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The Last Jew of St. Poelten – Tablet Magazine

The Last Jew of St. Poelten – Tablet Magazine

Eighty-one yr previous Hans Morgenstern is the final Jew dwelling in St. Poelten, a Baroque Austrian city 41 miles west of Vienna.

Morgenstern is a dapper dresser. His calmly flowing white hair is combed elegantly again. The brilliant white frames of his sun shades peep out of the pocket of his neatly ironed T-shirt. When Morgenstern, a retired dermatologist, walks round St. Poelten, he’s greeted by former sufferers. He likes to cease for espresso within the metropolis’s cafes. Morgenstern enjoys his life right here, however it’s riddled with contradictions.

The newest of those contradictions is probably that the right-wing Austrian Freedom Social gathering, of their marketing campaign towards immigration, is at present eager to woo Jewish voters. Casting anti-Semitism as an imported phenomenon that has risen with the current arrival of huge numbers of Muslim immigrants, they’re making an attempt to recruit individuals like Morgenstern to their trigger.

It was September 2018 once I got here to St. Poelten to talk with Morgenstern. We met within the city’s former synagogue. The temple has not been an lively place of worship for many years however Morgenstern was a driving pressure in its preservation and helped pave the best way in order that it might be reworked in 1988 right into a museum and the house to the Institute for Jewish Historical past in Austria. With populist events on the rise, Europe seems to be on the precipice of historic change. Right here, on this institute for historical past devoted to preserving the reminiscence of the previous constructed within the shadow of a misplaced Jewish group, talking with the final Jew in St. Poelten, there’s a distinctive probability to see the likelihood and peril of the current.

Solely 80 years in the past, as Morgenstern factors out, Jews have been banned from the city’s espresso outlets and couldn’t even sit on a park bench. St. Poelten is the place from which his household fled in worry and from which his grandparents have been dispatched to their deaths.

St. Poelten was residence to over 1,000 Jews when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. In all, 575 of the town’s Jews have been murdered.

When Adolf Hitler led a triumphal parade by means of St. Poelten days after the Anschluss, Morgenstern’s father, Egon, a outstanding native lawyer, watched from his workplace window. Nazi flags adorned the buildings, and cheering crowds lined the streets.

Inside days, Morgenstern’s father had been banned from working, and the household was kicked out of its house. They wasted no time plotting an escape and managed to accumulate visas to to migrate to Palestine. Morgenstern’s great-grandmother gave them her jewellery so the younger household had the required collateral for the visa. The Morgensterns left for Palestine in 1939.

The household settled in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, which was then, he says, “only a village within the sand.” Morgenstern tailored shortly, beginning faculty and studying Hebrew. He liked the “lovely seashore.” He laughs on the joke he’s about to make and tells me, “My father was a Zionist when he was a scholar however when he arrived in Palestine he wasn’t one anymore.”

Laughter punctuates Morgenstern’s sentences. “Life was onerous. My father couldn’t work as a lawyer as his qualifications weren’t acknowledged and he couldn’t converse Hebrew.  However greater than that my father couldn’t deal with the local weather. He had been paralyzed by polio as a child and was severely disabled. He might solely stroll with crutches that sank within the sandy streets.” 

The Morgensterns have been in need of cash and his mother and father, frightened of the looming warfare in Palestine, determined to return to Austria in 1947. Solely a handful of the survivors did the identical.

“There was a scarcity of legal professionals as those that had continued to work have been all members of the Nazi Get together and never allowed to apply after the struggle,” Morgenstern defined. He was 9 when the household settled again in St. Poelten “There was no Jewish group right here anymore and we have been, so to talk, alone till one yr later my cousin Hans Cohen and his household returned.” A handful of different households got here again however quickly left. His cousin died in January. Morgenstern has no youngsters. “It’s the top of the road,” he chuckles.

Morgenstern was 11 years previous when he found that his grandparents had been murdered. “It was not nice for me as a toddler as a result of I didn’t know who had been a Nazi Social gathering member,” he says and laughs once more.

