“Translating Lives: A Collective Biography of Jewish-Austrian Classmates”
Jacqueline Vansant, professor emerita of German at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, has centered her scholarly work on the constructions of ethnicities, gender, and identities in post-World War II and contemporary Austrian literature, memoirs, and films, as well as the image of Austria in Hollywood films and exile studies. Her first book, Against the Horizon: Feminism and Postwar Austrian Women Writers, is a socio-historical study of five Austrian women writers. Her most recent book, Austria Made in Hollywood (2019) is the first scholarly investigation of films set in Austria and produced in Hollywood between 1923 and 1995.
In her book, Reclaiming ‘Heimat’: Trauma and Mourning in Memoirs by Jewish Austrian Reémigrés (2001), Vansant follows the ways in which seven Jewish-Austrian memoir writers, all adults at the time of the Anschluss, experienced exile as a trauma and struggled to relate their experiences to Austrians years later. In it she combines cultural and social theory with literary analysis to conclude that these accounts are both testimonies of a troubled era and attempts by the authors to reclaim their place in Austrian history. Since 2008 she has been researching a group correspondence by classmates who fled Vienna between April 1938 and April 1939. Related to this topic she has given several talks, published numerous articles, and most recently contributed a blog post on one of the letters and hosted three Botstiber Institute for Austrian-American Studies' podcasts on the topic of children and youth fleeing Nazi Austria.
On April 21, 1938, 20 out of 39 pupils from the sixth form section of the Bundesrealgymnasium 1 in Vienna were expelled permanently because of their Jewish heritage. Either on that day or shortly afterward, a small group of the 15 and 16 year-old expelled pupils from this class stood on a bridge a few blocks from the school and said goodbye to each other “forever.” When the classmates parted, they did not know what would become of them or where they would finally land. Despite the challenges posed by the historical circumstances, the boys’ original promise resulted in an extraordinary group correspondence that stretched over more then a decade and criss-crossed three continents. Vansant’s project at the Museum is two-fold, as she is working on an edition of this correspondence and writing a collective biography of the cohort. For readers today, the letters put a human face on the bureaucratic regulations and statistics about exile and immigration and provide insight into the exile experience of young people and the transition from exile to immigrant to citizen. The edition will serve as an example of the range of exile experiences among a fairly priviledged group. The biography of this group provides a unique opportunity to examine the experiences and thoughts of this cohort, the challenges they faced escaping National Socialism, and their growth over time. The variety of experiences of the youth expressed in the letters captures the impact of the historical processes and developments on their lives and their sense of self. It also highlights the importance of the networks the youth built among and beyond themselves. The longevity and depth of the correspondence allows us to consider the extent to which the different experiences and environments shaped the boys/young men and their sense of identification. The fact that the letters served an important psychological function, fostering a sense of belonging for the young correspondents during a period of extreme upheaval and transition, serves another function of the exploration.