Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

5.2. Innovation and Reproduction in Austrian Literature and Film
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Donald G. Daviau (University of California/Wien)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Doron Rabinovici’s Ohnehin: Selective Memory and Multiple Pasts

Francis Michael Sharp (University of the Pacific)


While the characters in Doron Rabinovici’s recent novel Ohnehin (2004) carry on their lives at a politically familiar moment in Vienna at the end of the twentieth century, the author weaves two distinct strands of the city’s earlier history into this setting. These strands reflect pasts that continue to live in the attitudes, self-images, and experience of the novel’s characters. The central figure Stefan Sandtner evokes Freud’s Vienna of a century earlier in his profession as a psychologist and expert in cases of memory and amnesia. Reminders of the Holocaust, reminders omnipresent in the media and from within his circle of friends, upset him and trigger defensive reactions. The novel’s constant allusions to the Naschmarkt and its colorful palette of multinational, multi-ethnic, and multicultural families and characters elicit idealized images of Habsburg Vienna at the turn of the century as well as the sources of the city’s xenophobia under National Socialism. By structuring the present moment of the novel as the intermingling of these two living pasts with the immediate concerns of the mid-1990s, Rabinovici captures the complex texture of contemporary Vienna in fiction.

Few contemporary writers draw from such varied personal and professional background as Rabinovici. By birth he belongs to the second generation of Holocaust survivors; by early childhood experience to a second generation of migrants. The son of Eastern European Jews - Lithuanian and Rumanian - who found refuge from Hitler in Palestine during the war, he moved with them in the sixties at the age of three to Vienna where he grew up and was educated. He makes his home there today, remains loyal to the culture of Judaism if not its faith and is a citizen of both Austria and Israel. Historian by education and training, journalist and political activist by temperament, Rabinovici recently declared his intention to devote more of his energies to literature. As he explains in an interview from 2003, he feels a heightened personal connection to his literary writing, a stronger subjective attraction to the products of his creative imagination. He describes the difference in his relationship to his historical and literary texts in terms of ownership:

Ich habe bei der historischen Arbeit weniger das Gefühl, daß das mein Text ist, obwohl er das natürlich genauso ist, ganz klar, aber trotzdem: In der Literatur hab' ich das Gefühl, im Unterschied zur Geschichtswissenschaft, daß das noch näher an mich herankommt und daß das noch eher so ist, daß ich das machen muß, weil es kein anderer machen würde. ("Sie sollten es merken")

For this organizer of the "other Austria," this critical commentator on national politics since the Waldheim affair - and particularly since the successes of the Freedom Party in the 90s - creating fictional characters caught up in the issues of the day promises greater fulfillment than transcribing stories lifted from another time ("Forum" 5).

Two years after publishing the historical study Instanzen der Ohnmacht. Wien 1938-1945. Der Weg zum Judenratin 2000, a work that examines on the role of Jewish functionaries in National Socialist Vienna, Rabinovici explored his split allegiance as a writer of history and literature in a two-part essay that appeared in Wespennest ("Wie es war"). It was simple curiosity, he writes, that primarily drew him to the study of the "Judenrat," the need to go beyond imagination and ground his knowledge of these men in historical evidence:

Mir ging es aber, anders als in einem literarischen Text, nicht so sehr um das noch Unbenannte, als vielmehr um das Stillen meiner Neugier. Ich wollte jenseits meiner Fantasien forschen, wer die jüdischen Funktionäre gewesen waren, wollte ihre Dokumente präsentieren, sie verzeichnen und darbieten. (Wespennest 128: 21)

For Rabinovici the intent of such a positivistic pursuit was to lay bare the facts of an earlier period, to approximate how it really was, a pursuit he faults, however, because it had to adopt the language of the perpetrators. Beyond these facts - facts tainted by their very linguistic form - he argues, lies the possibility of a kind of truth available only in imaginative literature. Fiction possesses the capacity for recreating the victim’s story through the medium of his own words, for telling what could have been.

