Cover image for Reluctant return : a survivor's journey to an Austrian town
Reluctant return : a survivor's journey to an Austrian town
Weiss, David W., 1927-
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Publication Information:
Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1999.
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xii, 189 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
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DS135.A93 W226 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"This beautifully written memoir, which shifts smoothly from past to present as it blends memory and contemporary experience, is a story that will resonate with any sensitive Jew. [The book] intrigues and challenges, transcends the personal and becomes a universal statement." --Hadassah Magazine

"In an astonishing and moving document, Weiss... describes his 1995 return trip to the Austrian hometown from which, as a boy, he fled Nazi persecution in 1938..... [T]his soul-searching odyssey... will reward readers of all faiths." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A powerful and unusually eloquent memoir of a prominent Austrian Holocaust survivor invited back to face... old ghosts and demons.... An intelligent and profound memoir." --Kirkus Reviews

David Weiss is an eminent biomedical scientist, now living in Israel. But in 1938 he was an 11-year-old boy in Austria who dramatically escaped the Nazis with his family. For some 56 years Weiss held a deep and abiding enmity for everything Austrian and German. Reluctant Return is his account of his emotional return to his hometown of Wiener Neustadt, the remarkable Christian group that brought it about, and the visit's surprising echoes and consequences.

Author Notes

Born to an old and distinguished Jewish family in Austria, David W. Weiss fled as a child with his parents and sister from Nazi persecution, reaching the United States in 1939. He earned a Ph.D. in microbiology at Rutgers University and a D. Phil. in medicine from Oxford University. A former professor of bacteriology and immunology at the University of California Berkeley, in 1966 he immigrated to Israel, where he founded and directed the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In addition to numerous publications in biomedical science, Weiss is the author of works on Jewish law and philosophy, including The Wings of the Dove: Jewish Values, Science, and Halachah.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

