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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

“We’re All Right.” Europe’s Influence on My Writing

Robert Schindel
Traduction de Anna Paterson

Texte intégral

Aber mein Schreiben hat seine Muttermale leider nicht
im Reformeuropa, sondern in jenem europäischen
Gulag. Je mehr dieser in der Geschichte zum Erdreich
geht, desto mehr mögen künftige Texte zivilisatorischen
Fortschritten Rechnung tragen.


1The train had reached its destination and stopped. A woman, who was almost thirty-two years old, looked at the station sign. She became aware of the word Auschwitz for the first time in her life. A friend sitting next to her said that he too had never heard of the place. The date was the first of November, 1944. Both were under Gestapo detention orders. The man and the woman got out together, were separated, and would never see each other again.

2The woman is already familiar to those who have read my essays. She was Gerty Schindel. Her friend was René Hajek, my father. Both were well dressed. They had got out of France fourteen months earlier because the exiled Austrian Communist Party had instructed them to organize a resistance group in Linz, a city on the Danube that is the main city of the northeastern, or Upper Austrian, province. Members of the group were given forged French identification papers, making them citizens of Alsace to account for their German accents. Gerty or rather Annette, as she was known in the resistance, became Suzanne Soël. My father’s new name was Pierre Lutz. Moving from Paris to Linz inside my mother’s belly, I listened to the changed tone of speech. Gerty, an active member of the illegal Communist Party in Vienna, had been arrested before the war and sentenced to five years inside. Now it was essential that she carried out her tasks in a place where she was known neither to the citizens nor to the authorities.

3The Alsatian group had volunteered to become registered as foreign workers in Austria, or Ostmark, as the Nazis called it. They lived in a skiing village near Linz. Gerty was the dark-haired French woman working as a maid in the Maischberger Inn. Then I came into the world. Four months later their cover was blown. She was recognized in the street by Mottl S., a young Jew in hiding. One wheel of my stroller had come off and rolled in front of his feet.

4“Gerty, what are you doing here?”

5My mother replied in French, but it did not help. When they got hold of Mottl he told his torturers everything he knew. Before they had finally worn him out my parents were already on the train to Vienna. They had been exposed as Viennese communists and Jews. I was in another train taking me to a safe hiding-place in Vienna. A nursery nurse had swiftly removed me from the scene.

6My parents stayed for eight weeks at the Gestapo’s Austrian headquarters at Morzinplatz in Vienna, courtesy of the assassin Johann Sanitzer. They traveled on to Auschwitz, where they were to wait until tried for high treason. Traveling with them were their documents, stamped RU for Rückkehr unerwünscht, i.e., “Return not recommended.”

7They arrived into a European community packed into the smallest of spaces. Hardly a nation was missing from the list of inmates. In harmonious unison, they fed together from the same tin basins, though the harmony was broken when they were shouted at. Then the Italians, the Poles, the Germans, the Greek, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the French and the Dutch all trotted off work in their wooden clogs, at the double — faster you lousy swine, one-two, onetwo. The same kind of thing went on in the women’s camp. Harmoniously everyone shared the common latrines, typhus and dysentery clearing out people’s insides until no life was left, until they were no longer able to get up or were already in the death-house, gasping out their inter-European last sighs.

8Auschwitz? It was the European answer to the Gulag Archipelago, a finely-meshed spider’s web holding thousands of flies, a city of death serving so many places: from Natzweiler to Majdanek, from Neuengamme to Saloniki and back to Stutthof, from Drancy, Strutthof and Westerbork to Jasenovac. This was United Europe of the slaves, and the victims and the killed. It was organized by a mastermind, who with its skilled helpers had woven the net — by Germany and its collaborators.

9When that Nazi Germany was at last laid waste, it left behind an ancient continent devoured, desolate, petrified. Then the moment passed — “Life flowered in the ruins,” as the saying goes — and the spring of forty-five turned out to be enchantingly warm and lovely — or so they say.


10I emerged from under all that rubble, overshadowed by the huge, overheated political machine in the East. I had been tucked away inside a crèche run by the National Socialist People’s Welfare Organization. It was right in the middle of Glasscherben Island, as it was then known. Before the war the Viennese called it Matzoth Island because there were so many Jews living there — in my Leopoldstadt.

