The trip was my son’s idea. Leo’s spring break no longer overlapped with his younger sister’s, and she would be going to Colonial Williamsburg, to fit her grade’s focus on early America, then on to Barbados. He wanted something equal but opposite. At school there had been debates about affinity groups, about who qualified for one and whose identity needed support now, in the Trump era. Leo got caught up in a dispute about whether the internment of Japanese Americans in the Second World War was worse than the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Perhaps because Holocaust history wasn’t on the curriculum, or maybe just because of who joined the debate, the consensus seemed to him to lean toward Japanese–American internment as the greater injustice. Arguments around victimhood, reading Man is Wolf to Man – Janusz Bardach’s memoir of the Gulag – and a sibling’s impulse to counter Caribbean travel with something cold and rainy, all steered him toward a journey I had several times planned but never undertaken, to Minsk in Belarus.
For five years I had been making a documentary about Vienna. Half the film chronicled the Viennese invention of the modern architecture of home. I explored dreams of homemaking dreamed by the city’s leading architects, artists and thinkers – Klimt, Adolf Loos, Freud, Wittgenstein, etc. – as they tried to make the expanding capital of the Habsburg Empire livable for ethnically diverse and mutually antagonistic immigrants. The other half was personal. It revolved around a painting by my father depicting the living room of his childhood home in Vienna, with his parents, Leo and Fanny Körner, safe inside. My father had escaped Austria in 1938, leaving his parents behind. He created the painting from memory in 1944 in Washington DC, while waiting to be shipped to Europe as an officer in the information branch of the US Army. It came to hang above my childhood bed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where my father met my mother and settled in 1952. What fascinated me about the work was less its meticulous inventory of my grandparents’ vanished home than a strange coincidence that occurred in it. Through a window in the depicted living room, at the far end of a vertiginous street view my father managed almost photographically to recollect, there appeared, tiny but recognizable through their distinctive semicircular entablatures, the two windows of our own top-floor apartment in Vienna, where we spent our summers. Back in 1944, when my father reimagined them, our apartment’s windows belonged to a kind of pictorial shorthand for other people’s homes. One long block of anonymous apartment buildings, each facade featuring scores of nearly, but never quite identical windows, ours happen to occur in the painting almost at its perspectival vanishing point – what in German is called the Fluchtpunkt, which means, literally, the point of flight or escape. By 1968, when we began to lease our two-room flat on the Volkertplatz, at the end of the street leading back to my father’s old home, no one realized that he had perfectly but inadvertently captured our telltale windows in his painting. To me, who first noticed the detail, the imaginary bridge spanning the two homes seemed uncanny.
In the film, my father’s painting starts as just one expression of the dream of the Viennese interior. It illustrates how ordinary people turned their small rented flats (everyone rents in Vienna) into beautiful enclaves. But exploring the later history of the apartment – how my grandparents were evicted to make room for ‘Aryan’ tenants, and how their neighbor in the apartment right next door, a fervent Nazi who claimed to have personally founded the Hitler Movement in Austria, seized the whole apartment building from its Jewish owners – the story veers to nightmare. Overnight, after Hitler’s 12 March 1938 annexation of Austria, Vienna’s 200,000 Jews effectively lost their right to live in the city. In the film the story of the Körners and their apartment is told by an archivist from the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien ( Vienna Israelite Community). The Kultusgemeinde is where, since 1849, births and deaths of Vienna’s Jews are recorded. After 1938, the institution was forced to organize the emigration and deportation of Jews. For Fanny and Leo the paper trail turned out to be chillingly complete. Not only their forced ‘deregistration’ to Minsk, but also the precise facts of their transport there by train were fully documented. Commanded to report to a ‘collection point’ in the Sperlgasse for ‘resettlement’ in the German-occupied East, they departed in the early hours of 9 June 1942 from Vienna’s Aspang railway station aboard a special train with the designation Da 206 (the ‘Da’ stood for David, as in Star of David). At Vawkavysk, formerly Wołkowysk, the track gauge changed and passengers were forced from third-class cars into cattle cars – police reports record deaths already here.
