Every day, as I leave my flat in the center of Vienna and walk to the U-Bahn, I pass a series of Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones.” Each commemorates a single victim of the Holocaust. These little, unobtrusive, brass plaques are sometimes the only proof of a person’s existence and passing. Every day, these markers confront me with the history that so marked Vienna, and challenge me with it in a new way.
Similarly, Anna Goldenberg asks readers to do the same in her 2019 memoir, I Belong to Vienna: A Jewish Family’s Story of Exile and Return. It demands acknowledgement of an aspect of Vienna’s past – easy to lose sight of amid the flowing baroque architecture – and to see the city through her family’s eyes, understanding their experiences before, during and after the Holocaust; to appreciate why, after everything, they decided to come back.
Goldenberg recreates the portraits of two Viennese families in the early 1930s, both with deep roots in the city. They were part of the community, in the best sense, attending schools, practicing medicine, selling furniture. Then came the Anschluss.
The narrative then moves from the somewhat idyllic accounts of family life to their systematic destruction. In researching the Aryanization of the family shops, Goldenberg discovers records that “brought her closer to the culprit” – and reveal “one cog in the massive machinery of annihilation.”
From her grandmother Helga, Goldenberg learns of the commonplace humiliations – being compelled to change schools, forced into abject poverty and the frequent need to move.
In 1943, Helga was transported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she remained until liberation. In 1942, Goldenberg’s grandfather, Hansi, goes into hiding with a friend, “Pepi” (Dr. Josef Feldner) when his family receives their “notorious yellow post card.” He alone survived. The rest would perish in the death camps.
The Family You Create
Goldenberg shares anecdotes from Hansi’s time in hiding, particularly about his love for opera. He frequently attended performances with standing-room tickets, often with the war-time trick of reusing the same one. It became, she tells us “part of his every day life,” resulting in a collection of 117 programs, some handwritten; one from each performance, “proving his existence.” He found a community of music lovers in the upper balconies, even helping a woman hide vinyl records of the Jewish singer she adored. After so much exclusion, humiliation and fear, he belonged again.
In 1955, Hansi and his wife, Helga, decided to emigrate to New York. It didn’t last; after a year, they decided to return: Vienna was home. In a moving letter to Pepi, who eventually adopted him, Hansi writes how he missed his former life: “[w]hat I miss most, here in America, is my own personality.” Ultimately, it is these ties to family and culture that compelled Hansi and Helga to cross the Atlantic again, creating a closelyknit circle with dinners, homework help, and afterschool care upon their return. It is these links (and dinners) which bring Goldenberg, too, home to Vienna.
Goldenberg grapples with the facts of her family’s destruction, through the distance that writing and time allow. While she retells fond stories about her grandmother, who was alive as she wrote the book, she also details the Holocaust, interspersing tender stories of digging through old records in her grandparents’ home while also speaking candidly about captivity and torture.
The solidity of the facts helps the reader through one of the worst periods in Vienna’s – and the World’s – history. Despite their suffering, we come to appreciate the meaning and significance of the family’s return.