Der Standard (11/06/2008)
The Brief Life of Dr. Suess
Andrea Hurton and Hans Schafranek
How a talented young man fell into the hands of the Nazis and perished because of it: An historic case study for the 70th year of remembrance of the “Reichskristallnacht.”
Walter Suess was a man of many talents. Born 1912 in Vienna, he earned an M.D. degree in medicine at the age of twenty-four. At the same time he studied at the Academy of Music and passed the exam as ensemble master. Music was his passion and he dedicated himself to it with commitment and enthusiasm; in fact, he was drawn to it more than medicine. Suess gave concerts and also conducted.
Sometime in February 1937, the Vienna Concert Orchestra gave a symphony concert in the Großen Ehrbarsaal in the Mühlgasse 30 of the 4th district under his direction. On May 4 at 7:30 in the evening, there was a chamber concert taking place in the same room, in which along with the singer, Felice von Antburg, Dr. Walter also performed, improvising a “Passacaglia und Fugue on an Open Theme.” In August of 1937 he conducted a symphony concert with the orchestra of Badgastein benefitting the Gastein Research Institute. Included on the program was the “Academic Festival Overture” by Brahms; Schubert’s Symphony Nr. 5 in B Flat; Mendelssohn’s Piano Concert Nr. 1 and Smetana’s “Moldau.” Also in the year 1937, when his life was still basically intact, Walter Suess held a lecture with slides in Vienna’s Urania on the “Physiology of Conductors,” in which he used himself as example in order to explain the anatomical and functional makeup of a conductor.
It was a grave mistake that destroyed his future plans with a single blow and led to exclusion from the Reich’s Chamber of Music in 1938 (“because he failed to meet the criteria of the Reich’s laws governing the cultural requirements of conductors dictated by the National Socialists), and was prohibited from appearing publicly at any musical performance of any kind.
Walter Suess, whose father was a Jew, was branded a “Mischling 1. Grades” in the words used by the National Socialists. His plans of being a music director were destroyed in a single blow by Nazi racial policy. There was nothing more he could do than to turn to medicine and to begin living his life the best he could. In 1938 he was offered the opportunity to open a practice as a dentist. He bought expensive equipment and became once again the victim of NS arbitrariness and brutality. Later Walter Suess wrote: “Since I am a crossbreed, I inquired at the office responsible for policy whether I could open a practice. Everywhere I went I was informed that this was fully acceptable. (…) When I opened my practice in Badgastein, I had very few patients at the beginning because those in the profession treated me with hostility. Nontheless, after some time more and more patients began coming, offering me hope of being able to make a living. During the night of November 8, 1938, my practice was ravaged by those attacking the Jews, meaning that I should leave Badgastein forever.”
“Mob Anger in Disguise”
On November 7, 1938, the seventeen year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, having heard of his parents deportation, killed the secretary to the Legation in Paris, Ernst vom Rath, who belonged to the NS Party. The NS in power used the assassination as a pretense in order to carry out an anti-Jewish mobilization in the disguise of “mob anger.” Actually the pogroms were controlled and operated by those at a high level but carried out by the SA or SS.
The pogroms in November of 1938, characterized by the Nazis with the euphemism, “Reichskristallnacht,” marked a radical change, which meant a decisive turning point in racial policy aimed at Jewish residents of Germany and Austria.
According to official data, ninety-one people were killed in Germany from the brutal riot; ten thousand Jews were taken away to concentration camps, numerous businesses were damaged or demolished, and their owners intimidated and harassed.
