WITNESS realities of forced emigration 1938-45
Meinrad Hofer erkundet in seiner Arbeit Witness die Lebensumstände und Erlebnisse österreichischer Juden, die zwischen 1938 und 1945 unter dem Druck der Nazis ihre Heimat verließen und in die USA auswanderten. Seine Porträts legen ein unwiderlegliches bildliches Zeugnis von ihrem Leben ab – von dem, was sie verloren hatten, aber auch von dem, was sie sich im Exil aufgebaut hatten. So »objektiv« wie möglich, geradeheraus und zugleich mit äußerster Achtsamkeit lichtet er seine Modelle ab. Die harte Beleuchtung zeichnet jeden ihrer Züge liebevoll und doch genau nach und schafft so eine Kartografie ihrer einzigartigen Erfahrung. Karten jedoch verbergen die »Wahrheit« eines Orts in dem Maß, in dem sie seine Topografie enthüllen, und so eignet diesen Gesichtern die eindringliche Schönheit dessen, was an ihnen wortlos und unerkennbar bleiben muss. Die Porträts sind unzerstörbares Zeugnis von Erfahrungen und bilden zugleich eine unverzichtbare Erinnerung an ihre Persönlichkeit und ihre Geschichte, bevor sie fuer immer verstummen werden. Lisl Steiner, Martin Karplus, Anitta R. Fox, Edith Harnik, Kurt Sonnenfeld, Eric Pleskow sind nur einige der Porträtierten. Begleitet werden die Porträts von autobiografischen Eindrücken der abgebildeten Personen.
In his work Witness Meinrad Hofer explores the life circumstances and experiences of Austrian Jews who, between 1938 and 1945 under Nazi oppression, left their homeland and emigrated to the USA. His portraits bear irrefutable visual testimony to their life – to what they had lost, but also to what they built up for themselves in exile. He photographs his models as »objectively« as possible, forthrightly, and at the same time with utmost attentiveness. The harsh lighting traces each of their features lovingly and yet precisely and thus creates a cartography of their unique experience. Maps, however, conceal the »truth« of a place in the degree to which they unveil its topography, and therefore inherent to these faces is the powerful beauty of what, in them, must remain wordless and unrecognizable.
The portraits are indestructible testimony to experiences and at the same time constitute an indispensable recollection of their personality and their story, before they fall silent forever. Lisl Steiner, Martin Karplus, Anitta R. Fox, Edith Harnik, Kurt Sonnenfeld, Eric Pleskow are just some of those portrayed. Together with the portraits there are autobiographical essays written by the persons, pictured in the book.
Published by Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany
Design & Typesetting Tim Jahn, www.timjahn.at
Afterword by Lisa Silverman
20 x 30,5 cm
32 color and 16 b/w ills.
by Lisa Silverman
What are we to make of a book of photographic portraits
that introduces its subjects by showing us the backs of their
heads? The conventions of portraiture in painting and
photography have long dictated that such a book should
start with their faces, for it is the eyes, the mouth, the
nose, the forehead, that surely reveal the most detail about
their identities, and thus the greatest truths about them.
But here, photographing faces from such unpredictable
perspectives reveals unpredictable truths, in unexpected ways.
Presenting these sixteen men and women from behind
not only obscures the details of individuality that we typically
expect from portraiture. It also reveals a deeper truth
about what links them all together: they are Jews who were
forced to turn their backs on Austria when that country
turned its back on them. It is thus fitting that our first visual
encounters with the émigrés in this book are as frustrating
as they are truthful.
Austria was a place from which they had to walk away, but
here, in these images, these émigrés return to bear witness.
And even if after this initial refusal to look at us head on they
eventually give us what we expect and gaze at us directly,
this series of photographs soon takes yet another twist.
They unexpectedly avert their eyes. They look askance, down-
ward, or to the side. In doing so, they mirror the confusion
that we feel when confronted with these unexpected por-traits,
as well as the ambivalent perspectives of the émigrés
in their testimonies as they recount their forced exits from
their beloved home country. They were sad to leave, yet
relieved to escape. Today they are grateful for their good
fortune, but feel guilty that they survived while others
lacked the foresight or means to get away. Together, their
images and words serve as a powerful record of individual
and collective experience. They elucidate the combination
of undeniable facts and emotions, some openly displayed,
some unarticulated, some probably even subconscious,
that together make up the experiences of these Austrian-
American Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.
After the Anschluss (Hitler’s annexation of Austria on March
12, 1938), Austria’s roughly 192 000 Jews were subjected to
a flood of violent and humiliating acts, particularly in Vienna,
where most of them lived. Many were arrested, and within
weeks, several hundred committed suicide. But by the end
of June, fewer than 20,000 Jews had left. Many still believed
their situation would improve, and leaving was not an
obvious solution: emigration was an expensive proposition,
and, for many, moving to a country where one didn’t
speak the language or have a job seemed an insurmountable
The testimony of the émigrés reflects the fact that most
Jews in Vienna were far from unhappy before 1938.
As children at the time, they often recall feeling content and
comfortable, enjoying school, sports, and family vacations
like other young people. But that sense of well-being only
highlights the trauma of being a Jewish child in Vienna
on the day of the Anschluss. Their memories underscore their
childish perspectives: a stolen bicycle, an interrupted
birthday celebration, a ruined Shabbat meal. Otto Kernberg
vividly recalls standing on the Mariahilfer Straße, one of
the city’s busiest shopping thoroughfares, as thousands
welcomed Hitler, and the Nazis forced his mother to scrub
the street. He also describes seeing a park bench with the
humiliating, exclusionary directive: ›Jews and dogs forbidden‹.
