Lilli Tauber grew up in a small town in Austria, Wiener Neustadt, where her parents tended the family store. Then came 9 November 1938--the pogrom known as Kristallnacht. Her father was arrested, Lilli was thrown out of school, and when her father was released, her parents got Lilli onto a kindertransport to England. From her refuge in Great Britain, Lilli wrote countless letters to her parents. And they wrote to her--not only from Vienna, but from a ghetto they were sent to in Poland. At war's end, Lilli returned to Vienna to look for them. Perhaps they too would return. But the letters Lilli found in a suitcase told a terrible, heartrending story. And then there were the pictures her father had sent back. This is Centropa's longest and most complex film, produced by Ulrike Ostermann, assisted by Wolfgang Els and Marie-Christine Schmid, with the help and dedicated cooperation of Lilli Tauber.
Her parents met at a Purim ball and were married in 1908. In this year, Austria was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a constitutional monarchy that covered much of Central Europe, including today's Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Transylvania (now in Romania), and parts of Italy, former Yugoslavia and Poland. Look at historic maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The defining character during the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was Francis Joseph I. (German: Franz Josef I) (1830-1916), Habsburg Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (1848-1916), he reigned for almost 70 years over Austria and Hungary.
In 1867, Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were given full citizenship rights. In cities like Vienna, Jewish culture began to grow and prosper. During this time there was clear conflict within the Austrian Jewish community: large sections of the Jewish population aimed to fully assimilate into national life; the European Zionist movement, spearheaded by Theodor Herzl, was also gaining strength.
Lilli’s parents relocated to Wiener Neustadt where, in 1927, Lilli was born.
By the time she was born, the Empire had dissolved and Wiener Neustadt was within the First Republic of Austria. The Republic, established in 1919, was created following the end of First World War and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) and the Republic of German-Austria (1918-1919).
Take a look at the 1919 Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Austria at the end of WWI.
Read more about the question of Austrian national identity after the break up of the Austrian Empire.
1918 heralded the emergence of an Austrian state. Read the introduction of this essay entitled, “Discovering Austria” for some insight into the significance of the First Republic before it dissolved in 1938 as a result of strengthening Austrian fascism.
Lilli recalls that before the German occupation, there was very little anti-Semitism. Before the war, there were many Austrian Jews involved in national politics – many leaders of the Social Democratic and Communist Party’s were Jewish. There were also a number of influential Jews in cultural and academic life such as Stefan Zweig and Sigmund Freud. During this time, Vienna was the site of a veritable Jewish renaissance.
Life for Austrian Jews changed dramatically when German troops entered Austria in what is known as the “Anschluss.”
Here are photos of the Anschluss in Austria in March 1938, as well as photos of Austria during the German occupation from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Life quickly became miserable. Many Jews attempted to leave the country. In the first days after the Anschluss, thousands of Jews were arrested. Shortly thereafter many lost their jobs, their homes and business were looted, and they were subject to violence and humiliation.
After the Anschluss, Nazis implemented a number of restrictive laws against Jews. Lilli’s father’s store was aryanized and Lilli was no longer allowed to attend Gymnasium.
9-10 November 1938 Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues across the German Reich - including Austria and the Sudetenland were destroyed. This violent pogrom is known as "Kristallnacht."
Here is a collection of photos from Kristallnacht, compiled by Yad Vashem.
Lilli’s father was arrested and taken away by the Gestapo on November 10, 1938. She was taken with her mother, brother, and the rest of the Jews in Wiener Neustadt to the Synagogue. Everything was taken from them. From there they were brought to Vienna.
All Austrian Jews were forced to move to Vienna’s 2nd district – Leopoldstadt – which had been the city’s historic Jewish quarter. Shortly thereafter they would begin the deportations to ghettos and camps outside of Austria.
Lilli’s parents were deported in 1941 to the ghetto in Opole, Poland. Read more about Opole in the "Encyclopedia of Ghettos and Camps." In 1942 the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants were sent to either Belzec or Sobibor - both extermination camps. Lilli doesn’t know to which one her parents were sent.
After the Anschluss, many Jews wanted to get out of the country as soon as they could.
In 1939, Lilli’s brother left illegally for Palestine. During that time, Palestine was a British Mandate, and therefore had a restrictive immigration quote. Many Jews entered the country with illegal transports – this clandestine immigration is known as Aliyah Bet. “Aliyah” is a term that means immigration to Israel.
11 July 1939, Lilli was able to escape Austria on the Kindertransport (German for children transport). Around 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland were sent without their parents to England, where they were able to survive the war.
In 2008, a sculpture was erected in the main train station in Vienna commemorating the Jewish Viennese Children who were able to escape via the Kindertransport.
After Kristallnacht the British eased the immigration restrictions for certain Jewish refugees and agreed to allow an unspecified number of children to enter the country. However, after the outbreak of war 1 September 1929, the government no longer took any transports.
She arrived at the Liverpool Station in London and was taken care of by the B’nai B’rith organization – one of the oldest Jewish service organizations.
In England, Lilli maintained written correspondence with her parents. In 1940 contact ceased and she had no way of knowing what had happened to them. In 1945 Lilli heard of the Auschwitz concentration camp for the first time, and it dawned on her that she might not ever see her parents again.
Lilli joined the group Young Austrians – an exile group in England that hoped for an anti-fascist and free Austria.
In 1946 Lilli returned to Vienna.
In 1945, Austria had declared the Second Republic.
For years Austrians did not want to acknowledge their role in perpetrating the crimes of the Second World War, preferring to view themselves as the Nazi's first victims. This attitude, in part, made it very difficult for those Jews returning to the country after the Holocaust to settle in.
Read this article entitled "The Need for a Demystified Past" which addresses the need for Austrians to critically confront their role in WWII.
25 October 2005, Austria's first Holocaust memorial was unveiled at its location in Vienna's Judenplatz. The monument is entitled the "Nameless Library" and was designed by British artist, Rachel Whiteread.