My grandfather’s head

I FORGOT THE ‘great pogrom’, as my grandmother Edith Bonyhady called Kristallnacht with the voice of experience. I was booking a flight to Vienna where Good Living Street (Allen & Unwin, 2011), my book about my great-grandmother Hermine Gallia, grandmother Gretl and mother Anne, was to appear in German in August 2013. The publisher, Zsolnay, had arranged for me to give a series of talks that November, so I chose to arrive a few days before the first and to return the day after the last, without thinking these dates might be of any special significance. Ten days before my departure, as I began to prepare these talks, I jogged up Mount Ainslie, one of the best places to think in Canberra, and it struck me: I was scheduled to leave Vienna on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

I was not sure what to do. I assumed that, had Zsolnay thought about the anniversary, one of its staff would have told me. When I got home, I considered letting things be but then emailed Zsolnay: ‘It was only today, while working on what I wanted to say when I present the book, that I realised that, when I am talking in Vienna and Salzburg, it will be almost exactly seventy-five years since my grandmother, great-aunt and mother fled to Switzerland; that I am due to return to Australia on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht; and that the seventy-fifth anniversary of Gretl’s and Anne’s departure is, of course, just three days later. While I am not much of a one for anniversaries, that does seem quite momentous to me. I was wondering if, perhaps, you might want to make more of this.’

As I awaited a reply, I wondered how Vienna was marking this anniversary, close to the edge of living memory. I assumed commemoration would start on the evening of 9 November, the anniversary of the night in 1938 when Joseph Goebbels ordered the pogrom in ostensible retribution for the killing of a German diplomat by a Jewish boy in Paris. More commemoration would follow on 10 November, when most of the violence and destruction occurred across the Reich.

I was annoyed with myself, disappointed that I would be unable to participate because I was flying out on the night of 9 November. How could I have forgotten its significance? Especially as Kristallnacht loomed large in my book. Especially since the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Anschluss – the German annexation of Austria in March 1938 – had been personalised for me by Helga Luhan, a Viennese relative of my Australian publisher, whose family was fractured by the Nazis. An enthusiast for Good Living Street, Helga had sent me a flurry of emails, with extracts from the official program, links to websites and photographs, all imbued with her deep upset, especially when she attended a commemorative evening at Vienna’s Burgtheater and the young man seated next to her spent much of the night asleep, resulting in a ‘bad argument’.

Through German Google, with my usual slowness, not sure of the best search terms, I found ‘Gedenken – 75 Jahre November Pogrom’ on the site of the Austrian Parliament. Far from the commemorations being confined to a day or two, there had been some events already in September and October. There were more from 1 November, when I was set to arrive, so I began looking to see which I might attend. On 6 November, the program thickened. I scrolled down. At the bottom was: Tim Bonyhady, Die Geschichte meiner Wiener Familie – my talk that evening for the University of Salzburg. And on the next day: Tim Bonyhady, Die Geschichte meiner Wiener Familie, at the Kreisky Forum, in the house of the former Chancellor, in Vienna. I was not just presenting my book in Austria, I was part of the official commemorations of Kristallnacht.

Perhaps Zsolnay – a publisher intent on giving new life to Austria’s Jewish past, with a deep commitment to books such as mine – had thought I would realise what was happening. Perhaps they simply forgot to tell me, having so much else to plan and organise. Within an hour of my initial email, I had a reply from Zsolnay’s second-in-charge, Bettina Wörgötter: ‘Thank you for mentioning all these remarkable anniversaries, and of course we will consider them in our preparations. I am sure this will be by all means an intense week for you. But we will do our best to support you.’ Just before I flew to Vienna, Zsolnay’s director, Herbert Ohrlinger, wrote more: ‘Concerning the 75th anniversary of the Reichskristallnacht, we have been in touch with the responsible persons of the Austrian Parliament and have worked together since we started to promote your visit in Vienna. We are looking forward to seeing you soon.’

I HAD SPOKEN in Vienna once before at the invitation of Wolfgang Kos, the director of the Wien Museum, who visited Melbourne in June 2011 for the Vienna Art and Design exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. At the exhibition opening, Kos explained how the international appetite for the art of Vienna 1900 meant he was inundated with requests for the works of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos. If Buenos Aires or Houston did not want material, it was Tokyo or Paris. Letters would arrive, directors and curators would come to the museum on the Karlsplatz to beg and importune. Kos had to refuse most of these requests, and expected to do the same when he heard that Melbourne wanted a show. How could the NGV have a stronger claim? Why send such precious paintings and objects so far?

