Finding Refuge in Books

Kurier (12/16/05)

NS Restitution: Erwin Rennert, one of the first to receive payments

Books point the way to finding the married couple, the Rennerts. High bookshelves make the tiny one-bedroom apartment in the retirement home in Schönbrunn seem even smaller. It was through books that Erwin Rennert found his way in life. From the time he was young, he read; that is, when his parents weren’t the ones reading to him. That was, until the Anschluss. The Rennerts were a Jewish family.

The eighty year-old man will be one of the first to receive payments from the Austrian General Settlement Fund. In October 1939, two months after the start of WW II, thirteen year-old Erwin and sixteen year-old Silvia were forced to leave. Lea and Pinkas Rennert sent their children to a place of safety. Equipped with transit visas, they escaped via Trieste in order to stay with distant relatives in the U.S. Their parents had no other choice but to stay behind.

As a youth in the U.S., Erwin found refuge in libraries. He seemed to have found comfort in books, comfort robbed him by the Nazis. The parents continued to write him until 1942; then the letters stopped.

At the age of sixteen, Erwin ran away from his new home. More than twenty years later, he learned that around the same time his parents had had to leave their home as well. They had been deported from Vienna to Minsk and then murdered. Shortly before the United States entered the war, the eighteen year-old high school drop out was drafted into the army. He was sent to Europe, just in time to meet the right girl in Mannheim, Erwin smiled. His wife, Ruth, smiles back at him lovingly.

Life got better for both of them from there on. They returned to the U.S. in 1947; pretty Ruth convinced her husband to complete high school. He then studied literature and taught at a university. Together they have six sons, and the last one was born in Vienna. They returned because the political climate in the U.S. had worsened: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.

"I don’t mean to simplify things, but life was just better in Austria; there was no threat of war, and the country was not a NATO member." It was a pragmatic decision. Times had been bad for his family in Austria, but after he returned, they were better.

Rennert sees payment from the General Settlement Fund as a symbolic gesture, that is, as far as that is possible. " Everybody has lost something or someone. My parents were murdered, and those remain my wounds."

He has tried to ease the pain by writing books about life with his parents and about his years in America.