‘You don’t die from a death sentence.’
‘Jews stay ten steps back!’ These were the words that Vilma Steindling, born 1919 in Vienna, heard from teachers at her school. She grew up without a family in a Jewish orphanage in the Austrian capital. Antisemitism – or ‘the great disgust’ as Maximilian Gottschlich calls it – was a sentiment that accompanied her throughout her entire life.
After school, Vilma Steindling was keen to train as a nurse, but was too young to begin at just 14. So, she learnt to be a milliner ‘against her will’ at the Jewish apprenticeship home at Malzgasse 7 in Vienna’s 2nd district. She had little sense for hat making, but possessed a strong sense of justice and quickly became ‘one of Austria’s few female resistance fighters’.
The book Vilma Steindling, written by the title character’s second eldest daughter Ruth and Claudia Erdheim, a proven expert in chronicling Jewish histories (see novels Längst nicht meh Koscher and In den Judenstadt), features numerous documents and photos. It traces the life of a strong woman, Jewish communist and resistance fighter. Together with interviews by historian Irene Etzersdorfer and psychoanalyst Elisabeth Brainin in the 1980s, this book completes Vilma Steindling’s biographical picture.
The eventful and stirring life of Vilma Steindling, née Geiringer, begins after the First World War and ends in 1989, when she is 70 years old. There are few life stories that contain as much change, tension and tragedy as Steindling’s. In 1937, Vilma, who was already a member of the Young Communist League, leaves for Paris after the party is outlawed in Austria. There, she gets involved in so-called ‘women’s work’ within the Résistance. She is ‘young, happy and has a zest for life’.
On December 3rd, 1942, Vilma is arrested in Paris and taken before the Gestapo. She bravely faces Nazi officials during her hearings before being sent to a prison for political opponents in Fresnes. Prior to being sentenced to two and a half years in prison and two and a half years in detention for ‘corrupting the Wehrmacht’, Vilma reportedly says ‘I don’t care how many years you give me. Once the war is over, I’ll go home anyways.’
However, Vilma still has quite a bit of suffering ahead of her, and not just in Fresnes. Upon leaving Fresnes, Vilma spends time at the Romainville prison, the ‘Petite Requette’ and the Drancy transit camp before being sent to Auschwitz and finally Ravensbrück. She remains at Auschwitz from September 4th, 1943 until January 17th 1945 and goes on to survive a hellish three-day death march followed by an open freight train journey to Ravensbrück in the dead of winter. She remains there until April 1945, when she is transported to Sweden as a ‘Frenchwoman’ by the Red Cross in a rescue mission led by Count Bernadotte. After a brief detour in Paris, Vilma returns to Vienna and finds Austria ‘in ruins’.
The book clearly depicts the strength and courage required to survive the long and immensely challenging years of imprisonment. Ruth Steindling and Claudia Erdheim have much more to offer, however. The second half of the book focuses on the trauma left in the wake of Vilma’s imprisonment. She lost many friends and her beloved partner Adi (Arthur Kreindel) during these horrific years. Adi was murdered on March 28th, 1945 in Dachau.
After 1945, Vilma finds herself fighting for a new beginning. She struggles with difficult living conditions, problems in her marriage to Adolf Steindling and disappointment in the Communist Party of Austria, which shows little support for concentration camp survivors. Nevertheless, she finds a way of engaging in post-war Austria. After being repeatedly met with a lack of understanding and mistrust, the former Auschwitz inmate gets her camp tattoo removed in the 1950s, in order to ‘finally stop the looks and uncomfortable questions’.
Vilma Steindling was right: ‘You don’t die from a death sentence.’ She was a survivor and managed to live a peaceful and dignified life after the war. It is evident that Steindling was gladly seen as a hero. She often spoke to friends about her ‘political engagement back then, as well as her imprisonment in Fresnes, Romainville, Drancy, her deportation, Auschwitz, the death march to Ravensbrück and her time spent there’. However, Vilma remained imprisoned by her experiences for the rest of her life; it is from this point of view that Ruth Steindling and Claudia Erdheim pick up the thread of the protagonist’s story.
Drawing on the work of Elisabeth Brainin, as well as Ruth’s own observations and experiences, the authors are able to break through the heroic storyline and afford the reader a glimpse of a soul deeply torn and damaged by the Nazi regime. Vilma’s ‘excessive storytelling’ is at times ‘almost pushy’, her humour often contains distortions of her trauma. Feelings of guilt for having survived also crop up. The lives, impressions and perceptions of her children Elisabeth and Ruth, as well as her grandchildren, add missing links to the overall picture and suggest the presence of transgenerational trauma.
This book by Steindling and Erdheim breaks through the boundaries of a traditional biography and paints a wider historical, societal and political panorama. It factually, precisely, vividly and sympathetically reflects Vienna after the First World War: the growing antisemitism, rise of the Nazis, the activities of the Communist Party of Austria and life in the concentration camps. The reader accompanies Vilma Steindling on her at times horrific journey, encountering the likes of infamous Dr. Mengele. Whilst there is a great deal of cruelty throughout, there are also glimpses of humanity. Vilma survives thanks to her bravery and moral strength, but also a series of clever tricks. She poses as a biologist on orders from Himmler to collect dandelions for a ‘plant breeding programme’ and repeatedly plays daft to get herself out of situations. The way to get ‘better jobs’ in the camp is through connections or by ‘organising’ things. The authors’ depiction of concentration camp life is reminiscent of Hermann Langbein’s People in Auschwitz: “There was camaraderie in the camps, people helped one another, but there were also ugly schemes.”
Ruth Steindling and Claudia Erdheim’s book doesn’t lack in its critical viewpoints. The role of the Communist Party of Austria in the post-war era, Austria’s weak resistance to the Nazi regime, the Austrian identity as ‘victims’ of the National Socialist dictatorship and the lack of ‘continued denazification’ – all of these areas are criticised.
The antisemitism after 1945 is also brought to light; for example, when a classmate of Vilma’s daughter Elisabeth reacts to her trip to Israel with the comment ’but there are just Jews there.’ Furthermore, the 1981 attack on a Vienna synagogue by two Palestinians arouses old fears in Ruth Steindling. ‘Ever since the attack on the synagogue, the feeling of being persecuted has arisen again. The feeling that something might happen to us. It’s not really a logical thought, but more global, that something will happen in Europe soon. It’s a fearful thought.’
Vilma Steindling’s life story demonstrates the ‘fragility of freedom’ (Fritz Stern) and majorly shakes up the ‘courage-anxiety scale’, as Vilma’s granddaughter Daniela calls it. As political scientist Anton Pelinka writes in the epilogue, the ‘walking corpses’ of Auschwitz and Vilma Steindling’s bold resistance denounce those who created a ‘race’ in order to ‘single out, rob, expel and eliminate them’. Ruth Steindling and Claudia Erdheim’s book conjures up memories from ‘the crushing shadows of the past’ (Pelinka) in order to free us from them.
Illustrierte Neue Welt, Published 02/2017, Page 15