Travel: Vienna, revisited
August 10, 2011
VIENNA, Austria – In 2003, soon after Anneliese and I were married, we flew from our Aspen home to Vienna, traveling to that colorful, ancient city on the Danube River. This was a happy visit for me on several scores – especially for my meeting my new in-laws, the Karrers, good people, as they turned out to be, all of them. Anneliese, my warm-hearted wife, has stayed close to her Austrian relatives.Back in 2003, the City of Vienna was only in the background for me, for I had more important family priorities to attend to. On my following visits with Anneliese- for we much enjoy traveling – a clearer picture of that city emerged. For me, Vienna became a city of strange contrasts – for though city held long ago a very gracious way of life – yet in 1938 Vienna had turned itself into a brutal Nazi enclave. I was further surprised to find that the today’s Vienna is an ultra modern city, full of energy and enterprise, clean and well governed, with new glass-clad towers rising everywhere. Yet as modern as Vienna has become, I could still hear – still hanging in the air – the faint echoes wafting from the far off music of long-ago Strauss waltzes.
I had a up-close contact with the old days in Vienna, oddly enough when I was a youngster, still living in Des Moines, Iowa. Occasionally, I would meet a close friend of my father, a Mr. Glayston, who was a Jewish refugee from Vienna. He had been a successful businessman in Vienna, but in 1938, he fled to the U.S.A. with his wife. They each carried only one small suitcase, their entire worldly possessions. They were deeply grateful that they had escaped the Nazi concentration camps. I would sometimes join Mr. Glayston and my father for lunch at my father’s club. Mr. Glayston, a well-mannered gentleman (he was always Mister Glayston for me) never brought up the subject of Vienna, but if I encouraged him, he would tell me a little of his life there. He had been a captain in the Austrian Army during World War I, fought on the Russian front, and, after that, owned a prosperous printing business until 1938, when the Nazis took over Austria. I said that I had heard a lot of romanticizing over Old Vienna, over the city that had existed before 1914 and World War I – about the palaces, the country estates, the beautiful women in ball gowns waltzing with dashing army officers, the city where a new symphonic masterpiece was composed every week -Old Vienna had led a whipped cream life, according to the movies. “But was any of that true?” I asked. After some thought, he said “Yes, it was a good life then, if you had money.” He smiled and said, “I once played in a string quartet with Professor Einstein, yes, at my own home in Vienna. Professor Einstein had been visiting Vienna to deliver a lecture at the University. When he was through with his presentation, his colleagues asked him if he would like to join in an amateur string quartet, for they knew that Dr. Einstein always traveled with his violin. ‘Of course,’ Einstein said, so they took him to my home, where we often had musical sessions in the evening. I still have a photograph from that evening, which I’ll bring you tomorrow.” Next day, he returned with a photo of himself, and yes, there he was with Professor Einstein, both enjoying themselves with a little night music. Another time, he told me of his encounter with the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Joseph, a meeting that took place just before the start of World War I. Mr. Glayston was looking in at an art gallery in Vienna, at a photography exhibition, when Franz Joseph walked in, accompanied by only two aides. The aides said the Emperor did not want any fuss, and that he, the Emperor, had come only to see the exhibit. Franz Joseph nodded politely to everyone, and then went on to examine the pictures.When old Mr. Glayston, that refugee from Hitler’s Vienna, spoke of Franz Joseph, he spoke with some affection, saying that Franz Joseph had treated Jews with great fairness. I’ve since found that many other Viennese still feel affection for him, too. As for my impression of the old emperor (he reigned over sixty years), it is that of man who clung hard to the old ways, yet attempted to bend these old ways to create a fairer life for each of the social classes and each of the religions in his Austro-Hungarian empire. While his reign was, I’m sure, no golden age for the poor and uneducated, yet, even for those peoples at the bottom of the social scale, life got slowly better during his reign.
