Des Maguire is a Glasgow-born Scot who was educated at universities in both Scotland and England. He has an M.Sc. in Genealogy, Heraldry and Palaeography from the University of Strathclyde. Today he is a volunteer translator (German into English) for the Wiener Holocaust Library in London. These views are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wiener Holocaust Library.
The scourge of antisemitism, at its mildest offensive and at its harshest murderous, marked life in Austria from 1867 onwards. Alternately growing and receding, it ultimately resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of Austrian Jews, including the Kohn family of Vienna. The dissolution of the Kohn family serves as oneexample amongst far too many of the role played by antisemitism in annihilating millions of Jewish people and their culture from Central Europe between 1933 and 1945.
1867 – 1918
In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard wrote ‘… the one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath’.[i] This aphorism applies to the situation of the Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
From 1848 onwards, the Jews in the empire benefitted alongside other minorities from a significant change that introduced equality under the law for all people. In April 1848 they were given full civil rights, allowed to settle in all the Hapsburg lands, and they were able to buy property. Although the rights referred to earlier were subsequently revoked, the 1867 constitution granted Jews equal rights.[ii] After the settlement with Hungary in 1867, the Liberal Party took power in Austria and implemented its commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of the press. They retained power until 1897[iii].
On the surface, these constitutional changes were advantageous to all ethnic group including the Jews who were able to leave their ghettoes. This is reflected in figures which show the growth of the Jewish population in Vienna. According to numbers quoted by Wrobel,[iv] the Jewish population ofVienna grew from 6,217 in 1857 to 118, 495 in 1890, to 146,140 in 1900, and to 175,310 in 1910. Amongst those moving to Vienna wasLazar Kohn, who was born in 1845,[v] and his wife Rosa, who was born 1841.[vi] They were both born inthe Burgenland, an area administered by Hungary. Their burial records show that they both died in Vienna. They had five sons and three daughters.
Their son, Bernhard Kohn, who was born in Pottendorf, Austria, on 7 April 1879,[vii] married Hedwig Steiner on 26 April 1906 in Vienna.[viii] She was born on 4 March 1885 in Vessely, Bohemia. The Steiners moved to Vienna before 1886.[ix]
The Jews moving to Vienna were not universally welcomed by all inhabitants of Vienna. Many feared and resented the commercial and professional competition.[x] Furthermore, it is significant that Karl Lueger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 until 1910, always ran on an antisemitic programme as it guaranteed him votes.[xi] He is reputed to have said, “… antisemitism is an excellent means of propaganda and getting ahead in politics, but after … it is the sport of the rabble.”[xii]
The constitutional changes also encouraged increasing demands for national autonomy among the different ethnic groups in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Croats, Serbs and so on). This phenomenon was founded on a sense of common identity emanating from language and culture. The problem with this for the Jews was that they were not recognised as a nationality, so they were faced with a choice. They could either assimilate and become Austrian or Polish for example, or they could retain their distinct Jewish identity. However, the latter choice meant that within a nation state, especially one that was insecure, they were always seen as outsiders, foreign, Yiddish, and orthodox, in essence ‘not US’.[xiii] Furthermore, the freedoms issued
These significant forces opposed the emancipation of the Jews, and this antisemiticopposition manifested itself in various forms. Indeed, Brustein and King suggest that the years 1899 to 1939 represent
s the zenith of antisemitism in western societies.[xv]
Antisemitism in Austria manifested as several types of anti-Jewish abuse: commercial, religious, racial and political. Commercial antisemitism stemmed from professional groups who were jealous of the success of Jewish people in areas such as finance, the stock market, banking, the press, theatre, literature and social organisations, as well as fromartisans who railed against the influx of poor Jewish peddlers from the east[xvi]
. Religious antisemitism was inflamed by the influx of Hassidic Jews from Galicia because of their strange dress, customs and religious practices..[xvii] The Austrian politician and advocate of Pan-Germanism, Georg Schoenere, preached the need for a purification of the German race. The spread of such ideologies accustomed people to radical ideas such as the
The different strands of antisemitic ressentiments resulted in votes. In 1902, the vast majority of those elected were antisemitic.[xix] In 1918, at the end of the FirstWorld War, the Christian Socialists’ manifesto stated: ‘The corruption and power-mania of Jewish circles, evident in the new state, forces the Christian Socialist Party to call on the German-Austrian people for the most severe defensive struggle against the Jewish peril’.[xx]
Amidst this antisemitic atmosphere, Bernhard and Hedwig Kohn started a family. Hilda, who died at the age of one,[xxi] was born in 1906, Heinrich in 1908,[xxii] Stephanie in 1911,[xxiii] Hugo in 1913[xxiv] and finally Herta in 1925.[xxv] This is shown in the family tree below.
