Über-Survivor, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: In the September 16 issue of National Review, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger on Marko Feingold, the president of the Jewish community in Salzburg, Austria. Mr. Feingold is 100 years old. He survived four concentration camps: Auschwitz, Neuengamme, Dachau, and Buchenwald. Mr. Nordlinger is expanding the piece this week here on NRO. The first part was published yesterday, here, and the second and concluding part is published today.

So, the Americans came into Buchenwald. Mr. Feingold and the other Austrian prisoners walked to Weimar and got on buses. Mr. Feingold wanted to return to Vienna, naturally. But the authorities would not let former prisoners in. There were two reasons for this, says Mr. Feingold.

First, the ex-prisoners would know who did what when. They could point fingers, and those who had lent themselves to the Nazi machinery wanted to “move on” (to use modern parlance).

Second, the Jews might want their property back. And other Viennese had stolen a lot of it, and weren’t keen to give it up.

Owing to unlikely twists and turns, Mr. Feingold wound up in Salzburg. He again uses that word Zufall: chance, coincidence.

We talk about those who committed war crimes, or crimes against humanity. They got off lightly, says Mr. Feingold. The Nuremberg trials took care of a few, but just a few. He says, with great specificity, that officials of the Catholic Church and of the Red Cross helped Nazis escape to South America.

He also recalls the standard line, throughout Austro-Germany: The SS men were bad, yes. But everyone else was merely swept up in the madness.

Mr. Feingold spent the first three years after the war — 1945 to 1948 — engaged in the Bricha. This was the movement to smuggle Jews into Palestine, soon to be Israel. (“Bricha,” in Hebrew, means “escape” or “flight.”) The work was illegal and dangerous. According to Mr. Feingold, there were about 250,000 Jews in the Salzburg area: displaced persons. About 150,000 of them wanted to go to America, Canada, or Australia, where many had relatives. The other 100,000 wanted to settle in Palestine.

Mr. Feingold helped them get down to Italy, where they would take ships across the Mediterranean. (These were leaky, barely seaworthy vessels. They could make it across, but they could not really come back.) The refugees were bedraggled, wretched Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia. They knew nothing about the Alps. Few had proper shoes or warm clothing. And they were afraid of heights.

Odd as it may seem, Mr. Feingold decided to lead them across the Alps at night. They would see less, and be less afraid. “Lean against the rock,” Mr. Feingold would say, “and don’t look down.”

He himself did not go to Palestine. Why? With a smile, he shows me an old photograph: “That is why.” The photo is of himself and a blonde woman, his first wife, Else. They met in Salzburg’s Landestheater, two months after he got out of the camps. She was a Catholic local girl. They were married until she died in 1992.

In 1998, he married his present wife, Hanna.

I ask, “Do you feel like an Austrian?” This is potentially a complicated question. But it turns out not to be, for him: Yes, he says. Always has, through everything.

Austrian though he may be, he knows a lot about Israel, and cares a lot about it. He scorns the world’s scorn of it. For example, he says, “They talk about the Palestinian refugees. But what about the many more Jewish refugees?” They could make all sorts of claims, in the Arab lands, in Iran, and elsewhere, but they get on with life, threatened as they are.

I ask a hard question: “Do you think Israel will survive?” He avoids an answer, instead saying, “It has to survive.” Otherwise, where would the 6 million Jews go?

In Salzburg, he owned a clothing store, then two: “Wiener Mode” (“Viennese Fashion”). He retired more than 35 years ago, in 1977. But his other work — from which he will never retire, I’m sure — has been to tell people about the Holocaust.

Since 1945, he has been to something like 6,000 schools in Austria and Bavaria. He has been to other institutions too, including prisons and churches. Most people are receptive to what he has to say. He makes a common observation, however: Germany has been more forthright in acknowledging the past than Austria has. Much more. In Austria, people are “still lying,” says Mr. Feingold — lying about the Austrian role in Nazism.

I decide to ask a timeworn and unanswerable question: How do you explain anti-Semitism? Why does the world hate Jews? Mr. Feingold answers quickly and confidently: “Envy. Jealousy.” Sometimes this envy or jealousy turns violent.

Generations ago, says Mr. Feingold, a farming family would need money. They went to the Jews for a loan. They would find themselves unable to pay it back. They would vent their wrath on the Jews.

Also, says Mr. Feingold, Jewish families were always close-knit. Family members helped one another, and they prospered. This made certain others resentful.

Mr. Feingold notes a relatively recent phenomenon: Jewish old-age homes. Jews in nursing homes. Used to be, families took care of their aged and infirm. Of course, that was true in many other communities, not just Jewish ones, too.

I remember visiting India some years ago and hearing about old-age homes — they were just coming in, and they were very un-Indian. Indian sons and daughters were not supposed to park their parents elsewhere.

“Slowly, slowly,” says Mr. Feingold, anti-Semitism in Austria is lessening. It is stronger in the countryside than in towns and cities. There has been progress in churches.

He and the archbishop of Salzburg, he says, are “like brothers.” The archbishop invites him to special masses, and has a special seat for him. “There sits my elder brother,” he will say to the congregation. Mr. Feingold refers to the archbishop as “my younger brother.”

Mr. Feingold is a very liberal-minded and ecumenical person: “I work with Muslims, Catholics, atheists, anybody.”

He makes an observation that is fairly lighthearted: These days, everyone says, “I had a Jewish great-grandfather,” or, “I had a Jewish aunt,” or, “My father was half-Jewish.” There was once a time when no one, ever, admitted to a Jewish relative.

So, how does a centenarian spend his days? I can tell you how this one does. He gets up at 5. “I check to see if anything hurts. If it does, I say, ‘Okay, I’m alive.’” He has breakfast and reads the papers. He leaves the house at 7:30 sharp and is in his office by 8. (As president of the Jewish community, he works in Salzburg’s synagogue.) He deals with his correspondence and phone calls.

A pillar of the community, he attends all sorts of events (not just Jewish ones). He has received many honors, local and national.

There are about 70 Jews living in Greater Salzburg. And Mr. Feingold knows maybe 30 of them. The rest? Well, many opt to keep their heads down.

A believer in Holocaust remembrance, Mr. Feingold has returned to all four of the camps in which he was confined. At home, he has helped to lay “Stolpersteine”: little stones that commemorate victims of the Nazis — not just Jews but Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and others.

“Have you ever suffered from survivor’s guilt?” I ask. No, he says. “Anyone who thinks like that is crazy.”

Does he believe in God? (In my experience, many Holocaust survivors do not.) Yes, he says, but he is not especially religious, or observant.

Does he have any bitterness toward his persecutors? No, he says. Well, does he forgive them? “It’s difficult,” he says, “because those people aren’t living anymore. How can I forgive them?” But then he says, “For myself, I forgive. But for others, I have no right to forgive.”

His main concern is “never again.” He warns incessantly against dictatorship. There must be no brainwashing of the young, no dictatorship in any form: “not from the left, not from the right, and [here he places special emphasis] not from religion.”

Naturally, Mr. Feingold does not have many peers left. A Holocaust survivor in Bad Ischl, about 25 miles from Salzburg, died recently at 106. I ask Mr. Feingold a boring, standard question — one that every person of advanced age must face: “To what do you attribute your longevity?” He smiles, glances upward, shrugs a little, and says that word again: “Zufall.”

At last, I have to leave. We’ve been going for two and a half hours, something like that. I’m a little tired. The centenarian is fresh as a daisy. We go out into the sunshine and take some pictures. He doesn’t linger with me long, though — he has another appointment, with a correspondent from a Vienna newspaper.

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