Mr. Beethoven's Piano
In Mödling back
in the 1930s, there was a tobacco store at the corner of Hauptstrasse
and Jakob Thomastrasse, just down the street from our apartment house.
Here my parents, avid smokers that they were, used to buy their supplies
to stuff their own cigarettes with. In the same store could be found
stamps and reading matter such as newspapers, magazines, and Hintertreppenromane ("backstairs novels") or pulp fiction.
At that time, this tobacco shop was owned by
an elderly gentleman named Stockinger. He was probably no more than
forty or fifty years
old, but for us boys that was a venerable age, and we looked upon
him as elderly. This Stockinger was a simple, friendly chap who always
greeted his customers amiably and inquired about their health and
well-being. He was friendly and patient with us children, too. In
each of the large boxes of Abadie cigarette sleeves that my father
bought from him came the picture of a coat of arms. Stockinger knew
that we boys collected these pictures and always made it a point
of asking us which ones we didn't have yet.
One day—it must have been in the summer of 1935—my father
came into the tobacco shop to buy his usual box of cigarette sleeves
and Turkish tobacco. As he was about to leave, Herr Stockinger said
that he wanted to talk to him about something.
"I know that you are a musician, Herr Greissle," he began, "so
I think you would find it of interest to know that in my house I have a piano,
an old one, and that this piano once belonged to Herr Ludwig van Beethoven. We
used to keep it in the apartment, but then one day several years ago, we needed
more room, so we moved it down to the cellar, where it is now."
My father looked at the tobacconist in utter
disbelief. It also struck him as odd that someone should still be
referring to the great master as "Herr van Beethoven" over a hundred years after his death. "So, why are you telling me this?" my father asked cagily. "And
how do you know that it is a Beethoven piano?"
"Well, Herr Greissle, in answer to your first question," said Stockinger, who probably couldn’t think of a better answer, "a damp, dark cellar probably isn’t the right place for something special like that piano. So I thought that perhaps you, Herr Greissle, might know somebody who wants to buy it. I could certainly use the money, and since you are a conductor, it struck me there might be someone among your acquaintances who—"
"But, Herr Stockinger," my father interrupted, "I repeat, what
makes you think that it is a Beethoven piano?"
"Look, Herr Greissle, why don’t you drop over to my house and let me show it to you. It won’t
cost you any more than a pleasant walk, and then what will be will be."
My father agreed to do this. The next day, he went to Universal Edition,
his employer in Vienna at the time, and told the story about the putative
piano in Herr Stockinger’s basement to two of his colleagues. To make a long story short, they agreed to meet in Mödling
the following Sunday afternoon and take a walk together to visit Herr Stockinger.
And so, on Sunday, my father and his colleagues found themselves in the humble
home of the tobacconist. Also in the party was an old family friend and former
Schönberg pupil, composer Anton von Webern. After tea in Herr Stockinger’s
kitchen, they all proceeded down to the cellar. And there it stood, an ancient,
brown-veneered grand piano, quite filthy and in pitiful condition, with the finish
cracking off in many places and quite a few keys either loose or missing.
The four musical gentlemen proceeded to examine it very carefully, noting
that the whole thing wobbled ominously on brittle legs at the slightest touch
that the gold leaf lettering identifying the manufacturer had been obliterated
beyond recognition They knocked on the old wood and fingered the keys. They
raised the lid and plucked at the strings. Deep down inside, they found evidence
a model number and other identifying data, but alas, this was also impossible
to make out.
On one point they all agreed: this instrument, whatever it was and to whomever
it had belonged, should under no circumstances remain in the cellar. Otherwise,
in no time at all, it would be reduced to a heap of junk.
Finally, on behalf of the musical committee, my father informed Herr Stockinger
that the piano was certainly quite old and in fact would seem to belong to
Beethoven’s time. However, in those days, every "good" family
owned at least one piano. And so, it would be really difficult—and without documentary evidence quite impossible—to prove that
this instrument had once belonged to the one and only. Then they thanked Herr
Stockinger for his hospitality and went on their way.
Back at the offices of Universal Edition, the story made the rounds. And
one day it came to the attention of a man who was truly an expert in old
One thing led to another, and at length, it was decided to pay the tobacconist
another visit for the sake of having this specialist examine the putative
Beethoven grand. So now the party consisted of five, and to this was added
yet another former Schönberg pupil. The keyboard specialist from Universal Edition subjected the old instrument in Herr Stockinger’s cellar to even more rigorous scrutiny. But in the end, this, too, proved to be inconclusive. "Yes, it certainly could have been a Beethoven piano," he said, "but there were literally hundreds of instruments like this one around in his day." So maybe it was, but then again maybe it wasn’t.
One interesting thing that the expert called everyone’s attention to were numerous rings, as from hot coffee or tea cups, on either side of the note stand. It is well known that Beethoven liked to drink tea while composing and that he cared little about such blemishes. "But, of course," the expert cautioned, "many
other people had such habits and a similar predilection for drinking tea while
playing. So the presence of those rings is no proof either."
Another interesting thing that he pointed out were two small holes that had
been drilled into the wood in the two corners of the note stand. "I’m not
quite sure why, but my guess is that the person wanted to attach something on
either side, such as a candle holder. But of course this, too, proves nothing."
Some time later, though, came a breakthrough. Yet another expert, who was
more familiar with Beethoven’s practices and peculiarities, proposed the following explanation concerning the holes in the corners of the note stand. As many people are aware, Beethoven went deaf toward the end of his life, which was for a musician, especially a composer, a total catastrophe. It is known that Beethoven fell into a deep depression because of this affliction, having tried eardrops, potions, immersions, and every other remedy available in his day–to no avail. Finally, so the new expert advised, the Master invented his own special hearing device. He took two wooden sticks and laid them across one another to make an X and then tied them together at their intersection, thus forming a kind of tongs. At the upper end of each stick, he attached a hook to fit into his ear. Into the bottom end, he drilled a hole, through which he ran a piece of string. He attached the free end of each piece of string to one of the little holes in the note stand. The result: when Beethoven leaned his head back, the strings became taut while the hooks penetrated deep into his ears, so that he was able to receive and feel the resulting vibrations when he played the piano, and in this way, imperfect though it was, he could still "hear" his
I have recently learned that several other Beethoven pianos contain the Hörlöcher ("listening holes") that I have described, and I understand that at least one of his hearing devices has been found. Further, a few years ago, my wife Nancy and I came upon another instrument with holes in the note stand. It was a harmonium in Haydn’s birth house in Eisenstadt on which Beethoven is said to have publicly played one of his compositions in the presence of the aged Haydn in 1806. Not only this, according to Beethoven expert Professor Gerhard Böhme in Bonn, Beethoven fashioned a second similar device during his lifetime. In a letter to me, Böhme explained that Beethoven "crafted
a long wooden rod, one end of which he held between his teeth. The other end
was connected to the sounding board of his piano. In this way, he created the
first device using bone conduction as a means of auditory transmission."
So what happened to the piano in Mödling? A few weeks after the visit by
the second keyboard expert, a new delegation, now under the auspices of the Viennese
Friends of Music, descended on Herr Stockinger in his store. My father was along,
of course, having been authorized to act as the spokesperson. This time the idea
was to purchase the instrument on behalf of the Viennese Friends. But, alas,
they were all in for a rude surprise.
"You came for the piano? Herr Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano? The one I had in my cellar?" Herr Stockinger said. "I’m
sorry, I can no longer be of any service."
"But what do you mean, Herr Stockinger?" my father cried. "Don’t
tell me you threw it away!"
"Oh no, Herr Greissle, I would never have done that. Two weeks ago, a gentleman
from America came to see the piano."
My father was beside himself: "And what happened?"
The explanation now came: "Well, we went down to the cellar, and he looked
"And then?"my father asked.
"And then the gentleman said he would give me a hundred dollars for it, which I figured came to quite a bit in Austrian Schillings. Well, as you can well imagine, I couldn’t
pass up on such an opportunity, and the man had the piano hauled away the very
And that is how the well-meaning delegation from Universal Edition arrived
there with utterly good intentions and departed again empty-handed. For years,
story ended with: "And then an American came to Herr Stockinger’s
store and stole the Beethoven piano for a hundred dollars."
The Black Box
Before 1930, we children lived much in our own world. Our parents provided
for us; we didn’t have a care. They kept their worries from us. All we had to do was get up in the morning, wash, and brush our teeth. Our breakfast was waiting for us on the kitchen table. Sometimes I was allowed to help my mother with the housework; she let me dust the furniture, at least as far as I could reach, feed the dog or cat, or bring the carpet beater down to the yard. In those days, carpets were draped over a rail and beaten—a dusty affair. There were as yet no vacuum cleaners in Mödling; at least, I’d
never seen one. In fact, during the 1920s, we had no mechanical gadgets or tools
whatsoever, with the sole exception of a radio, which worked with a needle and
One evening, however, came a big surprise. Mother came to get my brother
and me where we were playing with our blocks and had us follow her into the
room. Something very special was about to happen. In our family, whenever
there was something especially important to do or talk about, the dining
where we would always gather. In the middle stood a huge black table that
constructed by my grandfather Arnold Schönberg with his own hands ten years
earlier. This table was the center of the house and the focal point for all important
family matters. When it was draped with a clean cloth and set with dishes and
silver, we called it the dining table. For a chess match or a hand of cards,
it became the game table. When my father copied his music or my mother wrote
a letter there, they referred to it as the work table.
On that day, the day of the big surprise, we all had to sit down around the
table and wait. Besides Mother and my three-year-old brother and five-year-old
there were our uncle Görgi and his fiancée Anni. The only one missing was my father. We were all eagerly awaiting him, for he was due to arrive at any moment with the "special
Finally, the bell rang outside, and we heard our father’s voice as he came through the door. Uncle Görgi ran to help him with whatever it was he was bringing. What could it be? All eyes focused on the door to the vestibule. A festive mood prevailed, much like at Christmas time or on January 5th, when a devil by the name of Krampus was supposed to appear to Austrian children who didn’t
Our Papa now entered the room. In one hand he was lugging a large box by
a handle. He set it carefully on the table with a flourish. The thing must
heavy because he had to use a lot of muscle to do so. The box was perhaps
twenty inches wide and twelve inches high. We boys were cautioned to remain
seats and not to touch the "thing" under any circumstances.
Our excitement grew. The box was made of wood that had been stained black,
which shone with a dull sheen. What could be inside? Something good to eat
Maybe it was a new pet, a live animal, or maybe it was brimming full of golden
ducats, like the old chests in the amazing stories we heard at kindergarten.
But possibly a witch was hiding in there or an evil genie that had been locked
up for a thousand years. I can’t say, however, that I was particularly worried that the chest contained something evil or dangerous. For after all, Papa was there and Uncle Görgi
to boot, and both of them would certainly know what to do to protect us.
We would not have to wait for long, for now our uncle pulled a tiny key from
his pocket, stuck it into a lock on the left side of the box, and twisted
it to make a small latch snap upward. This resulted in a very loud bang,
caused everyone to jump, especially us children. Uncle Görgi now opened the lock
on the right side in the same way and tipped up the top of the box to expose
the inside. My brother and I peered at it, burning with curiosity and, since
everyone remained silent, full of apprehension.
As for what lay before us on the box’s base, we didn’t have a clue.
