I find it impossible to remove the personal and contact details of deceased persons, with whom I have been close, from my diary & address book. Thus, every 14th October the name of ANNIE FEUERMANN pops up in my diary.
Annie was a close childhood friend to my mother’s sister, Lisel and then of Herta, my mother. As Socialists, Annie & Lisel shared a life of political activism. Due to the untimely early death of Lisel and Herta’s mother – from an infection from a tooth extraction in the early 1920s (my mother was born in 1918) – Lisel’s role was much more than that of an elder sister to my mother. Following Lisel’s own death in 1960, Annie in many ways took over that role and I recall very clearly the emotion and excitement that accompanied Annie’s visits to our home. After my mother’s death in 1988, Annie – who by then had moved back to Vienna – was a regular visitor to my Father’s home and my own. I last saw Annie in 1993 – on a memorable trip to Vienna with Dad, Hertha Lowy, a lifelong friend, and Jane – when she presented me with a glorious lithograph of the Franz Josefquai, which hangs in our living room today.
Annie was one of those very rare people who seem to have an aura about them. Always understanding and interested, Annie was a gentle and kind person who always had, or made, time for others. Sadly, though I retain some details, I regretfully do not recall enough to write a credible biography of Annie’s remarkable life. Fuelled with these memories of her, I took to the internet to see if I could discover a bit more and to my joy discovered an entry in Das RoteWien, the online Lexicon of Viennese Social Democracy and, incredibly, a video of an interview with her televised by Austrian television in 1989. (Link to video)
The interview concerns itself with Annie’s experiences in the 1930s as a Jewish teenager of strong Socialist conviction – a period effectively bookended by the General Strike & Uprising of 1934, which heralded in the suppression of political opposition, and The Anschluss of 1938, when the Germans marched across Austria’s opened borders to occupy the country. The following is a rough transcript of that interview:
Annie Feuermann was born in 1913 into an orthodox Jewish family. She was aware that anti-Semitism existed in Austria because it was a subject talked about at home. Her father ran a small clothing business and she recalls his telling of the minor indignities that he felt he suffered as a Jew; especially when travelling on business, when he was often interrogated as to who he was and where he came from and was more-often-than-not offered inferior accommodation. Annie said that these were the ‘small pinpricks’ one experienced as a Jew in Vienna at those times, whose cumulative effect made Jews often feel as ‘Anderen’ – foreigners.
At the age of 16, Annie joined the Socialist Youth party. By her own admission she was a ‘book worm’ and, when she was given a membership card to the library ran by The Party, the world of the major socialist writers opened for her – the ideals of the French Revolution, the 1848 movement, 1871 Paris Commune & the Russian Revolution. Even more significantly she was now in contact with other like-minded individuals, who saw the solution to all social problems, including anti-Semitism, in the notions of Equality and Freedom as intoned by Schiller’s refrain: ‘Alle Menschen werden Bruder’ – all Men should become Brothers (and one’s religion was a personal matter & not a basis for discrimination.) In the interview, Annie is asked whether she was aware of there being anti-Semitism in the SD party and her reply was
“I’ve now come to realise that this was the case but I still haven’t changed my mind that a world where all people are brothers and equal is still possible; one where all people have the same potential regardless of race or religion.”
Annie recalls a Socialist Culture – one where on where smoking drinking or dancing were frowned upon, as opposed to ‘wholesome activities’ such as hiking, swimming, skiing – and spending a lot of the time in discussions, not only with fellow Socialists but also with those of different political persuasions, in the youthful belief that such debates offered a route to the peaceful resolution of issues. These debates also brought her into contact with some very eminent individuals including Max Adler, the Marxist philosopher, who offered views that one simply did not get at school!
