Austrian Jews Respond to Nazism, Part 3 of 3

Jewish Identity, the Holocaust: Reflections on Bettelheim, Frankl and Amery

Posted Aug 03, 2018

Part Three

Jean Amery’s response offers even more contrast with Bettelheim and Frankl.

Jean Améry was born Hans Mayer in Vienna on October 31, 1912.  He was raised in Hohenems, Vorarlberg one of the alpine provinces of western Austria. Although Améry’s great-grandfather was fluent in Hebrew, Améry’s father was fully assimilated, while his mother was Roman Catholic.  In addition, his father, a Tyrolean Imperial Rifleman was killed in the second year of the Great War and therefore Améry never knew him.  In these circumstances Améry emerges as something different than a fully assimilated Jew, because although he was fully aware of his origins, he apparently never conceived of himself in any way as Jewish. Or as he stated bluntly in his essay Being a Jew:  A Personal Account, ‘… how can I speak of my Judaism? It did not exist.’ However when his family moved from the provinces to Vienna when he was a teenager his sense of self underwent a radical transformation.  Confronted for the first time with anti-Semitism and the threat of Nazism Améry stated: “it was becoming clear to me that in their minds and hearts these people had made all the preparations for plunging me and my kind into ruin…’  Under these circumstances he gradually and somewhat begrudgingly began to see himself as a Jew.

Two experiences were key for his assumption of a Jewish identity. The first decisive event was the promulgation of the Nuremberg laws in 1935.  He quickly memorized the Nuremberg laws and accepted “the sentence” society had “decreed” he was a Jew.  The second was falling in love.  He met the pretty, fair skinned, redheaded and freckled Regine Berger in the summer of 1932 when she was eighteen. Améry described her as someone “who would have cut the best figure as a model for the tourism offices in the Ostmark.” Much to his surprise and his mother’s consternation Regine “was a full-blooded, professing Jew.” However, Améry decided not to “give up the fair-skinned girl, but ignored her background” because he “was not ready to take a Jewish identity upon himself.” Améry’s biographer Heidelberger-Leonard suggests that Améry’s development of a Jewish racial identity was “accelerated” by his decision to marry Regine Berger on December 12, 1937. We also know Améry had the option to opt out of his Jewish identity after the Anschluss in 1938 because his mother’s fiancé was a “flawlessly Aryan gentlemen” that was ready to swear that Hans was his child.  But this would have required parting ways with his wife.  Améry admits that he might have chosen this route if he had “been less passionately attached” to his wife but in the end concludes, “I vaguely felt nonetheless that a human being cannot exist within a total lie, one that encompasses his entire person, his entire of life.  I constituted myself as a Jew.”

Before Heidelberger-Leonard’s biography, Améry’s life-story was difficult to reconstruct because he never published a detailed account.  In addition, his autobiographical work has a phenomenological orientation that focuses on states of consciousness rather than factual events.  In Améry’s words, he was not “concerned with stories about myself but rather with reflections on existence and the passage of time that would begin introspectively but ascend to ever more abstract and general areas of thought.” Nevertheless based on the scant details I knew at the time Améry was emerging as the hero in my reflection on how Austrian Jews responded to Nazism, primarily based on his leftist political orientation and on his subsequent decision to flee Austria and join the resistance in Belgium.  After being captured he first survived torture at Dachau and then spent a significant time in Auschwitz.  After the war he changed his name from Hans Mayer to Jean Améry and reputedly refused to write in German or return Vienna.  Given the circumstances these seemed to me the “right” choices.  Bettelheim, and for me more importantly Améry seemed to offer stark contrast to Frankl.  Since Améry’s biographical details were sparse when I was working on my comparison, I decided to pursue more detail.  Améry stated that intellectuals did not survive well in the camps, for the obvious reasons that they weren’t conditioned to labor and had no professional expertise that Nazis wanted.  But I wanted deeper insight into what Améry meant by being an intellectual so I went to the University Archive in Vienna and searched for what courses he took, with which professors etc.  I spent two days searching the different renditions of Mayer (Maier appeared in some English texts) but to no avail.  Although Améry claimed to have studied at the university it was apparent he hadn’t.  I then went to the University of Vienna to visit Friedrich Stadler the historian with deep knowledge of the Wiener Krise (Vienna Circle) that Améry claimed to participate in.  Stadler calmly explained there were no records of Améry attending any meetings or lectures.  I was crushed.  I asked my Viennese friends and all seemed taken back.  It was “common knowledge” amongst leftist oriented intellectuals that Améry was one of them and had studied philosophy etc. at the university.  I contacted my mentor Andy Rabinbach, and after his initial surprise he offered the quip I was going to be famous for discovering fabrications by Holocaust survivors.  I knew he was joking but it was a role I had no interest in, and my goal of comparison with Améry as a resistance fighter and heroic intellectual in contrast to Frankl hit a major snag.  Thankfully, a few months later my good friend Karl Fallend informed me that Heidelberger-Leonard was just about to publish a biography of Améry that “knew everything.”  I was relieved. 

