Reden - Speeches
December 2008, The Jewish Echo
“I do not want to be become dulled as a result of my good life. I will always carry a photograph of the horrors with me.”
by Erwin Javor
Two Jews who fled from Austria to America in the 1940s and thus, at the very last moment, escaped death and were able to start a new life, met on the street in New York. One asked the other: “How are things going in the New World, in the land of unlimited possibilities?!” After brief consideration, the other replies: “What should I say . . . thankful! . . . and unhappy.”
Normally, we remember little out of the first years of our life but I still remember what I experienced in 1950, when I was three years old. Indeed, I did not know exactly what had happened but I knew that it was not an everyday occurrence. What it meant I only understood much later. While it was happening, I only knew that something very crucial and dangerous was occurring. The more my family tried to act reassuringly toward me — although at first I was not in the least bit upset — I came to realize that the more their despair and fear of death was being transferred to me. Today I know that my parents, my 14-year old half-sister, and I had fled communism by moving to Vienna from Hungary.
Eva had, as a child, survived the war under the most adverse conditions with my mother in the ghetto. Her “bed” was under the dining room table. She was penned up with about 30 others in an 80 square meter apartment. She was in a place where human beings were being beaten, deported, degraded and killed. Because they were Jews. Eva missed her father. He never came back and was murdered in a labor camp. Like many Shoah survivors, my sister had experienced indignities that she could never again shake off and that she, once her life was once again assured, rather suppressed because her life was so dear to her.
After the war, my mother got to know my likewise widowed father. His first wife had been murdered in Poland by Nazi-led Austrians. He had fled in dangerous fashion, together with his brother, through half of Europe and finally landed in Budapest. There he experienced the end of the war and the beginning of the Communist dictatorship. My parents, who had married in the meantime, then had only one big goal ahead of them: to finally live safely in a free and peaceful country. To live! That is why they fled Budapest for Vienna, our stopover on the way to the USA. There was no plan to stay in Austria any longer than was necessary to complete the Visa formalities for America but this procedure took longer than expected.
EVA AND THE LIBERATION OF THE SOUL
During this waiting period of several months during which she went to school in Vienna without speaking a word of German, my sister had become connected to a zionist Jewish organization, again without belonging to it. There she found hope that her soul could be freed. She had learned from the Nazis that Jews shirked manual labor, were cowardly and were not worth anything. Now she suddenly saw the possibility to prove the opposite to everyone but above all, to herself. She drew strength from the idealistic dream of Israel’s founding, in the vision of joining the Israeli army which would win for Jews the incontrovertible right for honor and security. She wanted to work her fingers bloody in a kibbutz to see how the desert would become green in order to rid herself of the shame, the horrible shame. The rational knowledge to have once been an offering had not helped her. That is why she wanted to bring an offering for Israel and thus have the opportunity to feel proud instead of humiliated. She wanted to do and feel something that was bigger and more powerful. Only with the thought of joining the Alijah youth transport, could she hold on, straighten up and bear what she had lived through.
But my parents had other plans and naturally, they could not permit an adolescent to emigrate by herself to Israel. Eva killed herself. She jumped out of a window, her desperation was finally too extreme. My grandmother, who actually wanted to remain in Budapest and spend her remaining years there, then also fled to Vienna under risky, life-threatening circumstances in order to support us. At this time, that meant a one-way trip with no return. If she had again returned to Hungary, many long years of prison for leaving the state would have awaited her. She could not obtain a Visa for America because she was too old. As a result, Vienna changed for all of us from a temporary stop to a final station.
My father was never able to imagine living in a country where German was spoken. He had the sound of the German orders, which had eradicated most of his family, still ringing too plainly in his ears. He himself had escaped death simply through luck. Now the family was stranded in precisely such a country and it was exactly this language that they all had to learn. My parents succeeded in establishing a foothold for themselves in the textile trade in Vienna through lots of energy and diligence. As time passed, they improved things from subletting with hourly kitchen and bath use to prosperity.
I likewise succeeded in the past 40 years to build up something by turning a small, antiquated steel company with a handful of employees that had been “Aryanized” under the Nazis into an international company with 700 employees in nine countries. The Nazis had planned otherwise. The company bears the name of its founder to this day; he had been frightened away in 1938 and died trying to emigrate. If my family in Austria in the 1950s had experienced the same rejection of everything foreign, as they have again today, and become socially acceptable, if in various gradations, things would have turned out differently. Then I would probably have built my company elsewhere. Without wanting to appear snooty, it is also not completely improbable that I would have been as fortunate elsewhere.
