Hannah Lessing: “ We Cannot Force Reconciliation”

Source: Die Presse, January 17, 2016
German original: http://diepresse.com/home/leben/mensch/4905952/Hannah-Lessing_Wir-konnen-Versohnung-nicht-erzwingen?_vl_backlink=/home/leben/mensch/index.do

Hannah Lessing has been the secretary general of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism for two decades. And for this time period, she has been working on the topics of flight and escape routes.

Photo: Herbert Fidler


The National Fund for Victims of National Socialism has been set up 20 years ago – and you have managed the fund for exactly that time period. You always say that there cannot be any kind of compensation. When you are looking back: What would you recall at least as a certain kind of compensation?

Hannah Lessing: The Jewish survivors went along quite well in their exile countries. Roma and Sinti did less well. There were also  very small groups such as the children from “Spiegelgrund” [children's clinic in Vienna which implemented the Nazi Regime’s Children's Euthanasia Program]. Austrian children, mostly not Jewish, with behavioral difficulties, runaways, children with handicaps were living there – they never got any kind of representation and were not recognized as victims after the war. We did some research, found 14 survivors and set up a therapy group for them. They told us: „You gave us our lives back“.  This situation made me realize that this work makes sense. It hardly had anything to do with money.    

The payments of the National fund have to be understood as a gesture, nevertheless money is important: many survivors – for example in Israel - live below the subsistence level. How could it come this far?

The quality of life, medical care and the social security net are better established in Austria. When we started, the care allowance that was payable abroad could only be awarded up to  stage two. In 2001, the Washington Agreement changed this situation, and from that time on, care allowance abroad could be obtained up to level seven. It is important to know that gesture payments from the National Fund were only one-time payments of 70,000 Austrian Schilling. Additionally, there was financial compensation for losses, as well as the possibility of restitution in kind by the General Settlement Fund. But what these people of that age need are regular payments such as pensions, social benefits and care allowance.

Before you entered this job, you asked your father, the photographer Erich Lessing, for his opinion…

He did not respond for a long time, and I think he did not really want me to accept this job as it has a lot to do with horrible stories. He asked me: “Can you give me back my mother from Auschwitz? Can you give me back my childhood?” I approached my job with these questions in my head. No, I cannot bring back the mother; this would be the only possible redemption. We cannot force reconciliation, but we can return to the people the faith in their old homeland. For many of them, Vienna was everything.   

How did Vienna stay with them?

In Israel, there is an association of retired Austrians. They meet, they read the weekly “Profil” magazine that I send them. Or the regulars’ table of the couple Glückselig in New York. They offered non-kosher salami and spoke Viennese dialect. The word “Vienna” brought sparkles into their eyes. They know all the Viennese songs, sing along and sway to the music. I am not really able to speak Viennese. An applicant in Los Angeles made one of the best statements: “Du kannst ka Wienerisch? Spuck aus und schwimm haam! (You do not speak Viennese? Disgorge and swim home!“). He was was a real „Strizzi.“ There is this image of well-educated emigrants, but no, there were also many ordinary “shoemaker boys.” We also managed to do away with the prejudice “You give out money to Rothschild’s.” In the Viennese Jewish community of then 200,000 people, there were some very rich families and a bourgeois middle class – to which my father belonged - but most of them were workers or craftsmen.

How does the beautiful image of Vienna super-impose with the harassments they went through?

We are talking about Vienna in the 1920s. Many applicants tell me about their golden youth. My dad, a classic survivor, never talked to us about what happened in 1938, but about the time before. They had to go through harassments, but an assimilated Jew, who did not wear Pejes and Schtreimel, could live a quite normal live.

Did your father speak about the time after 1938, about his escape to Palestine?

Not at all. We grew up in a typical, „silent family.” Only after I had gotten involved more deeply with my religion and had found this job, I asked for more information. As a youth I had a certain inhibition threshold to ask my father about his escape. I did not want to give him the feeling of “Why did you let your mother die?” Many children are afraid to touch a sore point. I am convinced that my father – as many other Holocaust survivors – has the guilty conscience of surviving.  

