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< 12 Years That Shook the World Podcast

Accidental Witness

12 Years That Shook the World Podcast

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Helen Baker in Vienna, Austria, in 1938.

Helen Baker in Vienna, Austria, in 1938. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum

March 31, 2021

While visiting Vienna, Austria with her family in March 1938, American Helen Baker finds herself caught up in a pivotal moment. She watches as the Nazis move in and annex Austria. Then, she steps into the story, herself. Featuring historian Dr. Rebecca Erbelding.

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Erin Harper
Helen Baker is in her rental apartment in Vienna, Austria. She flips to a new page in her diary—Thursday, March 3, 1938. She writes, “sunshine and birds, and flowers beginning to show in the garden.” Helen’s an American, visiting Vienna with her husband Ross. Ross is a chemist and teacher from New York—and several months back, his work granted him a sabbatical in Europe. And the couple decided to make it a vacation— and bring the family. 

So Helen spends weeks soaking up the city of Vienna. She has tea with new friends, and strolls through the amusement park. She takes her son Fritz to the Opera, where they wait in line for three hours just to get a spot in the front row. “It was marvelous,” she writes in her diary. Helen also writes letters to her mother, and friends back home in the US. And Ross makes home movies with his camera.

It’s nearly Spring, and the weather is starting to break. But what Helen doesn’t realize is that Vienna is about to be flipped upside down. And in a matter of weeks, Helen will become both a witness, and a participant in a major turning point in history.

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper.

It’s Thursday March 10, 1938. Just before 4pm, Helen’s phone rings. It’s her husband, Ross, calling from downtown Vienna. He tells Helen, she has to come see what’s going on. Helen heads to the streets to find policemen everywhere. They’re trying to control crowds of demonstrators. People are marching, singing, and yelling. 

The next evening, it happens again. Helen returns to the streets to find Austrians packed shoulder-to-shoulder. She follows a crowd and hears someone say, the leader of Austria has resigned. She writes in her diary, “Armbands, flags, [and] swastikas appear like magic.” 

At this point in March of 1938, the Nazis have been in power for five years—in Germany—but not here. Not in Austria. Then off in the distance, Helen sees a massive red Nazi flag raised up on the Austrian Parliament building.

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
What she’s witnessing is what historians call the Anschluss. 

Erin Harper
That’s Dr. Rebecca Erbelding, a historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
Anschluss literally means annexation. And what she’s seeing is that Germany is literally taking over Austria.

Erin Harper
It’s Saturday, March 12th. Helen and Ross have plans for a cocktail party with their friends—but they leave the apartment early to see more action in the streets. Helen watches as German Nazi officials move into Austria with a parade of troops, and machine guns. she writes, “[We] stood three hours watching [the] parade of boys and girls continuously [yell] ... ‘One people, one nation, one leader.’”

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
The Austrians largely welcome the Nazis. It wasn't a big stretch for a lot of Austrians. They felt themselves to be German. They just happen to live in Austria, which, remember, is a very young country. Austria becomes a democracy really around this time of WWI. It had been in the Austro-Hungarian empire. And so becoming part of Germany just just kind of made their sentiments official. 

Erin Harper
Ross takes out his camera and films Austrians cheering. They wave small Nazi flags above their heads. Even children give the Nazi salute. The streets are so full, some people climb statues and trees to get a glimpse of the parade. Helen hears people say that Hitler is on his way to Vienna. 

Let’s back up a minute. Months earlier, in the summer of 1937, Ross and Helen Baker arrive in Europe from New York. The family hadn’t decided where they would stay for the duration of their trip—France, Germany, or Austria. So early on, the Bakers take an afternoon bike ride through the Rhineland—which is the region in Western Germany, right along the border of France. 

Helen writes in her diary, “In spite of its attractions, we [couldn't] help feeling a certain tension. Nazi uniforms in evidence on all sides.” Helen goes on to describe that there are no friendly hellos and goodbyes. So the Bakers decide they will be more comfortable in Austria. But prior to that, whatever Helen knew about Nazism, she learned from American news. 

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
There's actually quite a lot of information available in the American press and American newspapers in film reels about what is happening in Nazi Germany. In 1933, when Hitler first comes to power and there's the first wave of persecution—Jews being kicked out of the civil service, Nazis boycotting Jewish-owned businesses, this is when book burning happens. All of those things are major stories in the United States and a lot of Americans are paying attention to that. 

