All my mother told me about Alexander Wettendorfer, her maternal grandfather, was that he had been a spa doctor in Baden, the health resort close to Vienna. In her family, he had become persona non grata when, late in life, as a comfortable widower, he married his much-younger nurse and eventually left all his worldly goods to her. Pointing the way to his resurrection, was a chance discovery I made while browsing in Dorothy Singer’s enterprising bookshop adjacent to The Jewish Museum in Vienna.
In a book I found there published in 2002–The Jews of Baden and Their Cemetery (Die Juden von Baden und Ihr Friedhof) by Hans Meissner and Kornelius Fleischmann–Alexander Wettendorfer was listed in the index. When the authors, both of whom were native Badeners, agreed to see me, I jumped at the chance and knew just how to get there. For more than a hundred years, the tram known as the Badener Bahn has departed from the stop in front of the Vienna Opera and an hour later deposited its passengers in the center of the little town with its healing waters. Pulling into the Josefplatz, I spied two elderly men awaiting me, one of them holding The Herald Tribune to his chest as an identity card.
Accompanying me to the cemetery to view Alexander Wettendorfer’s grave (1848-1924), as well as that of his first wife Josefine(1860-1911), my escorts related the story behind their joint project. Born in Baden in the early 1920’s, both Hans Meissner and Kornelius Fleischmann had remained in their hometown to work as teachers and historians after the war. Individually they had published several books about Baden’s history and some of its leading figures, but there was one aspect of the spa’s past they had vowed to address together after their retirement. Back in the 1930’s, when they were in high school, many of their classmates and friends had belonged to the large and active Baden Jewish community. Not only had they disappeared after 1938, but in all the decades that followed, the community was rarely referred to in local publications. The two elderly historians determined to put the Jews of Baden back into the annals of the town.
From that point on, thanks to continued contact with Hans Meissner, I was able to fill in the profile of the elusive Dr. Wettendorfer. To start with, there were his origins in Rechnitz, today a town in Austria’s Burgenland, but before 1921, a part of western Hungary. Jews had lived there safely, if not comfortably, since 1687 when the local noble, Adam Batthyanyi II had signed a Schutzbrief(Letter of Protection) promising to “shelter and shield” those who had settled in Rechnitz after fleeing prosecution elsewhere. For the Counts Batthanyi, the presence of Jews had several advantages. Unlike the rest of the population, most of them could read, write, and handle numbers. As merchants and peddlers they often had cash on hand and, if more was wanted, could be called upon to draw on their far-flung connections. Above all, in exchange for “protection,” the ruling family could lay on heavy taxes. The Jews, in turn, were allowed to have their own school, prayer house, burying ground, and kosher slaughtering facility. They even had the right to their own courts, but those decisions could be overruled. Despite the assured privileges, the community was still vulnerable to public obloquy. One article of the Schutzbrief read “The guilty will have to ride the sow”–a humiliating punishment for Jews seen in images throughout the middle ages.
To have been born in 1848, the year revolution roiled the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and grown up during its gradual transition into a modern state, meant that Alexander Wettendorfer had a life of opportunity ahead of him. He probably left Rechnitz as a young man to attend medical school in either Budapest or Vienna. At the age of 31 in 1879, the same year he married nineteen-year-old Josefine Deutsch in Vienna, he moved to Baden to start his practice. Before 1861 no Jew had been allowed to reside in the spa, but by the time the young doctor arrived there a flourishing Jewish community included several other former Rechnitzers, all of them recognizable by their Hungarian-accented German.
Dr. Wettendorfer proved to have considerable talents as a writer along with his medical skills, and was soon actively promoting his new hometown. Only four years after settling there, he published his first guide to the benefits of Baden’s thermal waters and the pleasures of its natural surroundings. In the introduction to his “Medical Letters Concerning Baden near Vienna,” he claimed to have been encouraged by friends to write about everything that might interest a visitor to the spa in order to attract new guests to its “splendid baths.”
His debut as a writer must have attracted the attention of the medical establishment in Vienna, because a few years later he was commissioned to write a pamphlet for the layman explaining the implications of the most important medical discovery of the century–the isolation of the tuberculin bacillus announced by Dr. Robert Koch in Berlin in 1882.
Reading the story of the Jews of Rechnitz Iwas reminded of the play by Elfriede Jelinek “RECHNITZ ( Der Würgeengel) produced by the Müncher Kammerspiele and staged in the Holland Festival 2010 in Amsterdam.
The play tells us about the night of 24-25 March 1945 in which Countess Batthyany hosts SS-officers. 200 Jewish prisoners were brutally shot in presence of the countess during the festivities in the castle.
This tragedy of Rechnitz has never been acknowlegded openly. So the people of Rechnitz there still live in fear of its silence. Elfriede Jelinek’s play argues that unless the people of Rechnitz have the courage to face the accomplished facts, recent troubled history will be an enduring part of life in the community.