Holocaust victims’ relatives confront the past in Vienna

Members of London’s Association of Jewish Refugees visited the Austrian capital last week to seek out names of relatives among those of more than 64,000 Austrian Jews murdered in the Holocaust and commemorated at city's the Wall of Names


Zdenka Pollatschek and her husband Heinrich were living at Czerningasse 4 in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district when, on 19 February 1941, the Nazis deported them both to Kielce, Poland.

The Jewish ghetto there was liquidated in August 1942, its inhabitants sent to Treblinka, a point of no return.

Of the 1,004 Viennese Jews deported to Kielce on that February day, only 18 survived. Mrs Pollatschek was not among them.

Now her granddaughter, Susan Burns, has come to Vienna to seek out Zdenka’s name among those of more than 64,000 Austrian Jews murdered in the Holocaust and commemorated at the Wall of Names.

Mrs Burns was one of 19 members of London’s Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) visiting Vienna last week.

The group were guests of the Jewish Welcome Service (JWS). The brainchild of Austrian Holocaust survivor Leon Zelman, the JWS was set up 40 years ago with the aim of rebuilding links between Vienna and Jews with Austrian roots.

Heinrich and Zdenka’s son Adolf, Mrs Burns’ father, made it to Britain in 1939. Her aunt, Lisl, also survived, living in her apartment on Vienna’s Praterstrasse until her death four years ago.

It was in her bureau that Mrs Burns found the diary of her grandmother, who was born in 1892 and began writing entries in 1908, around the time of her father’s death while she was working for her uncle’s business.

For Mrs Burns, bringing the diary to the memorial, holding it against her grandmother’s name, brought a sort of closure, she told the JC. She felt, she said, as if things had come full circle.

Since its opening in November last year, the Wall of Names has quickly become the central point of Holocaust remembrance in Vienna, especially for those with a personal connection to the tragedy.

It was the first port of call for the group on a day that also included a reception at the Hofburg imperial palace led by Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen.
In an address, he told the assembled second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors that while the past is the past and it cannot be undone, Austria is striving to build a better present and future.

Mr Van der Bellen said he hoped that by visiting Vienna and perhaps taking up Austrian citizenship — the law having been changed in 2019 to allow for dual citizenship for victims of National Socialism and their descendants — Jews with Austrian roots might forge a connection with what he called the “new Austria”.

Heidy Hague parents left Vienna for Jersey and then mainland Britain in early 1938. She told the JC: “I do feel quite connected to Austria.
“Whenever my husband and I come here, I feel so at home. When I look around and see the way people behave, I think, ‘This is me.’ It’s good to have that last opportunity to connect with my heritage.”

Mrs Hague received her Austrian citizenship in January. She said: “Austria is where I would be if what had happened hadn’t happened.”

The day after the reception, the AJR group went on a tour of Vienna, which included a stop at the memorial marking the site of the former Aspang railway station from where more than 47,000 Jews were deported to points east.

The memorial site includes a list of all the deportations that left Aspang between 1939 and 1942. Many of the participants could point to the exact trains on which their grandparents or other relatives were deported.

Visiting the Aspang railway station memorial stirred up old feelings for some among the second-generation survivors: resentment, hurt, anger. Forging a connection with the “new Austria”, as Mr Van der Bellen hopes, will always be a difficult business, a relationship forever shaped by the past.

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