1919 – 1938
The family lived in Novaragasse, and Grosse Mohrengassein Vienna,[xxvi]and Bernhard Kohn worked as an administrator. His daughter Stephanie had a little Poesiealbum.[xxvii] This is a book of aphorisms, advice and appreciations written by family and friends that are intended to jolt the memory at some time in the future. Stephanie’s Poesiealbum covered the period March 1924 to April 1938.
Under normal circumstances, such a booklet would evoke pleasant memories, but in the wake of the Holocaust where the fate of some of the writers was the worst conceivable, it evokes pathos. There are some entries from school friends, but the majority are from family members. There is an entry from Stephanie’s mother from 1924 wishing her ‘all the very best’,[xxviii] and a poignant contribution from her cousin Julie Stör with the advice “Ships sail on even if the mast breaks. God is your companion. He will not forsake you.”[xxix]
However, perhaps the most moving entries are from her brother Heinrich and her sister Herta. Heinrich wrote: Someday in later years when you read through this little book, think how happy we were when we were children and went with a bright and cheerful purpose to school.[xxx]
Herta, who was 13, the same age as Stephanie when she first received the Poesiealbum, wrote in 1938: In friendship you have given me a little spot in this book of memories. That is why I also want never to be completely forgotten in your heart.[xxxi]
In view of what happened to the Kohn family between the years 1938 – 1945, including some of the writers in Stephanie’s Poesiealbum, it is with uncanny foresight that Stephanie’s teacher offered her the following advice: ‘Work and do not despair about all things difficult to endure’.[xxxii]
The Kohn family grew up in an Austrian society marked by antisemitism and, as Pulzer points out, this became more acute after 1918 in a situation fuelled by the fear of economic competition and envy of the social position of some Jews.[xxxiii] Hagen notes that ‘… in the 1920s and 1930s central and eastern European Jewry nearly everywhere faced the threat of communal degradation or dissolution, if not physical uprooting and destruction, well before the “Final Solution” was launched’.[xxxiv] He further quotes
Engelbert Dollfuss, who became Chancellor of Austria in May 1932, was notable for his refusal to use antisemitism to further his political aims. He observed the rise of the Nazi Party in Austria but prevented the Nazisfrom using their numbers in parliament by dissolving it and ruling autocratically. He was assassinated by Nazi agents as part of a failed coup attempt on 25 July 1934.[xxxvi] He was succeeded by Kurt von Schuschnigg, who, like Dollfuss, was not antisemitic. He stated that he would continue to uphold the constitution of 1934, which guaranteed equal rights to all Austrian citizens[xxxvii]
. However, the situation for the Jews in Austria continued to deteriorate, although, unlike in Germany, the government did not attempt to impoverish them or force them to emigrate.[xxxviii]
1938 – 1945
The caesura came on 11 – 12 March 1938 with the Anschluss, when the German army entered Austria and installed a Nazi government. The Nuremberg race laws of 1935 were immediately implemented and within months nearly all Austrian Jews were robbed of almost all their property and civil rights. Businesses were forcibly ‘Aryanised’ and duringthe pogroms of 9 – 10 November 1938, synagogues and prayer houses were burnt down, and shops looted and vandalised. The pent-up hatred which the Austrian Nazis had for the Jews
, and which had been held in check by Dollfuss and Schuschnigg, was unleashed.[xxxix]
At the time of the Anschluss, there were 167,249 Jews living in Vienna. By the summer of 1939 110,000 Jews had departed.[xl] Amongst those who left were Heinrich, Stephanie, and Hugo Kohn. Heinrich and Hugo were arrested in the wake of Kristallnacht (9 – 10 November 1938) and imprisoned in Dachau. They were released after 6 months upon the payment of money and left Austria. Heinrich escaped to Finland and then to Sweden, and Hugo fled to Italy.[xli] Stephanie fled to England in May 1939.[xlii] Her Alien Exemption card from 11 December 1939 is shown below.[xliii] It is worth noting that the insulting name ‘Sara’, which the Nazis forced female Jews to add to their first names, still appears on the official English document. This is probably because it was on her Austrian exit papers.
