Sam Apple encounters a shepherd who sings in Yiddish—and forces him to question his deepest fear.
In Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd, author Sam Apple—an editor at the literary sex magazine Nerve—chronicles his travels with Hans Breuer, a wandering shepherd who is also an accomplished Yiddish folksinger. The child of a marriage that was religiously mixed (his father was an assimilated Jew) but ideologically united (both parents were Communists), Breuer, 50, spent his youth battling Austria’s unrepentant accommodation of ex-Nazis. He continues to this day, his unlikely instrument a repertoire of Yiddish songs he learned as part of a leftist effort to recover cultures destroyed by the Nazis.
What drew Hans to Yiddish folk songs? And why does he perform them?
The initial connection to Yiddish came largely through his leftist politics. As a product of the radical upheavals of 1968, Hans was drawn to people that were victims of fascism, capitalism, imperialism. And the Jews of Europe were the greatest victims of all.
Yiddish singing came into the picture only because these political currents also pushed many young Germans to talk about the crimes of the Nazis, which got a lot of them interested in Yiddish music in the early 1970s. Hans was traveling in Germany at the time, and it was these Germans who introduced him to it. He loved the raw emotion of the Yiddish language. He’s become more curious about Judaism over the years partly because he wants to understand the world that produced these songs.
Where does he perform, and who is he singing for?
Hans’s first performances were in Vienna, and the crowds were mostly friends or sympathetic leftists. But he realized he was in this unique position to bring Yiddish music to Austrian audiences in the countryside that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to Jewish culture. As he said to me, he wanted to introduce them to a culture their fathers and uncles helped to destroy. To draw them in, he would integrate the songs into a program about being a wandering shepherd. Now he’s done this program in most of the small towns where he passes with the flock each year.
How did you learn about him?
I was mostly just curious when I first heard Hans sing during a visit to New York. But then I interviewed him for the Forward, and when he told me about his mother being tortured as a Communist by the Gestapo, I realized his story was a way into a larger story about European anti-Semitism and Yiddish.
My mother got sick when I was really young, so I ended up spending lots of time with my grandmother, Bashy. She was from a Lithuanian shtetl, and one of her central beliefs, which I absorbed, was that Jews and Gentiles don’t go well together. Plus our household was always full of these Yiddish expressions—I don’t think I ever went to sleep without hearing Shlof gezunt, shtey af gezunt, (“Sleep in health, wake up in health”). Going to Austria was a chance to make sense of all these different feelings.
You write that you went to Austria looking for anti-Semites. Why did you want Bashy’s anxieties confirmed rather than undermined?
Part of it, I think, is a longing for a place to direct even a little bit of the pent-up Nazi hatred that comes with learning about the Holocaust as an adolescent. More broadly, it’s probably a reflection of this almost primal sense I have that the rest of the world is out to get the Jews. This is so deeply ingrained that for me to have gone to Austria, the capital of anti-Semitism in my imagination, and to have not found anti-Semitism would have posed a threat to my very sense of myself.
This kind of paranoia has the potential to skew your moral reasoning, and I’d prefer that my Jewish identity was rooted in positive associations. Still, it can be tricky to avoid, not only because anti-Semitism still exists, but also because even some Jewish traditions reinforce the notion of Jews as potential victims—the Purim story comes to mind, or the whole idea of Amalek. The challenge is to reconcile this mindset with the reality that Jews in America today face little anti-Semitism. I grew up with all the pathos of anti-Semitism but with no real exposure to it. Austria was my big chance to make good on all my paranoia, and shy of encountering storm troopers in the streets of Vienna, I’m not sure anything would have quite lived up to my neurotic imaginings.
Does being Jewish feel different in Europe than it does in the States?
In America today it is a choice in a way it’s not in Europe. American Jews, for the most part, can fully separate themselves from their Jewish identity. And the Holocaust happened on European soil, so to live in Europe after the Holocaust is to feel a little like a ghost.
For Jews, this murderous burden, perversely, has been enriching. We have made tragedy and comedy out of it. To tweak Gary Shteyngart, would you rather be Dostoevsky—the tortured soul saddled with an inspiring burden—or, quite plainly, happy?