11Post-war children in Vienna: we grew up as best we could, playing football with stones or tennis-balls or rubber balls. I was given a leather ball, so I became the prince of the Jesuitenwiese. Angrily, we watched as they cleared one ruined site after another, all great places for playing, let’s say, the French against the Vietminh. Dull municipal housing rose on cleared sites, and from the windows grouchy grownups were snarling at us. People in this city loved dogs, not children.

12The Russians were there. If you asked the children, they would have nothing but good to say about the Soviet soldiers. They swung us high in the air and we breathed in the strange odors from the mouths of tow-haired, laughing Seryoshas and Alyoshas. The Yanks were chewing their gum in the classier parts of town. As for the French and the British, no child in Vienna can recall anything about them.

13Odd things happened. The teacher, who had been a Nazi, would be very quiet for whole lessons on end. Occasionally someone would mention his service as a low altitude pilot in the Wehrmacht (the German army). But for us children, Europe had vanished. Only the United States and the Soviet Union existed.

14I was a Young Pioneer, a Petrel as we were called in Vienna, when I started writing. The Petrels was an organization for children run by the Communist Party. We children were anyway quite taken by the idea of the Soviet Union, not because we figured it was nice to kids, but because it was socialism incarnate. We sang “The East is red” (China is young) too. Socialism was pushed at us in terms of a splendid future, a glowing alternative to exploitation by US capitalists, who were slowly taking over Europe too.

First Fragments of Childhood

Murder strode on the stage of my childhood,
they strangled my father there, well and good.
When the labor camp released my mother.
She found me, and loved me, but I was another

A tramp of the passions, forever restless;
I messed about and did not give a toss.
But the tumbling walls of school and fortress
Stirred up winds of rebellion and waves of loss

A child at play in a world they had made,

still deep in my dreams colored
socialist red,
as comrades’ slogan-filled mouths kissed my own

Childhood behind me, and future in the shade
of Marxist–Leninist trees, I was stilled, I bred
long-nosed kids, stones on my father’s tombstone.

15The European Coal and Steel Union was of no interest to those who thought like me. To us the whole idea of Europe seemed rightwing, reactionary — the large corporations wanted to create supranational conglomerates and dressed it up as “European Integration.” Adenauer was a suspect figure as far as I was concerned. Those who acknowledged him as a “great European” had not the slightest idea of what a “Great European” was supposed to be like.

16After August 13 in 1961, we sang “Auf der Mauer, auf det Mauer, sitzt der Konrad Adenauer” (On the Wall, hour after hour, sits Herr Konrad Adenauer). We pinned all the blame for Germany’s division on the West. We fought the revisionists and the exiles, who presented a view of history — and probably still do — that was based on systematically redistributing guilt over time. For these people 1945 was the zero-hour when all the wrong-doing began. Take the way the “German people” looked on approvingly, while the Nazis were behaving like utter barbarians in Sudetenland and Schlesien, setting precedents for the later expulsions — actually, no, it didn’t happen. It took time before it dawned on us activists that two wrongs do not make a right.

17By then my writing was branded by their denial of guilt and their vociferous accusations against their former victims, all of which also seemed increasingly to characterize Stalinism. I was too young to join in the hymns to Stalin and later on, I became a Maoist but was driven mainly by opportunism. Given my previous experiences, I could not face starting to sing songs of praise this time round.

18To a young man, who had been socialized as a member of the Left and always carried the knowledge of an exterminated family at the back of his mind, the European idea was devoid of any attraction. What did it really stand for?


19It looked like standing for an orchestrated activity, an aligned society, a catalogue of values aimed at masking the old German glorydreams with democratic maxims, while criminalizing all left-wing activity. The trail of democracy led back to the once-so hostile Western allies and the careful Euro-builders tunneled into prehistory, pushing all memories of cracking selfhood and buried corpses out of sight. The turncoats were lining up, respected politicians now: regional First Ministers, Ministers of Transport, of Trade and Industry, Federal Presidents — all present and correct.

20In Austria the value system was similar, though the dishonesty had taken one more turn for the worse. As is well known, our crafty Austrian politicians sold the world the story of our fate as the first victim of Nazi Germany. Stepping smartly back from the edge of the mass graves, piled high with shot Jews, Russians, partisans and police and well inside the auditorium of post-war Austria, they could report back on another performance they had seen, though of course not participated in. Others were up to all sorts — these partisans, these Asiatic Ivans, and so forth. Jews, now? No Jews anywhere to be seen, tough but was only home on leave at the time. Easily ten thousand Austrian soldiers must have joined in “scorched-earth” raids, yet no one seems to have noticed a single crime committed by the Wehrmacht. Or, had there been something to be seen, they knew how to keep their mouths shut. That entire generation was a marvel: although part of the fighting machine, they walked through massacres, as a man as totally innocent as a bunch of Sir Galahads. They had carried out their duty, that’s all.

