Book, exhibit focus on Austrians’ experiences during Nazi era

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Moving photographs of interviewees and compelling text from the new book Vienna’s Conscience: Close-Ups and Conversations After Hitler, will be on exhibit from Sunday, Oct. 7 until Friday, Nov. 9, at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, in Creve Coeur. The exhibition opening will start at 2 p.m., with remarks at 3 p.m. by authors Susan Margolis Balk (widow of author Richard Winter) and Gregory Weeks, Ph.D. The event will include a book signing of the volume just published by Reedy Press.

Richard Winter, who died in 2000, was a Viennese Jew who narrowly escaped to the United States in 1938 as a teenager, but who never lost his love for Vienna, the capital of Austria, which was annexed to Nazi Germany in the Anschluss of the year he escaped. During a return visit in the 1980s, Winter interviewed a cross section of Viennese citizens on their impressions and memories of the Nazi era. The collection of photographs and interviews were assembled by Winter with the writing assistance of his wife, Susan Margolis Balk, who has written for Rolling Stone, Vogue, Ms., Playboy and The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the acclaimed book Fame.

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The stunningly powerful book begins with a foreword by historian Gregory Weeks, professor of history and chair of the International Relations Department at Webster University in Vienna. Weeks has held the Baron Friedrich Carl von Oppenheim Chair for the Study of Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust at the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority at Yad Vashem in Jersusalem, as well as fellowships at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Prior to the opening of the exhibit, Susan Margolis Balk, who for nine years was literary editor at Playboy, shared how the book project evolved. “After my late husband, Richard (‘Ricki’ to everyone who knew him well), died at Lake Tahoe in September of 2000, I assumed that the prime of my life was over. But two- and-a-half years later, in the spring of 2002 at the Neue Galerie in New York, I met Ken Balk of St. Louis, who’d also been widowed. I eventually moved to St. Louis, and we married in 2005. Ken’s friends and family and community have made me feel very welcome here.”

Susan Balk’s late husband, Richard Winter, had re-visited Vienna in 1988, 50 years after the Anschluss, where he conducted scores of interviews and took numerous photographs of Viennese residents who recalled the Nazi era. “Ricki had nurtured a serious love-hate with the city of his birth,” recalls Balk. “I always suspected that, deep down, he fantasized that the Nazi era had been an aberration. In 1988, he went back to Vienna and approached men and women randomly and asked them about their attitude toward being Austrians and toward the Nazi era.”

The photographs and interviews practically begged to be published in book form, but Winter died in 2000 before that could be accomplished. Balk recalls that “David Rich, my childhood friend introduced me to Joan Silber, who introduced me to David Wilson, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Webster University, which has campuses around the world. David had heard about Ricki and his escape from Vienna on his third try in 1938, so he called me one morning in 2004 to tell me that Gregory Weeks, a professor at Webster’s Vienna campus, was in St. Louis to lecture on the topic of Nazi connections to the Austrian police.

“I went to the lecture and was greatly impressed by Professor Weeks’s powerful presentation. The next day, he, Professor Warren Rosenblum and Dean Wilson visited us in Creve Coeur. In the course of the conversation about Vienna and the Viennese, I spoke of Ricki’s photographs and interviews from 1988, 50 years after Hitler’s takeover of Austria….Professor Weeks (who by the way is not Jewish) argued that the photographs and interviews would be received now with a level of interest that would not have existed in 1988. He pointed out that Austria is only now coming to grips with its past, teaching the Holocaust in schools, issuing apololgies and making reparations.”

Weeks returned to Austria and regularly sent notes to Susan Balk encouraging her to publish the project. Dean Wilson at Webster University eventually introduced her to the principals at Reedy Press, “who were enthusiastic about the promise of a book project based on the photographs and intereviews. “I was delighted,” Balk told the Jewish Light. My first thought was that Weeks should place the nearly 20-year-old document in historical context as part of the book. He graciously agreed. And he will be at the Holocaust Museum on Oct. 7 to take part in the opening program for the exhibit,” she added.

In her chapter from Vienna’s Conscience, Balk writes, “Vienna’s ironies can be disorienting. For example, the birthplace of psychoanalysis is a city embroiled in an elaborate patter of denial and revisionism. These shadows are hard for a visitor to imagine, walking around that glittering town and even harder for the Viennese themselves to acknowledge.” Those ironies are documented dramatically in Vienna’s Conscience, which prompted Evan Burr Bukey, the noted scholar of Vienna under the Nazis to praise the book as “a snapshot of the attitudinal landscape of 1988, i.e., the first year the entire Austrian population had no choice but to take a hard look at the Anschluss years.”

In his own original introduction to the book, Richard Winter wrote, “part of Vienna Revisited consists of photographs only. They were taken at random a few months prior to the start of this photo-interview project. The subjects in that section were not aware of being photographed, and I have no idea of who they are, or what their thought or political leanings are. However, the impact of these first few pictures impelled me to go ahead and photograph and interview more Viennese people. So this collection of photographs and interviews is not so much a series of in-depth portraits, as a portrait of a city at a specific moment in history: Vienna, Austria (in 1988), half a century after its Nazi era.”

Winter observed, ” Many of these Austrian faces reflect the ravages of guilt. Since Austria had maintained for 50 years that it was the innocent victim of the Nazi invasion, Austrians — typified by Kurt Waldheim — had never faced up to their responsibility for the atrocities committed during that time. I was curious about how they might have come to terms with their collective past, so I began interviweing many of the same people I photographed. In their voices, I very often heard the guarded discomfort of amnesia.”

A few samples of the responses Winter received in his interviews follow:

“One afternoon in a streetcar terminal, I approached a man and asked him how he felt about Austria’s responsibility for the Nazi horror. He redsponded, ‘I’m a religious guy, I believe in divine providence. What God and the angels do is none of our business. God wanted Hitler to become Reich Chancellor, and God made the Second World War….’

“Suddenly,” Winter continues, “a woman sitting close by waiting for a streetcar interrupted angrily. ‘Why don’t you work on your Negro problems? A saying goes, ‘everybody sweeps in front of your own door,’ understand? You have to think about the Indians in America, about the blacks. That’s exactly the same that we did to the Jews. I have to laugh that you come here to ask questions about our extermination camps….I do not find it okay that you are trying to play the role of judge here. You have your own problems with the Indians and Negroes, no?’ The woman walks away angrily.”

Winter finds an Austrian student who had a very different take on the subject, when asked why the woman was “so hostile and evasive.” The student said, “It comes from the subconscious; you can’t touch these people. I am interested in talking about our recent past, but very few Austrians are willing to talk with me. I am very atypical, but it’s very hard to guess at what percentage of Austrians I represent, since everybody is quiet. I’m lucky since I’ve had a longer period of education than most people. In school, I always studied history. I visited the Austrian concentration camp Mathausen so I have a great deal of information of what went on. But other people know absolutely nothing. If you speak to neo-Nazi people, who are still Nazis today, they have no idea what went on. They don’t want to know about concentration camps; they deny it and push it away.”

Copies of Vienna’s Conscience will be available for purchase and to be signed by the authors at the opening of the exhibit, which begins at 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 7 at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, a department of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. The event and exhibit is sponsored by the Holocaust Museum in cooperation with Webster University of St. Louis. Light refreshments will be served.