Top photo: The Chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, meets the French High Commissioner in Germany, André François-Poncet, on his first visit to Paris in 1951.
Erich Lessing/ bildrecht.at
Danielle Spera Talks to Erich Lessing
Your photos are world-famous, and for decades you have been recognized worldwide as a major photographer. Little is known of your life, however, except that you were born in Vienna in 1923 into a middle-class family.
Middle-class, I suppose you could say that. In those days, as in all good Jewish families, that meant socialist. I was a product of the public housing projects of the time. I grew up in Ludo-Hartmann-Hof in Albertgasse—with its nice columns. In those days the architecture still mattered. There were childhood friends and a progressive Social Democratic elementary school, a Glöckel school designed to teach a new generation of children.
We were on first-name terms with the teacher and used to like going to school—unusually for children aged six to ten years. When I had a temperature I even shook the thermometer so I could go to school. My teacher had a typically Austrian fate: in spite of her Social Democratic background she fell in love with an illegal Nazi, a future Obersturmbannführer. They both committed suicide in 1945.
Where did your family come from?
My father was born in Stanislav, my mother in Vienna. She came from a rabbi’s family in Boleschau [Bolechov] in the Carpathian mountains. We were not at all religious. My mother was even very unhappy when I decided to join the Hakoah swimming club. I had belonged beforehand to the Wiener Athletiksport Club (WAC).
I had my barmitzvah, however, and also had religion classes in high school. The barmitzvah took place in Neudegger Temple with Rabbi Bauer. We would go there from time to time, but for Zionist rather than religious meetings. We celebrated Pesach with my uncle, my mother’s brother. My grandfather was still strict and observed Pesach properly. Every Seder night we would have the following conversation: my grandfather would pray and my grandmother would be in the kitchen.
At some point she would stick her head out and say: “Schwarz, hurry up with your praying, the knedlech (Matzah balls) will get hard.” I suspect that lots of families have this problem with knedlech. Every year the whole family would gather. Also at Chanukah. Grandfather and I would light the Chanukah candles in the kitchen while the Christmas tree stood in the dining room. No one seemed to be bothered by it.
In other words, you had a sheltered childhood.
Also a very happy one. My father was a doctor and so we had a large bathroom in the apartment. We would run around barefoot; we only had one pair of shoes. Apart from swimming with the Hakoah, I often went to the children’s matinees in the Albertkino. It stank terribly. In the break the cashier would go around with a Perolin spray so that it didn’t smell so bad.
Then something terrible happened. My father died of cancer in 1933 at the age of forty two. I was just ten years old. My mother gave piano lessons to earn money. There was also a small inheritance from my great-uncle, who was very wealthy. You can still buy his flour today, Wiener Nuller, made in the first Viennese steam mill. He later founded Bankhaus Brach und Lessing. His apartment at Prinz-Eugen-Strasse 2 was very elegant. His wife had a companion and a reader. He co-financed the temple in Müllnergasse and gave the Jewish Community a house on Strudlhofstiege. We often went to his house for tea, and he would sometimes give us a gold 100 schilling coin.
Did you experience any anti-Semitism then?
A little bit at school. There would be fights in front of the school, but it was not bad. Maybe all of us middle-class Jews lived in a ghetto. I haven’t got much to say on the subject, even if people talk about it so much today. Before 1938 the classes were very mixed, Jews and non-Jews. In March 1938 our class was immediately transformed into a Jewish class.
The school principal was deported to Dachau on the first transport. He returned after the war and became head of the city library. Our class teacher was also a music reviewer for the Christian Socialist Reichspost and for years sat next to my mother at philharmonic concerts. It wasn’t long before he had a Nazi party badge on his lapel. It was actually a huge leap from the Reichspost to the Nazis. In 1938 all of the repressed sentiments came out into the open. Our Latin teacher was Jewish and from one day to the next he was no longer allowed to enter the school. Suddenly everyone was a Nazi. The math teacher volunteered to teach the Jewish class and just yelled all the time. He said: “Let’s hope nothing happens to you in today’s lesson.” If someone talked, it was off to Dachau with him. In March 1938 we didn’t really take all this in. But all these things that we didn’t see, hear, or feel had apparently existed beforehand.
How were these years for you?
In 1938 we were evicted from our apartment. We managed to find a small apartment nearby. At the end of the 1938 school year, the Jewish kids were kicked out of the school. We were just fifteen, and we gave lessons to the other nine- or ten-year-old Jewish kids in Jordangasse. I taught Jewish history. I didn’t really learn about it properly until much later, but it was good enough for the little kids.