21This was certainly more true of the second generation of senior politicians than the first. As well as the middle and lower ranks of the two main political parties, they were avowedly just spectators of — OK, unfortunate events. The third force to reckon with, the “Independents,” was a far from insignificant group of excollaborators. Their former convictions were tempered now, in the sense of being reduced to the “good” aspects of National Socialism: “Hitler was ein böser Mann, docht baute er die Autobahn” (Though Hitler was as bad as they say, it’s true he built a fine motorway). That Jewish business was a bad mistake, as was the anticlericalism. Generally, it had been a bad idea to fight angels and devils at the same time. In this mental morass every brown flower that grew looked blue thanks to the widespread Austrian disorder of colorblindness.

22We were presented with the European concept as constructed by this lot. It became entrenched, at first supported and later taken over by the country’s conservatives. Certainly, one of the core ideas was that Hitler had already envisaged a united Europe and actually got his way; remember the “European Archipelago”? The conservatives turned their backs on this version of the unification idea and found up-to-date replacements: United Europe as an economic barricade to keep the heathen communists at bay, and as a liberating force for our East European brothers and sisters. In order to set up this Europe, it was first necessary to break it into two parts and also, whenever speaking about “Europe” to align it with the West.

23As we all know, the waves of rebellion in ‘68 were directed towards this value-system.

24Gradually, very gradually this West-oriented system started to change as it agreed negotiated settlements with the Eastern block. Its national economies were crumbling, as our mercantile rulers’ democratic deficits became obvious, and — finally — as Gorbachev’s perestroika arrived on the scene. The previous, baffling generation went down the tube and with it went quite a few of the old glorious ideas.

25The events of 1989 finally led to socialism as we knew it being dumped, but by that time a new idea of Europe had already emerged. It had more in common both with the old central Europe and with the pan-European movement than with the image of Europe cherished by so many on the right.


26Years ago, the writer Milo Dor asked: “What kind of Central Europe will we have if we accept English as our means of communication?” Dor was born in Budapest, grew up in Belgrade and lived in Vienna after the war. Today his Central Europe has become an illusion: its culture was lost forever when the European Jewry was eliminated.

27Still, inside me the old times still are alive and breathing. I find them again in Milo Dor’s writing and the works of Aleksandar Tišma, Ivo Andric, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth and many others. In that sense the old place has meant and still means much to me.

WORDS GOING ON A JOURNEY I. (In the middle of the karst landscape)


28Surrounded by crags and corpses on the karst limestone here and there puddles of blood woodland under the pale sky, a lake with rippling water in the midst of the stone landscape its southeastern history is huddled up, words piled up close, ears like waving reeds, eyes like objective lenses. Crouching in a hollow high up in the karst they stay watching the farmstead being shot to pieces

29Nearby, bent over tightly to keep still but rising traveling what a driving force her wings lend her fluttering then flying into the distance away from the silent seas of blood that infect all with stillness, flying away from the valleys of misery from the armor-clad hilltops gaining height and width in her flight to leave the shadows over the landscape, to slide into our senses


30I am reporting this. Was he pissed? I saw it, I refer to my own eyes rolling popping from their sockets the girl in front there next to an old man Srebrenica my lost love bending finally together your gebihatschter and his goratsch Ah don’t geddit! Report comprehensibly the facts of the atrocity for our files we take an interest in how them over there fucked some place Srebrenica what’s that with the knife in the gob of someone or other is it true, really is it


31Passing high above the Alps the words separate leaving the cavalcade scattering disappearing in downward flight coming through the computer screen as images, reeds are bending over to mined ground, massacred bodies words are pushing their way from ear to back of tongue and there new words join them and the entire continent is chattering. There is the landscape to which farmers and doctors former children and soldiers once quietly devoted so much.

32During the last century just this region has been torn apart and its flags soaked in blood. During the ‘90s it turned back into itself, hid in its smallest space, threatening at first to become the cause of Europe once more splitting into nation-states.