Erin Harper
It’s March 16th. Helen feels Spring in the air. Over the next week, Helen also notices that Vienna is changing. Helen writes, “Papers are taken over by Nazis. No news except [for what] is censored by them. Front pages plastered with propaganda.” Helen also sees that Jewish-owned shops are defaced. City walls are covered in Nazi signs. Cars are decorated with posters of Hitler's face. All the tourists are gone. And one after another, a new Nazi leader arrives each day. Helen and Ross return to the streets to watch this unfold.  

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
I think she wants to see history being made. She knows that this is a major thing that's happening and she wants to see it and she feels safe in doing so. And I think that's one of the crucial things, and one of the things that makes this diary so interesting. Is that as an American, Helen doesn't have skin in this game. Right? She’s not an Austrian who is trying to figure out where they stand in this new country, whether they're pro-Nazi or indifferent or anti-Nazi. She’s not Jewish, so she doesn't feel a threat that way. And so this is something that is interesting. This is not her sole focus. And so she’s still going to the opera. She’s still having tea with people. There’s still like some semblance of life. She is not there to be a journalist. And so you don't expect her to be a witness.

Erin Harper
For six days in a row, Helen watches the Nazi pageantry. She continues to write. 

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
One of the things that I think makes what she saw and what she wrote about what the family experienced interesting, and relevant to us and important, is that I think many of us would feel deeply uncomfortable trying to put ourselves in the shoes of Nazis or Austrians welcoming Nazis into the country. And it would feel disrespectful for us to try to imagine what it would be like for Austrian Jews experiencing that. I don't think we could imagine. But I can imagine being Helen. I can absolutely imagine being in a place where history is happening and I want to go see it. 

I mean, she gives you the opportunity to say, what would I be thinking, not knowing what's going to happen. It's hard for all of us to say, I'm going to pretend that Auschwitz doesn't exist— because it didn't! It didn't exist yet when Helen is witnessing all of this. There aren't death camps, there aren't deportations, not mass deportations yet. And so, what Helen is seeing is the beginning, but she doesn't know it's the beginning. She has no idea that the Holocaust is going to come. You know, this just feels to her like a regime that is militaristic, that maybe is oppressive to Jews. But she doesn't see this threat that Nazism really is. Part of that is the distance of being an American. And part of that is that she doesn't have a crystal ball.

Erin Harper
Helen hears rumors that Jews are trying to escape over the border. She thinks of her neighbors downstairs. They’re a Jewish family—the man is a doctor.

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
Most Jews in Austria live in Vienna, and they are living ordinary lives. I mean, they are teaching. They are performing as musicians and theater performers. These are the people that Helen knows for the most part, but they’re lawyers and teachers, and own stores, and are part of the Austrian culture and society.

Erin Harper
But a new wave of antisemitism descends onto Austrian Jews. Antisemitism—the hatred of Jews, or prejudice against Jews—was embedded in Nazi ideology from the beginning. And in Germany, the Nazis implemented laws designed to strip Jews of their right to citizenship, the right to marry non-Jews, among other things. So as the Nazis move into Austria, they bring this anti-Jewish wrath.

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
Once the annexation happens, it is utter chaos for a few weeks, especially for Austrian Jews. They have no idea what to expect. Most of them had been looking over the border at Nazi Germany with a lot of fear. And so people have really no expectation of what might happen to them the next day. Jewish-owned stores are being boycotted. Jews are losing their jobs in Austria. Jews are being told they can't teach anymore, that they need to leave their universities. It becomes very clear to Austrian Jews pretty early that there is no life for them in this country anymore. And many, of them, try to leave. 

Which is huge, I mean, if you think about it, many Austrian Jews have lived in that area for years or had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and fought for it in WWI. And so the idea that this country, this city, this community that you fought for is turning its back on you—and in such a chaotic and violent-seeming way—that within two weeks you think to yourself, I can't stay here anymore. It was a very profound thing for Austrian Jews. 

Erin Harper
It’s Saturday March 26th. Helen and Ross have befriended a man in Vienna—Walter Bricht—and tonight they have tea together. Walter has just learned that he is part-Jewish.

