The Austrian Gambit

As the son of Holocaust survivors I had vowed never to enter Austria.

The Austrian Gambit
(Lily Prince)

Our train wound its way through the north of Italy, bound for Austria. This particular train was part of the Austrian, not Italian, rail system, and true to form, the train was punctual and its progression orderly: a contrast to its Italian counterpart, where departing trains could change their designated tracks without warning, necessitating a mad dash to the other end of the terminal.

As this train continued its northbound route, the cheery, sunny Italian landscape slowly gave way to hillier terrain that grew hillier still. The Mediterranean architecture—the cheery, expansive Italian domiciles—morphed into the less whimsical, more squat variant. The mountains became increasingly prevalent: the dramatic, snow-capped peaks of the Alps, clouds drifting over the tops and sides and wrapping around the horizon.

We were traveling through the Dolomites. The Dolomites, long a part of Austria, were ceded to Italy after the First World War. Knowing this added a great deal of context. Kaiserwasser, for example, the uber-Teutonic mineral water served at our Venice hotel—label emblazoned with an imposing imperial eagle—was a product of the Italian Dolomites.

The train stations, now, were delineated in both Italian and German; the passengers who came on board were of a more light-complexioned strain then their southern Italian counterparts.

(Lily Prince)

The intent of this essay was to gauge the reaction of a son of Holocaust survivors—me—on this, my first journey to a German-speaking land.  I’d vowed never to enter Germany and, by extension, Austria: historic fount of anti-Semitism, birthplace of Adolph Hitler, Nazi expansionism’s disingenuous “first victim.” But the first thing I was forced to confront on this train ride was the essential hollowness of that vow. A vow implied that over the years I’d been barraged with exhortations to come to Germany and had dramatically refused. That was complete nonsense. Quite properly, I’d never really refused to enter Germany or Austria: The situation had simply never come up.

I couldn’t help but remember a long-ago Hebrew-school teacher’s ominous account: By dint of some unavoidable travel logistics, she had been forced against all instincts to ride on a train that passed through Germany. All was well, she related, until the train began making its stops and she soon began to hear the harsh cadences of German all around her. And then the journey became unbearable.

I was now riding a train that had entered what was, de facto, Austrian territory. In a short time we would be ensconced in the resort town of St. Wolfgang in Austria proper.  And the train’s linguistic composition had indeed changed; like my teacher, I was hearing German all around me. Soon I would be hearing German everywhere. The first signs were hopeful: I was not filled with either fear or revulsion.

The original intent of this essay—my reactions vis-à-vis the Holocaust—completely evaporated. During my subsequent stay in Austria there was no discomfort or psychic trauma, nor was there the opposite reaction: suddenly gaining insights into the nature of healing and acceptance. None of these were factors.

It was impossible, of course, to be completely oblivious during our stay in Austria. Once or twice I saw the word aktion used in advertisements. The word—innocuous in and of itself– simply means “action,” but aktion in the context of the Second World War was the term for the sudden, lethal Nazi incursions into Jewish areas of Eastern Europe. In Salzburg, where we rode the city buses, the word anschluss could be ascertained when the driver announced the various stops. In this particular context, it meant connections to other buses and not, of course, the historical event from the 1930s. But this was episodic unpleasantness.

A visit to Austria juxtaposed with impressions culled from my distinctive family background would have made, I’d hoped, for interesting reading. But the main essay topic failed to show up.

(Lily Prince)

Rather than any Nazi overtones, the initial, visceral impression of St. Wolfgang was of its striking similarities to the United States. This was all the more pronounced coming from Italy, a country that bore almost no similarities, striking or otherwise, to the United States. (Except in its politics: both Italy and the United States had a shared penchant for media-savvy, demagogic plutocrats.)

Austria, to be sure, was stunningly distinctive. The landscape was dotted with churches that seemed onion-domed, as if the country was a Greek Orthodox enclave. The Alps immediately cast their spell: a formidable, seemingly impassible barrier that ringed the terrain. These mountains connoted something entirely different than American mountains ranges. They seemed foreboding, a place of secrets.

But the less dramatic vistas—the Austrian terrain that was simply hilly–were reminiscent of the United States. The peoples’ bearing, carriage, and complexion seemed very American. Minus the language, most of the denizens of St. Wolfgang could have passed for residents of a small town in Minnesota.

