Academic journal article German Quarterly

Reclaiming Heimat: Trauma and Mourning in Memoirs by Jewish Austrian Reémigrés

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Reclaiming Heimat: Trauma and Mourning in Memoirs by Jewish Austrian Reémigrés

Article excerpt

Vansant, Jacqueline. Reclaiming Heimat: Trauma and Mourning in Memoirs by Jewish Austrian Reémigrés. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001. 204pp. $34.95 hardcover.

Austrian history in the twentieth century has been a history of discontinuity. Between 1918 and 1955, Austrians experienced a series of wrenching changes, not only politically, but also in their very sense of identity. Since 1955, Austria has been a remarkably stable political entity. Yet Austrians have been unable fully to confront and hence settle the problems caused by Austria's troubled past; in no other case is this more true than that involving the "primal crime" of modern Austrian historical consciousness, the persecution, expulsion and eventual mass murder of Austria's Jews.

The absence caused by this destruction still haunts Austrian society and its understanding of its own past. Investigating the meaning of that absence, and how it continues to shape Austrian self-understanding is the subject of Jacqueline Vansant's quietly impressive book. In one sense Vansant's approach is deeply ironic: she has chosen to study the repercussions of the Jewish absence in modern Austrian life by looking at the memoirs of those Jewish émigrés who decided to reassert their presence in the Austrian homeland, by returning. This focusing on the interstice between the émigré experience and that of the "normal" (non-Jewish) Austrians who had stayed behind, the key point at which the respective narratives clashed in person as it were, allows Vansant to explore questions of belonging, identity and self-affirmation in a very revealing, intellectually stimulating, and at times very touching way.

Her initial point of departure is provided by Jean Améry, who pointed out that the real tragedy of the Jewish émigrés from Austria and Germany was that they had not only been banished from their Heimat, "home"-that feeling of knowing with great confidence where you are, and what others mean when they talk to you-but that they had in effect lost that home of their past as well. More concretely, the horrors of March 1938, of Kristallnacht, and of the eventual annihilation of Austrian Jewry up to 1945, not only forced Jews to leave their "home," but it revealed to them, in the vehemence, greed and cruelty that so many of their Austrian neighbors showed them, that they had never really had the "home" that they thought was theirs. …

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