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Odd Couple

Moving to Vienna for four months was hard. Living with a former skinhead was even harder.

Sarah Wildman
September 02, 2008

I had never considered living in Vienna. The city was enmeshed in my family’s history, but I was drawn to Paris, Madrid, Jerusalem—cities whose languages I spoke. I had been to Austria once, at seventeen, with my parents, to visit the places where my grandfather had lived; he died that same year.

But in 2006 I won a journalism grant packaged with four months of residency at a research institute in Vienna. I didn’t know the city at all. I wrote to everyone I knew asking where I should live. I keenly missed my grandparents—my grandmother had died in 2001—for the first time in years.

I found my landlord/roommate—I’ll call her Hilke—on Craigslist. The advertisement promised an apartment that would be “light filled and friendly,” and “two minutes walk to U4 station Friedensbrücke,” the metro stop for my institute. We emailed each other and spoke once by phone. She told me she was an artist. I breezily mentioned that my family had left Vienna in the 1930s.

I arrived late at night, in early February, emerging from my taxi onto an empty, cold, and damp street. Hilke made a pot of tea and sat me down in her yellow-walled kitchen. If you were to pass her on the street, you wouldn’t notice her. Shoulder-length straight hair, close to blond. She was a hippie-punk Mittleeuropean type, thirty-six years old, but could have passed for younger, with a fondness for skirts worn over pants with hiking boots, a kohl-lined eye. For years, Hilke told me, she had shaved her head, a style she partly attributed to her romance with the extreme postwar Viennese art movement called Aktionism; it involves blood, semen, and violence. “You’re a journalist,” she said, prompting me to continue where our phone conversation had left off. “Yes,” I said. “I’m writing about Jews, Muslims, and foreigners in Europe.”

“Are Jews Muslims?” she asked, giggling nervously. “It’s a stupid question! I know!”

“No, no, not stupid,” I said, bewildered. “Were it that easy!” I excused myself, begging out of the conversation; I said I was tired. She showed me to my room. It was bare, with a mattress on the floor, and a slab of plywood over two wooden horses—a desk. But it was airy and—I’d find the next day—bright, with large, late-nineteenth-century windows. I went to sleep.

I felt ghostly in Vienna—transparent, disconnected, unmoored—a feeling exacerbated by my lack of language and by Hilke herself, who was often shut behind closed doors. I rode the U-Bahn around the city, retracing my grandfather’s steps. I pulled half-remembered phrases out from the depths of my head. Eine kleine espresso, bitte?

A week after I arrived, I came home from work and put the kettle on the stove. Hilke shuffled out of her room, asked if she could sit with me, and launched into a story about a failed love affair. I parried with a similar tale. “Yeah, that guy was a bit nuts,” I said, referring to an ex. She smiled. “Do all Jews go crazy at age forty?” she asked. “Because I know gypsies do.” “No, that’s not right on either count,” I said, delicately, hoping not to scare her off if I sounded too judgmental. “But . . . you do seem to have some peculiar ideas about Jews.”

“It’s true,” she agreed, “that’s exactly why I rented the room to you. It was obvious you were Jewish—no one else left Vienna in the 1930s.”

As a teen, Hilke quickly explained, she’d run around with a skinhead crowd (following a boy) in a suburb of Vienna and had blithely absorbed their anachronistic anti-Semitism. Both her parents were history teachers, she said, who disapproved of racism and anti-Semitism—and, by extension, her friends. Their disapproval egged her on. It was only later, in university, she quashed her feelings. “I’ve always had to be so politically correct,” she said, earnestly. And, while it wasn’t that now she actively disliked Jews, resentment lingered: She didn’t like that she was forced to study the Holocaust, or to feel recalcitrant for something she hadn’t done. Yet she wanted to know more. “Now I can ask the questions I’ve never been able to ask!” With my help she would understand, finally, what was wrong with Jews, why we were so reviled. She had chosen me as her teacher: Sarah Wildman, speaker for the Jews.

The following morning, still processing Hilke’s request, I walked down Wallensteinstrasse to the Institute for Human Sciences, picked up my daily double espresso and pastry at the local bakery, and resumed my research on outsiders. I dashed off an email to my partner, Ian, who was living in Madrid, detailing the events of the night before. “What to do?” I asked. At 12:30 on the dot, I trooped downstairs to the dining room with the twenty or so other fellows. The Polish cook, Lidia, who prepared the midday meal, was already annoyed by my vegetarian requests, so I skipped the hot entrée, headed for salad, and then sat down with a raucous group of philosophers and historians.

When the conversation reached a lull, I blurted, “My roommate is a former skinhead! She rented to me because I’m Jewish!” The table heaved. This was absurd, people said; I had to move. Immediately.

I said I would look for another place. But I felt compelled to stay. For some reason (hubris, perhaps?) I thought I could change her.

Growing up in the New York metro area meant I never had to explain who I was to anyone. We were mildly Sabbath observant (dinner Friday night, shul Saturday morning, movies with friends in the afternoon), my parents kept a kosher home, my grandfather was a Holocaust refugee, I went to Jewish summer camp. I knew dozens of other people who shared a similar background. In Vienna, I felt very visibly Jewish, which, counterintuitively, made me push the point. At the Institute I made some people uncomfortable. “You’re so American,” they said. That meant I was loud. I laughed louder, talked louder, dressed louder.

