The window displays of the Demel patisserie in downtown Vienna have always been spectacular – even during the Second World War. During a stroll with her mother in 1942, nineteen-year-old Lotte Freiberger longingly admired the cakes on display. According to Nazi categories, Lotte was the offspring of a so-called “non-privileged mixed marriage”. As of September 1941 she had to wear a Star of David because she was a member of the Jewish Community, and she was not allowed to enter the patisserie. Her “Aryan” mother, a Christian who had converted to Judaism but resigned from the Jewish Community in 1938 to protect the family, was allowed to do so. A Gestapo official in plain clothes observed how the mother bought a piece of cake and gave it to her daughter Lotte. In the interview, the witness recalled that he came storming towards her angrily. In his eyes, Mimi Freiberger had violated several laws. One of them concerned the prohibition of friendly contact with Jews.
“He was dismayed when he realized that the two were mother and daughter,” says Michaela Raggam-Blesch, a historian at the University of Vienna. A frequent occurrence at the time, situations such as this illustrate the contradictory nature of the Nazi ideology, according to which multi-confessional marriages or “mixed marriages” were not supposed to exist. Particularly after the deportation of the majority of the Jewish population by the end of 1942, the Nazi authorities in Vienna focused increasingly on members of this preliminarily protected group. “More and more anti-Jewish laws and decrees were issued, and everyday life became increasingly criminalized. If you were caught at a violation, it could mean a death sentence,” explains Raggam-Blesch. Lotte Freiberger was not allowed, for example, to buy and eat certain foods such as meat, eggs, wheat flour or cakes, or to enter parks and cinemas – there was a long list of bans.
Files and personal memories
In total, Raggam-Blesch conducted more than 30 interviews with contemporary witnesses for her venia docendi project. The Austrian Science Fund FWF funded the research project in the context of the Elise Richter Programme, and the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism put her in contact with descendants. The historian focused on the group of children from multi-denominational marriages who were categorized as either Mischlinge (“half-breeds”) or Geltungsjuden (individuals deemed to be Jewish), but also their Jewish and Christian or non-denominational parents. Raggam-Blesch was particularly interested in the following questions: What factors decided whether members of “intermarriages” enjoyed protection? And: how did the external categorization of “half-Jewish” affect the identity of the children? “For a long time, they were considered to be individuals who, compared to the rest of the Jewish population, remained practically ‘unharmed’ because the majority had not been deported. Until the 1990s, many of them did not even consider themselves victims of persecution. Consequently, their experiences did not fit into a defined space and were also neglected by historical research,” notes the historian. It was only after being recognized by the National Fund that many of them felt that their experiences of persecution were officially validated.
In addition to the interviews she conducted, Raggam-Blesch also drew on sources from the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW) and the Shoah Foundation. Another important source is the archive of the Jewish Community (IKG – Israelitische Kultusgemeinde) in Vienna: by the end of October 1942, the majority of Jews had been deported and the IKG had been transformed into the “Council of Elders of the Jews in Vienna”, who now was responsible for all members of intermarriages, who were considered Jewish – regardless of their denomination. For this reason, the reports and files in this archive from 1943 onwards, for example on welfare benefits or the allocation of housing, mainly document the lives of “mixed families”. On the side of the perpetrators, the daily Gestapo reports (DÖW) as well as the Mischlingskartei (“half-breed records”) in the archives of the City of Vienna are important sources – the latter containing a wide range of information, including family constellations and marriage requests. “Persons who were categorised as Mischlinge had to submit an application if they wanted to marry an ‘Aryan’, which in fact was hardly ever granted. With this step they were on record,” adds the historian.
Central areas of life affected
Children and young people from “mixed marriages” were particularly affected by the restrictive marriage regulations and the massive interference in school attendance. The extent to which the regulations applied was again decided by the Nazi categorization: membership of the Jewish Community made the difference between being classified as a Geltungsjude or a Mischling (not a member of the IKG). The latter could raise the categorization of the entire family to “privileged mixed marriage”. Whether the Jewish religion was even practised at home did not play a role for Nazi logic. Depending on their status, the young people were then either immediately thrown out of school (Geltungsjuden), or they were allowed to attend secondary school (Mischlinge) until that, too, was banned in the summer of 1942. The consequences this could have for the individual concerned is made very clear by the contemporary witness Lotte Freiberger. “The fourteen-year-old girl was expelled from high school in 1938. Her ‘Aryan’ circle of friends shunned her. She then attended courses at the IKG and got to know persecuted people from similar family constellations,” reports Raggam-Blesch, “which brought her closer to a Jewish identity, and induced her to view it more positively from then on.” For many others, however, the Nazi attribution of being “half-Jewish” had always felt like something forced on them from the outside.
Survival strategies and unfamiliar alliances
Whether a multi-denominational marriage was categorized as “privileged” or “non-privileged” was primarily decided by the religious denomination of the children and by the sex of the Jewish parent in childless “intermarriages”. At any rate, the categorizations based on racial ideology were absurd and contradictory, as Raggam-Blesch underlines. Her research now reveals the survival strategies developed by those affected. “In order to spare the children discrimination, people sometimes applied for recognition of an ‘Aryan’ father instead of a Jewish father,” she notes. In many cases, the survival of Jewish family members also depended on the courageous comportment of the Christian or non-denominational spouse, a fact that is still rarely appreciated today. As a case in point, the contemporary witness Vilma Neuwirth, whose autobiography was published in 2008, recalls that her Christian mother stapled the party insignia to her nightgown or coat so that her children and Jewish husband would fall under her protection in the event of a Gestapo check or raid.
Other aspects that could provide relief were overcoming denominational boundaries and even the involuntary rapprochement of members of intermarriages to the Council of Elders. Starting in 1943, the “Archbishop’s Assistance Office for Non-Aryan Catholics” celebrated Catholic holidays and church services in Jewish welfare institutions, where the majority of the residents were of Christian denominations. Although the relationship was not without ambivalence, “the Jewish community also appreciated the contact, because they were supported by the Archbishop’s office with urgently needed food, medication and also funds. This close cooperation was quickly forgotten after 1945,” says Raggam-Blesch. The experience of being victims of exclusion overnight has made a lasting impact on many of those affected.
Together with the wide variety of written sources, the oral testimonials now draw a detailed picture of the persecution suffered in Vienna at that time by those who were allegedly “never in harm’s way”. The research brings to light the constant teetering on the brink of disaster and the uncertainty as to when and whether the tide would turn, as well as personal suffering and situations where, despite the mortal danger, a helping hand – or a piece of cake – were offered to them.
Michaela Raggam-Blesch is a historian specializing in Jewish history. Until the end of 2017 she held a position at the Institute of Culture Studies and Theatre History at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Since the beginning of 2018 she has been researching and teaching at the University of Vienna. Her research interests include autobiographical sources and women’s and gender history. She is a member of the research group Microcosms of the Holocaust at the University of Utrecht.