Remembering Austria Before World War II
Alex Cohen, host:
This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen. There's a new holiday tradition this year. Starting tomorrow, StoryCorps, the project that brings you personal stories of everyday Americans, is encouraging you to take part in a National Day of Listening. Here's what you do. Set aside about an hour to record a conversation with someone you love.
Several years ago, my colleague, Madeleine Brand, interviewed her father, Gerhard Brand. He was an English professor here in Los Angeles. Gerhard was born in Vienna in 1927. He was Jewish and lived a comfortable life with his mother, sister, and his grandfather, Jacob. Gerhard's father had died of an illness when he was a baby, so Jacob was like a father to him. Gerhard told Madeleine that, in 1938, he watched Hitler's forces march into Vienna and take over Austria. It was called the Anschluss.
Mr. GERHARD BRAND: I was 11 years young, if you will. Still, you can remember lots of things at that age, and I recall the enormous pressures upon Jews in all kinds of ways. And, of course, Jews weren't allowed to own shops after a while. Jews weren't allowed to have bank accounts and so forth. So, it was with typical Teutonic efficiency the pressure of the Jewish community was step by step turning the screw more and more tightly.
MADELEINE BRAND: So, Grandma had to get rid of the pharmacy?
Mr. BRAND: Yes. Uh-huh. She quote, unquote, "sold it" to so-called Aryan, i.e. gentile people. But the sale was under pressure and obviously for less money than would otherwise have been available.
BRAND: And what was it like at home? Was everybody distressed?
Mr. BRAND: Nervous, very nervous. Nervous, frightened, obviously. Fearful. And some people had been taken to concentration camps. Some came back after a while. Some didn't. I remember before, we had to leave the 13th District, which is where our home had previously been located.
I remember worrying about gangs of Aryan kids who would whip Jews, you know, just walk the streets looking for Jews to beat up and to whip. And I usually was able to avoid them because I looked out for them. But I remember one case where I didn't. And I was walking, and they came up behind me and started whipping my legs. And luckily for me, I thought I could escape them, and the next block was the apartment of a school friend of mine, Jewish, and so I went up there, and he was home, and I stayed there for an hour. And I thought they had - an hour - so I thought they had gone by then. And I came down, and they were still there. And then my own home was several - five or six blocks away, as I recall, and I'd run as fast as I could, and they were whipping me all the time. So, you know, that's a memory that stays with you.
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BRAND: Do you remember the day you left?
Mr. BRAND: Yes. March 25th - I think it was March 25th, 1939.
BRAND: And do you remember the day in detail?
Mr. BRAND: Well, yes. I recall most vividly my mother's father, of course, accompanying us to the station where the train was leaving. And I remember all kinds of nervousness. And then the train was pulling out of the station, and I was a bit astonished - quite astonished - to see my grandfather break down in tears.
The tears were just streaming down his face because he had never done that before in my presence. And I always thought of him as being a very self-disciplined, hard-minded man. And he was that, to be sure. But, I mean, this was overwhelming. He knew he wouldn't see us again.
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BRAND: Do you consider yourself Jewish first, Austrian first, or American first, all of the above, none the above?
Mr. BRAND: I think American first. Yeah. I like the hopefulness that many people have. I like the energy that dominates the country, opportunity, freedom. And Jewish primarily because other people think I'm Jewish. And because, since there are only a few million Jews left in the world, I would feel I were deserting Judaism by renouncing it. Notice I've said nothing about religion because I'm areligious.
BRAND: Well, what does it mean to be a Jew?
Mr. BRAND: I can't - I haven't really figured it out. There's so many varieties. If you will, being Jewish is an accident of birth. But since that occurred in my case, I would feel perfidious if I renounced my Judaism.
BRAND: Because of the Holocaust?
Mr. BRAND: Primarily. I think of the Holocaust every day. It's, I think, the most horrifying event of the 20th century. And it certainly has deeply influenced my view of human nature, which is pessimistic.
And you have a paradox. I have good friends. I like to think I'm a good friend. I believe in friendship. I believe in love. I believe in the arts. I believe in the occasional beauty of nature. Notice I said occasional. And that's about it. Those are my beliefs.
BRAND: Those are pretty strong.
Mr. BRAND: Yes, I think they're worth living for.
BRAND: So, you think you've lived a good life?
Mr. BRAND: Yes. No, speaking for myself, I think I've been fortunate. I was fortunate to get out of Europe just before the Second World War, fortunate to find a career which I enjoy because I do enjoy teaching, and I like to think I'm good at it. And I've been fortunate in both my marriages, fortunate in my children, and fortunate in my friends. I have some very good friends to whom I'm devoted and vice-versa. And I think that's saying a lot.
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Mr. BRAND: I'm glad you enticed me to this interview, and here we are on record, and my remarks, I realize, will resound through the ages. And when you have children, you will play them back this tape, and they will know something about this geezer. Yeah? So here I am, all set for immortality.
BRAND: Thank you.
Mr. BRAND: Thank you.
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COHEN: Madeleine played a longer version of that interview with her father Gerhard at his funeral in 2004. If you would like to conduct your own interview for the National Day of Listening, you can get some tips on how to do it at the website, nationaldayoflistening.org. Tomorrow, we'll share another father-daughter conversation, this time from me with my dad, Kipp(ph).
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