Yet Rabinovici has in his own stories never tried to capture a subjective truth of the Shoah experience by narrating it from the viewpoint of its victims. The narrated time reflected in his short stories (Papirnik) as well as in his two novels - Suche nach M. and Ohnehin - is the author’s own. Rabinovici’s characters are his contemporaries, they speak from and live in the moment in which he writes: "Es geht allemal bloß um die Gegenwart," he explains. "Was erörtert, aufgedeckt und verhandelt wird, bestimmen allein die aktuellen Machtverhältnisse, nie die früheren" ("Wie es war" Wespennest 128: 24).(1) The measure of literary truth he aims for awaits the judgement of a future reader. When the narrated moment he depicts through the lives of his characters no longer coincides with the actual present time - that is, when this future reader can assign it to the past - this fictional moment will then make claim to an existential truth that is missing in the historian’s assemblage of documentary evidence.

The period reflected in Rabinovici’s new novel Ohnehin - August and September 1995 - suggests a number of actual events that contributed to the configuration of what he refers to in his essay as "die aktuellen Machtverhältnisse." It was not only the year of Austria’s entry into the European Union, but also a time for looking back: the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end and the fortieth anniversary of Austrian independence from the occupying powers.(2) The shadow of the unresolved past weighed heavily on the political climate. The campaign for federal elections that December had begun, elections in which Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party would win over 22% of the popular vote. Rabinovici refers in the conversations of his characters to the leader of the extreme rightwing, the "Kärtner Populist" (44) and quotes directly from a Haider campaign address to Waffen-SS veterans in Krumpendorf in Carinthia on September 30, 1995 (244). He conjures up the pervasive anti-foreigner sentiment by referring to the murder of four Romanies earlier that year in Oberwart and ties it explicitly to the Holocaust past: "vier Menschen, ihre Vorfahren hätten die Nazis noch in Konzentrationslager verschleppt" (45). At the heart of the moment experienced as present by Rabinovici’s characters is this past, one that does not expire but mutates over time in response to the succeeding political configurations.

One hundred years after Freud, the fictional Viennese neurologist and clinical researcher Stefan Sandtner works with patients whose symptoms are rooted in amnesia and other memory dysfunctions. He has volumes in his library that tie him to his predecessor’s focus in the last decade of the nineteenth century.(3) Freud’s early use of hypnosis in his developing psychoanalytic method has given way, however, to a modern faith in psychopharmacology. The politically liberal Sandtner who has friends across the broad range of ethnicities and cultures represented on Vienna’s Naschmarkt is himself not Jewish, but strongly drawn to its culture - the reader is told - specifically because of the special role it attaches to memory: "Es zog ihn zu jener Kultur hin, die im Rufe stand, der Erinnerung eine besondere Rolle zuzusprechen, der jüdischen" (91). Sandtner’s repeated memory lapses concerning his personal life function both as an ironic comment on the character of this professional expert in matters of memory as well as a suggestion of the presence of repression, the psychological mechanism crucial to Freud’s early theory. And finally, Sandtner once directly - if negatively - evokes his predecessor when he trivializes his lover’s troubling dream with the consolation: "Nichts, nur ein dummer Traum" (121). A Freudian would surely read in(to) this casual broadside against Freud’s early work the outline of a slip of the tongue, a psychodynamic mechanism which Freud endowed with meaning and one which has become central to the popular understanding of psychoanalysis.

