March 4, 2022
I flew into Vienna on Wednesday, and today, briefly, I felt that I was out of my mind to have come. I have some old, inherited fear. . . But the move is temporary, and it feels important, although I can’t explain exactly why.
Why would I want to move to such a place—that is a place that we ran from over eight decades ago? A city where my grandparents were migrants, from present-day Poland and (unbelievably now) the Ukraine, a city that my mother left as a child? There was no feeling of loss on her part—except the loss of security and of innocence–only fear and loathing.
So why do I care? Because I have always felt that there was something unexplained. I did not feel quite at home as a child in California (although that may have been home, more than anyplace else), and I was no better than an acclimated foreigner in Asia or in Paris. (Although they taught me much that drew me in.) I never quite “fit-in” to New York, even during thirty-six years. I don’t like its values, what it encourage us to become, although I am very lucky to have lived there–for my generation, it was the ideal place for the adult life of a gay man. I may not belong to any place, but I am still looking.
There is something in Vienna that is unexplained, something psychological or emotional that draws from further east and from the past; it reminds us that we do not merely spring from our own lifetimes. I felt a bit of it in Israel, and I’m sure I could find more of it there—an emotional familiarity, a link with a very long shared history. But I can’t just step into modern Israel, with all of its wonderfulness, because its problems trouble me—I don’t want or need to own them, despite its importance. Before I try Israel again, there is something that comes in-between Israel and America, almost 2,000 years in Europe. I felt some of it in France; but we are from central and eastern Europe. I’d like to know whether there is a bond; how it formed me/us (not just in the negative sense, the persecution, although there was plenty of that).
Great-grandfather, Leib Landau, above, died in Vienna in December 1938. Dora Landau Diamant (left) was deported to Minsk in November 1941. Clara (right), our grandmother, escaped to the United States. Photo sent to me by Fran Shaller, daughter of a third sister, Salka, whose parents also escaped to New York, through Switzerland.
I have some immediate business here. A great grandfather’s grave to visit–I am his namesake—and a great-aunt to honor. (She was deported and did not survive.) I’d like to bring these people forward a bit, in our minds. And of course, there is a lot here to satisfy the aesthete. Because during all of this, my travels, my personal relationships, and my work have taught me an appreciation for beautiful things.
I am here to reconcile with Vienna and to see what it has become.