St. Wolfgang’s gift shops sold wares almost identical to the American variant: wall plaques with pithy maxims or humorous mottos  (albeit, of course, in German). Likewise the knick-knacks, souvenirs, and candy shops. My visceral reaction was one of comfort: the comfort of familiar surroundings. Those feelings made me slightly uneasy, as if I was collaborating in some way.

Austria was once a great empire, which seems like restating the obvious. But the concept of Austria as an imperial force has largely been forgotten in the United States. Accounts of facing the Austrians in battle and even the very term Austria-Hungary sound intrinsically arcane.

Eastern Europe—the former domains of the Hapsburg Empire—was all around. There were trucks from the Czech Republic and Croatia chugging down the Austrian highways; signs that pointed the way to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. Soviet troops, not American or British forces, first entered Vienna in 1945. It is difficult for Americans to imagine Austria as a major component in the geopolitical order, a site of Cold War intrigue.

The Hapsburgs were benign in regard to their Jewish subjects. My family, until the end of the First World War, lived in Hapsburg-governed Poland. The Austrian emperor Franz Joseph’s son and heir, Rudolf, had committed suicide, which made it into song—a song my grandfather learned as a schoolboy and could still remember, decades and decades later. My grandmother, as a young girl in the First World War, was terrified of approaching Russian troops. German-speaking rule represented security.

(Lily Prince)

Breakfast and dinner at the St. Wolfgang hotel was served in a punctual manner: the dining began and ended at set times. There was no bending of the rules. When the allotted time for the breakfast buffet came to an end, the food and utensils were smoothly removed. Perhaps this is one reason why quirkiness in the midst of such a staid culture was especially funny—much funnier than in Italy, where the incongruous often merited no attention whatsoever. The unexpected discovery of the unofficial Mongolian consulate in Salzburg, for example, felt out of context simply because the locale was Salzburg. Nobody would have found it all that odd to suddenly come across the unofficial Mongolian consulate in Rome or Venice. In Austria it felt humorous.

And the German language, to American ears, could sound intrinsically funny. This is a lowbrow, puerile statement, but it’s also an honest sentiment. The words wiener schnitzel, in and of itself, are funny. There was a reason, when I was growing up, that kids latched onto the word heinie. (Kids and Frank Zappa: My car is fast/My teeth is shiny/I tell all the girls they can kiss my heinie—“Bobby Brown”)

On this trip to Austria, rather than think profound thoughts, I noticed signage with the word schmuck and German words that contained farte.

At the St. Wolfgang hotel, there existed a television channel devoted entirely to The Sound of Music. One would have expected this more of Salzburg, the actual home of the von Trapp family, but it was here that the film was broadcast over and over and could be viewed throughout the day and night, entirely out of sequence: The wedding of Maria and Captain von Trapp. “My Favorite Things.” Nuns. The impending Nazi takeover. The wedding of Maria and Captain von Trapp again.

And it was at this St. Wolfgang hotel where I experienced my first-ever bout of vertigo, waking up, getting out of bed, and promptly collapsing to the floor. This might have been possible karmic retribution for having treated this journey in too much of a light-hearted manner: comfortable enough to have ruminated on the popularity of the word heinie.

Salzburg, the historic home of Mozart, is a small, wonderfully accessible city with an international resonance. From the city center one could gaze out at the nearby mountains—a startling juxtaposition of urban and natural.

The von Trapp family resided here. Many of The Sound of Music’s identifiable locales were not actually shot in Salzburg proper, but a short distance away. The scenes that were shot in Salzburg, such as the famous fountain where Maria and the von Trapp brood sang “Do-Re-Mi,” were easily located and, not surprisingly, a touristic mecca. Sound of Music bus tours could be easily booked from the city’s center. The real von Trapp villa—which did not actually appear in the movie—was now a strikingly beautiful, high-priced guest house. Von Trapp memorabilia, interesting in and of itself from a basic historical perspective, were scattered over the walls. The guest house’s suites were named after von Trapp family members. There was a special von Trapp DVD for sale. For guests in need of after-hours sustenance, a vending machine was on the premises. There was something slightly crass about the whole endeavor.

Salzburg’s main touristic thrust, even more than the family von Trapp, was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His name was attached to one thing after another. One could eat Mozart chocolates and garb oneself in Mozart T-shirts. For some reason, this all felt benign, as opposed to exploitive.