Others remember how everyone laughed at them
and cruelly taunted them with antisemitic slurs, or how
much it hurt to lose friends so quickly, from one day to the
next. In these small details, we see the beginning of the
separation of Vienna’s Jews from the rest of Austria – and
the rest of humanity – and the series of events that led to
their eventual destruction.
Kristallnacht, which began on the evening of November 9,
1938, proved a dramatic turning point for emigration,
as the violence with which the Nazis and their helpers
destroyed synagogues, plundered Jewish businesses, and
eagerly harassed and arrested Jews could no longer be denied.
By the end of 1939, roughly 135 000 Austrian Jews had left
the country. They were forced to leave behind their cherished
belongings and property, and to forfeit much of their
wealth by paying exorbitant taxes and selling their homes
and businesses for only a fraction of their value. For the
family of Hans Weiss, the initial good fortune of being able
to get their furniture, rugs, and books out of the country
was scuttled by seeing them arrive across the ocean wet,
damaged, and useless. The testimony also reveals the pain
and worry families felt once they decided to emigrate,
vexed by the unwanted interruption of their lives as well as
the potential for danger. Edith Kurzweil remembers
throwing her gold bracelet off a train for fear of what would
happen if the Nazis caught her with it. Harrowing tales
of escape, replete with false passports and barely cleared
administrative hurdles, abound, as does sadness at leaving
behind beloved friends and sports teams. Yet there is
also a sense of excitement experienced by those too young
to grasp the gravity of their situation. Only in hindsight
do the émigrés know what would have happened had they
stayed. The Nazis ended legal emigration in 1941 and began
systematic deportations of Jews from Vienna to ghettos
and camps that same year. By the end of 1942, there were only
an estimated 7 000 Jews remaining in the country.
When Jews left Austria, they fled to other countries in
Europe (around 30 000 to Great Britain alone), Palestine,
Central and South America, and even Shanghai and dozens
of other countries around the world. The sixteen émigrés
in this book were among the roughly 29 000 Austrian Jews
Not surprisingly, the émigrés express a range of attitudes
about revisiting their Heimat (homeland). For some,
returning was difficult at first, but became less so – in some
cases to the point of loving their trips today. Others still
find it hard to reconcile Austria’s insufficient acknowledgement
of its role in persecuting its Jews. Even today, some
Austrians still embrace the country’s status as ›Hitler’s first
victim‹, an attitude encouraged by the Allies after the war.
And so they remain wary of the persistent antisemitism and
wish to avoid Austrians their own age. But for most, even
contemporary antisemitism can’t quite tarnish Vienna’s glow.
They point to positive changes in recent decades, note how
much they still miss the city, and wax nostalgic for Austria’s
landscape, which reminds them of childhood vacation trips
to the Salzkammergut.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this book is the contrast
between the émigrés’ childish memories of Vienna and
the unretouched photographic portraits that accompany
them, which lovingly document every wrinkle and pore,
highlighting their age and experience. This contradiction
points to the gap between past and present, a space bridged
by the relationship between these Austrian-American
émigrés and the Austrian photographer who undertook this
project to document their experiences while living in the
United States. In their testimony, they respond directly to
questions Meinrad Hofer asks them about their childhoods
in Austria, the harrowing circumstances surrounding their
departure, and how they coped with life in America. In the
photographs, too, Hofer reaches out toward the émigrés
who were forced to leave his country, offering them the
chance to express their ambivalences about the country and
city they once called home. In doing so, he bridges the
gap between past and present, addressing the urgency of our
need to understand what happened in their pasts but
nevertheless hinting at the limitations inherent in doing so.
who managed to end up in the United States, despite its
restrictive immigration policies. In America, they faced
economic hardships, especially during their first years of
exile, but they also enjoyed a sense of solidarity, taking
advantage of opportunities for energetic political engagement
and camaraderie with other Austrian Jews. Adapting
to a new culture was not easy, but some faced the difficult
situations with humor. One cultural faux pas involved
mistaking peanut butter for mustard and discovering the
nasty truth in the first fateful bite of a frankfurter.
Edith Harnik admits to an amusing if embarrassing trans-
lation gaffe: thinking that the German word for vacuum
cleaner should be translated literally as ›dust sucker‹.
Total immersion in a new language forced them to come to
terms with their relationship to German. Their responses
ranged from refusing even to speak to their parents in the
language, so eager were some to leave it behind, to insist-
ing on reading German books before bedtime, out of fear
of losing a mother tongue – and perhaps an identity.
Like the vast majority of Austrian Jewish victims of Nazi
persecution, most of these émigrés did not seriously
consider returning to Austria to live after the war. Instead,
they created happy and productive lives in their new
country. They became successful students, established
brilliant career paths, won prestigious prizes, and started
families. But becoming Americans did not mean they
stopped being Austrians. To this day some of them maintain
passports issued by both countries, a powerfully symbolic
statement. They also maintain tangible connections
to Austria, bringing the best of the city’s culture to New York,
keeping up ties with other Austrians in the city, and
returning to visit the country of their birth.