GEORG (GÖRGI) SCHÖNBERG
My Favorite Uncle
My grandfather Arnold Schönberg was born in Vienna in 1874 and lived there until 1901, when he married his first wife, my grandmother, Mathilde née von Zemlinsky. Mathilde died in 1923, and shortly thereafter Schönberg was married again, this time to Gertrud Kolisch, sister of his pupil Rudolf Kolisch. In 1934, Schönberg emigrated to America with this second wife and lived there, mainly in Los Angeles, until his death in 1951.
Schönberg spent his most creative years, the period of his greatest efforts, worst disappointments, and first triumphs, in the midst of his first family in Austria, with the exception of the years 1901 to 1903 and 1911 to 1915 when they lived in Berlin. In January 1902 their first child was born, Gertrud, who was destined to become my mother. I should mention that there were three Gertruds in Schönberg’s family: my mother, who was known as Trudi; the second, his second wife; and the third, the child of his son Georg, whom we always called Susi to distinguish her from the other two.
In 1906, after Schönberg’s first return to Vienna, his son Georg was born. Georg’s life can be divided into three periods: from his birth to his marriage to Anna Sax in 1929; the incredibly difficult years from 1929 until 1945, with their economic crises, unemployment, and seven years under Hitler, which he spent entirely in Austria; and finally the years after World War II until his death in 1974, during which he enjoyed a quieter, considerably better life. Georg’s character changed considerably over the years, probably because of the many hardships that he had to endure. As a child and up until 1938, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, he was a charming, happy-go-lucky fellow who loved life and had many friends; it almost goes without saying that everyone who came in contact with him adored him. He was unusually generous, and when he got a little money in his hands, more extravagant than he could afford to be. Under the Hitler regime, his psyche underwent profound changes, and after the war, he was a serious, well-nigh broken man who had a tendency to brood, though he still had nearly thirty years of life ahead of him.
From as far back as my brother Hermann and I could remember, Georg Schönberg was our one and only beloved Onkel Görgi. We were absolutely crazy about him as children. Imagine a man in his twenties or thirties, of medium height, rather stout, with thick, frizzy, dark brown hair, a round face with a dark-shiny complexion and brown eyes that always seemed to be smiling—that was he, Görgi, our Onkel. His eyes blinked frequently, which heightened the impression of good-natured friendliness even more; however, it should be noted that this blinking or twitching was involuntary, a peculiarity that remained with him to the end of his days.
Arnold Schönberg was surely not a bad father. But being extremely ambitious, not only for himself but for his progeny as well, he had dreams of Görgi becoming a great musician or else a famous writer, playwright, or scientist. From his early childhood, he looked for Genialität (signs of genius) in Görgi. When the boy went to school, he was expected not only to perform his duties but also to provide evidence, proof positive, that here a unique genius was growing up, an individual who would accomplish extraordinary things one day.
Görgi spoke of the expectations of his father in a post-war composition, his autobiographical cantata, “Mein Lebenslauf.” Again and again he described the ultimate purpose of his earthly existence: “Ich wollte gross sein” (I wanted to be great), or “In meiner Kleinheit suche ich die Grösse” (In my smallness I search for greatness) and “Die Grossen sind die Steuerleute” ( the great ones are the helmsmen at the fray). Schönberg’s expectations and the constant pressure that he brought to bear on his son eventually caused Görgi to develop a profound aversion to school, teachers, and any kind of discipline and to engage in “Widerstand, passive Resistenz” (opposition, passive resistance).
Needless to say, the father was not unaware of his son’s attitude. However, instead of trying to understand the boy’s feelings, Schönberg, in his disappointment, resorted to paternal severity; he tried to force Görgi into achieving at school. Görgi’s reaction was predictable: “Ich fühlte mich dort nie zu Hause. Aber meine Erziehung und mein Vater verboten mir dies offen einzugestehen.” (I never felt at home there. Only, my upbringing and my father forbade me to openly admit this).
Not only was Schönberg severe, but he also didn’t shy away from resorting to corporal punishment as a means of forcing his son to do better at school. One day Görgi returned home from school early. He knocked on the door, and his father came to open it. When he saw his son standing there with his school books way in advance of the expected time, the father raised his arm and struck him in the face with full force.
Startled, Görgi raised his hand to his cheek and rubbed it to lessen the pain. Then realizing that Schönberg was angry because he thought that his darling son was cutting his classes, Görgi declared, “Papa, heute war in der Schule eine Veranstaltung und man hat uns früher nach Hause geschickt.” (Papa, today there was a special event at school and they sent us home early).
Schönberg realized that Görgi hadn’t really deserved a slap, but instead of excusing himself and apologizing, he simply looked at the boy and said, “Na, also. Jetzt hast Du eben eine gut fürs nächste Mal.” (Ok, so now you have a credit for next time).
With such a beginning, things were not destined to go well for Görgi. He never really forgave himself for not living up to his Papa’s expectations. Let me conclude this account of Görgi’s early years by adding this: when brought face to face with his failures in later years, Görgi would often say, referring to his famous father, “Ich war ja nur sein Sohn” (I was only his son).
During the early 1920s, Görgi’s greatest love was playing soccer. His passion began while he was still in school; later he became a key member of the Mödling Football Club, which played against another team each week. At these events, he won frequent acclaim for his feats with “the ball.” As he was somewhat chunky, spectators sometimes singled him out with admiration: “Schauts den Plaaten an, der is’ aber guat” (Look at Chubby, he’s really terrific).
By the mid1920s, Schönberg, who had invented the notorious Twelve Tone System, was dedicating himself to the composition of new, untraditional music. But even before then, in the early years of the twentieth century, he had run into serious difficulties. At most concerts, his compositions had been whistled and booed at or accorded a cool, inimical reception; sometimes these reactions led to brawls. Needless to say, Schönberg was profoundly unhappy about such outbursts; nevertheless, he continued to compose, undaunted, and did whatever he could to get his works, many of them important works, performed.
One lovely summer afternoon in 1922, Schönberg and Görgi went out for a walk together in Mödling, where they were then living. Schönberg began complaining bitterly about the adverse press reviews that a piece of his music had recently received. As father and son strolled along at a leisurely pace through Mödling’s Altstadt (Old Town), the medieval heart of the city, people stopped to greet them.
“Grüß Gott, Herr Schönberg. So eine Ehre. Das haben Sie wirklich gut gemacht” (Hello! What an honor. Well done, Mr. Schönberg). Many gave a friendly nod and smile, or tipped their hats in passing. Of course, Schönberg loved all this attention. He perked up, his mood changed completely, he was happy, he smiled graciously at passersby.
“You see, Görgi,” Schönberg began after two young men had passed and bowed with respect, “you see, perhaps things aren’t so bad after all. Yes, this could be a turning point. I think people are beginning to appreciate my music, and soon you will see my name wherever you look, on posters, in the newspapers, on billboards. I will be respected because everyone will know that through me the preeminence of German music has been assured for the next hundred years. Soon there will be enormous successes to....”
“Papa,” Görgi interrupted him, for he knew better and he had to level with Schönberg. “Papa, they are not greeting you, they are praising me for shooting so many goals for our team the other day!”
To Eat or Not to Eat
As I have already mentioned, Görgi was of medium height and rather stout. My mother, who was quite a wit, called him der G’füde, which in Austrian dialect means something like “the stuffed one.” This tendency to corpulence was not due to a health problem but rather manifested itself simply because he loved to eat well and in large quantities. Even as a child, he gobbled up just about everything that was set in front of him. His mother was very happy about this predilection for food—not an unusual attitude for a woman with respect to her child in those early years of the 20th century. All sorts of dishes were cooked, baked, marinated, and broiled for her darling. Consequently, Görgi’s consumption of food became an important aspect of his life, indeed a recreational activity, so that his tendency to stoutness was not unexpected.
