I Belong to Vienna from Anna Goldenberg was inspired by the author’s desire to answer the question: why did her relatives return to Vienna, the scene of catastrophic events, following WWII? This is a very unique, personal history, part research, part contemplative as we learn how the members of one extended family were scattered by WWII. The author’s grandparents, Helga and Hans Feldner-Bustin, met at a Zionist group meeting in 1945 and slowly became a couple. After the war, they both attended medical school and emigrated to America, working as residents in a Poughkeepsie hospital, but did not settle there, instead deciding to return to Vienna in 1956.
This is a remarkable account which manages to convey a sense of urgency as the author digs into the past to discover details, and in this intimate history, we stay by Anna Goldenberg’s side as she digs into the story of how some family members died and others survived.
As I’m doing research for this book, a memorial is erected on the former site of the Aspang train station, from where most Viennese were deported. One of my cousins, as chairman of a Jewish student organization, is preparing to give a public address here on the anniversary of the November pogroms. I’m sitting in a restaurant, across the table from my mother, when he calls. Were our great-grandparents and Hansi’s brother Herbert, deported from the Aspang train station? Yes, I answer, and explain what happened to our grandfather’s family: Theresienstadt, meningitis, Auschwitz; family camp, selection, Sachsenhausen. I talk fast, get all excited, and feel the exhilaration I always do when I know the right answers to tough questions. When I hang up, I see a shocked look on my mother’s face. “I never knew all those details,” she says.
The book offers a unique look at the disintegration of Jewish family life during this horrendous period. Hans’s (Hansi) parents, Rosa and Moritz Bustin owned a furniture shop. One great point made by the author, backed with incredible detail, is how the Nazis systemically and bureaucratically stripped her family of any means whatsoever:
On April 13, 1938, a law was passed allowing the Nazi appointed Reich Governor–who was in charge of “coordination,” meaning forced political conformity–to appoint so-called acting administrators for Jewish enterprises. The administrators’ task was to oversee such businesses’ appropriation. The man assigned to Moritz’s furniture business set about collecting all customers’ outstanding payments. It’s hard to say whether the largely non-Jewish clientele had been intimated or impressed by his stormtrooper uniform, but either way, he’d collected all debts within a few months.
The author scours official documents that record the decimation of her family, and the bureaucratic, systematic details are in horrific, cold contrast to the reality of the results: the suicide of Hansi’s uncle the day before an administrator took over the family business, the stripping of assets, the impossibility of creating any sort of livelihood. In another instance, the author’s great-grandmother scraped every penny to save her husband only to have him stuck in Italy as he tried to connect to a non-existent steamer.
The seventeen scanned pages attached to my great-great-aunt Frieda’s form allow me to understand what happened to the family between May 1938 and November 1939: the first page details the Jewish communal organization’s “home check” and describes their living situation in words. Shortly after the Anschluss, Frieda’s husband had been arrested because one of his vendors had filed a false complaint against him, presumably hoping to take over his furniture business. “Business liquidated–nothing kept,” it reads.
But amidst the horror and despair, there are some stories of survival: Helga’s grandfather, who had proved to be a not-so-great dad, came through for his daughter and grandchildren, the miracle of transportation of children to England, and a Bronx-based cousin who sold his car to fund steamer tickets for relatives escaping from Vienna.
It’s amazing that so many documents survive.
They reveal in detail one cog in this massive machinery of annihilation, I see how seriously the administrator took his task. For half a year he carefully prepared lists, scoured warehouses, wrote letters, calculated balance sheets. Thus is how my family was destroyed and I can still read all about it today.
Translated by Alta L. Price