During our most recent visit to Vienna in December of 2010, two close friends of ours, Dr. Martin Kazdan and his wife, Marion, flew in from Toronto to meet Anneliese and me. Marty and Marion arrived full of smiles, and eager to see Vienna. Marty Kazdan has his own Vienna connection, too – for in 1929, his parents were living in Vienna. His father, Dr. Louis Kazdan, was taking his post-graduate studies as an eye surgeon, for Vienna was then the world center of medical research. Marty says that in 1929, he was conceived in Vienna, and that he was now eager to see Vienna in full daylight. Anneliese had seen Vienna’s sights dozens of times before, so I took on the assignment of showing traditional Vienna to the Kazdans with much pleasure. While we three were visiting Vienna’s sights, Anneliese, my talented wife (whose knowledge of classical music is phenomenal), planned to take in some operas, for Vienna’s musical performances are world famous, and rightly so. First, I took Marty and Marion to the Hofburg, Franz Joseph’s Winter Palace, an immense, sprawling group of stone buildings and courtyards, containing government offices, museums, treasuries, libraries, concert halls, ballrooms, parks, and living quarters – a palace complex that still covers acres inside Vienna’s Inner Staat, Vienna’s Old City. This had been the administrative headquarters of the huge pre-1914 Austro-Hungarian Empire, which then included what are now Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, plus parts of Poland, Romania, and the Ukraine. This Hofburg Palace is still the administrative headquarters of modern Austria. I took them to the Hofburg exhibit that featured the lives of the Emperor Franz Joseph and his Empress. In this well planned but crowded exhibit, Franz Joseph was over-shadowed by his wife, the Empress Elizabeth. This Empress Elizabeth, a strikingly beautiful woman, was commonly known by her nickname of “Sisi,” and Sisi is so popular, even today, that a whole industry has sprung up making Sisi souvenirs, Sisi movies and stage plays, and writing illustrated biographies of her life. Without any question, Franz Joseph was deeply in love with Elizabeth, and he treated her very well – but she was too much a free spirit, too intelligent, and too unconventional for the stuffy and rigid court life of Vienna. Her ending was tragic. Their only son, Prince Rudolph, committed suicide in 1889, dying alongside his mistress. Then in 1898, Empress Elizabeth was stabbed on the street by the hand of a crazy anarchist. The death of this beautiful and gifted woman was, I believe, her release from a long, unhappy life. Afterward, I took our two friends, Marty and Marion, to one of the Vienna’s many coffee houses, venerable local institutions that still flourish mightily, and that are so – how shall I describe them? – so gemutlich. Gemutlich is a Vienna feeling that does not translate easily into words, but it means, approximately, an atmosphere that is charming, cozy, leisurely, and friendly – an atmosphere that makes your soul feel good. Inside, the Caf Central had vaulted ceilings held up by massive cream-colored pillars, was filled with a mellow light shining from chandeliers, and held dozens of small tables. There was the hum of quiet conversations coming from the tables, which recalled the leisurely atmosphere of former times. A waiter with a white apron led us past a glass showcase filled with luscious, creamy pastries, for in Vienna, their pastries are unique, the very best in the world. The waiter then showed us to a marble-topped table with dark brown, bentwood chairs, and left us with menus. On a wall near our table, hung huge portraits of Franz Joseph and Elizabeth.Our menus listed over a dozen different kinds of coffee, and many kinds of wine and beer. First, the Kazdans ordered coffee with schlag (whipped cream), and a glass of beer for me, while we examined our menus. I told them that, in any of the Viennese coffee houses, we could sit for hours over a single cup of coffee, while reading, writing, reflecting, trading gossip, or just watching people go by. This caf, I’ve been told, was a favorite hangout for many writers and intellectuals, and, long ago, was favored by some famous (or infamous) radicals, like Trotsky and Lenin.Martin and Marion smiled at me and paused to look around again. Then I said, “I’m hungry, so let’s order from the menu.” We picked three traditional Viennese dishes- Wiener Schnitzel, Boiled Beef in Broth, and Duck Breast. They were delicious, and, for desert, we ordered three different, superb, creamy pastries.Anneliese and I had already planned to take the Kazdans on a river cruise on the Danube. On our eight-day excursion, the four of us visited much of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and a bit of Germany, too – but that Danube cruise is a whole story in itself, and too much to relate here. I have to say, though, that I was greatly impressed by the prosperity that we saw all over Austria and in Bavarian Germany, too. Both Austria and Germany, as I learned, never gave up their manufacturing, but modernized and expanded their factories. Today, manufacturing is bringing solid prosperity to both countries, even in this troubled financial world. Here in the USA, we thought we could replace our obsolete and shutdown factories with wild paper speculations on Wall Street, but that was a foolish dream for which we are paying dearly. Soon after our returned to Vienna, Anneliese and I had to say, with much regret, good-bye, to our old friends, the Kazdans, for they had other commitments needing their early return to Toronto.