Görgi’s ability to devour uncommon amounts of food in no wise interfered with his digestion, as a story dating from the summer of 1924 will show. He was still single at the time and off on a holiday with some friends at Lake Neusiedl, a stone’s throw from the Hungarian border, where they make large, lovely Paprikás—green peppers stuffed with ground beef, tomato, and rice—in that inimitable Hungarian way. Just for fun, he and his friends, all of them strong, healthy young men, decided to have a contest to see who could eat the most of those Paprikás. Having fasted all day, they were all as hungry as wolves when they sat down around the first bowl filled to the brim with those steaming green globes.
Anyone who hasn’t eaten for a while can easily consume four or five of those wonderful things. The fourth will probably go down a little more slowly than the first three, and with the fifth, a glass of wine or beer might be necessary to wash it down. Between the sixth and seventh, most people, even young and strong ones, will start gasping for air, but Görgi and his pals went on eating—until the ninth, when two of them decided to call it quits. The others continued, however, with the waitress periodically coming to replace an empty bowl with a full one.
The remaining participants kept a wary eye on one another, and the number of Paprikás consumed by each was carefully noted down by the dropouts. The count reached ten, twelve, fifteen, and they were still eating, though naturally they took short breaks from time to time. According to the rules, they would stop at midnight, and whoever had devoured the most Paprikás by then would be the winner, for which the prize would be not having to pay his share.
To make a long story short, Görgi was the winner. By the time the clock struck midnight, he had downed no fewer than twenty-seven of those peppers stuffed in the Hungarian style. Exhausted and full to the gills, he got up and dragged himself to his room to sleep it off—and ate nothing again until the next evening.
Görgi told me that two of the participants were Max Lindemann and Josef “Pipsl” Piler, both of whom remained his friends right through the Hitlertime and those grim days of World War II when any “German” who just said a friendly word to a Jew risked being sent to a concentration camp. Interestingly, Görgi made it through those horrible years of persecution and privation in comparatively good health, though on the slim side. After the war, when he had a fairly decent income, he never became really heavy again.
After his marriage in 1929, Görgi lived on Elisabeth-Strasse in Old Mödling. In 1931, they moved to Wiener Neudorf, a working-class neighborhood, where accommodations were cheaper. Görgi kept a small garden there and planted vegetables and potatoes. People in Wiener Neudorf liked him because he was always friendly and courteous. When, in the worst years of the Depression, there was a bumper crop of potatoes in his yard, he always gave away some to the poor, unemployed workers around him. My family, too, came away with many a kilo in those lean years.
In Görgi’s garden, there were also some fruit trees, and every fall there was a bountiful harvest of apples and plums. Anni used to preserve the fruit in jars and store it for the winter. As I’ve already mentioned, she was a marvelous cook, especially when it came to making Zwetschkenknödel (plum dumplings). Never in my life have I eaten anything so delicious. I remember one day in particular when my brother and I were sitting at the table in Görgi’s living room, waiting with forks and spoons in hand—starving! The most tantalizing smells were coming from the kitchen, and we could hardly contain ourselves. Finally, Tante Anni hurried in and set an enormous bowl on the table before us, full to the brim with those aromatic, steaming balls. We boys had no trouble devouring eight of them each. One reason why Tante Anni’s Knödel tasted so good was because she stuffed each one with a cube of sugar as well as a plum. Nor did she stint on the butter.
Even though the twenties and thirties were lean years, it was a happy time. Our family was together, we had good friends and, most important of all, good, loving relatives. Here are a few more stories from those terrible yet wonderful years.
How to Earn a Living
Back in the twenties, when Görgi was a young adult, he wanted to become an actor, and Schönberg paid for lessons at the Vienna Volksakademie. Görgi landed several jobs as an extra in movies. But when he wanted to become a serious stage actor, he began to have problems. First of all, unknown professional actors fared no better in Vienna at the time than their Broadway counterparts. And to make matters worse, Görgi was a heavy smoker, which affected his voice to the point where he was told by his teacher that if he was serious about going on the stage, he would have to stop smoking. Görgi thought that he could brazen it out and continued to smoke, and had to give up on a career as a stage actor.
At various times in those early days, Görgi also tried his hand at being a sports instructor and with Papa’s encouragement, a professional musician, and he actually got to play horn in the Vienna Philharmonic once or twice as a stand-in. He even tried to become a poet, but this turned out to be almost as much of a brotlose Kunst (breadless art) in those days as it is today.
A short anecdote that has been handed down in my family is appropriate here. Schönberg, it should be remembered, loved this son from his first marriage above all else and was forever worrying about his future. He was especially gloomy whenever Görgi set out in a new profession, soon abandoning it and following up with an extended period of rest. Görgi would then switch to a new line that was totally unrelated to his previous goal. On one of these occasions, Papa could not control himself and angrily snapped at Görgi, “I just can’t understand you. How differently you turned out from your father! The only thing we two have in common is dass wir beide schangere Frauen geheiratet haben” (that we both married pregnant women).
Schönberg continued to help his son during the time of the Great Depression. While he was still teaching composition at the Prussian Academy in Berlin, he regularly sent Görgi two hundred and fifty schillings per month. One couldn’t live on that in Austria at the time, but it was enough for food at least. After Schönberg was fired from his job by the Nazis and eventually relocated to Los Angeles, he was no longer able to provide a regular payment because he had assumed a huge mortgage to buy his house in Brentwood and was himself barely able to make ends meet. Still, as I said, he helped Görgi sporadically whenever he could.
Under the pressure of his responsibilities, Görgi chose to work as a music copyist, even though he hated this occupation. The publisher would give him scores that had been handwritten by the composer. Sometimes the calligraphy was fairly clear, but more often the notes had been scribbled and scrawled and there were many erasures, changes, and insertions. His job as copyist was to make the music ready for printing, which, of course, was done entirely by hand. Not only did he have to render the notes correctly and make copies of the parts but he also had to hand-copy texts as well if there were any. Required, therefore, was a good knowledge of music coupled with a first-rate calligraphy. Because there was normally a tight schedule for the completion of this highly exacting work, a copyist often had to work until late into night, and thus more often than not, this sort of work brought with it burning eyes and an aching back. When a deadline was particularly short, like for an impending performance, the pressure to finish the work on time could bring the poor copyist to the verge of a nervous breakdown; for if, God forbid, he should fail to meet that deadline, quite possibly no more work would be forthcoming. To avoid such a catastrophe, Görgi sometimes labored eighteen hours a day. He would drink huge amounts of black coffee in the process and smoke constantly. Under his desk, he kept a bucket of cold water into which he would stick his feet as a further fail-safe against fatigue. Nevertheless, sometimes the poor fellow fell asleep anyway.
Music-copying was so nerve-wracking that one day Görgi triumphantly wrote Schönberg that he had gone into a new line of work, delivering coal. Lugging heavy sacks on his back for eight hours each day wasn’t exactly a picnic, but for Görgi it was like a deliverance. He developed new muscles and was usually covered with sweat. Often, friends and relatives pretended they didn’t recognize him when they passed him in the street with his dirty clothes and blackened face; some didn’t even return his greeting. This position didn’t last long, however, and one day Görgi wrote to inform his father that he was, alas, back at copying music again.
Schönberg helped his son when and however he could by sending a little money here, a package there, as he did us Greissles. In Görgi’s case, it was a good thing because it helped him and his family get through the worst of times, but it was also a bad thing because it meant a continuation of Görgi’s dependency on his father into adulthood. It also encouraged Görgi’s tendency to work less and even to take a little vacation for himself whenever he came by a little money. That is human, of course, but it did mean that he never made any real headway on his own.