Clearly, no chocolates or candy were awaiting us there, nor any toys that we
were familiar with or could identify. Instead, there was a round felt-covered
wheel, floating horizontally half an inch above the bottom of the base, some
levers, perhaps to work the wheel, and a funny sort of arm made of metal, whose
end pointed at the ceiling like a finger. On one side of the base was a hole
into which our uncle had just inserted a second arm, slimmer than the first.
This second arm looked like the little brother of the crank that was used to
start up a car in those days.
Uncle Görgi now opened a small package from which he removed a sort of round, black plate that was very thin and flat and had a hole in the middle. My father took this plate from Görgi,
examined it carefully, turning it over once or twice in the process. Then he
cautiously placed it on the felt-covered wheel. And, lo, it fit the wheel perfectly,
without any overlap. We children looked on in amazement. What would happen next?
Uncle Görgi grasped the handle of the funny arm that projected from the box’s side and began to turn it, indeed just like one would the crank of a car. At any moment I expected an engine to start up with a bar-OOM! and set God-only-knew what kind of machine in motion. I’ll never forget my little brother’s
face as he sat there, mouth open, eyes wide, following the strange proceedings.
Uncle Görgi now placed his hand on a lever and gave it a jerk—and now the wheel with the plate on it began to turn! Faster and faster it went until a picture of a dog on the plate appeared only as a white stripe. This done, my father, who seemed as knowledgeable about the operation of the contraption as Uncle Görgi, removed a minuscule object like a claw from a tin box, inserted it into the "finger," and fastened it with a screw. He then placed the "finger" with its "claw" on
the edge of the spinning plate and moved yet another lever.
And now the fun really began. Emanating from the box came some scratchy sounds
and then, suddenly, musical instruments. It was as if someone were playing
music in our apartment, only it was coming out of the contraption. We boys
holler with laughter and must have sounded like a pair of chattering geese
because the adults immediately began hissing at us: "Ruhe! Seid still! Hört zu!" (Silence!
Keep quiet! Listen!)
We stopped cackling and quietly listened, too. This music was most unusual
to us boys. We were already familiar with waltzes, arias from operas and
operettas, marches, and Zigeuner-lieder (gypsy tunes). When you sat in a
days, as we frequently did, gypsy street musicians would come in and play
for the guests. Also, we had often heard our parents playing Bach and Mozart
on our piano, as well as Uncle Görgi thumping out the popular songs of those
days, the Twenties.
But what was coming out of the black box did not appear to be any of these.
The instruments didn’t seem to play together, but rather against one another. It was all just a-crowing and a-whimpering; it moaned and sighed and neighed. We boys didn’t know what to do. I thought of the fairy tale of the town band of Bremen and wanted to break into laughter again. But since all of the adults were looking so solemn and listening so intently, apparently overcome with awe, we remained serious and paid attention like good little boys—for
a while anyway.
Suddenly, my three-year-old brother made a wry face and began to cry. Our
parents tried to silence him with gestures of disapproval, but the little
on bawling. He sobbed and sobbed. They tried to pacify him with soothing
words. Nothing helped; they were simply unable to console poor little Hermann.
At last, our father got up and turned off the machine. Then he looked intently
at us boys, his face expressing both reverence and reproach. "Do you know whose music you are listening to?" he asked. And putting all the emphasis he was capable of on the last word: "Das ist die Musik vom Großpapa!" (It
is the music of your grandfather!)
Summer in Italy
For most people, early impressions are the most vivid in their lives. I recall
some events from my childhood with total clarity, including such details
as the weather, odors, and the dress and voices of individuals. My own feelings,
too—of joy, fear, tenderness, disgust, and pity—are part and parcel of my early memories. One’s keenest impressions seem to stem from age four until one’s sixteenth or seventeenth year. Whatever happened after that tends to be fuzzy, at least for me, with the exception of very unusual occurrences or especially important events. Time passes ever more quickly, the years fly by, suddenly you are no longer young, and finally one day you realize that you’ve
In my case, the years 1927 to 1940 were the most decisive, the richest in
memories. For instance, I can recall precisely how in the summer of 1929,
a time when
we were fairly well off, the family went on vacation, traveling by train
Italy. Individual experiences have remained crystal clear in my mind, with
words and different tones of voice and facial expressions, and the changes of
The sun was shining brightly on the day of our arrival at Lignano, a hamlet
where the little Tagliamento River flows into the Adriatic Sea. After traveling
night long, we were there and had moved into a little bungalow on the beach.
We were all very tired, having had almost no sleep on the train because the
new impressions and excitement of the trip had kept us awake. Only my mother
right to bed. My brother and I, on the other hand, were eager to go out and
explore. Also, we were very thirsty and pestered our Papa to come with us
and buy us a
soda pop. This he agreed to do; in fact, he was going to take us to a restaurant
and show us how to behave in a foreign country and communicate with the local
population. The restaurant he had in mind wasn’t very far away. It was
made of bare wood and stood on a platform built on piles over the ocean about
300 feet from the shore. From the beach, it could be reached over a wooden walkway,
which also rested on piles. We crossed over the water to the terrace and sat
down at one of the tables.
Papa had already told us boys about his adventures as an Austrian artillery
officer in Italy during the World War and how one day, in the course of the
the Isonzo River, he was taken prisoner by the Italians and then daringly
tried to escape with some of his comrades at night in a homemade boat. Today,
was going to demonstrate to us some of the things that he had learned during
two years as an Italian prisoner of war.
A waitress came to our table. She had black hair and wore a black dress and
a white apron bordered with lace. Our Papa launched right into Italian, though
his Viennese accent stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb: "Prrego. Trre bicchieri di soda, acqua con gas." (Please, bring three glasses of soda!) His r’s
were guttural and the word for water sounded like ahkva. But the waitress understood
what was wanted and, ten minutes later, set our drinks in front of us. Papa looked
at us in triumph, bursting with pride.
"You see," he told us, "I’ve been around in the world a
bit. Whenever you arrive in a new place, you should try to learn the language
as quickly as possible. It really puts you ahead of the game. Let me demonstrate.
I am now going to order something sweet for us."
It should be noted here that the Austro-German word for pudding and, by extension,
for desserts in general, is Mehlspeise, literally, "flour dish." Papa vigorously motioned for the waitress to return to our table: "Signorina, vogliamo mangiare qual’cosa. Per favore portare tre pasto di farina." (Miss,
we want to eat something. Please bring three flour dishes.)
We boys eagerly waited for our dessert. After some time, the waitress came—with three large plates of steaming noodles over which had been poured a red sauce. Maybe it’s
strawberries, I thought. We boys grabbed our forks and dug in.
After one mouthful, my little brother pulled a face. I, too, was not pleased
by it. Whatever it was, it tasted salty. I bent over my plate and sniffed.
The heap of noodles smelled quite unmistakably of tomatoes and cheese. Hermann,
a me-too, noticed my displeasure and pushed his plate away. At this point
our father spoke up: "Oh, I wanted to explain to you that the desserts here don’t taste the same as they do at home in Austria." However, he was obviously not happy with the situation, and I had more than just an inkling that something hadn’t gone quite according to plan when Papa got up, walked over to an elegantly-attired gentleman—undoubtedly the head waiter—and
exchanged a few words with him.
A few moments later, the waitress came out of the kitchen with her tray and,
without a word, gathered up the three noodle plates and carried them away.
In a trice, she reappeared, this time putting in front of each of us boys
something that we had no trouble recognizing: a huge slice of Napoleon and
a glass of
ice cream. Now we no longer cared about the whys and wherefores; we were
much too busy with our Mehlspeise. Papa didn’t have to explain anything; because of his superior knowledge, we had now been taken care of to our utmost satisfaction. After the ice cream, Hermann and I each got a cup of hot chocolate and our Papa a well-deserved Italian-style
That same summer at Lignano, I had one of the strangest experiences of my
life. During the daytime, my parents delighted in walking along the beautiful
beach under the blue Italian sky. Since we boys tended to lag behind or just
didn’t want to go, we were left behind under the supervision of a nice
man on the beach who sold gelato (ice cream) in assorted flavors from a little
pushcart. To keep us busy, our parents had made a deal with this vendor that
we would gather shells and bring them to him, and that he would then fill them
with the gelato of our choice. He would keep the shells so our parents could
settle the tab on their return, which meant that we would have to continue looking
for new shells if we wanted to have more of that mouth-watering Italian gelato.
This activity would keep us busy for a half hour or longer, when Pesi and Mesi
(as we had nicknamed Father and Mother) would be getting back from their stroll.
One hot afternoon, our parents did not return on time. After an hour, my
little brother and I were not interested in collecting shells anymore; having
our fill of that gelato, we just wanted to go home. The nice man accompanied
us back to our bungalow, where Hermann, who was all tuckered out, went straight
to bed. Suddenly, I realized that I had forgotten my beautiful big rubber
ball and immediately ran out the door and back down to the beach. The vendor
his little cart were still there, and happily, he had found my precious ball.
Relieved and delighted to have gotten it back, I kicked it ahead of me on
the way home, shooting it high in the air and to the left and right as Uncle
Görgi had taught us back in Mödling. Again and again the ball flew ahead of me, first along the beach and then up toward our bungalow. Soon I saw the door directly in front of me. It had remained open, and I knew Hermann was sleeping inside. I couldn’t
resist the temptation; I took good aim and kicked the ball right into the house.
It was dark inside, and only now I realized that this was not our bungalow but
a different one, presumably inhabited by strangers.
I waited expectantly in front of the doorway, hoping that someone would come
out and return my ball to me. I would excuse myself and explain that I, after
all a little boy, had made a mistake. I knocked on the window. Knocked again.
But nobody came, no one responded, and there was no question that my ball
was inside there. Apparently no one was at home, and there I was standing
myself in front of a strange house not knowing what to do. All I could think
of was my lost ball.
All of a sudden, I got the most peculiar feeling; I got the impression that
something had changed, I would almost say, switched. For a long minute, I
felt as if I
were hovering in the air. I couldn’t hear a thing; even the constant roar of the ocean had ceased. Somehow, I had followed my ball through the open door into the strange house and the interior of a darkened room. I turned around. The sky was different; it wasn’t blue any longer, and the sun wasn’t
shining as before. The beach, which had been bustling a moment before, was empty
I turned my gaze away from the outside to the dim interior of the room I
was in. Gradually becoming accustomed to the darkness, I looked for my ball
didn’t see it anywhere. In front of me stood a large bed, a fancy old-fashioned one with a canopy and curtains of red velvet. All I could think of was my ball; I knelt on the floor and looked under it. And there it was at last—red, blue, and yellow—without
a doubt, my missing possession. I crawled under the bed and reached for it. Then,
lying flat on my stomach, I turned to crawl back out, holding the ball under
my left arm. In front of me, not far from the bed, the door was still open. Through
the entry way, I once more saw the yellow of the beach, glaring as before under
the light of the sun, the dark-blue ocean, and the light-blue afternoon sky.
Nevertheless, I had this feeling that everything around me was a sort of fantasy.
Suddenly, while I was still under the bed, the doorway darkened. At the same
time, I heard steps and the creaking of shoes. Someone had come into the
room and was now closing the door. I was able to discern that the person
was a man.
Now he was standing near the window, and I could see him much better. What
I beheld was indeed curious. The man was tall and slim. From his stature
I guessed him to be about forty years old. What was really strange about
him, though, were his clothes. He wore a kind of knickerbocker pants with
socks that reached up to his knees. On top, he had on a blue, tightly-fitting
coat, short in front like a jacket and reaching down to his calves in the
back. The sleeves of this coat ended in white cuffs, elaborately trimmed
lace. But the most striking feature about this person was his hair, for he
wore a pigtail, such as many girls did when I was a child, but never a boy
or a man.