While Freud still haunts the Vienna of Rabinovici’s novel, Karl Lueger, another figure from that same time in the city’s history, has an even more distinct presence. He is first introduced into the novel’s milieu when Sandtner and his friends gather at the Café Prückel, a café on the square where a monument to this populist and anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna - first elected in 1895 - still stands. Rabinovici underscores in his novel the historical significance of the man, "der als erster mit einer Massenbewegung Wahlen gewonnen hatte und deshalb vom jungen Adolf Hitler verehrt worden war" (80). For his story it is, however, not Lueger whose presence is so palpable, but his reincarnation in Austrian politics a century later, Jörg Haider ("Sie sollten es merken" and Musner 86). By placing Haider in Lueger’s direct political lineage, Rabinovici makes a decided break with the Austrian tendency to view fin-dé-siecle Vienna through rose-tinted glasses. A character in Suche nach M. succinctly formulates this Austrian habit in contrast to the dour Germans: "Die Deutschen schauen mit Pessimismus in die Zukunft, aber die Österreicher hier blicken voll Optimismus in die Vergangenheit" (261)(4) From the point of view of the time period of Ohnehin, Rabinovici sees little reason for the optimism of this backward-oriented gaze.

While the novel’s historical reflection challenges the fantasy about late nineteenth-century Vienna, it exposes the city’s contemporary anxiety about its National Socialist past.

This past literally becomes present for one of Sandtner’s patients early in the novel. Herbert Kerber, an elderly man and former Sandtner neighbor, is transported mentally fifty years backward in history much to the dismay of his grown son and daughter. Diagnosed by Sandtner as a case of Korsakoff’s syndrome, Kerber’s illness has transformed his sense of the present from 1995 to 1945. While he lucidly recounts his life story up to the end of the war, his mind has erased the following fifty years. He freely admits his membership in the SS and complains of the suffering he endured working as a physician in the concentration camps. Psychologically ensnared in a time fifty years ago, Kerber believes he is in postwar Vienna trying to find his wife again.

Sandtner rejects attempts of Kerber’s son Hans to come to terms with his father’s illness by looking for unconscious motivation. Neither the term "Lebenslüge" (64) nor the Freudian "Verdrängung" (64) recognize the conscious concealment ("verschweigen" 65) of his role in Nazi Austria on which Kerber based his postwar life. His forgetfulness after 1945 had been an intentional act in the service of survival rather than an unconscious blockage of traumatic events serving as a psychological coping mechanism. For this opportunist and manipulator of his own life story, the path to moral renewal through remembrance, contrition, and atonement seems remote.

The sudden unblockage of this individual past is in sharp contrast to the ongoing resistance of a society to the unblockage of its common past - the Austrian desire to prolong its state of national amnesia.(5) This resistance echoes in the words "Einmal muß Schluß sein" that run like a leitmotif through the entire novel. Taking on varied shades of meanings in various contexts, they stand at both ends of the first chapter. In the first line of the novel they express the anonymous complaint of a television commentator who briefly catches the attention of Stefan Sandtner. Before switching channels he hears the following sentence as well - "Genug der Leichenberge, fort mit Krieg und Verbrechen" (7) - words clearly alluding to the Holocaust. At the end of chapter one, it is Herbert Kerber who calls out "Einmal muß Schluß sein" (27) while trying to fend off Sandtner’s inquiries about his crimes as an SS doctor. While his Nazi past has reoccupied the most accessible parts of his mind, so too his former struggles to evade personal responsibility and guilt.

Rabinovici uses these words of frustration two more times in the novel’s first chapter. In his absent-minded channel-surfing, Sandtner catches fragments of a talkshow hosted by a "bekannt-berüchtigten Boulevardjournalisten" (10) whose topic for the reader is at first vague but one long familiar to Sandtner, familiar to the point of antipathy. Just as Sandtner expresses his aversion aloud to himself - "Einmal muß Schluß sein" - the talkshow host parrots these words. This repetition on the air is greeted by the applause of the talkshow host’s audience, an indication of an enthusiastically shared sentiment. Spoken by a man introduced by the narrator as "bekannt-berüchtigt" and finding such emotional resonance among listeners during an election season strongly suggests the rhetoric of a political campaign. It implies a variation in form if not in content of the increasingly familiar phrase at that time "Stopp der Überfremdung." In this clearly xenophobic form - with its roots in Austria of the thirties - these words became the populist rallying cry against foreigners in the Freedom Party’s successful bid for national political power in 1999.(6)