Marriage, Work, and Other Problems
Even in spite of those hard times, Görgi Schönberg remained a happy-go-lucky fellow. He was always, so it seemed, barely able to make ends meet and provided for his family only on a day-to-day basis. Still, somehow he always managed to get by, often just by the skin of his teeth. His wife never considered getting a job; that was how people thought at the time—no one even considered it as a possibility. Anni was, however, not only a good homemaker and a marvelous cook but a first-class seamstress as well, who, during the worst of times, tailored clothes and coats not just for her husband and daughter but also for the Greissles. Anni hailed from humble origins, a family of workers and farmers in Gießhübl near Mödling. She was fairly tall and slim, and attractive. In 1922, when she was fifteen, she came to work as a servant in Schönberg’s house on Bernhardgasse. Görgi, who was also fifteen, liked her, but he had no interest at all in her as a woman.
One day about four years later, Görgi took a train to Mödling to visit some friends. He stopped at the Bahnhof Café for a beer, when, sitting at a table not far from his own, he beheld a lovely young woman with a pair of legs worthy of a Marlene Dietrich. She was tall and tanned, slim and smartly dressed. In her shapely hand she held an elegant cigaret holder. Somehow the lady looked familiar. . .no, indeed, she was. . .yes it was none other than Anni, the servant girl. Görgi spoke to her, and it turned out that she had just returned home a few days earlier from the French Riviera, where she had been working at a resort.
For Görgi it was love at second sight, so to speak. Anni had always been secretly in love with Görgi. The two began seeing each other, and it wasn’t long before they moved in together. Then one day, about a year later, Anni told Görgi that she was expecting a child. They were married in June 1929, and six weeks later Susi was born.
Görgi’s marriage with Anni was a happy one that lasted a lifetime. Anni went through thick and thin with Görgi; her finest hour was to come during the Hitler time when she became his “Aryan” rescuer, never leaving his side for a moment, despite the fact that she was under tremendous pressure as the spouse of a non-Aryan during that era of the Third Reich.
Schönberg, on the other hand, never really forgave his son for his union with a former servant. He accepted Görgi’s marriage only on the surface. Indeed, he was to complain ever after that Görgi liegt mir in der Tasche (was into his pocket), in other words, was a financial drain on him, and that he never achieved anything in any other way or took up a profession, even though the blood of the Master coursed through his veins.
It is certainly true that Görgi often lived on the brink of poverty. However, one should bear in mind that his marriage and life as a provider began at the most unpropitious time imaginable. Even before 1929, the year he got married, Austria’s economy was in a bad way. After the defeat in the war and the demise of the Habsburg dynasty, only a small country remained of what had once been a sprawling empire. Its capital, Vienna, its so-called Wasserkopf, was much too large for such a tiny state, and after 1929, with the Depression, its suffering assumed the proportions of a catastrophe, with extreme poverty and rampant unemployment, and for many, hunger and disease. And so, Görgi’s and Anni’s “best years” coincided with that awful period.
Görgi’s music copying enabled him to earn enough money to defray the most urgent expenses—that is, whenever work became available. He obtained his jobs almost exclusively from Universal Edition, Vienna’s largest music publisher. Until 1931, Görgi copied all of his father’s compositions, even though Schönberg was living in Berlin at the time and the scores had to be sent through the mails. After his move to America three years later, Schönberg continued sending Görgi work, even when the Nazis swept across Europe, as long in fact as mail service between America and Austria continued. Görgi still had friends at the U.E. who continued to give him copying work, but only for the first few months, until the Nazis, who had begun to supervise the firm closely, forbade the employment of Jewish help. Görgi at that time was still classified by the Nazis as a “Mischling” (halfbreed), but, of course, he was the son of that “unfolkish” arch-Jew Arnold Schönberg.
All in all, the people at the U.E. always treated Görgi with kindness and respect and helped him whenever they could. Its head during those years was Dr. Alfred Schlee, who had originally come to Vienna from Leipzig. My wife Nancy and I were able to visit this Dr. Schlee in Vienna in 1992, when he was well into his nineties, retired of course but still a presence at the U.E. and at the Salzburg Music Festival. Since the firm had employed Görgi both before and after the war, we asked Schlee if he remembered him. “Ja natürlich,” the old gentlemen answered. “Wie könnte ich das jemals vergessen. Nie im Leben habe ich so traurige Augen gesehen” (Yes, naturally. In fact, how could I ever forget? I have never seen anyone with eyes so sad).
During the 1930s, Görgi had to commute between Mödling and Vienna several times each week. He had to travel by train, at his own expense, to obtain music-copying work, usually at the U.E., and whenever he landed an assignment, he brought it home triumphantly. He used pen and drawing ink to write notes onto lined music sheets. Görgi was certainly a good copyist, but there were many good copyists, and they had to beg and wheedle to get the least little job. Usually, several of these humble applicants were to be found sitting on a bench day in and day out at the U.E., waiting for an assignment. And the worse Austria’s situation became, the less they would get paid for their work. Still, they were happy to accept whatever was offered to them, though it was never enough to sustain a family. There was just enough money to pay the rent and buy some food, but if someone absolutely needed a new winter coat or a pair of shoes, the situation became grave.
No one who hasn’t lived through those years can possibly imagine how bad things really were. I remember that Uncle Görgi and my father, Felix Greissle, who also had to work as a music copyist, used to get together in Mödling and tell each other the latest news from Vienna. Much of these conversations had to do with unemployent and the misery people lived in. Among other stories was the one about a body cart or corpse wagon, which supposedly was dragged around Vienna to pick up people who had died of starvation. Stories like this were not intended for the ears of us children, of course, but once or twice we got to hear this kind of talk, and that was enough. When we insisted on hearing more details, we were told that things weren’t really that bad, that this sort of thing really didn’t happen very often, and that, in fact, they were probably just rumors and most likely quite unfounded. In any case, we were not to worry; we should be happy that our father and Uncle Görgi were working, which meant that we would always have enough to eat. As a postscript, let me add that quite possibly those carts picking up the dead on the streets were only rumors. I recently asked several elderly Viennese, and no one could recall them.
Sometimes the situation became so bleak for Görgi that in order to save the pittance of a fare between Mödling and Vienna, he would make the three-hour trip on foot to look for work. Even so, he often returned with nothing, and then my mother or friends would have to lend him the money to buy necessities, meaning that they had to part with funds that they needed for themselves, knowing full well that he would never be able to return it. On one of those desperate occasions, in February 1938, Trudi, my mother, wrote to Schönberg in Los Angeles that Görgi and his family “have nothing to heat the place with and there is only one bakery left that will still give them anything on credit. Every day creditors come knocking at his door, his wife is desperate. And so, I invited them to eat at our house, where at least they could sit in a warm room. In order for me to be able to copy music all day long, the wife could have taken over my housework. I don’t believe that this was an unreasonable offer because my work in the apartment never amounts to more than 3 or 4 hours a day. However, the offer was refused. And I can’t even lend him 10 schillings (since I have no debts, I am able to get credit for a while), and the 10 schillings wouldn’t even last half an hour with him. I am writing you this because the situation is so desperate that if something should happen in the future, I don’t want to be seen as being responsible because of my attitude.”
Although Schönberg was now living in America and also had to struggle to make ends meet, he sent Görgi what money he could spare and, as we have seen, frequently put together packages for him and his family with American clothes and food, including sweets, sometimes an inexpensive watch, and whatever else he could muster. Schönberg, it should be borne in mind, undertook this relief work unassisted because his wife, who was 24 years his junior, was not exactly thrilled at the idea that her aging, sickly husband, who was no wealthy man and an unpopular composer to boot, should squander his hard-earned cash to help a child of his previous marriage.
Shooting the Sun
One of my many memories of my wonderful Uncle Görgi dates back to 1929; he was 23 then and still in his best years as a soccer player. However, he was already married, to Tante Anni, and they already had little Susi. They had just moved into a new apartment in Mödling’s Old Town. It was a lovely summer day, and both young families, the Greissles and the Schönbergs, had settled down on the lawn in front of Görgi’s new house. Tante Anni was sitting next to the cradle sewing and chatting with Trudi, my mother, who was knitting a sweater.
