BETWEEN HITLER YOUTH AND THE STAR OF DAVID (excerpt)
My father died when I was one year old; probably as a result of appendicitis. In my mind, he is only a photograph. My mother never talked much about him and when she did, not really in a positive sense. She seemed to be his superior in every way, and therefore everything had rested on her shoulders even while he was alive. My father was one of hundreds of thousands jobless people in the late 1920s, while my mother earned our money as an employee of the Creditanstalt bank, from which we could barely live.
At first in a municipal flat in the Johnstraße in the district Fünfhaus in Vienna, not far from Schönbrunn. But there were worlds between the imperial glory of the castle and our small flat. We were poor, there was only a kitchenette, which made my mother very angry. Our second flat in the Brunhildengasse nearby wasn’t much better.
Who could guess that these lodgings were luxurious compared with those awaiting us in the years to follow? After we had heard the words of Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg – “God protect Austria” – in the radio on 11 March 1938, my mother told me that we had to expect hard times from then on. I was to understand the reason for these words very much later. My mother was a Jewess. We stayed at home when Hitler’s troops marched into the country. When we ventured out into the street again, we, too, wore swastikas, for anybody who didn’t was suspect and bound to be abused. It was a simple, primitive protection: a small pin on the shirt or blouse, and we went unmolested. Neither of us was a hero. There were only two alternatives: to get jostled, fist on eye, bloody nose – or a swastika on the lapel. We decided in favor of the latter.
Which didn’t alter the fact that we had to leave our flat after a few months. The district Leopoldstadt had been declared Jewish ghetto, and this was where a flat was allocated to us. But there we stayed only a few hours. For, while my mother was unpacking furniture, dishes and clothes, some anti-Semite painted “Grünspan” on our door. Herschel Grünspan, a Polish Jew whose parents had been deported by the Nazis, had just assassinated Ernst von Rath, the German envoy accredited to Paris, which the Germans avenged in the so-called Pogrom Night, the Night of the Broken Glass against the Jews. Now they called us “Grünspan”.
When the janitor of the house in Leopoldstadt requested my mother to remove the “Grünspan”-lettering at her own cost, she got so angry that she decided to leave the flat immediately. I had just returned from a trip with my scooter and was rather surprised by the news of the imminent move. This time it was to a flat in the Obere Donaustraße, where my grandmother and my aunt Ida lived. We spent the whole war in a small room of this apartment.
I was half-Jewish and a member of the Hitler Youth. And this wasn’t so paradoxical as it may sound today. It was a necessity to survive. When the harassment began to become unbearable in 1942 – we heard of the first deportations to the camps; Jews had to be called Sara and Israel -, my relatives had the idea that I ought to join the Hitler Youth as a protection for the family, which I did. Whenever necessary I wore the swastika, an armband and the HY cap.
In fact, members of the SS in uniform turned up at our house several times, around 2 in the morning. They leant on the bell, insisted that all Jews leave the apartment; we should be picked up in an hour. Always when the bell rang by night, I put on swastika, armband and cap at lightning speed and opened the door for the frightening SS-people. I showed them a box with my father’s medals for bravery and my uncle’s Iron Cross from World War I. Surprisingly, this somehow impressed them and they left us alone for a while. Some months later, the procedure was repeated: leaning on the bell, men in SS uniforms, father’s World War medals, men leaving. This way I could delay my grandmother’s and aunt’s deportation by a year.
At the third occasion, it weren’t the SS people, but Jewish collaborators, who – in order to survive themselves – picked up other Jews for deportation. Both my aunt as well as my grandmother were abducted. They died in the concentration camp. Same as more than eighty other relatives, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins – my mother once made a list – who became victims of the Nazi regime. My aunt Gisela in Berlin and her daughter, my mother and I were the only survivors of a once huge family. Our survival was due to the fact that chiefly full Jews were deported. I was protected by being half Jewish, and my full Jewish mother was protected because she had a half Jewish son. The half Jew was able to protect the full Jew.