Heidelberger-Leonard is a superb scholar and clarified the details of Améry’s biography by her careful research along with access to an unpublished text, Zur Psychologie des deutschen Volkes that Améry wrote in June of 1945 – just three months after his release from the concentration camps.  As a youth Améry aspired to be a writer and had already published a manuscript at the age of 16 in Vienna.  Heidelberger-Leonard also cleared up the confusion over Améry’s intellectual training.  Despite the widely held assumption that Améry studied at the University of Vienna as stated in his testimony At the Minds Limits (Primo Levi also held this opinion) and was connected with the Wiener Kriese it appears that he had no formal schooling after the gymnasium.  During the 1930s in Vienna Améry worked at various odd jobs including a porter, messenger, and bar pianist.  His most “important” job was a helper in a bookstore and subsequently his “self” education occurred while he was employed at the bookstore for the Leopoldstadt adult education center.  The bookshop was located at Zirkusgasse 48 and was led by Améry’s mentor and staunch socialist, Leopold Langhammer.  Because of his politics the Nazis imprisoned Langhammer in Buchenwald immediately after the Anschluss in 1938.  However, after the war this experience “legitimized” Langhammer and in 1945 he became advisor in chief on adult education in the city of Vienna.  In this position Langhammer fabricated an “official” education for Améry as an “advisor and lecturer” in 1945. Langhammer was apparently willing to invent an official education for Améry because at the time Améry was contemplating a return to Vienna. When Améry declined to return to Vienna, Langhammer then provided him with a strong letter of recommendation written in December of 1946 that claimed “Hans Mayer from 1934 to 1938 gave lectures at the Volkshochschule on literary, historical and philosophical topics.”  Heidelberger-Leonard dismisses this issue with the rather understated “Of course, Hans Mayer never, in fact, merited the titled of “lecturer.” Finally, although Heidelberger-Leonard suggests Améry was influenced by the rational empiricism of the Weiner Kreise and especially Rudolf Carnap, but as mentioned, Améry never attended any lectures of the Wiener Kreise. It seems safe to assume that part of the reason there is an absence of biographical detail in Améry work stems from this “fiction” about his education.  Lastly, Nazi racial laws did not affect Améry’s mother and she died in Vienna in 1939.  His first wife died of a heart attack late in the war while hiding in Belgium.

Amery summed –up his Jewish identity in these terms.

Whoever attempts to be a Jew in my way and under the conditions imposed upon me," whoever hopes, by clarifying his own Holocaust-determined existence, to draw together and shape within himself the reality of the so-called Jewish Question, is wholly void of naiveté…because such a Jew is no longer lulled by "[d]eclarations of human rights, democratic constitutions, the free world and the free press." He no longer dwells in the illusion that human identity is something optional, like a Christmas gift that can be exchanged. He has learned that his identity—his personhood—is a necessity. "I . . . am precisely what I am not," Améry says, "because I did not exist until I became it, above all else: a Jew." "I became a person," Améry explains, "not by subjectively appealing to my abstract humanity but by discovering myself within the given social reality as a rebelling Jew and by realizing myself as one." Although not a practicing Jew by any means Améry insists nevertheless that being Jewish is a necessity for him but also an impossibility because he does not practice the faith. "With Jews as Jews I share practically nothing," he writes: "no language, no cultural tradition, no childhood memories." Perhaps then a "catastrophe Jew" or a vehemently protesting Jew. It is clear from this posture on his Jewish identity that Améry was deeply influenced by Sartrean existentialist concepts of identity where authenticity is achieved by making choices within the social context – thus Améry as a vehemently protesting Jew. 

