, Salem, MA

March 31, 2010

Family history sparks dissertation on Nazis in Vienna

By Sylvia Rosen

BEVERLY — Last week, Ilana Offenberger, 31, defended her doctoral dissertation on Nazi crimes against Jews in Vienna, a subject that has personal meaning for the Beverly resident.

Offenberger's journey began in 1998 when she was studying abroad at Salzburg College in Austria. A school trip to Vienna brought her to the city where her great-grandparents had lived. Offenberger learned a lot more than she anticipated when she found herself standing in the "Archiv der Republik" holding financial documents, signed by her great-grandfather and stamped with a swastika. The papers documented all her great-grandfather's assets.

Offenberger said that in 1938, there was a violent storm of anti-Semitism unleashed against the Jews in Vienna. Within a couple of months, there was a specific order that the wealthier Jews were to register their assets with the Nazi government.

"They had to list everything they owned, from real estate all the way down to the Persian rugs," she said. "Only to have the Nazis take it all away."

Four years after the Nazi takeover, her great-grandparents, Berta and Heinrich Offenberger, were left with nothing. Berta was eventually deported to the extermination camp Maly Trostinets outside Minsk, and Heinrich died of heart failure in Vienna.

Their son, Dr. Fritz Offenberger, had been sent to Dachau in May 1938 but was released in December. He immediately fled to London and then the U.S.

Learning about her family's history inspired Offenberger, who's lived in Beverly the past 20 years, to research more on the persecution of Jews in Vienna. Her dissertation, "The Nazification of Vienna and the Response of the Viennese Jews," was part of her studies in the Holocaust History and Genocide Studies program at Clark University. The program gave her the chance to go abroad and do research in countries like Austria and Germany and numerous concentration camps. She was also granted a nine-month fellowship to research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

"She had an exemplary work ethic," said Deborah Dwork, Offenberger's dissertation adviser. "She was committed to finishing it."

According to Dwork, the program is the only one in the country that offers a Ph.D. in Holocaust studies.

"We educate about genocide in order to eradicate," she said. "The understanding is that if we understand that process better we will understand how to intervene or prevent."

The Ph.D. means more to Offenberger than a typical graduate student. It will make her the third "Dr. Offenberger" in her family, her grandfather who escaped from Vienna being the first.

"I feel so honored that I was able to tell the story," she said. "It has been an amazing experience."