Dual Heritage

IMG_0184img_01831.jpgMy father never drove, in my childhood it was always my mother who drove. She was the one at the wheel throughout our journeys across Switzerland, France and further afield. And our car, named Miranda, was a dark grey Mercedes. The sight of a German car in France was not a popular one in the 1950s and sometimes people spat as we drove past – ironic, in view of what my father and his family had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. But he still chose to have a German car because he believed they were the best. And every year we made the journey to our summer holiday destination – Austria, the Tyrol.

Erwin had a long and complex relationship with Austria; he studied in Vienna, completing a post-graduate degree there in 1928. Then, it was a city of contrasts, of conflict between the old and the new; on the one hand, the capital of a lost empire, on the other, a city filled with new ideas about psycho-analysis, about art and music. And while he studied in one of the oldest and most respected of medical faculties (founded in 1365), all around him he was aware of changes, of innovation and questioning of the old and the accepted. For the son of a tailor from Zilina, it was exhilerating.

In 1947, he returned there to find himself challenging the very institution in which he had studied nearly twenty years earlier. Following the success of the medical teaching mission to Czechoslovakia, the Unitarian Service Committee, set up a similar mission to Austria, but the suspicion and sensitivities in Austria were of quite a different scale from those they had encountered in Czechoslovakia.

In a letter to Howard Brooks (Associate Director of the USC), Erwin describes the mission’s early reception: “In spite of …. very elaborate preparations, we found that a great deal of misinformation and a great number of misconceptions still existed in Vienna until I personally arrived there on June 21st and until the main body of the Mission reached Vienna on June 28th.” Erwin worked hard, once again, to dispel doubts and suspicion, assuring the Austrian professors, “we approach our mission of good-will and friendship with all possible humility”. At first the atmosphere in Vienna could only be described as “correct” but in time trust was established so that, “At the end, not even a trace of the initial reserve was left.”

However, although relations thawed in Vienna and later, in Innsbruck, the reception in Graz was very different. Dr Maurice B. Visscher, chairman of the mission and Professor of Physiology at the University of Minnesota, wrote a report in which he spoke frankly of his impressions:
“Nominally all Nazis have been purged. Actually it is impossible to do so. The man who runs the medical school in Graz was said to be, by Dr Rak, Professor Leb. He derives his power from his position in the Catholic, now called People, party. He heads the Steirmark Medical division in that Party. Professor Artz in Vienna stands in a comparable position in Austria as a whole. Leb is said to have been an SS officer and a high Nazi. He is also said to be very anti-Semitic. It is amusing that according to Dr Rak our entire American contingent, except Cottrell, was judged by the Graz group to be Jewish. It is suggested that this was one reason for our unpopularity in Graz. It should be recorded that according to the same source one of our team was referred to by an Assistant as “that pig of a Jew”. Evidently the Nazi ideology is not dead in Graz.”

Yet through all this, despite, at times, a cold reserve, at others, outright hostility, the medical team persisted and Erwin did his best to smooth over inconveniences and difficulties. Unlike the Czechs the previous summer, Austria did not willingly embrace the new opportunities and ideas offered. Another member of the mission, Dr. Chester M. Jones, Clinical Professor of Medicine at Harvard, commented: “Energy is directed towards holding on to what remains, rather than forward progress, either in methods or in the utilisation of personnel.” He went on to describe the teaching as impersonal and didactic and the staff at Graz as being “self-satisfied and complacent”. Not only did they have a poor level of knowledge, they were unaware of their own ignorance and rejected what was offered, claiming to know it all already. His summary was damning, “What is left is more or less apathy, self-pity, and frustration, and these were altogether too clearly evident.

These personally critical comments did not appear in the final published report on the mission, but enough criticism was evident for Erwin to receive a letter of complaint from Dr Wolfgang Holzer, Director of the Psychiatric-Neurological Clinic in Graz. His reply shows that he had lost none of his talent for direct speaking, described by Alice in the Tauchmanova memoir. On this occasion, he expressed his views in a letter. Although I am tempted to quote it all, I shall restrict myself to the following paragraphs:

“I cannot help feeling that the reasons for your sharpest rejection of the tone and contents of the report are to be sought in the differences in background that make some people so sensitive – or shall I say intolerant? – to the very type of criticism that others not only take for granted but would not like to do without.

We have found it time and again that the professor in many a European country enjoys -or assumes- a somewhat sacrosanct position that is non-existent in our country and that precludes free discussion and criticism…in America a professor may endanger his prestige by not inviting the very type of discussion and criticism that is elsewhere barred to preserve prestige.”

The young man from Slovakia who concluded his studies in these once venerable institutions, had become the middle aged American who could see their flaws all too clearly and who was prepared to challenge them. Erwin described America as “our” country, and intellectually identified with the values and outlook of his professional colleagues, but Europe drew him back. He did not settle in America, at heart he was still a “mitteleuropean” and his love for the culture that developed from the old Habsburg Empire survived even the horrors of WW2. He taught my mother to cook chicken paprikas and Tafelspitz, the Viennese boiled beef classic. He listened to German music, read German books and in the holidays, he returned to Austria.

Our last holiday in Austria was in 1962. One afternoon, when we went to wake him after his afternoon rest, we found him on the floor, his book upended, his glasses open and lost on the carpet. He had suffered a massive heart attack.

We could have returned his body to Geneva, but Austria was as close to home as he was ever able to be. He was buried in a Tyrollean mountain graveyard in the small section reserved for non-Catholics. I visited it a few years ago, it was immaculate, with a gardener tending the bright planted flowers; the non-Catholic corner no longer existed. His grave had gone – if you don’t pay an annual fee, the graveyard authorities remove your headstone. Of course they do, it is most important for the graveyard to be neat and tidy.

The Unitarian Service Archive at the Andover Theological Library, Harvard.

5 thoughts on “Dual Heritage

  1. Liz, once again a riveting post – but one, this time, with a personal connection. Louisa and I last month were in Vienna at a medical conference my company organised with your father’s former university. I was surprised to learn how this one university produces 80% of all the doctors in Austria. More surprising was the tour they gave us of their museum of wax anatomical figures: 7 rooms of exquisitely precise renderings, in full colour, of body parts and cadavers dating from the 1780s and used for teaching through the 19th century. Then we went around the corner to the children’s hospital to see today’s pedagogical tools: animatronic, plastic dummies of babies that appear to breathe, turn blue and cry like the real thing while baby doctors practice technique. While technology may advance, the basics of medical education have not changed in 250 years, it appears. But last point: They also had a special exhibition on the role of the university during the war in purging Jewish (or dissenting) doctors from the faculty, into exile or the camps. And some of the worst atrocities of the camps – human experimentation – were conducted by professors of that university.The burden of history is heavy there.


  2. very moving gosh…. identity is complicated !

    warm wishes

    Esther Usiskin Cohen



    Specialist Family/Systemic Psychotherapist Training Consultant BA(Hons), MA, MSc UKCP & HCPC registered. Registered AFT Supervisor Trained in MBSR Mindfulness (University of Bangor) Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

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  3. Goodness. That’s such a powerful ending. How extraordinary to be able to access those documents and hear the voice of your father all these years later. I continue to be rivetedxx


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