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Tracing his Jewish ancestry in Austria, piece by piece

Journal Correspondent

JUNE 21, 2018 – Discoveries can come through dogged detective work or arrive unannounced by serendipity. More than once in the course of background research for one of my novels, I have uncovered a delicious detail long after giving up. Such is the case with a work-in-progress. My 11th novel – working title “Distant Sons” – is an epic multigenerational immigrant saga of love and loss, faith and family, inspired in part by the hazy history of my own ancestors and their coming to America.

I envy people who can, with some certainty, trace their ancestry back to a specific East European village or to Sephardic forerunners who arrived in Manhattan after fleeing Brazil. My ancestry is not so easy to track. My father was adopted, and I have scant documentation pointing to his origins. Decades of online and in-person investigation has produced tantalizing traces and intimations of insight from scattered fragments, eventually steering me back to the tiny market town of Frauenkirchen in Austria.

Located in the region now known as Burgenland, the Austrian borderlands neighboring Hungary, Frauenkirchen was – and still is – renowned for its spectacular 17th century twin-domed Roman Catholic church, Basilika Mariä Geburt (Basilica of the Birth of the Virgin Mary). But it also was one of the famed Sheva Kehillot, the Seven Communities in which Jews were allowed in the 19th century to live in peace and safety under letters of protection issued from Hungarian nobles of the House of Esterházy. Around 1880, more than 800 Jews lived in the Jewish Quarter of Frauenkirchen, with their own kosher butchery and a modest synagogue with an adjacent mikvah.

Stashed among semi-organized folders of background research on my computer, I had a lone picture purported to be of the synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Frauenkirchen, an undated low-resolution digital image from a brief online article about a synagogue that was not even indexed in the most comprehensive historical database of the synagogues of Austria. Many of these synagogues, including the one in Frauenkirchen, had been destroyed when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Beyond a few paragraphs and that grainy black-and-white image, I had little direct information about the life of the Jews in 19th century Frauenkirchen.

On impulse recently, I decided to search for a higher resolution copy of that photo. Google has a feature that allows you to upload an image, and its algorithms will attempt to find similar images. In this case, the all-seeing search engine did not locate a higher resolution copy of that photograph, but it did find a remarkable digital drawing of the same synagogue. Further digging quickly led me to recent work by Benjamin Schwab, an architect whose 2016 master’s thesis at the Technical University of Vienna drew on deep investigation into diverse historic documents to create a three-dimensional digital model of that lost Austrian synagogue.

It was thrilling to be able to “walk around” this digital realization, even to explore the interior with the bimah in the center and the ark on the east-facing wall. So small and tightly integrated was this 19th-century village that from the women’s gallery on the balcony of the synagogue, one could look out through the half-round window and see the twin copper-clad spires of the Catholic basilica only some 800 feet away.

Sometimes the latest bright technology can offer windows into the dim past. Sometimes one more search, one added phone call, or one extra click on a link is all it takes for a genuine breakthrough. Now I not only know what my ancestors’ shul was like, but that link has led to others, to new works of history and scholarship, and to people in contemporary Austria who are using their time and talents to resurrect the past and keep memories alive.

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