On November 10, 1938, the Salzburger Landeszeitung, Amtliches Blatt des Gaues Salzburg der NSDAP and numerous government agencies brought on November 10, 1938 extensive reports of the “riots in the city and province of Salzburg:” “In Salzburg the first round aimed at indignation against the synagogues. Shortly after news was reported in the city of the death of the attaché, von Rath, an enraged crowd marched in front of the Jewish temple and destroyed its windows, furnishings and Jewish cultural objects. It is no wonder that all of Salzburg’s businesses, which still belong to Jews today, came to feel the anger of the people. Among others, the perfume shop of the Jew, Rudolf Fürst in the Linzergasse, the Jewish shop, “Zum Touristen,” also in the Linzergasse, the Singer shoe shop in the Dreifaltigkeitsgasse, then Pollak’s rummage shop in the Franz-Josef-Straße and Speigel’s antique shop –all felt its effects (…)
Fear of Sanctions
The report written by the head of security services of the subsection Salzburg and sent to the Social Democrat head of the SS upper section of Donau in Vienna concerning the “Reichskristallnacht” in Salzburg on November 10, 1938, described the destruction of furnishings and objects of Jewish businesses and in the synagogue. The some thirty to fifty perpetrators, belonging almost without exception to the SA, broke into the shops with various types of equipment, demolished the inventory and destroyed it almost completely. In the Jewish synagogue of Salzburg in the Lasserstraße, they destroyed the interior. Numerous Jews in Salzburg were taken by the state police into protective custody.
Walter Suess, who following threats by the NS party’s local group, feared sanctions should he stay in Gastein, relocated to Vienna, together with his wife who was a prospective singer and actress. In mid November 1938 he worked in the practice of his “Aryan” mother who was a dentist. The practice was located in the family’s apartment in the Molkereistraße 7 in the 2nd district.
Suess expressed bitterness over the incident in Badgastein, particularly since there was no one from whom he could seek damanges and he couldn’t demand damages and because of the destruction of expensive equipment for which he was still highly in debt. He had planned to leave Austria and to emigrate to Argentina with his wife.
When he finished all arrangements for leaving the country, he received a note from the military office that he was not allowed to leave because he had to serve in the military. The young man who two years earlier was full of hope had to watch how his life suddenly slid off course and all plans for the future were completely destroyed.
While waiting in his prison cell to be executed, he added in his appeal for clemency, “(…) that in 1938 I lost my entire financial existence; at the same time I was refused permission from the military to emigrate so that I was faced with a future fully without hope (…).”
“Never a Marxist”
In the summer of 1939 Walter Suess came into contact with the Communist movement, whose members lived in great danger due to their involvement with underground work. He justified his contact with the Communists not out of political conviction but rather due to continual humiliation, racist suppression and having the inmost wish to not have to answer to the dictatorship. Later, in his appeal he wrote: “Neither during my entire upbringing nor in the surroundings of my parent’s home was I ever a Marxist.” My pursuits were always entirely directed toward art and science. I was steered onto this course through adverse circumstances and through persuasion by a third party.” To Martha Zäuner, one of his Jewish patients, who visited Walter Suess in his practe in the Molkereistrasße in the 2nd district shortly before she was forced to emigrate in July 1939, he expressed for the first time his willingness to be active in the resistance. Through Zäuner, the Communist district functionary Otto Kubak approached him and through him came into contact with Rober Kurz (“Burli”), head of the district’s group in Leopoldstadt.
Since Suess was from a political standpoint completely an unwritten page, he was initially unbound to any activities, although he was prepared to donate his support to political prisoners. After one had convinced him of being a loyal believer, Suess offered his apartment between October 1939 and February 1940 for conspiratorial activities. Should ever a meeting be suddenly interrupted, those present were said to be dental patients seeking treatment.
The main objective of these discussions was, above, all political reorientation, which was the conclusion drawn for the Communist movement by the German-Soviet ‘Non-Aggression Pact.’ Participating in these meetings were some top Communist officials, such as Leopold Fritzsche, Leopold Blauensteiner and Lothar Dirmhirm, all of whom were later on executed. In January of 1940, with Suess’s approval, Kurz arranged for Suess’s apartment to be used as a drop-off place for boxes filled with the Red Flag and the Communist Party’s Newsletter, designated for the second district and later picked up by Margarethe Gebauer. Suess’ wife and mother were most likely uninformed about this matter. In order to shield them from his involvement, he would give them tickets to attend a concert or theater piece on those evenings when meetings were held.
On May 1940 the Gestapo arrested district leader Robert Kurz, who despite severe mishandling, refused to give his colleagues away so that the arrest ended up being a failure and the group remained intact. Suess and his comrades, however, refrained from all underground activity for about two months.
However, through previous observances of Kurz’s surroundings the Gestapo was apparently able to find out about some of his contact persons and sent two ombudsmen (who were in reality police informers) to convict them and blow the whistle. Initially Franz Pachhammer (alias “Lux”) discovered the plan. He was an agitator with an extreme need for self-importance, who beginning in 1940 had served voluntarily with the Gestapo as an informer, unlike the usual ombudsman.
