ARI Rath has more memories than most people could bear. A single gesture unlocks a story and Rath humbly enters the chambers where the air is filled with the past. His earliest childhood memory is at a place where it never ceases to hurt him. His mother Laura took her life when he was four years and three months old. Later on, the Nazis took over and he could no longer call Austria his home. Starting at age 13, when he was brought to Palestine with a child transport, the Jewish boy from Vienna was left on his own.
In the Palestinian kibbutz he was the best cow milker. Later, after the state of Israel was founded, he led The Jerusalem Post newspaper, endorsing peace between Israel and Palestine. In recent years he has lived partly in Vienna and partly in Jerusalem. He does not carry anger within, he says, but he notes that it took Austria too long to get serious in dealing with its Nazi past, and people could have learned much more from the past.
Rath does not rest even now, and he says that he will never become a passive observer. He wrote a book about his life, he lectures and meets young people. He points out the dangers of right-wing extremism and takes part in protests against its expressions. He is concerned that in Austria, the FPÖ led by Heinz-Christian Strache, is the country’s second largest party.
Now 90, Rath is a peaceful man. “I don’t want to worry about what may come. I walk forward,” he said.
Rath knows that people sometimes think about where he will be buried. It will be neither in Vienna at his mother’s side, nor in Jerusalem close to his father, but at a cemetery 20 kilometres far from Tel Aviv, with his brother.
During a four-hour interview in Vienna’s Café Landtmann, Rath does not show any signs of fatigue. He unwraps one story after another as if he was preparing for the role of a storyteller all his life. He does not believe it a coincidence that he remembers many things clearly and that he’s lived long enough to testify about the dark times.
“When Ari talks to people, it gives him an aim for his life, it gives him power,” says Helfried Carl, the Austrian ambassador to Slovakia, who introduced his long-time friend to the Slovak public this spring. “It’s not just about talking about his Jewish past. He still takes efforts to change and influence the present.”
Rath, together with journalist Stefanie Oswalt, wrote an autobiography titled “Ari Means Lion,” which was published in 2012. In it, he writes about the forced annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany, the Anschluss, fleeing Austria, his life in a kibbutz and his trip to the United States with the Zionist movement.
Ari devoted the book to his mother, whom he never really knew, but who has influenced him all his life through her physical absence. He remembers the day when he lost her. He was playing with his brother and their nanny in the park in front of the Franz Josef station, where the trains to Prague departed. A cook ran to them and whispered something in the nanny’s ear, and then everyone started crying. They then took him and his older brother to his uncle’s house where they lived for a week, the adults telling the boys that their mother was sick and that’s why they couldn’t see her.
“They’d lied to me for a year, and I was a child who could never really say ‘mama’,” Rath says. Though his family protected him from the loss of his mother, they couldn’t protect him from the loss of his homeland.
On March 12, 1938 Nazi Germany swallowed Austria. Ari was 13 years old.
Boys from Porcelain Street
Rath and Eric Pleskow lived three houses away from each other on the Porzelangasse in Vienna. They went to the same places and they were hunted out of their country by the same threat, Nazism. Rath and Pleskow, a successful movie producer who won 14 Oscars, met for the first time in 2009, but a strong friendship developed between them. The legendary journalist of the Jerusalem Post and the producer of movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Dances with Wolves”, “Amadeus”, and “Silence of the Lambs”, are together 181 years old.
Four years before the Anschluss, amid growing pressure from Germany on Austria, they both went to segregated classes for Jewish children. Rath was 13 when the Nazis arrested his father.
“I still remember how I went to my parents’ bedroom and said: Papa, the Gestapo is here. He signed a couple of checks and was gone,” Rath said in a documentary movie by Lukas Sturm that was made based on conversations between Rath and Pleskow.
In the documentary Rath remembers that on March 11, 1938 the fascist Socialist Party was legalised with its three lightning bolts, and the slogans targeting a common enemy, the Jews, appeared. On the day of the Anschluss, March 12, every police officer in Vienna sported the Hakenkreuz on their sleeve, according to Rath.
He is proud of one specific notation on his 1938 school report card. During recess he tried to persuade his best friends to go and get leaflets opposing the Anschluss from the centre of the so-called patriotic front. He did not notice that their Jewish teacher Hans Pollak was standing behind their backs. “Two hours of detention for Rath,” he said and locked the little Ari up in a small room. “Arnold was in detention for two hours for disciplinary violation,” the report reads.
Arnold becomes Ari
Rath never studied English at school but is self taught. He started reading newspapers when he was seven or eight years old. The newspaper title “Hitler: Reich Chancellor” from 1933 caught his sight and he never forgot it. When he wrote his first article for The Jerusalem Post fifty years ago, the evening editor asked him how he wanted to sign his name. Without a second thought he said: Ari Rath. His original name, Arnold, sounded too Germanic to him. He inherited it from his maternal grandfather. But everyone had always called him Ari.
“This short name somehow helps me to bring down the barriers all through my professional life,” Rath said.
Under Ari Rath, The Jerusalem Post became the liberal voice of Israel. It was an internationally acclaimed newspaper that endorsed peace in the Middle East. On his way Rath met personalities like Konrad Adenauer, Ben-Gurion, Willy Brandt and Anwar Sadat. In 2005 Rath was awarded a special prize for his efforts to restore peace in an area of conflict by the International Council for Press and Broadcasting in the British parliament.
When asked what influenced his life the most, he says it was the fact that he had to leave home at the age of 13: “I had to leave everything in my life. I was left on my own.”
Rath and his three-year older brother, thanks to child transports, escaped to Palestine via Trieste on November 2, 1938. Together they took an Italian ship to Haifa, but they ended up in different kibbutz, since his brother was older. Maxi escaped twice to stay close to Ari.