Even with his excellent Czech, Polish, Belarus and Russian, our archivist struggled to read aloud the stations listed on the twisting route from Vienna to Minsk, since some of the towns had disappeared, their names forgotten or changed. Caught on film, his halting reading of these names from the original train report helped conjure the distance traversed. Further documentation revealed that in Minsk the 1,006 passengers of Da 206 were herded into trucks and driven twelve kilometers southeast to a place called Maly Trostinets. There on the afternoon of 15 June, within a stand of young pine trees deep in the Blagovshchina Forest, they were shot, their bodies then thrown into long ditches and covered with quicklime. Later transports arrived at Maly Trostinets by train along tracks that had been previously abandoned, and gas vans replaced murder by shooting, but the protocol – execution immediately upon arrival in the early afternoon – and the place in the forest remained the same.
My son had helped with sound in an early interview for the film, and he had heard talk of a reconnaissance trip to Minsk and Maly Trostinets. In the end we decided to confine the filming to Vienna, letting the archivist’s voice gesture toward the unimaginable. But our failure to follow through on our plans bothered Leo. Reading up on the twentieth-century history of Belarus where, after starvation and mass killings already under Stalin’s rule, the Nazi occupiers killed about a third of the total population, including some 250,000 Jews, and where, since 1994, people still live under Soviet-style dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Leo proposed a journey by train from Vienna via Warsaw and Vawkavysk to Minsk. There we would stay in the gigantic Hotel Belarus, with its panoramic views of the city and an enormous swimming pool decorated with social-realist mosaics of athletes, Red Army liberators and muscular Viking Rus’. To orient ourselves we would visit the Museum of Architectural Miniatures, where most of Belarus’s monuments and castles can be visually explored in tiny scale models. Using Yandex.Taxi, the app which Leo promised to obtain, we would be driven out to the Mound of Glory, a pair of soaring bayonet-shaped obelisks atop a huge hill formed of scorched soil from the country’s ‘heroic’ destroyed cities, much of the soil carried by hand by schoolchildren. Time permitting we would spend an afternoon at the Stalin Line Museum. There a segment of the fortifications that ran along the erstwhile western border of the Soviet Union (built to withstand a Polish invasion but useless against the Germans in 1941) has been carefully restored, and vintage mortars and Kalashnikov rifles can be fired for a modest fee. Maly Trostinets itself, online comments report, could be reached only with difficulty by bus, and taxi drivers could not be expected to have heard of the place. The sprawling Memorial Complex was also said to be confusing, with monuments and plaques containing inaccurate or contradictory information. But Leo downloaded a whole library of maps and made certain that Minsk was a safe place even for tourists who had lost their way. His proposal was hard to turn down, since I had a week free in March, and his half-siblings, Ben and Sigi, were eager to join us from England. I also secretly regretted my own peculiar inertia, which had paralyzed me as far back as I can remember.
The fate of my father’s parents had always been the great family mystery. The Nazis had murdered almost all his relatives: this was all we knew and all we thought could be known. Two younger cousins managed to escape via child transports to England and Palestine, and they learned nothing more than that all the ones unknown to us, the ones living in Vienna as well as the oil-mining relatives in Boryslav and Stryi, in Galicia, now western Ukraine, had vanished without a trace. In the absence of facts, rumors flourished. In 1941 my father’s brother Kurt had been deported with his wife Olga to Kielce, in occupied Poland, and a letter to my father from his parents in Vienna seemed to suggest that they contemplated joining Kurt. This would have meant that they, together with Kurt and Olga, would have probably died in Treblinka after the liquidation of the Kielce ghetto in August 1942. Other concentration camps were sometimes named. A college course on the anthropology of kinship required from each student a family tree. I listed eighteen of the disappeared relatives on my father’s side as having died in Auschwitz, followed by a question mark. On the other hand, I dimly remembered having once been shown a note with the words ‘abgemeldet nach Minsk’ written on it in my mother’s hand. Abgemeldet (deregistered) was correctly spelled, so I assumed that my mother, who barely spoke German, must have transcribed the word from somewhere, or had it spelled out to her, but her recollection of where she got this information was cloudy and her theory about it – that her parents-in-law might have fled eastward into Russia – caused me to ignore the clue.
