> Vol5/No5/95
IN SEARCH OF A PERSONAL VOICE By Linda C. DeMeritt

A writer breaks the silence about Austrian complicity in World War II and gives a voice to history as experienced and lived by women.

Elisabeth Reichart, born in 1953, clearly remembers the wall of silence that repelled certain questions she posed as a child growing up in post-war Austria. It surrounded and veiled a place within playing distance of her village of Steyregg in Upper Austria, a place to be avoided at all costs, both physically and mentally. Finally, her grandmother lifted the veil and told the secret of Mauthausen, told about the so-called Mühlviertler Hasenjagd (the Mill District Rabbit Hunt). During the night preceding February 2, 1945, the inhabitants of her village aided the National Socialists in hunting down and murdering nearly 500 Soviet prisoners of war who had escaped from the concentration camp Mauthausen.

This childhood experience became the seed from which Reichart's first novel (and bestseller) grew, Februarschatten, published in 1984 (new edition in 1995) and translated into English as February Shadows in 1989 (Ariadne Press). It relates the inner struggle of the protagonist between forgetting and remembering the past. Slowly, painfully, prompted by her daughter's questions, she begins to confront her participation in the events of that February night. Bits of the past resurface, at first in isolated moments but with increasing frequency, until the carefully constructed dam of repressed memory breaks and the past - with all its horror, shame, and guilt - informs the present.

Upon publication of February Shadows, Elisabeth Reichart was heralded as one of a growing number of young authors whose books revisited the question of Austrian involvement in World War II: Were the Austrians victims or willing participants? Reichart, who studied history and German literature in Salzburg and then Vienna, has stated in several interviews that history interests her primarily as it affects the individual. Thus, she sheds light on denied history and, more importantly, illuminates the personal motives and reasons behind these historical events. Even more chilling than her depiction of the events of that February night is her portrayal of its characters. There are no culprits here, just a young girl, her family, friends, and neighbors, "apolitical" people. The structure of the novel, in particular its broken and searching chronology, draws the reader even deeper into the events and burdens us with the question of personal responsibility: Would we have acted differently? Do we, even today, in fact act differently?

Many of these same questions and themes resurface in Reichart's second novel, Komm über den See (1988). Again she probes history, as her protagonist fits together the pieces of a past circumscribed by the loyalties and betrayals among female resistance fighters. Again we see how the forces of history act upon the individual and bring forth acts of bravery as well as cowardice. And again Reichart shows how a repressed past haunts the present.

Reichart's first two novels not only break the silence about Austrian complicity in World War II, they also give a voice to history as experienced and lived by women. The author has stated that she felt compelled by a sense of personal responsibility to tell the stories of the real victims of Fascism, in particular of the women whose stories have been largely excluded from public dialogue to date. Her works make the content of these personal lives public, thus challenging historical accounts which exclude women or relegate them exclusively to a traditional role in the home.

Reichart does not write to condemn, but rather to understand. She explores the relationship between everyday life and the structures of power and asks: To what extent are we the products of society, of the family and state, of power, of history? To what extent do political and historical events determine the life of the individual, determine our thought, language, expectations, roles, and interpersonal relationships? For Reichart, the private person is by necessity also a societal being. But this does not mean that the individual is exonerated from responsibility. Just the opposite - each of us must grasp the underlying causes of our behavior and with this new understanding attempt change.

The tension between societal dictates and self- determination is the common thread uniting the various pieces in Reichart's short story collection titled La Valse (1992). Some of the stories return to the connection between the past and present. For example, in the opening piece, "The Sunday Roast," Reichart draws a family portrait where ritual, tradition and obedience serve to preserve the glorified myths of World War II. There is no opportunity to question past or present within this strait-jacket, no chance to express personal movement within this petrified space. The final story, "How Far Away is Mauthausen?," also thematicizes the unquestioned acceptance of the past, but here the narrator rebels. She quits her job as a guide through the concentration camp when her memorized text becomes routine, divorced from its human sacrifices and no longer shocking.

Most of the short stories take place within the family, perceived by Elisabeth Reichart as a microcosm of society, its primary socialization force. The title story portrays a daughter deformed by the endless subordination of her own needs and desires to the sexual and medical demands of her dying father. There is incipient rebellion as the daughter imagines disconnecting his life-support, but before it can be realized he dies.

The concrete event that prompted Reichart to write her next novel, Fotze (1993), was the rape and brutality against women committed daily in the war in the former Yugoslavia. The narrator inhabits a war-torn landscape, its suppression of women reflected and perpetrated above all through its language. In this novel, Reichart explores the relationship between language, sexuality, and violence. Her main character experiences first-hand the effect of the language of domination and, similar to other protagonists, seeks an alternative, a language of self-realization.

Reichart's novel documents, in both its content and form, the search for a personal as opposed to public discourse, a feminine as opposed to masculine voice. In the story, the narrator's search fails. She cannot escape the thought patterns and language structures of her society; she is too conditioned to break out of her prison and must ultimately assume contemporary discourse or fall silent. However, Reichart's own poetic language succeeds in counterbalancing the narrator's failure by playing with the syntax, meanings, progressions, and rhythms of contemporary language.

It is precisely this tension between content and form that is most interesting in Reichart's novel. It reflects the author's own belief that the language of literature is impotent, but nonetheless essential. She has stated: "Every day literature becomes more important in its powerlessness." Although the narrator fails in her attempt to find a new language, Reichart's formal play alienates and subverts reader expectation in the hope that the boundaries and dichotomies of language, mirroring societal reality, will be undermined. Through her literature, Reichart strives to open her reader's eyes to the processes of standardization, the norms to which we are subjected. With irony, exaggeration, the inclusion of dreams and fantasies, fragmentation, and lack of closure she hopes to free the reader to the discovery of alternatives, the discovery of a personal voice.

Reichart's first stage piece, Sakkorausch, which premiered at the Wiener Festwochen in May 1994, dramatizes the struggles of a woman who refused to fall silent, who continued to write in the face of complete powerlessness. The work is based on the historical Helene von Druskowitz (1856-1918) and incorporates lengthy unidentified excerpts from her writings. Von Druskowitz spurned the expectations placed upon her as a woman - she never married, earned her Ph.D. at the age of 22, and pursued a career as philosopher, literary critic, and author. She was a female Wunderkind, a contradiction in terms at the time. Since she did not fit the contemporary conception of "normal," she was judged insane and was committed at the age of 35. Von Druskowitz fascinated Reichart not only because she defied traditional gender roles, but also because even in the asylum she defined normalcy for herself, rejecting the standards and labels of others. She continued to seek her own language, to write.


Elisabeth Reichart has just completed a new novel, Nachtmär, to be published in 1995.

Dr. Linda C. DeMeritt is an Associate Professor of German and Chair of the Modern Languages Department at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA. She is currently working on a translation of La Valse into English.






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