And, furthermore, despite the man’s relative youth, his hair was completely
Meanwhile, I was still under the bed with my ball under my arm. I didn’t
know whether to crawl out from underneath or wait and see what would happen next.
The man had turned away from the window and was now coming towards the bed. I
recall that his shoes were of shiny black leather with a silver rectangular buckle
The man had noticed something, perhaps the ball or one of my feet, for he
stopped short, and then his shoes creaked to the bed. Now he bent down and
in the eye—and I back at him. He was pale-complexioned, almost white, with
no trace of a beard, and he wore a pair of glasses with no frame. On one of his
cheeks, he had a black spot the size of a fly. This spot was perhaps the only
thing about this individual that was familiar to me; my mother used to apply
similar small, round black patches to her face to cover a pimple or simply to
create a beauty mark.
"Knabe (little boy)," he began. I remember his voice clearly; it was deep and sonorous. "Was machst Du unter dem Bette?" (What are you doing under the bed?) He was speaking to me in German although he didn’t know me, and, remember, we were in Italy. However, he didn’t
say Bett, but rather Bette, which was indeed strange.
I have no idea what happened after that. One moment I was in the house, the
next out, as if I had suddenly stepped from one reality into another. On
again with the ball under my arm, I soon found my way back to our own bungalow
where my parents had been worrying about me.
I have thought about this experience again and again during the course of
my life. As I subsequently learned from history books, the man in the white
with the pigtail in the ornate coat and shoes with rectangular silver buckles
belonged to the eighteenth century. Is it possible that on that day, for
ten or fifteen minutes, I was caught in a time warp of some kind? It is possible,
I realize today, that the man was a costumed actor or a musician dressed
in historic garb. But of course that would have been unlikely in the middle
afternoon—that is, it was too late for a matinee and too early for an evening performance. Other details favored the time-warp theory, for instance, that the man had used the old dative "Bette," which would have been current only in the seventeen hundreds, that I felt an abrupt displacement both on entering and leaving the room, and that I felt no embarrassment at having entered the wrong house or fear during the course of the encounter. It’s also possible that I had dreamt it all. However, to do so, I would have had to fall asleep, and that I didn’t do—certainly
not in a strange room. I was too excited for that. And my having forgotten my
ball on the beach is also certain; the ice cream man confirmed that the next
Between the Wars
The years between World Wars One and Two were indeed a wretched time for
Austria. The number of men out of work kept skyrocketing. Such aid as the
received from the government wasn’t anywhere near enough to provide even the barest
necessities. When a man lost his job, the state provided him with a meager stipend,
and even this was for only six or eight weeks. A number of benevolent societies
and charitable organizations did what they could to help reduce the suffering,
but as with aid from the government, this sort of help was woefully inadequate,
and, in the end, an unemployed head of household was on his own. Needless to
say, the situation of those jobless workers was especially serious when there
was a large family to support.
My family also didn’t fare very well during those years, but fortunately
we never had to go hungry. It is true, however, that in earlier years we still
had two servant girls, then later only one, and beginning in 1930, none. But
even then, a woman came to the house each afternoon to wash the dishes.
One day, this charwoman had the good luck to get a full-time position somewhere
else and left us. Word got around very quickly, and early the next morning,
there was a knock at the door. My mother looked through the peep-hole. In
stood a woman of average height. Trudi opened the door and asked her into
The woman was poorly dressed. Her brown skirt was much too big for her and
had been mended in several places; her blouse looked worn and discolored
washings. A scanty kerchief covered her light brown hair, which had streaks
of grey. A pair of old, worn-out shoes covered her feet, which were bare.
was thin, and despite her relative youth—she might have been thirty—her
face looked worn and was covered with tiny wrinkles. Deep black shadows under
her eyes gave her face an aura of despondency, exhaustion. The poor thing was
truly a picture of misery.
"Gnädige Frau," (Gracious lady) she began, "please pardon me for coming so early in the morning. I heard that you need a charwoman. And so I thought, before you take someone else, here I am. No job is too tough or difficult for me. And you don’t even have to pay me. Please understand, I have seven children. They are sitting at home and haven’t eaten anything since the day before yesterday. My husband is unemployed and sick to boot. He couldn’t do any work even if someone wanted to hire him. Please, please, I’ll start right away and I’ll ask you for nothing except that you let me take some food home for the family." Tears
were streaming down her cheeks.
Trudi gave her a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "Come, sit down. I’ll be right back." She went into the kitchen. Some soup and a piece of beef were left over from the day before. She put it all in a pot and went to the pantry, which wasn’t
exactly bursting with food. But she was still able to spare half a loaf of bread
and a piece of cheese. She put everything into a bag and brought it to the foyer.
"Here, Frau Förster, take this home right away. Then come back and help me in the kitchen with the dishes." The woman returned after an hour and worked for us for several years. Not for free, by the way; our mother paid her das Gewöhnliche (the customary). In those days, the so-called customary was a miserable pittance.
I visited the Försters at their home several times. While she was working, Frau Förster liked to talk about her children, and so I soon learned their names and ages, and which of them went to school, and where. The youngest was still in diapers. The eldest, a boy, was a year younger than I. Frau Förster asked me if I would help him with his homework. And so, one day, after she finished working at our place, I accompanied her to hers, which was in Neumödling. The walk there took about twenty minutes. I knew the neighborhood, of course, which was a working-class district. The streets weren’t dirty, as they tend to be in America’s poor sections; nevertheless, they looked sad and neglected. The Förster family lived on the ground floor of a three-storey building. Their apartment consisted of a single large room and a tiny kitchen adjoining it. As soon as I entered, I was overwhelmed by the heavy, damp odor of warm, stale air. Perhaps the odor was so strong because these people had no money for soap, perhaps because nine people lived and breathed in that one room; perhaps it had something to do with Herr Förster’s
There were four beds in the room, three of which were for six of the children.
The fourth was for Herr and Frau Förster and the baby. All of the beds were covered with faded, patched-up blankets; the pillows and sheets were grey. Besides the beds, there was a chest of drawers against one of the walls, an armoire against another, and a rickety table with a few chairs around it. At the table, sat the father, listening to a radio with earphones while stuffing cigarette sleeves with tobacco. He was pale and skinny, perhaps in his mid-forties, and he coughed without letup. The tobacco was from discarded butts, he explained. The rickety table was the center and gathering place for this family, much like the Schönberg
table was at my house. At this table and also at the one in my own home, I helped
the boy with his homework till the end of the school year.
The tiny kitchen was unusable for extra living space because it was too small;
also, it had to be shared with neighbors. In one corner stood a hearth for
cooking, and on the occasion of my first visit, a Sterz was being fried—a dish consisting
of flour, water, salt, and lard. Light in the apartment came from three candles;
either there was no electricity or it was not being used. Throughout my life,
I have never forgotten that picture of utter poverty. It must have made a profound
impression on me, for I still dream of it from time to time.
Austria’s unemployed did what they could to get through those awful years
between the wars. Most of the unfortunates were willing to do almost anything
just to earn a few Schillings, sometimes just a few Groschen. When absolutely
nothing was to be had, they invented some sort of work, just to bring in a little
something, however small. For instance, at train and bus stations, there were
always two or three fellows standing ready to lug your baggage. Everywhere one
found shoe-shine boys, door openers, window cleaners, people scooping up cigarette
butts, street vendors, washer women, porters, accordion players, violinists,
street clowns, and singers. Ah yes, the singers. Those singers were not just your garden-variety, but
a special breed unto themselves. I remember they usually came in the afternoon
head for the court- yard behind our house. There they would stand with hat
in hand and begin to sing, mostly without any accompaniment, but occasionally
a hurdy-gurdy or an accordion. A few sang quite well, others only so-so.
couldn’t sing at all and whimpered out their sorry songs as best they could--with
too much schmaltz and too little voice, all too often off-key. It was enough
to break your heart. Everyone had no choice but to listen, for the acoustics
in our courtyard were excellent, far superior to many a concert hall. In the
summertime, all of the windows were open, there being no air-conditioning in
those days, and so one listened whether one wanted to or not.
Quite often, if one of those fellows was an accomplished performer, people
would come to their windows. And if the unemployed singer or violinist happened
be young and good-looking besides, he would have an enthusiastic audience
of ladies and their maids as well. Usually they would sing or play an aria
an opera or a song from a Lehar or Strauss operetta or some popular tune
of the day. After the performance came the speech: how long the poor guy
of work, how many children he had at home, his sick wife, his old mother,
and his heartless landlord who was about to put them all out on the street.
please, whatever you can spare, he would plead, even just a penny or two.
And if he had
pleased his audience, the coins would come flying out of the windows wrapped
in pieces of newspaper. And each time one of them hit, the person below would
call out a Danke schön or Gott vergelt’s (May God pay you back). I
always listened to those performances and remember most of the songs to this
Here’s another story from that awful though often quite lovely and certainly
memorable time between the two world wars. While many people were in desperate
straits, my family was actually not too badly off because our father was usually
able to get some work as a music copyist. But sometimes there were no assignments
for a few weeks, and then things could become unpleasant for us, too. My mother
would then begin to worry and pinch pennies. She would serve little or no meat,
more bread and vegetables, less cheese, and no bottled drinks, only water. Breakfast
would consist of a buttered roll and ersatz coffee made from figs. Only on milk
for us children would she never try to save.
One day, probably in the fall of 1935, my brother and I were sitting with
our mother in our dining room, glumly anticipating a dinner consisting of
and a slice of pumpernickel. We were pretty ravenous, but wouldn’t start
without father. For some reason, he had gone off to the nearby town of Maria
Enzersdorf, on foot of course; we assumed that he was on his way back and would
be arriving home before very long.
At last came the door bell, and Trudi went to the vestibule to let him in.
We heard her pushing the bolt aside and then the familiar creaking of the
it opened. We heard our father’s voice as he put away his coat and cane. But then suddenly a loud scream rang out from there, and we heard Mother’s voice quaking with excitement: "What in the world is this, what have you got here? For God’s
sake, to whom does it belong? How did you come by it?"
Hermann and I made a beeline for the vestibule, to find our father just standing
there and our mother staring, flabbergasted, at a box that he had brought
with him. There was some printing on one side that somehow looked familiar.
cover had been sealed and then either torn or cut open. Mother now lifted
us boys crowding round, breathless with anticipation. Reaching inside, she
pulled out several flat, rectangular shapes, each wrapped in blue paper,
foil protruding from the shorter sides. We boys recognized what they were
at once: big, thick bars of chocolate. We had seen the same often enough
window of Hudetz’s Zuckerlgeschäft (candy store) on the Hauptstrasse. Sure enough, on each bar was the word "Bensdorp" in white letters against the blue background, and right underneath that "Echte Milchschokolade" (Real Milk Chocolate). Peering into the box, we boys noted that there had to be at least four or five dozen of those heavenly chocolate bars there. Hermann immediately reached in to help himself, but that got him a quick maternal rap on the fingers. "First,
Trudi looked hard at Felix. "Where did all these chocolates come from? How
did you come by them? Please be so kind as to explain. I want to know precisely!"
