60 Years After The Holocaust, A Viennese Son Returned Home
It was a sunny afternoon in March 2003. Birds were singing outside, and the first flowers had just started to blossom on our quiet street in Vienna. At that time, I lived in an old apartment built around the turn of the past century, with high windows and even higher ceilings. It was located in the Ninth District, a part of Vienna that houses some of the grand palaces that give the city its imperial charm. In the first half of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud lived nearby; so did the author Heimito von Doderer. Then as now, the Ninth District was an upper-middle class neighborhood that attracted many writers, so it was fitting that my mother, a journalist, had decided to move there and that we collectively filled our apartment with books.
My mom put the last touches on a flower arrangement in our living room and went to the kitchen to get Marmorkuchen, a typical Viennese vanilla-chocolate cake. To this day, I have never seen our apartment in a better state; we’ve even taken pictures to remind ourselves how beautiful our home could look after we had spent two entire days cleaning it. Even my own bedroom had been transformed into what looked like something out of a catalog. All my books stood exactly in line on my oak shelf; my stuffed animals were neatly displayed on the top of my bunk bed, and the freshly washed red curtains moved gently in the light spring breeze.
I was 11 and the time, and I remember that Shakira gave a concert in Vienna on that same day, and, for several weeks, many of my school friends had been looking forward to it. I didn’t get to meet any pop stars on that March day, but I met a couple of people who were much more important: Trudie and Arthur Kern.
Arthur Kern was a 75-year-old American man with short white hair that surrounded a bald patch. He wore navy blue trousers, big glasses and a striped gray polo shirt that accentuated his California tan.
Despite the fact that he had just come off a transatlantic flight, he didn’t look tired or jet-lagged. His eyes sparkled as he walked energetically through our apartment. “Das war das Klavierzimmer!” he exclaimed as he entered my bedroom — “This used to be the piano room!”
My bedroom had not been the piano room for a very long time, not since the 1930s. As a small boy, Kern had lived in the same Viennese apartment that my mother and I had moved to in 1999. In the 1930s, his name was Oswald Kernberg, a typical Jewish surname that translates loosely to “core mountain.” Little Oswald — or “Ossie,” as he was nicknamed by his family — lived in the apartment with his elder brother, Fritz; their parents, Frieda and Hermann Kernberg, and a maid whom he remembered to be a much better cook than his mother ever was.
The Kernbergs lived the good life of a Jewish middle-class family in the Vienna of the interwar period. Hermann Kernberg owned a knitting factory, and his wife helped with the business. Frieda Kernberg often traveled with her sister, Erna, to Marienbad, a popular spa town in the Czech Republic. The two boys, Ossie and Fritz, once spent an entire summer in a vacation camp in Grado, Italy. But their good life changed abruptly when Hitler annexed Austria to Nazi Germany in 1938. Only the youngest member of the family, Ossie, survived the Holocaust.
More than 60 years later, Arthur Kern told us his family history as we continued our tour through the light-flooded apartment. He meticulously took notes on a small pad of paper while he explained our surroundings. My bedroom had been the piano room; my mom’s office the dining room; our living room the master bedroom, and the adjacent small bedroom, where my mother now slept, the brothers’ nursery. The storage room on the left side of the kitchen had been the maid’s quarters, and the long corridors were used by Ossie as a bike lane when his mother wasn’t around.
Instead of the white, futuristic iMac I had placed there, a candleholder had stood on the table. The tile stove was used for heating and not just as a mere decoration. And the music came not from a stylish black Bang & Olufsen stereo but from a real piano.
Suddenly, “Für Elise,” the famous piano solo that composer Ludwig van Beethoven had written in Vienna in the early 19th century, sounded through our apartment.
Trudie and Arthur Kern had flown all the way from North Hills, California, to Vienna; they had found the little street in the Ninth District hidden behind the glass-walled Franz-Joseph’s train station; they had knocked on our door at the mezzanine, an intermediate level between ground and first floor in old turn of the century houses, and they had toured every corner of the apartment. Arthur never stopped smiling. And now, as he played, the melodic sounds of a piano once again filled the Klavierzimmer, which was now my bedroom.
The music emanated from a tiny black piano, with golden embellishments and a slender stick that held it open. Little angels moved to the rhythm of the melody, chubby baroque angels with white wings and huge smiles painted onto their pink faces. When the music stopped playing and the angels stopped moving, it took only three or four spins to start the music box again. The Kerns had brought it as a present for me, to remember the piano my room once housed.
We went back to the living room to eat some of the marble cake my mother had prepared. The four of us sat around our rectangular glass table, on yellow-and-orange leather chairs. While we enjoyed the cake, Arthur told us about his family. The two-hour chat was a funny mixture of German and English: I had just started taking English classes the previous year.
Trudie Kern, who also grew up in Vienna, had lived in the United States for half a century, and had forgotten most of her German. Her husband still spoke German almost fluently, although he admitted that his vocabulary was limited to that of a 10-year-old, the age he was when he had left Austria.
A picture that my mother took at the end of their visit shows me sitting between the Kerns — each has an arm around my shoulders. Trudie wears a jolly blue paisley T-shirt; I’m in a white blouse and a red necklace. I appear pale next to their California tans, and quite small. This is one of the last photos of my childhood where I don’t yet wear a pair of glasses, so it’s only the two septuagenarians who hide their bright eyes behind big, round glasses. All three of us are smiling. The photo effortlessly captures the harmony of the moment, and every time I look at it it seems to radiate peace. In the background one can see parts of our living room: the white leather futon, the round modern painting that almost masks an entire wall, and the light-orange curtains that reflect the last rays of the sinking sun.
