25 June 2019

On Erasing Jews

A Recent Discovery in a Paris Flea Market Should Awaken the World to a Frightening Possibility


As antisemitism ascended in pre-Holocaust Austria, a Jewish writer in Vienna – Hugo Bettauer – wrote a futuristic allegorical novel entitled The City Without Jews. The year was 1922, and the book portrayed a fictitious city in Austria that bitterly expelled all of its Jews. The book was Bettauer’s most popular – selling a quarter of a million copies. Two years later, the book became a movie, and soon after the film’s release, Hugo Bettauer was assassinated by a popular Austrian antisemite and Nazi sympathizer named Otto Roth Stock. Hugo’s crime? He penned the obvious: His countrymen were dreaming of a world without Jews, and somehow he knew it wouldn’t be long before their imaginations became a reality. Fourteen years later in March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria to the Nazi Third Reich and soon after, Jews from Vienna (the actual city Hugo was depicting) were sent to concentration camps.

The film was lost to history, but was recently found in a Paris flea market in 2015. After undergoing an $80,000 restoration, the movie was re-released. I attended a special screening of The City Without Jews a few months ago at one of the many Jewish film festivals featuring it (you can now see the film on YouTube). I have been mystified – no, troubled – ever since. What is so unsettling about the movie is Bettauer’s spot-on accuracy. The film depicts Jews being violently accosted in open marketplaces, Jewish families driven from their homes with only a few belongings, elderly Jews hobbling through the streets into exile and ultimately transported out of the city in trains. The perplexing question is, how did Hugo Bettauer foresee these key details of the Holocaust? Was he a prophet? The Nostradamus of his time? A seer or mystic sage? Was his prediction simply an anomalous coincidence?

None of the above, actually. As I have wrestled with these questions, I’ve come to the conclusion Hugo Bettauer realized the pattern of European anti-Judaism and antisemitism was repeating itself in his day and a savage expulsion awaited the Jews of Vienna. Hugo understood from history that when Christians rejected the religious worldview of Jewish people (anti-Judaism), it led to the persecution of the Jews culturally (antisemitism) and ultimately to a rejection of the Jews collectively. Bettauer had the discernment to know Vienna would one day say to its Jews, “You have no right to live among us.” The Nazi’s would take it a tragic and unimaginable step further and say to the Jews, “You have no right to live.”

AT THE TIME Bettauer was writing in the early 1920s, the dominant political movement of his day was the Christian Social Party whose popularity was driven not in-part but in-whole by anti-Judaism. The party’s national election poster in 1920 was an orthodox Jewish man depicted as a snake complete with Kippah, side locks, defamatory hooked nose and slithering tongue, choking an eagle wearing a crown – Christian Austria’s coat of arms. The message? Judaism is choking out Christianity in Austria. As Bettauer was penning his novel, the Christian Social Party was calling for the segregation and exclusion of Jews from Austrian society. The party re-ignited old anti-Judaic myths including the blood libel, and though some bishops opposed the blatant hostility toward Jews, they were overruled by the full endorsement of the Pope.

One of the founders of the Christian Social Party was Karl Lueger, Mayor of Vienna until 1910. Lueger was rabid in his hatred of not only the Jewish religion but the Jewish people, and in an 1899 speech declared that Jews were launching a “terrorism, worse than which cannot be imaged over the masses” and that he had the calling of “liberating the Christian people from the domination of Jewry.” The enthusiastic ecclesiastical support of anti-Judaism logically made antisemitism culturally acceptable.

An young Austrian man who moved to Vienna in 1907 at the age of 18 to study landscape painting was so inspired by the populism mixed with Christian piety of Mayor Karl Lueger that he would later say Lueger was “the greatest German mayor of all time” and that his own hate toward Jews was birthed by the influence of Lueger and the Christian Social Party. “When I arrived in Vienna, I was hostile to both of them. The man and the movement seemed reactionary in my eyes. My common sense of justice, however, forced me to change this judgment in proportion as I had occasion to become acquainted with the man and his work; and slowly my fair judgment turned to unconcealed admiration… For a few hellers, I bought the first antisemitic pamphlets of my life… Wherever I went, I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity… In addition to their physical uncleanliness, you discovered the moral stains of this ‘chosen people.’” These quotes, inspired by the Christian anti-Judaism of his day are from the book this young painter would later publish in 1925 (a year after the release of Bettauer’s film) entitled, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). His name? Adolf Hitler.

HUGO BETTAUR’S re-discovered film should awaken all of us to the frightening possibility that a resurrection of historic anti-Judaism and antisemitism if allowed to go unchallenged, could eventually lead to an unprecedented global violent upheaval against the Jewish people. It doesn’t take a mystic sage or Nostradamus to realize the awful pattern Bettauer perceived has returned.

Replacement theology (the ancient anti-Judaic notion that proclaims God has rejected the Jewish people) has made a comeback. One Evangelical group, Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC), questions Jewish claims to Biblical promises and especially the regathering of the Jews to their homeland, Israel. One of the leaders of this organization is a popular Evangelical Seminary professor who has vehemently stated, “The people of Israel cannot claim to be planted as vines in the land… unless first they are grafted into Jesus. Branches that attempt living in the land [The State of Israel], the vineyard, which refuses to be attached to Jesus will be cast out and burned.” Another leader of CATC has stated that Christians who sympathize with Jewish people have “repudiated the Bible and are an abomination.” When you add these kinds of vitriolic, hateful statement with anti-Judaic groups like the World Council of Churches and a staggering number of Christian organizations and major denominations opposed to the Jewish right of self-determination within their own land, you have a pot brewing over into inevitable violence. Blaise Pascal was right when she said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”

Anti-Judaism is once again vogue in Christian circles resulting in the restraints being loosened on antisemitism. FBI statistics show a 37% rise in antisemitic incidents in the last three years in the US. The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre in October 2018 is a horrific reminder that antisemitism has been mainstreamed in America and beyond.

The awakening of historic anti-Judaism and antisemitism has led to a call for the expulsion of Jews. Movements like BDS are calling for the boycott of Israeli products, divestment of investments in companies that do business with Israel and international sanctions against the State of Israel (thus, BDS). This effort is designed to cripple the Israeli economy and delegitimize Israel as a nation. Add to this the rhetoric of Israel’s neighbors calling for the total annihilation of all Jews within Israel, antisemitic campus groups around the globe chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (of Jews) and the mass exodus of European Jews under threat of violence, and it’s not difficult to conclude we are seeing today what Bettauer saw in 1922.

Hugo Bettauer’s greatest gift was perhaps not imaginary foresight but rather, courage. Specifically, the courage to confront silent indifference. Elie Wiesel said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” Yes, Hugo spoke up, interfered, challenged the acceptance of Jewish hatred among his peers and paid with his life. His novel, The City Without Jews, should awaken all of us to that same selfless courage to confront anti-Jewish voices still fomenting in our time.

The writer is president of Israel Team Advocates International, an organization that advocates for the Jewish people on American college campuses (israelteam.org). He has ninety family members who live in Israel.

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