Let the Circle Be Unbroken: My Mother’s Vienna

November 2, 2018 by

Lotte Keiderling is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother – and a Holocaust survivor. I’ve been privileged to know her since she was in her mid-sixties. Her irrepressible joy, sensitivity, and nurturing qualities made me feel instantly at home, and I knew I’d found a “second mother” for life.

This month Lotte is making an epic journey that will affect not only her life, but the lives of her extended family. Annemarie, one of Lotte’s daughters, lives in Brisbane, Australia, and is allowing me to share this beautiful and reflective piece that she wrote on what this journey means for her, her mother, and their entire family:

Throughout my childhood, a souvenir shot glass stood on a table by my parents’ bed. It was a small glass with a gold rim, with the mysterious word “Wien” and a picture of a Ferris wheel painted on it.

I would carefully touch that glass and admire it. I never saw it used for a drink, at least not when I was around. It was simply there, on the table. That decorated glass was a connection for me to a past that I was just beginning to understand, and a heritage I would only much later come to grips with.

My mother, Charlotte Berger Keiderling, is a Holocaust survivor. She is eighty-seven years old and lives in upstate New York. Hitler and his Third Reich stole her parents, extended family, education, Austrian citizenship, and her beloved Heimatland, or homeland.

I grew up hearing the same stories over and over again as my mother repeated the few, singular memories of the seven precious years she spent with her parents before it all ended.

When I finally saw the iconic Vienna Riesenrad for myself, I realized it was a symbol of my mother and her stolen childhood.

My mother always described Vienna vividly, as a magical wonderland of famous tree-lined promenades, world-class musicians, Strauss, waltzes, delicious Torte, and above all, the mysterious Ferris wheel every Viennese child dreamed of riding.

I grew up, and my mother’s stories continued, always the same few precious memories of an entire childhood condensed into seven, very short years.

After high school I explored Europe for myself, and while traveling on Germany’s highly efficient rail system, I reflected, unbidden, on the fact that the same rail lines carried my grandparents and so many millions to their orchestrated deaths. I thought of how my own brave grandparents put their one loved daughter onto the life-saving Kindertransport train with promises of a farm in England with cows and grass and flowers and assurances that they would follow, and said goodbye forever.

four Jewish children taken in at the Bruderhof after escaping Germany via the Kindertransport trainLotte (second from left) with other children brought by the Kindertransport train to the Cotswold Bruderhof. Photo taken in 1939.

And as I journeyed through Europe, I discovered that among all its vibrant cities, Vienna is indeed the jewel that my mother had always described, and when I finally saw the iconic Vienna Riesenrad (“giant wheel”) for myself, I realized it for what it was: a symbol of my mother and her stolen childhood.

Before my seven-year-old mother watched Hitler screech from a balcony and the adoring throngs shout “Heil Hitler” back; before she was chased down the streets by boys shouting “Jew! Jew!”; before her parents had their bakery confiscated by the Nazis; before my grandmother Valerie perished in the infamous Litzmanstadt ghetto; before my grandfather Josef was imprisoned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; before Jews were barred from Vienna’s parks and public gardens – before all hell broke loose, a father and his only child walked hand-in-hand many Sunday afternoons along the Wiener Prater, into the Riesenrad Platz, where the oldest Ferris wheel in the world stood. There, my mother begged her father to take her on the wheel.

Ferris wheel in Vienna, Austria
Ferris wheel in Vienna, today and 1936. credits: © Jorge Royan / / CC BY-SA 3.0 and FOTO:FORTEPAN / Lissák Tivadar

“Please, Papi, please?” But the answer was always the same: “Lottchen, when you are old enough I will take you…but not yet.”

That “not yet” has turned into eighty years.

This month, my mother is returning to Vienna. The only song her beloved father taught her, “Nun ade, du mein lieb Heimatland,” (Farewell, my beloved homeland) will at last be reversed. She is finally returning home. And yes, of course, she is going to ride the Ferris wheel. “They say you can see all the way into Hungary from the top,” she has always told me.

I believe that as my mother walks the streets of her beloved Vienna, drinks the cream-topped coffees, and stands outside her parents’ bakery and her family home, she will connect to her Heimatland. And while it might seem foolish for an eighty-seven-year-old to consider a Ferris wheel ride, I pray that at that moment of carefree, childhood wonder as my mother is carried high above the city that loved and betrayed her, there will be a moment of closure, of things coming full circle, of completion and peace.

And so, my dear Mama, as you embark on this adventure back home to your “lieb Heimatland,” I want you to know that every memory you ever told me is as vivid and real as ever. You made me love Austria long before I considered traveling there myself. Your favourite movie, “The Sound of Music,” always made you starry-eyed, and now, just like Maria von Trapp, you can return, and stand and listen to those hills as they come alive with the sound of your own music, the music of your life and the love of your parents.

And you must know, dear Mama, that although I live in a different hemisphere, on a different continent, and in a river city vastly different from your old-world Vienna with its blue Danube, I can’t walk through South Bank and stroll past the Wheel of Brisbane without thinking of you, my dear mother, and the eighty-year-old question that will soon be answered, “Papi, when can I ride the Ferris wheel?” May you feel his hand in yours, all the way around.

Follow Norann on Twitter at @NorannV.


About the author

Norann Voll portrait

Norann Voll

Norann Voll lived in New York’s Hudson Valley until moving to the Danthonia Bruderhof in New South Wales, Australia in 2002...

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