Translation of Article Published in Austria in Die Gemeinde; no. 588 July 2066 - Tamus 5706 

"A Very Big Little Lady: Dorit Whiteman"


by Peter Weinberger



     The setting: the Great Assembly Hall on the campus of the University of Vienna, Wednesday, May 17, 2006, 6 PM. An extremely well-groomed and elegantly attired woman poses, her husband at her side, before several photographers and a film crew. My glance shifts to her shoes�high heels!   Incredible, I think to myself. The photography completed, it�s time to proceed inside the auditorium�despite the beautiful weather�for an address by and evening with Dorit Whiteman.


     Her speech�delivered in English studded with occasional German phrases�begins with an account of a project that she began around 1990: studies based on interviews with �escapees,� those who were able to flee the Nazis, many just in the nick of time. These were interviews she conducted in her capacity as psychologist, conducted with a psychologist�s patience and capacity to let none of the narrative�s subtleties pass unnoticed. Here in Vienna, she blends these accounts�and every single one of these escapees has stories to tell, she adds; the only ones who have nothing to say are the ones who didn�t make it out�here, she blends these accounts in with her own experiences. The shock of 1938: the barefaced robbery perpetrated on Jewish families; when nice Viennese people suddenly wanted everyone to think that they had always been Nazis and behaved accordingly; when her mother�s private school was unceremoniously Aryanized; when the contents of her parents� apartment�furniture, carpets, everything�were painstakingly inventoried and carted off. It ended up in the Dorotheum auction house. She went on to tell of the series of lucky breaks that enabled her family to beat the odds and flee to England. And time and again, she digresses from the account of her own experiences to return to the stories told by �her escapees.� Her book based on what she recorded, �The Uprooted: A Hitler Legacy,� brought her instant fame, in academia as well, and not only in the USA.


     But it�s not only their historical narratives she�s interested in; it�s the question of what it means to be uprooted, to have to start a new life, to suddenly be immersed in completely different cultural and social values. Now, looking back on this �new beginning� in a culture that is perhaps still somewhat foreign, how did it actually work? She repeatedly comes back to her own story and speaks about her mother, who was one of the first women to get a Ph.D. in chemistry and who, during their stay in Southern England, kept the wolf from the door by working as a cleaning lady.


     It�s obvious that Dorit Whiteman is a very experienced speaker on the subject of the Holocaust. She handles the transition to the subject of guilt feelings without the slightest difficulty. Guilt feelings because one was permitted by fate to survive. How do these guilt feelings manifest themselves? Every single one of the escapees she interviewed seems to give a different answer to this question. Dissimilar answers as a consequence of diverging time scales of repression due to varying possibilities of social integration. She tells of the first Thanksgiving dinner that her family held, an anecdotal indication of the social circumstances of integration.


     Of course, she�s aware that a Viennese audience also wants to hear about her slow process of rapprochement with Austria, with the land whose culture, she proudly notes, she�s been carrying around with her for more than 60 years like her own personal treasure. Nevertheless, the �nostalgic feelings� that arose the first time she returned for a visit were still mixed with large measures of suddenly-surfacing anger and hostility. The private school (offering all-day instruction) her mother had owned and operated was now state-run. Inside, the pictures on the walls were the same; even the concert grand piano, now timeworn and neglected, still stood there ... The caf� where she treated herself to Viennese pastries after school�in defiance of her mother�was likewise unchanged: the same mirrors, the same little tables. All that was missing were the children who used to pack this Konditorei. None has remained. They�re either dispersed throughout the world or they�re dead.


     Dorit Whiteman proves to be a true master of the art of delivering a fascinating speech. So much so that one was almost a little peeved when host/moderator Prof. Gerhard Botz asked her to conclude her talk with a report on the famous Whiteman Suit. The facts of the matter are quickly summarized, we�re told. In October 2000, as the culmination of more than 40 years of struggling to get some of her property back�filling out forms over and over again, submitting proof, none of it getting even the slightest response�a lawsuit was filed against the Republic of Austria and some Austrian enterprises in the name of Dorit Whiteman and other plaintiffs. In November 2005, Dorit Whiteman withdrew this lawsuit because, as she put it, she didn�t want to continue to hold up disbursements from the Republic of Austria's Compensation Fund. It was a difficult decision, she added; one in which she was torn between the desire for justice to be done and the knowledge that others were in desperate need of these payments that weren�t even all that generous. And the reason it had come to a lawsuit is also easily told. During a visit to Vienna, she happened to walk by the Dorotheum and suddenly recalled that her parents had once mentioned that all their personal possessions in Vienna had been carted off to this institution. Undaunted and determined, in Dorit Whiteman�s naturally intrepid way, she immediately inquired�going straight to the executive suite, no less�how she could now go about getting her property back. But after a considerable wait, the one who finally showed up was not the CEO but an attorney who, in a firm and rather brusque manner, escorted her to the door while pointing out that the Dorotheum is a private institution to which restitution agreements do not apply. Thus, it was the all-too-familiar post-�45 treatment accorded those who dared to inquire about their property�s whereabouts that triggered the filing of the Whiteman Suit that has subsequently attained such notoriety. Didn�t Mrs. Altmann [to whom four paintings by Gustav Klimt were recently restituted] just report having gone through something similar?


     Dorit Whiteman digresses a bit in order to elaborate on the atmospheric changes regarding the Holocaust that have been going on in Austria in recent years. Now, she once again has friends here, she says, and she�s pleased that so many young people have attended her speech. Many people�s basic attitudes seem to have simply changed. And to boot�after years of waiting, she was contacted by a sensible, intelligent young man from the Dorotheum. He told her in a polite, friendly manner that his company would unfortunately be unable to return her rightful property to her, but he could offer her what might be considered token compensation: endowing a scholarship in her mother�s name. It had never been a matter of the material worth of her inheritance, she added; it had never had to do with anything but justice. For her, the endowed scholarship meant an admission of wrongdoing by the Dorotheum, and a fitting occasion to achieve closure and lay to rest something that had been gnawing at her conscience for almost 50 years.


     Finally, while chatting with Dorit Whiteman after the speech at a small supper for a few invited guests, she and the stories she told seemed so thoroughly familiar to the author of these lines that he got the feeling of having known this woman for years even though he had only just met her.


     Incidentally, the scholarship was bestowed for the first time on May 18, 2006 at a small ceremony held in the Dorotheum.