The morning found us at a thoroughly average, overpriced eatery adjoining a bus stop on one of Salzburg’s utilitarian main drags. There was certainly nothing named for Mozart in this part of Salzburg, which felt—again—strikingly American, lined as it was with generic-looking businesses and a car lot just across the street. The American version, though, would have no doubt been slightly grubbier, with a McDonald’s or Subway a few doors down.

While ensconced over our breakfast and trying to decipher the city’s bus schedule, a vibrant, cheery older woman and her daughter, seated at a nearby table and evidently overhearing our confusion, suddenly appeared in our midst. In perfect English they offered their local expertise and we began, as travelers do, to chat. Some stray comment I made—perhaps about visiting the synagogue in Verona, Italy—brought on a knowing look from the mother. “I thought as much,” she told me. I braced myself for a dose of unfiltered, classic European anti-Semitism: something along the lines of money-lending or well-poisoning. The reality, of course, was precisely the opposite. This was Mrs. Cordell, whose now-late husband was American. For years, the family lived in Washington, D.C. There was another daughter permanently ensconced in the States, married to an American man—Jewish, as it turned out.

Then Mrs. Cordell quite unexpectedly and generously invited us to her domicile that evening for tea. And so, at day’s end, as the Salzburg air grew steadily chillier, we made ourselves at home in a well-heated, inviting bastion of culture: an abundance of artwork and books, a piano in the corner, which our musical twelve-year-old daughter was urged to take advantage of.

The table was laden with an array of cakes, breads, biscuits, jams, butter: an elaborate English tea with the inflections of Central Europe. Mrs. Cordell’s father not only knew Captain von Trapp, but actually sang with him in the same musical ensemble.

The conversation, quite naturally, turned to the then-ongoing U.S. election, the rise of Trump, and the broader political canvas—in Europe, in the United States– of increasing xenophobia and the resurgence of the far right. These disturbing nativist tendencies abounded in Austria. There were immigrants in Salzburg and throughout the country. Mrs. Cordell’s domestic helper, who was assisting at the table and in the kitchen, came from Serbia in the 1990s.

And yet in the 1970s Austria had a Jewish chancellor, Bruno Kreisky. This was a paradox I had no real interest in deciphering, being perpetually unable to make any sort of sense of the American body politic, much less the Austrian.

Concluding thoughts?

Refusing to set foot in Germany and, by extension, Austria—as minute a part of my mental constellation as it might have been—was at least a constant. And now this constant was gone, which was liberating and disorienting both. I’m intensely curious to see Vienna and sorry we missed it. If circumstances took me to Berlin or Munich or Hamburg, I’d go. Why not?

The march of time, I realized, was the significant factor, much more powerful, really, then any newfound feelings of equanimity. My Hebrew-school teacher, hearing German voices on that train all those years ago, most likely envisioned those voices attached to bodies that might have been culpable in the most unimaginable, wanton brutality. But anyone can do the math: Austrians born in the postwar years are seventy or thereabouts.

And then—in spite of myself– all those endless, unanswerable questions began to spring up. So who, exactly, was culpable? The Holocaust was a grand example of true cross-national cooperation: The destruction of European Jewry could not have progressed as it did without tacit and active collaboration that was spread across the continent. On the other hand, both my parents were hidden by non-Jews, who would have faced their own grisly end had they been discovered. What to make of that?

And then, of course, there was more: It would be counter-intuitive to suppose that the wealth of art, knowledge, and political advancement that historically emanated from the German-speaking world—and which, not incidentally, was the soil in which Jewish achievement flourished—could utterly and completely cease to exist one day in 1933.

The bottom line?

The bottom line, really, has nothing to do with Austria or Germany or guilt or culpability or equanimity. I have a very small family. Grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, and cousins were lost during the Holocaust. Were it not for that, I would have had a substantial extended family. Presumably, there would be descendants who would have been my age; descendants who would now be my daughter’s age.

At the risk of sounding flip or irreverent—which is absolutely not my intention—the only redress I can truly imagine is if these family members hadn’t been murdered. If they had survived to become a living, vital—even annoying– part of my upbringing and, by extension, of my adult life. If they had been more than photographs.

And short of that impossibility, there’s not much more to say.