Austria - Czech

 or..."Something Unusual Is Happening in Austria"
by Regina Espenshade*

(See also "My Amazing Return To Stadtschlaining Ė June, 2000") 

       In October, 1999 my sister, my niece and I visited the region of our familyís origin in the province of Burgenland in eastern Austria.  A little village called Stadtschlaining was my motherís home until she was 36 years old.  Before World War II, Stadtschlaining had a substantial and integrated Jewish population.  There we observed a special effort to restore the memory of the former Jewish residents and their impact on the communityís life and culture. My sister who was born in Vienna in January, 1939 had never previously returned to Austria. Eleven months after my sisterís birth, my family emigrated to the U.S. where I was born several years later. 

       In the 1970s my mother (who died in 1991) and I twice visited Stadtschlaining.  During those visits we saw the obliterated remnants of the former community, the ruins of the synagogue and the destroyed Jewish cemetery where my grandparents are buried.  My parents, in 1937, were the last couple to be married in that synagogue. 

       My father was born in 1898 in a nearby small village of Jabing, Burgenland, where his familyís home and shop still stand. There we met the town historian who identified the homesite for us and gave us a picture of it taken either in the 1800s or early in the 1900s. Recently he sent us the Jabing's Year 2000 millennial calendar with that same picture featured on the first cover page 

       Later my fatherĎs family moved to a larger town, Oberwart. There we visited the intact Jewish cemetery and the graves of my grandfather Ignatz Löwy and those of my great uncles. After the expulsion of the Jews in 1938, the Oberwart synagogue became a garage for fire trucks. I learned that it was restored and is now a music performance center. My relatives who lived in Oberwart - my grandmother Regina Bauer Löwy, my aunt Frieda and my cousin Lilly -  died at Theresienstadt two months before I was born. 

       The principal landmark of Stadtschlaining is a large castle dating back to the 13th century. My motherís former home and business were outbuildings of the castle and stand immediately adjacent to it. Upon our arrival in the village I noted something unusual. The sign at the castleís entrance announced that the castle is now the site of the European University Center for Peace Studies. 

       We entered the castle and learned that it is now a place for students from all over the world to study peace, conflict management, and how to be peacekeepers. I never would  have imagined this in my wildest dreams. The formerly-desecrated synagogue has been restored and is now a Peace Library. The cemetery has been restored as well; its entrance is marked with a beautiful granite gate identifying it as a Jewish burial ground. These developments gave me an overwhelming sense of relief. I will never forget the deep grief my mother experienced in 1973, and again in 1976, when she saw that the graves of her parents had been desecrated. Although some of the gravestones appear to have been retrieved, my grandparentsí markers are missing. 

       The waves of revelation continued. The woman who manages the museum at the castle gave us a copy of a book that relates the history of the Jewish community in Stadtschlaining and Burgenland dating to before the 15th century. This book lists the names of many of my relatives. The text concludes with a statement that little is known about what happened to the community. 

       Next we visited the synagogue which, though it is now used as a Peace Library, retains its Jewish identity. I possess a Hebrew/German Bible and several prayer books that I now realize belonged to my grandfather when he prayed at that synagogue.  These books were printed more than 100 years ago.  Her fatherís prayer books were among the few belongings that my mother carried to America when she fled her home village. 

       By chance we had reserved accommodations from Vienna at the pension of Werner Glösl, who happened to be the director of tourism for the village. When we explained why we were visiting, he brought out a book about the history of Stadtschlaining. When he opened it, I was overcome with emotion to see a picture of my mother with a group of her friends. She appeared to be mourning her fatherís death as she was wearing a black armband. Subsequently Mr. Glösl sent me other family memorabilia, including an announcement from 1930 of a sale at the store owned by my grandfather, Ignatz Braun.  The sale celebrated the 50th anniversary of his  business at that location. 

       We talked to several people who remembered my mother and had attended her wedding. We visited the home of the family Rusz who had helped my parents escape and subsequently suffered because of their anti-Nazi activities.   There we saw more pictures of happy times in my motherís youth. She was so completely integrated into the community that when she was forced to leave it was a shock to her and to her friends. 

