The holocaust is the proverbial “elephant in the room” here in Austria. This is where it happened, not very long ago. There are people who are here who lived through it. It isn’t abstract and it isn’t distant. I’m not an expert, and I don’t claim or pretend to really understand what it must be like for those who were touched more directly by it. But I am finding myself more affected by it, more aware of it, living here than I ever have been before.
People here don’t talk about it, from what I’ve heard. I haven’t had a chance to have many deep conversations with Austrians, but as I understand, the subject is pretty much verboten. It’s even more of a sensitive subject here than in other parts of Europe. A month or so ago, I was joined at my Starbucks table one weekend by a quintet of Jewish American tourists. I had open seats at my table, and they joined me and we talked for quite a while about their trip — Austria was the last of a series of countries they visited on what they described as a “holocaust tour”. All 5 were older, and retired — two were from Bethesda, Maryland (very near where I grew up). They had been to Germany and Poland (and maybe elsewhere, but I forget) on their trip and said that nowhere had they gotten a worse reaction to their questions about the holocaust than they did in Austria. Their tour guide flatly refused to talk about it, and got quite angry when they persisted.
Walking around, enjoying Vienna, I admit that the holocaust is not front of mind for me. This place feels so beautiful and peaceful. It isn’t the first thing I think about. It wasn’t in the top ten things I thought about when I decided to move here. But, it’s here — it’s present.
Shortly after arriving here, we spent a Sunday with a colleague of Dan’s and his family, outside of Vienna. They came and picked us up and brought us to their home. We spent the afternoon with them, had lunch, the kids played and even had an Easter Egg hunt. At one point, we had wandered down to the end of their driveway and Ada, the wife and mother of the family, was showing me the landmarks of their town. She pointed out a former synagogue across the street — she said people would often come and draw it, or photograph it. It’s a lovely building. I asked if she knew why it was a “former” synagogue. “Well, after the war, no one came back.”
Oh. OH. Oh, dear God.
I looked at the building, turned around, looked at my kids, playing in the yard, and found I couldn’t breathe. This happened HERE. It was so present in that moment — the enormity, the immediacy, the reality — that I couldn’t absorb it. My brain locked up for a second and then switched channels, to something less terrifying and reprehensible.
But, it’s still here.
Yesterday, we saw the memorial to the Austrian Jews killed during World War II. We didn’t make a point to go — we happened upon it on the way home from the movies. On the ground, at the base of the tomb dedicated to the victims, it says that 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed during the holocaust. Sixty five thousand PEOPLE. Killed. Murdered. And that’s just from Austria, a country about the size of South Carolina.
I’m not sure there’s a way to truly process this kind of information. How many people do you think you know? Have ever met? 65,000? Unlikely. So, that’s everyone you’ve ever met, gone. And not in a force of nature or act of God. Not from disease. And not in an instant. People did this, on purpose, over time, to each other. Here — it happened here. Entire families, entire communities, gone. They didn’t come back.
That building that used to be a synagogue isn’t now. The moms, the dads, the brothers, the sisters, the grandparents, the friends, the children, the babies. No one came back.
No wonder they don’t want to talk about it. I can barely think about it. My brain keeps trying to change the channel.