In an astonishing and moving document, Weiss, an eminent cancer researcher at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describes his 1995 return trip to the Austrian hometown from which, as a boy, he fled Nazi persecution in 1938. He was invited to Wiener Neustadt by the Ichthys community, an unorthodox Protestant congregation. Members of Ichthys believe that God has withdrawn His presence from the world because of the Holocaust. To lift the curse, Ichthys's mission is to reach out to the Jewish people, to seek forgiveness for Christianity's centuries of persecution of Jews and to sponsor return trips to Europe by Holocaust survivors. The author's father, Heinrich Hillel Weiss, was a rabbi, professor and leader of Austria's Jewish community who later ran a Yiddish-speaking immigrant congregation on New York's Lower East Side. David Weiss, a microbiologist who emigrated to Israel from the U.S. in 1966, charts his metamorphosis from Berkeley New Left activist and anti-Zionist to his present deep commitment to Judaism. His relentless self-scrutiny enhances the impact of his emotionally charged memoir. As he speaks with members of Ichthys and with other Austrians who feel compelled to speak out on the Holocaust, he weaves in a soaring meditation on the survival of the Jewish people and the meaning of Jewish identity while also fearlessly probing the theological and xenophobic underpinnings of Austrian anti-Semitism. Ichthys's insistence on a Christian faith that recognizes a dynamic, unbroken continuum with Judaism pervades this soul-searching odyssey, which will reward readers of all faiths. Photos. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One A CALL FROM HELMUTH EIWEN DECEMBER 1993, JERUSALEM My secretary announces a call from Zurich: "The man sounds Israeli. He says you don't know each other." We don't. He represents an Israeli organization in Switzerland and Austria, and he has been asked by an acquaintance from Wiener Neustadt (Wr. Neustadt), in Niederösterreich, for help in tracing a person who as a child had lived in that town under the name of Weiss. The object of the search was the son of the rabbi who had served Wr. Neustadt and the neighboring towns and villages until after the Anschluss in 1938. There was reason to believe that the family had found refuge in America, and that the son was working as a scientist at a university in Israel. The search might prove to be a difficult one. Many immigrants to Israel Hebraicize their names, and there was very little else to go on. Chaim Kol, the caller, had offered to try. He had scanned the catalogues of the country's institutions of higher learning and then the telephone directories of those cities. He had already contacted several Dr. Weisses; I was next on his list.     Yes, he has located the right one. I am professor of immunology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and my father, who died in 1954 in New York, a decade before I made the move to Israel, had been Oberrabbiner of those Austrian communities.     Who wanted to reach me, and why?, I ask Kol.     "His name is Helmuth Eiwen. He is pastor of a small, independent Protestant congregation, a Freikirche , which he and his wife founded some years ago. Pentecostals, I think. They are called the Ichthys Gemeinde . They have been active in Jewish and Israeli causes. The Eiwens are in Jerusalem right now, at an assembly of European Freikirchen . They and their people come frequently to demonstrate support and to volunteer. Are you willing to talk with him? He is reluctant to call you directly ... perhaps you don't want to have anything to do with Christian clergy from that place?"     I hesitate for more than a few seconds. The pastor's reticence is not unfounded. I have wanted nothing to do with things Austrian since we made our escape. The memories are bitter. Memories of a damaged youth. I am a survivor. What I survived is an old, hard hatred that burst through its thin restraints. As long as the hatred was kept in check, muted, that was normalcy, par for the course for Austria's Jews. When it was released, it became the Holocaust.     Holocaust survivor ... that usually connotes the few who lived through the death camps. My family and I were more fortunate. We got out, by a slim margin, before the transports started for the East; someone took a risk; we were helped. Still ... a surviving is involved. Survival of the human self. The people among whom I grew up declared one day in 1938 that Jews were not really of the human species; to have thought that they were had been a grave mistake. In the light of that discovery, I stood bare, no longer Mensch , debased in all my aspects down to my blood and genes. Perhaps the threat to identity is especially damaging in the years a boy passes to manhood: If I am a nonperson, what then am I, how can I move on?     The bitterness has been sustained. Since the end of the war, Austria has not found it in its national soul to make even the gestures of acknowledgment and regret that Germany has. Austria has consistently claimed to have been a victim of Nazi aggression. In truth, Austrians contributed a disproportionate share to the cause of Jewish extermination. The image of the Gemütlichkeit that so smoothly turned to murderousness is repellent.     And yet, I think in these seconds, the pastor has displayed a sensitivity in his reticence. And they come to Israel to be of help. I have always held to the belief that when one stands face to face with another human being the encounter must be with the individual, tabula rasa , no matter how strong and how justified the animosity toward the collective. I have, in fact, been back to Austria, under very special circumstances, and I have met with exceptional people from the land that so long ago had been home. Just perhaps, this might be another such exceptional meeting.     I ask Kol to give the pastor my telephone number. Less than half an hour later Helmuth Eiwen rings. The brief conversation is long enough to persuade me to meet him. I ask the Eiwens to join us for Sabbath eve dinner that Friday night in our home. The meal together turns out to be the beginning of a remarkable and confusing episode in my life.     Kiddush is read, and after the ceremonial washing of hands the blessing over bread is recited. The challoth are uncovered on the oval porcelain platter embellished with a design of flowers and the legend "In Honor of the Sabbath," a gift from Christian Arab friends from Nazareth. The plate is set on our table every Friday night; the Sabbath is meant to be a moment of peace, an instant wrested from quotidian time. The bread is broken and sprinkled with salt, as once the high priest of the temple dusted salt on the sacrifice brought to the altar. Salt stands for permanence. I explain the meanings, layer upon layer, of the Sabbath meal's symbols. The Eiwens know little of Jewish religious custom. They do know something, however, of the history of the Jews, and especially of those periods in which Jewish and Christian experience have intersected. During the meal and for hours thereafter, they relate the story of what finally brought them to us in the quest for the son of the rabbi of Wr. Neustadt. Chapter Two ICHTHYS: A MISSION I take Helmuth to be about fifty, his wife Uli a few years younger. There is nothing striking in their appearance. He has light brown hair, already sparse, and is of average height and build. She is shorter and heavy, blonde, and with her large round face and fair complexion could have stepped out of a picture postcard of Austrian peasant women on a Sunday afternoon stroll. But when they speak, they are transformed. They seem nearly incapable of small talk, both on that night and all the many times we have been together since; they speak of what impels their lives. Then they light up with a startling intensity. Their expressions, the eyes and the gestures of hands and body, convey the importuning of a force that will not be contained.     