Gita Kaufman Retraces the Shadows From My Past

With the voices of Heinz Fischer, Jörg Haider, Wiesenthal and Waldheim, an émigré portrays the fate of her family and an era

Journalist Gita Kaufmann | Photo: Matthias Wurz

The Shadows of my Past | Photo: epo-film

Journalist Gita Kaufman's childhood passport | Photo: epo-film

Gita Kaufman's relatives | Photo: epo-film

Gita Weinrauch Kaufman “can never forget, nor forgive, what happened.” She wanted us to know that right off, from the beginning, before trying to pull the many threads of place and memory together. The result became Shadows From My Past, a new documentary by Mrs. Kaufman and her late husband Curt that will be screened in Vienna for the second time this month, courtesy of the Austrian Film Institute and the Filmfonds Wien.

Journalist Gita Kaufmann | Photo: Matthias Wurz

Journalist Gita Kaufmann | Photo: Matthias Wurz

This simple, uncoated honesty characterises the film, a lo-fi, but penetrating chronicle of letters that trace her family’s fate as the power of National Socialism took hold of the Austrian capital. However, this is much more than the story of one family – it is also an overarching exploration of Austrian social and cultural history during the time of the Third Reich, and a useful reminder of the complex issues behind the so-called “first victim” debate.

“I didn’t know exactly what we were getting into,” said Gita Kaufman, whose husband died in late 2011. What started ten years ago as an intimate family portrait evolved into an expanded study of Austria’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with its Nazi past, to help lift the veil of secrecy and denial that has characterised the post-war decades. With the support of the Austrian historian Dr. Oliver Rathkolb, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna, and the Bruno Kreisky Forum, the scope of the Kaufmans’ project grew.

Born in 1936, Gita Kaufman fled with her family in 1940 for the U.S. – on the day she was to be sent to Dachau. She returned only in the late 1990s to face this dark story in search of the lost history of her kin. But as the Kaufmans researched, they became embroiled in the complex and misunderstood history of Austria as both a victim and a perpetrator of Nazi crimes.

“How could it have happened in this beautiful, cultured country?” Gita Kaufman recalled in a recent interview with The Vienna Review.   “I just wanted to know how it had happened.”

The debate surrounding Waldheim

Shadows From My Past is impressive for the breadth of its detail and comprehensiveness of the interviews, while not allowing itself to stray from the central themes, as so easily happens in research-heavy documentaries.

The episodic format, which culls together several historical narratives, employs a more recent style of documentary filmmaking best exemplified perhaps by Spike Lee’s 2010 work on Hurricane Katrina, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise – disjointed and nonlinear, creating many sub-narratives that orbit the central theme.

From the pre-Anschluss presence of the National Socialists in Austria to the millennia-old promulgation of Christian anti-Semitism, the Kaufmans navigate their way through Austrian political and intellectual circles, interviewing top politicians like Austrian President Heinz Fischer, former Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider, as well as with famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and former U.N. Secretary General and later Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, whose controversial record as a Wehrmacht officer first brought discussion of the fallacies of the “first victim” narrative into the Austrian mainstream.

Indeed, some of the most powerful moments of the documentary are the well-edited transitions from interviewees slinging accusations and vitriol at the elder statesman, to those who offer a cautious appraisal of the details of Waldheim’s “Nazism”, to Waldheim’s own, almost dismissive, defense of himself.

This debate surrounding the Waldheim Affair, succinctly captured in Shadows From My Past, remains a powerful embodiment of the unresolved issues of Austrian identity vis-à-vis the Second World War.

Journalist Gita Kaufman's childhood passport | Photo: epo-film

Journalist Gita Kaufman’s childhood passport | Photo: epo-film

Also of note is the film’s exploration of the pre-Nazi factors that contributed to “many-peopled” Austria’s smooth transition into a racist National Socialist state, particularly the influence of the Catholic Church. The Catholic clergymen who are interviewed are perhaps the most sincerely repentant of any faction, going well beyond the obligatory platitudes.

Making absolutely no attempt to mask or downplay the Church’s activist role in collectively demonising the Jews as “God’s murderers”, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, acknowledges that what made many Austrians capable of participating in the Final Solution was not Nazi indoctrination, but a prior Christian anti-Semitism that had deep and pervasive influence on Austrian – and indeed European – society. This, says one bishop, “weakened the capacity for resistance” against Nazi ideology.

A story detailed in letters

Spliced amidst the investigation are Kaufman’s readings from her family’s letters, dated from 1939 to 1941. While many works on the Holocaust employ this storytelling method, it remains nonetheless compelling as a chronological narrative illustrating the deteriorating plight of the Jewish people under the Third Reich.

Gita Kaufman's relatives | Photo: epo-film

Gita Kaufman’s relatives | Photo: epo-film

These letters recall her father’s brutal beating and nocturnal torture in the freezing waters of the Danube, as well as relatives’ descriptions of the piecemeal horrors of deportation and internment, to the child Gita’s parents writing of their new lives in America.

These interludes keep the diverse interviews in focus, tracking the human theme of the film, and act as a sort of collective I Shall Bear Witness, Victor Klemperer’s classic diary documentation of life under the Third Reich. Although there is nothing terribly new in Shadows From My Past, the film remains a valuable primer on the complex history of Nazi-era Austria, especially for the uninitiated.

And what is refreshingly honest is Kaufman’s reluctance to completely forgive. In the end, restitution will always remain inadequate, falling inevitably, and heartbreakingly short of the magnitude of the loss.

And about being back in Austria after so many decades, Kaufman remained conflicted.

“We should have had a big family, but we have a tiny family,” she said. “There are many, many good people here… But I remain ambivalent, that I didn’t have the family…, that I didn’t have this home.

“This should have been my home.”

Shadows From My Past | Photo: epo-film

Shadows From My Past | Photo: epo-film

The Shadows of My Past: A Documentary

by Curt and Gita Kaufman

epo-film Vienna, 

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