In the Land of “The Sound of Music”


It was June of 2015. Jerusalem was hot and grimy. It was starting to feel like clammy Baltimore, and I was getting cabin fever. One Shabbos, someone who was hosting me for a meal told me that he had vacationed in the Austrian Alps one summer at a kosher hotel there. “The mountains weren’t as high as in Switzerland, but you get the feel of Switzerland – and it’s cheaper,” he said. The name of the hotel, with its predominantly chasidishe clientele, was Alpen-Karawanserai, about an hour-and-a-half by car from Salzburg.

I was a bit wary of patronizing Austria. Yes, I enjoyed the movie classic “The Sound of Music,” which was about a singing Austrian family that defied the Nazis and featured breathtaking scenes of the Austrian Alps. But I have other scenes of Austria in my head: pictures of Austrians wildly cheering Hitler after the Anschlus (German annexation of Austria) and the famous picture of the Hitler Youth forcing middle-aged Jews to scrub the streets of Vienna on their hands and knees. Austria was home to the concentration camp Mauthausen, and the Austrians are unrepentant of their past to this day. (“What? Pay the Jews reparations?”)

I found a travel companion and booked a flight to Vienna. Although Munich is closer, I wanted to daven Shacharis in the airport, and the Vienna flight left later in the morning. I guess it was Providential, because a few days before the trip, my sister reminded me that our great-grandparents are buried there.

Originally from Toporov, a small village in what is today part of the western Ukraine, Berel (Dov) and Raizel Finkel made their way to Vienna, probably to escape the ravages of World War I. Their son, Shmuel, born in 1877, returned to Toporov, married, and established a lumber business there. (Why he left a large cosmopolitan city to settle in a hamlet that was so small that it doesn’t even appear on most maps is a puzzle to me.) And that was where my father was born in 1919. Berel (Dov) died and was buried in Vienna in 1926. My father was about 6 or 7 at the time.

Here’s what I find mysterious: My father knew nothing about him. It’s not that his father never talked much. On the contrary, Shmuel, the Belzer chasid, never tired of telling stories of his experiences on the front fighting for the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in WW I. And my cousin Fred Meiseles in Baltimore wrote me that his mother Sophie, my father’s sister, lived with her grandparents in Vienna for a while before returning to Toporov, and she had nothing to say. (Fred was born in Vienna and escaped with his parents from Nazi Europe on the last boat that was sailing to the U.S. before the war.) I was intrigued. I figured that if I knew what the relationship was like between my great-grandfather and his son, that would help me understand my relationship with my own father. In any case, I felt that if I was going to Vienna anyway, it was my duty to visit the gravesite of the earliest Finkel generation that I was aware of.

I contacted the Vienna Jewish Community Council and corresponded with Debora Kravtschenko (Dorli), who looked up Berel and Raizel Finkel in the records of Chevra Kadisha, based on information I got from my cousin Fred and his daughter, Catherine, who actually visited the graves a number of years ago. Dorli referred me to Mutty Hammer, a member of the Chevra Kadisha, who also ran a Jewish taxi service. I called Mutty, and his thick Boro Park accent in this incongruous setting gave me a momentary case of cognitive dissonance.

He sent me Sruli, a young Orthodox Jew in his twenties, originally from Belgium – and a chain smoker – to pick us up at the airport and help us find the graves. My travel companion, also a chain smoker, immediately bonded with him.

*  *  *

There are three Jewish cemeteries in Vienna. The one I was interested in was for those who died from the 1880s and on. I don’t know why the Nazis destroyed neither this Jewish cemetery nor the large one in Warsaw. When we got there, I was dumbstruck. It was a clear sunny day, and the place was so beautiful. Rows of tall leafy trees lined the paths in the midst of lots of green grass. It was so verdant, lush, and green – reminded me of Druid Hill Park in Baltimore when I was growing up.

After a bit of floundering, we found the first matzeva – of Dov Finkel. I was overtaken with excitement. I felt like I was touching something greater than myself: a link in a chain that goes back countless generations, a historical womb of sorts, from which I eventually emerged. I gingerly approached the tombstone with its fading engravings. I could see an acrostic; each line began with a letter from my great grandfather’s first name (dalet-vov-beis). There were three lines. They were poetic and cryptic. It would take a few emails back and forth with Rabbi Dovid Katz before I could get a handle on them. Here they are (with R. Katz’s commentary):

      Derech Yashar Halach – He was honest in business

      Veshav beseiva el celach – He had an active and vigorous old age

      Bemitzvas yado shalach He was charitable

I said some tehilim, and prayed that he should have an aliyat neshama. A few rows away we found the matzeva of his wife, Raizel Finkel, my great- grandmother. About her we do know something: Raizel was respected in the community. She ran a Jewish communal clinic that had a secret backroom where they performed illegal amputations of toes in order to disqualify young Jews from being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. (Apparently, grandpa Shmuel didn’t take advantage of his mother’s expertise and allowed himself to be drafted. Maybe he even enlisted! The army did not require him to shave off his beard and payos – the tolerant Emperor Franz Joseph was more tolerant to Orthodox recruits than the Israeli army  – and that suited him just fine.)

We walked a little through the large cemetery and came upon the ohalim of three outstanding figures in prewar Jewish life: the grave of the renowned posek Rav Yosef Engel and the graves of the Chortkover Rebbe and his son.

