by Andrew Roth, Archivist at the JFCS Holocaust Center’s Tauber Library and Archives
On November 9–10, 1938, Nazi leaders unleashed a series of pogroms against the Jewish population in Germany and recently incorporated territories. This event came to be called Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) because of the shattered glass that littered the streets after the vandalism and destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and homes.
Kristallnacht hit Vienna particularly hard. Some 6,000 Austrian Jews were deported to the camp of Dachau, 27 were murdered, and nearly a hundred synagogues were burned down. It was the latest in several waves of anti-Jewish violence and persecution that had coursed through Austria since the Anschluss—the incorporation of the country into the Third Reich—in March 1938. The persecutions, expropriations, arrests, and physical assaults that had developed in Germany over five years fell upon Austria with full force almost immediately.
Heinz Fisher was an elementary school student in Vienna at the time. His father had lost his job. His family was desperately trying to escape the country. Heinz found himself in a segregated Jewish school.
Two of his school notebooks from this time are now in the Tauber Holocaust Archives. Though Heinz had to have been affected by the turmoil around him, the notebooks look oddly serene. Recorded in a neat and precise handwriting, the crisp notebooks contain page after page of rote lessons on spelling, grammar, mathematics, geography, and other typical grade-school subjects with hardly a blot or slip. Small colorful drawings that illustrate the material are scattered throughout. There’s no outward sign of fear or tension.
And yet, a careful reading in Heinz’s fifth grade notebook reveals a secret. Squeezed between notes on a science lecture and a grammar lesson is a defiant message of sorts, a line of protest from German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine—considered by many to be the country’s finest lyrical poet.
Heinz Fischer’s brief invocation of Heine stands out in his notebook as a modest act of defiance:
Am Ende wird Israel für seine Opfer entschädigt durch die Annerkennung der Welt durch Ruhm und Grösse.
In the end, Israel [i.e. the Jewish people] will be recompensed for its sacrifice by the recognition of the world, by glory and greatness.
With a closer look, the entry becomes even more poignant. The preceding science lesson is dated November 8, 1939, the grammar report following is from November 13, 1939. Heinz has written Heine’s defiant verse on the one-year anniversary of Kristallnacht.
We can only speculate on Heinz’s state of mind. His world has been turned upside down. Was the routine of school a refuge or a source of anxiety? Was his notebook composed merely of schoolwork or was it a source of self-expression? We can’t really answer with certainty. But we know the notebooks were saved and brought to the US when the family escaped and then preserved for decades—they must have meant something.
Our holdings show that Heinz made it to San Francisco with his parents Gustav and Margaret in August 1940. Once here, Heinz Americanized his name to Harry—Heine’s given name. He passed away on January 31, 1996.