Author Archives: Austin Ratner

Righting Wrongs

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Ealier this week, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches and patricide, photography, and Audrey Hepburn. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

It goes against my convictions as a novelist to characterize any person as either a demon or a hero; human nature isn’t so simple.  It’s the fascist psyche that adores such black-and-white categories: good or bad, Aryan or Jew, friend or enemy, worthy of life or of extermination.  But even in a psychologically mature piece of fiction, there are protagonists and antagonists and what divides them from one another in The Jump Artist is precisely their degree of maturity of thought—i.e., their ability or inability to think in a nuanced, non-binary way.  Karl Meixner, a fascist, had a lot of trouble thinking that way.  Philippe Halsman’s attorney in the second trial, by contrast, refused to see the world in the polarized terms that would later dominate the politics of Grossdeutschland.

In the first trial, Philippe had been defended by a famous Jewish attorney from Vienna named Richard Pressburger.  The proceedings lasted just three days and presented little evidence against Philippe, but the jury convicted him with just as little deliberation.  “After hardly a half an hour,” a major Vienna paper reported, “the jury foreman pronounces the verdict: the accused is guilty of murder, with nine against three votes.” (Arbeiter Zeitung, “A Wrong Verdict in Innsbruck? A Half-hour Consultation,” December 17, 1928.)  By the second trial on appeal, the Halsman family understood the extent of local prejudices against outsiders.  When the family hired the defense team for the second trial, they sought out local Gentiles to represent Philippe.  The new attorneys were Innsbruckers Paul Mahler and Franz Pessler.

Pessler was born May 13, 1893 in Linz (an Austrian city halfway between Vienna and Salzburg).  Halsman describes Pessler as “a very interesting person, a former Jesuit student,” in a letter dated March 23, 1929.  He was a veteran of the First World War, described as “young, daring” in Die Wahrheit, a Vienna newspaper, on September 20, 1929.  Pessler married a Viennese woman named Martha Lodenbauer, with whom he lived in Innsbruck at 29 Anichstrasse.  According to the records in the Tiroler Landesarchiv (Geschäftszahl TLA-0509/1720-2006), they had no children.

Pessler was deeply committed to the defense of civil liberties even as Austria careened into fascism.  His passion for justice is reflected in his own account of the trials, “Ein Bild des Prozesses” (“A Picture of the Proceedings”), published in a paperback volume called Der Fall Halsmann, issued in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights.  (The Austrian League was a sister organization of theFrench League for the Defense of Human Rights, which had 20 years earlier defended the Jew Alfred Dreyfus following his indictment and false conviction in Paris.)  After the second verdict, Pessler continued to fight on Philippe’s behalf for legal redress, and he took part in the effort to obtain a pardon from Chancellor Johann Schober.

The trials affected him on a personal level, as well.  He writes in Der Fall Halsmann, pp. 90-91:

[Philippe] left prison as a broken man.  His imprisonment has resulted in a lung infirmity.  His engineering studies have been interrupted and subsequently cut off.  Who can right all the wrongs he has suffered?  Even if we succeed in bringing another trial to court, and prove his innocence beyond a doubt, the years of imprisonment and the horrible accusations have taken their toll.

We must learn for the future to be careful with any trial based on circumstantial evidence.  In any such future case we must remember Philipp Halsman.

Philippe, in turn, felt he would never forget his attorney.  In a letter to Ruth Römer dated January 28, 1930, Philippe writes: “[Dr. Pessler] sat down on the table and began to weep…. I will never forget how much [his tears] moved me, and how much I loved him the moment he wiped the table dry.”

After the Anschluss with Germany, Pessler ran afoul of the Nazis; he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp as a political prisoner on May 31, 1938 and was not released until almost a year later, on April 22, 1939.  According to the Tiroler Landesarchiv, he’d been added to the Nazis’ “Schwarzen Liste,” or Black List, because in 1938 he served as public defender for Friedrich Wurnig, an SS officer who was tried for murder; Pessler lost the case and Wurnig was executed.  Shortly after Pessler’s internment at Dachau, his wife moved to Eggenberg.  He survived the war and died in the same year as did his former client Philippe Halsman: 1979.

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is now available.

Posted on April 15, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Patricide, Photography, and Audrey Hepburn

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On Monday, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

People who have read The Jump Artist sometimes ask me what’s fact and what’s fiction. My answer is that it’s all fiction, but it’s fiction that incorporates as many facts as I could uncover and reasonably include. Years of research yielded certain results that tested me as a fiction writer—and none more so than those concerning Karl Meixner. To write about him truthfully was to risk caricature or cliché. Did he really keep Max Halsmann’s head in a jar? Lest anyone think I invented him and his bizarre activities with human remains, here are some of the historical facts I uncovered about him:

Meixner was a professor of pathology at the Institute for Juridical Medicine in Innsbruck and an expert witness in the Halsmann trials. Defense attorney Franz Pessler’s account of the trial in Der Fall Halsmann points to Meixner as one of the most spirited advocates for Halsmann’s conviction. In turn, Meixner was a focus of opprobrium from academics all over Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. He published impassioned defenses of himself and of his reasons for condemning Halsmann.

He has a convincing record as a fascist and an anti-Semite. Before joining the medical faculty at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner had been an active member of Vienna’s openly anti-Semitic fraternity, Burschenschaft Olympia. And in 1946, when the war was over, Meixner was recommended for forced retirement by the “investigation committee” of the University of Innsbruck because of his reputation as a “radical Nazi.” (See Oberkofler, Gerhard and Peter Goller, Die Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck: Faschistische Realität [1938] and Kontinuität unter postfaschistischen Bedingungen [1945], Eine Dokumentation, Innsbruck: Universität Innsbruck, 1999, p. 121.)

