Speech by Michael Eberstadt at the ceremony for two commemorative plaques at the Ottakringer brewery
June 19, 2018
Servus. Ich denke (zwar), dass ich diese Rede auch auf Deutsch halten könnte, aber ich weiß auch, dass ich zu viele Fehler machen würde. Deswegen muss ich leider auf Lateinisch sprechen. Nein, auf Englisch, es tut mir leid. I know that this makes it harder, so I appreciate your forbearance.
Good afternoon. To begin, I would like to recognize and thank a number of people for making today possible and for being here. First and foremost, everyone at the Ottakringer Brewery, including all members of the Harmer and Wenckheim families and, in particular, Christiane Wenckheim. I want to thank Christiane for her leadership in making today happen. The Verein Steine der Errinerung has done important work throughout Vienna resurrecting the names and lives of its Jewish citizens deported and murdered during the Nazi era. Last year in 2017, the Verein placed a plaque at the Kuffner Observatory in recognition of Moriz von Kuffner for which my family and my brother’s family are most grateful. There are members of the Verein Kuffner Sternwarte here today. They have worked diligently over decades to keep the Observatory going which, I am sure, would please the man for whom it is named. One Verein maps the painful history of innocent Viennese citizens; the other Verein maps the stars. I will talk more about maps later. Members of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien, including Erika Jakubovits, are here. We have learned so much from them about the Kuffner family. We hope to learn more. And, finally, I would like to recognize and thank the Kuffner family itself – a remarkable, fascinating Jewish family. May they rest in peace. May their name be a blessing.
One more note. I am here representing not only myself but my wife Nina and our two children – Max and Zoe. Also, my older brother George, his wife Cynthia and their two girls Esme and Maya.
I don’t know if this is a Jewish rhetorical technique or just a rhetorical technique, but I would like to start with three questions. First, “Why am I here?” Second, “Why are we here?” Third, “What’s the point?”
The answer to the first question is twofold. I am here because Christiane asked me to be here and because I am a descendant of the Kuffner family. Ignaz the Elder was my great-great grandfather. Ignaz had a son Moriz - my great grandfather. Moriz had a son Ignaz - my grandfather. Ignaz had a daughter – my mother Vera. My middle name is Ignaz; I am just sorry that I never knew my grandfather for whom I am named. Because my grandfather’s twin brothers, Hans and Stephan, had no children, my brother and I – and now our four children – are the sole surviving members directly descended from Moriz. So, I am here by reason of birth which confers upon me, given the nature of this ceremony, the privilege to be here, but certainly does not confer upon me any particular wisdom or insight.
To the second question, we are here, I believe, to try to make sense of what happened eighty years ago right here in Vienna, right here at this brewery. As with any examination of a past event, there are two basic dynamics: the context in which the event took place and the event itself. I’ll start with the context.
During the Nazi years in Vienna, the Jews suffered a process of de-ownership. This theft began almost instantly after the Anschluss when their dignity was stolen as they were forced to scrub the streets; their religious symbols with the shearing of the Payot (the side curls of the Orthodox) and the burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht; their property and businesses and assets; their jobs, their safety, their legal status as citizens, and, finally – always that jarring word “finally” – their freedom and their lives. The ultimate expression of this de-ownership – when their lives were whittled all the way down - was the gas chambers in which the doomed Jews entered, naked, owning literally nothing – except for their hair and gold fillings and even these would soon be removed. As we stand here and look around at this vast brewery – created, owned and operated for almost a century by the Kuffner family – and then look outward throughout Vienna to the hundreds of properties owned by the Kuffner family and then broaden the definition of the word “ownership” to a larger, social concept in which the Kuffner family believed they “owned” their place here as upstanding members of this community, we must consider everything that was taken from them. We must also consider the reality that if my grandmother and mother had left this country but a few hours later in March 1938, their train would not have been heading West to the safety of Switzerland, but they could have been on a different train a few years later North to Theresienstadt and then another East to Auschwitz. And then they too – if the odds held true – would have stood naked among their fellow Jews waiting for death and incineration. As I stand here, it is incredible to think and impossible to forget that they – my beloved grandmother and mother – had been hunted. That efforts were afoot to turn them into ash. Just as an aside, my mother’s telling of their fleeing Austria could be right out of a movie. When my grandmother and mother – she was just nine years old and sick with a fever – were at the Austrian Swiss border, the Austrian border guard – who would either allow them to leave or not – recognized the name “Kuffner” on their passports. He asked my grandmother if she was related to Ottakringer Beer. My grandmother hesitated. She wasn’t sure whether admitting yes might cause a problem when the guard realized she was a wealthy woman or, instead, lying might cause a different kind of problem. My grandmother decided to say “yes”. The guard paused and said, “I drink that beer every night. It’s very good. You can leave.” One moral to the story is that it’s always important to have happy customers. The other is just how random and capricious the difference between life and death can be,
That is, broadly speaking, the context – at least from the Jewish side of the ledger. From the Non-Jewish side during the Nazi years, the context is the broad spectrum of behaviors and choices within the Non-Jewish Viennese population. This spectrum spans from the truly despicable – the Eichmanns - to those honored at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, as Righteous Among Nations. If it were possible to Google these millions of individual actions and then assign each one a numeric value and then plot a distribution curve, we would probably see the vast majority of data points huddled around the mean. Had cell phone cameras and posts on social media existed back then, the average, questionable desires of the Non-Jewish population would have been further revealed. In 1938, the two thousand year old history of Anti-Semitism beginning with the blood libel and blaming of Jews for the death of Christ (we didn’t do it) through the centuries of conversions, expulsions, ghettos, pales, taxes, laws, regulations, decrees, tropes, cartoons, caricatures, scape-goating, protocols, propaganda, and pogroms became super-charged. When the Nazi government hung out a big sign that read “Jews going out of business”, a significant portion of the Non-Jewish population responded with alacrity at the opportunity. Supply met demand and the policy of Aryanization was born.
