It’s early November 1992, and my mother, Eve, is engaged in a fierce battle by airmail with government bureaucrats in Vienna, the city that was once her home. She is on fire, fueled by a reserve of outrage decades in the making. The target of her wrath is one Dr. Wetscherek, general director of the Pensionsversicherungsanstalt der Angestellten, who insists that my mother will need to make a sizable financial contribution in order to receive long overdue restitution in the form of a government pension. Further, Dr. Wetscherek requires information about my mother’s schooling in Vienna from 1938-40 that she does not have, because her family’s circumstances did not give them time to secure paperwork they never imagined they would need in the future—if they were lucky enough to have a future. In Nazi-occupied Vienna, all that mattered for this Jewish family was to get out of Europe alive. They made it to New York City, from where my mother now launches her epistolary long-range missiles. One thing that Dr. Wetscherek does not understand as he dictates requirements from his desk in faraway Vienna, is that my mother will never surrender. Not to the Austrians, never again.
I think about this battle in March 2021, as a young woman with whom I’ve corresponded for several months cordially welcomes me into the lobby of the Austrian Consulate in New York. I am here to claim my inheritance. My brother and I are among many thousands of Jewish descendants of Holocaust survivors around the world who are applying for a restoration of Austrian citizenship, thanks to a law made effective in September 2020. I can remain an American and also be an Austrian. After some pandemic-related delays, I am here at last, with our folders of paperwork.
My family has a deep relationship with paper—decades in the publishing business—and it has been the raw material of our work in some form for three generations. In ways great and small, my family was saved by paper. My mother kept her family’s Third Reich passports in her jewelry drawer, the paper documents that saved them from the camps.
I cannot imagine what my mother would have made of our current quest for a modern version of this same document. Fifteen years after her death, I can still conjure up her presence, 5-foot-2 in one of her many pairs of Ferragamo pumps, always bought on sale, her hair coiled in a neat bun at her nape. She was not physically imposing, but underestimating her was always a mistake.
My brother and I have been working on this project since news came that the law might pass. I spent a year sweet-talking the previous consular official, pressing her for details on when, exactly, we could begin our formal application. When that woman left her post, I began emailing her replacement, who now remembers me and my family story and the photos and documents I’ve already sent to prove our line of ancestry.
Rather than wait months for the backlogged State Department to process our FBI background checks and stamp them with the required apostil, my brother and I paid an expediter an amount of money I know my ever-thrifty mother would have found shocking. Enough for multiple pairs of on-sale Ferragamos.
This is so important to us that I have made this my first trip back to New York since the pandemic exploded a year ago. The young consular official has been unfailingly pleasant and helpful and encouraging throughout months of hassle and she is just the same today as I slide the documents under the protective glass that separates us.
While the consular official leaves to scan our documents that will be sent off to the faraway government in Austria, I’m feeling defensive, as if my mother were here with me in this empty lobby, giving me the sharp judgy look she reserved for my most impetuous and foolhardy dreams. I want her to understand why I want this so badly, what it will mean to me to have an Austrian passport. I want my mother to understand why I want this even though she never forgave Austria for chasing her out of her once-beloved city, and even though I haven’t forgiven Austria for chasing her out of her once-beloved city.
My mother was a tough customer; I know I have some explaining to do.
I’d like to start by sharing the teary elation that nearly overwhelms me now, but my mother never liked it when I got emotional. This made my adolescence painful for both of us, years I spent launching extreme emotions in all directions or sulking in my room listening to music that offended her. No, my childlike joy won’t cut it. I need to offer my mother specifics. Hear me out, I want to say. Let me explain why I want a piece of paper you would never have accepted even it had been offered on a gold platter.
But it is because of her that I have my reasons. I’ve always felt that part of me belonged to Europe, to the old country. I’m an American for sure, a New Yorker specifically. But even before I made it back to the city of her birth, the city that expelled her, my favorite haunts were the places in New York that seemed to be direct imports: the Italian cafes of Greenwich Village, the French restaurants my parents took us to on special occasions, the Hungarian Pastry Shop in our neighborhood. I loved paintings that depicted lost worlds: the sensuality of Caravaggio’s Italy, the richness of Rembrandt and Vermeer’s Netherlands, the Parisian romance of Renoir and Degas. I am a first-generation American. Half of my genealogy and much of my worldview is rooted in Europe.
When I finally reached the continent for the first time as a college student, and made my way by train from the Brussels airport to Paris, it was late afternoon, the gilded hour. I walked out of the station and was stupefied. A young woman offered to share a taxi with me. I was fixed on the view of the streets that somehow felt familiar to me, from paintings and photographs. Some inner part of me was at home, even though I spoke bad French, worse Italian, and next to zero German, my mother’s first language. I belonged to this place spiritually, nurtured by the physical evidence of the past.
Later that year I made my first trip to Vienna, my mother’s city. She had prepared me with a list of cafes to visit and sights to see and the address where she’d lived as a child. By this time, she had been back to Vienna with my father, but she could not bear to return to her childhood home. I felt I was there as her proxy. This was another city that stunned me with its beauty. I walked streets lined in Habsburg-era grandeur. Without the documentation of films and photographs from the Nazi era, it was hard to imagine the violence that had taken place decades earlier.
One afternoon, I reached my mother’s home beyond the city’s second ring in a quiet residential area. My mother had described scenes of Jews being forced to scrub the sidewalks I was walking on, police ransacking apartments, making arrests, two years of terror witnessed as a young girl, all unimaginable on such a peaceful summer afternoon. Behind the building was the factory my mother had described so often. The way my mother told the story, the family was saved by a piece of packaging for the pharmaceutical industry shaped like a fan, made of individual pouches of paper. Powdered medicine was inserted into each opening. The German government considered this humble item important enough that they kept my grandfather around to run the finicky machine that made the fan. This bought him time to get passports and, finally, visas to America.
My mother returned to Vienna three times, for brief visits, as an American. I want to return to Vienna as an Austrian. I’ve joked with friends that I’ll wave my passport around when I next walk through the streets of my mother’s city, announcing one more Jew’s return to the old country. I’ve imagined staying in Europe for a few months at a time, to research my next book project (no coincidence that I’ve set part of it in prewar Vienna), and visit friends elsewhere in the EU. I’ll eat lots of good food and relive some of that cafe culture that nurtured my grandparents before the war. I’ve even imagined a tiny apartment, perhaps in windy Trieste, with the sound of the Adriatic just outside my windows. Above all, what motivates me is that having established the ancestral paper trail, my daughter can apply for an Austrian passport as well. So many doors could open, ones we might be able to walk through together.
Now, the consular official returns with our documents, interrupting my conversation with my mother. My partner and daughter and I convene down the street for a celebratory lunch at an outside table, safe from the virus that is still spreading. It will be another month before any of us can get vaccinated.
In my family we are all tenacious and stubborn, like my mother was in 1992. This is our inheritance. My father told me that in the end she called in big guns to help her, none other than Elie Wiesel, whom she met at a publishing industry party. Somehow, he intervened on her behalf. Dr. Wetscherek understood that he’d met his match. My mother did get her pension and saved every paper bank statement, the evidence of her victory.
Mother’s Day is almost here. I’ve never liked this holiday. It feels artificial. Shouldn’t every day be Mother’s Day? It’s been reduced to a day of gifts: flower bouquets and boxes of chocolates, or whatever else works as a sign of love. I don’t want any of that. For me, the sweetest gift is a hug from my daughter and my partner. It may not arrive in time, but this year I would also love a piece of paper, the one that reaffirms my connection to the old country, my mother’s homeland.