The same is true of the jobs that my company has in the meantime created, including in Austria. My father saw, in his Galician shtetl, how respected, learned, pious Jews were forced by the SS henchmen to ride on top of each other. They were literally brought to their knees and had to crawl on all fours. Other particularly heavy Jews had to sit on them as jockeys and then, to the amusement of the Nazis, have a “race”. At that point, my father began to doubt and ask himself whether the Nazis weren’t right, after all. Weren’t we really subhuman? Otherwise, how was it that those who until then, because of their education and wisdom had been so admired, could sink so low? And what had come of him, himself? How could he watch these goings-on without at least trying, even with his own hands, to let loose on these thugs? At some point, the brutal thoroughness of the Nazi brainwashing had not just convinced the perpetrators but also their victims. They started to feel like subhumans in the way they were treated. It became “normality” and the actual normality became bizarre and unreal.
After the war, my father saw a single Russian soldier, armed with a submachine gun, guarding hundreds of German prisoners. They were exactly as filthy, frightened, bent over and humiliated as before them, the Jews had been. Hundreds of Germans had also not defended themselves — against the one Russian. Only then did my father understand that anyone, regardless who he is, can be turned into a “subhuman” in the equivalent situation.
Many Shoah survivors were driven by the desire of wanting to explain how and what Jews really are. They wished to really show that the Nazis had gotten it wrong. “Jews are different and not the way we are portrayed” was their message. They tried in a certain fashion to desperately recreate their self-respect in the distorting mirror of their murderers. This generation also did not make any effort toward restitution; they did not want to appear the way the Nazis had characterized them as greedy and implacable.
INCOMPREHENSIBLE BREADTH OF EMOTIONS
But my parents also belonged to the generation that had built their own Jewish state out of the swamps and deserts of Israel and held their ground against military superiority. The survivors of Shoah had within a few years looked into the deepest, unimaginable human chasms. But they were also the ones who realized the dream of founding Israel. They survived the hells of indignity, and experienced the ecstatic high of being proud to be Israelis. An incomprehensible breadth of emotions. But my sister had felt betrayed over Israel and only then did she lose to will to live. My generation never felt these chasms in their own bellies.
The generation of the sons and daughters of the survivors is different. Many no longer justify themselves and no longer try to correct the Nazis’ pictures of Jews and no longer court the goodwill of antisemites. But nevertheless, their identity is closely connected to that of the offenders. It defines itself in spite of the Nazis — and ultimately as a result exactly by them. The reference point is the same.
We are not Shoah survivors but Shoah victims. Our parents have taught us that a suitcase ought always remain packed. That we should look very carefully if we assume someone to be a friend. That we should always imagine how he ought to behave. Basic trust, safety and roots — these were things we could not develop. One further generation later, our children could not do it either. Who could have taught it to them? I have three children; one of them lives in Israel, one in the USA and the third is constantly traveling. It is the same for their friends, the children of my Jewish friends. What is there to hold them, to remain? Their world, like mine is set up in such way that in order to remain safe, it is best to be mobile.
THE BRIEFCASE AND A PHOTO: AGAINST TEMPTATION
I always have a certain type of photograph in my briefcase. If it wears out, I exchange it for another but the subject is always similar.
At present, I carry a picture with me that shows a pious Jew who is currently being beaten. He is surrounded by a horde of his tormentors. They can hardly keep from laughing. I carry this photograph with me, not because I am implacable and bitter but because I would not like to blunt and lose, because of my good life, my sensibilities. I am doing (too) well here. I have a wonderful wife by my side, my children are sensible and healthy, I have decent and intelligent friends and I lead a secure and prosperous life. And it is for precisely that reason that I am wary not to lose my instincts. These pictures of the horrors that I carry with me are intended to remind me who I am and how things can go for someone like me if we indulge sweet temptation and allow ourselves to be lulled by the good times.
To this day, I cannot imagine that we Jews will ever grow roots — exactly as many of my non-Jewish neighbors cannot imagine that we are no longer foreign objects. My Galician and Hungarian grandparents, just like my parents had hoped again and again and always in vain that everything would work out. How can I believe that, knowing that they were in error? Every time. I cannot believe that things will ever change. And unfortunately, my children will also not be able to. To recognize the point in time when it is really time to leave — and go where? — is difficult. Our parents and grandparents have not always known it either. Worse: many have missed it.
Everyone has his personal indicators. Mine are quite simple: as long as Armin Thurnher may still write what he wishes and Manfred Deix is not prevented from drawing what I also see, I can still stay. My family owes a lot of thanks to this country and we could, I believe, also give a lot back. When I drink my coffee with milk in the Cafe Imperial every week, listen to a concert in the concert hall, see the satisfied faces of my employees at office parties in my firm, cross my fingers for my Austria or rarely, but sometimes — go hiking in Styria — then I am feeling well. Thankful, I am not. But—also not unhappy.