In Remembrance of Liesl Geisler-Scharfetter

Our apparent current preoccupation with memories has a great deal to do with the last century. The 20th century will go down in history as being the bloodiest to date. Mass murder had never before been carried out with such complex sophistication: millions were victims of the brutal extermination campaigns against Jews, hundreds of thousands were victims of the campaigns against the Roma and the mentally disabled; many had to die because of religious or political convictions. There were the victims of the resistance, the executed hostages, and those who did not resist, but accepted death rather than betray their consciences. The destructive wars of the last 100 years led an unimaginable number of people – both active participants of war as well as civilians – to their deaths, leaving behind millions of widows and orphans. This highly conspicuous ‘army of dead’ was accompanied by a mountain of human suffering.

The younger present-day generation is aware of the tyranny of the Nazis only through historical documents, anecdotal evidence, and film and soundtracks. Even so, the events of that time still seem threateningly close. Children, teenagers and young adults, with a sensitive awareness of present-day barbarism, question unremittingly whether or not something similar could repeat itself.

It is indeed an encouraging sign that an increasing number of organisations, district councils and churches are deciding to erect memorials, and not only to the soldiers who went to their deaths because of a criminal regime. The names of civilian victims have also earned the honour of being brought out of anonymity, as for example that 76-year-old, partially blind woman from Linz who offered a glass of milk to a prisoner of war who was being herded along with many others through the streets; she was sent to a concentration camp and executed there. Or that nameless prisoner who refused to administer 50 lashes to a fellow inmate who had made a failed escape attempt. He was shot for this, dying with the words “I won’t beat a fellow prisoner” on his lips. It is good for our forgetful society to have made dramatically visible, on what principles a humane civilisation is, or rather should be, founded: by means of protest marches, appeals, eye-witness reports, prayer and song.

Only truthful, uncompromising reminders can spare us from the indifference of the forgetful, who no longer wish to know, or from the arrogance of the converted, who of course now know everything better.

Among the memories of those years of terror, the collective sigh of relief following that enormous horror and the reconstruction of our homeland from both the physical and mental rubble, belong those shining examples amongst us who helped keep the flame of humanity burning. One such person was the innkeeper and mother at the Krimml Tauern Lodge: Liesl Geisler-Scharfetter.

LGS

Viewed somewhat liberally, her life spanned the whole of the 20th century. Put plainly: two World Wars, the concerted insanity of mankind, the Great Depression, downturn and disintegration, both major and minor, starvation, the abandonment of women and children, and the reconstruction of our homeland out of debris, both material and spiritual. Elisabeth Unterwurzacher, from Sandbichl, married the Tauern Lodge innkeeper, Friedrich Geisler, in Salzburg Cathedral in 1932. The young couple’s two boys, Franz und Adi, were their pride and joy. But their happiness was to last only 11 years: in March 1943 Friedl was killed in a tragic accident. It was now that Liesl proved to be a truly resilient woman, who did not retreat into a a dark refuge of pain following her husband’s death, but instead mobilised her exceptional will to live, searching in a sea of darkness for that ray of light which would provide a glimmer of hope for the future. Through the loyality of her family and friends, through the comfort of her affection, she set about rebuilding her life, restoring the atmosphere that makes a home homely and precious, and helping her children get over the loss of their father. In 1946 Liesl remarried: the Ski and Mountain Guide, Bert Scharfetter.

The Krimml Tauern Lodge was established over 600 years ago as a “Transit Tavern”. How many people may have found refuge, safety and resustenance under its roof during those 6 centuries? What experiences have been recounted over the years in its wonderful old parlour: adventures lived through, secret romances, embittered tales of everyday life, disappointments and new beginnings, heroic deeds of smugglers and hunters, both real and imagined?

The true value of the Tauern Lodge was illustrated in a most dramatic and significant fashion during the time Liesl Scharfetter was the innkeeper. Soldiers from various regiments – the construction corps, air defence corps, border patrol – were all stationed here during the war and, by asserting her disarming tenacity, she always managed to successfully negotiate an acceptable co-existence between them all.

However, the the real moment of truth for her passionate humanitarian and maternal character, which reached well beyond the boundaries of her own family, came after the end of the war when following the collapse of Southern Front on 28th April 1945, Bruno Huber, the innkeeper from Rosenthal, was the first of 8,000 to 10,000 repatriates to cross the Krimml Tauern on their way home. They had chosen this specific escape route to avoid being taken prisoners of war by the French (via the Brenner route) or by the British (via Sillian in East Tyrol). Now it was time to feed and strengthen the exhausted, starving, unkempt survivors, and to protect the children from the carelessly discarded weapons and other artefacts of war which had been left strewn around. A bull was slaughtered and the soup derived from its meat provided the strength of mind and body necessary to tackle the great challenge of reconstruction which lay ahead.

1947 was the Year of the Jewish flight over the Krimml Tauern mountains. Gaunt survivors of the concentration camps were assembled in Saalfelden and transported in trucks to Krimml every other night; they camped in and around the Tauern Lodge during the day to gather strength for the crossing. The priority was to nurture them. Concentrating mainly on the infants and children, Liesl steadfastly prepared soups and other warm meals.

LGS beim Geschirrwaschen

At 3pm they set off towards the Windbach valley on the nocturnal footslog over the Krimml Tauern mountains to Kasern. From there they would continue to Genoa, where ships stood ready and waiting for the onward voyage to Palestine. 22-year-old Franz Vogl and Egon Vogl, future landlord of the Richter Lodge, would often accompany the grim trek over the Tauern with a pack horse, which would carry the babies packed in a crate.

Through a mothering instinct that surpassed all bonds of blood and kinship, Liesl Scharfetter manifested herself throughout this period as a true pillar of benevolence. Her compassion did not dissipate into a mere sentimental expression of feelings, but was instead transformed into the good deeds carried out by her gifted hands. The hub of her world was not her own grief, but rather the inconceivable physical and psychological situation of those who had gone through hell; who, with whatever joy of life remaining in them, aspired to their new homeland in Palestine.

The very fabric of our society is kept alive and well by such beacons of humanity, much more than by acclaimations and resolutions from party political conferences.

The act of remembrance must not be allowed to sink into oblivion. Oblivion alienates people from their historical past and severs them from their roots. They become unstable and lose their orientation. The thread of life loses its way. Consequently, not only do the memories of past hopes vanish but the suffering endured also becomes suppressed. He who remembers is able to focus on his own history, can cope with his personal suffering, and has no need to deny or stifle former guilt. Such reminiscences may well be painful. They are admittedly not only agonising but also have a healing effect. For in them is hidden the power of release.

It is and remains a courageous, forward-looking deed. Out of remembrance is born the future. This applies on both a universal and an individual basis. A Jewish proverb asserts: «Oblivion leads into exile; the secret of salvation is remembrance».

Peter Hofer

Dr. Peter Hofer is Professor of Theology at the University of Linz