33In Austrian Klagenfurt, close to the Croatian border, during the Bachmann literary awards in 1992, the shooting was heard as close as if it were inside the room.


34While sleep is overwhelming me I’m thinking vaguely of voices after the fading echoes of the southern Slav turmoil and in my almost-sleep I see as if I were there how the Ustaše flags are brought by men riding into the farms of Krajina, I hear the ceaseless shooting by the Slavonians from the east, the army at Vokovar, the dead, the filmmaker Niki Vogel shot down, the fine airport in Ljubljana, a northern city

35Clinging to love the butterfly dances round the reading-lamp Bosnians in Srebrenica have been shot and dumped long since and Chechnyan people mumble about their right to self determination Like the Serbs and Muslims in Krajina, German people of South Tyrol, what so special about Erdberg? Watching the World channel my eyelids swell with blood looking at Mr Ignorant and Mr Grumbler, observing the bombardment of the white city it is as if to die for Serbia meant that every shot went to pot try breathing with your belly.

36Those I watch here on my own make me laugh in sleepy Vienna folk are beating up H, the poet, and driving him from their editorial offices and their pubs because he is in mourning for the federal state, because he wants fair reporting of the terrible facts of the matter, before I can close my eyes Mr Joseph Roth or someone so like him comes staggering across my belly, so I whisper to him should not really Franz Joseph live rather than Tuđjman and Milošević?

37I turn the cover falls off one leg I push my behind towards the south-east lay both hands on my cheek, now I had better sleep for in the morning I must write about a character in my novel who is not guilty ‘cause it is not too late for writing stuff. Down in the street the snow-clearing machines rattle as if they were tanks waiting then finally my dreams carry me away.

38Once more, the one-sided media coverage proved — if proof were needed — how swiftly nationalistic rabble-rousing can develop. The Serbian and Croatian variants of nationalism certainly share the guilt for the wars in the Balkans, but old notions of the Killer-Serbs led to Serbia being fingered as the sole responsible state.

39When Peter Handke denounced this one-sidedness, the German and Austrian media responded by practically declaring him an enemy of peace and democracy. Given this media campaign, it is understandable that Handke himself kept his protective stance towards the Serbian policy rather too single-mindedly, overreaching himself in a way which in the end failed to clarify matters.

40But even during this crisis the new Europe grew in stature, slowly but steadily.


41I feel quite good about the European Union, and was pleased that we Austrians were not outside it during the Haider years. It would have been most uncomfortable to be left alone in the company of Haider and his cunning Austrian henchmen during a period of growth in populist politics.

42Now, the enlargement of the Union to include East European states means that the EU must develop social policies. Battles about social conditions will also be fought in the context of the purely economic union. Such battles, fought as new class confrontations and not as conflicts between nation states, should lead to improved social provisions. In this way the Left, with its insistence that the international validity of the opposition between labor and capital, will also become involved into the shaping of Europe.

43That’s all right by me. I must admit, though, that it is not from the Europe of reform that I get the native tongue in which I write, but from the old European Gulag. The further that historical period descends into the underworld, the more should it be taken into account for future inquiries into the progress of civilization.

44It is in 1945. The train stops. The doors are pulled open. Men, wearing uniforms no one has seen before, throw sacks full of straw into the carriages. My mother, who is thirty-two years old and weighs all of thirty-two kilograms, turns to one of the uniformed men.

45“Why these sacks of straw all of a sudden?”

46The man, a member of the military police, finds nothing to say. The prisoners are silent too. They come from an assortment of concentration camps. Then the man speaks up.

47“It’s the ninth of May. They agreed about peace today.”

48He glanced at the skeletons standing and lying everywhere in the carriage.

49“You’re all right, see.”


Further Reading:
Born-Where. Studies. Translated by Michael Roloff.
Ariadne Press, 1995.

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 303k


The poet, author, and editor Robert Schindel was born the child of Austrian communists of Jewish descent at Bad Hall in 1944. His father was murdered at Dachau concentration camp in 1945, while his mother survived Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. After studying law and philosophy, Schindel became politically active as the spokesperson of the Vienna Commune and then moved in Maoist circles until 1978. Meanwhile he began working in the field of film, television, and radio. Robert Schindel has received numerous awards, including the Austrian Literature Prize Award in 1992 and the Erich Fried Prize for language and literature in 1993.

Anna Paterson (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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