Event report: Exile and the Dispersion of a Culture - the Austrian Experience Symposium in Ottawa, Canada

bridges vol. 16, December 2007 / Noteworthy Information

by Hans Reichenfeld

Otto Ditz (left) and Hans Reichenfeld at the Austrian Experience Symposium in Ottawa

On October 31, 2007, Otto Ditz, Austrian ambassador to Canada, hosted and chaired a symposium at his residence in Ottawa with an invited audience of some 90 persons from Ottawa, Montreal, and rural Ontario. The audience came from different walks of life, and was almost as diverse in their background and interests as the speakers and the topics covered in their presentations.   
Franz A. J. Szabo, of the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies, University of Alberta, started off the proceedings with a detailed account of the extent of Jewish emigration from Austria during the inter-war period.
Ludwig Laher, a well-known independent writer from St. Pantaleon in Upper Austria, gave a vivid description of the interaction between Stefan Zweig and his erstwhile "friend," author of romantic novels and poems Franz Karl Ginskey, who was subsequently proud to prove his long-standing membership in the Nazi party.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Laher pointed to the devastating impact of the enormous loss of intellectual capacity and creative talent that even predated the German invasion but became a flood during the Nazi period. He described attempts to maintain Austrian culture in exile, particularly through the activities of the Austrian Centre in London and Young Austria in Great Britain, a Communist-led youth organization founded in March 1939 that reached a membership of almost 1200 by 1943. Its persistent advocacy to maintain an Austrian identity proved a path breaker for the new Austria after 1945. Laher specifically paid tribute to the internationally acclaimed exiled Austrian poet Erich Fried, but also pointed to the lukewarm reception of many returning exiles after the war.

Hans Reichenfeld, a semi-retired psychiatrist at the University of Ottawa, talked vividly about his personal experience as a 17-year-old internee, first in England, when he suddenly changed from refugee to enemy alien upon his deportation to Canada. During his internment he became a convinced Communist. After his release and return to England, he participated in the propaganda activities of Young Austria for the restoration of an independent Austria, later served in Iceland in the Royal Air Force, but became disillusioned with Communism after the revelations about the Hungarian revolution and subsequent show trials.
He described his experiences in greater detail in his so-called autobiography, On the Fringe, published in 2006.

Eleonore Lappin (left) and Hanna Lessing

Hanna Lessing, executive director of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, spoke movingly about the role of the National Fund in coming to grips with the events of the Nazi period, her own involvement as its initiator, and the continuing efforts of the Fund to assist surviving victims in response to their current needs.

Eleonore Lappin, of the Institute for the History of Jews in Austria, gave a detailed account of the Revival of Jewish Culture in Post-War Austria, in spite of the almost total annihilation of the Austrian Jewish population during the holocaust. She pointed out the mainly secular nature of Jewish culture in Austria, which goes back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was epitomized in the activities of the few returning Jewish exiles, specifically in the founding of the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance, based in Vienna, by Herbert Steiner, previously secretary of Young Austria in Great Britain. A post-WWII generation of Jewish artists and writers is fully integrated into the overall Austrian cultural scene, while maintaining their Jewish identity. Lappin pointed to an increasing awareness of the Jewish contributions to Austrian culture and the involvement of non-Jews in the activities of centers for Jewish studies in Graz, at the Salzburg University, and at the Institute for the History of Jews in Austria at St. Poelten, as well as in the Jewish museums in Eisenstadt, Vienna, and Hohenems.

Finally, Julio Arboleda-Florez, of Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, provided the closing summary for this truly impressive event.

Vivid discussion by members of the audience in response to individual speakers, and complimentary comments at the end of the symposium, confirmed that Ambassador Ditz had not only impressed them as a gracious host but had succeeded in opening the eyes of the Canadian audience to many aspects of Austrian culture - past, present, and future - of which they were previously unaware.