There were both positive and negative experiences. We got beaten up sometimes by the Hitler Youth, particularly when we were well dressed. That was always a mistake. I didn’t tell my mother about these incidents. Once a group of HY lads wanted to fight with me. It was on the corner of Deutschmeisterplatz. A man came by and said “The Jewboy insulted the Hitler Youth” and led us off to the police station. What followed was a typical Viennese scene. The police officer said: “What is it? Did the Jewboy insult the HY? Or did the HY insult the young man? Which was it?” It went on like that for several minutes, and finally the policeman threw everyone else out. When we were alone he said to me: “Are you crazy? You shouldn’t be out on the street at this time of day. Get on home and watch out in future!” That was in March 1938. I had people who protected me like this policeman. Then again, my class teacher once hit me for no reason. The golden Viennese heart beat in both directions.
Did you hear anything from the Jewish Community? Were you registered there?
I got a letter in fall 1939 ordering me to report to the Jewish Community at the temple in Seitenstettengasse for a “youth camp” in Poland. As I was going there, I knew that I would have to watch carefully what was going on. So I went to the city temple and it was terrible. The aron hakodesh (ark) was open and empty; the Torah scrolls had disappeared. The seats were turned over. The Council of Elders, as it was called, was sitting on a row of wooden tables. I was ordered to proceed to Westbahnhof with a change of clothes in a suitcase. I had a funny feeling. When the train set off it didn’t feel right and I got off the train in Hütteldorf—luckily.
What did you do then?
My mother went with me to Palais Rothschild where we had an interview with Eichmann. I recall a strange-looking man in uniform and a very brief conversation: “Good day, what do you want?” “It’s about the boy.” “I’ll take care of it.” That’s all. She played tennis with him in Reichenau. Shortly afterwards I obtained the forms for emigration and the Jewish levy, which I paid for with a small inheritance from my great-uncle David.
Your mother played tennis with Eichmann?
Yes, but it didn’t help. She would have come with me to Palestine if it hadn’t been for my grandmother. She was seventy and not well enough to travel to Palestine. She went somewhere else instead. For my mother and grandmother, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz were the end of the line. But you managed to get away to Palestine. I was in a Youth Aliyah group, an organization which helped young people to emigrate to Israel.
My father’s brother was already in Tel Aviv and applied for a certificate for me at the Technion in Haifa, the most well-known and oldest university at the time. It arrived so late, however, that I entered the country with forged papers. Teddy Kollek [later mayor of Jerusalem] helped and proved to be a good forger. I was one of the last to be able to escape to Palestine. It was December 15, 1939. I arrived in Haifa on December 31 on the Galiläa—completely alone, because everyone else had already left. It was an adventure, but we knew that it was our only hope.
In other words you knew that you were condemned if you remained in Vienna?
Yes, unlike my mother. Like many Viennese Jews she was more hopeful than the German Jews. They thought they’d manage somehow. We young people realized much more clearly that it would end badly. Above all, we were no longer interested in living in Vienna with all the restrictions. Our aim and our thoughts were elsewhere.
You left for Palestine at the age of fifteen, cut off from you family. That must have been a difficult time for you.
It wasn’t easy, but I managed because it was something new and interesting. I could study at the Technion. This was a source of intellectual stimulus that I hadn’t had in Vienna. I often thought of an experience I had in Vienna with my guardian, the attorney Dr. Marell. Before he emigrated, he said to my mother: “In some ways our children should be grateful to Hitler for taking them out of an environment where their future was preordained.” There was a grain of truth in what he said—at least for me.
What was your impression of Palestine?
Haifa was the new home of some of the most famous intellectuals and scientists: Fürnberg, Lasker-Schüler, and Arnold Zweig were there. We were always challenged; there was always something going on. I read a huge amount and put together a large library. I used to buy books in a bookshop run by a German émigré couple. They were remarkable people: always dressed in clothes by Grete Wiesenthal, the husband casual expressionistic. Although a couple, they spoke formally to one another. They were very cultured and I spent all my money there. It was a very exciting and formative time.
Did you learn Hebrew there?
I hardly spoke any Hebrew and even today I’m not very good. It wasn’t necessary at the time. There’s a famous saying: Whatever happens, Nahariya will remain German. We were sitting one day at Café Nordau and apart from our teacher, Prof. Garfunkel, no one spoke Hebrew. This part of Haifa was completely German!
Israel was just being constructed at the time and wasn’t yet a state. Was life there completely different from Vienna?
I experienced a reverse culture shock. In peacetime Vienna would certainly have been more cultured, but intellectual life in Israel was much more intensive and developed.