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
He was raised Lutheran. His grandparents had converted to Lutheranism from Judaism. And the thing is, Walter didn't know this. And so in 1938, this is when he finds that out. When the Nazis invade and everyone is trying to figure out who is affected by these laws. Walter finds out that he will be classified as Jewish by the new Nazi government in his country. And so he panics. He is a composer. He is going to be blackballed. He's not going to be allowed to perform throughout Germany or Austria because he’s Jewish. And so he starts trying to figure out how he can possibly leave. 

Erin Harper
Helen writes, “[Walter and his family] can’t take money with them, [and they] don’t know how to get a job in [the] US. We write to ... some teachers’ agencies. He is a fine musician.”

The Nazis are stripping Jews of their wealth before they can leave the country. And many Jews join in endless lines to apply for immigration—only to be put on a waiting list with tens of thousands of other Jews trying to escape. In the meantime, things in Vienna turn violent. 

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
There are a number of different paramilitary groups, meaning civilians who join. It is not part of the formal German military. These were people who believed in Nazi antisemitic ideology that were supported by the government. And Austrian Nazis, too who are coming out of the shadows, people who had always been sympathetic to Nazi Germany and now feel empowered. So if they see someone on the streets that they know personally, or that they know to be Jewish, they feel free rein to beat them. To even imprison them. There's a wave of arrests. A lot of times people would be arrested for a few days or a week and their families would have no idea. They would just not come home that day. It was absolutely terrifying for a lot of people. 

Erin Harper
The Nazis and local officials also harass Jews, and humiliate them in the streets. Crowds of spectators egg it on.

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
Forcing people to scrub streets or clean streets is an iconic image. You see pictures of Jews being forced to scrub the streets, often with small brushes. And so you would have Jewish lawyers, Jewish doctors, who are suddenly and publicly on their knees. It was about devaluing them. It was about forcing them to lose their dignity. It's really important to remember that in 1938, mass murder was not Nazi policy. It was not Nazi policy yet. Immigration was Nazi policy— getting Jews out. That’s what all the scrubbing the streets, kicking you out of your job, humiliating you—that was all leading to trying to convince you to leave. You are not welcome here anymore. You will not have a life here. You cannot raise your children here. You have to go. 

Erin Harper
It’s April 7th. Helen wants to see the gravesite of Beethoven. So she visits the cemetery on the edge of the city. Helen walks through the Jewish section of the cemetery. There, she sees a row of 21 graves—eight of them are covered with fresh dirt. 13 are empty—waiting to be filled. Helen has just heard rumors about Jews committing suicide. She later writes, “One doctor … we know was called for sixty [suicides] in one day.”

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
Part of the chaos for the Jewish community in Austria is that so many people really could not imagine a life outside of the country. They couldn't imagine leaving. This had been their home. And so especially for older Austrians who were Jewish and were affected by this, the idea of going somewhere else and trying to learn a language, trying to work, it seemed untenable. It seemed like something that was just beyond their capability. And so there is a wave of suicides in the spring of 1938.

Erin Harper
Helen has tea with Walter Bricht again. He says they expect to flee Austria in July—bound for the US. They’re so upset, and at a loss how to get rid of their furniture before they go.

For the next few weeks, Helen and Ross spent time around the city, and notice many Jewish-owned shops are defaced with paint—the word “Jew” in large letters, or a Jewish star obscuring the hats, shoes and overcoats for sale inside. It was another attempt by the Nazis to make Jews feel unwelcome.

One Saturday morning, Helen gets curious. She wonders what would happen if they try to go into Jewish-owned stores. So they cook up an idea. Helen calls it “the experiments.” Helen and Ross arrive on a street on the North side of the city. Nazi flags are flying above the shops. Some shop doors are propped open, with a Nazi standing guard. Chest puffed out, and hands tucked behind his back. Ross gets out his film camera, and frames a shot of the Nazi guard. Helen steps in front of the camera with her long thick coat, and her hair pinned neatly at the back of her neck, just below her hat. She casually strolls up to the store window, and peers inside, pretending to be a curious shopper. 