Rabinovici gives further plausibility to a political interpretation of the talkshow host’s use of the words "Einmal muß Schluß sein" by having Sandtner ponder his reaction in the following paragraph:

Seit einigen Wochen meinte er diese Sentenz überall und von vielen zu vernehmen, und wenn mancher seiner Bekannten anhob, er könne nichts mehr hören von österreichischer Politik, dann rechnete Stefan damit, eine weitläufige Tirade über sich ergehen lassen zu müssen (10).

Apparent in Sandtner’s use of the words is a disgust aimed at the speaker’s demagoguery but more generally, an aversion to Austrian political discourse. To express this sentiment, however, is to invite the reproach of his more activist friends - many non-native Viennese - for taking the politically incorrect stance of opting out of this discourse. During the animated discussion on the Naschmarkt about the events in Oberwart later in the novel, Sandtner remains a silent observer. The author comments:

Hier lag es, das gesammelte Schweigen von Stefan Sandtner, viele Bände davon, denn er wollte nichts mehr hören von den Traditionen des einheimischen Rassismus, nichts von den ewigen Klagen und den immergleichen Apologien, und im stillen dachte er, einmal müßte doch Schluß sein, wagte jedoch nicht, diesen Satz auszusprechen, denn er wußte, diese Worte würden bloß zum Beginn eines neuen oder vielmehr des alten Streites hier führen. (45)

Even the Viennese memory specialist Sandtner would like to forget the strands of the Austrian past interwoven so tightly into its present.

Despite his multiethnic circle of friends and acquaintances, his attraction to the multiple ‘other’ in the community of Naschmarkt shopkeepers, and his love affair with Flora Dema, a refugee from Kosovo, Sandtner wants these ties unencumbered by historical reminders of Austria’s xenophobia.(7) That is, in spite of his apparent openness toward and enthusiastic acceptance of the other - the non-native, the foreign - in his daily life, he resists the filtering of his experience through the lens of this past. This openness turns to passion in the case of Flora, a video artist who roams Vienna’s streets with her cameraman Goran - a deserter from the Serbian military - filming candid examples of local xenophobia. For most of the novel Sandtner assumes them both to be illegal aliens. Yet neither his emotional entanglement with Flora nor the heightened anti-foreigner sentiment of the political campaign can break down his aversion to Austrian history and the blockage of its lessons for the present. He remains almost consciously forgetful and doggedly passive toward the threat implicit in her situation until too late. When Goran loses a part-time job, his boss throws him out the door with the familiar words of Viennese frustration: "Einmal müsse Schluß sein" (144). For Rabinovici, this is a kind of everyman attitude marked by a deep-seated desire for closure with the past of National Socialism, a closure without warnings or lessons for the present.

Ironically, the one character exempt from this everyman attitude is Herbert Kerber. He has earned his exemption from the widespread forgetfulness of the past through a mental illness which forces him to relive the years that many of his fellow citizens would rather declare dead and buried. Even for the Jewish activist Lew Feininger, son of Holocaust survivors, the past trauma of his parents’ generation has become historical, isolated and cut off from the present. He flatly refuses Goran’s suggestion that Flora’s interviews somehow be made part of the exhibition he is preparing on the death marches at the end of the war. Goran counters: "Aber jetzt ist Krieg. Jetzt ... Verbrechen ... . Könnt ihr immer nur von der Vergangenheit reden?" (82-83). Goran, a contemporary victim, rails at Lew in frustration at this inability to see the present through the lens of the past: "Unser Video handelt vom heutigen Rassismus! Von eurem Rassismus!" (83) For the endangered Goran, who in the end is deported back to Serbia and almost certain imprisonment or death, Lew’s memorial to the past is an act of empty piety lacking a tie to the present. Assigned to the dustbin of history, these crimes have become the artifacts of another age safely distant from his own in their grotesquely antihumantistic excesses. A few pages later the well intentioned Lew himself admits to ambivalence about the efficacy of memorializing the past: "Vielleicht ist jedes Gedenken, sind alle Rituale und Mahnmale immer Instrumente des Vergegenwärtigens und des Vergessens zugleich" (92). The activist Rabinovici condemns his main character’s willed forgetfulness of the past while sharing Lew’s ambivalence about the meaningfulness of memorializing it.