Morgenstern has devoted a lot of his life to recording the names and tales of the households who as soon as lived in St. Poelten. “There was all the time a sense of unhappiness in me, additionally a sure loneliness, that there isn’t any Jewish group right here anymore. It was necessary to me that these individuals won’t be forgotten,” says Morgenstern solemnly. 

We’re chatting within the workplace of Martha Keil, the director of the Institute for Jewish Historical past in Austria. Once we met she was about to start laying the primary stones of remembrance in St Poelten. Twenty-eight stones shall be laid in eight places. The stone to commemorate Morgenstern’s grandmother Johanna Morgenstern was in a field on the ground of her assistant’s workplace. It was too heavy to select up. Morgenstern’s grandmother Johanna had remained in St. Poelten and was forcibly moved to Vienna earlier than being deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto after which murdered at Treblinka in September 1942.

Remembering the victims of the Shoah is a vital a part of Keil’s work. She says that “the simplest means that is executed is within the reminiscence ebook on our web site that may attain the entire world however by putting these stones in a public place native individuals will encounter them whereas out buying or going to the cinema. It can open their eyes when they don’t seem to be anticipating it.” Preserving the details of the previous clearly seen is a key approach each Morgenstern and Keil need to battle the historic revisionism put ahead by the far proper.

Morgenstern listens rigorously to her together with his fingertips pressed collectively in entrance of his face. He says, with a wry tone, “For us Jews it is vital, however the older era didn’t wish to commemorate as a result of that they had a responsible conscience.” Keil provides: “The great ones!” They snicker on the statement.

But, Morgenstern is fast to see the purpose from his neighbors’ aspect and provides, like a physician giving a affected person recommendation, “there was till lately a degree of ignorance. Individuals do not know what occurred. The individuals don’t know the information. Solely just lately have they began to show this in class.”

Rising up, Morgenstern says he didn’t sense any anti-Semitism however then tells me that his father needed to name the varsity twice over anti-Semitic points. There are two sides to his story and he slips from one to the opposite, from laughter to a critical grim demeanor. On the one hand, he grew up surrounded by individuals who had been members of the Nazi Celebration and, as he says, a few of his good friend’s mother and father have been Nazis. “They don’t seem to be Nazis,” he provides after which jokes, “In fact there have been no Nazis in Austria after the warfare so even their mother and father weren’t Nazis anymore.”

Morgenstern stayed in St. Poelten as a result of he had to assist look after his sick father after which his aged mom. “I by no means considered going again to Israel. I’m too lazy. Life was lighter right here.” He laughs on the absurdity of his state of affairs.

Morgenstern’s double life is mirrored in native politics. “This can be a socialist metropolis and all the time has been,” he says. “The Social Democrats helped us and gave us the condominium the place I stay now however we’re surrounded by a sea of right-wing voters.” St. Poelten “is a really protected place,” he says slowly. His voice accelerates as he says, “There isn’t a anti-Semitism in St. Poelten. They’re all very pleasant with me as a result of I’m additionally very pleasant with them!” Chuckling, he provides, “Even when they’re pleasant they are often anti-Semitic. They assume the Jews are a nasty individuals however I’m the exception. The others are the dangerous ones.”

Urgent his fingertips collectively once more he then says slowly, “Final week on the wall by my flat a swastika and the phrase Jew, ‘Jude,’ appeared. That is the primary time this occurred. It makes me fearful.” He doesn’t linger on this darkish level. “Right here’s one other joke!” he says. “Once I referred to as the Jewish group of Vienna to register the incident, the one that answered the telephone didn’t converse German. I needed to converse in English and the younger man didn’t perceive the phrase ‘swastika.’ How humorous is that!”

