Illuminating a brutal legacy

| 21 Jul 2015 | 12:22

As anyone who has traveled to Austria’s capital well knows, Vienna is a jewel of a city, reflecting its nation’s rich artistic and cultural heritage in astounding imperial buildings, museums chock-full of revelatory central European masterpieces, and palaces still bedecked in the fine furnishings of bygone eras. But such splendor can bely the deeper, more painful histories of this storied city.

“There’s so much tragedy in the streets of Vienna — but you have to look for it, because it’s such a beautiful city,” said Gita Weinrauch Kaufman, an author, educator and Upper West Side resident who co-directed, with her late husband, Curt Kaufman, a Holocaust documentary entitled “Shadows From My Past.” The film, released last year, will be screened Saturday evening at The Actors’ Temple on West 47th Street.

Kaufman was born into a Jewish family living in Vienna in the 1930s, as the Nazi Party tightened its hold on Europe. In March of 1940, shortly before the Weinrauchs were to be deported to Dachau, one of Germany’s most notorious concentration camps, they received their American visas and left for New York. Many from their extended family, however, were shipped to concentration camps and killed.

“Shadows From My Past” is Kaufman’s inquiry, decades after narrowly escaping extermination, into the lives — and deaths — of those family members.

After fleeing Austria, Kaufman had little intention of ever returning. “It was just too painful,” she said. But when her mother passed away in the late 1980s, a fateful discovery caused Kaufman to reconsider. Stuffed within a drawer of her late mother’s Upper West Side apartment, a ream of letters written in both Yiddish and German and dating to the war period detailed, in urgent terms, her family’s attempts to escape the Nazis. When she found them, Ms. Kaufman said, she was immediately transported back to her early childhood in Vienna.

“Letters meant life, letters meant excitement. But when the war started, the letters stopped,” she said.

Or so she thought. Kaufman’s parents did indeed continue to receive the missives, but shielded their children from their contents. When, decades later, Kaufman unearthed them, she was both shocked and intrigued.

“That’s when I really felt the pain,” she recalled. “I was so overcome by them.”

In 1968, Kaufman had married Curt Kaufman, a photographer and videographer who shot stills for films such as “Sophie’s Choice.” At his urging, Kaufman began to consider turning the letters into some kind of artistic project. She started by translating and then digitizing them, with her husband’s help, and through this process connected with Oliver Rathkolb, an Austrian historian and professor with the Bruno Kreisky Archives Foundation in Vienna. In the late 1990s, she was awarded that foundation’s prestigious award for Outstanding Achievement in Human Rights. Modest prize money and the foundation’s invaluable support network enabled Kaufman to begin work on a documentary film. In 1998, after nearly six decades of exile, she returned to Vienna. From that year until 2011, when her husband died, the couple worked on the film, making several trips to Austria. Kaufman finished the film after her husband’s death.

“Shadows From My Past” explores the very complicated reality of Austria’s compliance with Nazi Germany and its willing sacrifice of many of its Jewish citizens, and in the documentary, Kaufman interviews many prominent Austrian politicians including President Heinz Fischer. It’s this point, Kaufman said, that sets her film apart from many Holocaust narratives. While the losses within more prominently anti-Semitic countries such as Poland and Hungary are well documented, the actions of equally complicit nations sometimes get obscured.

“A lot of us are taught about the Holocaust through Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel, but that’s only a part of the story,” she said.

Rabbi Jill Hausman of The Actors’ Temple, where the film will be shown this weekend, concurs.

“People don’t really have a firm grasp of Austrian complicity with the Nazis,” Hausman said. “She had access to very interesting people there.”

While the events that unfold in the film occurred many decades ago, “Shadows Of My Past” remains relevant today, when Europe is experiencing a resurgence of anti-Semitism that, as it did in Nazi Germany, correlates with rising levels of unemployment, Hausman said.

Kaufman agrees.

“There’s a lesson in the film, which is that this kind of thing can happen anywhere if we’re not watching who’s in charge,” she said.

“Shadows From My Past” screens at The Actor’s Temple July 25 at 8:15 pm. For more information, call 212-245-6975.