Survivors’ advocate: ‘I get so much back’
Hannah Lessing’s father wants her to stop her work overseeing Austria’s compensation payments to victims of the Nazis. Not that he disapproves; a Holocaust survivor himself, Erich Lessing is proud of what she does, but after two decades, he has told her it’s enough of being immersed in horror.
According to his daughter, that’s the reaction she has had from many people. As secretary general of the National Fund and General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism of the Republic of Austria, and its fund for the renovation of Jewish Cemeteries in Austria, she has been confronted by endless accounts of terrible suffering.
But it is all made worthwhile, she said, by the response of the survivors themselves.
“I receive so much back, that is why I can still do what I do,” she told an audience in Whippany on May 28. “It has been the most beautiful and humbling experience.” She was addressing the annual meeting of Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Lessing grew up in a vibrant Jewish community in Vienna, but well aware of the tragedies of the past. There were fewer than 10,000 Jews; 65,000 had perished in the Holocaust. Her own grandmother, a concert pianist, was killed by the Nazis, and her father fled to what was then Palestine. He worked as a war photographer, and eventually returned to Vienna.
In postwar Austria, Lessing recounted, “after a brief period of de-Nazification, a wall of silence went up. The Austrians did not own up to their role, or invite those who had fled to come back. The victims and their losses were ignored.”
And then things began to change. In 1995, when she was 32, the former actor (she had a role in the television mini-series Holocaust) had begun a successful career in banking when she was offered what she thought would be a two-year assignment, heading up the newly established fund to distribute “symbolic payments” to survivors.
She asked her father what he thought of that job offer. It took him weeks to respond, and then he posed two questions: “Can you give me back my childhood?” and “Can you bring back my mother from Auschwitz?”
Lessing told the audience, “You can’t turn back the hands of time. It was too little too late. Nothing could be repaired.” But she was determined to remind the thousands of survivors around the world — not just Jews, but disabled people, homosexuals, and members of other ethnic minorities also victimized by the Nazis — that they were not forgotten, and that what they suffered was at last being recognized by their homeland.
Now, a total of 30,000 people have received the symbolic payments of $7,000. “It’s not about the money that they get,” she said. “Behind every payment there is a person who knows they have been counted.” There has also been payment of $210 million for the loss of “real” assets, and the restoration of others. Those have included, she said, a Harley Davidson motorcycle, “palaces and pavilions,” and — of course — paintings like the famous Gustav Klimt picture Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (the “Woman in Gold” now known to movie-goers through the film of the same name), and a treasured book that Lessing herself hand-delivered to a woman now living in Queens.
There has also been a massive effort to record the victims’ stories, and to provide psychotherapy for those who want it. Both undertakings are complicated, Lessing acknowledged. For some, it has meant being “re-traumatized” with memories they had suppressed for so long. They hadn’t sought help before, she said, “because they didn’t want to burden their families, or to admit psychological weakness.”
But recording what was endured — especially by women, who were a majority of the victims — has been a means to enhance historic awareness in Austria. Lessing added it has also been a way to provide a more balanced view of war — a record generally written by men. Documents, books, and exhibitions, including the women’s display at Yad Vashem, have been able to show “how inventive, strong-willed, and courageous” the Jewish women of Austria were.
“What about the young people in Austria today?” an audience member asked. They are far better informed about the Holocaust, Lessing said, and while they have other current concerns, that awareness remains very important. “This dark past is not about guilt,” she said. “The generation today is not responsible for the past, but it is the generation responsible for what we do in the future.”
The turnout for the annual meeting was one of the largest in years, according to the organizers. That enthusiasm was mirrored by the fund-raising figures. Speaking at the start, Women’s Philanthropy president Joan Schiffer Levinson said, “Today, Women’s Campaign stands at $5,002,274 — up $357,000 from this point in time last year.” The “gift for gift” level, which compares each closed gift this year against the donor’s closed gift last year, is up 3.5 percent.