How did you first find out about Hans?
I first met him in 2000 in New York City. Hans was first discovered by a traveling Yiddish theater group in Austria. They invited him to a klezmer festival in Canada, and from there, a small group called Yugntruf brought him to New York to do a concert. A friend of mine happened to be on their email list, so I attended the show and ended up writing a short piece about Hans for the Forward. It was based on meeting him then that I decided to travel to Austria the next year, in 2001. The book is about my travels during that summer.
What was it about Hans that was so intriguing that you felt like you wanted to learn more?
First, he was a wandering shepherd who was also a Yiddish folksinger--that alone is fairly intriguing. I was interested in the novelty. But when I interviewed Hans at length, I realized he was more than a novelty, that he had a pretty fascinating story to tell. Hans grew up in Vienna, the child of communist parents. His father was Jewish. He grew up in a society that was full of unreformed Nazis, and this completely shaped his childhood. He spent his childhood fighting what he perceived as lingering Nazism in Austrian society. That stance eventually led him to become, in 1968, a radical. It was only years after that that he ended up a wandering shepherd.
The subtitle of your book says that Hans is Austria's last wandering shepherd. Is this a dying art?
He claims that he is the last, and I tried to look into it. There are other shepherds in Austria, and there are other "district shepherds," meaning they travel within a small contained area. But Hans is the only true wandering shepherd--he travels around vast areas and makes an annual loop around a region of the country.
A wandering shepherd essentially has to be homeless. Hans has a little caravan that comes with him at all times, and he's sometimes able to make it back to Vienna, but he's essentially never in one place for an extended period.
There are still some wandering shepherds in Germany. That's where Hans learned to become a real wandering shepherd. It was with shepherds there that he learned a number of his first Yiddish songs.
Was that a Jewish wandering shepherd?
No, but Germany at the time, in the early 70s, was experiencing a renewed interest in the Holocaust, and in the nature of the crimes and what exactly had gone on. There wasn't the same level of denial as there had been in Austria from the start, though it had been largely unspoken. In the early 70s, it was coming out in a serious way. There had been a documentary on TV that sparked a lot of interest. So it was in that environment that a lot of people on the left developed an interest in Yiddish music. They saw Yiddish music as a symbol of what it means to be a victim, and that tied into the causes that the radical generation was interested in.
You talked about how Hans's early communist involvement during his youth helped him learn about Austria's Nazi past. Would a typical child growing up in Austria after the war have been aware of this past, or was it just not talked about at all?
It was essentially not talked about at all in Austria for decades. Austrians mostly took the party line--they considered themselves Hitler's first victims, and that was the end of the discussion.
After the war, the communists became a small subset of the population, largely in Vienna. They were probably the only people--except for the few thousand remaining Jews, that were talking about the Holocaust and learning about it. Hans's mother helped put on one of the first exhibitions about Nazi atrocities in Austria. That was part of what irritated Hans--he grew up hearing these horrible stories and knowing what had happened, but he was surrounded by people who not only denied that it happened, but sometimes the actual perpetrators.