Your father went to Palestine by boat, had to descent into the water and wade towards land. We saw similar pictures last summer…

He had the documents, but many boats landed at night as the English stopped the quotas. Of course these two situations are not comparable, but human suffering remains human suffering, and asylum is a right. At the Westbahnhof [Western train station in Vienna], I met Afghan youngsters who told me how they made it to Austria. I felt so helpless, had tears in my eyes – and those boys comforted me! They wanted to move on to Sweden. I hope that they arrived safely. They touched my heart.

You have been permanently involved with flight and escape routes. What aspect never changes?

 I know that most of those people would rather stay at home. Their home is not Vienna, Berlin or Stockholm, but for example Homs. But there are no hospitals, no butchers, no food, no life anymore. That is why escape for me is characterized by the loss of one’s home and roots. Exile is painful.

There is fear that with the new Muslim community, anti-Semitism will rise. Have you already observed this?

Anti-Semitism did not just arrive with the refugee crisis. The new anti-Semitism we are talking about here often comes along as criticism of Israel. At the moment, a new Muslim generation is coming to Austria which is very well in conflict with Israel; this could also be a problem here. We have to communicate that human rights have to be respected, that women’s rights, LGBT rights cannot be questioned. Not even in the name of religion.

Another argument that can often be heard: the time of the National Socialism has already been extensively processed.

Especially in schools, I am confronted with this Holocaust-fatigue. In Germany, where guilt was obvious in 1945 and where remembrance, restitution, indemnification and reparation payments were started earlier, I can imagine people saying “Now that should do.” But in Austria, where indeed a lot has been done as well, we were hiding for too long behind the victim myth [NB: “first victim of Hitler aggression”], without an active invitation policy for survivors, where the school curriculum did not include the Holocaust as a subject of discussion before 1988. So we are not there yet. Especially through project sponsorship of the National Fund, we regularly find topics that have not been fully assessed yet; most importantly, how many Austrian were among the perpetrators.

Are you also interested in the question if history can teach us something?

Yes, and unfortunately, I am not very optimistic, when I see how the world works. Genocides and genocidal situations are repeating themselves.

How can that happen? Just recently, the world saw how the inhabitants of the Syrian city Madaya stood at the edge of cannibalism. Or in North Korea, there are still forced labor camps.

What can we do in the view of such cruelties? It is so difficult to intervene from the outside – we saw what happens when the U.S. or Russia do not communicate. Most times, it got even worse. Consistently, we have to recognize that the nature of the human kind has not changed essentially over the course of history. But I am convinced: We have to try to learn from the past, over and over again. That is the only way.


Ms. Lessing, could we also ask you…

1…which is your favorite photo made by your father, Erich Lessing?
That is difficult. I made an exhibition in the Jewish Museum („Lessing zeigt Lessing“), in which many of his women’s photos were shown. I also like the more simple photos. For example, the photo of the former Stalinplatz [Stalin square] in Vienna, where the allied soldiers are just looking out of the window.

2… are you taking photos yourself?
My brother takes nice pictures; my sister and I are mobile phone photographers. My father often told us that photography is a very difficult job. The art in it got lost, too.

3.. if you would agree with Angela Merkel, when she says in view of the refugee crisis „We can make it!”
We have to make it. I do not think that we have a choice. But it has also to be a matter of our concern. It is too easy to say “The refugees just need to integrate themselves into our societies”.



Hannah Lessing was born in Vienna as the daughter of photographer Erich Lessing and the journalist Traudl Lessing – he took, among others, the photo of the signing of the Austrian State Treaty. Hannah Lessing graduated from the Lycée Français in Vienna and studied commercial sciences at the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

Lessing takes over the position of the secretary general of the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism – a post that she still holds today. Last year, she curated an exhibition about her father at the Jewish Museum Vienna: “Lessing zeigt Lessing” (Lessing shows Lessing) which was developed without the help of her father.

("Die Presse", Print-Ausgabe, 17.01.2016)

Editor's  Note: 
Hannah Lessing will be in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2016 to open the exhibit The Jewish Museum Vienna on International Court, which she co-curated.