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Gebürtig

GEBÜRTIG

Novel by Robert Schindel, 1992

Set in Vienna in the early 1980s, Robert Schindel's Gebürtig, his second and most highly acclaimed novel, examines the effect of the Holocaust on contemporary relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish Austrians. Through smoothly written dialogue, with verses and a number of letters interspersed, he shows how the repercussions of the Holocaust continue to permeate virtually every corner of the daily life of all Austrians, be they survivors, bystanders, perpetrators, or their children. The novel consists of seven chapters, preceded and followed by a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue, entitled "Doppellamm" (double lamb), contains an opening scene in a Vienna coffeehouse that sets the tone for the rest of the novel. The non-Jewish Austrian Erich Stieglitz deliberately baits the Jewish Mascha Singer, a child of survivors, by praising Mauthausen, his hometown, for its beauty. While the reference to the idyllic town, best known for its concentration camp, is upsetting for Singer, the scene is more important for its illustration of how Stieglitz, despite his provocation, considers himself a victim of the Jews and of the past. Indignant because he is no longer allowed to admire the beauty of his hometown and peeved because he is considered a fascist for doing so, Stieglitz storms out of the coffeehouse. The scene parallels Austria's postwar proclamation of itself as the first victim of Hitler's aggression, contrary to the warm reception Hitler received during the Anschluss.

The following chapters pursue more in-depth examinations of the relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish Austrians. The main character is Danny Demant, a lecturer who is the son of exiled Jewish Austrian communists and who pursues a stormy relationship with Christiane Kalteisen, some of whose relatives were Nazis and whose non-Jewish identity and lack of concern with the past form the basis of their difficulties. Demant's twin brother, Alexander, nicknamed Sascha Graffito, narrates the novel. This doubling underscores the fact that most of the Jewish characters in the novel appear to have two identities: a Jewish persona, which the characters either hide or emphasize, depending on the situation, and a neutral, Austrian, persona. In addition, the theme of doubling is reflected in the title of the prologue and in short verses interspersed among the text. "Das doppelköpfige Unschuldslamm" (the double-headed lamb of innocence) mentioned in one verse refers to the Jewish and non-Jewish Austrians whose present identities may seem so different but whose pasts are intricately and indelibly linked. Thus, the Jewish and non-Jewish characters in the novel, like Danny and Christiane, are constantly attracted to and form relationships with one another. These relationships, however, inevitably break down because of the past.

Schindel's writing also demonstrates the importance of language and names to each character's identity. The name of a Jewish woman who died in the war, Sonja Okun, comes to Demant's mind many times. When Konrad Sachs, the child of the Nazi official in charge of occupied Poland, tries in good faith to come to terms with his own identity, he stumbles over the name Demant so often that Demant finally lashes out at him for it. In addition, the book contains a glossary in which Yiddish and Hebrew words are listed along with Viennese terms; thus, Josefstadt, a section of Vienna, follows Yom Kippur, the holiest of the Jewish holidays. The city of Vienna also plays an important role in Schindel's examination of the past, particularly in the story of the trial of an Austrian Nazi guard from the camp at Ebensee. The story is told by way of a text within the text, through the manuscript of Emmanuel Katz, who has given it to Demant to read. In the story the only witness, a former Austrian Jew appropriately named Hermann Gebirtig (playing on the title of the book, which has been translated as "born where"), must return to Vienna to testify that he knew the guard while he was imprisoned in Ebensee. While he is in Vienna, the narrative follows him through the streets of his childhood to the justice ministry, where the guard is finally pronounced innocent, thus implicating the city itself in Austria's refusal to recognize its complicity in the events of the Holocaust. Gebirtig must return home to the United States, since for him Vienna remains forever tainted in its refusal to acknowledge its role in the persecution of the Jews.

The epilogue, entitled "Verzweifelt" (hopeless), follows Demant and 40 Jewish survivors as they travel to Theresienstadt on an eerie trip for the filming of a television series on the Holocaust. Demant, the child of Nazi victims, plays the role of a camp inmate, while an actual survivor plays an SS guard. Thus, the prologue's theme of the shifting identities of victims and perpetrators continues even to the end, indicating that the identities of "victim" and "perpetrator" shift increasingly with the passage of time.

—Lisa Silverman

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