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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Authors Explore Vienna's Jewish Heritage

The House of Hapsburg ruled over much of Europe for more than 600 years. When it collapsed after World War I, its capital city of Vienna was one of history's most beautiful cities. Learning and culture thrived. Vienna was home to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg and Sigmund Freud.

However, alongside the ornate baroque architecture there coexisted a brutish, pervasive and fatal anti-Semitism.

The Third Man DVD. (1949).

In the Graham Greene- scripted film classic, based on his novel of the same name, we see Vienna after the Holocaust of World War II. The once-beautiful buildings are in ruins, and the streets are deserted. At night shadows loom large under the spotlights of the occupying British and Russian armies.

Joseph Cotton plays a Graham Greenelike figure, only he is an American writer of popular westerns. To earn money to investigate the apparent death of his friend, played by Orson Welles, he accepts an invitation to speak at a cultural gathering of Viennese survivors.

The Viennese display their tenacious belief in High Culture by asking him questions about James Joyce and stream-of-consciousness writing. Cotton confusedly shakes his head and doesn't have a clue. Greene is poking fun here at the literary establishment who looked down on his adventure novels, but the scene shows how even the destruction of their city could not shake the Viennese's' tenacious belief in culture and learning.

The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir by Marjorie Perloff (New Directions, 2004).

Perloff was born Gabriele Mintz in Vienna in 1931. She is a prominent literary critic and has written a masterful and straightforward memoir in which she reflects upon her Jewish identity. I recommend it highly.

Perloff's father was a lawyer whose work allowed him time to pursue his passion for philosophy.

He was a member of a group of scholars who met to read and discuss philosophical papers.

Her mother had a doctorate in economics.

Thanks to her grandfather, who had held political posts at the highest level in Austria and who had done business with the Italian government, the family was able to escape to Italy and eventually to the United States after the Anschluss of 1938. That is when Hitler annexed Austria, deprived Jews of their civil rights and warned them to leave Austria.

Jewish Women and their Salons: The Power of Conversation edited by Emily D. Bilski and Emily Braun (Yale University, 2005).

The book accompanying an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, this beautifully illustrated volume contains an essay about the Viennese salon of the Jewish journalist, Berta Zuckerkandl.

Zuckerkandl's father had seen to it that her education lacked nothing because of her sex. She was a champion of modernism in the arts and the work of painter Gustav Klimt in particular. The variety of the guests at her salon can be seen from a 1932 guest book with the signatures of Colette and Albert Einstein.

She did what she could to alleviate the plight of Jewish refugees to Vienna after World War I and defended Jewish causes, but after the Anschluss, she fled Vienna and re-established her salon in Paris.

Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna by Peter Singer (Ecco, 2003).

The fortunate few among Viennese Jews escaped the city with their lives. Many had no choice but to stay. Others, like David Oppenheim, the grandfather of the acclaimed philosopher of animal rights Peter Singer, delayed departure too long.

Oppenheim thought he was exempt because he had won medals for risking his life for his country in World War I. A serious scholar and lover of the ancients, his life goal -- ironically -- had been to understand human nature. While teaching classics at high school, he had helped Freud understand the links between psychology and myth.

Singer starts his book with a pile of his grandfather's letters and from them reconstructs his life, which holds the suspense of a mystery novel, and because of its ending, the profundity of Greek tragedy.

To honor the memory of those lost and exiled by the Holocaust, Central Library has invited David J. Leibson, professor of law at the University of Louisville, to hold a conversation with Evansville's Carol Abrams on Saturday .

Leibson was one of the two interviewers of Kentucky survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust for Steven Spielberg's Shoah project, which recorded 52,000 testimonies.

Abrams was influential in connecting the library with the Shoah project.

Central Library is the regional archive for recorded testimonies for the Indiana, Kentucky and Southern Illinois region and has one of the largest collections in the country, with 112 computer disks.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.