Then Kos heard of the Gallia collection: assembled in Vienna over twenty years by my maternal great-grandfather and great-grandmother; brought in large part to Sydney by my grandmother and great-aunt after Kristallnacht; out of public view for over thirty years in a small flat in Cremorne; then, from 1976, in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. At the opening of Vienna Art and Design, Kos revealed how he felt an obligation after learning that the Gallia collection was in the NGV, along with the Langer collection brought to Australia by cousins of my family who also fled Vienna after Kristallnacht. He should assist the NGV to show these works in the Viennese context from which they had been ejected and banished by lending fabulous material, including his Museum’s most prized painting – Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Emilie Flöge. Kos considered this contribution an act of ‘cultural reparation’.

This response was all the more striking because of the contrast with the National Gallery in London, which owned Klimt’s portrait of my great-grandmother Hermine – a picture nothing like as desirable as the his canvas of Emilie Flöge, but also in great international demand and vital to the Melbourne show. When the NGV asked for the portrait of Hermine, the National Gallery was initially reluctant because it had only recently retrieved the painting from long-term loan to the Tate and wanted to display the painting itself. The NGV had also borrowed the portrait once before, weakening its claim; the Belvedere in Vienna wanted the painting too for a second time, and it had the great advantage of having pictures that the National Gallery wanted to borrow in return, which the NGV did not. While the National Gallery ultimately lent the portrait of Hermine to the NGV, in an inversion of old blood feuds and ties, Vienna was happier to help Melbourne than was London.

This sense of cultural obligation went further. At the dinner following the opening of the NGV exhibition, having read my catalogue essay about the Gallias, Wolfgang Kos decided that Vienna needed to hear my family’s story. He offered to bring me to his museum. I was thrilled yet sceptical, knowing that attractive offers often do not come good. But before the evening was out, Kos’s deputy, Ursula Storch, also knew I would be coming to Vienna. The cultural exchange, part of the legacy of 1938, would continue. In 2012, while Good Living Street was still available only in English, I talked at the Wien Museum in a crammed theatre.

To speak about the book in 2013 was very different: it was out in German and the title had reverted to the original street name, Wohllebengasse; it could be seen not just in shops but in shop windows in Vienna. I wanted to be there to witness the book’s reception in the place where, in many ways, it originated. I wanted to represent my family in the city that they had thought of as theirs. I wanted to remind Vienna of them, of what it had lost and what it had destroyed. My first public appearance was in the old Gallia apartment in the Wohllebengasse, in what remained of the Josef Hoffmann dining room. There, before print journalists, radio and television, a bigger audience of media than I had ever drawn, I spoke about my family regaining a voice in Vienna after seventy-five years.

KRISTALLNACHT CONFRONTED ME most sharply just before I left on 9 November when, early that evening, I went to the Café Amacord – my favourite Viennese restaurant opposite my usual hotel, in the street where my great-grandfather Moriz began making his fortune in the early 1890s. With my public speaking over and interviews done, I looked forward to a quiet dinner before I headed for the airport. After ordering, I picked up Vienna’s daily newspapers, curious to see how they portrayed Kristallnacht. Die Presse paid it most attention, filling its front pages with stories, including one by Frederic Morton, whose house in Vienna’s Thelemanngasse I had talked at the night before and whom I knew best as the author of A Nervous Splendour (Little, Brown, 1979), about Vienna in 1888–89, and Thunder at Twilight (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989), about the city a quarter-century later.

Morton’s piece was based on one published first by the New York Times in 1978, to mark the fortieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the pogrom began to be commemorated on an unprecedented scale in West Germany. Like nearly all writing about Kristallnacht, Morton dwelled on what happened on 10 November 1938. For Morton, who was fourteen at the time, that meant the seizure of his father. But he also included his father’s return, which occurred as the Nazis gradually released most of the ‘November Jews’ taken on Kristallnacht, on condition they relinquish almost all they owned and leave Greater Germany. Morton wrote: ‘Four months later he rang our doorbell twice, skull shaven, skeletal, released from Dachau.’

