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 MyJew­ish­Learn­ings Author Blog.

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.

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.

Pessler was deeply com­mit­ted to the defense of civ­il lib­er­ties even as Aus­tria careened into fas­cism. His pas­sion for jus­tice is reflect­ed in his own account of the tri­als, Ein Bild des Prozess­es” (“A Pic­ture of the Pro­ceed­ings”), pub­lished in a paper­back vol­ume called Der Fall Hals­mann, issued in 1931 by the Aus­tri­an League for Human Rights. (The Aus­tri­an League was a sis­ter orga­ni­za­tion of the French League for the Defense of Human Rights, which had 20 years ear­li­er defend­ed the Jew Alfred Drey­fus fol­low­ing his indict­ment and false con­vic­tion in Paris.) After the sec­ond ver­dict, Pessler con­tin­ued to fight on Philippe’s behalf for legal redress, and he took part in the effort to obtain a par­don from Chan­cel­lor Johann Schober.

The tri­als affect­ed him on a per­son­al lev­el, as well. He writes in Der Fall Hals­mann, pp. 90 – 91:

[Philippe] left prison as a bro­ken man. His impris­on­ment has result­ed in a lung infir­mi­ty. His engi­neer­ing stud­ies have been inter­rupt­ed and sub­se­quent­ly cut off. Who can right all the wrongs he has suf­fered? Even if we suc­ceed in bring­ing anoth­er tri­al to court, and prove his inno­cence beyond a doubt, the years of impris­on­ment and the hor­ri­ble accu­sa­tions have tak­en their toll.

We must learn for the future to be care­ful with any tri­al based on cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence. In any such future case we must remem­ber Philipp Halsman.

Philippe, in turn, felt he would nev­er for­get his attor­ney. In a let­ter to Ruth Römer dat­ed Jan­u­ary 28, 1930, Philippe writes: “[Dr. Pessler] sat down on the table and began to weep…. I will nev­er for­get how much [his tears] moved me, and how much I loved him the moment he wiped the table dry.”

After the Anschluss with Ger­many, Pessler ran afoul of the Nazis; he was sent to the Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp as a polit­i­cal pris­on­er on May 31, 1938 and was not released until almost a year lat­er, on April 22, 1939. Accord­ing to the Tirol­er Lan­desarchiv, he’d been added to the Nazis’ Schwarzen Liste,” or Black List, because in 1938 he served as pub­lic defend­er for Friedrich Wurnig, an SS offi­cer who was tried for mur­der; Pessler lost the case and Wurnig was exe­cut­ed. Short­ly after Pessler’s intern­ment at Dachau, his wife moved to Eggen­berg. He sur­vived the war and died in the same year as did his for­mer client Philippe Hals­man: 1979.

Austin Rat­ners first book, The Jump Artist, is now available.

Austin Rat­ner is author of the nov­els In the Land of the Liv­ing and The Jump Artist, win­ner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, and the non-fic­tion book The Psychoanalyst’s Aver­sion to Proof. He is an M.D., stud­ied at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, and he teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Sack­ett Street Writ­ers’ Work­shop in New York.