Uncle Görgi had brought a soccer ball out on the lawn and was explaining to my brother and me the object of the game and its important rules. What was most interesting for us boys, however, was the ball itself and the different shots one could make with it. Görgi showed us how to kick it with your toes and also how to do Kopfschüsse (headshots), whereby you threw the ball in the air and, as it fell, used your head to project it in the desired direction and over the necessary distance. We boys were flabbergasted, for Görgi was incredibly adroit—he could make the ball do just about anything he wanted.
Next, he gave us samples of different shots, using his instep to project the ball more or less in a horizontal trajectory and the top of his foot to send it flying high into the air. We boys went into absolute raptures.
Uncle Görgi shot the ball way, way up, high over the top of the house so that it took a while before it slammed down on the lawn. We yelled and screamed with excitement, and began pestering him: “Uncle Görgi, what’s the highest you can shoot the ball?” He picked up the ball in his hand and looked at us as if something momentous were about to take place. Then, with a blink-blink of his eyes, he told us that he could send the ball up much higher than he had done so far. And then his face became deadly serious: “Aber soll ich die Sonne einschiessen” (But should I shoot out the sun)?
Hermann and I looked seriously at each other, and then at him. It struck me that there might be unwished-for consequences if our uncle really did that to the sun. Maybe a great darkness would descend on us all and possibly bitter cold as well. Of course, I didn’t altogether believe him, but then, just in case he could do it, I said, “Lieber nicht, Onkel Görgi, schiess lieber daneben” (Better not at the sun. Why don’t you just shoot next to it).
One cold, damp day in February 1929, when I was six years old and my brother Hermann four, our Papa declared that the three of us were going out to buy something. As snow was lying on the streets, we were to dress as warmly as possible. This meant putting on long, thick socks, heavy, laced shoes, knickerbocker pants that were fastened over the socks, and sweaters that our mother had recently knitted for us. Fortunately, Tante Anni had tailored a heavy woolen coat as a Christmas gift for me, and on that day I was allowed to put it on for the first time. The coat was dark brown, and Tante Anni had lined it with thick black cloth for extra warmth.
And so, we stepped out into the street, Father in the middle, I on his left side, Hermann on the right. At the Hauptstrasse, we turned right so that Hermann was on the inside and I beside the street. As every older Mödlinger knows, the sidewalks were quite narrow so that we three had just enough room to walk abreast in that way.
As we were going along, Father suddenly lost his footing and in the process of regaining it, unintentionally gave me a nudge in the hip. I, as it happened, had been staring longingly at the candy store across the street and so unconsciously interpreted the nudge as a signal to cross over. This I did on the run, making a bee-line for that store, with its window chock-full of the most delicious goodies.
Suddenly, everything went black, and the next thing I knew, I was underneath a large vehicle—a bus, I later learned—suspended between the two rear wheels, which were moving. Yes, the bus was in motion and I was being dragged along beneath it with my legs in the air and head bouncing on the Katzenköpfe (cat’s heads, that is, paving stones). Because of the many blows to my head, I became unconscious once more.
When I came to, I found myself lying in a strange bed. People were sitting and standing all around me, among them my parents, Hermann, and Uncle Görgi. When I saw a woman in a nurse’s uniform, I realized that I was in a hospital. My parents then explained that I had run into the Hauptstrasse without looking and that a bus had come barreling along the street from the center of town and hit me. Pushed down by the bus’s bumper, I had miraculously slipped between the two front wheels without being so much as touched by either of them and had then remained suspended beneath the vehicle while being dragged along by it. It seems that a piece of my coat, the garment that Tante Anni had so lovingly made for me, had somehow become snagged in the mechanism and wedged in the chassis. After a few feet, what with everyone shouting and screaming, the vehicle had screeched to a halt. I was pulled unconscious from under it and brought to the hospital in Neumödling. Father and Hermann rode with me in the ambulance.
At the hospital, I was washed and examined. It turned out that except for a small cut on my thigh and the bumps on my head, I had remained totally unscathed. I was thankful to God and also to my good Tante Anni. The coat was badly damaged, of course, and beyond repair. The event had something dreamlike about it, but to this day a tiny scar on the inside of my left thigh reminds me of the reality of the miracle that preserved my life on that day when I was only six.
Another detail from that fateful day has remained indelibly with me. That evening, my parents showed up with an enormous gift basket filled to the brim with all sorts of goodies that in those lean times I seldom got close to except in shop windows. There were oranges, several kinds of nuts, pralinés, figs, dates, marzipan, and my first-ever banana.
Something else happened on the day of my accident that was especially touching. My poor brother saw me disappear under the onrushing bus. Then came the crowd, the yelling, the police, the ambulance. Only much later did he realize that his new knickerbocker pants had become soaked through and through.
The Muscle Car
When I think of the life of Uncle Görgi, there are a series of stories that I simply cannot leave out, and curiously, none of them ever really took place. They were, rather, an ongoing fantasy involving a muscle car that my parents invented back in the 1930s that can best be titled “The Adventures of Georg Schönberg and His Family.”
These stories were told in instalments, during walks that we four Greissles took in and around Mödling a couple of times a week during the 1930s. Sometimes Papa did the telling, sometimes Mama, but a full installment was obligatory and had to last for the duration of the walk. Also obligatory was that the story be resumed from the point that had been reached in our previous walk and, if possible, that it leave off with some cliff-hanger of an event that would keep us in suspense until the next such excursion.
As I said, the stories dealt with the adventures of our Uncle Görgi, his wife Anni, and their daughter Susi, and as is usually the case with fiction, were based in part on fact. Our uncle, it should be understood, would have given his eyeteeth to own a car. Again and again he would voice a fervent wish—if only he could get his hands on one, even the cheapest and smallest of them. But sadly, as we know, there was never enough money for even the basic necessities of life, let alone such an unheard-of luxury. Often, there was only a thin soup and a bit of bread to put on the table. But then, when he got a large assignment, he would always ask the bosses at the U. E. for an advance, which they were usually happy to oblige him with. On such days, he would arrive home perspiring and out of breath under the burden of heavy parcels full of such essentials as bread, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, flour, and sugar but also of some real goodies like Schinken, Rollmops, Leberpasteten, Krapfen (ham, pickled herring, liver croquettes, doughnuts) plus Datteln, Schokolade, Nüsse, and Feigen (dates, chocolates, nuts, and figs). Somewhere in the midst of it all was his briefcase stuffed with manuscripts. “Ich hab’ Arbeit bekommen,” he would announce triumphantly, “also heute wird gefeiert” (Well, I got some work! So tonight we celebrate). And then he would drop it all—gently—on the table and begin to unpack. He couldn’t really afford any of these luxuries, but today there was enough money and, as for tomorrow, there would be a way.
Tante Anni liked to live it up as well. My mother, who, as I’ve said, also had to make ends meet rather drastically in those days, was always scandalized when Anni bragged how she had bought “ein wunderbares neues Kleid” (a chic new dress) or “so eine fabelhafte, moderne Handtasche” (this fabulous handbag in the latest fashion). Mama would mimic Anni’s way of talking by nasalizing the words “wunderbar” and “fabelhaft.” On the one hand, my mother maintained that Görgi and Anni were irresponsible squanderers; on the other, I suspect she was a bit jealous, for Anni was a lovely, handsome woman who, when all dolled up, looked very fetching indeed.
Now let me return to the stories of the muscle car. One morning in 1934, all of Mödling was talking about a young couple in a Muskelauto (muscle car). A strange little sky-blue vehicle had rolled into town and come to a halt in the town square. A young man and a slim young woman had hopped out and begun distributing flyers among the crowd that had quickly gathered. Their vehicle didn’t have a motor like normal automobiles, they told everyone. One could make it go by bearing down on a pedal with one’s feet, which caused the rear wheels to turn. Because this vehicle was driven by human energy, human legs to be precise, they called it a Muskelauto. Moreover, there were two sets of pedals, so either one or both could propel it, and in order to brake, all one had to do was pedal in the opposite direction. Their flyer stated that the two of them had constructed the vehicle of wood so as to keep the weight as light as possible. Only the wheels, chains, and screws to hold it all together were made of metal.