How did you earn a living in Israel?
I made ends meet by driving a taxi. It was a good job because I could read while waiting for customers. I devoured books. Our taxi company, called Taxi Carmel, consisted of a Viennese, an elegant Herr Fezer with his small green taxi, Dr. Jelinek from Olomouc, a Polish attorney, the telephonist was from Brno, and we all communicated in German. These close cultural relations no longer exist in Israel. Once a week I drove to a concert. I had some regular customers, the Misroch family, who had a subscription, and so I could combine business with pleasure. It was a very intense period.
How did you start with photography?
I had received a camera for my barmitzvah and started taking photos with it. I had two friends at school who shared my love of photography and films. We also tried to rebuild radios. We dismantled our grandparents’ radio sets, but then they never worked again. My non Jewish friend had a stepfather who taught us lots of technical things. He suddenly appeared in 1938 in an SA uniform. But he continued to teach us as if nothing had changed. One day he came to my mother and said he would like our apartment if we moved out. That was some chutzpah. He wasn’t being improper. He asked quite nicely. My Jewish friend Peter escaped to Belgium and died during a German offensive.
At all events, I started taking photos in Haifa in kindergartens and on the beach. There was a nice beach in Netanya. Good Jewish mothers with delightful small children. I didn’t take photos for a living—in fact I still don’t do so today. There are much more important things. I worked for the precursor of the Israeli army, the Hagana, and collected information a bit.
Why did you decide to return to Vienna?
I actually wanted to go to the film academy in Paris, but the French weren’t very generous with visas. So I thought I’d give Vienna a try and see if any members of my family were still there—although I already knew in 1944 that my mother and grandmother were dead. There were no traces whatsoever of my family. I found some of our furniture with the coalmonger.
Our former concierge said straightaway: I know nothing. So I set off with my camera, but no one wanted to hire me or give me work. At first I had elegant quarters in Pension Nosseck on the Graben, but I soon ran out of money and moved into a small guesthouse in Schubertgasse. One day the landlady said that the police were looking for me. I was in the American zone and I discovered that Associated Press, a U.S. news agency, was looking for me. When I got there, I realized what it was about. In the office was a young woman who had taken my address when I’d been looking for work.
That was your future wife Traudl?
Yes, as well brought-up people we didn’t have a relationship but got married. She gave up her job and switched to Reuters, and our nomadic life began. We toured the world.
Post-war Vienna was not exactly revolutionary. It was very provincial and there was still anti-Semitism. What were your impressions?
Through journalism we met completely different people, lots of them former concentration camp inmates. And if not, they were all keen to do something to improve the country. We lived in a world in between, because we spent a lot of time in the English or American press club. We had little to do with the anti-Semitic sectors of the population. The people around us were trying to do something to change the country.
Did you have contact with other Jews?
We were starting completely afresh. My uncle had just returned from England and we were very close, but it was a dark time for us. I had no contact with the Jewish community or the Zionist or pseudo-Zionist groups. We were very friendly with the former Israeli ambassador Zeev Sheck and his wife and children.
Why didn’t you return to Israel, which was also going through a historical period of change?
I found Eastern Europe more interesting. I volunteered for service in the Israeli army but I was told it was too late and I should stay where I was. So that’s what I did.
Your career as a photo reporter began in Vienna.
I returned at the end of 1946 and moved in with my wife in 1947. We started traveling in 1950. It was not easy to travel through the different occupation zones. This was a great era for photography. It’s not the same today. We went to a magazine and said “Have gun, will travel … ” and the editor-in-chief said, “OK, where do you want to go? Get 3,000 marks from the cash office and come back safely.” When we got back three months later, they said: “What? You’re back? We thought we’d never see you again.” And so it went on.
We had no money and just managed from job to job. I remember we were sitting in Zurich once and had just 5 francs left, wondering whether we should buy a sandwich or a couple of liters of gas for the car. We got as far as Munich, where a Jewish black marketeer lent us some money to get us back to Traudl’s parents in Vienna. We just lived on the idea “tomorrow will be a better day.” My children say that after the war you needed brains and elbows; today we need three doctorates.
Why were you so interested in Eastern Europe?
Not only were we in the east of Europe, we also felt that something was going on there. The Iron Curtain was lifting a little and it was possible to travel there. It was a very interesting and exciting time. The people at Life magazine used to yawn when I said that I would like to do a photo report in Prague or Warsaw. They said: “Just go there and show us what you’ve got.” We were lucky always to meet the right people.