       This connection with my parents' past, learning that they continue to live in the memory of  people in Stadtschlaining,  was for me a powerful experience.  I am personally dedicated to working for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. My discovery of the Peace Center of Stadtschlaining provided an unexpected link to my passion for peace. I plan to attend a training session there in June to participate in their Peacekeeper Training Program.  I want to learn more about how and why the remembrance of Jews is happening in this small Austrian village. 

       I learned a lot in the short time since my visit as I have been researching the fate of my family.  A number of them actually survived the Holocaust, and I have located some of the survivors and their descendants. From microfilm records made by the Mormon Church I am discovering information about my family ancestors. I hope to examine additional records to trace my relatives to before the early 19th century. 

       This genealogical work prompted me to join an Internet group called the Burgenland Bunch whose members originate from the region.  I have already discovered several long-lost family members via this exchange.  One of the members, Mr. Albert Schuch, an historian at the University of Vienna, sent me excerpts from the Oberwart Newspaper about various family members dating back to the 1880s. These tidbits describing events such as engagements, robberies, charitable donations they made, etc., bring their experiences to life. 

       The installment from 1930 to 1938 was very difficult for me to read. The last news item resembled the notices published in local newspapers here about confiscated property.  That announcement notes the appointment (by the Nazis, although this is not so stated) of Mr. Gustav Friedrich of Pinkafeld as manager for the listed property that belonged to those ďwhose whereabouts are unknown".  Seeing my motherís name, Gisela Braun Löwy, at the top of the list and reading about the confiscation of her two houses was heartbreaking.  Many of my relatives appeared in the list of families who suffered loss of their property. Others subsequently lost their lives. 

       I have always known where it ended in 1938. But initially this report shook my confidence about my decision to go to Stadtschlaining and study peace. The reality that emerged made me realize that I should never forget what happened.  Many in the Jewish community are unforgiving toward the Austrians for their acts of anti- Semitism. Those include some of my own relatives. 

       The recent election of Haider and his anti-Semitic reputation soured things further. Yet there is a current flowing in another direction that deserves acknowledgement.  I shall always remember my motherís response in 1975 when she met her girlhood friend in the village after 36 years. This woman was the widow of the local Nazi party secretary who had turned against my mother in those last days. My motherís first words to her when they encountered one another on the street were, ďI forgive you.Ē 
       Schlaining (in Stadtschlaining-Hungarian name Varoszalonak) was one of the most powerful castles in the province. It was presented to the noble Andreas Baumkirchner by Emperor Frederick III in 1445. It later passed to the Batthyany Herrschaft.  Dr. U. Illig turned it into a museum, then saved it from much destruction in WWII, but it became an hotel and now a conference center as stated in the article 

       The village of Stadtschlaining was unique in that it was a center for three faiths. For the Catholics there is a fine Gothic Katholische Pfarrkirche founded by Baumkirchner. The Evangelische (Lutheran) Pfarrkirche is the oldest "tolerance" prayer house in the Burgenland, built in 1782, after the issuance of Joseph II's "Edict of Tolerance". Early Jewish presence can be traced to the 17th century when a synagogue was built. About 1848, Stadtschlaining was one of the larger Jewish settlements with Jews accounting for 40% of the population. Part of Bezirk Felso-Eor, Vas Megye pre 1921, in 1873 it had 435 Roman Catholics, 586 Lutherans, 312 Jews and 76 Reformed.  Altschlaining (now part of Stadtschlaining along with Drumling, Goberling and Neumarkt) had an additional 422 Catholics, 116 Lutherans and 7 Jews, all of whom worshipped in Stadtschlaining. Catholic and Lutheran records are available from the LDS as are Jewish records from 1841-1895 (LDS 0700744). 

       The presence of such a strong castle as well as an "Antimony Works" (closed in 1990) in Stadtschlaining probably accounted for the large mixed population. 

       Where they still exist or have been restored, Jewish cemeteries will often portray much earlier burials than the Catholic or Protestant ones that lose their headstones and grave markers in approximately 100 years, due to reuse of the burial plots. While the Jewish headstones reflect much older burials, their inscriptions are mostly (if not all) in Hebrew. Their destruction is a serious loss to genealogists. Fortunately, in the Burgenland, many of the 19th century records have been microfilmed. 

       (Gerry Berghold of the Burgenland Bunch provided the material in Italics above.) 

       There is a web site that provides pictures and information about the Peace Center in my motherís castle. The address is

       *The author may be reached by E-mail at

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