Auf Wiedersehen, Pt. 2: Why “The Sound of Music” Doesn’t Play Well in Austria

Auf Wiedersehen, Pt. 2: Why “The Sound of Music” Doesn’t Play Well in Austria

The history of my mother’s family — of the Rosenbaums, in particular, and the Jews of Vienna, in general — only came to me in fits and starts, if it came at all. As I explained in Part 1 of my discussion of the film, “Auf Wiedersehen: ‘Til We Meet Again,” my family, like that of filmmaker Linda Mills, kept lots of secrets.

I suppose I could have gone off on my own to try to gather information, but I didn’t, for many reasons. So until I saw the film, which includes interviews with several historians as well as historical footage from World War II, I was confused about the bits and pieces I’d gleaned.

Blame “The Sound of Music”

Cheering crowds greet the Nazi "occupiers" in Vienna in March 1938 (Image from the German Federal Archive, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cheering crowds greet the Nazi “occupiers” in Vienna in March 1938 (Image from the German Federal Archive, via Wikimedia Commons)

I  wrote about my mother’s often venomous outbursts against Vienna, similar to those of Linda’s mother and her aunt. One of the things that my mother claimed was that the Austrians were more antisemitic than the Germans.

Because her outbursts were erratic, and because I didn’t have any context — or outside verification — for them, I was sure my mother was exaggerating. The Austrians were as much victims of the Nazis as the Jews were, weren’t they? After all, their country had been occupied. I’d seen the “Sound of Music” and knew that the Austrians were all like that talented Von Trapp family who hated the Nazis and wanted to escape their loathsome rule.

I thought my mother’s vehement reaction against the movie was just another of her irrational quirks, and I wasn’t alone in falling for the hype.  As historian Doron Rabinivoci points out in “Auf Wiedersehen,” the distorted image of Austria “was supported by Hollywood with the smash hit ‘The Sound of Music.’ The one place where the film was not a hit was Austria… Austrians may have noticed that the Nazis in the film were Austrian.”

The German occupation of Austria, which came to be known as the Anschluss, took place in March, 1938 — at which point, Rabinivoci says, “Vienna became the worst place in the German Reich.”

The edelweiss were innocent bystanders; my mother brought some with her to America

The edelweiss were innocent bystanders; my mother brought some with her to America

He notes that it took five years, from 1933 to 1938, to complete the exclusion of the Jews from public life in Germany. In Austria it took five months, from the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna in March to November, 1938, when the violence against the Jews known as Kristallnacht occurred. “Kristallnacht was a policy in the whole German Reich,” Rabinivoci says. “The beatings that took place from March to November, that was a Viennese specialty.”

They tax you coming and going, especially going

One thing I never understood: Why was my mother the only one who came over to the U.S.? Why did her parents have to stay behind? My mother explained that the family only had enough money for one boat passage, but that didn’t really make sense. I understood that the Rosenbaums were comfortable, though not well-to-do. Why couldn’t they scrape together three boat fares?

After seeing “Auf Wiedersehen,” it became clear. The Nazis wanted the Jews to leave, but without their property. So, in a complex system of taxation that ensured Jewish businesses, homes, and bank accounts would be turned over to them, Viennese Jews were divested of everything they owned for the privilege of leaving their homes. Not only that, but they had to prove they had no remaining assets.

Linda’s family managed to hide some cash behind the tank of the apartment’s toilet and to secrete some funds overseas, but many families did not. Apparently the Rosenbaums were among them.

Now this story my mother told me makes more sense: Once she got to America, my mother worked as a seamstress to save as much money as she could to bring her parents over. She subsisted on peas and mayonnaise sandwiches — that’s one detail I can’t forget — until she had finally saved enough. Then the war started and the borders were closed. If I recall correctly, these events occurred almost simultaneously, or at least sufficiently close together that the tragedy was compounded with “almosts” and “if onlies.”