“My brother and I were spoiled just like most Viennese boys, we thought that despite Austro-fascism nothing could happen to us,” Rath said in the documentary Boys from Porzelangasse. “My greatest worry was how to sneak into the cinema to watch a film that wasn’t approved for minors.”
Their whole life collapsed literally on one night, and Rath remembers flags with swastikas ruffling in many windows. “What was worse was the people swearing at Jews,” he said.
After their arrival to Haifa, they agreed with Maxi that they would speak only Hebrew to one another. They kept their resolution for over 70 years. On the ship Ari wrote a letter to his friends from the park where he used to play: “I don’t understand that I won’t see you again and that a new life is beginning – and with every minute I’m moving further away from you.”
The best dairyman
When asked about his successes, without much thinking he says: “I was very proud to have become the best milker in the kibbutz.” After five years in the Palestinian kibbutz he milked three times a day to make them supply more milk. On every shift he hand-milked 12 cows and still remembers that the best cow gave 37 litres of milk a day.
“She was a very stubborn cow. But I chose her. It meant that when you sat next to her, she would always push you away,” he said. “But I won her respect and later I was the only one who could milk her. I was very proud of that.”
Rath returned to Vienna in late October 1948 for the first time after his departure. He was 23 and he returned to Porzelangasse 50. The woman who opened the door of the flat where he had lived fell on her knees in front of him.
“Please, please, our home was bombed, let me stay at least in one room,” Rath described in the documentary.
At that time Americans were helping the exiled to reclaim houses where they used to live, but Rath reassured the lady that he only wanted to see the wallpaper of the room where he made a hole in the wall before. When he was a child he had wanted to build a telephone there.
A friend from Slovakia
Ari Rath’s best friend was Avri Zug from Žilina. Rath visited Žilina, the city he knew to be half-way to Auschwitz, 15 years ago. To this day he is in contact with Avri’s children and grandchildren.
“Fate somehow wanted me to be connected with Slovakia,” says Rath, who remembers the tram from Vienna to Pressburg, today’s Bratislava. He visited Bratislava for the first time after the war, to meet the members of the youth Zionist movement who survived the Holocaust. Many of them moved to Palestine and Israel.
He also mentioned his links with Slovakia during his first public appearance on May 20 in Bratislava, in connection with Alexander Dubcek who was a big hero for Ari and the people around him in Israel.
“And we mourned when the Soviet troops marched into Czechoslovakia,” Rath remembers, before citing the words of East German leader Walter Ulbricht, the advocate of the Soviet invasion, who back then said: “If we let the Czechs make reforms now, I won’t keep together my regime in the GDR.”
He cannot fail to mention the wartime Slovak State. He remembers the German ambassador of the Nazi Third Reich in Slovakia, Hans Ludin, who held a high post in the Nazi Sturmableitung SA. His youngest son Malte Ludin was born in Bratislava and later shot a movie about his father, “Two, Three Things I Know About Him”. Ludin was a direct subordinate of Himmler, responsible for the deportation and murder of more than 60,000 Slovak Jews.
The last witnesses
Six people who survived the Holocaust sit on a scene behind a transparent curtain. Rath is one of them. Young Austrian actors read the stories of their lives and the audience watch the expressions on their faces, projected on the screen. This is a scene from the performance “The Final Witnesses” by the Burgtheater in Vienna. Three men and three women, all aged between 80 and 100 years, talk about the rule of the Nazis in Austria, and at the same time warn that Anti-Semitism is still present in this country.
Rath is always the last one to talk, and he claims that Austrians were the worst of the Nazis. He remembers Adolf Hitler, Eichmann, and Erns Kaltenbrunner. He claims that in the special Nazi groups, so-called Einsatzgruppen, more than one-third of the 60,000 men who destroyed lives in concentration camps came from Austria, even though Austrians made up only 10 percent of Nazi Germany’s population.
“When I reminded them of that, they applauded me,” Rath says.
The Austrian Press Agency issued a piece of news in May 2005 that former editor-in-chief of Jerusalem Post Ari Rath, at the age of 80, had again become Austrian. At the reception in Jerusalem, former foreign affairs minister Ursula Plassnik presented Rath with the document of his citizenship.
“Rath is important for my country because he connects Austrian history with the present,” Helfried Carl says. He talks about Rath with the gentleness of a man talking about a relative who passed his life’s wisdom on to him.
Since the 1970s Rath has regularly visited Austria and has had contact with former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. In 2011, he had serious health problems and they saved his life in Austria. He now lives in both Austria and Jerusalem and is part of Viennese life again, cooperating with the Bruno Kreisky Forum.
“I meet him at protests against extremist politics, he protests against ultra-right tendencies in Austria,” Carl says. “People trust Ari when he talks about the past and also listen when he talks about the Middle East, which is an important topic.”
Carl believes there’ll never be peace between Rath and the fascist past of Austria, but he has found a way to work with this past. At the same time, Rath notes that the threat of extremism has never completely disappeared.
Rath’s journey from Vienna to a Palestinian kibbutz, where he spent 16 years, was stressful. But the return to Vienna was not easy for him either and it took longer than a single flight from the Middle East to Central Europe.
“Vienna is everything but my hometown. It’s the place where I was born,” Rath said, trying to fork in a piece of boiled potato in his favourite café where waiters know him and show him respect. “I have become a sort of a celebrity here, but I want to stay with my feet firm on the ground.” He certainly is doing so.
People who have experienced the darkest days of Europe, victims of Nazi prosecution, are slowly leaving. They have experienced fear, prosecution, and humiliation, but also hope that they have always carried within. If we miss the chance to hear their stories we will pass on a European heritage stripped of key testimonies about the limits of our humanity to the next generations. (And what seems to us dark stories of the past, might re-emerge in a new, not less inhuman form).