Another Jewish refugee from Vienna is my good friend, Kurt Bresnitz, who now lives in Aspen. Kurt witnessed the Nazi takeover in 1938, but he saw so many horrific events in Nazi Vienna that he still cannot bring himself to talk about all of them.After Austria’s defeat in World War I, it lost most of its territories, and Vienna became the huge capital of a tiny, shrunken, poverty-stricken Austrian Republic. The depression of 1929 hit Austria hard, and had much to do with the rise of the Austrian Nazis. On March 12, 1938, when the German army marched into Vienna, Kurt saw enormous, wildly cheering crowds greeting Hitler- for the majority of Austrians in those days were Hitler supporters. My Viennese in-laws, the Karrers, say that these Austrian Nazis were worse than the Germans. How the Viennese could have changed so much in just a few years is something that, even today, I cannot fully explain or understand. In 1938, after six months under Nazi rule, Kurt managed to escape to the USA. Kurt’s aunt and uncle in Vienna, who, tragically, could not get visas to enter the USA, committed suicide rather than be taken to a concentration camp. In 1942, Kurt volunteered for the American Army, and in 1944, he served in General Patton’s successful campaigns in France. Because Kurt was a born speaker of German, he was, later on, chosen to interview captured Nazis. Kurt was the first American to interview Herman Goering, who was, after Hitler, the top ruling Nazi. Goering soon committed suicide, to escape his inevitable conviction and execution.I will say this for most of today’s Germans, who in all fairness are the grandchildren of the guilty Nazi generation: They fully acknowledge Germany’s guilt in causing World War II, and they fully admit Germany’s guilt for the Holocaust- for the extermination of millions of Jewish men, women and children.
Unfortunately, I had to return to the States in early December to catch up on my business affairs. Anneliese was able to linger a bit longer in Vienna, visiting with her Karrer family. Since I was leaving, Anneliese’s sister, Hanne, and brother-in-law, Freddy, decided to give me a going-away dinner. Anneliese and I walked from our hotel to their nearby apartment, located in a new, very modern building. All around us, huge multistory construction cranes were hard at work, putting up more apartments – and this new, modern construction, was going on all over Vienna, unlike our slump in Aspen and the rest of our USA. The Karrer apartment was on the fourth floor. Hanne is a very hospitable housewife, and Freddy Karrer is a retired captain of steamboats on the Danube River. I chatted with Freddy in his office, while the two sisters were fixing dinner– both are notable cooks. Freddy is white-haired, has a neat Van Dyke beard, is very distinguished looking, and his office is crammed with hundreds of books on ships and naval battles. We joined the other guests in the living room – Mathias (Hannah and Freddy’s son, an MD), Petra (his attractive wife and an airline flight attendant) and their two young daughters, Amelie and Lila (exceptionally bright, exceptionally cute little girls). Both little girls rushed to Anneliese and snuggled up in her lap. Soon, we were called to dinner at the crowded family table for a traditional Austrian Christmas dinner: Soup with Leberknodel (liver dumplings); Carp (a Viennese fish specialty); Gansebraten (Roast Goose) with red cabbage and spatzle (Austrian noodles); then Viennese pastry – all served with an excellent Austrian white wine. A memorable feast. My airline trip back to the States was abominable – long lines, crowded planes, bad service, tasteless food, and lost luggage – but the recollection of that warm, friendly, cozy, gemutlich family dinner kept me feeling cheerful all the way back to Aspen.