Fleeing the Nazis: Austrian Jewish Refugees to the United States

A unique one-day symposium devoted specifically to the experience of Austrian Jewry during the Holocaust took place at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. on June 18, 2019.  Over fifteen experts contributed their research findings on the Austrian Jewish experiences of persecution and forced emigration under the Nazis. Many placed particular emphasis on those refugees who fled to the United States. Over two hundred participants assembled at 10:30am in the Helena Rubenstein Theater for the start of this program which lasted until 6:30pm. The rare international audience included historians, scholars, distinguished guests, museum staff and visitors; but most predominately a number of Austrian Jews who witnessed the atrocities discussed.

Following brief welcome remarks by Elizabeth Anthony of the USHMM, organizer of the event, the audience was greeted by Thorsten Eisenreich, Director of Press and Information from the Austrian Embassy in Washington D.C., and Gerhard Baumgartner of the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance. The impressive presentations varied in both style, format, and content; historians shared their current research, museum staff presented archival materials and rare artifact collections, and specialists from the film and photo archives at the USHMM revealed new footage of Austrian Jewish refugees in the United States. One of the most moving sessions was a live interview with Herta Griffel Baitsch conducted by Anatol Steck. Herta left Vienna on a Kindertransport in 1940 at the young age of seven. Accompanying their intimate conversation, visuals of museum artifacts illuminated on the screen in the background.  Drawings, letters, and artifacts discovered by the USHMM and presented to Herta in her later life, helped her to repair her memory and piece together her history for future generations.

In the Closing Roundtable, Refugee Studies and Holocaust Studies, Historian Deborah Dwork of Clark University poignantly noted, “fleeing does not write refugees out of the story; it simply takes the story elsewhere. Indeed, flight takes it everywhere.” She emphasized the necessity of integrating the Austrian Jewish refugee experience and other refugee experiences into Holocaust History.

The symposium was made possible by the support of Edie and David Blitzstein, in memory of Kurt and Thea Sonnenmark.  To learn more about the program and for a full listing of the speakers and their topics of expertise, click here.  The full event was filmed by the USHMM and is available for viewing on the Meuseum’s YouTube channel

Author: Ilana Offenberger, College of Arts & Sciences, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, president of the association “American Friends of the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance”