Witnessing the Nazi rise – 3 stories from a Zionist in Austria in the 30’s

The period when Nazism rose in Germany and Austria was witnessed by people who were not caught up in the general enthusiasm, namely the Jews. One account of the period is by an Austrian Jew nameed Benno Weiser, who was a student at the time.

Here are three interesting stories he gives in his book: “Confessions of a Lucky Jew”. Before I summarize them, I should say that he was rescued because he had made the friend of an Ecuadoran, who when the time came, was able to get him out. Benno immigrated to Ecuador and fell in love with the country.

Story #1:

I remember one of them, (fellow high school students) Traxlmayer. I can’t think of his first name; we called him Traxl. Traxl was rather short and slim, but very muscular. He was our best gymnast, excellent on the horizontal bar and the parallel bars. I suppose that his Nazi bent came by way of his membership in the Deutscher Turnverein, the German gymnastic association. Nobody could compete with him in gymnastics. I bested him in shotput and high jump, which merited his grudging recognition. Scholastic achievements could not impress him. He knew Jews were smart. We had no social contact with him, but neither did we have with the other non-Jews. Yet with them we would joke, while he cracked a smile and talked with us only as a last resort. Studying eight years together, it was inevitable that we exchanged now and then a few words, but I don’t remember ever having had a conversation with him, until we met, years later, in completely different circumstances. He never did anything provocative, but his aloofness was a silent accusation: here am I, a thoroughbred Aryan, condemned to spend five hours every day in this Jew school. He was not brilliant, but he was bright. And he was always there, never absent-minded, never caught napping. He had a way of watching everything, everybody, fellow students and teachers. Did he hate us? If so, it was in a non-personal way. He had no favorites. His anti-Semitism, which we took for granted, was abstract. Only once did we see him coming out of his shell. The occasion was a short lecture I was allowed to give in our German class. My subject was a Viennese writer — Theodor Herzl. He listened, as usual, with great attention, and raised his hand when I was through. He asked a question, not precisely addressed to me; it might just as well have been directed to the professor: “Is it an aim of Zionism that all the Jews emigrate to Palestine?”

The professor looked at me. He obviously preferred that I give the answer. I replied that Palestine was too small to take in 16 million Jews. I quoted Herzl: “The Jews who will it, will have their state.” This was one of the rare occasions that we saw him smile. It was half smile, half smirk. I interpreted it at the time as meaning: “I thought so; to believe that all the Jews would leave is too good to be true.” He sat down. There was no follow-up question.

Another Traxl story:

We celebrated our Matura at one of the tradition-laden coffeehouses in the city’s heart. We all dressed up for the occasion. There was a great deal of good-hearted banter, until word came that Professor Heinrich Montzka, our history teacher and director of the school, was arriving. With him came four more of our teachers. Several students spoke, including one named Adler, who said that: “We live in a time of disquieting unrest. I often wonder how much time we have left. Werther? Goethe? Very slow reading. Suggest something more timely, we may devour it.” Director Montzka was not a man of the quick comeback. There was a pause. From the end of the table a strong voice said: “I can suggest something more timely, Adler. But I’m afraid you won’t enjoy it.” We all turned our heads in the direction of the speaker. It was Traxlmayer. The sphynx had broken the silence of years. “The book’s title is Mein Kampf,” Traxl continued. “It should certainly keep all of you spellbound.” Montzka was beside himself. “Traxlmayer!” he shouted, “You can say that? You, whom I have taught history for eight solid years? A student of mine? You have fallen for this trap that a group of madmen has been tending to a whole nation? Gross-Deutschland? I am also in favor of a Great Germany. But what does Great Germany mean? One from Hammerfest to Sicily? Do you measure greatness in square kilometers? Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Heine — they are Germany’s greatness! Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant, no nation has produced greater minds than those. You have shamed me, Traxlmayer. You have spoiled this get-together. If we were in school I’d order you out of the classroom!” Traxlmayer listened with a smile. Then he got up and replied: “Professor Montzka, I believe in discipline, and accept your order even here, though you obviously have no authority in this coffeehouse. “I just would like to add two remarks: One, historians can only change the past. They can’t change the future. Two, I am not ungrateful for what you have taught me. But if you excuse me, my heart is not with those who teach history, but —” Traxlmayer paused deliberately. And then he finished: “— but with those who make history.” He walked out and left us all stunned. We dispersed in confusion.

