Great Grandmother Gets Presidential Hug

“You are an inspiration to all of us, a symbol of triumph and heroism”

By Yossi Aloni | | Topics: Holocaust
Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

Karen, the great-granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Susie Gutman (91), works at the official President’s Residence in Jerusalem. When Karen learned that President Reuven Rivlin was traveling to Vienna to attend a ceremony at the city’s Holocaust memorial, she sent a request to look in on her aging great grandmother as she hadn’t heard from her in a while.

Karen asked that the president be told of her great-grandmother who had fled the horrors of the war in the city, escaped to hiding in Shanghai, and returned to Vienna to reestablish her life together with the local Jewish community.

Upon hearing of the request, President Rivlin immediately asked that Susie be invited to the ceremony at the Austrian president’s residence, where he met her and excitedly told her: “Your great-granddaughter Karen sent me to make sure you were ok Uma Susie (grandmother in Austrian). You are an inspiration to all of us, a symbol of the triumph of spirit and heroism over evil and darkness.”

Susie was only eight at the time of her escape from the war, her parents’ only child. The three lived in Temple Palace, Vienna, right next to the Great Synagogue until November 9, 1938.

On that cold and terrible Thursday night, almost every Jewish institution throughout the Third Reich was destroyed, burned, or desecrated. On this day, her father was deported to the Dachau concentration camp and her family’s apartment was taken by her caregiver, leaving her and her mother destitute. Susie says that to this day she cannot forget the smell of the Great Synagogue burning down.

She fled with her mother to Shanghai, where they lived in the local ghetto for a decade. At the end of the war the Guttman family returned to Vienna. Susie met her late husband, a survivor of the Auschwitz camp, who returned to look for his family, which had survived almost entirely.

Eighty years have passed since then and Uma Susie has waved her private victory flag raising generations with dozens of descendants. Another circle closed for her when one of Susie’s grandchildren, the head of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community in Vienna, Rabbi Aryeh Bauer, accidentally discovered the remains of a synagogue destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht.

The remains were discovered by chance during the renovation of a Torah study hall built on its ruins. Rabbi Bauer and his men were called to the scene and trembled at the sight of the moving findings, among which were torn siddurs (prayer books) and chumashim (Pentateuch), burnt pages torn from the siddurs, memorial plaques, wall remains and even a sink with rusty cups of water that were used for ceremonial hand washing.

After the spectacular discovery an exciting ceremony was held in the community with the participation of then-Austrian Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein, who delivered the original “Never Again” speech. The sacred finds were moved to the Hofburg Palace, where an exhibition was held in front of the terrace on which Hitler once spoke.

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