Well, Father looked like the cat who’d just swallowed the canary. But then
he suggested that we all sit calmly down at the table and he would tell us the
whole story over dinner. So we got to work on the pea soup and bread, and looked
expectantly at Papa, who took a deep breath and began.
In the afternoon, he had walked to Maria Enzersdorf, to some office there;
I think it had to do with some back taxes that we owed. After he was done,
on the long trek back in the middle of the road, as people did in those days.
Whenever a horse and carriage or a car came along, one moved to the side
and waited until the vehicle had passed and the clouds of dust that it raised
settled a bit. The road along which Father had to walk was not only unpaved
but extremely bumpy besides. Any approaching vehicle could be heard over
At one point, a truck slowly rattled by. It would seem, though, that its
cargo was not too well secured because suddenly a box fell from the back
road. Felix ran over, picked it up, and immediately recognized what it contained.
of course he couldn’t keep it because it didn’t belong to him. No,
he would have to return it. And so, with the box tucked under his arm, he began
running after the truck, shouting. However, the driver failed to hear him, and
the truck moved further away.
So what had he shouted, Mother wanted to know. We boys looked up at Papa
from our pea soup expectantly. Papa raised his hands to show how he had held
the box, and called, in a stage whisper, so that it was almost impossible
him: "Halt, Sie haben ‘was verloren!" (Stop, you lost something!)
During my childhood, Mehlspeisen (desserts) played a special role in our
lives and frequently led to quarrels and competition between my brother Hermann
me. It was extremely important for us both that neither of us should get
more than the other, especially of such wonderful things as chestnut rice
cream, Sachertorte, and Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings). Whenever Hermann saw a piece of cake on my plate that looked to be larger than his, he would invariably shout out, "Er hat mehr!" (He
has more!) If, on the other hand, the larger piece was on his own plate, he would
quietly reach for his fork and immediately fall to. Whereupon I would be the
one to give a yell.
Such outbursts were often accompanied by bitter tears, but in time, Mother
found ways to avoid them. One of her stratagems was to put our plates in
front of us
but not allow us to touch anything until she gave the word. If we were both
content with our portions, we could eat. But if we both complained, Mother
plates, and then we would have to be satisfied because each of us had received
the plate that had seemed the more desirable. Real problems arose only when
both of us wanted the same piece because it actually was larger. But, with
wisdom, she had a solution ready to hand for this, too: she would give one
of us the smaller piece with a promise that he would get first pick the next
And so Hermann and I would sit there and eat. Sometimes one of us was done
and the other was still eating. Then the one who hadn’t finished would taunt the other, "Ha, ha, I still have some and you have to watch." In so saying, he’d
click his tongue and roll his eyes with the heavenly taste of the sweet dessert,
while the other brother had to look on with envy. The victim could retaliate
the next time, for instance, by hiding a piece of cake behind a bowl. The other
fellow ate happily on because he thought he was the only one who had anything
left. Then, after the happy eater had quite finished, the supposedly deprived
brother would take his cake from behind the bowl and begin to eat, slowly, deliberately,
savoring each bite. My poor brother, who was always hankering for sweets, shed
many a bitter tear on such occasions.
But Hermann was not so dumb. He often invented ways that enabled him to eat
not only his own dessert but mine as well. Of course, he couldn’t accomplish
anything by force; I was two years older and therefore stronger. The only way
for him to solve his problem was by his wits. And that he did to perfection.
Let me give an example. Hermann was well aware that I collected stamps and
that stamp-collecting was a real passion for me and my friends. We obtained
wherever we could: we swapped them; we persuaded adults to save them or ask
for them from friends and businesses. Foreign stamps were particularly prized,
if they were from far-away places like India and Togo or portrayed interesting
views, wild animals, exotic landscapes, and beautiful architecture. Ones
from the old Austrian Empire were also much sought after. We were always
complete our different sets.
So Hermann got ahold of some stamps, not for the sake of starting his own
collection but because he wanted to have something in his hands that I desired
badly. They were four stamps from the Duchy of Liechtenstein, almost a complete
set. "Would you like to have them?" he asked me one day. "Sure," I said, "give them to me!" Whereupon Hermann answered, "Ok, here’s the deal. Today, at lunch, I get your cake, and you get the first stamp right after we finish eating. The second one you get the next time we have cake." And he added, "But
not a word to Mother about it, ok?"
The Cheap Watch
From time to time during the mid-1930s, packages arrived from our grandfather,
Arnold Schönberg, in Los Angeles, who would personally put them together for us. He would go and make various purchases, pack them in a box, carefully wrap it up, and then address it and take it to the post office. These packages from America often contained chocolates or marzipan, but first and foremost, shirts, blouses, pants, socks, a scarf, or gloves. Grosspapa would also enclose a few luxury items. On one occasion, there was a camera and film. On another came a pocket watch. This item had cost only a dollar, he wrote to my mother; nevertheless, it was a good watch. And because I already had a watch—indeed in a silver housing whose elegant dial recorded the hours in Roman numerals—my
parents assigned this newcomer from America to my brother.
When the decision was announced, I was quite upset because I’d received
nothing from the new package but a shirt, a short-sleeved shirt, and I felt cheated.
Hermann, on the other hand, was delighted with his gift. First of all, he took
a good look at his new watch, then cautiously wound it up and, with a smile of
satisfaction, brought it to his ear to hear it tick. Next he opened the back
cover and carefully examined the mechanism. Finally, he attached the chain to
his suspenders, and since he had no special watch pocket, carefully slipped the
new gift into the right side pocket of his Lederhose.
Still annoyed, I cornered him the next day and said disparagingly, "Look, Hermann, let’s face it, my watch is superior to yours. Mine is made of silver; yours is made of just ordinary metal. Mine has a second hand and can tell the seconds; yours doesn’t and has no way to tell seconds. Mine has a cover not only on the back but also on the front, to protect the dial. Mine has a fine, graceful tick; yours quacks like a duck. In short, mine is an elegant instrument; yours is cheap and ordinary. Maybe some day, when you get a little bigger—you’ll have to eat a lot of Knödel (dumplings) before that happens—you too will get a decent watch. In the meantime, I’m afraid you’ll
have to make do with what you have there."
One afternoon a few days later, I was looking down at the sidewalk in front
of our house from one of our windows. Hermann was standing below there with
inferior American watch in the right pocket of his lederhosen as usual. We
were talking back and forth, and I thought I’d go at it again with him. "Hermann,
what time do you have?"
My brother pulled the piece of tin out of his pocket. "Half past three."
Now I’ll show him, down to the second, what time it really is, I thought.
I whisked my superior silver mechanism out and smartly clicked open the front
cover. Suddenly, my precious silver watch slipped from my hand. I heard it land
on the sidewalk below with a light smack. I gave a yelp and tore through the
apartment and down the stairs to the street.
There my one-and-only watch lay on the concrete, with the glass shattered
into a hundred splinters. I picked it up on the verge of tears. Was it still
time? I lifted it to my ear. Nothing. I shook it. From inside came an ominous
rattle. I brought it to my ear again. Nothing. It was finished, lost, gone.
My little brother stood there wide-eyed with amazement. Then suddenly, a
malicious smile spread across his face. He pulled his watch from his pocket—that cheap, detestable American watch—looked at the dial, and said, "Three minutes ago, you still had a watch. Now you have none. But don’t
worry, Arnold, if you want to know what time it is, all you have to do is ask
Look, Arnold, a Car!
Mödling’s Altstadt (Old Town) consists of many old houses dating from
the Middle Ages to the early nineteenth century. When we were children, one could
tell the age of these venerable edifices both from their style and their condition.
Most of them lacked paint and plaster, and many corner stones were missing as
well, as were window frames and sills, gutters, and large pieces of the walls
themselves. Fortunately, most of those splendid houses have been painstakingly
restored, so that today, the whole Altstadt is like a museum in which one can
look back into history.
The outlying areas have also changed considerably, though not necessarily
for the better. Where one crossed over meadows or walked along fields in
today there are modern houses or developments. Where a gas pump now stands,
to be an ancient inn. The town square around the Statue of the Holy Trinity,
which was a market area, has turned into a parking lot for cars, mopeds,
and bicycles. Standing there on a summer’s day, I can almost hear the cries of the peasant women who used to come in from the provinces and even from Hungary in horse-drawn carriages and heaped the market stalls with their fruits and vegetables, sausages, cheeses, eggs, poultry, flowers, and herbs. I can almost sample the apricots or the cherries, as one did then, to "probier" before buying. Everything tasted different in those days, especially the fruit and vegetables, because no one used artificial fertilizers and there was no mass production or refrigeration. On the other hand, my wife claims that it all tastes more or less the same as it did then; it’s just that my sense of taste has faded because I’ve
grown older. Be that as it may, the market women with their babushkas and coarse
skirts are gone, have disappeared like an apparition in a fairy tale.
Outside the old Bahnhof, there was always a row of Fiakers where cabbies
stood around talking or leisurely feeding their horses. Today, there’s a line of waiting taxis and buses rolling in from moment to moment. Along roads where, until 1930, a peasant would slowly pass, sitting atop his hay wagon, today trucks roar noisily by. In the woods’ shaded paths, where men and women slowly paraded in their Sunday best, hardly anyone is to be seen today save an elderly gent or two with hands clasped behind their backs or holding a cane. The streets, then just tamped-down earth or paved with Katzenköpfe (cat’s
head stones), have since been covered with concrete.
Life in the Twenties and Thirties was not always idyllic. First, there was
no real social security. A man who was out of work had only his savings to
back on; if he had no savings, and most didn’t, he had to depend on relatives
or on handouts from some charitable organization. In the years after World War
I, Austria became one of the poorest countries in Europe. Just a remainder of
the once-sprawling Habsburg Empire, the country went through years of hunger,
sickness, neglect, civil war, despair, dictatorship, and finally National Socialism.
In Mödling, things weren’t as bad as in some of the larger cities, notably Vienna. Almost daily, my father took the train into the big city, usually to return home in the evening with a little work in his briefcase, some food, and oftentimes with awful tales about the misery there in Vienna. The stories weren’t intended for us children, but we occasionally caught a detail about the frightful conditions from our parents’ private
One story that our father did tell us concerned a physician named Hermann
Frischauf, who was a member of the Schönberg Kreis. One day, a man walked into his office who was so emaciated that one could see all of the bones under his skin. The poor fellow, who was coughing and spitting blood and barely able to stand upright, was obviously in the last stages of consumption. Frischauf asked him to sit down, then went to the kitchen and brought him a plate of soup and some bread. "First eat something, then we’ll talk," he
told the poor devil. In those days, Hermann Frischauf treated many such half-starved
individuals free of charge and often fed them, even when food was far from plentiful
for himself and his family. I should mention that this heroic individual, who
was a devoted communist, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1939 and sent to Dachau.
Three years later, he was released, a broken man, and he died right after the
war, though only in his early fifties.
