Der Wein des Vergessens (The Wine of Oblivion), written in German, may be the first book published that deals with the wine industry in Nazi Austria. In general, there is only scant literature about the German and Austrian wine industry during the Nazi regime, 1933–1945. Only in recent years have a few authors shed some light on various aspects of the Third Reich’s wine policies, particularly on the role of the German-Jewish wine trade. Daniel Deckers, editor of the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, was one of the first, who, in his outstanding German language book Im Zeichen des Traubenadlers. Eine Geschichte des deutschen Weins (Deckers, 2010), devotes more than 40 of 220 pages to the wine industry in Nazi Germany.1 From the book, as well as from a few subsequent articles (Deckers, 2012, 2017), we learn that up to 60% of the German wine trade, particularly the wine export, during the 1930s was handled by German-Jewish businesses. However, starting in the early 1930s, Jewish wine traders and brokers were harassed, denounced as wine adul- terators and currency scammers, and finally pushed out of their businesses.2 Most did not survive the Holocaust; the “lucky” ones left Germany, moved to the United States or the United Kingdom, and often successfully rekindled new wine businesses. Emigrants such as Max Fromm, Alfred Langenbach, Otto Loeb, S.F. Hallgarten, or Peter Sichel, the man behind Liebfraumilch Blue Nun, are also known as authors of authoritative books about German wine. Peter Sichel’s autobi- ography provides an excellent account of the life of a Jewish wine merchant before, during, and after WWII (Sichel, 2016).
In the fall of 2018, after Bernhard Herrman and Robert Streibel published The Wine of Oblivion, Austria’s wine world was in turmoil. Even in Germany and Switzerland, The Wine of Oblivion made it to prime-time news. In essence, the book argues that one of Austria’s largest wine producer, Winzer Krems Sandgrube 13 in Krems (Wachau), is an aryanized business, illegally taken from a Jewish wine merchant and his gay lover in 1938.
The fact that this had been forgotten for more than 80 years is amazing. Even a recent book, devoted to the history of wine in Krems (Frühwirth, 2005), does not mention the aryanization and, instead, honors local farmers’ chief Franz Aigner as the “founder of the wine cooperative” (p. 135) Winzer Krems Sandgrube 13— the winery he supposedly “bought” from Paul Robitschek.
The book, written as a historical novel, was conceived when one of the authors, Bernhard Herrman, found a trove of documents, letters, photos, and footage in an inherited house in Styria. The documents tell the story of the Jewish businessman Paul Robitschek and his lover August Rieger. It is the story of a wealthy Viennese wine merchant and the life of a gay couple in glamorous pre-Nazi Vienna. Robitschek and his mother Johanna owned several wine cellars, wineries, and vine- yards in Austria—one of which was Sandgrube 13 in Krems. In 1938, in an increas- ingly hostile climate towards Jews (and homosexuals), Robitschek sold the winery to his partner Rieger. The sales agreement was written under Austrian law, when Nazi approval was not yet required for the sale of Jewish property. However, several local Nazi leaders, notably Franz Aigner, the local Bauernführer (farmers’ chief) quickly challenged the contract exploiting the (illegal) homosexuality of Rieger, the new legal owner. After a short but intense bureaucratic battle, Rieger and Robitschek lost the winery; the Nazi administration handed it to the local cooperative.
Supported by various friends including a Nazi police chief, Robitschek escaped to Italy, and, after being interned in France, fled to Venezuela where he launched another successful wine business. His mother Johanna died in a Nazi concentration camp. And despite some trials and tribulations among others with the Gestapo (secret state police), August Rieger survived the war in Vienna. In 1949, Winzergenossenschaft Krems and Robitschek settled the sale for a final payment of 600,000 Austrian schillings, and the story was forgotten thereafter.
Aside from the fact that The Wine of Oblivion is a captivating read from the first page to the last, it also provides an excellent and detailed account of an aryanization process in the wine industry; a topic that has received little or no attention. In addi- tion, without this book, nobody would have remembered—and all would have been forgotten. Instead, Winzer Krems Sandgrube 13 wants to find out more about its own roots and commissioned three historians, including Herrman and Streibel, to compile all relevant historical documents.