I’d say “happiness before art,” but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I think that there’s more than enough pain in the everyday drama of human relationships to provide the raw materials for great art. For my part, I get my best work done when I’m not in a deeply neurotic and unhappy state. It’s hard to write and examine your body for tumors at the same time.
The Germans seem to have engaged in a sincere soul-searching that has combined openness about the crimes of the Nazis and German society with aggressive suppression of that period’s legacy—sale of Nazi paraphernalia is banned, for example. How does Austria’s reckoning compare?
It took Austria until the 1990s to begin to look at its past in a way the Germans had for at least several decades. Partly this was due to the anti-Semitism of Austrian leaders or politicians who were trying to secure the votes of former Nazis. But the primary reason is that the Austrians were able to declare themselves “the first victims of the Nazis” almost as soon as the war ended. And the Allies were complicit in this. They allowed politicians to insert the clause that Austria had been Hitler’s “first victim” into the founding document of modern Austria, the State Treaty of 1955. The Allies even removed a clause from the earlier Moscow Declaration that said that Austria shared some of the responsibility for fighting on the side of the Nazis. Not all Austrians supported the Nazis, but, overall, they were shockingly receptive to the Nazi program, and for a real reckoning to take place that truth needs to be internalized. In 1999, a quarter of the country voted for Jörg Haider’s Freedom party. Not all or even most of its supporters are anti-Semitic, but it’s amazing that more than 50 years after the war a party founded by and for former Nazis could still garner that kind of support. It’s not something that could have happened in Germany. In dealings with West Germany, the Allies made it clear that Germany would have to take de-Nazification and restitution seriously if it was going to regain a place on the world stage. The same pressure simply wasn’t put on Austria.
What’s your sense of how individual Austrians feel toward Jews, publicly and privately?
Things have changed since the 1980s and the Waldheim affair. Initially, it exacerbated public anti-Semitism, but in the long run, it probably diminished it by shining a spotlight on Austria’s Nazi problem and putting Austrian politicians on the defensive. You’re now much less likely to hear public attacks against “international Jewish organizations.”
Privately, anti-Semitism is fairly widespread. Almost everyone I spoke to had stories of awful comments in the street. That said, I don’t think the situation is worse than elsewhere in Europe. The difference is that in England or France, much of the anti-Semitism is interwoven with Middle East politics. In 2001 there were polls that had nearly half of the respondents agreeing with the idea that Jews were exploiting the Holocaust. At the same time, even more people said that the Holocaust should be remembered. When I interviewed Austrians in the Freedom Party stronghold of Carinthia, there seemed to be little denial that Austria played a role in Nazi crimes. The response was usually some version of, “Terrible things happened, but it was a long time ago, and Austria must look to the future.”
Non-Jewish interest in prewar Yiddish culture can come off as an unsettling fetish, but Hans seems too guileless for this kind of subconscious agenda. What exactly is his psychological relationship to this extinguished culture?
He probably does idealize the shtetl world—I think we all do. But whereas for me, it’s this place where my ancestors come from, his idealization has to do with the politics of 1968, and his worldview at that time, which, to a large extent, is his worldview today. Jews were the symbolic victims of everything he grew up fighting against.
So, to put it in a radically reductive way, it’s not so much about Jews as it is about victims, and his choice of Yiddish songs rather than Communist march songs is to some degree incidental.
Right—at least that’s how it started. Since then, he’s become interested in the world that these songs came from. It wasn’t until his first trip to North America in 2000 that he got a taste of what a real Jewish community might look like. He kept saying things like, “People really understood me for the first time.” He’s never articulated it in this way, but I think he found a certain argumentativeness, a certain intellectual vigor, that he hadn’t had among his peers back home. I mean, he’s aware that some of this is a classic stereotype—he once told me he saw these “Jewish” hands on these old women he met in Canada, the hands of intellectuals—it’s ridiculous, but he was clearly at a point in his life when he was craving a connection to Judaism, maybe even manufacturing it.
Seventy years after their road trip, the best-selling sentimental novelist has run out of gas, while Zora is still in the driver’s seat.