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.

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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.

Posted on April 15, 2011

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