A sign they had placed on top of the car told the whole story: Von Hamburg nach Kairo im Muskelauto (From Hamburg to Cairo in the Muscle Car). A basket next to it invited people to make a small contribution to support this venture, for after all, the two Hamburgers would need places to stay along the way, and they would get hungry a couple of times a day.
In a little town like Mödling, such an undertaking could be viewed only with awe and admiration, and indeed, despite the fact that these were not the best of times, a large number of coins landed in the basket. We were all dazzled by such a bold venture, and Uncle Görgi was so impressed that he couldn’t stop talking about it. One day he too would build such a vehicle and go sallying forth into the wide world with it, he announced, and began making a list of the places he would travel to. And what would he and Anni do with the child Susi, my mother wanted to know. “Die Susi, ja die kommt natürlich mit!” Görgi snapped back (Why, take her along, of course).
My dear uncle was in dead earnest about the venture. He even looked around for the parts and materials that would go into his muscle car and using the maps in his atlas, sketched out bold travel plans. Their trip would take them as far as India via Hungary, Rumania, and Turkey, he figured. Naturally, it was essential for its success that as much of it as possible be over flat terrain, for mountain travel would very likely require that they be towed, and that could prove to be quite expensive. Görgi looked forward to getting to know the world and seeing and experiencing things that were normally accessible only to a few, namely those who had enough money. He, Arnold Schönberg’s son, would write a fascinating book full of wit and humor about this fabulous journey, which would go through many editions amounting to hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of copies sold, and then they could live very well on the royalties. Yes, Görgi was a dreamer, a wonderful human being, but sadly, not a realist.
As it happens, under the pressure of everyday life, he had to abandon his plans— temporarily, he claimed. But at some time in the near future, when the country’s economy improved and he didn’t have to spend so much time looking for work to cover the family’s bare necessities, he would most certainly do it.
And here is where fantasy took over from reality. Over the next few years, our parents told my brother and me story after story about Görgi and his muscle car in well-nigh endless installments. The first one had to do with Görgi’s obtaining the necessary parts and assembling his vehicle. In it there was just enough room for his rather stout self, for Anni who was, happily, still on the slim side, and for little Susi, who took up hardly any room at all. Under the seats, there was a compartment for clothing and victuals, but that was all. Obviously, my folks had tremendous confidence in Görgi’s abilities as a mechanic, for the car held together marvelously well through all of their travels and was hardly ever in need of repair. Such crises as occurred came about mainly because, well, because of the usual, a scarcity of money. But things always ended happily, albeit sometimes at the last moment. On one occasion, they went hunting for treasure; on another, they helped peasants till a field, milk cows, and split wood. In a town, Görgi would look for work as a salesman—perish the thought it should be music-copying—while Anni tried to hire herself out as a seamstress or cook in order to avoid having to wait on tables at an inn or, still worse, wash dishes. There was generally the possibility of borrowing money, especially against wages due, or selling a necklace from their hoard of treasure, or hitting the jackpot in a lottery. Now and then things got really rough for the little family—until suddenly at the last moment there were heaps of the most wonderful things to eat. Alas, sometimes, in spite of their best efforts, the three of them had to sleep out under the stars in their little vehicle, wrapped in a single blanket.
And so, in this manner, little by little, the threesome traveled through Hungary and Rumania, and then Turkey, Arabia, and India, and finally, Spain and Africa. Spain, it should be noted, was still the land of Don Quijote both in its appearance and old customs, complete with windmills and posadas (inexpensive country inns). Egypt was populated by present-day Arabs dressed in burnooses, riding on camels, and brandishing lances but in secret still worshiping old Isis. Further south on the Black Continent, there were adventures galore with cannibals and wild animals in the jungle—with the three of them always managing to escape by the skin of their teeth in the nick of time or rather by the sweat of Görgi’s brow, pedaling away.
Only occasionally did linguistic problems arise to vex the adventurous little family, and these only in the most primitive regions. Everywhere they went, someone usually turned up who could speak German; curiously, quite often this was someone who had once lived in Imperial Austria-Hungary. When it came to French, Görgi usually managed to make himself understood with expressions left over from high school, like Nouss avohn faim mais pas d’arschent. Pouwons-nous wous payer demain? As for English, Görgi used a phonetic dictionary to communicate with phrases like Vhere iss yoor tschief? or Vee vant to sliep hier and Häf yoo for uss vörk? In a few cases, gestures and a sign language had to be resorted to, though it never proved very difficult to convey the need for food, water, or shelter, or the lack of funds to pay for them.
And just like Don Quijote, who returned home again and again from his wanderings, Görgi, Anni, and Susi always found their way back to Mödling. And each time they did so, it was always to solemnly declare that there was no place on Earth as lovely or more charming, only to drive away or rather pedal off again. For otherwise, my parents’ stories couldn’t have continued.
As we have already seen, Görgi Schönberg was an unusually warm, caring person. Everybody liked him, and he had a number of good friends. Undoubtedly he would have had even more friends if his contact with people had not been so severely limited by his never having enough money for extensive socializing. The friends he did have, however, were true to him throughout his life, even after 1938, when they, as “Aryans,” were no longer permitted to have dealings with Jews.
Görgi entered the Musik-Akademie at age sixteen to begin or possibly to continue learning the horn. While there, he met and became friends with another student by the name of Fred Eggarter, who was also interested in the horn. The two of them played together and soon became fast friends, taking hikes together or going out on double dates. Görgi had already begun to compose, whereas Fred liked to read and also wrote both poetry and stories. It was perhaps Eggarter who encouraged Görgi to write poems as well.
His friendship with Eggarter continued into the 1930s. In 1934-1935, the two friends collaborated on Sieben Balladen, songs in the vein of Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill that had as their main theme the desperation of the unemployed, their bouts with hunger and deprivation, and the unfair treatment accorded them by the upper classes. With the onset of the Depression, Eggarter, like Görgi, had come to experience hard times, and obviously influenced by socialist thought, he was on the side of the workers. The texts, by Eggarter, were gripping poetically, while the music, by Görgi, complemented those quite wonderful texts and took them to greater heights.
One day in 1938 came the Anschluss, and suddenly Fred was no longer on the scene. My wife Nancy and I tried to find out what had happened from Görgi’s daughter Susi, but all she could recall was that one day he did not turn up at their house anymore. Possibly, she speculated, he had been picked up by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp, there to perish as so many other political prisoners had. Nancy and I wondered if perhaps he had gone over to the Nazis, in which case he would not have wanted to have anything further to do with his “Jewish” pal Görgi anymore. Or maybe he was afraid to for both their sakes.
Nancy tried searching on the Internet, and lo and behold, it paid off. There was a publisher in Vienna that listed two novels for young people written by Eggarter. And then pay dirt: a publisher in Bremen that listed two classics that Eggarter had translated from Old Spanish into German, one of which was El Cid. To know Spanish that well, it could be assumed that Eggarter had gone to South America—but when, one wondered, and as what, a red or a black? The answer was forthcoming from Ursula Seeber of the Literaturhaus in Vienna: in 1938, Eggarter and a brother, both Communists, had emigrated to Argentina, and Fred had gone on to Lima, where he taught horn, played in the Orquesta Sinfónico de Lima, and eventually became its conductor. He married a local there and lived on in Lima until his death in 1976. Eventually, Nancy was able to locate two young people in Argentina named Eggarter, who turned out to be a great-niece and great-nephew of Fred’s. We spoke with both, but they had no knowledge of their great-uncle in Lima except that he had existed and originally come from Austria with his brother, their grandfather, now deceased.