At 11.46 am on the 12th of February 1934 the Viennese tram system came to an abrupt halt signalling in the start of the 4-day so-called Austrian Civil War. (For a fuller account see here). Annie, now a 21 year old full ‘card-carrying’ member of The Social Democrat party, makes her way to an official SD Gathering Point near her home in the 1st Bezirk to await further instructions expected by telephone. She had been more than aware that conflict was possible, even inevitable, and was prepared to give up her life for socialism; given an absolute conviction that the working class would have to fight for the rights of the down-trodden in the long term interests of the world. The call never comes and, when it becomes clear that all is lost, she returns home but not before helping to hide or destroy a store of incriminating material. After the failed uprising, the Social Democrats are declared an illegal political party. The disappointment for Annie is that the Social Democrat party’s organisation and plans had not only failed but had in no major way been acted upon.
Annie continues to work clandestinely for The Party until The Anschluss on 12th March 1938; after which time the issue at hand becomes one of personal survival. During this time she finds herself twice in prison. The first time in 1935 when she is scheduled to meet 2 others on Petersplatz. When these two young men are detained by the police, who suspect that they are in possession of stolen bicycles, find illegal socialist materials in their possession and furthermore are told that they were waiting for a certain Annie Feuermann. Police come to her house and find a draft article for the illegal socialist newspaper. Annie is arrested and detained in prison for 60 days. In a single cell with 5 other women, a political prisoner among criminals & prostitutes, she recalls that she was most scared of what her father would think. In prison, that first time, Annie spends her time studying for her exams. Annie was now known to the police and, after her release, is the subject of continued observation. In 1937, after again being found in possession of illegal materials, she is sentenced with 2 others to 4 months of political detention, again in prison as there were no special facilities available for women. For the first 6 weeks, of this her second detention, her glasses are confiscated from her; for her the worst punishment of all, as she can not read. When the glasses are returned she remembers reading Crime & Punishment. Conditions are poor – nothing compared to those after the Anschluss – but awful by any contemporary standards. She remembers being continually hungry and the solidarity among the prisoners of all political persuasions who went on a hunger strike over poor food, which lasted 24 hours until better food was offered. She also remembers hearing beatings. The imprisonment cost her her graduation, as she was banned from attending university. She was allowed back after the day after the Anschluss but by then she was more concerned with saving her own life.
I do not know exactly how long Annie remained in Austria before she managed to flee. In the interview, she recalls that three weeks after the Anschluss two Jewish boys were picked up by the police. Their mother heard nothing and then she received a postcard with no other explanation from Germany excepting that she could fetch the urn with their remains from Munich. This was not unique but she remembers it because it was the first time that such a thing had happened. Annie did manage to flee from Austria. From the Rotewien, I can see that she was assisted by The Quakers to get to Paris and then made her way to Glasgow, which was her home when I first remember meeting her in the 1950s.
Annie remained in Glasgow until her return to Vienna in 1959. In Glasgow, Annie worked as a hospital care-worker and I think it must have been there that she met and married Mr. Kohn, with whom I never made any acquaintance. I also do not know what became of him – I, now presume that he died before 1959 as I certainly have no recollection of his being in Vienna, on our first family visit there in the summer of 1959, when we met up with Annie.
Upon her return to Vienna, Annie threw herself into public service, serving among other things as Chair of Poale Zion, the Jewish Workers Union. Annie also spent a deal of her time concerning herself with the conditions of Austria’s immigrant population. Her boundless energy was still very much to the fore, when I last saw her in 1993.
I wish I had spent more time in conversation with Annie about her personal life and political opinions. I was very interested, for instance, to learn from her interview that she blames the increased presence of anti-immigrant nationalist sentiment in Austria on the fact that the country did not undertake any measurable process of self-examination or reconciliation during the aftermath of World War 2. But that was Annie, one of those rare individuals who concerned themselves more with others, rather than talk about herself. The fact that one year after her death, The Annie Feuermann Day Care Centre was founded in her honour is a testimony to a remarkable human of the highest ideals and one who devoted her life to the service of them.
יהי זכרו (זכרה) ברוך
May Her Memory Be A Blessing