Breaking the Silence
I’ve always been drawn toward difficult subjects; if a thing is shrouded in silence, I want to lift the corner of that shroud and take a look. My Austrian father’s past was obscured in just such a way; probing questions were evaded or diffused by jokes, and my mother bewailed his refusal to teach us German or introduce Austrian traditions into our lives.
I wondered what that silence meant. I knew my father had never gotten along with my grandfather (Opa) who’d supported the Nazis and still held far right and anti-Semitic views. I knew that, in 1975 at the age of 25, my father had left Austria in a depressed, disillusioned state, preferring not to talk about his country, family, or childhood.
I see now that I chose to write a novel about Austria to get to know him. Researching My Own Dear Brother, set at the end of WWII, allowed me to imagine the grim exoticism of the time preceding his birth. What had it been like to have Opa as a father? How did it feel to live in the shadow of that dreadful legacy and crushing defeat?
I moved to Vienna and conducted interviews with elderly Austrians: the Nazi generation. To interview Opa would’ve been too excruciating. With the help of an interpreter, I spoke to his contemporaries. I was amazed by their readiness to divulge. I was invited into pine-clad living rooms, plied with coffee and cake—a great Austrian custom; my hosts shared vivid recollections, a precious resource, soon to pass out of living memory.
One woman of 87 talked for over two hours. She’d been a Nazi supporter when young. Laughing uneasily, she asked me not to reveal her name. She’d pitied those in the nearby concentration camp, but if she’d protested, she said, she would’ve been incarcerated herself. I wondered if this was strictly true. As I left her, she grasped my hand and, with tear-filled eyes, wished me luck with the book. “I hope we meet again,” she said.
Another woman, a clever city-dweller of 89, recounted quite the opposite: she’d resisted the Nazis whenever she could, stealthily ensuring bombs she assembled during mandatory work duty would never detonate. “I took one look at Hitler and knew he meant war. Why didn’t everyone see that?” she exclaimed. When the Red Army besieged Vienna in 1945, she persuaded German conscripts to abandon the hopeless fight and lay down arms. A pile of weaponry grew on the pavement beside her. If she’d been caught, the SS would’ve executed her on the spot.
These were powerful, humbling experiences. I feel a sort of retrospective lurch in my belly when I think of myself sitting in the houses of strangers, asking questions loaded with decades of shame. If I’d known then how hypersensitive the topic of Nazism still is in Austria, I’m not sure I would’ve dared.
I did encounter explosive emotions. One interview with a 90-year-old man was cancelled at the last moment. His granddaughter rang to tell me he’d suffered a stroke. He was in some distress, she said. He kept repeating, “Tell the lady I can’t do the interview. I can’t remember anymore.” I felt irrational guilt. Had I caused it? Was his stroke a panicked reaction? A self-silencing?
Some younger Austrians were open and intelligently condemnatory about Austria’s Nazi past; they urged me to tell it like it was. Others expressed frustration about Austria’s lack of self-reflection. “At school,” a 45-year-old artist told me, “there was no mention of the Nazis in history lessons, none at all.” A silence in the syllabus then, too.
The interpreter was the most astonishing. A musician I met in Vienna, his quick, dark eyes lit up with complex feelings as I described my research: “I could help,” he offered. “My late father was an anti-Semite. He screamed insults at the TV whenever Jews were mentioned. I’d like to ask the same questions myself.” Unpaid, he participated in those intense situations, recorded everything. It became a mutual quest.
Shortly before the novel was published, Opa died. His memories have now passed out of history also. There was plenty he never revealed. I know enough to understand there are no easy answers. Opa was both a victim of his circumstances and a perpetrator of great harm. An eager Hitler Youth member, he was sent to fight in Stalingrad by his zealous mother, aged 17. There, he saw horrors so extreme and committed crimes so awful he was forever haunted. Later, he fought in the Balkans. Who knows what he did there; the Wehrmacht army was instrumental in rounding up and shooting Jews. Was he one who leveled and fired a gun? I’ll never know.
A similar silence exists at the heart of many Austrian families and can be dangerous to break. Some families might’ve severed all contact with me. Luckily, my relations are supportive. As for my father, he believes in being truthful, if not always forthcoming. He answered my questions. Nowadays, I’m able to picture what life was like for that small boy in the family photos: he wore lederhosen, no shoes, and could run across corn-stubbled fields without cutting his feet. When his grandfather butchered the kid goats, he cried. His house was bare and he cycled to school all year round. In winter, by the time he reached the village, his eyelids had frozen together.