Whether Eggarter ever returned to Europe and indeed to his native Austria, there has been no way of ascertaining. We live in the fond hope that he did and that the two friends and collaborators—Fred and Görgi—were reunited before their deaths and played some horn, perhaps drank a glass together.
Their joint work, the Sieben Balladen, received its world premiere here in New York on April 29, 2001, as part of a program titled Chansons and Lieder II, given by our performance group The Lark Ascending. The soloist was bass baritone Peter Ludwig, who was accompanied by pianist Peter Vinograde.
And Then Came the Nazis
Beginning in 1936, it looked as if the great distress in Austria was finally coming to an end. Then came that fateful month of March 1938 and with it Austria’s annexation by Hitler’s Third Reich, the celebrated Anschluss. After that, with the German Reich beginning to arm for the new world war, the Austrians were much better off economically, for even though people had lost their personal freedom, there were now jobs for everyone, and with work, no one had to go hungry anymore.
Strange as it may seem, Görgi was among those who initially voiced their opinion that the new state of affairs wasn’t really all that bad, and the fact is that he was employed constantly throughout the seven years of the Nazi terror. Until 1941, he continued copying music, mainly for the publisher Universal Edition. Then, in 1941, he got a job as a truck driver for Alexander and Christine Kiss, who were fruit and vegetable distributors. For this firm Görgi labored between sixty and eighty hours a week; not only did he drive their truck, but he also loaded it from the train and unloaded it at the various retailers they sold to as well, often without assistance. In the course of doing this, Görgi’s hands became rough and calloused and were covered with crevices and scars. He was sure that he would never be able to copy music again, that is, in the event that he outlived the Nazis and their war. But that was not all: Görgi also kept track of the ration cards that his firm collected from its vendors, a nightmarish job of bookkeeping.
One day in 1943, Görgi was notified by the Gestapo that he was to make himself ready to be relocated to a lovely place that the Führer had created for the Jews called Theresienstadt. No one knew very much about this place except that no further word had come from those who had been taken there so far; all anyone knew was that something very unpleasant lay at the end of the trail.
Justifiably alarmed, he told the bad news to Anni and his employer, Alexander Kiss. The latter immediately went to the Gestapo and explained to them that because all of the men were in the army, there was only Görgi, this “Mischling,” to drive their truck, and so if he were taken away, the vegetables and fruit would rot, there was no help for it. People needed to eat and without vegetables and fruit, they would get sick. Did they, the Gestapo, want that?
Anni also went to add her voice: that her husband should not be shipped off like that because, first of all, he was neither a Jew by religion nor 100% Jewish racially, and secondly, because he was married to her, a pure Aryan, and she needed the money he brought in to support her and their child.
By hook or by crook Görgi was spared. But that was only for the moment. Every few months, Anni and Herr Kiss had to go through the same ordeal of appealing to the Gestapo to let Görgi be. Later in the war, Kiss was drafted into the army and sent to the infamous East—i.e., Russia—and then Frau Kiss, who needed Görgi more than ever, took her husband’s place to plead for their driver and general factotum. The photos of Görgi from that time bear witness to the extreme strain he was under—his haunted eyes, the friendly smile gone.
Poor Anni, the whole experience was so traumatic for her that even in later years, she never wanted to talk about it and never told me the names of Görgi’s employers. I found them out only by accident in 2004, at which time I met and shook the hand of Alexander Kiss, Jr., that wonderful couple’s son.
At the beginning of 1945, the Allied air raids against the Third Reich reached new heights. Their principal targets in Austria were industrial installations like the Hermann Göring Works and also factories in Wiener Neudorf, where Görgi lived with his family.
One night in February, a blockbuster fell on the sidewalk next to Adolf Hitler Platz 5 and sent a huge piece of granite up into the air. Down it came through the roof, right into the one and only room that constituted the residence of Görgi and his family. During the raid, Anni and Susi had been in a shelter; perhaps Görgi too, though he was forbidden to take refuge in one because of his papers identifying him as a Jew. Be that as it may, when they returned home after the all-clear, it was immediately apparent that without a ceiling, the apartment was uninhabitable.
Anni had a sister named Geli, who lived in the village of Gießhübl not far from Mödling, who offered to take her and Susi in when she heard. But Görgi had to remain in or near the bombed-out apartment in order to protect their few remaining possessions from looters. Needless to say, this way of living—without his wife and child, under an open sky in the dead of winter—was not at all to Görgi’s liking. Not only was it bitter cold out, but it sometimes snowed or rained in, and a bed sheet fastened in the open space provided only limited protection. Görgi slept very little, and during the day he had to work as hard as ever for Frau Kiss.
One day in March, the poor, pale, exhausted Görgi was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store when an old acquaintance passed by, none other than Wilhelmine von Webern, the composer’s wife. Because he was so ragged and unkempt, to say nothing of woebegone, she nearly failed to recognize him. “Oh, Görgi! It’s you!” she cried out. “What’s happened to you?” Görgi told her about the apartment and how he had to spend his nights now, almost entirely without sleep, away from his family.
Frau Webern thought for a moment and then said very simply, “I have an apartment for you.” It seems that her son-in-law, Benno Mattl, had an apartment in Mödling, where, as it happens, he was born. The Russians were already in Hungary at this point and rapidly advancing toward Vienna. Since Benno was a well-known Nazi, in fact an SS man, the Russians would no doubt shoot him on the spot when they arrived So Benno had to leave as soon as possible and had decided to go to Salzburg, toward the Americans, with his wife and children. That would leave their apartment at Demelgasse 22 empty. Görgi was welcome to have it for as long as he wanted it.
A few days later, Görgi, Anni, and Susi moved in. It was a large apartment in one of Mödling’s best sections. Imagine it, Görgi the Jew, a man with a J stamped on his identity papers, got this lovely home while the Nazis were still in power. Moreover, he got it from an SS man and a Kreisleiter (regional party boss), who also happened to be the son-in-law of Anton von Webern, one of Schönberg’s best-known pupils and devotees.
In April 1945, the Russians arrived—and they stayed until 1954. Görgi remained in his “new” apartment until 1969, when he and his wife were able to move into a modern, municipal development in Vorderbrühl, close by Mödling, where he remained until his death in 1974.
Benno Mattl fled to Salzburg with his family in March 1945. The Weberns followed them a few days later, traveling part of the way on foot. Soon after their arrival, Webern was shot dead by an American soldier who apparently mistook him for Mattl.
And what happened to the former SS man Benno Mattl? Not long after Webern’s death, he was arrested by the Americans for engaging in black-market activities and spent a year in jail. Following this, he and his family emigrated to Argentina, where he became a highly successful industrialist and lives to this day. It is said that he and his wife visit their native Austria every few years, going first class all the way but under assumed names. As the old saying goes, blood is thicker than water.
The Deliverer of the Cave
As the war dragged on, Görgi continued working by the strength of his arms and the sweat of his brow. He didn’t look to the right and he didn’t look to the left; he only spoke the most necessary words. He always greeted people in a warm, respectful manner, which was not a difficult task for him, for he had always been a friendly, helpful person. As 1944 wore on, the war was gradually but irretrievably approaching its conclusion. Day after day, bombs rained down on Germany with increasing ferocity, and also on Austria, or the Ostmark. Little by little, Germany’s cities were turning into heaps of rubble; in Austria, things weren’t quite as bad, but the effects were similar. On all fronts, one defeat succeeded another. Already the Russians were in Poland and the Americans in Africa, Italy, and France. Even the Rhine River proved to be an inadequate barrier to the Allied advance. At home, just about every family had by then received the unhappy news that a son, a father, or a brother had given his life “for Führer and Fatherland.”
By the beginning of 1945, Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich lay in its last convulsions. Budapest had fallen, along with Warsaw, Königsberg, and Danzig. The Red Army rolled on, unstoppable, and in April, the Russians reached the Vienna area. The Nazis were still promising a final victory and the great battle that would decide the outcome of the war. Such radio stations as were still in German hands called upon the fighting troops, as well as the civilian population, to make the most enormous sacrifices. Patriotic admonitions and tales of glory were interspersed with martial music and snappy soldier songs. Bombs were falling everywhere, and the Russian artillery began to shell Mödling. The civilian population took to the air-raid shelters and cellars.