A Revealing story:

Some time in 1931, the Pan-European Youth Movement organized an evening of discussions. The theme was: “Pan-Europe — Youth, Can You Help?” The meeting took place in Vienna’s Old Town Hall, and youth movements of all ideological shadings were invited to send one speaker each. I was a founding member of VZM, the Verband Zionistischer Mittelschüler (Association of Zionist Gymnasium Students). VZM was selected to nominate the Zionist speaker; VZM delegated me.

An excerpt:

“… Rapaport, who had spoken for a juvenile chess association, was visibly relieved. He stepped down to the rhythmic handclapping of the Nazis who shouted: “Moishe, go home! The matzoh soup is waiting!” Smolka announced the next speaker, a Mr. Epstein, who would speak for the Esperantists. As soon as he reached the rostrum, someone shouted: “Again a Jew!” The balcony shook with laughter. There are those who claim that there is no such a thing as a Jewish race, that it is the invention of Streicher, Rosenberg, and Goebbels, that there are at best several Jewish races. Whoever has seen a group of blond, blue-eyed sabra children in a kibbutz may tend to agree with this theory. Unfortunately, Epstein looked exactly like the stereotype of the Jew as depicted in Der Stürmer. He had heavy lips, a hooked nose, and kinky black hair. He started out in Esperanto, which provoked great hilarity in the balcony. One girl shouted: “Speak German, Jew! You’re not in Palestine!” Epstein tried to ignore the catcalls. He read from a prepared text in a steady, monotonous voice. It might have been difficult to understand him at best; but with the Nazi sound effects, it was hopeless.

Jews are catalysts. They stir things up anywhere. They certainly did in Vienna. The majority of the speakers turned out to be Jews; the spokesmen of the socialists, communists, Boy Scouts, the liberal dueling fraternities, the vegetarians, and even a group that advocated barefoot walking. ..the organizer, Smolka, ran out of Gentiles. The pacifist, the freethinker, and the spokesman for a writers’ club were Jews. At last, Smolka banged his gavel and announced: “And now, for the Zionist youth organizations of Austria, Mr. Benno Weiser.” This announcement brought the house down. The other speakers had been given the benefit of the doubt. There always was a moment of suspense: was he or wasn’t he? But there could be no doubt about the Zionist spokesman. The Nazis were laughing; this time good-naturedly, almost without malice. After all those crypto-Jews, they were now to listen to an obvious Jew. I slowly made my way to the speaker’s stand and made a supreme effort to look cheerful. I had had ample time to compose the opening sentence. I thrust my tongue against my front teeth and wetted my mouth. And then I said loudly and distinctly: “Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, and you too, up in the balcony!” There were a few laughs, but this time from the front rows. The Nazis were quiet, perhaps surprised. I was the first speaker to acknowledge their presence. “My first words go to you,” I continued, “up there, having such a wonderful time. You’re right: I am, of course, also a Jew. But there is one thing that distinguishes me from the other Jews you have heard, or shouted down, this evening. I come to you not as a liberal, nor as a socialist, a Mason, Rotarian, vegetarian, or barefooter — but as a Jew, one who is proud of being one, who doesn’t pretend to be anything else and who couldn’t care less about not being an Aryan.” Life sprang into the audience filling the lower part of the hall. Some got up, some applauded furiously, some shouted, “Bravo, bravo!” They had come to applaud their fellow Pan-Europeans, liberals, socialists, and so on. They had been sitting there the whole evening, frustrated, unhappy, listening to the abuse and to their speakers who had tried to ignore it.

I waited until the noise had ended and continued: “I had prepared a little speech on Pan-Europe. But you will agree with me — all of you will agree with me — that this is not the place for it. Our friends up there would be bored to tears if I were to speak about Pan-Europe. They are only interested in Jews. And this being the case, I trust they will excuse me if I address myself to the Jews in this hall.”