Otto Pelczer together with his father in Vienna earlier than the Anschluss (Photograph courtesy Jeremy Pelczer)

The dialog turns again to the stones of remembrance, and he tells me his household from England are coming for the ceremony. “My cousin survived. His identify was Otto Pelczer. He died, however he has a son Jeremy who’s coming.” I point out that once I was a toddler our neighbors have been referred to as Pelczer. The daddy was referred to as Otto and the son Jeremy. “You understand him?” says Morgenstern, his pale, faded-blue eyes extensive open. The dialog that flows so simply from him stops as he processes the knowledge. Martha Keil provides that Pelczer is a really uncommon identify.

I’ve spent virtually three years driving round Europe recording how the Holocaust is remembered and speaking to survivors for a e-book venture. I’ve drunk infinite cups of tea with survivors and tried to know their tales. Austria was the final place I anticipated to seek out myself a part of the story. Flummoxed, I’m confused about what to ask subsequent. Keil provides me the e-mail of Jeremy Pelczer and suggests a tour of the synagogue.

The dialog with Morgenstern and Keil turns inevitably to modern politics and the rise of right-wing events throughout Europe. “It’s a psychological burden for me to know that there are younger individuals who assume that approach,” says Morgenstern “however I can’t do something about it.” He factors to deeply embedded anti-Semitism on the Austrian proper and the significance to modern politics of remembering the horrors of the previous.   

I bid farewell and don’t point out that there’s one other darkish thread that introduced me to St. Poelten. In July 1995, I used to be driving again to London from the previous Yugoslavia, the place my husband had reported on the struggle there for 4 years. The overseas editor had determined that not a lot was happening anymore within the area. We stopped in St. Poelten. It appeared a less expensive choice with a younger household than Vienna. That night time the homicide of over eight,000 Bosnian Muslims started in Srebrenica. Because of this, I had by no means forgotten St. Poelten. Once I was on the lookout for a narrative to put in writing about Austrian Jews I started to look in St. Poelten, because it was one of many few cities I knew the identify of.

Again in Vienna, I e mail Jeremy Pelczer. He’s certainly the gangly teenager who knocked me out with a cricket ball whereas we have been mucking about on the lawns of the fashionable housing property the place we grew up within the leafy London suburb of Richmond, besides Jeremy is now a profitable businessman and grandfather from Somerset.

As I click on about on the institute’s reminiscence ebook, I shortly see why Keil has advised me that it’s their most necessary work. Otto Pelczer, I uncover, did certainly stay in Vienna as my mom had informed me. The household moved from St. Poelten to an house on City-Loritz Platz. Once I go to search for the constructing it seems to have disappeared. That is the surreal world of tracing the Holocaust. Otto Pelczer’s mom, Grete, was Hans Morgenstern’s aunt. She had been born in Prague and, after the Anschluss, the Pelczer household fled to the Czech capital.

It was from there that Otto Pelczer left for England, as one of many Czech youngsters saved by Sir Nicholas Winton, a younger British humanitarian who organized the rescue of 669 youngsters from Czechoslovakia. Jeremy tells me he left by practice. German troopers stood alongside the platform. His mom, Grete, and his father, Ludwig, have been deported to Theresienstadt. They wrote him a remaining letter from the ghetto earlier than they have been murdered in Majdanek in Poland in September 1942.

I perceive now why Otto Pelczer was typically in my mom’s phrases “resting” and shouldn’t be disturbed. The partitions in our trendy townhouses have been paper-thin so when Mr. Pelczer was “resting,” I used to be despatched out to play and advised to not make an excessive amount of noise. Jeremy was often outdoors working towards with a cricket ball.

At Majdanek, there’s a big mound of ashes and bones protected beneath a concrete roof. On the eve of Yom Kippur Jeremy calls me. He tells me he is aware of that it’s Yom Kippur as “Hans retains me up on issues, however we adopted Mum and are members of the Church of England.” I inform him my husband is Jewish and I’m dashing to get to synagogue. We’ve got slipped throughout the parallel strains. On the institute web site, I discover one in every of their tasks is known as Displaced Neighbours.

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