In Prague, for example, we were sent by the foreign ministry to a magazine and to a journalist called Jelinek—his real name was Kohn—who opened lots of doors for us in Czechoslovakia. My interpreter was Frau Stichova. She had an Auschwitz number tattooed on her arm. I traveled throughout the country with her. We could do what we wanted, because she had a press pass from the foreign ministry. In Hungary they left us completely alone.
So you had lots of contact with Jewish journalists and intellectuals in Eastern Europe?
Yes, in Poland, they told us that the government couldn’t even organize the trams, let alone surveillance. There were also some amusing incidents. Through Amos Elon, who was working for Haaretz at the time, we met a Polish arts critic who was feared throughout the land. When we went with him to the theater, the whole auditorium would freeze. If he clapped it was OK and if he didn’t the show would close the following day. When we asked him how he had become a Communist, he explained that it wasn’t just him, the entire Poale Zion joined. We traveled through Poland with him and got in everywhere. It was very exciting.
In Vienna you took the legendary State Treaty picture.
What were you thinking at the time? We were living in Geneva. My wife was photo officer with the World Health Organization. Vienna was just a transit station on the way to Warsaw or Budapest. By chance I learned of the negotiations. The best man at our wedding was the head of the Federal Chancellery press office. That’s how I learned about the meeting in the Belvedere and was present when they were all waiting for Molotov. As so often, the photos turned out so well quite simply because I was in the right place at the right time.
A year later came your famous photos from Budapest, photos that have become legendary.
I was with Gerd Bacher [longstanding director general of Austrian Broadcasting Company (ORF)]. We borrowed Fritz Molden’s car to drive there. By the way, Gerd Bacher has a completely different recollection of the trip. Although we spent the whole time together, his version sounds much more dramatic than mine.
Why did you stay in Austria when it was so provincial? You could have lived anywhere.
Traudl’s parents were still alive and they kept on asking us when we were going to settle down and have children. Also my travels kept Traudl and me apart a lot. So we decided to move to Vienna. We lived at first with my parents-in-law. There was no housing shortage but we still couldn’t find anything. So we decided to move to Paris or New York.
Apart from Traudl’s parents, there was nothing to keep us in Vienna. During a photo shoot, the film producer Heinz Scheiderbauer told us that he had a piece of land in Neuwaldegg that he wanted to sell because he was in urgent need of a film camera. So we did some business together. As usual, it was much too expensive for us, but we decided to buy the land anyway. It was overgrown with grass but we had learned in the kibbutz how to cut it. We still didn’t have a roof over our heads, however.
We spent a lot of time in coffeehouses, in the Grillparzer, the Savoy, which we called “Café Ka Goy” [no goy], because it was full of Jews, or in Café Graf Bobby—the hangout of all the grumpy journalists and photographers who couldn’t find work— presided over by Dorka Schlank, also an Auschwitz survivor. He advised us to go and see Dr. Simon, who offered assistance and counseling in such matters. He told us that we could get a cheap loan for a flat roof, because everyone had slanting roofs at the time. We took the loan—and only paid off the last of the interest a few years ago! We built the house and had three children.
Did Judaism mean anything to you?
Not really. Judaism was important only because we were around Jews so much. My daughter Hannah is our “Jewish” daughter. My elder daughter Dani has an adoptive son, whom she takes to the temple once a year. My son Adam is completely uninterested in religion, although every year at Pesach he asks if we can have a Seder night. We talk about everything but Pesach, but we all have a good time. We go to the temple on Yom Kippur.
How important is Israel for you?
Israel is obviously very important for me. I go there quite often. My favorite region is the Golan, in fact I wouldn’t mind living there. I know Israel very well, not least as I’ve done three bible books.
The Magnum photo agency was founded by Jews, and in fact there are a lot of very prominent Jewish photographers, many of them world-famous. Is there any reason for this?
It’s a funny story. Jews ought to have a distorted relationship to visual art, if at all, because it is forbidden to make pictures. At the time of assimilation 150 years ago, where did this boom in painting come from, starting with Chagall, or photography? I have often wondered. Is it a curiosity? Photojournalism began really with Erich Salomon and Wegee, whose real name was Arthur Fellig from Lemberg [Lviv]. The classic photographers in the 1920s were all Jewish. Magnum was no different. Even today there are lots of Jews in commercial or portrait photography—look at Annie Leibovitz. In portrait photography the psychological aspect is also very important. It’s strange, because Jews shouldn’t really be interested in photography.
That’s why portraits of Jews are done by non-Jews like Herlinde Koelbl.
Yes, it’s strange. Frau Koelbl has done some great portraits, but then there is the symbol of the cross next to dead Jews— really funny.