To return now to Mödling, it can be said that before 1930, it was still stuck with one foot in the previous century. So what set that period in my hometown apart from what it is today? The distinction doesn’t lie in its appearance so much as it does in its sound, for lack of a better word. Just outside Mödling, where the Vienna Woods stretch out from the Hungarian plains toward the west and gradually rise into the Alpine foothills, there is a modest valley, called the Brühl, with a narrow entrance into the mountain pass that is referred to as the Klausen. On a large hill about 400 feet above the Klausen sits a picturesque ancient ruin with a round watchtower of dark granite called the Schwarzer Turm (Black Tower). A steep, narrow path leads from the valley up to this tower. At the top, a lovely panorama unfolds before the wanderer’s eyes. Looking to the left, one can see all the way to Vienna and beyond; on an especially clear day, the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains are visible on the horizon. To the right, looking to the southeast, one can distinguish villages, fields, and forests in the far-off province of Burgenland, the "land of castles." Just below the Schwarzer Turm, the whole of Mödling
spreads out, with its marvelous Altstadt and, a bit further off, the less romantic
I remember one morning with particular clarity when I, a boy of 10, sat up
there for a long time, on a tree stump near the Schwarzer Turm. It was perhaps
o’clock on a weekday, and the sun was shining brightly, the sky a clear blue; somewhere a rooster crowed from time to time. Down below on Brühler Strasse, a carriage was rolling by. Clip-clop, clippety-clop, went the horses’ hooves
on the cobblestones; one of the wheels was squeaking. The coachman cracked his
whip with a loud smack and yelled at the horses, and the wheels rolled more quickly.
Somewhere there was water babbling; it could have been a brook or perhaps a waterpipe
down below near the street. From a greater distance, but still quite clear and
rhythmical, came the sound of hammering. That had to be the smith in his workshop
on Neusiedler Strasse, who was perhaps banging a glowing horseshoe into shape
on his anvil. Soon he would begin nailing it to the foot of a horse, who would
remain quite calm, without feeling the least little twinge.
Looking eastward, beyond the city and almost at the horizon, I could make
out a train that was perhaps ten or twelve cars long, with the locomotive
I could not only see the jets of steam bursting from the iron funnel, I could
hear them as well smoking and puffing. Even the metallic clatter of the wheels
on the hard steel rails reached my ears with perfect clarity. Down below
me in the Klausen, two women walked by, chatting; I could easily distinguish
tones of one from the somewhat lower voice of the other. Had I strained a
bit harder, I probably would have understood what they were saying.
Sixty years later, while visiting in the Brühl, I recalled that lovely morning in 1933 and decided to climb up to the Schwarzer Turm once more. The path was quite the same, and I made my way over rocks and ancient steps and roots of old trees just as I had before. Higher and higher I climbed, though of course not as nimbly as I had as a child. When I got to the top, I felt as if time had stood still up there. The Tower looked exactly the same, old and foreboding. The forest, the pine trees, the old Roman ruin nearby—called the Augengläser (Eyeglasses) because of its shape—nothing
had changed in the least, as if only a few minutes had gone by. Not even the
panorama before my eyes seemed much different.
And yet, something was different. I didn’t realize immediately what it was, but something was missing, and after a while, the spell was broken. It came to me that the sounds had disappeared. Those sounds of long ago—the crowing rooster, the cracking whip, the rumbling train, the puffing locomotive, the squeaking wheels, the chattering women, the clacking hooves, the hammering hammer—were all gone. In their place was only the noise of traffic—of
a truck driver stepping on the gas with a roar, of a moped starting up with a
mechanical burble, of car after car rumbling by in seemingly endless succession.
I felt disappointed and somehow cheated.
But then, I became aware of other tones, these coming from the tops of the
trees that reached, dark green, into the azure sky overhead. Soon these tones
more pronounced to my ears than the mechanical ones below. What I was hearing
were the twitters of the finches and the larks that had always lived in the
trees of the valley there at the edge of the Vienna Woods. How lovely, how
was their song, soothing music for modern ears.
It is nearly two hundred years since Ludwig van Beethoven took his daily
constitutionals through this valley, meine göttliche Brühl (my divine valley), as he called the Klausen. Inspirations literally flew at him during those rambles of his—the Hammerklavier, the Missa Solemnis, the beginnings of the Ninth Symphony: "It is as if every tree spoke to me." It has been said that a sensitive listener can often detect the songs of these very birds in the Master’s music. He loved to walk along the brook—it still babbles along beneath the trees—to an inn called Die Zwei Raben (The Two Ravens). There he would sit down and drink a glass of the wine pressed from grapes that had grown in the region since the ancient Romans planted them on the gentle slopes. Die Zwei Raben closed its doors a few years ago. But what will surely never fade are the Eleven Mödling
Dances that the great one composed for the fiddlers at the inn.
As I have already observed, Mödling at that time remained between the wars with one foot in centuries long past. For instance, the State had not yet become separate from the Church, so at school, religious instruction was obligatory and stood at the top of each student’s report card. At the Gymnasium, students had to plod away at Latin year after year just like in the days of Goethe and Schiller, and often they had to suffer through Greek as well. In each classroom next to the blackboard, a huge cross hung on the wall bearing Jesus’ tortured
body. Each school day began with a prayer. In the streets, one would see far
more nuns and monks in their simple garb than one does today. I vividly recall
my sense of enchantment as a child whenever I walked by a cloister and heard
the lovely Gregorian chants that the friars and monks were singing within, which
is also a thing of the past these days. And whenever the pope said something,
even if it was not ex cathedra, people everywhere would talk about it and consider
it more important than the speeches of politicians or declarations from heads
The way people behaved back in 1930 was also reminiscent of centuries past.
My family would have been considered middle class at the time. As children,
that one had to treat all adults with respect, meaning that we had to bow
before a teacher whenever we met one in the street and before any older person
addressed us, no matter what his status was in life. One always took one’s hat off and greeted people with such phrases as "Habe die Ehre" (It is an honor), "Good day, sir," "Good evening, Madame," and "Küss die Hand." When going to a concert, mass, or government office, one was always to be carefully washed and combed and dressed decently with shoes shined to a high polish. When one arrived somewhere, one would always greet others respectfully, sit quietly down, and wait until one was called. Talking in a doctor’s office or in the waiting room of any office was done only in whispers. Respect, consideration, politeness, and gutes Benehmen (pleasing behavior) from us children were among the unwritten rules that had to be observed no matter what. If one didn’t
do so, one would be reprimanded or perhaps even shown the door.
If I want to write a letter today, I sit down at my computer and dash it
off. If I make a mistake, I erase it with the touch of a key. A paragraph
transferred from one page to another in a matter of seconds. So too, finding
just the right
word from among ten thousand. How different it all was between the wars.
In those days, if one wanted to write something, one used a device called
which was about the size and shape of a pencil. Into the head of this holder
one stuck a Feder (penpoint), which was made of steel. One then dipped this
into an inkwell, and continued to do so every seven or eight words. With
each dip, one had to remove any excess ink lest, God forbid, a word begin
blot or a stain. Too little ink, on the other hand, could result in your
one or two words before having to dip in again or, worse, making ugly scratches
on the page.
Mistakes, blots, and scratches had to be avoided because the ink couldn’t be erased, like pencil. And crossing out words was simply not done; that would have been considered slovenly or uncivil. Removing a mistake was possible but time-consuming. First, one had to wait for the ink to dry or speed up this process by using a blotter. Then one took an instrument called an erasing knife—a sharp pocket knife or a razor blade might do the trick instead—and scratched one’s paper until the wrong word or blot was completely removed. In the process, one had to take care so that one didn’t
make a hole in the page. The next step was to smooth out the scratched area with
a thumbnail so that the mistake could be corrected with the pen and the place
become as innocent-looking as possible. If one made a mistake while writing an
important letter, it was usually best to start all over again.
In 1930, we still used traditional German script, which is quite different
from today’s Roman letters. To this day, I have no difficulty reading the correspondence of a Mozart or a Beethoven. Or of Schönberg
for that matter, who, however, had begun to switch to Latin script before 1930
and later used a manual typewriter almost exclusively.
The goose pens or quills of centuries past, and our steel pens that followed
them, had flat heads. Thus, the upstroke was always thin, the downstroke
thick. It was important to write cautiously and with circumspection; the
had to be kept at the correct angle to the paper, or else the ink might squirt
create the much-feared blots. If one used ruled paper, the lines had to be
observed precisely; for unlined paper, one needed a support sheet, which
was ruled with
thick black lines and placed under the page so that they would show through
and could be used as guides. No irregularities were allowed; everything had
straight and precise. And one would dry the ink again and again with a blotter
or a Löschwiege (blotting cradle), thus named for its rocking motion. Schönschreiben (calligraphy) was an important subject at school, for which you were unfailingly
marked on each report car.
Here is another picture, another memory from that era. One afternoon in the
summer of 1929, my four-year old brother and I, aged six, were leaning on
looking out onto the street one floor below. As there was no kindergarten
in the summertime, we really had nothing else to do. The weather was hot
Below us, various people walked by, most of whom we knew. The milk lady came
out of her store next door to wash the shop window. She did this with a brush,
which she dipped into a pail of soapy water from time to time. As I looked
on, I wondered whether this might not be the same pail she used to pour water
the milk early in the morning. A few days before, our mother had voiced a
suspicion that the good lady was perhaps doing that in order to make a little
The next thing that greeted our eyes was a man coming toward us from the
Lerchengasse to our right. He was completely black, that is, he was covered
with soot from
head to toe, and only his eyes gleamed white from time to time. From the
rope around his shoulder and the broom under his arm, he was easily recognizable
as a chimney sweep. I was always sorry for those poor fellows because, as
used to tell us, they had to crawl into those filthy chimneys and spend hours
there cleaning and sweeping, and breathing in loads of soot and dust, all
for ridiculously low wages that were hardly enough to feed their families.
of course, was the fault of the Capitalist System, my father would point
out, a system that thrived on the exploitation of the poor. In reality, the
hence more starved, a chimney sweep was, the better, for otherwise he wouldn’t fit into the chimneys any more. If such a one were too fat, he could get stuck in one of them—an additional excuse that the Capitalists used to justify their low wages, according to my father. When I asked who cleaned the chimneys in wonderful Russia, he gave some kind of cockadoodledo answer which, sad to say, I can’t remember, probably because it wasn’t
A carriage went by below, drawn by a white horse and a bay. It was the milk
wagon, and sure enough, it stopped in front of our building. The driver climbed
from his seat, opened a door in the rear of the coach, and lugged out two
large aluminum containers. He dragged one, then the other into the store,
out each time with an empty can, which he shoved into the rear. In the meantime,
the horses stood there waiting, and sometimes one of them released a mound
Rossäpfel (horse-apples), which we boys always found amusing. The Rossäpfel remained on the street for sparrows to peck at until other vehicles came along to crush and flatten them. Early the next morning, another wagon would come by with a man walking behind it wielding a shovel and broom. This wagon was referred to as the Düngerwagen (dung cart). Eventually the manure that the man threw into it was sold to the
peasants, who used it to fertilize their fields. And so, everything in turn was
used to help in the preservation of life, as there was then no concept of the
environment or pollution.
Next to greet my brother’s eyes and mine was a tiny wagon drawn by an ancient carthorse. Despite a flurry of cracks from the coachman’s whip, the poor animal was barely able to keep going, even though its load consisted only of clanking pots, cups, pans, pitchers, and spoons. When someone signified an interest in buying, the driver would stop and climb down from his seat. There would be some haggling, and usually the poor nag’s
load was a couple of bowls lighter in the end. Then the whip would crack, and
the cart would move slowly on.
And so, there we two brothers were on that particular day, leaning on our
windowsill and looking out into the street. It had become very hot. I was
about to lie
down for an afternoon nap.
Suddenly Hermann gave a yell, "Hey, Arnold!" His voice shook with emotion as he grabbed my arm. He was looking to the left, in the direction of Mödling’s
Hauptstrasse. A vehicle had just turned the corner onto our street, Jakob Thoma
Strasse, and was heading our way.