The Nazis still wanted to get rid of the Jews who remained behind, of course. But those Jews no longer had any money or any place to go. The Final Solution took care of the problem that my grandparents’ existence posed.

Putting Out the Unwelcome Mat

Not that the U.S. welcomed Jews with open arms while they were still able to leave Europe. “Auf Wiedersehen” also brings up the issue of affidavits, documents that European Jews were required to get from a U.S. citizen that, in effect, vouched for them, ensuring they would not be a drain on U.S. resources. One of Linda’s relatives vouched for a great many of her family members. I gather that my mother’s family was not able to secure a document that would include all three of them.

I don’t yet know who vouched for my mother. I get the sense that he was from the Rosenbaum, not Kornmehl, side of the family, and that he was a creep. But that’s another story, requiring more research.

Speaking of research… I haven’t yet touched on the archives that I learned about in the course of the viewing “Auf Wiedersehen,” archives that may be essential to my research. And so there will be a Part 3.

11 Responses to Auf Wiedersehen, Pt. 2: Why “The Sound of Music” Doesn’t Play Well in Austria

  1. Kristine says:

    There lies the dangers of believing the facts as presented in Hollywood films. My knowledge of Austria during this period is also limited as my education centred primarily around the Russian experience. I had no idea the exclusion occurred so quickly in Austria and it really does speak to the widespread antisemitism at the time throughout that country. I can’t imagine living under that sort of oppression.
    Kristine recently posted..Cranky Human is CrankyMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      It’s funny, when you think about it. The facts are there in the film; it’s just the emphasis that’s skewed so that the heroes and heroines are the rare few Austrians who hated the Nazis — or at least who were vocal about it.

      I can’t imagine living under that oppression either. And yet people did, until they finally manage to escape or were killed.

  2. I’m with my fellow historian, Kristine. Don’t try to learn history from Hollywood musicals (or the History Channel; it’s awful).

    I guess most Americans don’t remember that Hitler was Austrian. He wasn’t an exceptional person. He came out of a specific place and time.
    Pamela | Something Wagging This Way Comes recently posted..Happy and Sad Go Together – Good for the Dog; Good for YouMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      There’s an interesting book by Mark Edmundson called The Death of Sigmund Freud, about how Hitler’s life and Freud’s life intersected. And you’re right, Hitler wasn’t exceptional, just tapped into the Austrian zietgeist (which wasn’t ready to accommodate Freud).

  3. Anna Redsand says:

    I admire your courage, Edie, in taking on this heartbreaking family history. It’s so important, I think, but it must be so hard.
    Anna Redsand recently posted..A Weekend in Santa FeMy Profile

  4. […] Yesterday I posted about how the film “The Sound of Music” gave a distorted image of Austrian complicity in Nazi policies, suggesting the Austrians were victims rather than enthusiastic participants. Apparently show music isn’t the only type of music that gives a distorted picture of Austria’s role in the war. […]

  5. This is all new information to me, but somehow it does not surprise me. Human depravity can run wide and deep. Do you think that “The Sound of Music” was made in order to whitewash Austria? I always thought that was a sickly-sweet movie. But you said there were Austrian Nazis, so I guess not.

    One thing really clicked with me. I had heard about German immigrants to America saving money so that they could get their families out of Germany . . . but I had never thought about the Nazis divesting the Jewish people of their wealth so that they couldn’t leave. Of course! That makes a horrible kind of sense. The outrages of the Nazis would explain any amount of venomous feelings.

    We ought never to forget how crazy-evil people can get, especially when they are zealots who think they need to follow some big “cause.” Aargh.
    Mariann Regan recently posted..Goodbye to the Black and White Church. Part 3 of 3.My Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I don’t think “The Sound of Music” was made to whitewash Austria. It’s based on a true story and if you are Austrian it’s easy to recognize that the Austrians are Nazis too. It’s just the focus on the good family that skews the image.

      Yes, there are lessons to be learned from all this. Too bad we have to learn them over and over again….

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