The Eiwens are overwhelmingly absorbed in a mission. That is to regain for themselves, for their community and town, and for all Christianity the favor of God. They are deeply, wholly committed Christians. They accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and his passion on the cross as redemptive, but they address God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and his vow to the Patriarch, "And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed," has for them an exhortative immediacy. In their persecutions of the Jews, Christians have forced God to turn his face away. His countenance will not again illuminate the Christian world until amends are made to his chosen people.     The Eiwens have pledged themselves to a specific task, to restore God to Wr. Neustadt. He was banished, they believe, together with the Jews in the edict of expulsion issued by the Emperor Maximilian I in 1496. The edict intended to expel them forever. It was nearly three centuries before they could begin drifting back. Wr. Neustadt had early acquired a reputation for a prurient Jew hatred. There is a large medieval stone tablet on display in the local museum depicting a sow from whose teats a group of rabbis--so the engraved legend reads--ravenously suckle; it was called the Judenspott , the mocking of the Jews, and had once been displayed in the market place. Even in my youth, the ambience of daily anti-Semitism was palpable. Immediately after the Anschluss, the exclusion of the Jews from society and their treatment by the populace had an edge of barbarity that set the tone for the more lethal persecutions that soon followed. In the last weeks of the war, thousands of Jews who had survived death marches from neighboring Hungary succumbed to savage mistreatment in the snows at Wöllersdorf and other suburbs. Not a Jew remains today in the town and its environs. The Eiwens ascribe the "empty, godless secularism" of the region to the withdrawal of God's presence, and they are dedicated to lifting the curse.     But that cannot be accomplished by Christians alone. The channel to grace regained can only be the Jews, and if the Eiwens are to dwell in a city of God, it is the aging, scattered survivors of Wr. Neustadt's once flourishing Jewish community who must be the agents.     It is late. The electricity has been turned off by the automated Sabbath clock. We sit in the flickering light of the candles and the Eiwens make their plea. Would I return to Wr. Neustadt for a week of meetings with their community, and with whatever other groups--schoolchildren, unions, the municipality--they could persuade to join in the occasion, " Eine Woche der Begegnung ?" Would I place them in contact with other former Wr. Neustädters in Israel and abroad and help enlist their participation? I am, they point out, the only son of the town's last Jewish spiritual leader and perhaps something of the mantle of leadership has devolved on me that would endorse my advocacy.     They make it clear that they can invite us only in the name of their own congregation. The official recognized churches in Austria are Roman Catholic and Lutheran. A Freikirche such as theirs is considered a sect. They are isolated from the civic life of the town, are regarded with, at best, aloofness, and often with animosity. That the members of their small community, about 140 families, have left the established denominations for a more intimate, vibrant Christianity has not endeared them to the townspeople, whose personal religious involvements, if any, may indeed tend toward rote and nonchalance, but who scorn deviant alternatives. The idea of a Begegnung with Wr. Neustadt's dispersed Jews was entirely that of the Eiwens, the hospitality to be offered entirely that of the Freikirche .     I am quite convinced that I want nothing to do with such a "homecoming," but I am intrigued. They intend to search out every one of us who fled and is still living, to reconstitute for one week the rapidly dwindling remnants of the kehillah on its old home ground. I point out that I know of at least thirty Wr. Neustadt Jews in Israel and of a few more in America, South America, Great Britain; there may be still others in other reaches of our Diaspora. Have the Eiwens really considered the cost of travel and accommodation if even only some of us would accept? That is not at all a question, they reply. True, they are not an affluent community, most of them are artisans and white-collar employees, but each family contributes a tithe of its monthly income to the Gemeinde , and what they lack God will show them how to make up. There is no question. Their faith is absolute. It is God who planted the seed of this undertaking in their hearts, it is God's will and God's work, and they themselves are merely deputized to carry it out. It will not be the first time that a helping hand has miraculously reached out to them. There was an unforeseen bequest from a member's distant relative. A hoard of gold coins was discovered when floorboards of a friend's bomb-damaged building were removed for repairs. There have been anonymous gifts. That is how they built their meetinghouse and how they have managed to fund their programs for Jews and Israel.     That program has been extensive, I learn. The whole community, men, women and children, travel periodically to Israel to bear living witness to their allegiance to the nascent Jewish nation. They have walked, kilometer upon kilometer, torches in hand, the routes of the death marches from the East into the Burgenland and Niederösterreich. When they learned that many of the recent Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union who temporarily sheltered in Austrian transit camps had little knowledge of Judaism, they took them Hebrew bibles and prayer books. They did not go as missionaries of Christ. That would have been an affront to God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants. They went, rather, as envoys of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to encourage his children to be Jews. The Woche der Begegnung is only their latest endeavor.     I am bewildered. I thought I had acquired a fairly broad understanding of the varieties of Christian religious experience and of Christian perceptions of the place of the Jews in the cosmos. I had known many Christian clergymen during a stint as acting Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Army at a replacement center for the European theater of operations in the late 1940s. The friendships formed then with some of the men engendered an enduring interest in the theology and history of Christian faiths. I pride myself on having once known the Latin mass by heart, and on my navigational skills through the shoals of Protestant denominational divergences. In more recent years, I have been asked to lecture at conferences sponsored by the Vatican and by the World Council of Churches on the intersections of nature, science, and religious belief. But none of the insights I have gained are of much help in unraveling the mystery to which I am introduced this Sabbath eve, and which I have found ever more perplexing as I have come to know the Eiwens and Ichthys. What kind of Christians are these, with their obsessive preoccupation with the Jewish people? Copyright © 1999 David W. Weiss. All rights reserved.