The idea that Leo and Fanny somehow survived obsessed my mother. For years she read nothing but Holocaust literature and collected newspaper stories about lost relatives turning up out of nowhere. She disliked her own parents up in Escanaba, especially her father, whose Catholic piety concealed a violent temperament. And she had little in common with her sister’s family in Iowa – all incurious Lutherans who never once left the US. An aspiring concert violinist on a scholarship to a music conservatory in Pittsburgh, she met and married my father. Divorced, exotic and seventeen years her senior, my father was partly an escape from her own family. She identified with my father’s family and contemplated converting to Judaism even though my father’s parents had abandoned that faith. She felt closest to his mother, Fanny, who was supposed to have been independent, sensible and strong – as opposed to the supposedly passive, emotionally frozen Leo. She imagined Fanny still alive, alone and trapped in Siberia or China. My father did little to counter this fantasy. He would just shake his head in annoyance and mutter to my sister and me that this was ‘a bunch of shit’, while my mother held up her theory as yet more proof of his callousness. ‘Your father only thinks about himself.’
What exactly he knew remains to me a mystery, but that he knew that they were murdered was obvious. Reading through old letters, I found that already in 1946 my father had enquired at the Red Cross in Vienna and confirmed that his parents were dead. Furloughed from the army, he had also visited a close Christian family friend, an unmarried secretary at the national railway, who passed on to him some vital papers concerning his two surviving cousins. By the time I met her, Stefanie Lukas had become a deeply unpleasant old lady who forced us to call her ‘Aunt Steffi’ and whose apartment was crammed full of valuables originally belonging to my grandparents – we would have coffee and cakes with her seated around a table covered with a beautiful lace doily made by my grandmother’s hand. These things were probably given to her for temporary safekeeping, but she never admitted it, and at her death, out of spite, she left everything to her cleaning lady who (we think) kept the good things and threw everything else away. Having boarded for a time in my father’s family home, Aunt Steffi knew all about Leo and Fanny’s eviction, their reduced accommodation in two successive Jewish ‘collective apartments’ and their deportation to the East. She could have given a full account of their final days in Vienna, but she chose not to. Instead she spoke to us endlessly about her own plight during the war, and how, dressed in her office uniform, she stayed for days in one of the huge bunkers in the Augarten as the bombs destroyed the buildings all around.
In the army my father had served in the OSS, the Office of Strategic Service, the wartime predecessor of the CIA. He designed posters and brochures that publicized information on the enemy, including Nazi atrocities. After his discharge in April 1946, he re-enlisted in the US military government in Germany, so throughout the war and afterwards he had early access to facts about the Holocaust. The paintings he made in Berlin at the time, which established his international reputation, were explicit acknowledgments of, and monuments to, the murder of his parents. It was obvious to us as children that our yearly four-month stays in Vienna, made ostensibly so that my father could paint from life views of the city and its environs, were in fact a protracted form of mourning. Why else would we, each year, leave our happy life in Pittsburgh to travel to what seemed to us a ghost town in order to trail after my father while he looked for things to paint? And why else would we end up of all places there, on the Volkertplatz, in an apartment whose only selling point was its view? For me the painting of my grandparents in their living room came to symbolize this unquiet past. It must have been painted when my father had some hope that they were still alive. On the table between them, he shows the esoteric board game – an invention by his hobbyist father – still in play, with the blues and yellows almost tied. And he lets the string from his mother’s knitting rise up over the blown-glass arms of the chandelier and down to the little dancing ball of thread as if to connect himself and us viewers back to home, to the mother who, Penelope-like, weaves as she awaits the exiled hero’s return. And in fact, on forms filled out for his military service in 1944, when he painted that looping thread, he still listed his mother as his closest living relative. Via the painting’s glimpse of the Volkertplatz, then, the painting also managed continually to project this tiny but real glimmer of hope forward into the future, into our home that we therefore restlessly inhabited.
