The Anschluss and Becoming Alice
by Claudia Mosocvici
Hitler had strong ties to Austria. Born on April 20, 1889 in Braunau am Inn, Austria-Hungary–a little town close to Bavaria, Germany–Hitler returned in 1905 to his native country to study art in Vienna. He was rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts twice, in 1907 and 1908, and even lived in a homeless shelter for a few months in 1909. Years later, once he acquired power in Germany, he was determined to return to Austria as a triumphant leader.
He fulfilled this dream when he marched into Austria on March 12, 1938, during the Anschluss. “Anschluss” literally means a “connection” or union. This choice of wording was part of the Nazi propaganda campaign, to describe the annexation of Austria as a mutually beneficial arrangement rather than what it was: a German occupation. The coup d’état enacted by the Austrian Nazi Party with German backing facilitated this “union”.
The annexation of Austria, however, was by no means welcomed by all Austrians, as the Nazis claimed (maintaining that they received 99 percent of votes in support of the union in a plebiscite they held in Austria following the invasion). In fact, the Austrian government had initially distanced itself from the Nazis, cutting economic ties with Germany once Adolf Hitler rose to power. Hitler, however, managed a powerful propaganda campaign to create the illusion of a nearly unanimous Austrian support. On March 12, the German Wehrmacht crossed into Austria, greeted by large crowds of cheering German-Austrians, holding flowers and waving Nazi flags.
Once in control of the country, the German Nazis promptly suppressed opposition. They arrested 70,000 people whom they perceived as enemies of the Nazi regime, targeting Jewish Austrians and communists in particular for discrimination and abuse. The Anschluss was Hitler’s first major show of force against an autonomous nation. The annexation of Austria would become a precedent for future German conquests, either “by flowers” as the Anschluss was called because it occurred without war, or by declaration of war and violent occupation.
Alice Rene’s Becoming Alice: A Memoir describes with poignancy and depth this important moment in 20th century history. Hailed as “a deftly written memoir that will hold the reader’s attention from beginning to end” by the Midwest Book Review and described as “a magnificent memoir and an impressive, courageous piece of work” by Writers Digest Magazine, Rene’s memoir deserves the praise. The book begins with a detailed and personalized account of the Anschluss. Becoming Alice describes the impact of these tragic historical events upon Austria’s Jewish population from the perspective of a six-year-old girl named Isle.
Isle and her family watch helplessly as the Nazi soldiers march down their street in Vienna. Faced with discrimination and the threat of deportation, they’re obliged to flee Austria for fear of worse mistreatment. Taking only their most basic belongings, Isle and her father, mother and older brother (Fredi) risk a difficult journey through Stalinist Russia. In an adventurous voyage, they eventually make their way to Portland, Oregon. The memoir reflects historical fact, but it’s as well written as the best of novels.
Alice Rene’s autobiographical narrative skillfully captures the girl’s limited and innocent perspective as she lives through one of the most inhumane and incomprehensible moments in human history. While Isle and her family are quite fortunate to have escaped the Holocaust, finding themselves as new immigrants in the U.S. is no easy matter either. As Isle adapts to the new culture and craves acceptance and assimilation, she becomes increasingly critical of her family dynamics: particularly of the interaction between her overbearing father and submissive–yet also, in some respects, incredibly strong and resilient–mother.
By the end of the narrative, when she’s already in her teens, Isle succeeds in Americanizing not only her name–which she changes to Alice–but also her whole identity and outlook. She doesn’t forget, however, her original culture, nor the historical calamity that brought her family to the U.S. This is a riveting story : a memoir that reads like a novel about a moment in history that we should never forget.
Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon