The Last Jew of St. Pölten

Profil, June 4, 2018

German original:

When Hans Morgenstern had to leave his hometown of St. Pölten he was one year old. Today he is the last survivor of a once thriving Jewish community.

Hans Morgenstern is a real dandy. Pink polo shirt, checkered blazer, white plastic sunglasses, gold-colored signet ring, tight necklace and the slightly flowing, white hair elegantly combed back. This is how „Mr. Morgenstern,“ as he is called by many in St. Pölten, sits in Town Hall Square and enjoys the attention. He is not considered unique just because of his appearance: Hans Morgenstern is the last Jew of St. Pölten. „You can take a look at me in Profil,“ he tells the waiter of his favorite cafe, who seems unaffected: „I see you everyday anyway.“ The so-called „Schmäh“ (the joking) goes back and forth between „Mr. Morgenstern“ and „Mr. Waiter.“

Since his retirement the former dermatologist enjoys his daily ritual: morning coffee, a chat and reading a newspaper at the Cafe, afterwards he goes to lunch one block over. „Good day Mr. Morgenstern,“ he is being greeted during his short walk there. „This was probably a former patient of mine. I always like it when someone greets me in a friendly manner.“

Hans Morgenstern did experience vastly different times as well. He was three months old when Town Hall Square was renamed Adolf Hitler Square in March of 1938 and St. Pölten was the first city to offer honorary citizenship to Hitler.  Morgenstern’s father, a social-democratic lawyer, was slapped with an occupational ban, shortly thereafter the family’s apartment was aryanized.

The father managed to obtain an exit visa. In March of 1939, the family traveled to Palestine by ship from Trieste. Bat Jam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, became their new home. Little Hans attended Kindergarten, learned to speak Hebrew and liked the ocean. A photograph from back then shows him with his older cousin Hans Cohn: bright, curious, and ready to discover the world – and unaware of his parent’s worries. They had a hard time getting used to their new home.

„My parents were Jews but they were not religious. Palestine was completely foreign to them,“ Morgenstern recounts. The father, hampered by polio since childhood, was bothered by the heat. He could not find work as an attorney, and he spoke Hebrew only rudimentary. The thoughts were with the part of the family that could not leave St. Pölten in time. When Hans Morgenstern talks about the fate of his grandparents, his smile disappears. After the Anschluss, his grandparents who were still alive at the time (his father’s mother and both parents of his mother) were first brought to Vienna and were subsequently murdered in Auschwitz and in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto (Łódź). "Until today I don’t know if they died in the camp or in the gas chamber.”

His grandparents were three of 275 St. Pölten Jews who did not survive the Nazi terror. When Hitler stopped in St. Pölten while traveling from Vienna to Linz on March 12, 1938 and the first books were burned in the Synagogue’s courtyard, some 400 Jewish citizens were living in the city. Associations like the Maccabi Gymnastics Club, the Association of Jewish Young Hikers or the Zionist Association assured a lively community, firmly anchored in St. Pölten. In 1945, however, it was annihilated. After the war, only some 20 Jews returned, most of them ended up leaving again.

Despite the Nazi terror, Hans Morgenstern’s parents had only one goal – return to the homeland. When they left Bat Jam for Port Said in Egypt in April 1947 - before the formation of the state of Israel - in order to take a ship to Venice, they did not tell Hans about their plans. Only after the family had been waiting in tents in the desert alongside the Suez Canal, he was told where the strange journey was supposed to end. The father, who, due to polio, could only walk arduously with sticks constantly sank into the desert sand.

While the parents were relieved to leave the exertions behind them, Hans Morgenstern experienced his return as an adventure. „There were sausages as a welcome at Vienna’s Sübahnhof (South Station) and half a dozen Fiaker (horse carriages) were waiting in front of the station.“ The reason: a carriage operator, who also had fled, returned on the same train as the Morgensterns and was welcomed by his colleagues. „I thought that was very touching. Only later did I realize the meaning of this day,“ he remembers.

In St. Pölten, the father began to work again. The family's house had been destroyed by a bomb, the Morgensterns were given a council flat. Today, Hans Morgenstern still lives in it. Next to books by his favorite author, Kurt Tucholsky, and illustrated books by painters like  Paul Cézanne oder Marc Chagall there are stacked caskets with index cards. They contain names and photos of murdered and surviving members of his Jewish community. Next to binders are pictures of his parents and grand-parents. Hans Morgenstern, who was never directly subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust, has always enjoyed his life in St. Pölten: the visits to the theater, the excursion to the Wachau region, life in the coffee house.

At the same time, St. Pölten is the city that his parents had to flee and his grandparents were sent to their deaths from. Morgenstern cannot let go of this contradiction. It awakened his need to preserve the memory of Jewish life and the synagogue. “It has been important to me that these people are not forgotten,” says Morgenstern. As the last survivor, he had to shoulder this responsibility.

Since the death of his mother in 1999, Hans Morgenstern has been living by himself in the 100 sm (1076 sf.) apartment. He was never interested in starting a family. The connection to his mother (the father died in 1970) accompanied him almost until his retirement. His mother was also there for him when he was confronted with anti-Semitism at the Gymnasium (high school) after his return from Palestine. An older pupil regularly provoked him during the breaks: “What are you doing here? You Jews belong to Israel.” Soon thereafter Morgenstern and his mother ran into him on the street. “She went over to him and told him to stop that immediately, otherwise she will file charges against him. With that it was over.”

Besides the Morgensterns, only one other family settled in St. Pölten after the war: the family of his cousin, Hans Cohn, whom he had already played with in Palestine. After the war, the Morgensterns handled their expulsion pragmatically: “My father was just glad to be back in Austria and being able to work again. When he met former Nazis on the street, he greeted them friendly if they were friendly with him, too.” The father’s wish for a routine everyday life was stronger then the humiliation he suffered. Hans Morgenstern and his mother had more trouble ignoring the past. Once he asked his father why he returned to a country full of murderers. The answer was: “Not all were murderers. And the old violent regime is history.”

Hans Morgenstern forgot to wind his pendulum clock. It hangs in the extra room across from a small bed, next to his desk with a laptop and documents. The clock has special meaning. His grandmother left if with a neighbor before he deportation. After the Morgensterns returned from Palestine, the woman returned the clock. The story is still stirring  Hans Morgenstern 70 years later. The pendulum clock is also reminding him of the suffering of his ancestors and the fact that the history of his family and the Jewish community of his hometown will end with him. “Maybe it is fate that I am the last one and neither I or my cousin have children.”

Hans Cohn, his last relative in St. Pölten, died in January of this year. His grave is just a few meters away from the Morgenstern family grave at the Jewish cemetery. Hans Morgenstern already had his name engraved in the stone. Below it reads: “1937 –.“


Literary recommendation: Christoph Lind, "Es gab so nette Leute dort", Die zerstörte jüdische Gemeinde, NP-Verlag, 1998

Exhibit:  "Verwischte Grenzen. Jüdische Verortungen nach 1918." In der Ehemaligen Synagoge St. Pölten anlässlich des 30-jährigen Bestehens des Instituts für jüdische Geschichte Österreichs.