Ruth Rotkowitz wanted to see where her parents grew up. But when she was offered the opportunity last summer to visit Austria, it was no ordinary trip nor a nostalgic flight of fancy. She would be seeing Vienna for the first time, the city her parents had to escape to survive the Holocaust.
While she was there, the Jewish Welcome Service, the organization sponsoring her trip, told those who had come that Austria was on the verge of allowing Austrian Holocaust descendants citizenship to the country. Austria opened its application to them officially on Sept. 1, 2020, a year after she returned to her home in Peoria.
Founded in 1980 by an Austrian survivor, JWS’ stated mission is to demonstrate “an active and self-confident Jewish community” — one its website says still exists in Austria. A priority for the organization is to invite the second and third generation of exiled Austrian survivors to come and see the country the way it is now.
When the opportunity to travel to Austria first came up, Rotkowitz jumped at the chance. She had heard stories of the city growing up, and she wanted to see the place with her own eyes.
In part, she went as a tourist. “We had a great time,” she said. JWS organized tours showing off the city’s statues and quaint neighborhoods — highlighting its national treasures and cosmopolitan populace.
She was startled to learn her group would even meet and be addressed by Austria’s president, Alexander Van der Bellen. While the Austrian presidency is largely a ceremonial position, it was still an impressive moment for Rotkowitz and her cohorts — in large part because of what he said and how he said it.
“He gave a beautiful speech,” Rotkowitz said. “He said, ‘We know that many of you, with your parents, have gone through a lot because of our country,’ and he really owned up to it.” She felt the sentiment was sincere, and she believed him when he told the group, “Today you’re part of this country — you are Austria, you are Vienna.”
Even though Rotkowitz credited him with good intentions, he didn’t convince her that Austrian citizenship was a reward she wanted.
“I can’t even imagine wanting to live there just knowing what my parents went through,” she said.
Prior to September 2019, citizenship was open only to survivors who could show they left the country before May 1945 due to Nazi persecution.
Austria’s government’s website states that the amendment expanding the citizenship offer, is “in line with Austria’s ongoing endeavor for reconciliation with all those who suffered under the totalitarian Nazi-regime in Austria.”
In her novel “Escaping the Whale,” Rotkowitz told the story of a young woman coming to terms with inherited trauma from being raised by Holocaust survivors. The book was something she wrote a number of years earlier and set aside, but her trip finally pushed her into finishing and publishing it in the spring of 2020 with Amsterdam Publishers. She identifies with her protagonist, and spent years contemplating her family trauma.
A harrowing story her father told her stays with her. Days after the Anschluss, upon hearing that Nazis were looking to round up Jewish men, he sought shelter in the house of a non-Jewish friend. She couldn’t help remembering his close call while in the city where it happened.
Rotkowitz took the trip with her sister Helen Locke and her cousins, Anita Baron and Rebecca Grossbard, whose parents also escaped the Holocaust.
While walking through Vienna’s streets they often noted to one another what a beautiful place it was and what a nice life their parents might have had under different circumstances. Every time they found themselves being drawn in by the city’s charms, they asked themselves: “Why would they have to be forced out?”
“It just seems like such a shame walking around and meeting all these nice people,” Rotkowitz said. “It just makes you wonder, how could these people have suddenly turned? What happened? What changed that they went from being nice one day and neighborly and friendly to being cruel the next day?”
While Rotkowitz decided she could never feel at home there, Grossbard eventually came to a different conclusion. She lives in San Francisco now, but she’s in the process of applying for Austrian citizenship.
Rotkowitz is curious about how the process will shake out and said it seems very complicated with a lot of paperwork. But she’s not overly surprised at her cousin’s action. But she feels she could never identify as an Austrian, and with all her parents went through, she could never be loyal to the country.
However, her daughter, Debbi Rotkowitz sees things differently. She recently started the citizenship application process — a step she still has to talk to her grandmother about. She said that because of her mother and grandmother she always held a negative impression of Austria and didn’t even want to travel there.
In what she called “an ironic twist of history,” the political situation in the U.S. is ultimately what inspired her change of heart. Unnerved by the political headwinds here, she said when presented with the opportunity to hold another passport, she would be foolish not to take it. She believes her mother understands and hopes her grandmother will.
Rotkowitz would like to visit Austria again, and perhaps she’ll be able to do it with her daughter who would be seeing her new country for the first time. But she doesn’t think her mind will ever change on the citizenship question.
Standing on the same streets her parents had to flee — “it’s just a very strange feeling.” JN