In conclusion:

            As a Haute Bourgeois Bettelheim was fully assimilated before the rise of Nazism and experienced little connection to his Judaism– His Jewish identity thus developed post-war and after his emigration to America.  His assimilation is deeply tied to his class position while his return to the fold, so to speak, focused mainly on the intellectual tradition of Judaism, his Freudianism.  It is also possible a positive Jewish identity gave him a sense of esteem in light of his victimization.

            In contrast Frankl was well on his way to assimilation in the 1920s and more or less abandoned his Jewish heritage, he initially recovers “faith” by reading the Catholic philosopher Scheler – but faith is justified as a psychological need (or of therapeutic use, thus the 1935 article that sees it as therapy) reflecting his position as a medical doctor and scientist.  Eventually though he returns more fully to Judaism in the mid-1980s and even traveled to Israel and prayed at the Wailing Wall.  That Christians continue to find solace in his logotherapy is interesting.  He also connected his three forms of values promoted by logotherapy to religion.  He suggested creative values were linked to Judaic Monotheism, experiential values to Protestant grace, and what he considered the highest form of value – attitudinal - to “taking up the cross.”  Much of Frankl’s renowned stemmed form his focus on suffering proudly and facing ones fate unflinchingly – which seems to be derived in some way from his sense of Catholicism – so it is not surprising he is seen in some regard, as more “Christian.”

            The petit bourgeois Amery is perhaps not a really a Jew – but made into a Jew by Nazi racial laws – which he turns into a Jewish identity that is a form of existentialist rebellion.  From an existentialist point of view this identity is perhaps the most “authentic” because it is embraced, and rather than seeing oneself as a “victim” he attempts to affirm Judaism as a rebellion against Nazi evil.

            Although I never published this paper I did present it once.  I think the overarching thesis that the Holocaust had significant impact on the formation of Jewish identity in three Austrian Jewish intellectuals in peculiar ways, and is tied to their intellectual interests/commitments and class position offers insight.   But I am sure specialists in Jewish history would find much to quibble about (as did the review of my Frankl book in the Journal of Austrian Studies) and since I am not Jewish I lack the insider’s view of these issues.  Although sometimes it is better to be an “outsider looking in” as my mentor Tony Judt often said.   But again my original agenda was to find a “hero” and the rebellious Améry was supposed to play that role.  Some readers may question why I was so upset by Améry’s falsifications.  Surely my experience with Frankl colored my response.  But intellectual honesty seems a minimal standard and expectation – especially for the self-proclaimed Sartrean existentialist Améry.  Losing my vision of finding a “heroic” survivor I began to understand that the tragedy of Holocaust survival had unplumbed depths that had been escaping me in my search for a hero. As mentioned in a previous post the conclusion to my 2005 book was titled “Everyone Needs a Hero Don’t They? Clearly I wasn’t viewing Frankl as hero.  After my experience with Améry I was coming to the conclusion that heroic survival was perhaps my illusion as well. For a variety personal and professional reasons I thus fell into depression.  My work had come to a roadblock, I felt alienated and alone, working and teaching in a field that was spiritually trying. 

            It was under those circumstances fortune struck.  I was invited to attend the 2006 Silberman Seminar for university faculty teaching Holocaust related courses at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.  The seminar was led by Mark Roseman and Jurgen Matthaus and organized by Dieter Kunst.  Three exceptional scholars.  I also met faculty from across the country struggling with the difficulties and rewards of Holocaust education and felt part of a community of like-minded people.   It was an incredibly rewarding two weeks.  I learned a great deal and I left inspired.  I also had an epiphany during the seminar on how to bridge my roadblock.  As I left I told Jurgen at the end of the seminar I would send him a paper shortly – and that is the subject of my next post.