Jewish communities have suffered a spate of horrifying anti-Semitic attacks on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet survival has always been the story of the Jewish people. Remembering how previous generations responded to persecution shows how light can still be found amid darkness.
Consider the life of Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005), an Austrian Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals. Before he attained international fame for documenting the Shoah and bringing its perpetrators to justice, he was an architect.
Born in the Kingdom of Galicia, Wiesenthal developed an interest in art at an early age and would make buildings out of sugar cubes. His mother dissuaded him from studying art formally, and instead Wiesenthal qualified as an architectural engineer in 1940. A year later the Germans arrived in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine), and shortly thereafter he was deported to his first of many concentration camps.
In February 1945 Wiesenthal arrived at Mauthausen, in Nazi-incorporated Austria. He had narrowly survived a death march, but he became sick in one of the many epidemics that swept the hurried masses of prisoners and was put into barracks that housed those doomed to die.
Soon after arriving, he was asked to draw a birthday card for a guard. His reward was an extra portion of soup, delivered by the political prisoner Edmund Staniszewski. The two became friends, and Staniszewski asked Wiesenthal to draw some designs for a café he dreamt of opening in Poznań, Poland, where his family owned a building. Wiesenthal produced some 80 sketches of Café Ace and regained his will to live.
Those long-lost drawings resurfaced in 2016 and now are on display at the Jewish Museum Vienna. Today it is almost impossible to fathom their origin. What greater dissonance is there than that between a lavish café and a death camp? The imagined cafe’s walls are candy-floss pink, with waiters dressed in flamboyant violet uniforms. The sketches depict pink-veined silver trays. The venue was to feature a pastry shop, chess room, stage, dance hall and sprawling outdoor terrace. As Wiesenthal confronted impending death amid the horror of the Holocaust, he created a place of sweet, comfortable and exaggerated beauty.
There are subtle hints of what occupied his mind. Sunflowers decorating a cake may seem cheery, but in “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness,” Wiesenthal described seeing them on freshly dug graves of soldiers. “Suddenly I envied the dead soldiers,” he wrote. “I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness.”
The sketches of Café Ace are a testament to the power of creativity to bring warmth into the coldest of places. They echo the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s observation, in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” that those who managed to sustain a sense of purpose in life, despite everything, had a greater chance of surviving the concentration camps.
After the war, Communists confiscated the Staniszewski family’s building, and Café Ace was never built. Wiesenthal never forgot the project. “I know that I owe my life to you, only to your noble heart and your friendly help,” he wrote Staniszewski in 1960. Commenting on Café Ace, Wiesenthal later said that “drawing was important to me because I thought I was going to die, but something [of mine] should remain.”
After the Holocaust, Wiesenthal’s meticulous sleuthing had a material effect, contributing to the arrest of several high-ranking Nazis. Yet despite “denazification,” many former Nazis managed to remain in their professions and public life. Wiesenthal was bitterly disappointed that many of those he caught were acquitted.
In an obituary, the British-Austrian journalist Hella Pick wrote that Wiesenthal always liked to be addressed as “Mr. Engineer.” But when he was asked why he didn’t return to architecture after the Holocaust, he said his belief in God and the afterlife prevented him. The millions who died in the camps, reunited in the afterlife, would ask their fellow Jews what they had done: “You will say, ‘I became a jeweler.’ Another will say, ‘I smuggled coffee and American cigarettes.’ Still another will say, ‘I built houses,’ but I will say, ‘I didn’t forget you.’ ”
For those horrified by the recent attacks against Jewish communities, Wiesenthal’s story raises important questions: Who will stand up for their Jewish neighbors? How will legal justice be served? And how can we maintain spirituality amid persecution? There are many ways of being resilient, but forgetting is not an option.
This op-ed war originally published in the Wall Street Journal on January 9, 2020: https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-a-concentration-camp-dreams-of-a-cafe-11578614536