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The Nazis orphaned three of my grandparents, and took their aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. My grandfather’s younger brother died in a gas chamber at the age of 15. My only great-grandfather who lived to see his grandchildren was one of the few survivors of Auschwitz. What he experienced there left him deeply traumatized. And then there are my grandmother and her sister, who spent a considerable part of their formative years in a concentration camp, and much of their youth being treated as inferior in their hometown of Vienna. Growing up with them, I took their personalities for granted, and never questioned how the horror they survived might have shaped them.
The two sisters often speak publicly about their stories, at schools or teachers’ seminars. I’ve heard them; they’re good at it. They don’t choke up or patronize their audiences; they are matter-of-fact and sometimes they even joke. I used to think that those speaking engagements were the only visible trace the Holocaust left on them. Perhaps what happens in their lives now is simply more important to them: My grandmother Helga, who is a doctor of internal medicine, recently turned 85 and still treats patients.
My great-aunt Liese, 77, runs the small film production company that her 91-year-old husband started. For many years, they produced an English-language weekly TV show about life in Austria, called “Hello Austria – Hello Vienna.” She is currently in the process of closing down the company, but it seems unlikely that she will become inactive once she has retired. Liese was the first in the family to get an iPad. She’s an avid Facebook user, and a loyal “liker” of my status updates. Liese comments on photos of her friends, uploads pictures of her dogs Samy and Goia, and shares posts about racism and xenophobia.
Liese used to pick up my cousin Laura and me from primary school in Vienna. She’d take us to the Turkish bakery around the corner, where we were allowed to choose sweets while she chatted with the owner about her family. On the way home in Liese’s bright red VW golf, we’d eat gummy bears and bourekas, fully aware that lunch had been prepared for us at home.
Helga wouldn’t have approved of this indulgence. Maintaining her weight is a big issue for her; she has long been a member of several gyms, and now has a personal trainer who works out with her several times a week. She takes piano lessons, works on her French, and has seen significantly more Hollywood blockbusters and French art house movies in the cinema than I have. When her birthday approaches, she becomes childishly giddy, puts up a wish list in the family home — the last one included a stereo sound system and umbrellas, and stated that “some surprises would be nice” — and schedules at least two birthday parties. There’s usually one for the family, with the goal of gathering as many as possible of her 11 grandchildren, who are currently spread across three continents, and one for the “old Jews,” the friends from the tribe who formed her much-needed social circle in post-war Vienna.