While she was working as a culture fellow at the Forward, Anna Goldenberg published an essay in which she described a visit to the former concentration camp Theresienstadt she took with her grandmother, Helga, and her great-aunt, Liese. Helga and Liese had been deported to Theresienstadt from Vienna, along with their mother, in the spring of 1943, not long after Goldenberg’s grandmother turned 14. Her grandmother’s life there, Goldenberg told me, was “dominated by hunger.”
“There was never enough food, and that influenced all her decisions,” Goldenberg said. Helga deliberately chose the hardest tasks, the reward being extra food rations. Working in the fields invited the possibility of stealing vegetables on the sly. Such determination, as well as good fortune, was essential to her survival — and the same can be said of Goldenberg’s grandfather, Hans.
The fascinating Holocaust history of Goldenberg’s family is now the subject of her remarkable and well-received debut book, “Hidden Years.”
Goldenberg and I discussed her book over lunch at a place near the offices of Falter, the investigative weekly where she now works. Goldenberg started work at Falter in 2016, a year after she left the Forward and returned to Vienna. Today, she writes a media column and co-produces the company’s podcast, “Falter Radio.”
“Hidden Years” grew out of conversations Goldenberg continues to have with Helga, who also lives in Vienna, as well as out of an autographical account that Hans, who died when Goldenberg was 7, left behind.
“I think they both had very normal Viennese childhoods,” Goldenberg said of Hans and Helga Feldner-Bustin. Born in October 1925, Hans, or “Hansi,” was the son of a furniture storeowner and lived a contented childhood — in a large apartment in Vienna’s heavily Jewish second district — until the Great Depression took its toll. Helga, born Valentine’s Day 1929, had a cultured and assimilated upbringing. Her father was a doctor, and though money was often tight, Helga received only the best: private tuition, pretty new clothes and, above all, lots of attention.
Everything changed after the Anschluss in March 1938. The question, not just for Hans and Helga’s families but for all of Vienna’s Jews, as well, became how to get out. Hans’s aunt and her immediate family were able to obtain an affidavit and visas to enter the United States. “It’s quite an adventurous story: She found a New York phone book, found a distant relative, and wrote to him” in order to get the affidavit, Goldenberg said. Helga’s father, Paul, fled in mid-1939 to Italy, where he hoped to make onward passage, but he ended up trapped. Thus when war broke out in September 1939, Hans and Helga were still in Vienna. Systematic mass deportations from Vienna began in October 1941.
What saved Hans was the largesse of a mild-mannered liberal Catholic pediatric psychologist, Josef Feldner. In the summer of 1942, Feldner, a friend of the family also known as “Pepi,” proposed to Hans’s parents that he hide both Hans and his brother in the event of possible deportation. Hans’s parents were unsure. “Theresienstadt seemed bad but not that bad,” Goldenberg said, or so the propaganda claimed, while being found in hiding would have had deadly consequences. Still, when the moment came — and neither Hans nor his granddaughter understands the reason for this — Hans was allowed to stay with Feldner, while his parents and brother went to the concentration camp.
“He was very shy and quiet,” Goldenberg said of Feldner, based on her grandfather’s descriptions. “People really liked him because he was a good listener, asked the right questions, had a good sense of humor and didn’t take himself seriously. He didn’t really care about money; if he didn’t have enough, he just ate less or didn’t buy himself new shoes. He wasn’t scared of death or pain. I think that’s something that partially explains why he decided to hide my grandfather.”
Hansi and Pepi lived together in the latter’s second-floor apartment from September 1942 until after the war’s end — an unusual situation, as, typically, “hiding” while using a false identity involved frequent changes of address. They would eat lunch together at nearby taverns. Pepi gave Hansi tickets to the Vienna State Opera. The two became so close that they could finish each other’s sentences. Hansi lost contact with his father and brother by the end of 1943, and Pepi became a kind of surrogate father to him.
“Until Pepi’s death, they stayed very close,” Goldenberg told me. “After the war, when it became obvious that Hansi’s parents and brother weren’t going to come back, Pepi adopted Hansi and they kept living at Pepi’s place, since he had nowhere else to go.” Hans and Helga lived for a year in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1955, and Goldenberg believes that, aside from homesickness, Feldner was the main reason they came back to Vienna. “Hansi didn’t want to leave Pepi, who, by then, was in his 70s. He had actually offered to move to the States, but that didn’t seem realistic.”
How Helga herself survived the war is just as fascinating. Her grandmother (Goldenberg’s great-great-grandmother) had a non-Jewish father who had served in the military and came from a well-connected, aristocratic family. The couple’s daughter — Goldenberg’s great-grandmother, Hertha — married Paul, who was Jewish. She also converted to Judaism, as she had been raised Christian and baptized. As such, her husband and two children were full Jews as defined by the Nuremberg Laws. In October 1938, the police collected Paul. Hertha Helga, and Liese were left alone in the world.
At that point, Helga’s non-Jewish grandfather seemed to have stepped in and used his links to senior SS officer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who ran Vienna’s police force, to win his daughter a protected status: an assurance that nothing would happen to her. As part of this, though Goldenberg cannot be sure, her great-grandmother’s classification under the Nuremburg Laws was likely altered from full Jew to Geltungsjude, a person legally considered Jewish according to certain criteria. In Austria, such people were rarely subject to deportation.
Goldenberg assumes that Helga’s mother must have known of her protected status and that was what kept the remaining family together and, in part, saved them in the end. When Helga received her yellow deportation notification in February 1943, Hertha insisted that the family go to Theresienstadt together. In the camp, Helga’s name was on the list of those set to be sent to Auschwitz more than once — she tells a story where she overslept the transport,” Goldenberg said — but, again, her mother used her status to shield her daughter: “My great-grandmother said, ‘I’m going to come with her,’ and that’s when whoever was in charge said, ‘No, your daughter can go but you can’t.’”
To write “Hidden Years” was not, per se, to learn these family stories. As Goldenberg wrote in that original Forward essay, “I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust” and her family’s connection to it. But, she says, it helped her better understand the reason that her grandparents were the way they were and how the Holocaust shaped them — why, for example, Helga remains a ferocious and compulsive reader, a habit which Goldenberg believes is “probably rooted in her being kicked out of school” and forced to “sneak into the public library to read. It was her only intellectual input.”
At the same time, as she wrote in 2014, that visit to Theresienstadt with Helga and Liese enabled her to fully grasp an essential truth about the stories she had been told and believed she knew, for her grandmother and aunt believe “they owe their lives to the people who helped and protected them, who showed them that it was worth it to keep on living,” she wrote. “When many felt powerless in facing the murderous regime of the Nazis, the sisters found people who tore holes into the system, holes that saved their lives.”
The power that individuals potentially have within a political system that set out to make them powerless is one of the themes of “Hidden Years” — one of many that became apparent to Goldenberg as she was writing it. The theme gave her book its marked contemporary relevance. “It’s a story about family, love, refugees, but also, very practically, how war and conflict drives families apart, how hunger changes how people make decisions, and how people live under totalitarian regimes and how that changes the way they act,” Goldenberg said. To write “Hidden Years” “felt very meaningful because it was close but, in a way, it is also a universal story.”
Liam Hoare is a freelance journalist and critic based in Vienna.