I had read such accounts before, and have revisited them recently, along with many others. They suggest that the shaving of heads was the norm in German prisons in the 1930s, which extended to the inmates of the first Nazi concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, including the November Jews. Occasionally the heads of these men were shaved before they were sent to the camps, but usually it occurred on arrival, at the hands of prisoners already in the camps. While hygiene was one motivation, the Nazis also wanted to brand these men, humiliate them and strip them of their individuality. Their shaving was also the precursor, at least in Dachau, to the inmates being recorded in their new criminal guise, systematically photographed from the right side, the left side and front on.

The appearance of these men on release has received less attention, but there are several accounts of it from their sons and daughters, such as Morton’s article written long after the event. In a piece in the New York Times marking the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1988, Edward Engelberg, who was ten years old in Munich in 1938, recalled: ‘After three weeks, my father arrived in a taxi. He had been nearly bald but his totally shaved head was a shock.’ In Good Neighbours, Bad Times (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), Mimi Schwartz’s book about Jews from the German village where her family lived, the daughter of one November Jew described her father as having returned from Dachau ‘so thin, his head shaved’.

A common theme for these sons and daughters was that their fathers were terribly transformed, aged profoundly, returning as old men and shadows of their former selves. The released also had to bear the stigma of their shaved heads until their hair grew back. While most ‘tried to blend into the background’, their ‘heads made them instantly recognisable’, wrote Bruno Bettelheim’s biographer, Nina Sutton. The obvious response was to wear a hat, which also had the advantage of providing protection against the winter cold, but one Nuremberg man refused. His daughter recalled: ‘He would not wear his hat, as he normally did. He wanted them to be ashamed, since he had nothing to be ashamed of, yet had been imprisoned.’

Some other accounts from inmates of the camps were very different, recording that their hair was ‘cropped short’. In The Emigrants (Harvill Press, 1996), the first of WG Sebald’s fictional narratives to be translated into English, the artist Max Ferber recalls: ‘After the Kristallnacht, Father was interned in Dachau. Six weeks later, he came home distinctly thinner with his hair cropped short.’ Yet many November Jews wrote otherwise, including Karl Schwabe of Hanau, east of Frankfurt-am-Main. He described how, after a few days in Buchenwald, the Nazis ‘stopped shearing off hair and beards’, but when he and a group of others were about to be released, their ‘hair and beards were shorn off’, so they were ‘of course, very noticeable’ as they returned through Kassel ‘but no one said anything’. That changed when Schwabe finally got home, put his key in the lock and entered: ‘Papa, how funny you look. People would think you were fifty-three years old,’ Schwabe’s daughter declared. ‘I didn’t look the same man,’ Schwabe confirmed.

ALL THIS WAS personalised for me by my father’s father, Eduard Bonyhady, a member of the Jewish community in Graz, capital of the Austrian province of Styria – a city particularly enthusiastic in its embrace of Nazism and destructiveness on Kristallnacht.

As some historians have recognised, the pogrom started on 7 November 1938 when the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath was shot in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan. Over the next two days, the synagogues in Kassel, Rotenburg, Abterode, Felsberg and Dessau were all attacked. Munich followed, after the leading Nazis met there on 9 November to commemorate the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, and the Gestapo instructed all police headquarters at 11.55 pm to take action against ‘synagogues, throughout Germany, at the earliest possible moment’. At two minutes past midnight, one of Munich’s synagogues was ablaze. Graz was seemingly next, its synagogue torched at 12.30 am. A local newspaper crowed: ‘For Graz the problem of the provocative presence of a Jewish temple has now been unequivocally solved by the will of the people.’

Yet Graz was also a city where – as was not always the case – local officials followed the directive of Reinhard Heydrich, the second-in-charge of the SS, to arrest ‘only healthy male Jews of not too advanced age’ on 10 November. Compliance with this directive in Graz spared my great-grandfather Salomon, aged seventy-eight. Having been interrogated and humiliated in a police prison for a fortnight following the Anschluss that March, he was let be on Kristallnacht. But Heydrich’s order offered no protection to my fifty-year-old grandfather, Eduard. On 10 November, two men came to the family apartment on the Grieskai, just a few blocks from the destroyed synagogue, and took him away. He was one of more than three hundred Jewish men in Graz arrested on 10 November and put in a police prison, where a doctor inspected them to see if they were sufficiently ‘healthy’ for transportation to Dachau.

