Writing and Resistance: Interview with Erich Hackl

Entrevista en español aquí.

Hackl dust jacket-D7

At the annual German Studies Association conference in September, the Austrian Cultural Forum featured Austrian author Erich Hackl’s Three Tearless Histories (DoppelHouse Press, 2017). The book is a collection of three personal histories about individuals affected by mid-century fascism, including the Austrian resistance fighter Gisela “Gisi” Tschofenig, who was killed in 1945, six days prior to the liberalization of the Schörgenhub work education camp where she was detained. In “Tschofenig: The Name Behind the Street,” Hackl recounts her improbable wedding in the Dachau concentration camp and attempts to resurrect her accomplishments amidst a family squabble that threatens to bury her forever. In the following interview with Carrie Paterson, Hackl (who currently lives in Vienna, Austria) discusses how he came across the story of Gisela Tschofenig, and how members in the anti-fascist resistance in the past can influence and inform resistance movements in the present.

How did you learn about Austrian resistance fighter Gisela Tschofenig? Did you have preconceived ideas about her life? Have you changed your perceptions of her and of Linz through the story that you were able (or not able) to tell?

I grew up very close to Linz, in Steyr, a small industrial city. I learned about the story of Gisela Tschofenig, or part of it, through my friend Margit Kain, widow of the writer Franz Kain and mother of the writer Eugenie Kain. After reading my book The Wedding in Auschwitz, Margit told me that the wedding between Rudi Friemel and Marga Ferrer in Auschwitz was not the only marriage that took place in a Nazi concentration camp, but that also her “aunt” Gisi (not a blood relative, but in an emotional sense, through the great friendship with Margit’s mother and Gisi) was married in Dachau. Ever since she told me about it, I had the idea of ​​returning one day to that story and recounting it. When I started looking seriously for testimonies, what I did not know about Gisi’s life and death were the conflicts within her family and that there were going to be at least two people who would not want to talk to me: the daughter of Gisi’s second husband, and Gisi’s younger sister (who was present at the wedding ceremony). On the other hand, my friendship with Hermann, her son, as a result of my work has been one of the unexpected achievements.

But to answer your question: broadly speaking, I do not think I have changed my perception of Austria and the behavior of people during and after the Nazi era. Do not forget that I had been investigating and writing about similar facts for decades.

In your family, are there examples of “resistance” that have in some way influenced you?

Not of active resistance but of anti-Nazism. You can find some of that in my book This Book Is of My Mother, about the first 25 years of my mother’s life in a remote village in northern Austria.

Why are you interested in stories of resistance in Austria?

First, through a feeling of justice, and then generally because both the right and the left tend to under-appreciate the anti-Nazi resistance: the right, because they want to silence the anti-fascists and affirm their belief that it doesn’t matter that they’d been Nazis; and the left to differentiate itself from the past: for example, there was and is a whole series of Austrian writers who regard themselves as leftists and insist that everyone in this country – except the Jews and maybe the gypsies – supported the Nazi regime or at least accepted it. Second, as a figure of the opposition, it is important for me to know that I have company. I look for my colleagues not only among contemporaries but also in the generations before mine.

The street sign that honors Gisela’s name in Linz, Austria. ©: Linz09 

Oral history is very important in stories of resistance – what is said, rather than what is written or institutionalized (like the street sign with the name of Tschofenig). Why did you decide to write these stories? Do they have more authority or less without the witness? When do they become literature?

Oral history was largely the basis of the story about Gisi Tschofenig, thanks to Margit Kain and her testimony about her aunt, which the researcher Peter Kammerstätter (mentioned in the text) recorded a long time ago. It would have just been lost with the death of the witnesses. It’s difficult to determine when a testimony becomes literature. Maybe when the author gets the text to vibrate with emotion, where it can bear all the nonverbal aspects of the testimony, then it can bring everything together, forming a structure that is more than pure chronology. At any rate, I think that the story about Gisela Tschofenig is between historical reportage and literature since it collects, almost monotonously, a series of data and descriptions of photos of a critical period – the youth of Gisi, and that of [her husband] Pepe – about which there was no information. And since I didn’t take the liberty of inventing things, it was impossible for me to achieve a space large enough in which to form literature.

As for the photos that have not been seen, but have been described – for me, it was a very important detail that in the book we never see a photograph because there are certain moments that can never be described. How do you consider the testimony offered by the photos since it’s necessary to imagine them?

Since neither in the text about Gisela Tschofenig nor the one about Wilhelm Brasse [“The Photographer of Auschwitz”] show the detailed photos, it’s due to the fact that I do not believe the photo can show what the literary text can guard. I doubt the truth of the saying that a photo is worth a thousand words. Rather it is the other way around: that the photo lends itself much more to deception. Susan Sontag has written quite a lot about that.