“Lux” talked first of all to Gertrude Fischer, who used to work for Kurz and was an acquaintance of Suess, and finally took up contact in July 1940 with Suess himself, whom he made believe that he was from the “county” and was ordered to reorganize the 2nd district. At first, Suess was skeptical, expressed his lack of willingness, whereupon “Lux” accused him of being a coward.
Since the spy was also apparently well informed about Kurz, he was successful in diverting his victim’s attention from feeling any qualms. He “unfurled a series of tirades and brought one suggestion after another,” claimed Suess later in a report to the People’s Court. Focusing on that of producing and distributing illegal newspapers and pamphlets stood in his favor, in that he was up until now providing material from the “authorities;” in other words from the head of the Communist Party.
Pachhammer gave the innocent resistance fighter a typewriter and a duplicating machine and asked him to write a newspaper to be called, Hammer and Sickle, Nr. 1. He instructed him as to the contents; “also I had to give him every draft for producing a template, apparently to be reviewed by the County’s Ombudsman. Suess wrote from his prison cell in the Vienna Criminal District Court.
The Gestapo was, thus, not only involved in the distribution of illegal publications but also in its production. Suess gave the agitator hundreds of copies of the newspaper, which he ordered him to do beginning of September with the production of Nr. 2.
Some twenty to forty copies were sent to Communist official Karl Ficker, and the rest Suess gave to “Edi Hofer”, with whom Suess became acquainted through Pachhammer. The cover name of “Edi Hofer” only concealed the real person, namely, Eduard Pamperl (born 1919), a school friend of Pachhamer, who also joined the Gestapo, serving as a spy.
“Lux” tried to win Suess over training Communist organizations involved with sabotage and terror, which, however, Suess refused. On the contrary, Suess tried establishing an illegal Communist organization for physicians, however, this attempt remained unsuccessful. Various comrades warned him, advising him to put a damper on Pachhammer’s overzealousness, which Suess took to be simply “youthful enthusiasm.”
Between April 5 and April 7, 1941, the Gestapo arrested Walter Suess, his wife, Karl Ficker and ten other people who received illegal material from the ombudsman. In June of 1941 Otto Kubak, Erwin Kritek and many other colleagues working for the district head were pursued and caught. For the first time also Robert Kurz confessed.
Special Type of Cynicism
After almost seventeen months in prison, Suess received the indictment, which inferred that the role “Lux” played was that of the initiator of illegal activity of the accused after June 1940, qualifying the Gestapo agitator, however ,as “Communist functionary.” Suess then wrote in a report and submitted it to the People’s Court – a thoroughly remarkable document in which the prisoner revealed with intricate details the role “Lux” played as spy. In the meantime, it was actually possible for Suess to find out the real name of “Lux,” that of Franz Pachhammer.
He was also aware of the fact that the ombudsman joined the army in March 1941 and was sent from Vienna to Altmünster am Traunsee. Suess didn’t let this prevent him from mentioning this fact during the main hearing on November 4, 1942, whereby the Gestapo had the secretary to the criminal police force testify that “Lux” was not a ombudsman but rather remained an unknown Communist. The People’s Court added to this lie by resorting to a special kind of cynicism; namely, they discovered that the pamphlets written by Suess were distributed to other Communist functionaries as well, something which an ombudsman of the Gestapo would certainly never have done!
Walter Suess, Robert Kurz and Otto Kubak were sentenced to death due to “preparing to commit high treason.” Erwin Kritek received a sentence of eight years imprisonment. The letter of goodbye that Suess wrote to his mother from prison was not delivered, fearing that the family could use the letters “for propaganda purposes.” The thirty-one year-old Suess and those accused along with him were executed on January 28, 1943 in the People’s Court in Vienna. “The execution was carried out flawlessly,” as stated in the file by the People’s Court. As to what to do with the bodies, a note was added that the Anatomical Institute at the University of Vienna should be taken into consideration.
Karl Ficker, who also was condemned to die, was able to escape prison in November 1942 and remained in hiding until the end of the war in 1945.