Not far from Görgi’s apartment was a bunker, actually a cave that had been converted into a shelter. One day in early April, about sixty women and children had taken refuge inside it. On this day, Görgi left the vegetable store for the first time in years. He brought Anni and young Susi into the bunker. There they should await the end of the war, as the Russians were now clearly on Mödling’s doorstep.
The fighting had reached the streets. German soldiers were still defending each house, each alley. Then the first Russian tanks began to roll in. Görgi was just leaving the cave after bringing Anni and Susi some soup. Outside he encountered some Russian infantrymen. These soldiers had no way of knowing whether or not German troops were inside, and two of the them, Görgi saw, were taking hand grenades from their belts!
He headed straight for them and waved them off with his hands, shouting, “Nein, nicht hineinwerfen! Frauen! Kinder!” (No, don’t throw it in there! Women! Children!) One of them pointed his submachine gun at Görgi. “Nicht hineinwerfen!” Görgi screamed again, making a defensive gesture with his hands. The Russians still did not get it. So now Görgi cupped his hands on his chest and sort of bounced them like women’s breasts, then made a cradle of his arms and rocked it back and forth. “Frauen! Kinder!” he mournfully repeated.
Now the Russians understood. They talked briefly among themselves. Then one of them looked severely at Görgi and threatened with his finger: “Du bring Frau, Kind raus! Zwei Minuten! Dann Granate!”
Görgi quickly clambered into the cave. It was pitch black in there because the electric light had been turned off for safety’s sake. Once he’d found everyone, it wasn’t easy to convince them, trembling with their kids, that they had to leave their shelter instantly. First Anni, Susi, and one or two other women came scrambling out, then little by little, the rest. In the end, Görgi crawled back in to make sure that no one had been left behind. After he was safely out, the Russians tossed in a few grenades just to be sure. They compelled the women and children to wait outside there for several hours until the noise of fighting had subsided—meaning that Mödling was then firmly in Russian hands.
Word of Görgi’s daring spread far and wide among the townspeople. According to Susi, for many years thereafter people referred to him as Der Retter der Felsenhöhle (the deliverer of the mountain cave).
Incidentally, on that day in front of the cave, the Russians asked Görgi why he, a young man, wasn’t in the army. Görgi responded with a thump to his chest: “Ich Jud’. Nix Wehrmacht” (Me Jew. No army).
The Good and the Evil
Finally, in May 1945, the war was over and the nightmare at an end, though, of course, now the Russians were occupying. There had been stories about all sorts of atrocities. Nazi propaganda had made sure that these were widely disseminated in order to instill fear into everyone and make them fight to the bitter end. Unfortunately, a good deal of their propaganda turned out to be correct: in the first weeks of the occupation, many women and girls were raped. During that time, Anni always kept a big kitchen knife ready to hand, declaring, “Wenn so ein Russe die Susi anrührt, dann stech' ich ihn ab” (If one of those Russians tries to harm Susi, I’ll stick him with this). Knowing Anni, who was no cream puff, I am sure she would have done it, too, but luckily the need never arose.
Even so, the worst was over now. Somehow the little family with the famous Jewish name had survived the infamous seven years of the Ostmark. Much of Susi’s childhood, which she had to spend as a “half Jew” under the threat and constant pressure from those animals, was swallowed up in those seven years. She had been only eight years old when it all started and was fifteen when it ended. From the moment that Görgi’s passport was stamped with the “J” for “Jew” and he’d been given the middle name “Israel,” he and Susi, too, were regarded with contempt by many Mödlingers and had to live with the never-ending fear of being deported to a concentration camp and some unknown worse fate that was darkly hinted at.
During the first years after the Anschluss, Susi continued to go to school as usual, sitting quietly, without friends, in one of the back rows of her classroom. But then, one morning in 1942, when she was in the girls’ Gymnasium, the head of the school suddenly appeared, and everyone jumped to their feet. “Sit down!” he ordered, and then after exchanging a few words with her teacher, his eyes focused on her, little Susi, there in the back. “Gertrud!” he called out. “Gertrud Schön-berg!” He emphasized her non-Aryan surname with a kind of snarl. Susi rose to her feet, surmising that something unpleasant was about to happen. Her frightened eyes became fixed on the thin, bespectacled Herr Direktor, who in everyone’s view was just a step or two away from God. He looked back at her with utter hostility, and his voice rang out, icy and heartless: “Wir brauchen solche Leute wie Dich nicht mehr. Wir sind jetzt eine deutsche Schule. Klaub’ deine Sachen zusammen und verschwind! Auf der Stelle!” (We don’t want people like you around here anymore. We are a German school now. Take your things and get out. Out!)
Susi’s eyes filled with tears. “Ja, wo soll ich denn hin?” she asked. (But–but where should I go?)
“Wo Du willst. Lass Dich bloss hier nicht mehr erblicken,” he retorted. (Wherever you wish, just so long as you don’t show your face around here anymore.)
Beginning with that day, Susi was homebound, and naturally Görgi was deeply concerned about this. Not only was his daughter losing out on an education, but she had to spend her days at home alone, since he was working for the Kiss family from dawn to dusk and Anni was laboring away at a munitions factory—Dienstverpflichtet (service obligation), the Nazis called it, their euphemism for slavery. However, a solution soon came; Susi would not have to sit there all day long staring at the wall and dreaming about the normal life other children were leading. Görgi persuaded his old teacher and still-friend Olga Novakovic to give Susi piano lessons twice a week at her place in Vienna. And then, one day, thanks to a friend of Olga’s, Susi became the proud owner of an old upright, which, as she put it, “Das konnten wir in dem winzigen Kuhstall von einer Wohnung noch unterbringen” (Which could just be squeezed into our tiny, damp cowbarn of an apartment).
For the lonely child, the relationship with “Tante Olga” was of the greatest importance, but Susi was still in need of an education and to be among kids her own age. Happily, this too Olga busied herself with. One day, she gave Susi the address of an underground school in Vienna that catered to mischling (half-Jewish) children, and the very next day Anni took her there to sign her up. The principal, a woman, listened to the story, including the part about her being descended from Schönberg, then said, “Well, the part about her lineage, I just didn’t hear at all. Your daughter can start with us tomorrow.” And so here once more, among all the cowards and louts, was a decent human being.
Susi was able to study at the school, a trade school, for several years. But then, a few months before the end of the war, she had to stop because all the bombing had disrupted train service from Mödling to Vienna. I cannot help but mention one curious detail about that school: after the war, it remained underground, now catering to the children of prominent Nazis.
So why didn’t Görgi and his family get out of that Hell while they could and go someplace else—emigrate, in other words? Why didn’t Papa (who now spelled his surname with “oe” because it was easier in America without the umlaut) help Görgi to do so? After all, he had helped him so many times before the Anschluss, why not now when it had become so urgent?
The fact is that Schönberg did try to do something. In the summer of 1938, his cousin Hans Nachod (the same who had sung the lead in the premiere of the Gurrelieder) wrote him from Vienna that all the Jews there were in mortal danger and that he would try to get away to Prague as soon as possible with his brother, Walter, who was quite ill. Schönberg responded immediately, almost ordering him to go to Mödling and take Görgi away to Prague as well. If for any reason Anni and Susi could not come, he was to proceed with Görgi alone; the others could follow later on. He, Schönberg, would be forever grateful to him for this good turn.
A few weeks later, Schönberg received a reply from Hans Nachod, now in Prague. It was a meek, dejected letter in which Hans asked for forgiveness and understanding. Conditions in Vienna had become so dangerous, with the excesses of the Nazi storm troopers against Jews turning more and more serious, that a few days earlier he had simply boarded a train by himself—meaning that he had not tried to get in touch with Görgi and, in fact, had even left Walter behind.
