He was wearing a battered leather coat, the kind with pockets with flaps and a belt and wide lapels. Buttons, not zippers. It was brown. 1940s city, not 1950s biker. He had a Groucho Marx ‘stache, still dark, and Einstein hair reaching out in all directions like static. Maybe he was 60, maybe a well preserved 70? His hands were flying in the air between him and the younger woman next to him. She held the lead of an enormous white fluffy dog. I watched them out the cafe window, the dog yawned and sat down. “Look at that big fluffy dog…” I said to J. and then I stopped.
“Is he wearing a yellow star?”
We both squinted out the cafe window. Pinned to the man’s jacket, there was a faded yellow star with the word “Jude” on it in fake Hebraic script.
“You should go talk to him,” J said. “I bet he’d be happy to talk with you. Look at him, he’s a talker.”
“I don’t know.”
“Your biggest problem is going to be not enough time. He’s going to keep you. Go talk to him.”
I stared out the window some more and stirred my coffee.
Before Austria joined the EU, it was the far reaches of Europe, the place where Western Europe became Eastern Europe. In the last 20 years, though, it’s become less an outpost and more the middle of things. Vienna is evolving into a modern city, not entirely mired in the past. It’s a messy, complicated place and I love that being married to my Austrian means I get to visit regularly and see it change and see it stay the same.
The plazas of the first district are bordered with baroque style apartment buildings, many of them former palaces. There are fountains and manicured city parks and the splendid tile roofed Stephansdom Cathedral presides over the whole place like a judge in courtroom attire. Classic Vienna is still very present.
But there are also are loads of reconstruction era apartment blocks. Painted in pale blue or yellow or pink to make them feel like they’re dressed for something, they fail to have real character. There are failed attempts at 70s modernism, glassy exteriors that just look tired and misplaced. And there’s some brand new postmodernism, which works, or doesn’t, depending on what the buildings are sitting next to.
Austria has had a metal working culture since 800 BC, so there’s a strange kind of consistency in seeing modern jewelery in the shop windows. For 15,000 euros a tailor in the high fashion district will dress your man head to toe in bespoke everything, as though he was part of the Hapsburg court of the 1800s. The wine cellar where we ate dinner on our first night in Vienna has been a wine cellar since the 1100s. Inside the Cafe Hawelka, it looks like nothing has changed since 1950, but with the new no smoking laws the clientele are not raspy old scribes, they’re tourists and young Viennese parents who leave their strollers blocking the entrance.
It’s like Vienna can’t decide what era it occupies. So the city chooses to occupy all of them, save one: 1938 – 1945 when Austria, after its annexation by Nazi Germany, systematically murdered its Jewish population.
Before we sat in the cafe watching the woman with the dog and the man with the yellow star, we’d visited Vienna’s Jewish Museum. There are two sites. One is on the Judenplatz. One of the grand buildings near the Judenplatz has a wrought iron balcony with three gilded crowns in the railing.
“Must have been a wealthy family,” said J. There’s a plaque by the front door with the former occupants names — and the camps in which they were killed.
There’s a Holocaust Memorial on the plaza, below it, accessible through the museum, there are the foundations of a medieval era synagogue. Things were going okay for Vienna’s Jews from the 1100s to the 1400s, but that wasn’t to last. Under Duke Albrecht the V, they suffered terrible persecution and a group committed mass suicide in this synagogue rather than submit to conversion. The remaining members of Vienna’s Jewish community were herded into a field and burned alive. The synagogue was dismantled and left to obscurity until 1995 when an archeological dig revealed the foundations.
The other wing of the museum, a few blocks away, is a less somber place. There’s a research department that works to match recovered property with its original owners. One of the exhibits displayed historical objects next to screens with photos of 60s and 70s Jewish communities and families in Vienna. There are works about the uneasy return of the Jews to Vienna after WWII. Theodore Herzl’s bicycle hangs in a greenhouse window and in the top floor archives, there are all kinds of artifacts from former Austrian Jewish communities.
There are modern objects too, Judaica that’s being made today, and unlike the crumbling stones of the synagogue under the Judenplatz, the museum is alive. “Hey, we’re still here,” this place says, “look at this thing we made yesterday. We’re still here.”
This is where my head was as I looked out the cafe window at the man with the yellow star. A few hours earlier, I’d pulled open a drawer to see a piece of cloth printed with the pattern of the star he was wearing. It was under a thick piece of glass, I could not touch it. I did not want to touch it.
In the foyer of many of the churches here, you will see memorials for the dead lost in both World Wars. Sometimes, they are rows of photos of men in military garb. In the WWII photos, you will see that the uniforms on some of the young men have been painted over, their insignias obscured.
This man on the streets of Vienna did not care who saw his label. Sure, he looked a little crazy, with his static-y Einstein hair, with his battered leather coat, with his faded turquoise cords. But he didn’t look dangerous crazy or scary crazy, just eccentric crazy, like we imagine old artists and writers to be, like the kind of crazy I am sure to be in another ten years or maybe I already am. He looked like a guy who was very much himself.
The conversation he was having was neighborly, animated but not angry. I imagined these two, the woman with the dog, the man with the yellow star, were talking about someone else in their building. “I’ve been looking for this book everywhere, and I finally found it on Amazon, you know, and Frau Mueller, she’s had it in her office for a week now, and every time I go by, there’s a note up that says back in 15 minutes, and you know, she’s on the phone with her sister, so it will be an hour…” Everything about him looked normal enough, save for the weight of this yellow star hanging from the front of his jacket.
We left the cafe and walked past the man with the yellow star. I stopped and looked back at him, at the hems of his faded corduroy pants, at his beat up shoes. It was clear he didn’t have much money but I guess the hems on my jeans are a bit beat up too. He was still talking to the woman with the dog, they’d been conversing for half an hour, easily.
He existed in this space, in this time, he dragged the shameful, shocking era of the Holocaust to the street in front of the cafe where I sat drinking coffee. He wasn’t behind glass in a museum, he was real, and I was completely rattled.
“I think he’s speaking Hungarian,” J said. “You should go talk to him.”
“I know,” I said, “and I don’t think I can.” I think I was afraid. I would ask him about his star, and then, he would tell me.
But now, I can’t stop thinking about him. “Hey,” he says, “I am still here. I am still here. I am still here.”
Hungarian Jews, 1945. Photo: Yevgeni Khaledei / Camera Press / Keystone