Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold, and the Pursuit of Justiceby Isabel Vincent
That was when he told her about the bank account in Switzerland. He had kept it a close-guarded secret from the Nazi
Just before his departure for Riga, Abraham Hammersfeld summoned Renee to his library, now stripped of much of the family furniture and books. He tried his best to reassure his favorite granddaughter, whose eyes were welling up with tears.
That was when he told her about the bank account in Switzerland. He had kept it a close-guarded secret from the Nazi authorities since it was illegal for Jews living in the Third Reich to have undeclared assets abroad. In calm, measured tones Abraham explained to Renee that if anything happened to him, she was to make contact with his Swiss bank. She thinks he gave her the nameof the bank, an account number, or the address of a business associate or trustee. But in the grief of that final embrace, Renee did not pay much attention. She was worried about his survival, about how she was going to get food on the black market, about how she and her mother were going to get out of Vienna.
On April 21, 1939, Abraham Hammersfeld became a Nazi statistic.
"One of the best [books] of its kind...rigorously researched and lucidly told." -The Canadian Jewish News
"Hitler's Silent Partners stands on its own as a compelling, well-researched and sympathetic look at a terrible tragedy." -The Financial Post
"Isabel Vincent shows how Renée's story is one of so many that got lost in the shuffle.... A thoroughly gripping tale." -The Toronto Star
"A stirring saga of one family's struggle to survive." -Publishers Weekly
- HarperCollins Publishers
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Abraham Hammersfeld could have started preparing for the worst in the summer of 1934.
It's not that the year was particularly out of the ordinary for the Hammersfelds or any other well-to-do Viennese Jewish family. As was his custom every summer, the sixty-year-old patriarch closed down his textile business in downtown Vienna and headed with his wife, Charlotte, whom he affectionately called Lotte, to their pastoral retreat in Voslau, a small, quiet town, south of the Austrian capital, where many middle-class Viennese families whiled away the summer months, hiking along forest trails and visiting with friends. Abraham was looking forward to doing what he liked to do best on quiet days deep in midsummer: reading, dozing in his garden, and surrounding himself with his four children and five grandchildren at Villa Charlotte, the stately, two-story summer home he had named after his wife.
But one dramatic event shattered the summer stillness. Although, for most Austrians, the news came and went with the unexpected ferocity of a freak downpour on a lazy summer afternoon, it left many astute political observers imagining bigger and blacker storm clouds on the horizon.In the early evening of July 25, as Abraham relaxed with his family at the Voslau summer house, he turned on the radio to find out about the day's news and was horrified by what he heard. The voice of the reporter was breathless and sometimes difficult to make out over the static as he described how a group of more than 150 members of the National Socialist party, which was outlawed in Austria at the time, had broken into the federal chancellery in Vienna and shot Austrian ChancellorEngelbert Dollfuss in the throat at point-blank range. Over the static, Abraham heard that the Nazis had been dressed in the uniforms of the Austrian Army. Later that day Dollfuss died of his wounds, but by that time the poorly organized Nazi putsch had already failed. Austrian government forces, led by Austria's then minister of justice, Kurt von Schuschnigg, quickly took control of the situation. They arrested the rebels and later condemned thirteen of them to hang. In the days that followed the violent outburst, peace was restored, and Dr. Schuschnigg, a cultivated gentleman with impeccable Old World manners, was sworn in as Austria's new chancellor.
The events of the summer of 1934 had not come without warning. For months before the Dollfuss assassination, Austrian Nazis had terrorized the country in order to unseat Dollfuss, a fascist dictator, who had come to power amid economic instability and political turmoil in 1932. When Dollfuss took office, Austria had not yet fully recovered from its crushing defeat in the First World War, which culminated in the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and unleashed economic chaos, high inflation, and violent political confrontations among Communists, Christian Socialists, and later National Socialists or Nazis.
To keep the country together, Dollfuss, a Christian Socialist, ruthlessly cracked down on any opposition, particularly the rapidly growing Austrian Nazi party, whose members violently clamored for a political and economic union with Germany. With weapons and dynamite supplied by the ruling Nazi party in Germany, the Austrian Nazis, whose membership grew from about three hundred members to more than forty thousand in the space of three years, had blown up railways, power stations, and government buildings in their battle against the ruling Christian Socialists. The Austrian government had responded by stamping out democratic political freedoms and dealing harshly with dissidents. Under the clerical-conservative dictatorship of Dollfuss, both Nazis and Socialist workers did not escape sometimes brutal repression. For instance, in February 1934, the government targeted the Austrian Social Democrats and sent seventeen thousand government troops to fire on workers' lodgings in Vienna, killing a thousand people, many of them women and children, and wounding some four thousand others.
Although Abraham Hammersfeld was a sophisticated man who must have been acutely aware of everything that was going on around him, he had little time for politics. He tended to immerse himself in his daily life, dividing his time among his textile export business, his family, and the affairs of the small Orthodox synagogue of which he was president. But the news in the summer of 1934 must have given him pause.
"For some reason, the shooting of Dollfuss stayed in my head," says Renee, Abraham's eldest granddaughter, who was eleven years old at the time of the assassination. "It didn't mean that much to me, of course. I was a young girl on summer holidays. But I remember my grandfather constantly listening to the news on the radio, and I remember that summer as the beginning of a time when things started to get worse in Austria."
On the evening of July 25, as darkness descended and a welcome breeze tossed the embroidered curtains in the sitting room at Villa Charlotte, Abraham may have sat in his favorite chair as usual, lit a cigar, and, mulling over the day's events, made the connection with a similar putsch that had occurred while he and his son Adolf were on a business trip in Niunich eleven years earlier. On the evening of November 8, 1923, a band of Nazi thugs led by a diminutive, rathercomical-looking Austrian with a Charlie Chaplin mustache launched a daring attempt to take over the Bavarian government by ambushing Bavarian State Commissioner Gustav von Kahr at the Munich beer hall where von Kahr was scheduled to speak. The Beer Hall Putsch, as it came to be known, was a resounding failure that resulted in the outlawing of the Nazi party and the imprisonment of its rabble-rousing leader. Within a decade, that charismatic leader and his band of toughs held supreme power in Germany.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany, and his expansionist plans to restore the German nation to its former Teutonic glory were known to anyone who had bothered to read the first page of Mein Kampf, Hitler's ranting memoir-cum-political treatise, which after his inauguration as chancellor became a best-seller in Germany. In the first paragraph, Hitler wrote that the reunion of Austria and Germany was a "task to be furthered with every means our lives long."
Hitler officially distanced himself from the assassination of Dollfuss, calling it an internal Austrian affair. Nonetheless, it was cause for concern in Austria, foreshadowing what was to take place just four years later when German troops marched into Vienna, making Austria part of the German Reich and unleashing a campaign of terror against the country's Jews.
If they saw the storm clouds gathering as early as 1934, few well-to-do Austrian Jews of the stature of Abraham Hammersfeld started to panic. They may have thought about diversifying their financial assets, perhaps looking at investment opportunities abroad or stashing part of their savings in a foreign bank in a stable country like Switzerland. Just in case. But mostly they went about their daily lives, content in the knowledge that they were upstanding, hardworking citizens, living in one of the most civilized countries in the world.
Copyright ) 1997 by Isabel Vincent
Meet the Author
Isabel Vincent, a reporter and former Latin American bureau chief for The Globe and Mail, has been the recipient of the prestigious Southam Fellowship, and the Canadian Association of Journalists Award for Excellence. She is a contributing editor to Saturday Night and the author of See No Evil. She lives in Toronto.
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