January 21, 2019

A Father’s Day gift of justice

If you ever visit the Vienna campus of Wirtschafts University Wien (WU), one of Europe’s most prestigious universities, you will see a translucent metal sculpture in the shape of a globe, which prominently features the names of 150 Jews. I got to hear the story of that dramatic monument the other day in a little apartment in Pico-Robertson, where Ilse Nusbaum, a feisty 81-year-old grandmother, has been fighting for years for some justice for her father, Karl Lowy.

In 1938, Lowy was a doctoral candidate in economics at WU; he submitted his dissertation in January and expected to receive his degree in June. Instead, he was among the 150 Jewish students expelled from the school immediately after Austria’s annexation into Nazi Germany that March.

The Lowy family was one of the lucky ones, as they were able to get visas to come to the United States. Lowy started over in Detroit, penniless and taking odd jobs, such as unloading crates in a warehouse. To support his family, he went back to school and learned accounting, but the memory of his lost dissertation never left him. He had planned to return to Vienna in the autumn of 1970 to learn its fate, but he suffered a heart attack and never made it.

Meanwhile, Karl’s daughter, Ilse, was going through her own tragic shifts. After studying creative writing in college in the hope of becoming a published author, her husband passed away suddenly. Left alone to raise three young daughters, she had to find work, which she did at a center for people with disabilities.

Her interest in her father’s lost dissertation was muted at first. What intrigued her most was the general trauma of her family’s past. In 1953, while studying at Radcliffe, Ilse traveled to Austria to uncover her roots and, while there, learned about the suffering of many members of her extended family. Amid all this darkness, a lost dissertation seemed insignificant.

This changed after her mother passed away in 2008 and Ilse began to go through old documents. She found something her mother wrote about her deceased father’s lifetime regret: 

“From his viewpoint, even worse than losing his job was losing his doctor of philosophy degree in economics, which he was scheduled to receive in June. He expected that having the doctorate would make our family’s future more secure no matter where we landed.” 

Motivated by her father’s pain, she grew determined to find out what happened to his diploma. 

Sifting through boxes of documents, she found a copy of his application to defend the dissertation, but she still needed its actual title. By then, she had become a self-described “Internet junkie,” so, after months of online sleuthing, she found the title indexed in a bibliography on the history and culture of wine. 

This led her to a friendly librarian in Vienna, who agreed to send her a photocopy of the dissertation. Without missing a beat, she emailed the librarian: “Thank you — don’t you think it would be nice if the school gave him a posthumous doctorate?”

Getting an answer to that question began another chapter in her long saga, with countless emails, phone calls and even a visit to Vienna. She couldn’t convince the school’s administrators that her father’s diploma had been unfairly taken from him. But their tone changed when they did their own investigation and found this statement written on the original copy of Karl Lowy’s dissertation: 

“Denied. Jews cannot be admitted to a doctoral defense.”

This discovery vindicated her long fight and won her sympathy from the school, but, unfortunately, the school’s policy was that it couldn’t award a doctorate if the dissertation wasn’t defended. What to do?

Enter University Rector Christoph Badelt, an Austrian professor with a big heart, who was moved by Nusbaum’s story. So moved, in fact, that he decided to turn the dark, hidden episode from the school’s past into a public demonstration of honest self-reflection and reconciliation.

At the school’s expense, he launched a commemorative project to honor all the Jews expelled from the school in 1938. The initiative included a comprehensive research project on the expulsions, with the results published in a booklet and on a Web site, in addition to a public contest to design the memorial sculpture. To honor her father, Nusbaum was there for the launch event in May 2014. 

As fate would have it, she also saw her father’s name honored last week at a graduation ceremony at UCLA. The name Karl Lowy was on a dedication page for another doctoral dissertation on economics, this one written by none other than Ilse Nusbaum’s grandson.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.