*  *  *

From the cemetery we drove to a kosher fish and dairy restaurant in the city. Vienna is a sprawling metropolis that, save for the city center, consists of low, two- to four-story buildings spread out over a very large area. It reminded me a bit of Los Angeles. The buildings were painted in light, pastel colors. There were tons of smokers everywhere. Sruli told us that Vienna has one of the largest concentrations of cigarette smokers in the world, a nicotine addict’s paradise. It’s considered suave and cosmopolitan to smoke. A bunch of fools, I told myself. I am biased because I am highly sensitive to tobacco smoke.

The restaurant was very nondescript. It was located in a Jewish neighborhood but had no sign outside. There are a few hundred families counted in the official Jewish kehila in Vienna, which spans from the secular to the fervently Orthodox. (That’s the politically correct way of saying ultra-Orthodox.) Other than a handful of chasidim, the streets looked deserted. The vast majority of the Jewish families had traveled west to the Austrian Alps or to Switzerland – much as New York Jews flee the hot Brooklyn streets in July and August for the Catskills.

With a little time left, we visited the magnificent Schonbrunn Palace – the massive complex of buildings that was the home of Emperor Franz Josef, the long-reigning emperor beloved by the Jews of the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a bit too Germanic for my taste but very impressive, with its massive buildings and gardens. It’s a must-see if you visit Vienna. When my traveling companion started fantasizing about living there one day, I reminded him that buying mezuzos for its hundreds of doors would cost a fortune.

*  *  *

From there, we were driven to the Vienna airport to take a one-hour flight west to the city of Salzburg. In the Salzburg airport we proceeded to the car rental center. We waited in line for a Muslim family (from Pakistan?) to sign up for their car rental. They seemed to take forever. Their conspicuousness made me uncomfortable, and we later discovered even more blatant expressions of Muslim dress at the tourist sites. There seemed to be tons of Moslem tourists from Saudi Arabia. You didn’t experience that kind of phenomenon in Switzerland. It was much more low-key over there, with very few hijabs floating around and a lot more Asians and people from India.

After we got the car from the car rental agency, we set off for the hotel. It was late in the afternoon, and there was a golden light shining on the mountains – a beautiful sight to behold. We were in the Alps! They were not the Swiss Alps – not as high or snow covered or as awe inspiring – but these were not hills, no Smoky “Mountains” but the genuine article.

The GPS didn’t always work, and my WAZE was acting like we were still in Israel, but we finally found our way to Hinterglemm, a tiny ski resort hamlet that consisted in the main of hotels and tourist shops. And then we found our hotel. It looked more like a bungalow colony in the Catskills. It was loaded with chasidim, but there were other types of Orthodox Jews as well. Most of the people came from Belgium and England. There was a scattering from Israel and even fewer from the U.S. Comparing my American attire to the kapotes I saw there, I was thinking of hiring myself out as the Shabbos goy.

The owner of this very Jewish hotel happens not to be Jewish but is purportedly a great lover of Jews. A couple I know who spent some time in the hotel told me this story: The wife had gotten sick, and the owner’s lady friend wanted to help her. She brought some tea from the dining room to her room. The Jewish woman asked her, “Who are you?” She answered, “I am the hotel owner’s rebbetzin.”

The owner consulted with some top rabbanim and built a kosher mikva in the hotel. On Shabbos, every table is supplied with a silver-plated kiddush cup. I have to admit, the food was very high standard and plentiful. The waiters and most of the hotel staff seemed to come from Romania.

The guy (not Jewish) who is in charge of the mikva is also in charge of guiding people where to travel and what to visit. Every day I went to him in the morning and he gave us ideas. One day it would be a cable car ride up the mountain near the hotel for a scenic walk overlooking the valley below; another day we rented electric bikes and rode to another town, where we saw a beautiful park with a river and other hiking and bike paths through the woods. Sometimes we would travel by car to experience a glacier – in the middle of the summer.

We drove up a road, the Franz Josef Hohe Pass, which wound itself up a mountain to an altitude of 4,000 meters (over 12,000 feet!). We went through the clouds, literally, and drove even higher. Each winding provided ever more spectacular views, until we reached the top and saw a magnificent glacier and the valley far below. Something to write home about.

Shabbos was very nice, and after Shabbos we managed to get about 15 people (out of a few hundred) to make a minyan for Maariv that was before Rabbeinu Tam time.

*  *  *

The flight back to Israel was via the city of Munich, about two hours from the hotel. We bade farewell to Hinterglemm and drove west into Germany. One thing that struck me is that, shortly after entering Germany, we noticed that, unlike Austria, the grass was not cut and there was much more litter strewn about. Our plan was to visit the Dachau concentration camp, located just a half-hour from the Munich airport.

Dachau was the first concentration camp set up by the Nazis, and in the beginning it was for political prisoners. Dachau became the testing ground and pioneer for all the ensuing concentration camps. We saw the ovens and the chimneys, the barracks, and the words “Arbeit Mach Frei” over the entrance gate.

There were memorials for Jews and Christians in the camp. One of the former administration buildings had been converted into a museum. I have been to Yad Vashem and to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington, but this was the first museum I went to that was actually housed in a former concentration camp. And this was the first time that I wept in a museum.

Regulations were posted at the entrance, one of which forbade the wearing of Nazi-like clothing in the complex. That was enacted because neo-Nazis liked to come and mock the place. The world is forgetting. The world has not learned much.

I was glad to finally leave Dachau, Germany, and the whole troubling European continent and to return to Israel. Somehow, the heat no longer bothered me.



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