by Kerry Dougherty
More than 80 years ago the Nazis began “cleansing” Europe of Jews. The reign of terror began with hate and harassment. It moved on to expulsion and finally to the death camps. Initially the rest of the world didn’t know what was happening.
By the time they noticed, six million Jews were dead.
Maybe, if the world had seen what happened to the Reisner family in an idyllic Austrian town at the start of the Holocaust, many lives could have been spared.
The horror of what happened two weeks ago in Israel is a raw reminder that there are those in the world who still want to eradicate Jews.
As a result, 89-year-old Erica Reisner Ausch is worried.
This cheerful and energetic Virginia Beach resident, who teaches water aerobics in the summer and plays Mahjong with her friends all year long, has spent the last two weeks fretting about what the deadly attacks on innocent Israelis means for the future.
Erica Ausch was a married woman with children before she learned the truth about her family: They were not refugees from Austria as she’d been told by her parents who wanted to protect her from the truth, but Holocaust survivors. She was two years old when Germany annexed Austria and when the Nazis stormed her little town of Kittsee.
In the spring of 1938 the Gestapo seized Erica’s father’s restaurant and used it as their headquarters before brutally throwing the Jewish residents out of their homes, loading them onto wagons used to transport animals and marooning them on an uninhabited island in the Danube. Eventually, the Reisner family would live with their Jewish Kittsee neighbors on a filthy, rat-infested barge as they frantically searched for a country that would take them in.
According to many accounts of the Jews of Kittsee, the Nazis’ victims were hungry, cold and terrified during their five-month ordeal.
The Reisner family eventually made their way to America, but Erica had been spared the details about how her family had been mistreated and humiliated until her father, Alan, took her aside one day after her mother died, and told her the truth.
Her mother, Blanche Reisner, had been wracked by guilt and depression after they fled Austria. So many others didn’t make it. She was haunted by the thoughts of what had happened to the other Jews.
Last week, sitting in her sunny living room near the oceanfront with her daughter Jodie Woodward and granddaughter Liza, with family photos and yellowed newspaper stories on her lap, Erica pieced together the harrowing tale her father finally told her in the 1960s.
Books and news features have been written about the band of Austrian Jews who barely survived the start of the Holocaust after they were cast out of their homes by Nazis.
Erica Reisner was too young to understand what was happening when her family was driven from their home in the village of Kittsee. The Nazis had been terrorizing the tiny Jewish community for days, marching down the streets, hanging German flags, forbidding Christians to do business with the Jews and painting “Juden” on the homes of Jewish residents.
It was during Passover, in April of that year, that the Nazis kicked in doors, dragged the Jews from their homes and arrested them. The Germans seized their property and identification papers and then humiliated the men, forcing them to scrub the sidewalks on their hands and knees and then scream, “I am a dirty Jewish swine,” before loading the terrified families into trucks and then boats, finally forcing them out at gunpoint onto a frigid island.
Kittsee is a picturesque Austrian village near the borders of the Czech Republic and Hungary with a current population of about 3,162 people. In 1938 the town had a vibrant, but small, Jewish community of about 57 that had been established for generations.
“On April 15, 1938 the Jews of Kittsee became the first that the Nazis expelled,” Erica told me, flipping through newspaper clippings and notes. “They wanted to see what the world’s reaction would be.”
There was no reaction to the persecution of this little community, which may have been the green light the Nazis had hoped for.
On that night the Reisner family lost their home and their possessions to the Nazis. They were also stripped of their citizenship.
The terrified band of people without a country were initially rejected by Czechoslavakia because they had no papers. Hungary wouldn’t take them in either. They spent five months trying to find a country that would offer them asylum.
Eventually Erica’s family made its way to America after a cousin who was a doctor in Norfolk sponsored them.
They arrived in Virginia without money and without being able to speak English. A Jewish family took them in. Her father did menial work until his English improved. Her mother worked in a dress factory while Erica’s grandmother cared for Erica and her brother.
“All day long, she was bent over a sewing machine,” Erica recalls of her mom.
By 1943 Erica’s parents had saved enough money to purchase the Newport delicatessen on 35th Street in Norfolk. They renamed it “Reisner’s.” Eventually, the popular business moved to the Janaf Shopping Center before closing in the 1990s.
In 2009 the Austrian government invited the Jews of Kittsee to return for a reunion, courtesy of the government. Once there, Austrian officials feted the former residents and tried to make amends.
“They treated us so well, “ Erica recalled.
During that trip, Erica saw her old family home and her dad’s business. She’s been back several times and taken family members with her. She and her late husband, Eddie have three daughters: Jodie Woodward, Linda Ausch and Bonnie Laibstain. Erica has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and most of the family lives nearby and is close.
This isn’t the first time she’s shared her story. Erica and Eddie Ausch were interviewed by The Virginian-Pilot in December of 2009. Eddie’s family also escaped Austria, a year after the Reisners.
Eddie Ausch theorized about why the Austrian government was eager to try to apologize to the Jewish people who’d been forced to leave the country 70 years earlier:
“They had to bring the dirty secret of their involvement in the Holocaust to light,” he told the reporter, “so that the next generation won’t repeat the same mistakes.”
In her own way, Erica Ausch, a cheerful mother and grandmother, who thought she was a refugee but learned she was one of the youngest Holocaust survivors, wants to tell her story for the same reason:
To remind people that antisemitism is real. That it is a cancer. And that ugly history must not be allowed to repeat itself.
Republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed and Unedited.