We want to congratulate you on being awarded the Menschenrechtspreis des Landes Oberösterreich 2017. Can you tell us about it and what it means to you? Did you give a speech when you received the prize?

I have to confess that this Human Rights prize did not give me joy. Upper Austria has been governed since October 2015 by a coalition of the conservative party and the extreme right, the same coalition that was recently formed as a national government. In other words, Upper Austria was the negative vanguard in that aspect, and it was immediately apparent in the xenophobic policy against refugees. My sister and I, facing the wave of refugees in 2015, opened the house of our deceased parents to four refugees. We first suffered the wrath of several neighbors who saw their status quo in danger due to having refugee neighbors, and then secondly the evil and, as we believe, incorrect treatment by the Upper Austrian authorities. So I did not go to pick up the prize. When I asked if I could give a speech, the woman in charge of giving the prize said that it was not planned. In that you see the new times too: they block the speeches because they could be critical of the powers that be; everything is done at the level of a birthday party.

Of course, upon encountering this kind of mistreatment and insincerity, a person like you would have a lot to say. What do you expect to happen in the next ten years in your country, with regard to the refugees and the attitudes of the Austrian people?

hackl speech
Hackl gives a speech May 10, 2015 at Mauthausen on the 70th anniversary of its liberation. Photo: Equipo Nizkor

An answer was given by the new minister of the Interior, who is of the far right, when he said that the refugees should be concentrated in large centers on the outskirts of the cities. The use of the word “concentrate” is revealing on its own; no one would think that in this context, it would not imply the concentration camps… Apart from being humanly unacceptable, it would be political and even administrative nonsense; politically, precisely because the dispersion of refugees among the people, in the cities and in the countryside, and their contact with the civilian population, open the possibility for their integration into Austrian society. And second, that proposal could not be realized since the state has shown itself, in recent years, unable to create the infrastructure for this integration. It has been and continues to be private individuals, especially women, retired people, but also young people who teach German to refugees, welcome them in their homes, share apartments with them, etc. Without their commitment, state institutions would have been unable to guarantee the livelihood of those who came for help.

I do not think about the crimes committed but about the great and small gestures of solidarity [and …] the efforts of the survivors to keep awake the memory of the fight against fascism, for freedom and social justice. – Mauthausen, May 10, 2015

Maybe that’s a hopeful note to end this interview on: the people who help other people. In closing I want to ask if you recognize a link between your works that show how the Second World War and the exile of Austrian Jews drove a “resistance” in literature, and how this way of writing reflects the conditions in Austria now, which also demand a response of “resistance,” but in the flesh.

You ask me about the real or imaginary link between the subject so frequent in my works – the persecution, the flight, the exile of Austrians – and the same phenomena that we are experiencing today with regards to people who come to Austria fleeing from their countries. It’s easy to see the similarity of both experiences. On the other hand, one would think that precisely the urgency of what is happening today, not only in Austria but throughout the world, should lead an artist or writer to dedicate themselves to the present. There are those who do that; more than writers – film and theater directors, plastic artists, agitprop theater actors. I would highlight, for Austria, the filmmaker and theater director Tina Leisch, who premiered a musical in 2016 along with a large group of refugees and with an Austrian actor that carried in the title the name of the largest refugee camp in this country, Traiskirchen. This work has been exemplary, exemplary in every way. If I choose to write about the past, it is because – apart from being passionate about the history of struggle and resistance – I feel the need to fight for an identity based in history: amongst the banalities and the ideology of “the struggle,” to “look forward” by finding a comparison with those who fought and suffered for just causes. In addition, they themselves are in danger of being eliminated, erased from the collective memory, especially now that their contemporaries are no longer alive. Them and the hope they represented. In his “Philosophy of History,” written shortly before his death, the philosopher Walter Benjamin insisted on the need to ignite in the past the spark of hope because “the dead will not be safe from the enemy when he wins.” And this enemy, warned Benjamin, has not ceased winning. We are seeing it at this moment.

Three Tearless Histories is available in hardcover and paperback here and at your favorite local bookstore.

Profile photo of Erich Hackl: © Pedro Timón Solinís

Erich Hackl is an award-winning Austrian author and translator. He has been a regular contributor to the Wiener Tagebuch, editor of the Aurora-Library, a book series of international poetry, and he is a regular contributor to the Wochen Zeitung in Zürich. He has published numerous Hispanic literature anthologies, and is recipient of over a dozen literature and translation prizes, including the Premio Hidalgo, the Solothurner Literaturpreis, the Literature Prize of the City of Vienna, and the Austrian Prize for Literary Translation. Two of his books have been adapted to film and his work has been published in 26 languages.

In 2017 Erich Hackl was awarded the Human Rights Award of Upper Austria (Menschenrechtspreis des Landes Oberösterreich) for his “active anti-fascist contribution to the maintenance of humanity and justice of a humanistic society.”