"Arnold!" my little brother yelled again, absolutely beside himself. "Schau, ein Auto!" (Look,
Between the two world wars, each of our weeks consisted of six days of school
from early morning to midafternoon, followed by homework, which we worked
on until late in the evening. Usually there was time left over for sports—skiing or skating in the winter, swimming, hiking, or mountain climbing when the weather was warm. We did a lot of reading too, but in the main, six days of the week were dedicated to Pflichterfüllung (doing one’s
duty). On Sunday, church attendance in the morning was mandatory. But then, at
last, came Sunday afternoon, which belonged to us, and us alone. Then, and only
then, could we boys indulge ourselves in our favorite pastime, going to the movies.
As soon as we began attending Volksschule (elementary school), my brother
and I each received fifty Groschen in pocket money each week. You couldn’t buy very much for that in those days, but it was enough for a single ticket to the movies, so this money went toward this purpose and no other. If we somehow managed to earn a few extra Groschen by doing housework or running errands during the week, we could then afford to buy a treat to take along with us to the movies, like a little bag of Pralinée (chocolates) for twenty Groschen or Punschkrapfen (glazed doughnuts) for fifteen
In those days, there were two cinemas in Mödling. The Juhacz Theater was located in the Altstadt and as the more fashionable of the two, as well as the pricier. But it was within easy walking distance of our home, whereas the other was not. We had to walk, of course, as we didn’t
have enough money for the bus too.
There were three showings at Juhacz’s on Sundays: at four, six, and eight o’clock. The last of these was out of the question, since nine p.m. was our bedtime. Six was also too late, for dinner was served at seven. Therefore, if we were going at all, it had to be to the four o’clock
show, which ended shortly before six.
Now came the most important part and also the biggest problem, the tickets
and the price. The cheapest seats were on long benches upstairs in the rear
mezzanine, and they cost fifty Groschen each, which, remember, was all that
we boys usually had. Unfortunately, the seats in the mezzanine were so disposed
that one had to look at the screen straight ahead or at a slightly downward
from way up there. So if you were tall, you could manage to look over the
heads of the people sitting in front of you, but if you were short or a child,
had to twist and bend and squeeze to get even a partial view. Needless to
say, standing up wouldn’t have worked, as that would have blocked the view of
the people sitting behind us.
The sixty places on the mezzanine benches were numbered, and they were always
sold in reverse order, starting with number sixty. We knew from bitter experience
that only a few of those places offered a decent view if one was on the short
side. By far the best of them were numbers nine and ten, from which the views
were totally unobstructed. Numbers nineteen and twenty, directly behind them,
were okay too because it was still possible to see the screen between the
heads of the adults in the first row.
And so, each Sunday, two hours before show time, my brother and I would take
up positions near the cashier’s window to observe the ticket sales and the people who lined up to buy them. The idea was to get in line at precisely the right moment in order to obtain those places we desired in the mezzanine. It was essential, especially when many people were getting in line, to join the queue in time, otherwise one could end up empty-handed. That was no easy task, for we had to quickly determine who would be buying the expensive tickets and who the cheap ones, and who would buy two, three, or even four. We also had to be on the lookout for other children who had their eyes on numbers nine and ten. The competition was especially keen for the movies featuring such actors as Hans Moser, Hans Albers, or Heinz Rühmann.
I am happy to report that over time we developed an uncanny sixth sense,
one that was almost 100 percent reliable, and we were eminently successful.
looking at people’s clothes, demeanor, and age, and taking into account those we
recognized, we were able to reckon with accuracy who would spend fifty or eighty
Groschen, a Schilling, or even one Schilling and fifty Groschen for tickets.
And so, we managed to snap up nine and ten at just the right instant just about
every time. If on one occasion or another we failed to do so, we were usually
able to grab nineteen and twenty just behind in the second row.
As I said, there was a second movie theater, and this was located in Neu
Mödling. As this was in a working-class neighborhood, all seats were only fifty Groschen and therefore price was of no consequence. Also, visibility was not a problem there because it had only a ground floor and the screen was high above eye level. However, there were disadvantages. First of all, one had to walk for nearly an hour to get to that theater. Furthermore, the walk took us through an area where we boys from the Altstadt were disliked by the local children; once we even got a beating. The upshot was that whenever we decided to go to this second movie theater, we would dress as poorly as possible so as to look like proletarians, which was not very difficult to do. At times, as I have said, my family was quite badly off in those days, and so our "proletarianization" did
not require much effort.
The Neu Mödling movie house presented other problems. First, it was rather a shabby place. The seats were in bad condition and the theater itself poorly ventilated, which was particularly unpleasant when the hall was sold out. Also, the films they showed there were usually older and less popular than the ones at the Juhacz. So we went to this Neu Mödling theater only if we had already seen the movie being shown at the Juhacz or if it was showing something of special interest. One thing of special interest was a double feature, and in that case, we didn’t care whether the movies were old or new, good or bad. We would have gladly sat on the floor, walked back and forth in the rain, and even allowed the "new town" kids
to heckle us. For to us, movies were the most wonderful thing in the world.
There was yet a third movie theater in Mödling. It seems to date from quite early in my life, certainly before 1930. My family wasn’t so badly off in those days; in fact, we still had a Dienstmädchen (live in woman servant). Her name was Resi, or something like that. She spoke
German with a foreign accent and conversed with a friend in a foreign tongue;
possibly she was from Slovakia or Croatia. Resi was very kind and motherly to
us children. We looked upon her as an old lady, as she had to be over 30, a well-nigh
unimaginable age when you are just four or five.
One day in 1927 or thereabouts, Resi took me by the hand and said that we
were going to the Kino (cinema). My brother, who was two, was not allowed
along. As for me, I was already four, and so old enough; in fact, I had already
been to see a film or two with my parents and uncle Görgi. On our way, Resi
bought me a Nusskipferl cake and a Kracherl soda to drink with it. After some
time, we arrived at an official-looking building that looked like a school or
a hospital. Two flights up we came to a hall or classroom. At the entrance sat
a lady at a table collecting the price of admission for this event. Our Resi
paid, and we were allowed to go in. Inside, many chairs stood in rows on a parquet
floor. There was a podium in the front of the room, and on this podium stood
some kind of stand holding a large white screen. In the rear, behind the dozen
or so rows of chairs, was a tall table, and on top of the table a black, mechanical-looking
contraption. Next to this contraption stood a gentleman who was evidently the
director, for everyone greeted him respectfully. He was wearing a black tuxedo
and tie, and he welcomed each guest who came through the entrance into the hall
with a benevolent smile. Resi and I sat down in one of the front rows, directly
before the screen.
Between the first row of chairs and the podium, over toward the right, stood
a shiny black grand piano. Its bench was positioned in such a way that the
person sitting on it could observe both the notes on the music stand and
After the place was more or less full, a young man, also in a black tuxedo,
entered and walked over to the piano. The audience applauded, and he bowed.
Then he sat
down on the bench and snapped on an electric lamp over the music stand.
Everyone fell silent and became full of expectation. The windows had already
been shuttered, and now, except for the small light on the music, the room
was completely dark. The director began fiddling with the projector, or as
called it, the laterna magica. With the turn of a crank, a grating sound
became audible as the film began to run. Suddenly, a bright light shot out
contraption onto the screen to form a large rectangle, and inside it, numbers
appeared, 8, 6, 4, 2—this much I was able to read for myself at the time.
Next, there were words, which our Resi read off to me in a whisper. At the same
time, the fellow at the piano grandiosely raised his hands and began to play,
drowning out the buzz of the projector.
First, there was a sort of newsreel, that is, somewhere a war was going on
and there was a lot of shooting with tanks rumbling by and soldiers flinging
to the ground to escape exploding grenades. I remember in particular poor
civilians trying to hide themselves from attacking airplanes, but where this
being fought—Asia, Africa—is anyone’s guess. As the film was silent,
the pianist had the floor, so to speak, and took full advantage of it by alternating
between serious and stormy themes to match what was happening on the screen.
After about ten minutes, this film was over, and there was a short intermission.
People began to talk, and Resi explained that the newsreel had only been a foretaste
and that two long regular movies were yet to come.
At last, the intermission was over. The director had attached a huge reel
of film to the side of the projector, and now the lights went out and the
started up again. One of the two feature films I hardly remember; it was
probably a love story, as there was a great deal of kissing. The second film
was a comedy
in which the principal characters were two funny men named Pat and Patachon.
One of them was big and fat and the other short and thin and thus much more
nimble than his buddy. The two got themselves into the most incredible scrapes.
instance, in one scene, they were standing on a shaky scaffold high above
the city, which made one feel very giddy. In another, they found themselves
the midst of a creepy-crawly jungle, surrounded by ferocious tigers and surly
Often things looked hopeless for those two guys, but somehow they always
managed to get away no worse for wear.
Twice the film broke, and each time the lights came on in the room with the
director apologizing and assuring everyone that the film would be starting
up again in
a few moments. Resi explained to me that the broken ends of the film would
have to be zusammengepickt (glued together). These interruptions were filled
music, with Herr Pianist doing the honors with a few classical pieces, probably
Beethoven or Schubert, a waltz, and a hit tune, in other words, a little
something for everyone. After the film was over, Herr Pianist played a farewell
everyone applauded appreciatively, and the two gents in monkey suits took
The films that we saw in this hall were probably among the last silent movies
and, as far as I recall, the only ones I ever saw in a regular presentation.
Of course, one can see them today on videotape, but it’s not the same. The suspense of the action and the excitement of the technical miracle are missing, as are the tension and uncertainty as to whether the new-fangled contraption would actually work. Only someone who was alive at that time can really begin to understand just what "the movies" meant to people in those days. There was something very personal about those silent films and the pianists accompanying them, who were constantly adapting to the action and carefully coordinating their music with the plot. That was why people applauded at the end just as they would have at a concert. Unfortunately, all this was lost with the arrival of the "talkies" and
Mödling is a little less than ten miles from Vienna. Today’s rapid
trains take you there from the capital in seventeen minutes. Even with the slower
steam trains in the Twenties and Thirties, the trip took only half an hour. However,
going from one city to the other in those days was like a journey back through
time. By 1930 in Vienna, the car and the taxi had replaced the horse-drawn carriage
and Fiaker. The Viennese were already shopping in big department stores, and
many lived in enormous housing developments where one block of buildings looked
exactly like the next.
Mödling, on the other hand, remained relatively unchanged. When one arrived by train from somewhere, ten or twelve Fiakers stood ready on the Bahnhofplatz, just as they would have a hundred years earlier. The coachman would climb up into his seat, loudly crack his whip, and, clip-clop, clip-clop, the carriage would begin to roll along. Unforgettable to me is the odor of the horses, their neighing and whinnying, the scraping of a horseshoe on the pavement, the coachman’s
call to giddyap.
In the Mödling of 1930, life was probably not much different from what it had been under the Empire, say in 1880, or in some respects even in 1780. The streets were mostly unpaved, that is, they consisted of tamped-down earth. Many of the rural roads weren’t
all that firm, so that every passing vehicle stirred up clouds of white dust
behind it, which then settled very slowly. If you happened to be out walking
and were enveloped in one of those dust-clouds, you held your breath as best
you could so as to get as little of it as possible into your lungs.