She pauses for a moment, then proceeds to march right past the Nazi guard to enter the shop. The guard holds his arm out, and stops her. Two women passing in the street stop to watch what’s going on. Ross keeps filming with his camera, and captures this all. Helen writes in her diary, “They stopped us… and informed us that it was a Jewish store. [In some cases] it was sufficient to [tell the guard] that we were foreigners, but this man was downright mean and threatened to arrest me if I went in… I certainly was tempted to call his bluff, for of course he had no right to stop me.” And with that, Helen turns away.

We don’t know why Helen and Ross conducted this experiment. Why she stepped into the frame, into the action. Did she want to make a record of it? Did she want to understand it better? Did she want to show people back home? Or maybe she didn’t know why she did it. She did not explain it in her diary.

Of the many stories in Holocaust history, Helen’s stands out. The history is often told through the lens of Jews, or Nazis. But it’s rarely seen from the perspective of an American woman. Uninvolved. Except to watch, to pass through, and step out. 

That evening, Helen carries on with her plans, and attends the opera. Two days later, Ross comes home and tells her he saw Nazis harassing an old Jewish man. And Helen writes in her diary, “Can hardly wait to get away from here.”

Helen continues to write letters to family and friends back home, telling them what she witnessed. And in one letter in particular, she expresses her feelings about Jews. Helen writes, “My feelings about the Jews are equally mixed. I feel so sorry for them, but would like to boot them out of America.” 

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
Helen’s antisemitic. And people are complex. But Helen’s antisemitism is actually not uncommon. She explains it. Basically she says I think they have too much power. And that was an overwhelming sentiment in the United States. In April 1938, so the month after the Anschluss while Helen and Ross and the kids are still in Vienna, there's a poll done by Gallup asking Americans, do you think what's happening to Jews is their own fault? And the majority of Americans say at least partly, yeah. And we can kind of explain this by looking at some of the antisemitic stereotypes that existed at the time, and still exist now. This idea that Jews control the media, that Jews control the banks. Those antisemitic tropes were very popular in the United States at the time. And so Helen's comments are not surprising at all. Unfortunately.

Erin Harper
Helen goes on, and writes: “I’m sure I don’t know what answer I can give next fall when people ask my opinion on all these international questions. The more you see, the less you know.”

A few days later, the Bakers catch a train to Italy, and travel Europe for the rest of the summer. They return to the US in the Fall of 1938. In their bags, they bring home Ross’s film reels, and Helen’s diary, perhaps not knowing what it would all mean to the world, or to themselves.

A year later, in September of 1939, the Nazis invade Poland—triggering WWII. Over the next two years, almost 140,000 Austrian Jews managed to escape the country. Some go to the US and find safety. Others go to France, Belgium, or Czechoslovakia, only to have the Nazis invade those countries in the years to come.

For Austrian Jews left behind, and for Jews in Nazi-occupied areas—they’re arrested, they’re deported. Many are sent to work in concentration camps, or sent to killing centers. In total, the Nazi regime and its collaborators, murder six million Jews. These events go on until allied soldiers defeat Nazi Germany and liberate concentration camps in 1945. And all the while, Helen can’t escape these headlines. 

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding
And that's one of the things that I really wonder about, especially after she came back to the United States and after she started seeing more and reading more. What does Helen think in 1945? What did she think when she sees images of liberation? Does that change the way that she thinks about Vienna and about her time there? Is it still a nice spring where they saw some good opera? Or does she kind of reframe it in her mind as, oh my God, I saw the beginning of this?

Erin Harper
Walter Bricht emigrated to New York in the summer of 1938. He later taught at Indiana University School of Music. Helen and Ross Baker moved to California. Helen passed away in 1964, and Ross in 1978. Their son Stanly Baker donated Helen’s diaries, and Ross’ films to the Museum in 2006. You can watch Ross’ films or read Helen’s diaries at ushmm.org/12YearsPodcast.

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper. 

Joining us today was historian Dr. Rebecca Erbelding. Our show is produced by myself. Our stories are researched by Meredith Gui. This podcast is funded in part by support from the Crown Family Philanthropies and from Laura Ginns and Family.

Listeners, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this episode. Send an email to podcast@ushmm.org, or talk to us on social media. We are @HolocaustMuseum. If you love our show, please follow us on your favorite podcast app. Thanks for listening. 

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