The forced sale of the Ottakringer brewery was just one example of Aryanization. One unique drama with its own characters and plot. The question is how should we – from the safety and distance of eighty years – consider what happened here at the brewery? Primo Levi, one of the great Jewish memoirists of the Holocaust, provides, I believe, a useful framework in his essay entitled The Gray Zone. Before being imprisoned in Auschwitz, Levi had studied to become a chemist in Turin. In his essay, Levi used his scientific training and precise language to examine and describe a variety of people – Jews and Non-Jews – and the choices they made in morally-complex situations. Levi considered these choices within the context in which they were made and at their most granular – molecular - level because he knows that’s where the truth of these characters will be revealed. Levi’s conclusions are what we all know to be true: in morally-complex situations, there is little that is black and white. Gray is the dominant color. That said, Levi does not allow context and complexity to morph into forgiveness and absolution – neither do I. Levi would not equate, for instance, the life-preserving choice of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz to steal their fellow prisoners’ bread with the economically opportunistic choice of free, Non-Jewish citizens in Vienna to take over the businesses and assets of their Jewish neighbors – neither would I. If Primo Levi were here today, I believe he would ask two questions: what happened and why. These are my questions as well.
So, with all that context in mind, on to the specific - what happened here at the brewery. The basic history is as follows. This was a forced sale. The Kuffners never would have sold – to anyone - were it not for the desperate circumstances in which they found themselves. The sale price of this “distressed asset” must have been at a significant discount, although, in the end, it didn’t actually matter because the Kuffners lost the proceeds to Nazi-controlled accounts and Nazi taxes. Mr. Gustav Harmer used money from the brewery to purchase the brewery – which, while financially clever, is a bitter pill to swallow. Mr. Harmer was a member of the Nazi Party – which, while par for the course at the time, is also a bitter pill. Soon after the War, Mr. Harmer reached out to surviving members of the Kuffner family to initiate and conclude a settlement. Mr Harmer’s son, Dr Gustav Harmer, took over the running of the brewery and later commissioned research into the history of the brewery including events before, during and after the War. More recently, Christiane has conducted research into the history of the Jewish workers at the brewery. While I am grateful for all this research, I believe there could well be even more to the story. And, I would like to know all of it.
Which brings me to my third question: “What’s the point”? Rather, more specifically, “What’s the point of wanting to understand more clearly what happened here?” I know what my mother would have said, “There is no point. What happened happened. You can’t change anything. What’s important is what’s happening today.” I never made a habit of disagreeing with my mother, but, perhaps, we’re both right. For her, she wanted, understandably, mostly to stay away from this traumatic, painful part of her past. For me, I am drawn to it. And, I believe that with each additional input of clarity of fact of evidence that my relationship with my forebears will deepen. The old black and white photographs will find a pulse, a smile is formed, a hand pats another, you can smell the hops fermenting and the axle grease on trucks, there are sounds of welcome home and of breakfast. You see, I am drawn to the past for love. For love of my family. That is my motivation.