It was much later that I realized the perversion of the situation. While my mother went shopping wearing the Star of David, I walked around with the swastika. But when the normal situation becomes perverted, perversion is normal. I knew Jews who believed that if they would fight for Hitler and work hard for him, he wouldn’t hurt them. Many a “non-Aryan” said: Hitler is a good man, he just wants us to work for him. I remember our neighbors, the Jewish family Blau, in the Obere Donaustraße. Their opinion was: Hitler doesn’t wish to do us any harm, he just wants us to be upright and honest. They felt themselves to be good Germans and could not understand that they were disapproved of for religious, racist or any other reasons. There even were Jews who agreed with the Nazi watchword that the Jews were to blame for everything. Even my mother thought that the Polish Jews were responsible for the anti-Semitism.
We also thought that, when my grandmother and aunt were picked up, that they were brought “only” to a labor camp. There were rumors which whispered worse things, but nobody could believe that any regime would kill the inhabitants of its own country. One clung to the hope that the rumor would turn out to be untrue. Right to the end, we never believed the worst.
The Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend – HJ) never found out that in my case, this abbreviation didn’t mean just that, but also Half Jew. It was a miracle that this organization never realized this fact, but certainly my father’s Aryan name Stowasser helped a great deal. We of the Hitler Youth used to meet regularly, sang Hitler songs, marched to the Prater, where once a military attack was simulated.
When we had to choose a branch of arms in the last days of the War, my decision was the radio operations, because this seemed to me least dangerous. After I had passed the radio operator’s exam, our bell rang and some colleagues from the Hitler Youth wanted me to join them to go to war. The Russians meanwhile had reached Burgenland. In an attack of madness, which later turned out to be cleverness, I declared: I cannot go with you, I am half Jewish. The colleagues from the Hitler Youth went away shocked, but didn’t report the affair in the general chaos of war. My “confession” to be half Jewish saved my life. When the shooting started in Vienna, I saw a detachment of my friends of the Hitler Youth, fifteen, sixteen years old like myself, marching in the direction of the St. Stephen’s cathedral with bazookas over their shoulders. And none of them returned alive.
I attended the first grade of elementary school in 1935, at the Montessori school, which had been founded a short time before. This school was well known for its liberal teaching methods. Every child was allowed to do whatever it wished to do, so I immediately started to paint, and my report confirmed “exceptional sense of colors and shapes”. On the other hand I was unable to add up three and three after a year. This as well as the fact that the Montessori school was too expensive induced my mother to send me to a public elementary school. I had to drop out of the secondary school “for racist reasons” after five years, then attended a commercial school and finally graduated after the war.
Already in the Schuschnigg era, my mother had me baptized “for safety’s sake”. And it was in a Catholic church in the 15th district that I saw a picture of the Madonna which let me wish to become a painter. This resolution was also influenced by the flowers which I picked in the Vienna Woods in order to press them between the pages of a book. We used to discuss about how to avoid that the colors should fade. That’s when I said to myself, if you paint them instead of pressing them, the colors will remain unchanged. Another impulse was my stamp collection; I wanted to be able to paint such pretty little pictures myself one day. In 1943, I consciously made my first drawings.
I often used to stand for hours in front of the window display of a frame shop in the Wallensteinstraße, where they showed watercolors which delighted me. Every dot, every line fascinated me. Naturally, these pictures were conventional, upright and honest, just as these times required. I, too, painted my first watercolors, exactly in this style reminding of Hitler’s picture postcards, and I was always very happy when I succeeded to draw something that could be identified. Flowers, landscapes, houses and still lives were my favorite subjects.
In a small suitcase, which I carried around everywhere, I had a carefully rolled watercolor painted by me in order to be able to prove that I was a painter – just in case.
Doubtless the road I chose as an artist is causally connected with the situation in which I grew up. My youth as a double outsider – without a father and being half Jewish – has naturally contributed to my reflecting a lot and becoming aware. I became a lone wolf, a fighter for certain matters which seemed important to me. During my childhood I didn’t have the chance to feel part of a group and thus remained a solo combatant.
Text based on an interview with Hundertwasser, taken by Georg Markus, 1990 (excerpt).
Markus, Georg (ed.), Mein Elternhaus – Ein österreichisches Familienalbum, Dusseldorf, Vienna, New York: Econ Verlag, 1990 (German)
Schurian, Walter (ed.): Hundertwasser – Schöne Wege, Gedanken über Kunst und Leben. [Hundertwasser – Beautiful Paths, Thoughts on Art and Life], Munich: Langen Müller, 2004, pp. 49-55 (German)
The yet unknown Hundertwasser. Catalogue on the occasion of the exhibition at KunstHausWien, Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2008, pp. 253-256