The next day, while Edith waited in the family apartment with my fourteen-year-old father Erich and his ten-year-old brother Fritz, a letter arrived from the Australian Jewish Welfare Society, which acted as a helpmate of the Commonwealth government in the selection and reception of European Jews seeking refuge. The letter was for Eduard, who had applied for Australian visas for the family in June after the Bonyhadys’ small leather business in Graz was ‘Aryanised’. The application required Eduard to document that neither he, nor any other member of the family, had ‘ever been in prison’.

A few weeks before, the Commonwealth government had secretly imposed a quota of three hundred visas a month for Jews such as the Bonyhadys, who were able to arrive with at least £200 so they would not become a financial burden on the Australian taxpayer. In a memo that August, the Assistant Minister Viktor Thompson advised that ‘only about one in ten applications’ was being approved because of this quota. The government’s preference was for men and women under forty. Because Edith was forty-four and Eduard was fifty, the odds were particularly stacked against them. But in October the government issued them landing permits, which the Jewish Welfare Society sent to the newly imprisoned Eduard.

Erich and Fritz probably had no idea. What point was there in Edith telling her two boys that they almost had a licence to escape when their father was in custody and they had no way of knowing when or if he would be released? My father cannot remember if or how the family celebrated his fifteenth birthday on 19 November, a week after the men sent from Graz arrived in Dachau and Eduard became prisoner 23,486, incarcerated in block twenty-three, room four, with other November Jews from around Graz.

I KNEW NOTHING of this on my only visits to Dachau in 1971. My ignorance was part of knowing next to nothing of Eduard, who played almost no part in my childhood. My brother Bruce and I saw him only occasionally as small children before our parents separated in 1962, around the time I turned five. Over the next five years, while we lived in Melbourne and then Armidale with our mother, Anne, Eduard was in Sydney and we did not see him. Our relationship was by correspondence. In a letter from Melbourne in 1965, I wrote: ‘Thank you for your nice present. Are you well? We are well. Bruce’s exams are near. At school we have a boy that comes from Japan.’ In a letter from Armidale two years later, I almost echoed myself: ‘I am sorry that I was so long telling you what I want for my birthday. I would like a small good typewriter from you. I hope you are well. We are well. Thank you for your card.’ Eduard’s death in 1967 left me with no memories of him.

Bruce and I went to Dachau when Anne returned to Europe for the first time since fleeing Vienna in 1938. After landing in Frankfurt-am-Main at the end of December 1970, we travelled to Munich where high culture was typically Anne’s priority. In just under a fortnight in January 1971, we went to the Deutsches Museum (three times), Stadtmuseum (twice), Nationalmuseum (twice), Theatermuseum, Neue Pinakothek, Alte Pinakothek and Schatzkammer, as well as churches and palaces, opera and theatre. But Anne did not just want to introduce Bruce and me to the glories of Europe and experience them herself for the first time as an adult; she also wanted to educate us about Europe’s horrors, especially those of the Third Reich. With three days to go, we went to Dachau.

While over three hundred thousand people a year were visiting the camp where a new museum had been opened in 1965, Bruce and I remember that, after we took a local train from Munich, signage was poor at the Dachau railway station and the camp was not easy to find. Perhaps because it was the depths of winter, there were few other visitors that Monday afternoon. But as Anne’s diary reveals, it provided her with an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the Holocaust and to discover how it was being memorialised. The same was true for Bruce and me, aged seventeen and thirteen. On our last day in Munich, we returned for the entire morning. How many others in 1971 went to Dachau twice in three days? While some other visitors were highly critical, even contemptuous of the displays – as Harold Marcuse recorded in his book Legacies of Dachau (Cambridge University Press, 2001) – we were deeply affected.

Our first visit was rendered personal by a clergyman, incarcerated in Dachau from 1941 until the camp was freed in 1945, whom Bruce encountered while exploring Dachau by himself. A short man, the clergyman looked up at Bruce’s six foot two, put a hand on his shoulder, and told him he would not have survived. He was too tall. The rations would not have sustained him. Unaware that Eduard had been in the camp, Bruce was in no position to wonder what it was like for Eduard at six foot one.