Also extant are a cache of letters written to Stephanie by her family in Europe. These continue until 1941/42 and express an increasing sense of foreboding.
For example, on 28 May 1940, her mother updates her about the family. She states that ‘father should be back in time for the next letter’ thereby obliquely informing her that her father has been forced to labour in a work camp. She informs Steffi that they make a little money by selling lilacs on the street, and she complains that her sons, Heinrich, and Hugo, have not sent any news.
In a letter dating from Summer 1941, Steffi’s mother informs her that her father is doing forced labour in a forest and writes with sadness and resignation, ‘everything in life is destiny my beloved child. Everything happens as it must’.
Bernhard, Hedwig and Herta Kohn were deported from Vienna on 02 November 1941 on transport number 10 to the Litzmannstadt (Łódź) ghetto in Poland.[xliv] There, they lived at Siegfriedstrasse 3/6a.[xlv] There is an undated letter to Steffi amongst the collection from a Jewish man called Kruger. He uses the German term
, Stubenältester, which means the most senior man in the room, block or barracks. This suggests that it is a letter from the Litzmannstadt ghetto. In it, he writes: ‘We are courageous. We bear our fate like heroes’. Bernhard, Hedwig and Herta were transported from , Litzmannstadt to the Chelmo extermination camp on 15 May 1942 where they were murdered.
Their lives were obliterated, but so too were the lives of many of their close relatives. This table shows that 24 members of the family were murdered on the Kohn side of the family alone. The number of victims is higher if the Steiner side is also added. Of Bernhard’s siblings, only Josef survived. He emigrated illegally to Palestine with his wife in 1940. He was a baker.[xlvi]
The family’s listed places of death (Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau etc.) are among the most well-known sites of the most egregious Nazi crimes. A total of approximately 65,000 Viennese Jews were murdered by the Nazis[xlvii].
The Kohn family of Vienna were murdered on account of being Jewish, evidence of the most devastating consequence of widespread and systemic antisemitism. From 1867 onwards, antisemitism, whether racial, religious, economic, or political, was so rooted in Austrian society that the Nazis with their ideological hatred of the Jews were able to proceed with their pernicious policies. All the members of the Kohn family were their victims because even those who survived were forced to leave their country, their language, their culture
, and their families. Charlotte Lang, Bernhard Kohn’s great-niece, who was born in Vienna in 1935 and who escaped with her family to England, writes in her book:
Nobody should forget what happened. To prevent the same thing happening again future generations should be educated so that they really understand what the Holocaust felt like at a personal level …[xlviii]
It is questionable whether this message continues to resonate. A recent online report from the BBC points to the dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents around the world in 2021 including in France, Germany and the UK[xlix]. It is difficult to be optimistic.
Speaking to people about antisemitism does not mean they are actually listening.
[i] Kierkegaard, S., & Hannay, A. (1985). Fear and trembling. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books. P. 57.
[ii] Wrobel, Piotr. (1994) The Jews of Galicia under Austrian-Polish Rule, 1869-1918. Austrian History Yearbook, 25 (1994), 97-138. The Jews of Galicia under Austrian-Polish rule, 1869-1918 | JEWISH GALICIA & BUKOVINA (jgaliciabukovina.net) : accessed 20 Apr 2022.
[iv] Pauley, Bruce F. (1992). From prejudice to persecution: a history of Austrian antisemitism. London: University of North Carolina Press. p. 24, 25.
[viii] Birth Certificate. Austria, Vienna. 16 May 1906. KOHN, Hilda. Collection: Austria, Vienna, Jewish Registers of Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1784-1911. https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 28 Apr 2022.
[ix] Brady, Thomas Edward. (2013) The Descendants of Josef Kohn My Great, Great Grandfather 1807 to 2015. Unpublished and lodged in the archives of the Wiener Holocaust Library in London.
[x] Rosensaft, op. cit. P. 12.
[xi] Rosensaft, op. cit. p. 25.
[xii] Rosensaft, op. cit. p 40.
[xiii] Pauley, op. cit. p. 24.
[xiv] Rosensaft, op.cit. p.5.
