A search for a family’s story of survival and their return home
I Belong to Vienna, by Anna Goldenberg is a non-fiction memoir out on the 18th of June, published by New Vessel Press. It’s a captivating, emotive and stirring novel about Goldenberg’s own research into her family’s activity during the Second World War.
I was drawn to this memoir because I find the idea of reclaiming places, especially those drastically affected by world wars so powerful. I felt a little sense of pride, having the PDF version of this book before it was released to the world. On my computer screen there was the whole account of one family’s survival, and their lives before, during and after the war.
Goldenberg begins by introducing her grandparents, Hansi and Helga. Firstly, these two create such a detailed and fascinating timeline before and during the war, and the way Goldenberg illustrates their personalities painted them vividly for me.
I’ll admit, initially, I did expect a sort of love story. Yet, this portion of the book only takes up a couple of pages. Instead, the novel details Hansi and Helga’s survival, desperation, and bravery. I appreciated this, and I believe it’s so important to learn; to educate ourselves about the atrocities of antisemitism and racism, and so to Goldenberg I am grateful for sharing her grandparent’s story.
The main focus of the book, to begin with, is escaping from Vienna in order to avoid being segregated and ostracised. Goldenberg describes Hansi and Helga’s childhoods in Vienna,
“In all the old snapshots, Hansi looked like a cheeky child”.
Meanwhile, Helga is described as a font of precious knowledge. We learn that she is still alive, still able to tell the story about her experience during the 1940s.
“For my grandmother, Helga, remembering has become a sport – a race against oblivion”
What I really enjoy about Goldenberg’s work is that it has not lost the atmosphere of a story told by word of mouth. There are little tangents which make me feel as if I am learning more than just the ‘necessary’ knowledge. People such as Helga’s mother, Hertha and Pepi, Hansi’s adoptive father. The emphasis throughout the book on the importance of family, whether biological or ‘found’ is ever-present. As well as this, I found the transitions between document, memory, story and present to be seamless.
The section of the memoir I found to be particularly gripping was Hansi’s time living with Pepi, a chapter named ‘Neubaugasse’. During this chapter, Goldenberg highlights the importance of the arts, and how they were an escape for Hansi from the oppression he faced from Nazi occupation. Goldenberg tells of Hansi’s newfound love for the opera,
“Hansi discovered two things: his love for the opera, and cheap standing room tickets.”
The detailing of Hansi’s love for the opera; his collection of the programmes, the programmes he created himself and collected, illustrate a refuge for a young boy during turbulent times. I feel at the moment, with the world being in the frankly shocking state that it is, arts are such an important escape for both young and old.
Overall, I really hold I Belong to Vienna in high regard. I read it all in one sitting, devouring Goldenberg’s retelling of her grandparent’s story. Whilst I did question, at first, why a family would return to a country in which they were so brutally treated, Goldenberg adeptly depicts that a person is more than their past and that it is possible to return to a place of trauma and to heal, and that this process of healing is not easy, but so important. I would recommend I Belong to Vienna to anyone in a heartbeat.