Excerpted from The Ground Under My Feet by Eva Kollisch, German/literature faculty emerita
In 1939, as a 14-year-old Jewish refugee from Vienna, Eva Kollisch was rescued by a Kindertransport and brought to England. Some nine months later she and her two brothers were reunited with their parents in the United States. The Ground Under My Feet is a collection of autobiographical stories and essays tracing her journey. This essay begins after the war; the family has established a new life in Staten Island, New York.
She was of my mother’s generation, an Austrian-Jewish refugee, small-boned, birdlike, instantly recognizable by her high-pitched voice, her white gloves, and the inevitable little hat she wore at a rakish angle. She used to make these hats herself: by profession she was a milliner, a modiste. But really she was a poet, in love with the German language and dedicated to Austrian literature as well as to Exile (i.e., Austrian-Jewish) literature.
It was she who was the guiding spirit behind those gatherings in the Liederkranz Hall or the Austrian Forum that began in the late fifties. Maybe twenty-five or thirty people would meet there, all Austrian Jews, writers and their friends. Fine faces, worried-looking; pale, stooped shoulders; sometimes a gleam of wit, a shared joke, an embrace. On occasion my mother would take me along. Having spent most of my childhood in an anti-Semitic small town, I had no good memories of that time and was critical of my mother’s generation for still feeling so identified with Austria.
“Meine Damen und Herren” (Ladies and gentlemen), Mimi Grossberg would begin, with a graceful upward turning of her palms, “may I introduce….” Sometimes she would be talking about a dead Austrian poet; sometimes a living one would be standing by her side. She was informal, feminine, witty, at times ingratiating, but one sensed her powerful will. She was driven by two passions: her love of Austria; her hatred of the Nazis.
When it came to the Nazis, she could use strong language. She would call them shitty dogs, swine, devils, fiends from hell. But pre-Hitler Austria—Vienna with its high culture, and the Austrian countryside with its mountains and meadows, its rural folk and crystalline streams—that would bring tears to her eyes. She was not the only one: most of those assembled at these gatherings suffered from Heimweh (homesickness).
They were grateful to be in America; they knew they had missed—by chance, by luck, and by a matter of months—probable extermination. Now they were here, in the city of glass and steel, struggling to make a new life; but they would not give up their mother tongue: they identified with another tradition—graceful, literary, ironic, musical Vienna. Even after everything was known about the Holocaust, they bent over backwards to find as many “good” Austrians as possible.
To me, Mimi exemplified that spirit. It amazed me.
“How deluded can you get?” I would scream at my mother, including her in my accusation. My mother, the poet, said that I didn’t understand. I hadn’t spent most of my life in a country so rich in beauty and culture, then taken over by barbarians.
“But Mutti,” I would remonstrate, “they, the Austrians, are the barbarians.”
“Only some,” my mother replied. My mother was a humanist. She didn’t believe in the wholesale condemnation of a people.
But I continued to focus my antipathy on Mimi. There she was, rushing up to kiss my mother, when we arrived at the Liederkranz Hall or the Austrian Forum, bubbling over with, “Ach, Grete, wie schön!” (Oh, Grete, how beautiful!) This was about some recent poems my mother had sent her. As for me, she looked me over ironically, I thought, giving me the fish eye. I was certain the antipathy was mutual.