[xv] Brustein, William and King, Ryan D. (2004) Anti-Semitism in Europe Before the Holocaust. International Political Science Review, Vol 25, No. 1, pp. 35-53.
[xvi] Rosensaft, op. cit. pps. 12, 15, 16 and 31.
[xvii] Wrobel, op. cit. p.10.
[xviii] Rosensaft, op.cit. p25.
[xix] Pulzer, Peter. (1988) The rise of political anti-semitism in Germany and Austria. Revised Ed. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
[xx] Pulzer, op. cit. p. 308.
[xxi] Births Index (CR) Austria. Wien. 16 May 1906. KOHN, Hilda. Index of the Jewish Records of Vienna and Lower Austria. https://www.genteam.at : accessed 25 April 2020. Deaths Index (CR) Austria. Wien. 08 Jun 1909. KOHN, Hilda. Index of the Jewish Records of Vienna and Lower Austria. https://www.genteam.at : accessed 25 April 2020.
[xxv] Birth Record Austria. Wien. 08 April 1925. KOHN, Herta. Yad Vashem, Central Database of Shoah Victims Names. Page of Testimony, 02 September 2009, Thomas Brady. https://yvng.yadvashem.org : accessed 25 Apr 2020.
[xxvi] Births (CR) Austria. Wien.27 February 1911. KOHN, Stephanie Sara. Collection: Austria, Vienna, Jewish Registers of Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1784-1911 https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 26 Apr 2022. Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes. Personendatenbanken. Shoah-Opfer. KOHN, Hedwighttps://www.doew.at/result : accessed 26 Apr 2022.
[xxvii] Poesie. Belonging to Stephanie Kohn. (1924-1938) Vienna. Wiener Holocaust Library, London.
[xxviii] Poesie, op. cit. p. 4. Translated by Des Maguire.
[xxix] Poesie, op. cit. p. 6. Translated by Des Maguire.
[xxx] Poesie, op. cit. p. 26. Translated by Des Maguire.
[xxxi] Poesie, op. cit. p. 5. Translated by Des Maguire.
[xxxii] Poesie, op. cit. p. 21. Translated by Des Maguire.
[xxxiii] Pulzer, op. cit. p 318.
[xxxiv] Hagen, William W. (1996) Before the “Final Solution”: Toward a Comparative Analysis of Political Anti_Semitism in Interwar Germany and Poland. The Journal of Modern History, Jun., 1996, Vol. 68. No. 2 (Jun., 1906). P. 361. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2124667 : accessed 25 Apr 2022.
[xxxv] Laski, Neville, (1934) cited in Hagen, op. cit. p353.
[xxxvi] Pauley, op.cit. pp. 260-263.
[xxxvii] Pauley, op.cit. p. 267.
[xxxviii] Pauley, op.cit. p. 273.
[xli] Brady, Thomas Edward. (2013) The Descendants of Josef Kohn My Great, Great Grandfather 1807 to 2015. Unpublished and lodged in the archives of the Wiener Holocaust Library in London. p. 7.
[xlii] Brady, Thomas Edward. (2013) The Descendants of Josef Kohn My Great, Great Grandfather 1807 to 2015. Unpublished and lodged in the archives of the Wiener Holocaust Library in London. p. 7
[xliv] Gestapo Deportation List, No. 10, 02 Nov 1941, Vienna to Litzmannstadt. ITS, Search All Archive Units, Document Id: 12114010. 1. International center on the Nazi era – Arolsen Archives (arolsen-archives.org) accessed 27 Mar 2022.
[xlvii] City of Vienna. Expulsion, Deportation and Murder – History of the Jews in Vienna. Expulsion, Deportation and Murder – History of the Jews in Vienna (wien.gv.at) : accessed 30 Apr 2022.
[xlix] BBC News. Anti-Semitism: Dramatic Rise in 2021, Israeli Report Says. Anti-Semitism: Dramatic rise in 2021, Israeli report says – BBC News : accessed 30 Apr 2021.
Des Maguire is a Glasgow-born Scot who was educated at universities in both Scotland and England. He has an M.Sc. in Genealogy, Heraldry and Palaeography from the University of Strathclyde. He spent most of his working life developing software for large UK and US companies, and today he is a volunteer translator (German into English) for the Wiener Holocaust Library in London.
The author acknowledges the assistance given by Janet McLarty M.Sc and Melanie Scott M.Sc in researching this article.