It wasn’t until 1997 that I discovered the facts. I was in Vienna writing the catalogue for a retrospective of my father’s work at the Belvedere. Knowing how reluctant the Viennese audience was about confronting its Nazi past, I felt queasy about my incurious vagueness concerning my grandparents’ deaths. ‘Auschwitz’ with a question mark felt woefully inadequate in such a context. Through a friend visiting from Oxford I chanced to meet Simon Wiesenthal, who told me to go to the ‘Bevölkerungsamt’ – he spoke the word slowly so I could write it down – but no institution by that name was to be found. Then, in the process of paying my German translator, I visited the offices of Illustrierte Neue Welt, a Jewish journal founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl and still published in Vienna. There the editor-in-chief (my translator’s mother) told me what to do. You simply went to the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde and they would tell you everything there was to know. Later that day I found myself across the desk from the duty archivist in her windowless office adjacent to Vienna’s main synagogue. Before I could finish describing my mission, Frau Weiss reached for a big book of birth records and brusquely opened it to the right page: ‘Heinrich Sieghart Körner, born Vienna, August 28, 1915, died St Pölten July 4, 1991.’ It was less my father’s name, with its original, long-abandoned Wagnerian ‘Sieghart’, that took me by surprise than the precision concerning his recent death, because the archive felt so much like a time capsule, with old records preserved but no longer updated. While I mumbled something appreciative, Frau Weiss – on the basis of my father’s birth record – had swiftly located a slip of yellowed paper in a big cardboard box, which she laid neatly before me. There, written in ink in one script, was the name ‘Leo Körner’, and the words ‘mit Gattin nach Minsk’. A note had been added in another script in pencil ‘(deportiert)’. Remembering my mother’s mysterious note, I believed I stood again before the same impasse. But Frau Weiss, assuming a practiced bedside manner, explained that all of the more than 9,000 Viennese Jews officially deregistered to Minsk had in fact been forcibly deported – the word ‘deported’ on the yellowed slip had been added after 1945, probably by an archivist like Frau Weiss. And all these many thousands had only passed through Minsk, through back tracks in its freight train station, sent secretly on their way to a terrible place called Maly Trostinets. There they were all shot or gassed upon arrival. We know this, she explained, because of train records, war trials testimony and a single survivor’s report – only seventeen people were known to have survived transports from the German Reich ‘to Minsk’.
Frau Weiss then showed me an old handmade poster on her office wall diagramming the bureaucratic maze devised to make leaving Austria first difficult and expensive for the Jews and then impossible, as emigration turned into forced transport to death camps in the East. Created by someone employed in the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien, the poster resembled Otto Neurath’s utopian Isotypes, but put to murderous use – its creator was probably killed in 1942.
Frau Weiss also gave me pamphlets to read. I learned that the use of Maly Trostinets as a killing site marked an important turning point in the Nazi genocide. Hitler intended his invasion of the Soviet Union to be a swift war of extinction. Not only was the Bolshevik enemy to be destroyed, entire populations were to be killed or starved to death to create Lebensraum for Germany. German and ‘Germanic’ colonizers would farm what would become the vast new breadbasket of his Thousand-Year Reich. By late 1941, Hitler steered these murderous plans more urgently toward the Jews. The masses of Jewish people in the conquered territories, together with the remaining Jews of Germany and Austria, would be transported by train to purpose-built killing factories. Unlike concentration camps, which killed some prisoners and worked others to death, these camps would exterminate new arrivals immediately, using poison gas, and their remains would be incinerated in huge crematoria. The few prisoners forced to do the gassing and burning would also be killed in efficient rotation, leaving no witnesses or evidence behind. Such operations would be undertaken in territories far to the east of the German Reich. Shrouded in the fog of war and soaked with the blood of Stalin’s atrocities, the lands around Minsk seemed optimum for this purpose.