Dieser Artikel wurde 1996 im Rahmen einer Vortragsreise von Mag. Magdalena Müllner in „Cleveland Jewish News“ veröffentlicht. Vorträge am renommierten Oberlin College und der Beachwood Highschool waren dem Interview vorausgegangen. Er ist im englischen Original zu lesen:
YOM HASHOA –
Searching for Austrian town’s Jewish survivors
MARILYN H. KARFELD Staff Reporter
In 1938, the 100 or so Jews living in the small Austrian town of Laa an der Thaya virtually disappeared. Forced by the Anschluss (German annexation of Austria) to uproot their comfortable lives, the Jews dropped from sight.
„Somebody spread the lie that there was never a Jewish community in Laa,“ says Laa resident Magdalena Muellner, 20, who was in Cleveland recently. Four years ago, Muellner was astonished to discover that before World War II a Jewish community had thrived in her town of 4,500 people.
While flipping television channels in 1992, Müllner chanced upon a program on synagogues in Austria which mentioned Laa’s Jewish community. Neither her mother, nor her grandmother, who was born in 1938, knew there were ever any jews in Laa. At least 50% of Laa’s citizens still don’t know a Jewish community ever existed in their town, Müllner says.
„What I saw on TV made me think, ask questions and start looking,“ says the daughter of Catholic religion teachers. She learned that about 30 Jewish families lived in Laa and worshipped in a synagogue on the second floor of an imposing-looking building.
Mainly through interviews and letter-writing, she traced the whereabouts of Laa’s Jews and began to establish contact with survivors scattered now throughout the world. She submitted an article about her search to a writing contest in the Austrian publication „Jewish Echo,“ winning a trip to Israel with 19 other teens. Her article captured first place.
Müllner’s search for Laa’s Jews grew from an adolescent pastime to a huge undertaking. To date she has located 15 of Laa’s Jewish survivors, and she maintains an enormous correspondence with them, their children and grandchildren.
„There came to be no room for anything else in my life,“ the somewhat reserved Müllner says, her dark eyes intense. It’s such a big part of me. I can’t imagine living without it.“
The articulate young Austrian who studies law at the University of Vienna spent her February holiday in the United States, her third visit here. At the invitation of Sidney Rosenfeld, a German professor who saw her original article, she spoke to Oberlin College students as well as to students as well as to students at Beachwood High School. Last year, while visiting a Laa survivor in Bethesda, Maryland, she described her search at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Her main interest is not how the Jews survived under the Nazis, but what their life had been like before the war, their childhoods, how they found their marriage partners, and how they related to Christians in town.
From the very beginning of her search, Müllner came up against the latent antisemitism in Laa. „The gymnasium (high school) principal was the only official who helped at all. He let me study school documents which recorded the religions of the students.“
Interviews with older adults yielded few leads. „No, I don’t know anything, I was only a child; I never knew any Jews,“ Müllner was told.
„They’re afraid others in town will talk about them,“ she reflects. „They’re also afraid of some very powerful people who stole a lot from Jewish families.“
After the Anschluss, the jews were forced to sell their houses and shops for almost nothing. With nowhere to live or work, they fled first to the relative safety of Vienna, 40 miles away, Müllner learned. Of the Laa Jews sent to concentration camps, only one, Karola Oesterreicher, who now lives in Israel, survived.
A story remarkably parallel to Müllner’s was the basis for the 1991 movie, „The Nasty Girl,“ adapted from Anja Elisabeth Rosmus’s book, A Case of Resistance and Persecution: Passau 1933-39. Rosmus‘ book, which began with her entering an essay contest, documents Rossmus‘ uncovering of her German town’s antisemitism and Nazi tactics during the war. Like Müllner Rosmus found her neighbors less than enthusiastic about her discoveries.
Unlike Germans, who have explored their actions during the war, Austrians have not confronted their role in the Jews‘ fate. They protest when it’s suggested they mistreated the Jews. „We were the first victims,“ Müllner says, quoting the standard refrain.
Several of Laa’s Jews have returned to visit and they have not been greeted enthusiastically. They have conflicting feelings about their old home, Müllner says. Some were little children when they left and all their life they have felt a lack of belonging. Others loved the town where they spent happy childhoods, but were driven out of Laa. Their lives were destroyed and their parents murdered.
Last April, one survivor wrote Müllner vowing never to return. In June, however, he phoned from Vienna, and asked to visit her.
Müllner’s parents and younger sister have supported her one-woman search, and have welcomed the returning Laa Jews in their home.
„There’s only one wall in my attic bedroom, It’s covered with photos of the survivors, their children and grandchildren,“ she says.
Müllner plans to continue to look for more surviving Jews. „When I found Karola four years ago, I thought, great, I’ve found one, I’ll never find anyone else. Two months ago, I found someone who was married to a Laa Jew. And a Laa resident who live in Canada found me last summer.“
Among the 15 survivors she has located, three live in Israel, four in the United States, three in Australia, one in Venezuela. Only one is still in Europe, in Belgium. The youngest is in her 60s; the oldest is 93.
Old friends from the town have been reunited through Müllner’s efforts. „For me, it’s also important that those people feel once again that they are welcome somewhere in Laa, at our house. Their friendship has been a very big gift.“
Despite their painful memories, all except one of the former Laa Jews agreed to be interviewed by the young Austrian. „I had nothing to do with that time.“ Müllner surmises. „Now that they are old, it is time to think about how it was in their youth. They want to tell somebody.“
A few have started to write their life histories.
Her time-consuming undertaking has slowed Müllner’s progress toward her law degree. „I know only a few of these people will be alive when I’m 35 or 40,“ she explains. „I have time to study law.“