This was the second time that Arthur had tried to visit his old apartment. During his first attempt, in the 1970s, he couldn’t even get inside the building. Decades later he planned another trip, and this time he asked a Viennese couple that he had met on a cruise to ask us for permission. Sometime in the fall of 2002, Brigitte and Fritz Kodras showed up unannounced at our door. They were so nervous that for the longest time my mother and I thought they were Jehovah’s Witnesses: They simply wouldn’t say what they wanted from us.
When they finally managed to tell us about the Kerns, my mom immediately agreed to let Arthur see his old apartment. It didn’t ever cross her mind to say no, but she was admittedly a little scared that the visit might bring sadness and unresolved feelings into our quiet life. After all, we now knew that — except for Kern — all the previous tenants of our apartment had been killed by the Nazis.
In order to counter this uncomfortable feeling, my mom wanted there to be more to the visit than just a tour and a round of small talk, so she signed me up for A Letter to the Stars, a nationwide history project for Austrian high school students. Austria has a long history of refusing to admit complicity in the Holocaust and insisting that Austria was the first victim of the Nazis. A Letter to the Stars was the first big-scale school project revisiting Austria’s role in the Third Reich, considerably later than comparable projects in Germany. Since the program started, in 2002, 50,000 students have researched the biographies of Holocaust victims and survivors.
I had researched Kern’s mother, Frieda Kernberg, née Goldfeld. I called my short biography, “Today I Am Living in Her Old Apartment.” With the help of Kern’s descriptions and of documents he still had from his parents, I described an energetic woman who liked to play cards and eat grapefruit, and who was a good business woman but a terrible cook.
For seven years, Frieda Kernberg and her family had lived in “my” apartment in the Ninth Viennese district. Then, in 1941, she was deported to Opole, Poland, with Hermann Kernberg and with their eldest son, Fritz. Already in 1939, Ossie’s parents had managed to send him to safety on a so-called Kindertransport, or children’s transport. First, the 10-year-old boy came to France, where he lived in several children’s homes with other Jewish Austrian and German refugee children. Then, in 1941, he and some of the other children were sent to New York on one of the last ships to leave Europe before the United States joined the war in Europe.
Despite all this, my mom had not needed to worry, for the Kerns didn’t bring sadness or unresolved bad feelings into our home; they brought peacefulness, open hearts and a huge portion of Jewish humor.
It made for a nice story that I lived in the same apartment as Kern, and a couple of newspapers wrote about it. An article in the daily newspaper Kurier printed a picture of me holding a sepia photo of Frieda Kernberg. The photo was seen by Valerie Bartos, an 83-year-old Viennese lady who had been a friend of a friend of the late Kernberg family. For over 60 years, Bartos had guarded a package that Frieda and Hermann Kernberg had left behind for safekeeping when they were deported to Poland. Afraid that the Nazis might come and look for it, Bartos had taped it to the underside of a wooden closet. The package included passports, pictures, business certificates from their factory, a life insurance policy and a little mezuza. Bartos never heard from any of the Kernbergs again, but over the years, she had kept the package safe. When the elderly lady recognized the picture of Frieda Kernberg that I was holding, she contacted my family through the newspaper to return the documents to Arthur.
Kern was 10 years old when he had said goodbye to his parents and his brother. When he was 75, more than 60 years later, he received this final package from them: a memento from a past life.
I like to think that I was meant to meet Kern and his wonderful family, and I feel incredibly grateful that he chose to share his story with me.
On May 5, 2003, the National Remembrance Day for the Victims of National Socialism, I stood in a crowd at the Heldenplatz, a public space in Vienna. Fifteen thousand high school students from all parts of Austria assembled at the exact same spot where, 65 years earlier, Austrians had cheered Hitler and the annexation of their country to Nazi Germany. After hearing touching memories from Holocaust survivors, concerts by musicians and speeches from politicians, we let go of 80,000 white balloons with letters attached to them — one for each Austrian person killed by the Nazis during the Shoah. Clouds of 80,000 white balloons were caught by the wind and ascended to the sky. There were so many the airspace around Vienna was closed for half an hour and no plane was allowed to take off or land.
In the postcard that I attached to a white balloon meant for Arthur’s mother, I wrote to her of how I got to know her youngest son. “Ich hoffe, dass es dir im Himmel gefällt,” I wrote at the end, meaning, “I hope you like it in heaven.” The letter I had written, one of thousands upon thousands of handwritten letters, was my very personal Letter to the Stars.
I am writing this more than 10 years after I first met the Kerns. I often like to think back to that warm March day in 2003 — the birds singing outside; the light breeze bringing with it the first signs of spring. At the time, none of us realized how much this meeting would influence all of our lives and how a single apartment in Vienna would forever bind our families. I went on to meet many more wonderful and inspiring Holocaust survivors through A Letter to the Stars. I started studying history and researching the long-term effects of the Kindertransport. I became a museum docent in Dachau, at the Concentration Camp Memorial Site, and I started giving talks about the Holocaust.
Not only did this meeting instill in me a passion for history, it also gave me a third pair of grandparents. I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point in the past decade, the Kerns started calling me their “Austrian granddaughter.” And during many visits, their family has welcomed me with open arms. Arthur Kern told me that at one point in his life he had decided to make peace with his terrible past — for his own sake and for his family’s. “You have to defeat the hatred in your heart,” he told me.
Kern died last summer, but soon I will be flying to California to visit Trudie Kern, along with her family. When I come back, a black piano will be standing on my bookshelf, and chubby baroque angels will be moving to the quiet melody of “Für Elise.”
This essay is adapted from “Arthur und Lilly,” by Lilly Maier (Heyne 2018).