And this desire to understand the past is not a one-way street. The past wants to be heard. It demands to be heard. Consider all the Jews who kept diaries describing in intimate detail what was happening to them and their families and their communities during those awful years. For instance, in the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum and his group of Jewish historians worked tirelessly in appalling conditions to document the minutae of daily life. They hid this trove of information in metal milk cans and buried them beneath the streets of the Ghetto. They were reaching forward in time. To us. Yitzhak Katznelson, also from the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote his mind-bending, elegiac threnody The Song of the Murdered Jewish People to put meat on the bones of this history. He wrote for us – for the future – to bring us back into the Ghetto – a time traveling Charon ferrying the living back to the dead not over the River Styx but over a brick wall. He ends his poem with “Woe is unto me, nobody is left… There was a people and it is no more. There was a people and it is… Gone… What a tale.” They – the Kuffners, the Jews of Vienna, the Jews of Europe, and all the other “Undesirables” – all were part of that tale. And, they all want to be remembered by name and place and deed. The ultimate indignity would be for us, the living, to forget or for us, the living, to obfuscate the past.
As we in the present reach back into the past and as the past reaches forward to us in the present, the end goal - the point of equilibrium - must be total surety of the facts. I mentioned maps in the beginning of my remarks. There is a vast project underway at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, to map all the trains that carried all the Jews to the various concentration and extermination camps. This project seeks to locate each specific Jew on a specific train departing from a specific station on a specific date arriving at a specific camp on a specific date. One can imagine that in some cubicle at Yad Vashem there is some thirty year old Phd student working late at night to finish up “her train”. She’s supposed to meet some friends later for a drink and her mind briefly wanders and, by mistake, she puts Mr. and Mrs. Goldschmidt on the wrong train. Nobody on her team nor her supervisor catches the error. Does it matter? In a sense, no. The real issue is that Mr. and Mrs. Goldschmidt were murdered simply for the crime of being Jewish. Or, maybe, despite all the researcher’s efforts, she can’t be sure exactly which train the Goldschmidts were on, so, reluctantly, she has to write “unknown” next to their names. Again, does it matter? Yes. Facts matter. Accurate, complete facts are at the heart of the authentic relationship between past and present. Otherwise, we’re in the realm of myth.
I am a fan of myth as an allegorical tool, but, I am a fan of peer-reviewed, painstaking research when it comes to history. As I mentioned earlier, my family is working with Erika Jakubovits and the IKG to engage in research about the Kuffner family history including the forced sale of the brewery. I believe this research will result in an encyclopedic understanding of the Kuffner’s impact on this City. And, in terms of the brewery, I believe this research will allow for two possible outcomes: either the narrative I outlined earlier about the brewery will be confirmed as entirely accurate, or, in some way or ways, the narrative will be altered. To me, either outcome would be fine because either would be proven entirely true. What I would not want is that an incomplete or inaccurate narrative continue or, worse still, that today – this ceremony – be used and considered as a “fitting ending” neatly wrapping up “all of that”. I am not here to give my Kuffner descendant stamp of approval. I am here to express my appreciation and gratitude, but, also, I am here to ask that Christiane and her team at the brewery work with the IKG as their research progresses. I want to be up front and straightforward with Christiane and everyone at the brewery. I do not believe that saying “I’m sorry all this bad stuff happened eighty years ago” is enough. That would not be sufficient for the basis of the relationship I would want. I want a partnership. I want both of us – both descendants tied to the history of this brewery – to dig into the past with open minds and open hearts and then let the chips fall where they may. We can always bend over and pick them up – together. And, then we wouldn’t look like the statue of the lonely Jew at the memorial near the Albertina bent over in shame and supplication. It would be an act of free will, of free choice, of cooperation. That is my hope. That is my ask. We shall see what happens next.
As I close, I must admit that I am uncomfortable being here today. I’ve felt that way before when I’ve visited the brewery despite all the Harmer’s and Wenckheim’s collective hospitality for which I am truly grateful. I know that it’s also not easy for them. At the very least, I hope that I have shown them - my hosts - the proper respect which is their due. I am uncomfortable because when I stand here the reality of the offense feels so much more palpable than from across the Atlantic in our apartment in New York City. Standing here – standing right here – I think I can imagine how it all used to be. I bet – I know – that the Kuffners were happy and that they loved each other. I bet – I know – that they were funny and decent and awesome. I bet – I know – that they were proud of everything that they had accomplished. And, then I think of the insanity and of the injustice and of the pain of everything that happened next. There is a photograph of my mother as a young girl. The story behind that photograph is that in February 1938 her beloved father dropped her off at school one morning as usual and then had a heart attack and died later that day. Rough - to say the least. At the funeral in the Doblinger Friedhof, in the photograph, we see my mother with her mother – in a veil – surrounded by members of the family and friends. In the back of the photograph lurks a man in a long overcoat – probably leather, fascist couture. What was he thinking? What was he gearing up to do? What did he want to do? It wasn’t good. As I stand here – eighty years later – I feel a sense of dread at all that photograph portends. The dread is permanent. It remains. It cries out. For eternity. From all around this brewery can’t you hear their voices? “Remember us.” “Beware”. I hear their voices. I see their faces. It is overwhelming.