Magazine | September 16, 2013, Issue


Marko Feingold flourishes at 100

Salzburg – Marko Feingold has a very good memory. His memories begin in 1916, when he was three. The Feingold family lived in Vienna. There were four children, four boys, one of them a baby, Emil. Their father was off at war. Their mother habitually rose at 4 to stand in line for milk and bread. She took her ration card, and she took her baby. Women with babies got to the head of the line faster. That was important, because sometimes the city ran out of bread and milk.

It was cold in the winter, and the baby caught pneumonia and died. The way Marko Feingold puts it today is, “Three of us lived, because our brother died.” There was milk and bread for the children at home because their mother took the baby.

Feingold has vivid memories of that first war: and the deprivations of Vienna. He remembers exactly what the bread looked and tasted like: It was all crumbs, not able to hang together. He remembers when his sister, Rosa, came along in 1918. The other kids were put out of the house while she was being born.

Marko Feingold was born in May 1913 — more than a year before the war began. He would experience the next war too, of course. He survived four concentration camps: Auschwitz, Neuengamme, Dachau, and Buchenwald. He has been known to quip, “I could write a Michelin guide to the camps.” Today, he is the president of the Jewish community here in Salzburg. It’s hard to believe he’s 100. He is fit, sharp, active. He walks at a good clip. The words come easily: He’s in full command of facts, names, dates. He seems not to tire. He has almost a full head of hair, and much of it is dark. It doesn’t look dyed, either. He is a handsome, dashing gent, with a twinkle in his eye. With his mustache, he looks almost raffish.

Before World War II came the Depression, of course. In Vienna, people were sleeping on bridges. Feingold and his brother Ernst went down to Italy, where life was sweeter. They were there from 1932 to 1938. Feingold says those were his six fat years: his best years. In early ’38, he and Ernst returned to Vienna, to get their passports renewed. The Anschluss took place on March 12. They were nabbed by the Nazis, and an unimaginable ordeal began.

Never believe, says Feingold, that Austria was the “first victim,” as propaganda once had it. That the country was unwillingly occupied by the Germans. Most Austrians rejoiced in the Anschluss. “The country welcomed the Germans with open arms,” says Feingold. He grew up with plenty of anti-Semitism, and was discriminated against, like others. But did he ever suspect that his neighbors and countrymen would turn against the Jews, murderously, genocidally? No.

He and Ernst were the first Austrians to be confined at Auschwitz. The camp was still under construction. From Auschwitz, Marko was sent on to one camp after the other. About every day in these camps, he says, “you could write a whole book.” He has written his memoirs (available only in German). Their title might be translated “When You’ve Already Died, You Feel No Pain.”

Needless to say, Feingold endured much torture, starvation, and other evils. I will mention a single detail: He and other inmates were forced to dig a canal with their bare hands. Ernst died in 1942. The fates of the other two siblings — Rosa and their brother Nathan — are unknown, specifically. They can be presumed killed in the Holocaust. Marko was still in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, when the Americans came in. With other Austrians, he walked the few miles to Weimar, got on a bus, and headed home.

How did Feingold survive the camps? Was it luck, bravery, cleverness, some combination? He smiles and says — more like sighs — one word: “Zufall.” That means chance, coincidence, happenstance, amazing turns of events. For example, he was classified as “gassable” at Neuengamme. But the crematoria at the camp were not ready yet. Meanwhile, he was shipped to Dachau . . .

After the war, he could not return to his hometown, Vienna, because the authorities there would not allow Jews back in — or anyone else who had been imprisoned in the camps. These people would know who did what, when. And the Jews might want their property back. By unlikely twists and turns — Zufall — Feingold wound up in Salzburg.

Those guilty of war crimes got off lightly, he says. 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. In Austro-Germany, the standard line was, “The SS men were bad, yes. But everyone else was merely swept up in the madness.”

#page#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 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.

Feingold helped them get down to Italy, where they would take ships — leaky, barely seaworthy ones — across the Mediterranean. These bedraggled, wretched Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia knew nothing about the Alps. Few had proper shoes or warm clothing. They were afraid of heights. Feingold led them at night, so they would see less. He told them to hug the mountainside and not 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. He met her two months after he got out of the camps. She was a Catholic Salzburger. They were married until she died in 1992. In 1998, he married his present wife, Hanna. Feingold feels like an Austrian, by the way. He 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. I ask a hard question: Does he believe Israel will survive? He doesn’t really answer, instead saying, “It has to survive.” Where else would the 6 million Jews there go?

In Salzburg, he owned a clothing store, then two: “Wiener Mode,” or “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 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? Feingold answers quickly and confidently: “Envy. Jealousy.” He goes on to say, among other things, that Jewish families were always close-knit. Family members helped one another, and they prospered. This made others resentful.

“Slowly, slowly,” says Feingold, anti-Semitism in Austria is lessening. It is stronger in the countryside than in towns and cities. He makes an observation that is somewhat lighthearted: These days, everyone says, “I had a Jewish great-grandfather,” or, “I had a Jewish aunt,” or, “My father was half-Jewish.” There once was a time when no one, ever, admitted to a Jewish relative.

Feingold says that he and the archbishop of Salzburg are “like brothers.” The archbishop calls him “my elder brother”; he calls the archbishop “my younger brother.” Feingold is a very liberal-minded and ecumenical person. “I work with Muslims, Catholics, atheists, anybody,” he says.

In a typical day, 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 arrives at his office by 8 — he works in Salzburg’s synagogue. He deals with his correspondence and phone calls. He attends all sorts of events: He is a pillar of the general community, not just the Jewish one. He has received many honors, local and national. There are about 70 Jews living in Greater Salzburg. Feingold knows maybe 30 of them. The rest? Many opt to keep their heads down.

A believer in Holocaust remembrance, 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.

I ask Feingold whether he has ever suffered from survivor’s guilt. No, he says. “Anyone who thinks like that is crazy.” Does he believe in God? Yes, but he is not especially religious, or observant. Does he have any bitterness toward his persecutors? No. 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 not from religion.”

Naturally, he does not have a wealth of peers left. A Holocaust survivor in Bad Ischl, about 25 miles from Salzburg, died recently at 106. Toward the end of our visit, I ask 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, “Zufall.”

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