There was just one other Jew: Thomas, a chain-smoking philosopher originally from Budapest. He had a postcard for the 1928 film Die Stadt Ohne Juden, “The City Without Jews,” pinned to his office corkboard. In the film a city expels all of its Jews and the city falls apart; it’s a comedy. But few of the other fellows knew Thomas was Jewish. Thomas grew up in Communist Hungary and then blended as quickly as he could into Austria; he wasn’t one to call unnecessary attention to himself the way I did.

On my second weekend in town, I went out with one of the Austrian fellows, Herwig, a Holocaust historian, and his Polish girlfriend. Cheerily, I told them about my childish thrill at riding trains my grandfather might have been on, about my grandfather’s lifelong, undiminished love for Vienna. “Life in 1938 here would have been awful for him,” Herwig said, uncomfortably, “especially after the right to practice medicine was taken away.” Midway through the meal, I asked him why he’d chosen to study the Holocaust. “Well,” he cleared his throat. “I suppose it is because of my family. How should I put this. . . .”

His grandfather, he explained, was a translator for the Gestapo and likely participated in the major roundups of Jews in Prague. Like other ethnic Germans he was expelled from Czechoslovakia after the war; he lived, unrepentant, into his nineties. I loved Herwig for telling the story without apology, but at the same time, I was deeply uncomfortable. Did Herwig and I owe each other something? It felt somehow too intimate; too exposed. I woke the next morning with a feeling of dismay, like I had slept with someone wrong for me.

Hilke, on the other hand, really wasn’t interested in answers so much as expressing frustration. “You’re obsessed with your own victimization,” she would say. And I would parry, “You’re welcome to be the victim, Hilke.” She wanted to find a way to share the guilt between us, a means to draw a line blaming Jews, at least partly, for the Holocaust. She wanted us to be different somehow. “But my primary identity is Western,” I said to Hilke, thinking this would resonate. “It was arbitrary my grandfather wasn’t your family doctor. But by fluke of history, I’d be your neighbor.” She shook her head. There had to have been a reason.

“There were centuries of persecution,” she said one afternoon as I put away groceries. “Don’t you think that means there was something wrong?” I tried to explain simply not believing in Christ made Jews suspect. This response bored her. “Look,” she said, and led me into her home office. On her bulletin board were photos of her grandfathers in Nazi uniform. She told me she pinned them there to remind herself—both of what they had done, and that she refused to be ashamed of her lineage. It was as though she was saying that if she had embraced the demons in her family history, I should embrace mine.

Before that moment I had never felt so keenly conscious of my own skin, so othered and ethnic, standing in front of these long-dead men and Hilke. Still, I didn’t move out. Instead, I changed the subject. We talked about sex, mostly. Hilke was into Tantra; she went to Tantric sex workshops and came home days later, quieter, with greasy hair. One night I returned home to a thermostat cranked up to 100 degrees, thick incense smoke, and the sound of Hilke and a man chanting. Somehow her sexual foibles made her less threatening.

Most evenings, after work, I cooked dinner, and she told me stories. “I was in a sadomasochistic relationship with a woman for a year,” she said one night over pasta. “The first night we slept together, I passed out during sex.” Occasionally she talked about art, but art often came back to sex, which came back to me, in a strange circular way. She seemed determined to shock me. And I was equally determined to remain unshocked. “Really, you passed out?” I’d say, “Pass the parmesan.”

“I told a friend I was renting to a Jew,” Hilke said to me one morning as she poured her Muesli and made her herbal tea. Small prisms hanging from the ceiling refracted rainbows all around us. “He said, ‘Oh, Hilke! Don’t you feel you shouldn’t use that Nazi word, Jude?’” I sighed, annoyed. “No, Hilke. Jew is not a Nazi word.”

But others echoed the sentiment. “Yes,” said Karin, a friend from dance class, “that’s how I felt growing up too. ‘Jew,’ ‘race’—those were words not to be used in polite society.” It was strange growing up in Austria, agreed Sophie, a philosopher. “For us Jews were just dead. It was odd to find them, later, in discos.”

I began to wonder how unusual Hilke actually was. Was she an outlier? Or simply more honest in her confusion? One morning I told her what Karin and Sophie had said. “Yes,” said Hilke, impassively, looking up from her computer. “Jews were just victims. They were just piles of dead bodies in photos. I hated their weakness.” She told me of a visit to Mauthausen as a sixteen-year-old with her skinhead boyfriend. She purchased the commemorative book and pasted the pictures around her room, to remind her of her own strength.

”But the bodies didn’t start out weak. They were weakened,” I protested. She shrugged.

The judgment of weakness, somehow, bothered me more than anything. I brought it up a few days later. “Don’t I seem normal to you?” I asked, stupidly, standing in her doorway, picking my cuticles. “Don’t I seem strong? I go to the gym!” It was masochistic, I suppose. I wondered: Was she changing me, instead of I her?

