On the Rope: A Hero’s Story
By Erich Hackl
Translated by Stephen Brown
Haus Publishing, 2020
A true story that reads like a novel.
It is the story of a good man or, as the title has it, a hero. But it is about other people as well, mind, and their collective, intertwined stories – dependent as always on human memory – are told in a way that is true to experience. Memories are, as we know, fragmentary and often uncertain.
In the Spring of 1938 the Nazis ambled into Austria and were welcomed into Vienna. Famously. Hitler gave a speech in the Heldenplatz, attended by a large crowd, where he was greeted with cheers and Nazi salutes; not much resistance there. Life in the city quickly became difficult for all Jews, including Regina Steinig and her daughter Lucia. Regina loses her job and her flat (which was on Berggasse, incidentally, the same street where Freud lived); mother and daughter are made destitute. Then, to avoid arrest and internment, Regina reaches out to Reinhold Duschka, a close friend of Lucia’s absent father. He is the hero here.
Reinhold takes Regina and her daughter in, keeping both safe for the duration of the war. At first they stay in his workshop, close to the Linke Wienzeile, and when that is bombed in the Autumn of 1944 they move to a shop in Gumpendorfer Strasse, a short distance away.
In large part the story is made up of Lucia’s memories of her childhood (she was 9 in 1938). We learn much about her life and feelings, and about how Reinhold bought her books during her confinement, how he gave her things to do to help out in his work (he was a craftsman who worked with metal, making bowls and vases, etc.), how he was kind and patient with her. Regina features prominently as well. There is a striking moment after the collapse of the Nazi regime when Regina goes with a Soviet soldier to get her flat back. But on seeing that the couple who live there have a child with Down’s syndrome, she decides that she cannot do it: compassion trumps justice.
Towards the end of the book, though, the focus shifts more towards Reinhold, who was later honoured at Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in 1991, not long before his death. We learn that he had studied under the great Josef Hoffmann and we get the perspectives of his daughter and grandson and a work colleague who also went mountain climbing with him. Some of Reinhold’s character traits are highlighted – there is his self discipline and discretion, for example – but note that they can be put at the service of ill as well good. He was a good man, that is clear, but what was it that set him apart from the crowds cheering Hitler in the Heldenplatz and along the Ringstrasse? Well, we don’t know. Virtue is, and remains, a mystery.
I was struck by a passage where the author says (and this is clearly true) that there are masses of books about the Nazis and to a lesser extent their victims, but few works about the rescuers. I am aware of a chapter in Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth that deals with this topic (‘The Righteous Few’), but surely it is deserving of a book-length study?
On the Rope recounts a fascinating true story and I found it wholly engrossing. The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.