Homecoming in Vienna

By Knoll, Erwin | The Progressive, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Homecoming in Vienna


Knoll, Erwin, The Progressive


This is mainly about two very important oranges that I bought at an outdoor fruit-stand in Vienna on January 20, 1973. The oranges were important, of course, only to me, for reasons that I may or may not be able to explain on the next couple of pages. Bear with me.

We did not go to Vienna, my wife and I, to buy oranges, which are in plentiful supply in Washington and only slightly more expensive. We went because of a perverse impulse to absent ourselves from the United States on Richard Milhous Nixon's second inaugural day; because we happened to be in a state of unaccustomed solvency, which we were eager to dispel as rapidly as possible; because a set of grandparents was fortuitously on hand to keep an eye on our children. We chose Vienna because I was born there forty-one years ago, and left the city, unceremoniously, at the age of eight, and had not seen it since. It was time, we felt, to heed the advice of people who have kindly suggested from time to time that I ought to go back to where I came from.

I ought to state, right at the outset, that what they say about Vienna--what they have always said about Vienna--is true. The old charm is still there, and the gemutlichkeit. The wine is very good, and the food is superb. You can hear magnificent music, and see splendid gothic churches and baroque palaces. As conscientious American tourists, we savored and heard and saw as much of all this as we could in a week, and enjoyed it immensely. I can understand why people have fallen in love with Vienna for centuries, and why they still do.

My father, who left Vienna, furtively, in 1939 and has never been back, is not in love with Vienna. He wonders why I would want to spend a week and a lot of money there. "My own attitude toward Vienna," he wrote to me from New York, "is that of a man who has been happily divorced for thirty-three years." I can understand that, too.

Reversing the usual procedure, I took a souvenir with me to Vienna. It is a brown passport with a swastika on the cover (and five more inside). A large, red "J" is stamped on the first page, and my name is entered as Erwin Israel Knoll. It was a Nazi nicety to bestow the middle name "Israel" on all male Jews, and "Sarah" on all females.

The passport was issued to me on April 19, 1939, at the Rothschild Palais, which had been converted into Nazi offices and later was to serve as Adolf Eichmann's headquarters. My mother and I, along with thousands of others, spent many days waiting in lines at the Rothschild Palais, and I remember it well. It had marble staircases, which were hard on the feet.

I went rummaging through my files just before we left Washington to find the old passport, and carried it with me all the time we were in Vienna, expecting, I suppose, that I might want to show it to someone--someone, perhaps, who would bellow in an Erich von Stroheim accent, "Vere are your papers?" But I showed it to no one and it is back in my files.

Hitler's army marched into Austria on March 11, 1938. Austrians now refer to the Anschluss as an "occupation" of their country (when they refer to it at all), but it was treated then more as a liberation. More than 400,000 Viennese--the largest crowd ever assembled in the city--cheered the Fuhrer for leading them "home into the Reich."

One Austrian in ten was enrolled in the Nazi Party--a ratio higher than in Germany. According to Simon Wiesenthal's memoirs, The Murderers Among Us, "Although the Austrians accounted for only eight per cent of the population of the Third Reich, about one third of all people working for the SS extermination machinery were Austrians. Almost half of the six million Jewish victims of the Hitler regime were killed by Austrians."

A public opinion survey conducted in Austria a few years ago found strong and persistent bias against foreign migrant workers, long-haired youths, blacks, Arabs, and Jews. The researchers concluded that Austrians were "the most prejudiced people in Europe," and Die Presse, Vienna's leading newspaper, editorialized that Austrians are "a people of xenophobes who see foreigners as intruders and often reject what is strange or unaccustomed. …

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