Two days later, we encountered the same clergyman who made the same observation about Bruce’s height and also suggested, as Anne recorded, ‘that we could photograph him and show him to friends as one who survived’. My mother was not one for taking photographs while we travelled, preferring to buy postcards. Four weeks into our eight-month journey around Europe, Dachau seems to have been the first place we photographed, recording several of the buildings and memorials. But we declined the clergyman’s offer. Again, Bruce and I were in no position to respond that our late grandfather had been in Dachau too, albeit much more briefly.

FOR ALL THE focus on the events of 9 and 10 November, those arrested generally suffered much worse during their incarceration than on Kristallnacht itself. Most of Eduard’s experience can now only be constructed from the accounts of others, though he sent one letter to Edith, as the Nazis allowed limited correspondence in and out of the camps.

The inmates’ letters were almost all on issued paper which carried a long list of instructions for the recipients, governing how they could respond: ‘Letters to prisoners must be clearly legible, written in ink and may have no more than fifteen lines to a side… Parcels may not be sent since prisoners are able to buy everything in the camp. Petitions for release from imprisonment addressed to the prison administration are pointless. Permission to speak or to visit prisoners in the concentration camp is absolutely not granted.’ The envelopes provided to the prisoners at Dachau repeated these rules. The contents were highly constrained by censorship. ‘I am well’, ‘I am healthy’, was the inmates’ chorus. At least the recipients knew their loved ones were alive and where they were.

When the Bonyhadys escaped from Graz to Sydney in 1939, Eduard’s letter to Edith came with them and, in 1943, gained new utility when the family wanted to buy a small farm on Sydney’s outskirts. Because the Australian government had declared all refugees from Germany and Austria to be ‘enemy aliens’, Eduard and Edith needed special permission, which turned on them showing they were not enemies of Australia but enemies of the Nazis. Where Eduard’s incarceration might once have stopped them getting visas, it became part of their case. As evidence of Eduard’s time in the concentration camp, they provided the Attorney-General’s Department with Eduard’s letter from Dachau in its original envelope. While the envelope was returned and survives in one of my father’s boxes, I have not found the letter.

The family’s Australian landing permits – if Edith succeeded in getting word to Eduard or the Nazi authorities about them – might have accelerated his release. On 16 November, Reinhard Heydrich instructed that Jews already in possession of emigration papers should be let out of concentration camps so they might leave Germany as soon as possible. Eduard’s age could also have helped; on 2 December, Heydrich ordered the release of prisoners over fifty. But Eduard’s treatment in Dachau was against him. He was badly bashed and the Nazis remained concerned about their public image, and only released men whom they had beaten when their injuries had at least partly healed. While thirty-four men had already returned from Dachau to Graz on 22 November and many others followed during the next couple of weeks, others returned only in the New Year. Eduard was released, in between, on 12 December.

My father recalls Eduard’s arrest, but most of his memories are of Eduard’s return. When I asked him about these events while writing Good Living Street, he recalled that the men released from Dachau typically arrived on an early morning train, having travelled overnight. When Edith got word that the Nazis might free Eduard, my father began going to the Graz railway station early every morning so there would be someone to meet him. Erich went in vain day, after day, until, one morning, Eduard alighted.

My father said nothing about Eduard’s appearance. He did not talk about the terrible transformation, symbolised by a shaved head, remembered by Frederic Morton and other sons and daughters of returnees. Sitting in the Café Amacord on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, reading Frederic Morton’s piece in Die Presse, I realised why: Eduard had gone bald as a young man. His head was a hairless dome, except for his moustache. When my father met his father early on the morning of 13 December 1938 at the Graz railway station, Eduard was in this respect unchanged.

If my forgetting of Kristallnacht in Canberra in 2013 underscores my enduring distance from Vienna – for all my attempts to close this gap across a decade, since I began writing Good Living Street – my new understanding of my grandfather’s return from Dachau, and my father’s response to it, exemplifies how one may slowly make sense of the most personal of pasts. A family’s story, however striking, is not enough. Context is vital. Anniversaries can be more than occasions for remembrance; they may transform our understanding of what is being commemorated. That has never happened to me in Australia but in Vienna it did, when I least expected it, seventy-five years after the fact.



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