938 and 1939 containing the names of some 118,000 Jews living in Vienna at that time. This was the largest documentation on the Jewish population at that time and, of course, very useful in documenting the lives of those who have to flee Austria and who had lost their property.

BROWNING: One hundred and eighteen thousand emigrated. Thanks to a deal struck between the Jewish leaders and Adolf Eichmann that permitted the community to receive hard currency from foreign Jewish groups so the immigrants could buy tickets, pay anti-Jewish exit taxes and have required visas and landing money.

The Nazis had frozen all Jewish bank accounts. But, the Jewish community negotiated currency exchanges. Families with more money in their frozen accounts, they had worse exchange rates than poorer families. A few members of the Frost(ph) were able to emigrate in 1939. Their granddaughter Yahli came to Vienna with her husband, Nobel chemist Roger Kornberg, to see the archives just as the show was going up.

(Soundbite of drill)

Mr. ZECHNER: What we found are documents of their family.

BROWNING: Lothar Hoelbling helped them sort through the papers.

Mr. HOELBLING: And it was a quite huge file, in fact.

BROWNING: It's your family?

Dr. YAHLI LORCH KORNBERG (Stanford University): Yes, this is my grandmother's brother and his wife and three children. He was shot somewhere on the crossing to Yugoslavia(ph). The mother and the three children was gassed in a truck. You know, the gassing was much slower than the Zyklon B. And she - they tried to go to America, right? But they couldn't.

Mr. HOELBLING: They couldn't, no.

BROWNING: Eichmann's system required each household to fill out detailed handwritten questionnaires distributed by the Jewish community.

(Soundbite of conversation)

BROWNING: (Unintelligible)

Mr. HOELBLING: Merchant, that (unintelligible)

Dr. KORNBERG: This is from my grandfather.

Mr. HOELBLING: Monthly income, 200 Reich mark.

Dr. KORNBERG: Was that high?

Mr. HOELBLING: No. But it was more than the most of them had because they all lost their jobs. They didn't have any access to their bank accounts, and this was - he wanted to emigrate to New York. And this is the family.

BROWNING: Sarah Frost, Erika Frost, and Hellie Frost.

Dr. KORNBERG: Then you needed the (unintelligible).

BROWNING: Is that his handwriting? Is that in his handwriting?

Mr. HOELBLING: This is probably his handwriting. This is his signature. So I think it is his handwriting there, yes.

BROWNING: Now, Frosts got visa authorization, but their cousins in New York didn't have the money to pay for passage. For the 118,000 who did escape, these records turned upside down the whole field of Holocaust studies, says Paul Shapiro of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

Mr. PAUL SHAPIRO (U.S. Holocaust Museum): It's often asked why did these Jewish communities go like lambs to the slaughter because we're often confronted with photographs of people who have already been starved, who have been stripped off their dignity, who are literally at the doors of the gas chambers. In this kind of documentary record, you have a snapshot of the Jewish community of Vienna in its full diversity. You know who the people were. These are not names and people who were lost. You also see the systematic effort of the community to help Jews escape.

BROWNING: Nearly all of the documents have been transferred to microfilm in a joint project between the Vienna Jewish Community and the U.S. Holocaust Museum. As for the two young Austrian historians, Lothar Hoelbling and Ingo Zechner, neither is Jewish.

But for both, using these documents to confront Austria's Holocaust responsibility has become a life mission. Hoelbling's grandfather was a Nazi, and Zechner grew up in the Corinthian region where Nazi sympathizer Jorg Haider and his Freedom Party joined the government in 2000.

Says Zechner:

Mr. ZECHNER: For me, it was more a decision of doing practical work and not just reflecting on what's going on during the Holocaust but becoming active and this was a kind of political decision.

BROWNING: Austrians, Zechner says, will never understand themselves until they are forced to acknowledge how fully they collaborated with Germany in the Jewish extermination campaign.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning.

Copyright © 2007 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.