You have also taken pictures of other prominent people like Adenauer or Karajan.
You might not believe it but I am very shy about doing portraits. They are all byproducts of the action at press conferences, or else they are impromptu shots. I have never really done portraits and whenever I have tried to do so they haven’t really succeeded! I have some kind of a block. I haven’t taken any photos of my children either. They are much better at it than I am.
But you have done some really great portraits, like the one of Golda Meir with Bruno Kreisky.
I took that in Vienna. I witnessed their outbursts of rage. But they are exceptions. All of my portraits were taken at official or public events. I am famous for missing the great moments because I am busy putting a new roll of film in the camera.
And yet you have still managed to come back with great pictures.
No, not always, unfortunately. I was in Paris in May 1968 and took just one single picture. The rest of the time I was listening to the discussions at the Sorbonne, which were much more important to me.
Of all the politicians and artists you have met, was there one who impressed you particularly?
They all impress me, some through their striking personalities or charisma, others through their inconspicuousness. Every one was different.
Bruno Kreisky perhaps? You took lots of photos of him. Was it his role as the “Jewish” chancellor that interested you or the fact that he introduced the PLO onto the international scene?
Kreisky? A Jewish fate: total identification or total rejection. Either or. Or both. Like spending Yom Kippur in the temple although you don’t believe in it at all.
Do you feel at home in Vienna? Is this your home?
Yes, certainly. And I can see it in the family, with friends from the Youth Aliyah. They come here to find their home again. But they are torn, they have a divided loyalty. It is perhaps in this very primitive superficial crack that the real truth can be found. I’m reminded of the joke about the old Jew sitting in Café Mozart. A man comes up to him who looks like Adolf Hitler and says, “Excuse me, is this newspaper free?” “Not in your world, Herr Hitler,” answers the Jew. There’s also some real truth in this.
What’s the point in holding on to anger and letting it contaminate the present and the future? Perhaps I have a different image of Austria. In May 1945 the Jewish Brigade was in Treviso. A good friend drew up his battalion and although they had strict instructions not to cross the Brenner border, they drove to Klagenfurt and unfurled a huge banner: “The Jews are back!” And if you look at it that way, you can have a good life here.
What does Vienna mean to you?
Ubi bene, ibi patria. It’s a good place to live. The things you don’t like here you won’t like elsewhere. But if I talk about “home,” then maybe the Golan. Vienna is a pleasant, canny city. The Austrian miracle, the richest country in Europe after the Netherlands. Why is this? Not everyone works. And when I’m asked why I live here, I always answer, someone has to pay for Magbit (charity). That shuts them up.
Danielle Spera has served as the director of the Jewish Museum Vienna since July 2010. Previously, she worked as a journalist at the Austrian Broadcaster (ORF) where she was the U.S. correspondent from 1987-88 before becoming the evening news’ (Zeit im Bild) anchor for over 20 years. Spera holds a Doctorate from the University of Vienna in communications and political science.
Erich Lessing was born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1923 as the son of a dentist and a concert pianist. He fled Vienna for Palestine in 1939, just to return to Vienna in 1945 to become one of the most important Austrian and international photographers, as well as a photojournalist for the Associated Press in 1947, a full member of Magnum Photos and chronicler of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against Soviet occupation. Erich Lessing achieved renown through his candid pictures of major political moments of his day, with his documentation of the signing of the Austrian State Treaty, now serving as the iconic symbol of the reformation of Austria as a sovereign state after World War II. His famous portrait subjects included the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle. From the 1960s on, he turned his focus to the arts, notably serving as on-set photographer for The Sound of Music starring Julie Andrews, which celebrates its 50-year anniversary in 2015.
The Austrian Cultural Forum, in cooperation with the Jewish Museum Vienna and the Embassy of Austria, will showcase two exhibitions touring from the Jewish Museum Vienna from January 20 until March 18, 2016: LESSING PRESENTS LESSING, works by Erich Lessing, and A GOOD DAY, a multimedia installation by Andrew Mezvinsky based on Primo Levi’s account of survival in Auschwitz. Lessing’s work will feature a personal selection by Lessing’s daughter Hannah Lessing, including landscapes in Israel of quasi-biblical dimensions, images of post-war beauty queens, the documentation of daily life in postwar Vienna and sensitive impressions of Jewish customs and ceremonies.
January 20, 2016 - March 18, 2016
Monday - Friday 10am-12pm and 2pm-5pm
Embassy of Austria
3524 International Court NW Washington D.C., 20008
More information: www.austria.org/lessing