‘It depends what you focus on’ [book review]

A review of I Belong To Vienna by Anna Goldenberg, translated from the German by Alta L. Price

It is an unparalleled joy to read a book set in a city with which you are deeply familiar – and in particular for me when that city is Vienna. I no longer live there and I miss it immensely, an ache that has thrown its streets and parks and coffeehouses into sharp relief in my memories. Within the pages of a book, I can be in Vienna again, far quicker than I could be on the train, and so it is that my eye is instantly drawn to anything set there. With the city in its very title, I Belong To Vienna exerted an instantaneous and very personal pull, but this work of newly translated narrative non-fiction is worth reading for much more than a beautiful evocation of place alone.

I Belong To Vienna Anna Goldenberg

Written by young Austrian journalist Anna Goldenberg and translated by Alta L. Price, I Belong To Vienna is a personal memoir, an exploration of family, identity and how we reckon with history. When she moved from Vienna to New York to study for a Masters degree in journalism, Goldenberg became interested in her family history and set out to tell the story of her grandparents, Helga and Hansi, Viennese Jews who survived the Holocaust and later emigrated to the USA before returning to the city of their birth. As she delves deeper into the past, however, she begins to reflect on her own sense of identity, the effect collective memory can have on families or entire communities, and the strong but seemingly inexplicable ties that bind her to Vienna and eventually cause her own return. What emerges is a beautiful meditation on love and survival, a work that seeks to give voice to emotions so intrinsic and deeply felt they can barely be put into words, and a powerful facing up to the horrors of an all too recent past.

Much like Bart van Es in The Cut Out Girl,another standout work of narrative non-fiction that deals with the same period of history, Goldenberg chooses to structure her text loosely chronologically, telling her grandparents’ stories in a linear fashion but continually interrupting the main narrative with episodes from her own life before and during the writing of the book. These passages are carefully placed to give context to the historical narrative and serve as a continual reminder that what we are dealing with here is chiefly human memories. Though Goldenberg has conducted careful research, visiting archives in both Vienna and New York and trawling through her grandparents’ house for papers and photographs, she is honest about when her search leads to a dead end, candid about her reliance on memories that at times seem embroidered or not quite credible. She never seeks to fill in these gaps with fiction but leaves them simply as they are, the holes in the narrative actually serving to make it more watertight as a genuine reflection of lived experience. Memory is a notoriously fickle thing, especially when it comes to stories of suffering that are handed down the generations with a particular purpose in mind – perhaps as a warning, perhaps as a testament of hope – and in discussing this so openly Goldenberg shores up her own need to write such a personal chronicle.

Her grandparents’ story itself is truly fascinating, alone worth reading the book for. Goldenberg describes Helga and Hansi’s upbringing in close-knit families within Vienna’s large Jewish community, which at the time – as it still is today, in fact – was concentrated largely in the city’s second district, an area bordering the Danube Canal. Her portrayal of pre-war Vienna is extremely atmospheric, and she handles well the fear and disbelief that gradually crept into the city following the Anschluss of 1938 and the outbreak of war in 1939. Those first years of conflict were characterised by uncertainty, manifested in the splitting up of families, continual moving into smaller and smaller apartments, and gradual breakdown of social order that was so carefully orchestrated by the Nazis as to leave the city’s inhabitants largely unruffled. I learned a lot about Vienna within the pages of this book, which hammers home how entire populations managed to support one of the most horrifying ideologies the world has ever seen simply by staying quiet and looking out for themselves.

Remarkably, as their families were gradually deported to Europe’s concentration camps, Helga and Hansi managed to survive. Helga was sent to Theresienstadt with her mother and younger sister Liese, while Hansi was taken in by a non-Jewish doctor, Pepi, who hid him for several years. This is no common tale of hiding, either: Hansi roamed the streets of Vienna freely, eating in restaurants, attending the opera several times a week and visiting Pepi’s friends and family. Of course it wasn’t all ‘“one long and perilous adventure”’ – there were many narrow escapes – but for a reader who may well be familiar with stories such as Anne Frank’s, the audacity of the achievement is quite simply breath-taking.

‘“It depends what you focus on,”’ Helga tells her granddaughter when questioned about how she remembers the war, moments of goodness or hope seemingly ranked equally with experiences of suffering in her mind. True to the spirit of her grandmother – still alive at the time of writing – and her grandfather’s incredible story, Goldenberg’s memoir is suffused with hope and an optimistic belief in the good side of humanity. This feeling is never forced or overwritten, but instead imbues the book with a quiet strength. Though she is careful to include significant warnings – ‘history is alive precisely because it can repeat itself,’ she writes – Goldenberg has created a World War II memoir with something of a revelatory attitude.

One of the questions at the heart of the book is why Helga and Hansi chose to return to Vienna, despite the fact that most of their relatives – like many survivors – had settled far away from Austria, in Britain or America. This is where Goldenberg’s personal story begins to intertwine with that of her grandparents, in a compelling examination of the concept of home and the collective memories of persecution she inherited. ‘Emigration means so much more than just a change of scenery,’ she writes, describing at various points the loneliness she felt as an expat in New York and the family ties she didn’t know to cherish until they were at a distance. Interesting too is how she ‘really began to feel like a historical anomaly’, the product of a Jewish family that went against the norm. With total honesty she describes how she was brought up to feel slightly on edge in her city of birth – her first encounter with communal showers in a ski hotel is particularly memorable – a kind of outsider who still manages to be more strongly connected to the place than many of the people who live there.

Despite its relatively compact size, I Belong To Vienna explores an abundance of complex themes, doing so with sensitivity and clear-sighted language that has been deftly translated by Alta L. Price into prose possessing of a rhythmic ease. Interestingly, this English-language edition from New Vessel Press is an example of that not insignificant phenomenon in which translation can add entirely new dimensions to a text. The original German title of the memoir, Versteckte Jahre, translates as Hidden Years and comes with a subtitle describing the book as the story of Hansi and the man who hid him. In actual fact, Helga plays just as important a role in the book – perhaps, as its only living eyewitness, an even greater one – and so too does Goldenberg’s and her grandparents’ relationship with their home feature strongly. As a title, then, I Belong To Vienna does greater justice to the book, and was serendipitously the feature that caught my attention in the first place.

Some books are highly enjoyable experiences, the kind you can’t wait to return to reading. I Belong To Vienna falls firmly into this category – a sheer pleasure from start to finish, notwithstanding its often difficult subject matter. There is a luminous quality to this memoir, something that marks it out as different: an incredible story on the one hand, but also a moving and extremely fitting tribute to the bravery and generosity often overlooked by history. A book that ought to be read as widely as possible, Anna Goldenberg’s memoir is a promising debut and a perfect example of why literature and translation are so fundamentally necessary.

I Belong To Vienna: A Jewish Family’s Story of Exile and Return by Anna Goldenberg, translated from the German by Alta L. Price, is published by New Vessel Press in digital and paperback with black-and-white photos. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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