Here and there, heaps of steaming, light-brown Rossäpfel (horse-apples) would litter the road, with flocks of twittering sparrows snapping up the seeds. From a nearby smithy, heavy metallic blows would ring out rhythmically as the blacksmith’s hammer struck the anvil. From another direction would now and then come the shrill sound of a cobbler’s saw. In the yard next door, one could hear the chickens cackle at feeding time as they crowded around their keeper. There were almost no loudspeakers, since most radios still operated with headphones. Here and there from an open window one could hear someone playing Chopin on the piano or vocalizing a Mozart aria, a housemaid singing a popular ditty, or a schoolboy whistling a marching song. Many people, including most children, wore folk costumes more or less as they had a hundred or two hundred years before. My brother’s summer clothes and mine consisted only of Lederhosen, short Austrian leather pants held up by leather suspenders embroidered with edelweiss. In the fall, we would slip on grey woolen jackets with green lapels and brown leather buttons. In the summertime, we wore sandals and sometimes went barefoot; in the winters, we put on laced-up boots of thick red leather. Suits and coats were usually made to order at a local tailor shop and shoes at a cobbler’s.
Even our toys in those days belonged to the good old times. Once, as very
young children, we received a laterna magica for Christmas, the ancestor
of the movie
projector. This gadget was a metal box with several openings. On its side
was a slit into which one slipped slides with tiny pictures painted on them.
pictures were projected onto a wall through a magnifying lens. I have since
learned that the laterna magica was a popular toy during the reign of the
Theresa, a contemporary of Mozart. In those days, the light came from candles.
Often at Christmas time or for a birthday, we received construction sets
from which one could make manor houses, palaces, and castles. One of the
those sets consisted of red, blue, and white pieces of plaster or wooden
blocks of different shapes and sizes. This was a gift from Alban Berg, a
gentleman, who paid my folks a visit from time to time and always brought
something for us children. I remember Berg’s friendly, round face and the mild expression in his eyes as if I’d seen him just last week. Some years later, around 1935, we got a new construction set consisting of pieces of colored metal that had to be joined with nuts and bolts; the manufacturer was a German firm called Märklin.
A third set that I remember, which was made by the Matador company, consisted
of pieces of wood with small round holes that you joined with thin wooden rods
to produce not only buildings but also vehicles and other complicated gadgets.
I saw quite a few of our toys again many years later in a museum exhibit
depicting life in the eighteenth century. Among them was a horizontal wheel,
set up on
a table top with many vertical slits along its rim. When one looked through
one of those slits into the interior of the wheel, one could see a picture,
as a man lifting a hammer. If one turned the wheel a few slits, there would
be the same man, now with his hammer landing on a nail. One could make the
change more quickly by turning the wheel faster, and the result would be
the moving image of the man driving the nail into a board. A comical effect à la Charlie Chaplin could be achieved by making the wheel go faster yet. Any number of different picture strips could be inserted in the wheel, such as a father slapping his son’s backside, a farmer’s
wife milking a cow, two knights in armor going at each other with swords, or
two woodcutters with a saw.
Another optical toy, which held endless fascination for us children in those
days, was the kaleidoscope, a cylindrical tube with a peephole that one looked
into. Inside the tube were four or five mirrors and several odd-shaped pieces
of tinted glass. When one rotated the tube, an endless variety of geometrical
combinations would result in dazzling colors.
Along similar lines was a box with a cover of transparent glass or celluloid
with little paper men or dancing girls lying on the bottom. Taking a wooden
rod, you rubbed it with cat’s fur and then held the end of the rod over the
box. Lo, the paper figures inside suddenly got up and began to dance. If you
moved the stick to and fro, the little people ran up and down and from side to
Tin soldiers, which were actually made of lead, were popular until World
War Two. One could get sets of Napoleonic, Austrian, Prussian, and Italian
and set them up in battle formation, infantry in front, artillery behind,
with canon, horses, coaches, and other equipment. One day Hermann and I got
of our tin soldiers. A friend showed us how one could heat the lead in an
iron ladle over an open fire. The metal melted quickly, and one poured it
pail of cold water, where it hissed loudly as it cooled. Once solid again,
on all sorts of grotesque shapes, from which, so the story went, one could
tell the future.
Another popular toy, which was still considered a novelty in those days,
was the steam engine. We marveled at this gadget capable of turning a wheel
its puffing strokes as if it were the latest Wonder of the World. To the
wheel, one could connect a variety of devices from a merry-go-round to a
means of a thin chain or string. Because those miniature steam engines were
very expensive and, in the opinion of my parents, did not represent a real
I was able to observe this wondrous engine and its workings only at the house
of a friend. As I recall, the water in the boiler was heated with a candle
or perhaps a kerosene heater.
The toy train that my brother and I did get had a realistic locomotive and
a tiny coal tender as well as freight cars and passenger coaches. The locomotive
was the wind-up kind, just like an old-fashioned alarm clock. After being
wound up, it was placed on the rails and coupled, whereupon it would pull
of cars around the circular track several times. The set included a station
signals, switches, railroad personnel, and tunnels.
Our most wonderful toy, if indeed you can call it that, was also the most
old-fashioned toy of all, and the "smartest" as well; it made the most work for our parents but also gave them as well as us boys the greatest joy. We received this gift in two instalments or versions; the first had its heyday in the fourteenth century, the second, in the eighteenth. Sounds like a puzzle, doesn’t
it? A lot of work, a little money, lots of pleasure, endless possibilities for
the intellect, and something venerable.
What was it? A puppet theater. The first version came to us children at Christmas
in 1927, when I was four and Hermann two. Our mother had been sewing and
sewing for weeks on end, and my father painting. Together they had crafted
of hand puppets, mostly from left-over cloth. For the heads, they had used
little cloth sacks that had been filled with sawdust, stitched up, and then
for the mouth, black for the nose and ears. The eyes consisted of small, sparkling
buttons, the hair of brown or yellow pieces of yarn. The hands were made of small
pieces of wood, cut into shape with a jigsaw. A cardboard tube was inserted for
the neck and, beneath that, a dress or coat was attached, into which you could
stick your hand from below. The index finger fit into the neck, and thumb and
middle fingers into the left and right sleeves.
Of course, there was Kasperl (Punch), the protagonist. Then there was his
Gretchen (Judy), plus a witch, a magician, a dragon, a devil, and a princess.
witch, our parents made the customary pointed hat and broom. The dragon consisted
of remnants of green cloth; his mouth and tongue were red, and he had two
rows of white teeth. The devil sported a clubfoot, two horns, and a tail.
was also a rich man, a usurer whom, alas, my parents had provided with markedly
The stage consisted of a blanket draped over a large broomstick that rested
horizontally across the backs of two chairs. Behind this stage stood a sort
of easel on which
sets could be mounted, all painted by our father, of course. Among others,
there was a mountain scene, a poorly-furnished room, a sumptuous hall, and
a cave with
or without treasure. To these were added a few devices to create sound-effects:
a sheet of aluminum that one shook to imitate thunder, a mouth organ and
chimes for music, a whistle to indicate wind and freezing temperatures, and
ceremonial gong to announce the end of an act. Our parents had actually written
several plays, mostly with the well-known Punch and Judy themes, and they
had even rehearsed them. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, they inserted literary allusions or socially conscious satirical jokes.
For quite a while, we children thought the puppets had a life of their own.
Then little by little, we sadly discovered whom the voices, even of the women
girls, really belonged to, none other than Papa and Uncle Görgi, who hid
behind the blanket that was their stage, moving the puppets with hands held high.
Even so, the magic of it all, the fairy-tale world, the many hours of marvelous
entertainment, yes, and the instruction that went with it remained with us boys
for the rest of our lives.
But that, as I said, was only the beginning. Two years later at Christmas,
a genuine marionette theater materialized, again crafted by hand by my parents
and Uncle Görgi from start to finish. With this theater, the three of them could present regular plays in their entirety, which they did. They had written these plays themselves, but in many details—I can make that judgment today—they resembled the comedies of nineteenth-century Austrian playwrights Nestroy and Raimund, which have remained popular to this day. Sadly, nothing is left of that second theater. The puppets, the marionettes, the backdrops, the texts themselves—everything
was lost in the course of events in Europe, and only the memory remains.
The Soup Pot
Nineteen thirty-four was a turbulent year in Austria. First, there was a
civil war between the Roten ("Reds" or workers) and the Schwarzen ("Blacks" or
conservatives); in the summer, the Nazis assassinated the chancellor, Engelbert
Dollfuss, and Kurt von Schuschnigg succeeded him. A good-looking man in his thirties,
Schuschnigg was an able speaker who never yelled or gesticulated but rather always
spoke to us calmly, rationally, like a father. Refined, cultivated, polite, he
had all the wrong qualifications to lock horns with the likes of a gutter-snipe
like Adolf Hitler.
Be that as it may, in the course of 1934, our government introduced what
subsequently came to be called Austro-fascism. Patriotism became the guiding
and in government offices, schools, post offices, and on every official form,
Kruckenkreuz, emblem of the ruling Austrian People’s Party or Blacks, began to appear—a cross with a short perpendicular line at each end. One could no longer dissent in any way if one wanted to live peacefully and unmolested. In order to follow certain professions, one had to join an organization called the Vaterländische
Front (the Patriotic Front), and in the schools, it was made perfectly clear
that the principals, teachers, even to some extent the students had to think
patriotism if they wanted to get ahead.
My parents had always been Red and in recent years had become active in the
KPÖ, Austria’s communist party. The KPÖ was quite small but superbly organized. Its members, which were drawn not only from the working class but also the intellectual elite, had participated in its activities with intense dedication and were willing to make sacrifices for their cause. But now with the KPÖ declared
illegal, working for them was strictly prohibited.
At home, my brother and I heard only good things about the Russian Revolution
and the paradise that Russia’s workers were building for themselves under the leadership of the great Stalin. Everyone had the right to work, we learned, and he who didn’t
work was not entitled to eat. Those Workers would defend their Soviet Union against
the Capitalistic Plunderers to the last drop of blood.
Hermann and I both favored communism, but we did so mainly to please our
parents, not because we were particularly interested or inclined to help
in die gute
Sache (the struggle). Speaking for myself, such enthusiasm as I felt was
the fact that I was always a traditionalist, even a conservative in outlook.
I believed in God and took pride in and had nothing but admiration for Austria’s glorious past and culture, so that if the chips were down, I would be for the Monarchy, not against it. Uncle Görgi, an important role model for us boys, was totally in favor of the Austrian government, and so too were most of the members of the Schönberg
Kreis. Like so many others, they felt that the current regime, with all of its
drawbacks, was the best protection against the Evil looming in the North.
To go on with my tale, one day in 1936, my parents rented one of the rooms
in our apartment to a stranger, a Herr Franz, a tall, good-looking man with
hair, about thirty-five years old. He was a Czech who spoke German well,
although with a strong Slavic accent heard frequently in Austria at the time,
was referred to, in mischievous popular parlance, as Böhmakeln (Bohemian gibberish).
Herr Franz was some sort of Elektrotechniker, for from his first day with us,
he tinkered with radios; in fact, he brought an enormous one into his room, which
he was constantly fussing with. Hermann and I thought it was his hobby, so we
paid no further attention.
Herr Franz, as I later learned, was a communist agent, and his job was to
receive instructions and news from Moscow and relay it all to the leaders
of the KPÖ. He also transmitted news from Austria to Moscow, generally exaggerated reports about worsening political and economic conditions in Austria and about the misery of the unemployed and their attitude vis-à-vis the Austrian government, the communist party, and the Soviet Union. I assume that he told his contacts in Moscow exactly what they wanted to hear. Herr Franz, then, not only had a receiver in his little room but a transmitter as well. Of course, we children didn’t
have the least idea what was going on, but certainly my parents did.
