Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
18, Bert Linder’s campaign
against the Swiss banks

The Jerusalemstiege or Jerusalem Staircase, leading to Judengasse in Vienna, was built in 1911, the year Bert Linder was born, and renamed in 1996, the year he died (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided after my visit to Vienna a year ago to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

With the attack last week on the Stadttempel, the only surviving pre-war synagogue in Vienna, I was reminded of Bert Linder (1911-1997), a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

I am always fascinated by the names of people who might share family connections, and I know of few families with the name Linders or Lynders apart from my grandmother’s family. Last week I wrote about my great-uncle John Lynders (1873-1957), who was a sergeant and later a head constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary in Wexford the difficult years in the first quarter of the 20th century

Although I know of no family connection, I was fascinated when I first heard of the name of Bert Linder, who was born in Vienna. He survived the Holocaust, moved to the US and later retired to the California Desert, and later campaigned to have Swiss banks return gold seized by the Nazis. In retirement, he wrote and lectured widely about his Holocaust experiences, and was honoured by the Austrian government.

Bert Linder was born in Vienna in 1911 and grew up on a peaceful street in the Austrian capital, where his father owned the Jacob Linder Brush Manufacturer.

Linder was working as a traveling salesman at the time the Nazis seized power in Germany, and had married Millie Meier, a Catholic. The Nazis marched into Austria on 13 March 1938, and Linder was sacked that same day. When he fled Austria, Millie decided to stay behind. ‘I learned later that she had become a Nazi,’ he would recall.

For the next five years, Bert Linder lived on the run, first in Belgium and then in France. He helped the Resistance and once escaped from a makeshift prison run by the French. In a corner of southern France that was still unoccupied by the Germans, he fell in love and married Gisella Spira, a Jewish woman from Berlin.

While they were still on the run, the couple had a son, Roland, born in January 1942. The family lived a perilous existence until they were arrested in the Italian border town of Borgo San Dalmazzo in 1943.

When Bert Linder stepped off a cattle car and entered Auschwitz in 1943, he was forcibly stripped and to throw his gold wedding ring to the ground. A guard then shaved him of his body hair and engraved a tattoo above his left hand: 167595.

Later, two dentists walked through the barracks, pushing pliers into open mouths and wrenching free teeth with gold fillings, dropping them into small sacks held open by two SS men. His wife and son were taken in another direction and sent to the gas chambers.

For the next 20 months, Bert Linder was forced into slave labour. He built roads near Auschwitz, and later shaped pipes in the underground complex of the German V-2 missile factory at Nordhausen until it was bombed by the Allies.

When British soldiers entered Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945, he lay unconscious in the barracks and weighed 96 lb. They fed him rice and cream, and when he was strong enough, he became the kitchen cook. But 36 members of Linder’s family never left the camps.

Several weeks later, Bert Linder wandered into a free dental clinic in Brussels, still wearing his striped camp uniform. The queue was long and he turned to leave. A young woman grabbed him by his collar, and, noticing his uniform, offered to slip him in the back door. She was Joan Winkler, the woman he later married.

The couple had two children and emigrated to the US in 1951. The family moved to Los Angeles, where they went into business as Bert Linder Real Estate.

He retired to Rancho Mirage in the California desert, where the desert peace and quiet offered solace. But his memories of the beatings, the gassing of his wife, son and sister, remained with him as nightmares.

His retirement was unexpectedly interrupted by his young grandson innocently asking about the strange numbers tattooed on his arm. During a difficult explanation to his grandchild, he decided to commit his most harrowing and intimate memories to a book, Condemned Without Judgment (SPI Books, 1995).

In his own words, it is ‘the story of a victor rather than a victim.’ It is an inspiring adventure of a man who despite witnessing to evil and carnage remained steadfast in his belief in the ultimate good of humanity.

In retirement, Bert Linder also spoke to high school students about his experiences in the death camps and became president of the Holocaust Survivors of the Desert.

He became an heroic figure in Europe in 1996 when he filed claims against eight Swiss banks demanding that any dormant accounts holding assets seized by the Nazis from Holocaust victims should be distributed among the survivors.

He said those assets were not limited to money but included gold wedding rings and gold fillings wrenched from the teeth of death camp prisoners. He demanded the banks in Switzerland should give up riches they had acquired from victims of the Holocaust through co-operation with the Nazis.

He wanted the Swiss to face the truth about their wartime association with the Nazis, a truth hidden for over half a century behind myths of neutrality and heroism. ‘The Nazis could never have functioned without the Swiss banks,’ he said, ‘and the banks have kept silent about it all these years.’

He hoped that those who survived Dachau, Buchenwald, Treblinka and Sobibor would get what is rightfully theirs. ‘The Nazis took those things from us, and the Swiss have no right to them,’ he said. ‘We, the survivors, only want back what is rightfully ours.’

Hundreds – then thousands – of Holocaust victims and their descendants joined Linder in filing lawsuits. One lawsuit was brought against three Swiss banks in the US by 12,000 survivors and their families.

His last journey was a return visit to Austria, where lectured at several universities and was honoured by the Austrian government with the Cross of Honour. He died in Graz of a heart attack on 22 September 1997 after a speech promoting the German translation of his book. He was 86.

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles has a website listing 1,600 accounts held in Swiss banks during World War II, some of which may belong to Holocaust victims: https://www.wiesenthal.com.

Bert Linder recalled his most harrowing and intimate memories in his book ‘Condemned Without Judgment

Tales of the Viennese Jews:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

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