“The Wodaks – Exile and Return A Double Biography”


A book by Bernhard Kuschey with preface by Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Braumüller Publishers (2008)

With this double biography based upon extensive research of historical documents, letters and personal reports by key witnesses, Bernhard Kuschey delineates the personal fate of two people whose lives are fractured by Fascism, war and return to Austria. At the same time the book also offers a highly detailed picture of the political and social background of Austria between and after the war which defined an entire generation shaped by persecution, exile and return home, having also meaning for successive generations until today.

Walter Wodak began his diplomatic career initially in London. Erna Wodak, as wife of the diplomat, gave up her career as chemist. She gave birth in 1950 to an only daughter, Ruth Wodak. As diplomats the Wodaks were posted primarily in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. During the Hungarian crisis of 1956, they were located in Belgrade while at the time of the invasion of Czechlosovakia in 1968, Wodak served as ambassador in Moscow. At both places they supported the dissidents. While serving as Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry, Walter Wodak suddenly died in 1974. Following the death of her husband, Erna Wodak resumed her work once more as a scientist working together with the Weizmann Institute in Israel, along with other institutions.

Walter Wodak (1908 – 1974), born the son of a religious Jewish manual worker in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt, immersed himself in the activities of Social Democratic organizations with leftist, international socialistic leanings. He suffered through the conflicts of the First Republic, studied law and worked on the so-called Marienthal Study. After the events of February 1934, he changed over to the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ), started a family and joined the opposition wary of the ever-growing threat of the Anschluss.

Erna Mandel (1916 – 2003), as daughter of a prominent Rabbi in Vienna, was largely exposed to Vienna’s anti-Semitism. With the tragic death of her father, she distanced herself from Jewish tradition and began her studies in chemistry. After the Anschluss she was forced to give up her studies in Vienna and was exiled in 1939 to England, where, as a refugee, she was allowed to study in Liverpool. It was there that she met Walter Wodak.

With the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1940, Walter Wodak turned his back on the KPÖ and gravitated toward Austrian socialist exile organizations. As a British soldier, together with Marie Jahoda and Stefan Wirlander, among others, he carried out masked propaganda to Vienna by way of the socialist radio, ‘Red Vienna.’

Following her studies, Erna Mandel went into research and worked with Chaim Weizmann, Engelbert Broda and other prominent scientists. Erna Mandel and Walter Wodak married in 1944 in England. Wodak returned to his beloved Vienna and worked in the British section of the Allied Commission, dedicating himself as a committed diplomat to the interests of Austria. His wife, unable to forget Austrians’ anti-Semitism and untrustful of post-war change in tone, never again felt truly at home in Vienna.

Author Bernhard Kuschey highlights the difficult process of finding oneself during exile in England, grasping the general political societal developments of the time reaching far beyond the biography of his protagonists. His depiction opens up interesting perspectives and questions that concerned the relationship of Jewish intellectuals to the social Democratic Party and the history of leftist opposition in Austrian Social Democracy.