Beyond work and Hilke, I explored Vienna. I rode the trams around the cold, marble, glorious Hapsburg architecture of the first district up to the still-poor tenements of the second district where my grandfather Carl once lived and a handful of streimel-wearing ultra-Orthodox Jews now live again. I meandered the city—it felt old, the demographic average skewing higher than sixty, with few baby strollers—and I walked where Carl had walked, attended the opera he loved. I fell in love with the Naschmarkt, where dozens of fruit and vegetable vendors are joined on Saturdays by peddlers hawking everything from buttons to tattered Russian Torah scrolls.

My grandfather Carl first came back to Vienna in 1950, to look for other survivors; there were none. Two years later he and my grandmother visited again. They returned biennially for decades after, spending six weeks at a time. In my presence, my grandfather never talked about the anti-Semitic wave that drowned the city in 1938. Instead he recalled opera and Goethe, spring days in the Augarten park, and the best medical school in the world. But privately he was far less optimistic. My father had a passport from the moment he was born. And as soon as he made a bit of money in the United States my grandfather set up bank accounts outside America, to ensure the family wouldn’t start over with nothing if and when they fled again.

In late March, my parents arrived for a weeklong visit. In the freezing rain, we trekked from Freud’s house to the Leopold Museum to the Naschmarkt to the Albertina museum, in front of which stands the first paean to the destroyed Jewish community: a statue of a Jew, on his knees, condemned, Sisyphus-like, to scrub the street in front of the museum in perpetuity, his back covered in barbed wire. “This honors us?” my father asked as we emerged from the museum.

On our one sunny day together, my parents and I made a pilgrimage to my grandfather’s house and looked up at its still-shabby exterior: 27 Rueppgasse, not far from the Prater, where the giant Ferris wheel immortalized in The Third Man looms. On the way there we stopped to see my apartment. “I told my friends you’re living with a Nazi,” my mom had said earlier that day, laughing. “Please don’t say that to her,” I begged. “Maybe I should get you a T-shirt,” said my mother, “‘Your grandfather tried to kill my grandfather and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.’”

Hilke was home when we came in. We three were all shorter than Hilke. They all shook hands, cordially. I stood there imagining Hilke would start cackling, “Three Jews! Three Jews in my apartment!” But Hilke was pleasant.

I hadn’t really expected her to act badly around my parents. By then she and I had a rapport of sorts. All those dinners and frank conversations about relationships, sex, and yes, Jews, had meant something, hadn’t they?

Or maybe they hadn’t. “Aren’t Jewish women sexually loose?” she asked one morning, after I gave her rent money. “I mentioned to a friend that you weren’t bothered by my stories—and he said it was because Jewish women are slutty.” She had just come back from a workshop on golden showers. (Do you need a workshop to know how to pee on someone? I wondered.) “Jewish women are called whorish and frigid—don’t the two cancel each other out?” I snapped and walked out, slamming the door. “Take the garbage out!” she called from behind me.

Thomas and I began to spend more time together. We talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a topic I wouldn’t have touched with the other Europeans at the Institute. When I flew to Tel Aviv for Passover, the other fellows were shocked. How could I miss a week of my fellowship? Then Thomas announced at lunch that he had gone to Budapest for the seders. Everyone turned to stare. Thomas is Jewish too? It was like finding a long-lost brother.

“Sarah, only you would find the only openly anti-Semitic thirtysomething in this city,” he would say, shaking his head and sucking on a Nil, his harsh Hungarian brand of cigarettes. “I’ve heard she’s not really anti-Semitic,” said another philosopher who thought she knew someone who knew Hilke. “She’s an artist.”

And just as I started to agree with that—maybe she really was just self-educating, albeit roughly—Hilke’s behavior finally wore me down.

It was May Day, and Ian, who was visiting for the weekend, and I were watching a film on the television in her office. “Two Jews watching a Holocaust documentary,” she said, coming upon us, “on a rainy night in Vienna. It’s like the beginning of a joke!” When Ian got angry she said, “Why are you so upset? I mean, you killed your Indians.”

I started to tell the anecdote at work, but my friends at the Institute were becoming bored by this routine. “Just move already,” they said.

But I had thought I could convert her. I thought she would love me, find me amusing and smart. She would see that Jewish women were Western and normal. I wanted the strange nights of anxiety to mean something. Maybe I did speak for the Jews! Besides, I had only a few weeks left—it was stupid to move at this point. Yet part of me wondered if I hadn’t simply been sucked into yet another of Hilke’s sadomasochistic relationships, with no safe word.

I stopped telling stories about Hilke, but I stayed until the end of my fellowship. And when it was over, it was nearly June, the weather was finally warm, and the apartment was filled with light. We sat in Hilke’s office and talked. “Now I know there are Jews who are more like me,” she said, “but I still think Jews are weak.”

I had failed. But I knew that already. It was time to go.

“You’re a journalist,” she said sadly some days before I left. I stood uncomfortably in her doorway, looking up at her Nazi ancestors. “You’re going to write something about the stupid Austrian, I’m sure.” I promised I would change her name.