During the time he lived with us, Herr Franz frequently took his meals with
the family, and we found him neither friendly nor unfriendly, in the main
quiet person. After three or four months, he became a fixture, coming and
going unnoticed and sometimes disappearing for days on end, only to suddenly
Once, quite unexpectedly, Herr Franz gave our family a fabulous gift, a huge,
handsome radio console made by Telefunken, which my mother put in the dining
room. This elegant Goliath even had a green eye for adjusting the volume
and quality of reception. I still remember how Herr Franz labored with the
to get it to work as smoothly as possible. Needless to say, we boys were
overjoyed with this new toy, even though we were not allowed to lay our hands
a rule that required no further explanation.
One day that summer, Hermann and I were summoned to lunch in the dining room,
where the black table was set as usual with a neat white cloth, linen napkins,
and place settings for three, as the two of us and Mother were eating lunch
alone today. Our father had taken the train to Vienna that morning to look
at the Universal Edition and wouldn’t be returning until dinnertime. Herr Franz wasn’t
around either, having left town a day or two before on one of his mysterious
trips, with no telling when he would be back.
It was a hot, humid day, but that didn’t affect our appetites; Hermann and I were ravenous, especially since we were aware that our mother was preparing one of our favorite dishes, Hühnersuppe mit Leberknödel (chicken soup with liver dumplings). Earlier that day, we had looked on as she slowly added the ingredients to the large iron pot that stood on the old cast-iron stove with a lively coal fire burning underneath: a whole chicken, vegetables and potatoes, parsely, Einmach (a mixture of flour and lard), and numerous Gewürze (condiments). Then we had watched as she gave the dumplings, consisting of flour, egg, chopped liver, and pork fat, one final roll in flour before dropping them into the bubbling broth, and stirred everything in the "bottomless pot" with a large Kochlöffel (wooden spoon). There would be enough not just for lunch that day but for the next day’s
as well. Tantalizing odors wafted through the whole apartment.
Soon the soup was ready, and the three of us took our places at the table.
A soup tureen and ladle stood ready in the center, as did some crusty slices
Anker bread that were never missing from a meal. We were ready to dig in.
Suddenly, there was a loud rapping at the door and a woman’s voice rang out from the hall, "Frau Trudi, schnell, kommen’S sofort!" (Mrs.
Trudi, come quickly, right away.) As she called, she was punching the bell and
continuing to knock impatiently.
Mother got up and ran to the foyer, looked through the peephole, then opened.
The woman, a neighbor, came rushing in and now, no longer shouting but whispering,
said a few words to Mother, who immediately came running back into the living
room as fast as her feet could carry her. Then rushing over to our elegant
radio console, she opened the top and hastily seized a black object the size
of a dog’s
head that looked like an electric motor. Then she ran back to the kitchen and
set the object on the hearth for a moment while she lifted the cover off the
chicken soup, then deftly let it slip into the pot and poured water over it so
that the thing was completely submerged.
Not a moment too soon, for already the doorbell was ringing and someone was
pounding on the door. Mother ran there. "Yes," she said breathlessly, "who
"Aufmachen, Polizei!" a loud male voice barked out. "Open up!"
Mother unlocked the door, and two men came in. They were both in civilian clothes,
well dressed in suits, shirts, and ties. One was on the chubby side, the
other lean; both were quite tall. To me, they appeared to be older men, but
they were somewhere in their forties. The chubby one said curtly, "Somebody is making illegal broadcasts in this neighborhood." Then
they began searching in earnest, as if they owned the place.
They went from one room to the next, even the toilet. In the pantry, they
knocked overhead with a cane for a false ceiling. In the bedrooms, they looked
the beds and in the various chests and closets. Everywhere they rapped on
the walls, felt behind pictures, and lifted carpets to have a look at the
Finally, they went into the kitchen.
My mother was standing at the stove with the ladle in her hand and gave them
a maternal smile. "Einen Teller Hühnersuppe, die Herren?" (How
about a plate of chicken soup, gentlemen?)
"Nein, danke, wir haben schon gegessen." (No thanks, we already ate)—it was the chubby one again. "Please excuse us for bursting in on you like this," the lean one added. "If you see or hear anything suspicious, let us know at once. Goodbye now, and enjoy your lunch." And
then they left.
A week later, our guest, Herr Franz, also left, moving out as quietly and
surreptitiously as he had moved in. But the elegant Telefunken radio stayed,
and around it
we sat two years later when our chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, spoke to
the last time as the Nazis were taking over: "Gott beschütze Österreich!" (May
God protect Austria!)
There is a sequel to this story, something that I didn’t find out until 2004, sixty-six years later, something that attests to my parents’ stubborn dedication to the "cause." The source was my first "puppy love," Gerti
N., now an octogenarian like myself.
Gerti lived in the same building that we did back in 1938, and during one
of my recent visits to Mödling, I asked her what happened after my family suddenly
fled Austria. This is what she told me.
No sooner were we gone than a woman on an upper floor reported having observed
us quietly leaving the building, suitcases in hand and rucksacks on our backs
early one morning like "thieves in the night." Other neighbors speculated
as to the reason for this hurried departure.
Then about a week later the Gestapo came to pick up my father, knocking at
our door, and when no one answered, breaking it down. They searched the place,
far more thoroughly and ruthlessly than the Austrian police had two years
before. According to Gerti, they literally tore the place apart.
We had two handsome tiled stoves in the apartment, a green one in the living
room and a red one in one of the bedrooms, which kept us warm through all
the winters of the Twenties and Thirties. In the course of their search,
broke open both of those stoves, and in one of them, they found—a radio
I can only guess at what had happened. After Herr Franz left, back in 1936,
the KPÖ planted another transmitter in our apartment, perhaps operated by another "friend." After the Anschluss, probably shortly after we left, this "friend" was arrested by the Gestapo, as so many people were in those days. The Gestapo well knew how to get information out of people, and most likely persuaded the "friend" to
Happily, we were well out of it, somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean, en route
to the New World.
I cannot really close this chapter without relating a few stories that have come down to us from my father’s, Felix’s, side of the family. These are anecdotes that have been relayed from generation to generation as Greissle Überlieferungen (“traditions”).
Let me begin by explaining the linguistic derivation of the name Greissle. There are two schools of thought as to its meaning. One is that one of our ancestors was a a nice, little old manfrom Greis (“old man”) plus the suffix le (“nice, little”). According to the other school of thought, the profession of one of our ancestors was that of a Greissler or “grocer,” the “r” having been chopped off at some point. Tradition has it, moreover, that the family originally came from the southwest German province of Baden-Würtenberg, where the diminutive suffix “le” is common. In nearby Switzerland, a similar suffix, li, is used in words like Burli (“little boy”) and Hausli (“little house”) and in names like Zwingli.
In the late Middle Ages, the name was spelled Greihsle, with the “long h” plus the “long s” for rendering a “hard s” as was the custom. In more recent times, the spelling changed from Greihsle to Greißle–with the German “sharp s” or ß taking the place of “hs.” We German-speakers continued to use this character until the early 1930s, when it was replaced by a double “s”–and that is how Greihsle eventually became Greissle.
A Greihsle appears in the annals of English royalty, not as a king or prince, mind you, but merely as a servant to the king, a gentleman perhaps, but no more than a courier on horseback whose job it was to take messages to and from the Royal Palace in London to the various parts of Britain and Scotland. Sometimes courier Greihlse went even as far as the court of the French king in Paris, a trip that took him to Dover, then by boat to Calais, and again on horseback to Paris. He would hen return to London via the same route with messages and news from England’s troublesome neighbor.
Which monarch did ancestor Greihsle run errands for? Why none other than Henry VIII, yes, the one who had the nasty habit of executing his wives when they failed to provide him with a son as heir to the throne. Greihsle, who was probably an immigrant or the son of immigrants from Germany, was in Henry’s service in the early 1500s.
A more recent episode involving a Greissle, or rather Greihsle, dates from 1683, when Vienna was being besieged by the Turks in their second attempt to capture it. The Turks had already occupied the surrounding towns and villages, including Mödling. Indeed, following strong resistance, the Mödlingers had fled into the Karner, a sort of catacombs underneath St Otmar’s Church, and breaking down the iron door, the Turks had proceeded to slaughter every man, woman, and child. Today, visitors can still see their hack marks on the door and, inside, the heaps of Mödling skulls and bones remaining from that gruesome event.
It wasn’t long before the Ottoman army had completely surrounded Vienna, and because the city was enclosed within thick, well-defended walls–today’s Ring–the Turkish general, Kara Mustafa, decided to starve the inhabitants into submission. Soon food became exceedingly scarce within the walls. Still the people inside held out, hoping against hope to be relieved by an army from Poland under their leader, Jan Sobieski.
It was at this juncture that one hot day in July the Greihsle family sat down together at their circular table for their midday meal. The windows were open. Outside birds were singing amidst occasional salvos from the Turkish artillery beyond the walls. Fortunately for the Viennese of those days, cannon balls did not explode on impact, though they could of course inflict considerable damage.
As the various family members and retainers were spreading their napkins across their laps, the kitchen maid came and set a large bowl of steaming Knödel (“boiled dumplings”) in the middle of the table. Each of those luscious balls of dough filled with bacon rinds was as big as a fist; indeed, Knödel are an Austrian delicacy even to this day.
Suddenly there was a loud noise from the direction of the window, and the next thing they knew, all of the dumplings were rolling onto the floor. It turned out that a Turkish cannon ball had come through the window, perhaps ricocheted, and without touching anyone, smashed the bowl into a hundred pieces, causing the dumplings to roll off the table. There is no word about what happened to the dumplings, but given the situation, we can easily guess that they were devoured down to the last morsel.
I can’t help but relate here the oft-told aftermath to the siege of Vienna by those much-dreaded Turks. The relief army headed by General Sobieski did indeed arrive a few days later, and when the Turks saw the long rows of soldiers on horseback streaming down Kahlenberg Mountain, they took to their heels. So panicked were those Turks that they abandoned all of their supplies, and the starving Viennese poured out of the city to snatch whatever food was in the Turkish tents. Among other things, they found large sacks filled with what looked to be dried beans, and these they hastily dumped into kettles of water and boiled to make soup. It turned out the beans were coffee beans, and that is how coffee made its way into Central Europe. The Viennese liked the new kind of “soup,” and coffee has remained a Viennese specialty to this day–in many varieties of preparation, with and without Schlag.
There is another tradition relating to the Greißle family, this one from the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the late 1700s, Mozart composed three operas whose texts were written by the Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte: Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan Tutte. Da Ponte hailed from sunny Italy, and like so many other Italian artists, made his home in Vienna for a number of years during the reign of Joseph I, Maria Theresia’s son. Having married twice and engaged in a number of amorous liaisons, Da Ponte seems to have had a way with women. Our Greißle ancestry goes back through one of his legitimate sons, or so the story goes.
Some time after 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, Da Ponte came to America, yes, to New York City in the post-Revoutionary era. Here he tried his hand at various business ventures, including an opera company, but failed at everything. He finally got a job teaching Italian at Columbia College (which was later to become a part of Columbia University). Living to age 89, a venerable old age in those days, Da Ponte was buried somewhere in Lower Manhattan.