It was amazing how quiet the audience was. The Nazis actually let me speak! I had managed to make them curious. “The problem of Pan-Europe will have to be decided by economists, statesmen, politicians. It’s not a problem for a young Jew in Austria. But there does exist — and this evening proves it once more — a Jewish problem in Austria. I must confess that I, too, was a bit astonished about this tremendous array of young Jews who seem to worry about everything, from Rotarianism to health food, from prevention of alcoholism to the prevention of corns on their toes, as if they had nothing else to worry about! “I have the highest respect for ideologists who dedicate themselves to causes. But I invite you all, and this includes the distinguished chairman of this meeting, to search in your souls whether all these worthy causes you embrace are not vehicles of escape from the inescapable fact that you are Jews!

Final story:

After the aborted meeting (a different one, not the one above), the Nazis grouped on the street and marched off in formation, shouting their well-known slogan, “Deutschland erwache, Juda verrecke!” (Awake, Germany, perish the Jews!) The translation does not transmit the phonetic brutality of that war cry. Verrecken means literally to croak. But the vulgarity of its sound is charged with more violence than any English equivalent. I was among the few people who boarded a three-car trolley in the direction of the city center. Most of the non-Nazis were still lingering inside the hall, excitedly discussing the sabotaged meeting and giving vent to their anger. The trolley consisted of two regular cars and one with open front and rear platforms. After a few hundred meters the trolley overtook the column of the marching Nazis. Standing on the open front platform of the last car, I estimated their number at two hundred. Just as the trolley passed them, they shouted again, “Deutschland erwache, Juda verrecke!” Whereupon a loud voice answered: “Hitler in Oarsch!” To my dismay, the voice was mine. Neither the shout, nor the choice of words, was premeditated. It was a reflex reaction to the scandalous slogan heard from so close. The shout meant: “Hitler into the asshole,” the German word Arsch pronounced in Viennese dialect that intensified the vulgarity. A roar came from the marching column. And suddenly four hundred feet started to run after the trolley. Whatever went on in my mind when I shouted the obscenity, I suppose that I must have relied on the speed of the trolley, because I certainly had no suicidal streak in me. Only when I saw the whole column running did I become aware of the tremendous stupidity of what I had done. I had lost my mind. But now that I saw the danger, it functioned again. I had to prevent by all means any of those running Nazis from jumping onto the moving trolley. There were three of them who outdistanced the pack and were closing in on the rear platform. I rushed through the interior of the trolley car, noticing in the few seconds the frightened faces of the handful of passengers, and posted myself on the rear platform, raising one leg to kick anybody who tried to jump onto the three steps. The combination of speed and the threat of a kick made the sprinters fall back. I thought I was saved, when a triumphant shout came from the column, now some two hundred meters behind. I had not noticed, but they had: the trolley had started to slow down. We were approaching a stop.

I knew that if they caught me, they would beat me into a pulp. I raced through the trolley car towards the front platform, climbed over its railing on the side which I hoped was out of sight, jumped off, fell, got up, ran forward under the cover of the two first trolley cars, tore my flaming red necktie off and threw it away — it was my most conspicuous give-away — and reached the front of the trolley, jogging along until it came to a halt. As I wanted to walk around the front of the car to board it from the other side, I was intercepted by a uniformed man who handed me a jacket. Only after I put it on did I realize it was that of a fare collector. Noises came from the back of the train. The conductor clanked the signal and drove on. He motioned me to stand next to him. As the trolley gained speed, he whispered: “What you did was not very smart, it could have cost you your life.” But there was no reproach in his voice. He was a Strassenbahner, a trolley conductor, unionized by Vienna’s “red” municipality, a “Sotzie,” a Social Democrat. He certainly did not like the Nazis any more than I did. I never found out what happened in the rear of the train. I expected the Nazis to search the front car, too. But they didn’t. There were no passages between the cars. They would not have recognized me anyway. I had shouted a fraction of a second after the trolley had passed the column. It was dark. I had disposed of my tie and wore a collector’s uniform. I thanked the conductor and changed trolleys. As I walked the few blocks to my parental home, I could not suppress a surge of triumph.


Weiser Varon, Benno. Professions of a Lucky Jew . Plunkett Lake Press. Kindle Edition.

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