The date of Anschluss had a dark significance

It was a Shabbat — and the very same Parshat Zachor was read as 40 years before, writes Michael White


August 1938: Young German officers watching a group of elderly Jewish men scrubbing the streets of Vienna. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

March 12, 2021 14:31

The annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, the Anschluss, happened 83 years ago today. It was a day that brought fear and terror overnight into the lives of Austria’s Jews, 95% of whom lived in Vienna. From that day on, only the brave or foolhardy would dare venture out in the street, and that was the order of the day for near-on three years until every Jew had either managed to escape to England, Palestine or the Americas, or to have been “resettled” in the East, with all the sinister implications that that brought for them.

My mother’s family lived in the heart of Jewish Vienna, Leopoldstadt. On that infamous day, at age 21, she and her younger sister, my aunt Margit, were amongst many Jews who were dragged from their apartments by Austrian Nazis, then frogmarched to nearby main streets and forced to their knees to scrub the pavements. The press photographers were there, ready to capture the moment of this humiliation and, by chance, my mother features in one of them. In the picture (left) she is seen to the right of centre looking to her left. Thankfully that was the first and last time she or her sister suffered that humiliation, but she did not escape Vienna until over a year later in May 1939, when she arrived in London bearing a so-called domestic visa.

What follows has a sort of ‘rabbinic twist’ to it.

In the year 1898 Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany visited the Holy Land. Everybody who was anybody at that time, the great Rav Kook, Priests, Imams, the Ottoman political leaders, the charismatic Theodore Herzl no less, plus, of course, the inevitable Jewish and Arab establishment bigwigs, all paid their respects to the visiting dignitary as he was paraded through the streets of Jerusalem.

There was, however, one notable absentee — Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the founder of the Edah HaChareidis ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. The high esteem in which he was held was such that it was almost unheard of to question his actions or rulings but on this exceptional occasion, he was challenged on the matter, especially as it contravened the strict Jewish principle of showing due respect to Kings and Queens of all nations.

His unequivocal response was this: he said he learnt from his Rabbinic teachers, who in turn had heard directly from the hugely influential Torah scholar, the Vilna Gaon, that Germany was representative (call it a mind-set) of Amalek, the ancient biblical tribe whose fundamental raison d’etre was, famously, to completely annihilate the entire Hebrew nation.

Of course Amalek, the tribe, vanished a long time ago. They, along with other peoples of the time, disappeared when Sancherev, the Assyrian king, mixed the nations he conquered (c.700BC), so the actual national pedigree of any of those peoples are completely unknown. However, and more’s the pity, the legacy and mind-set of Amalek, has come to visit itself upon our people over the centuries far too often for comfort.

It’s of some interest to note that the Vilna Gaon, who lived during the best part of the 18th century, made his Germany/Amalek connection some 200 years before the Holocaust. Bearing this in mind and, given the reason for Rabbi Sonnenberg’s absence at the feting of the Kaiser on his visit to Jerusalem in 1898, let’s fast-forward exactly 40 years to the subject of the Anschluss in Austria, on 12 March 1938.

About five or six years ago, by pure accident, I made what was, for me, an astounding discovery. For whatever reason, I consulted the Jewish 100 year calendar regarding the day of the week on which the 12 March 1938 fell, and what emerged, quite literally, took my breath away. 12 March 1938, the day the Germans marched in to Austria, was a Shabbat and again, bearing in mind the words of Rabbi Sonnenfeld exactly 40 years earlier quoting the Vilna Gaon’s take on Germany, this particular Shabbat in 1938 was none other than Parshat Zachor, the designated Shabbat-reading in Shul, from Devarim 25: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt”, followed by the seemingly contradictory statement, “you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget”.

On that fateful day in Austria, the day that the “reincarnated Amalek” came to town, whether or not that happening was by pure coincidence, for the Jews in Vienna at the time, and their descendants for evermore Parshat Zachor, in that Jewish year 5698, more than any other, is one that must never be forgotten.

March 12, 2021 14:31

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