As a little girl in 1940, Gita Kaufman escaped Vienna with her family at the last possible moment.
Austria had been under German control for two years, following the bloodless “Anschluss,” or union, of March 12, 1938. The annexation was a boon to Nazi anti-Jewish policy, as the largely affluent Jewish community of Vienna fell into German hands.
Jews had lived in Austria since Roman times, and almost 200,000 called the alpine republic home before the Anschluss. Vienna, the capital and crown jewel of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, was adored by native Jews such as Herzl, Freud and Buber. Fellow Austrian Adolf Hitler notoriously despised the city for its decadence and racial impurity.
Kaufman remembers an early childhood in Vienna filled with classical music and visits from relatives throughout Europe. All that changed 75 years ago Tuesday, when the Nazis turned their sights on Austria’s Jews.
Immediately after the Anschluss, Jews lost employment and were stripped of property, civil rights and dignity. To dampen protest, the Nazis sent 6,000 of Austria’s leading Jewish citizens to Dachau and Buchenwald, where most died.
Largely unknown to Kaufman at the time, her father worked ceaselessly to get the family out of Austria. No Jewish emigration “list” was too obscure for him to pursue, as illustrated by his correspondence with family members around the world.
The wartime letters from 11 members of Kaufman’s family form the basis of her new documentary, “Shadows From My Past.”
Written between 1939 and 1941, the letters document the Kaufman family’s escape to the US, as well as efforts to save relatives trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. Kaufman’s parents were Polish citizens, and most of their relatives were left to their fate in Poland.
“These letters from my family members all over Europe made their shadows real as I read them,” Kaufman told The Times of Israel. “The letters came back to my parents during the years after the war, having traveled the world looking for people who were no longer alive.”
Kaufman did not know of her father’s efforts to save her family at the time, but she remembers the situation for Austria’s Jews becoming progressively worse. One year after the Anschluss, Kaufman’s father — Nachman Weinrauch — was arrested by the Gestapo.
Kaufman describes her father’s arrest and torture in the documentary, including how Gestapo agents beat him and forced him into the frozen Danube River. A retired kindergarten teacher and youth orchestra conductor, Kaufman will never forget the powerlessness she felt during those final months in Vienna.
“Making this film made me realize what a loving and intelligent father I had,” Kaufman said. “He saved our family with his connections and his letters, and I did not understand that growing up. He was quiet and hard of hearing, and people did not always appreciate him”
On the same day the Weinrauch family was to be deported to Dachau, the priceless US entry visas arrived.
Within months of the family’s 1940 escape, most of central Europe had been conquered by Germany, and the first Jewish ghettos were established. The death camps had yet to open, but Kaufman’s letters from relatives trapped in Poland show they knew what was in store for them.
“Don’t give the family any rest,” Polish relatives wrote to Kaufman’s mother, Cele Weinrauch, about their situation. Desperate to flee Poland, family members recounted ongoing atrocities against Jews — in veiled terms to avoid the censor.
“It was hair-raising that a big family could be so indifferent,” Kaufman said of her frustration reading the pleas from Poland alongside responses from “complacent” family members in the US, some written after intended recipients had been deported.
Kaufman spent more than a decade making “Shadows,” a labor of love for her and late husband Curt Kaufman, who directed the film. Juxtaposed with the letters and old family photographs are two dozen interviews Kaufman conducted in Austria.
Her most famous subjects were two of Austria’s post-Holocaust icons — Kurt Waldheim and Simon Wiesenthal.
Kaufman grilled former Nazi officer and United Nations chief Kurt Waldheim about Austria’s claim to have been Hitler’s “first victim.” With Mauthausen camp survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, she asked about Austrians’ disproportionate participation in the genocide.
Both Waldheim and Wiesenthal have since died, giving a sense of the film’s decade-long production.
From the archbishop of Vienna to a bevy of politicians and artists, Kaufman left no stone unturned in asking national figures about their country’s role in the Holocaust, on camera.
Vienna was adored by native Jews such as Herzl, Freud and Buber. Hitler notoriously despised it
Austria’s current president, Heinz Fischer, addressed the topic during his interview with Kaufman.
“On the one hand, Austria and Austrians were victims,” Fischer said. “On the other hand, they were also contributors, and many Austrians were involved in the crimes and the terror of the Nazi system.”
Fischer is one of several Austrian leaders who helped advance Kaufman’s film, including by introducing an earlier, “less cinematic” version into Austrian schools in 2010. Entirely based on the family letters and without interviews, the German-language documentary was the brainchild of Kaufman’s husband.
Curt Kaufman — like his wife — was an artist who worked in many forms, including children’s books and visual arts. In 1987, he authored the critically acclaimed children’s book “Hotel Boy,” a frank look at child homelessness. He created illustrations and wrote the story with his wife, who could relate to being temporarily homeless.
Kaufman credits her husband with “always being ahead of his time,” and giving her the confidence to become a writer. Her experience combining text and illustrations with him for children’s books helped her envision the “Shadows” screenplay, Kaufman said.
“This film would never have been made were it not for Curt,” she said. “He had the vision and pushed me to do it. He taught himself film editing to get this done.”
Just as the documentary entered final editing in December of 2011, Curt Kaufman passed away. He had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer five months earlier, giving the couple little time to reflect on four decades of marriage, much less complete the film.
“I thought it was the end of the film when Curt died,” Kaufman said.
Since her husband’s death, she has worked to finish the documentary as a testament to his legacy. A film intended to recall her lost family in Europe brought Kaufman closer to their memory and — in the past year — to her late husband as well.
Waldheim told Kaufman that Austria had been Hitler’s ‘first victim’
Kaufman also updated the film to reflect new trends in European anti-Semitism, asking several interviewees to compare the political atmosphere for Jews following the Anschluss and today.
“Unemployment in Europe might bring this dark period back,” Jorg Haider, the former chairman of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, told Kaufman, rather nonchalantly.
Other interviewees pointed to the growth of Vienna’s Jewish community and its new institutions as potential lightening rods for anti-Semites.
“Shadows From My Past” will screen at the Austrian Embassy in Washington DC this month, with Kaufman delivering remarks. The showing will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss.
Austrian organizations including the Vienna Film Commission plan to screen the final version. Kaufman is also entering the film into festivals and organizing community showings in the US.