There is also convincing evidence of his transgressions against medical ethics. According to Oberkofler and Goller, directors of the University of Innsbruck archives, Meixner received a Nazi decree titled “Re.: Transfer of Corpses of the Executed to the Institutes of Anatomy” and affirmed it with his signature on March 18, 1939 (Oberkofler and Goller, pp. 12-14). The decree dictated that the corpses of Nazi prisoners executed without trial and then denied burial rites be delivered to Austrian universities for scientific use.

There is no data on how many corpses were transferred to the University of Innsbruck medical school under the decree sent to Meixner (and to a couple of others on the medical faculty). Nor is it known what may have been done with such corpses. However, it is well known that the Nazi policy on executed prisoners was exploited significantly at the University of Vienna. A University of Vienna inquiry, made at the behest of Yad Vashem, revealed in 1998 that Dr. Eduard Pernkopf acquired 1400 cadavers from Nazi executions for his anatomic studies. Pernkopf had been an active member of the Nazi party since 1933, and in the original editions of his world-famous anatomy text, his artists signed their names with swastikas and SS symbols.

Staff at Yad Vashem informed me that their correspondence with the University of Innsbruck on this subject will remain classified under Israeli law until 2020. It will be interesting to see what other non-consensual uses of human remains belong to Karl Meixner’s curriculum vitae; he certainly demonstrated significant credentials along these lines during the Halsman trials. According to newspaper reports, Meixner had Philippe Halsman’s father’s head separated from his body and, over the defense’s formal protests, he kept it in a jar at the Institute as a specimen. “I had repeatedly requested that the head of Max Halsmann be released for burial,” Franz Pessler writes on p. 76 of his essay on the trial, published in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights. Meixner displayed the head to Franz Pessler before the second trial and again to the jury during the second trial. See Pessler, pp. 53, 76-77. (For photographs of the severed head, see Meixner, “Lehren des Halsmannprozesses,” Beitrage zur gerichtlichen Medizin, Vol. 10, 1930, pp. 62-76, and Heindl, “Der Mordprozeß Halsmann,” Archiv für Kriminologie, Vol. 92, No. 5/6, Jun 1933, pp. 185-188.)

Max Halsmann’s head remained there in formaldehyde until 1991, according to an article in November of that year in The Jerusalem Report. (See Wise, Michael Z., “Vienna’s Dreyfus Case,” Jerusalem Report, Nov 21, 1991. p. 4.) It appears Max Halsmann’s head was part of a collection audrey hepburn halsmanof body parts and dead animals which Meixner had carefully tended and stocked. “In his capacity as morphologist, Meixner gave particular attention to the completion of the Juridical Medicine Museum, pushing for an expansion of its collection. Meixner also achieved the expansion of the Institute itself by establishing a facility for animals and a workshop.” (From Hundert Jahre Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck 1869 bis 1969, p. 273. You can also find Karl Meixner’s face in this volume, pictured in plate no. 43. In 100 years of faculty photographs at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner is the only doctor of medicine to sit for a formal indoor portrait with his hat on. He glowers like a B-movie police inspector.)

Meixner died on March 6, 1955, just 4 months before Philippe Halsman would make his 75th Life Magazine cover, a photograph of Audrey Hepburn on her farm in Rome under a pair of white doves.

Posted on April 13, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

As Jewish as a Hillel Sandwich

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Austin Ratner’s first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

When I learned about Philippe Halsman ’s life story and determined I would write a novel about him (The Jump Artist, 2011 winner of the Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature), I was struck by the contradictions he embodied. Here was a man whom history had ensnared in a frightful way—at the age of 22, he was falsely accused of murdering his father in anti-Semitic western Austria, and he served two years in prison, where he attempted suicide and almost died of tuberculosis. At the same time, here was a man who re-emerged in New York in the 1940s as a photographer—one whose work expressed the playfulness and optimism of post-war life in America on the covers of Life magazine. Halsman himself was by all accounts a secular Jew, but his story and his work are as Jewish as a Hillel sandwich, and represent almost as neatly the opposite poles of pain and joy that define the Jewish historical experience.

It’s clear that the events of Halsman’s twenties shaped and scarred him, and in a permanent way. In a 1995 interview with Einstein biographer Denis Brian, Philippe’s wife Yvonne Halsman said of the “Austrian Dreyfus Affair” of 1928, “It was a suffering for him for the rest of his life. And for his mother and sister and for all of us.” But it’s also clear that he became an astute observer of people, their psyches, and their torment, and turned pain into art, sometimes with a Kafkaesque sense of humor. He collaborated often with Salvador Dali.

Calling himself the discoverer of “Jumpology,” he also compelled hundreds of subjects to jump in the air for his camera—everyone from Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe to Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Nixon. He wrote in his 1959 Jump Book, “The roots of my discovery reach into my early childhood. I was born with an intense interest in jumping…. I could run, jump and turn over in the air.” He delighted in jumping throughout his life and in photographing others in the act of jumping. “Everybody hides behind a mask,” Halsman writes. “In a jump the subject, in a sudden burst of energy, overcomes gravity. He cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial and his limb muscles. The mask falls. The real self becomes visible. One has only to snap it with the camera.”

Upon photographing the great jurist Learned Hand, then aged 87, jumping off the ground, Halsman concluded that jumping was, among other things, a revolt against death and despair. Halsman, like the Jewish people at different points in their history, found a way to rise above his hardships, as if by an act of magic levitation. As a writer and as a Jew, I found his story irresistible.

Come back all week to read Austin Ratner’s posts. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Posted on April 11, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy