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.
Can you explain what exactly the Austrian role during the Nazi years was?
It's well-known that Hitler and Eichman and a number of other top Nazi personnel were of Austrian origins. There was a huge number of Austrians that fought in the German army during the war. Technically, the Germans invaded Austria, but it wasn't much of an invasion. They were literally pelted with flowers upon arrival in some cases.
The part that I tried to explain in the book is that many of the Viennese really embraced the anti-Semitic fervor in the air, even more so than many Germans. When the Nazis arrived in Vienna in 1938, it touched off a kind of medieval pogrom [raid against Jewish homes and businesses] that lasted for weeks but continued to a different degree for months and years. I think the Austrian contribution, in addition to being part of the Third Reich, was also to add to the anti-Semitic environment of the time. Hans, who was born in 1954, grew up seeing the residue of that.
There's a litany of horror stories from the days after the German arrival in Vienna. There are stories and photographs of the Jews being grabbed and forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes. Regular Austrians basically harassed Jews for sport. Old men had their beards set on fire, they were made to do jumping jacks till they collapsed.
We hear a lot about German atrocities during the war, obviously, and a lot about what happened in Poland. Why isn't what happened in Austria during the war talked about more?
Well, in the last 15 or so years, Austria has been less shielded. In the first few years after the war, there was a large Allied presence in Austria and there was somewhat serious de-Nazification. But certainly in the first few decades after that, the country was more shielded. I think it boils down to the fact that the Allies left Austria to chart its own course after the war. It was made very clear to the Germans after the war that if they didn't engage in very serious de-Nazification, that they wouldn't have the support of the world. Whereas Austria became more of a pawn in the Cold War politics that were developing at the time. No one made it as large an issue. In 1955, when the State Treaty was signed--the founding document of the Austrian republic--it says explicitly in there that Austria was the first victim of the Nazis. The country stopped prosecuting Nazis--so there was a country full of Nazi offenders who had either been set free or who nobody was bothering to go after.
The political dynamic that developed in which once the Nazi criminals got amnesty, they became an important voting bloc. It became the dominant party's goal to win their favor. So it became politically untenable to make an issue of the former Nazis.
In the book, you discuss how Hans wants to sing Yiddish folk songs as a way to bring Jewish life back to a place that Judaism has essentially been eradicated from. Is that his mission?
It's not so much that he was bringing Yiddish music to places where Yiddish music had existed in the recent past. Most of the Jews in Austria at the time were in Vienna, and most of them were assimilated. He was showing the people about a culture that they had helped to destroy. Most of the destruction was not in Austria itself, but more in Eastern Europe. But Hans wants to expose Austrians to some aspect of what Jewish culture was, even if what he does is not exactly how it was in Austria before the war.
He gives concerts throughout the countryside. His walk with his sheep takes him through parts of lower Austria and Styria and back around. In the little towns that he stops in along the way, he is known as the wandering shepherd, and he uses that identity as a way to get people to come to his concerts. I think it's a political act for him to give those concerts. Any time you give a performance in Vienna with some Jewish content, it's a kind of political statement because tensions are so high.
I think it's a statement against Austria's failure to fully address its past, and a statement against the current right-wing government in particular. But even more than that it's really about the entire post-war phenomenon in which Austria largely evaded responsibility for its role.
When Hans first became interested in Yiddish music, he understood it as a political statement. It was part of his 1968 worldview, that Yiddish embodied the notion of the underdog.
You said Austria has been less shielded in the past 10 or 15 years. Does that mean they're starting to come to terms more with the past?
I think the first turning point was the Waldheim affair in 1986. That was the first time the spotlight was really shown on Austria and its post-war experiences. They ended up electing Waldheim President, even after it was exposed that he had serious involvement with Nazi crimes. In the early 90s you started to see politicians beginning to make broad statements acknowledging the crimes, and more memorials were going up--so it looked like there was a slow, gradual progress. And then in 1999, there was the shocking election in which the Freedom Party, led by Jorg Haider, took 27% of the vote and formed a governing coalition. It looked to the world at that point like the bits of progress in the early 90s were a facade, and that Austria still had an incredibly long way to go.
I first interviewed Hans shortly after that election, and it was a pretty tense moment in Austria. A year later, when I went there, Austria was still in the grips of all this. Now, the good news is that the Freedom Party, in the time since I began my research, seems to be losing popularity. It's a good sign certainly, but I think the verdict is still out on how much of a lesson the Austrians have learned.
What are you hoping that people get out of the book?
I didn't write this book with the idea that it was my job to expose the truth about Austria. I don't think of myself as a political writer. My book is memoiristic and impressionistic--there are other more scholarly books written about the topic. I guess I hope that by reading this book, people will learn more about Austria's role in the Holocaust. But more, I want people to have a read that moves them in some way.
You spent a lot of time in Austria researching this book. Did you ever experience any anti-Semitism yourself?
There was a lot of discomfort, certainly. I mostly encountered first-hand anti-Semitism when I was doing political interviews. I would ask people why they thought Austria was perceived in a negative way, and I would hear responses like, because there were international Jewish organizations, that kind of thing. But that wasn't really directed at me, it just came out in an interview.
Is there any kind of Jewish life in Austria now?
Yes. It's almost exclusively in Vienna. There are around 10,000 Jews in Vienna now, with a strong infrastructure.
Does Hans identify as a Jew?
He does. I don't think he did as a child, but since he discovered Yiddish music, he has become increasingly interested in the world that produced that music and Jewish culture. I think he really thinks of himself as a Jew.
How did your own Jewish identity evolve over the course of writing the book and your research?
I think a big part of my Jewish identity is wrapped up in issues related to anti-Semitism. I came from a background in which my grandmother gave me the worldview that the world is divided into Jews and Gentiles. At the same time, I never experienced any serious anti-Semitism in the U.S. So I think I went to Austria in part, as I acknowledge in my book, almost looking for anti-Semitism. The book really forced me to think about what role anti-Semitism plays in how I think about myself as a Jew.
I guess it's fair to say that any time you study or think about anti-Semitism, there's a part of you that wants to be more actively Jewish as an act of defiance. Ultimately, though, I don't want my Jewish identity to be a response to anti-Semitism. I think it should be rooted in other things. So it evolved through the experience of working through those type of questions.