Schönberg, as far as I know, never responded to this letter with its disastrous news. Hans apparently went on to London, where he lived for the rest of his life, and soon Walter somehow joined him there. Over the next few years, Hans addressed a series of letters to Schönberg in which he begged and implored his pardon for that act of supreme cowardice, and eventually Schönberg forgave him, it seems.
One thing I am certain of is that Görgi would never have left his family behind, even if Hans Nachod had offered his full support. I have already mentioned in Chapter Two that Schönberg was able to obtain American visas for any number of people, including us, the Greissles, but never did for Görgi and his family or for his sister Ottilie. Why, remains to be seen. Some would argue that Schönberg’s wife was against the idea, afraid that they would become drains on their small resources.
Be that as it may, at one point, Görgi could have obtained an entry visa for Honduras, but no one seems to know why he did not follow through. In 1939, there was a chance to emigrate to Haiti, and Görgi wrote Schönberg about this, asking to borrow money for the fare and adding that, once there, he intended to open a Viennese restaurant in Port au Prince. For after all, considering what a wonderful cook Anni was, the thing was bound to be a success, and he, Görgi, would be able to pay him back before very long. To this, it should be noted, Schönberg sent a completely negative response: Why should the Haitians be interested in Viennese cuisine, since most of them didn’t have enough money even to eat at home. In all fairness to Görgi, this was not an entirely accurate assessment. During my career as an airline manager, I found European restaurants all over Central and South America—Italian, French, German. For while the lower classes in those countries are desperately poor, the middle and upper classes often have more money than they know what to do with, and better restaurants are never lacking for patronage.
At one time, Anni took it into her head that if they must leave Austria, it might as well be to a place of her liking. While single, she had worked as a cook in Nice for some months and had grown fond of sunny beaches, ocean waves, blue skies, and palm trees. Later, she had read about the South Sea Islands and thought that this part of the world must be an absolute paradise. One day, as Görgi was discussing options for their escape from Naziland, Anni asserted that the only place she would want to go to would be the South Sea Islands. I don’t believe Görgi made much of this, but the story got back to Schönberg, which didn’t exactly help his already disdainful attitude toward his son’s wife. Moreover, in the eyes of the Los Angeles family, it put the seriousness of Görgi’s intentions in a rather doubtful light—undeservedly so, to be sure.
While Görgi was still hoping that his father could get him and his family a visa for the United States, he sent Schönberg an estimate of how much money he would need to emigrate. The amount would include the three boat tickets, travel expenses to get to the boat, and enough to get him and the family through the first few weeks in the New World until he could find work. Schönberg responded that there was no way for him to lay his hands on that much cash and suggested that Görgi come over alone and then send for his family when he was established. Susi’s explanation today is that Schönberg had never approved of his son’s marriage to Anni. He had never addressed her with the familiar “Du” or even sent her a friendly letter. How unfortunate that he never recognized the noble spirit and courage of this simple woman, who stood by Görgi through all the Nazi years, when it would have been an easy matter for her to divorce him and live a “normal” life. Even after the war, Susi was still hoping that there might be a rapprochment between Schönberg and her mother. However, this was not to be.
According to Susi, Görgi would in any case have been reluctant to leave his homeland, despite Hitler and the persecution and dangers that his Jewish origins presented. For one thing, he was convinced that the National Socialist Third Reich could not last for very long. Also, because he was not one hundred percent Jewish and indeed had been baptized a Lutheran, he did not feel as vulnerable as someone who was purely Jewish or a Jew by religion. Then, too, he considered that his “Aryan” wife and his many Aryan friends constituted a safety net, that they would speak up for him. And finally, Görgi was enormously lucky and always seemed to have a way of landing on his feet.
Susi has one more detail to add to this story. In 1938, around the time of the Anschluss, Görgi wrote Schönberg in Los Angeles, asking him to send proof of his mother Mathilde’s Aryan descent. Görgi’s intention was obviously that Papa should have the life-saving document forged, but because all letters were censored, one dared not make such a request directly and had to rely on a recipient’s ability to read between the lines. Schönberg either did not understand or did not want to understand, and sent Görgi a photostat of his own Jewish birth certificate with a covering letter stating that he should be proud of being a Jew! As Susi put it, “Das war eine ganz unverständliche Gedankenlosigkeit, eine Aussage, die seinen Sohn auch das Leben hätte kosten können” (This was a callousness beyond comprehension, a step that might easily have cost his son his life).
In the spring of 1945 with the nightmare over at last, the Russians were the masters in eastern Austria, which just thirty years before had been the largest and most respected land in all of Europe and perhaps the greatest center ever of Western culture. But though now in ruins and ashes, Austria, dear Austria, would rise again despite all. Shortly after the war ended, Susi married Hans Supan, an old school chum of mine who had lost a lung in the Battle of the Bulge. She lovingly cared for him until his death in 1989.
Once a happy-go-lucky fellow, Görgi, who was not yet forty at the war’s end, felt that life had passed him by; he had become serious and embittered and suffered from frequent depressions. Added to this, he was not in good financial shape, and after a series of menial jobs as a night watchman and a clerk with a newspaper, he had to resort to music-copying again for lack of a real profession. The people at the U.E. were especially kind, providing him with a full-time job for a while so that he could qualify for an old-age pension when the time came.
In the 1950s, Görgi found the time to pursue his interest in the theater once more. Working with a group of young Mödlingers, including Susi, he put on a series of one-act plays by Nestroy and Raimund. And he began to compose again as well, both serious music and popular tunes. A few of his works were performed, and it is said that a song, now lost, titled “Kleine Linde von Schönbrunn” became a popular hit and was sung all over Vienna and perhaps even Austria. A serious work for wind quartet was performed in Mödling on the anniversary of Schönberg’s death. Here in the U.S., besides the aforementioned Sieben Balladen, The Lark Ascending has recently premiered Vier Klavierstücke by him, which were composed during the height of the Allied bombing of the Mödling area in late 1944 and dedicated to Olga Novakovich, and a cantata titled Mein Lebenslauf (ca. 1953), featuring bass baritone Peter Ludwig and Richard Duncan conducting a vocal quartet and the Pierrot Lunaire ensemble of instruments, with arrangement by American composer Richard Brooks. Both premieres were hosted by the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York.
After Schönberg’s death in 1951, it began to look as if his music would gain acceptance, especially in Europe, where it had of course been banned under the Nazis, and so it turned out to be. Nowadays, his works are regularly performed on both sides of the Atlantic, and he is often spoken of with reverence, as if he were a god.
It is important to realize that his most significant works were written before 1924 and thus while he was married to Görgi’s mother Mathilde and living in Austria. Among these works, one might mention Verklärte Nacht, Die Gurrelieder, Erwartung, and Pierrot Lunaire. The invention of the Twelve Tone System, about which so much brouhaha has been made, was announced to the world by Schönberg in 1923. Among those who studied with him in those early years were Alban Berg and Anton von Webern.
As all of this began to materialize, Görgi dared to hope that his father’s works would provide a certain security and make life for him and his family a little easier. Without going into details, that hope proved to be a vain one. Simple justice dictates that Görgi is morally entitled to some kind of recognition as Schönberg’s child, indeed as the child of those golden years. Whether this will happen remains to be seen.
Georg Schönberg lived and worked quietly in Mödling until his death in 1974. In his final years, he did see one of his ardent wishes fulfilled: he was finally able to buy a car, albeit a used one, and he drove all over his beloved Austria in it with his family. He especially liked Traunkirchen on the Traunsee and spent his vacations there, recalling some of the happier moments of his youth and his beloved Papa. Görgi’s death didn’t cause much of a stir; he is buried next to Anni in the Sax family plot in Gießhübl. In spite of his failings, he was all his life long a marvelous human being and a very brave man. We who loved him will never forget him.