Opera deals with purge of Jews

VIENNA, Austria &

A famed conductor; a lowly laundress; singers, dancers, musicians. Jews, part Jews, or married to Jews, they were all a valued part of Vienna's opera family &

until the Nazis came.

First to go was ballet teacher Risa Dirtl.

She was a 14-year veteran of the Vienna State Opera. But her husband was Jewish &

and so she was purged just three days after Austrians thronged a huge central square in their capital 70 years ago to accord a delirious welcome to Adolf Hitler.

"The directorate is obliged to inform you that you are relieved of your duties as ballet school teacher, effective immediately. Heil Hitler!" says Dirtl's yellowed note dated March 16, 1938.

Part of an exhibit entitled "Victims, Perpetrators, Observers," the brusque letter of termination is only one of hundreds of documents on display reflecting the fate of "racially impure" opera employees or ones with spouses fitting that category after Austria was absorbed by Nazi Germany 70 years ago.

Within weeks, 95 people were purged and the exhibit &

part of larger nationwide commemorations of the "Anschluss" &

mostly focuses on them, documenting not only careers that came to an abrupt stop with the Nazi takeover but lives that sometimes ended in a Gestapo-run death camp.

Conductor Bruno Walter, associated with some of the greatest Vienna opera productions of the 1930s, was perhaps the most famous victim.

Because he was abroad, Walter escaped the direct consequences of the Anschluss. But his daughter was temporarily detained by the Nazis and even though he lived until 1962, Walter never again conducted at the opera.

On the other end of the scale was Margarete Altarass. Listed as a "laundry caretaker," she is 14th on a list of employees let go because they were Jews. In between were orchestra musicians, opera soloists, office clerks, stage hands and others interspersed through the opera hierarchy.

Their fate was shared by German Jews. But Jews there were stripped of their jobs, homes and human rights relatively slowly, starting with the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935. In contrast, the Anschluss in Austria released a tidal wave of pent-up anti-Semitism that swept away many of the rights of Jews here within months.

Edith Arlen Wachtel was 12 and a student at the opera's ballet school when word came that she was suddenly no longer welcome.

"I'm sorry but you are herewith let go," she recalls of the note to her and other Jewish ballet students. "It shattered my sense of who I was, after being encouraged to harbor the dream of someday dancing on the State Opera stage."

At about the same time, dozens of store clerks at her father's department store who had never showed the slightest sign of backing Hitler suddenly started sporting Swastika lapel pins and the family chauffeur disappeared with the vehicle after looting the family's summer residence and declaring: "No Jew will ever again enter this car."

On the lists of those slated for dismissal, each careful tick mark dividing them into Jews, half Jews or quarter Jews represents a life shattered. Still, opera director Ioan Holender, a key architect of the exhibit, urges visitors not to focus only on the "Victims" and "Perpetrators," but also to pay attention to the "Observers."

"The last category is the most important," he told The Associated Press, alluding to the overwhelming majority of Austrians who looked away while their friends, neighbors and colleagues were terminated &

at the workplace, and many ultimately in the gas chambers or forced labor sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other concentration camps.

On the Net:

Share This Story