In the wake of Austrian struggles to accommodate minorities, to contain a latent xenophobic strain, the historian Rabinovici casts about for new attitudes toward an old problem. When Kerber’s daughter Bärbl suggests to Lew that a bond of suffering exists between the second-generation offspring of victims and perpetrators, Lew rejects the attempt at reconciliation as out-dated: "’Meinst du, wir wären eine einzige große Familie? Eine Art Mischehe aus Juden und Nazis? Eine Täteropfermischkulanz ... Die Mischpoche von Ausschwitz? Wir Kinder? Ich will kein Kind mehr sein. Ich bin erwachsen. Du auch. Es ist an der Zeit’" (119). In a post-Holocaust world neither the familial model of Lessing and the Enlightenment nor its extension as the assimilationist model of the nineteenth century are adequate responses of a society to minorities. The "maturity" which Lew declares for himself as well as for Bärbl is in essence a challenge to accept the Holocaust as evidence of the failure of these responses. Lew calls for innovative attitudes toward ethnic and racial difference by the second-generation of both victim and perpetrator, for a mutual maturity forged in the fires of the concentration camps. Rather than in the sufferings connected to their common past, Rabinovici calls on them to seek common ground in the struggle against the racism aimed at contemporary minorities. The living lesson of the Holocaust that his novel proposes is that the ‘Jews’ of late twentieth century Austria are its political and economic refugees, its asylum seekers from areas in Europe torn by war, racial and ethnic intolerance, its Gorans.

© Francis Michael Sharp (University of the Pacific)


(1) Most contemporary Jewish writers, Rabinovici has noted, avoid putting mass murder and Ausschwitz at the center of their writing: "Die meisten schildern eher das Aufblitzen der Vergangenheit inmitten der Selbstvergessenheit ihrer Gegenwart" ("Jidnität" 531).

(2) "These two conflicting historical memories, namely being liberated by the Allies in 1945 and liberated from the Allies in 1955 may well serve as major keys to the ambiguous relationship of Austria and Austrians toward their own past." (Lamb-Faffelberger 293)

(3) These include "einen Band früher Artikel von Sigmund Freud, eine antiquarische Ausgabe seiner gemeinsam mit Josef Breuer verfaßten Studies über Hysterie, sodann die Traumdeutung" (71-72).

(4) Rabinovici repeats this conviction only slightly altered in an interview: "Die Deutschen schauen mit Pessimismus in die Zukunft. Die Österreicher schauen mit Optimismus in die Vergangenheit" ("Sie sollten es merken")

(5) This is a postwar Austrian trait which Rabinovici labels "Mullemania" in Suche nach M. after one of the novel’s main characters (259).

(6) See especially Rabinovici’s "Rassismus und Antirassismus" and "Der Spiegel der Finsternis" 103 as well as the discussion of Rabinovici’s essay "Der nationale Doppler" in Herzog "‘Wien bleibt Wien’" 210.

(7) The Jewish Lew, who left Moscow at three and Tel Aviv at six calls Sandtner’s "Verliebtheit" his "einziges... eigentliches politisches Engagement" and notes his friend’s "merkwürdige Schwäche für Fremde" 83.


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5.2. Innovation and Reproduction in Austrian Literature and Film

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For quotation purposes:
Francis Michael Sharp (University of the Pacific): Doron Rabinovici’s Ohnehin: Selective Memory and Multiple Pasts. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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