Bratislava: Background

Bratislava (heretofore known as Pressburg) is currently the capital of Slovakia. Before World War II, it had a thriving Jewish community, and some of Schönberg’s relatives seem to have lived there. One spring day in the mid-Thirties, when Arnold was in his early teens, he went on a day-trip to Bratislava with his father, Felix Greissle. Here is Arnold’s account of that trip:

In the spring of 1935 or 36, my father and I, then 12 or 13 years old, went from Mödling to Bratislava to see someone there and take in the sights. We went by train to Vienna and by trolley to the waterfront and then took a Czech boat down the Danube. I distinctly remember that the lavatories were labeled Dami and Pani instead of Damen and Herren. Once at Bratislava, we walked to the Old City. (Was this or was it not the Ghetto?) Our destination was a house somewhere inside the city gate, entered beside a church or a cathedral. The streets were very narrow, darkish, and twisty and turny. The house was on the right side of the street, and had a conventional entrance, but inside, it looked like a store. A man came from behind a counter; possibly the commodity being sold was clothing. I do not think that my father had met him before, but he did have an appointment with him. The two of them spoke together in German while I looked at picture books; then they went to an inside room to talk some more. The visit lasted about half an hour. Nothing was exchanged between them, at least not in front of me, but since Felix carried his briefcase, I had the impression that Felix had either brought something or was picking something up or both, like a document or a book. Whatever it was, it was not heavy. I seemed to think that the meeting was Schönberg-related. Randol Schoenberg has pointed out that around that time composer Arnold was trying to obtain his birth certificate and other documents from a consular official in Prague; possibly these were the papers in question, which had been passed on by the consular official to a Schönberg relative in Bratislava.
            Let me add that the man was between 50 to 65 years old and had on dark working-man’s clothes. Something identified him as being Jewish, but I  do not remember what; possibly he was wearing a yarmulka. While slim like my father, he was shorter than Felix (who was rather tall).

Years later, in the summer of 2002, Arnold revisited Bratsilava in the company of Nancy. This was intended as a sightseeing tour though Arnold sort of hoped that he would come upon the house that he and his father had visited those many years before. However, this did not happen. As on that first trip, Arnold and Nancy took the train from Mödling to Vienna, but then, in the interests of saving time, they opted for another train rather than a boat. Here is Nancy’s account of what followed:

The first thing I noticed when we crossed the border from Austria was the relative casualness or disarray of things. Gone were the painstakingly neat rows of corn and sunflowers; all too often, equipment, which seemed to be in various states of disrepair, lay abandoned.
            As the train pulled in, Arnold gave me a nudge and pointed upward at a building. There, perched atop its roof, was a blackened German Hoheits eagle that looked to be from the Nazi-time—except that it was no longer holding the swastika in its claws. That, no doubt, had been conveniently chiseled out.
            The first order of business was to get our hands on some Slovakian gelt or, as Arnold put it, funny-money. A ticket agent at the station directed us to a big hotel on the way to the Old City, and in a basement room piled high with currency, including American bills of various denominations, we got what we needed and at a remarkable rate, Arnold seemed to think.
            Back on the street, we were soon at the entrance to the Old City; it being then about noon, both of us were , of course, famished. Pausing for a moment to admire the old stone city wall, we then followed a sign that pointed inside a door and down to a quaint subterranean café full of seemingly ancient wooden tables and chairs. Indeed, it would have been the perfect introduction to this venerable piece of real estate had it not been for one very disturbing element: a cheap plastic radio on a shelf blaring out rock music of the most obnoxious sort, the kind that Arnold usually terms the “screamies.”
             My own very sensitive ears were indeed in pain, so much so that my eyes began tearing. “Please! Do something or let’s get out of here,” I murmured.
            No sooner said than done. Arnold glared at the waiter or proprietor or whatever he was and barked out, “ Stell’ diese Dreck-Musik ab!”
            To our utter amazement, and even though Slovakian is the main language in Bratislava, the man snapped to and barked back, “Jawohl!” and turned the radio off with a smart gesture....
            Lunch, consisting of an American-style hamburger with fries and a stein of beer, was uneventful....
            Back upstairs and out on the street, we began to explore and photograph. I was using a film camera in those days, a Nikon with an 18-200 lens. But the streets were narrow and dim, and, alas, all I had was a couple of rolls of Ektachrome 400 , which was going to make for some rather darkish photos with a sort of bluish-greenish cast. Nevertheless, I ambled along focusing and shooting here and there, with Arnold lagging behind me to look at this or that old door.
            At a certain point, I turned onto a street where quite a number of the paving stones had been dug up and were strewn around....part of a restoration of medieval Bratislava.
            “Let’s go down another street!” Arnold yelled from somewhere behind me.
            “Aw c’mon, it’s alright!” I yelled back over my shoulder. There looked to be a few interesting shots ahead, and I wasn’t about to let some musty old rocks stand in the way of my getting them. After all, who knew when, if ever, we’d be coming back to this place.           
            All of a sudden there was a BOOM!, or so it seemed. I’d tripped on something and fallen forward, hit my head, and passed out–I think.
            The next thing I knew Arnold was yanking at my arm as I lay on hard cobblestones face down. “Nancy! Nancy! All you all right? Answer me!”
            I rolled over, painfully, and lay on my back.  Crazily, my eyes met those of an old man in a Slovakian tracht looking down from a second-floor window.
            “Haben Sie Eis?” I asked weakly. Doubtless he’d observed the mishap.
            He stepped away from the window, and a few moments later issued from the downstairs door with a small glass of water. By then I was sitting, sort of in a daze, and Arnold was having a fit, as I seemed to be bleeding from a variety of places: knees, elbow, cheek at the least.
            The old man handed the glass to me; the water was lukewarm. “ I phoned for some help,” he said in German with utter blandness. 
            Those old eyes of his must have seen a thing or two during the War, I remember thinking. That thing or two would’ve made these wounds of mine seem pale by comparison.
            I thanked him, took a few sips, and handed the glass back.
            A few moments later an ambulance arrived, looking as if it had been through many a campaign at the Front in World War II. Two scruffy-looking guys emerged from it with a torn leather stretcher on wheels. “Wir nehmen Sie ins Krankenhaus,” one of them said.
            No way, I thought with panic, picturing the hospital as a gloomy Count Dracula-type castle in a remote forested area, and quickly (and painfully) wagged a finger, “Nein, nein, kein Krankenhaus. Ich bin ok.”
            “Are you sure?” Arnold asked, still all anxiety.
            “Absatootly,” I tried to kid. Everything was beginning to hurt like all getout; it even hurt to talk. Nevertheless, a demonstration was in order, so I somehow  dragged myself  to my feet and assured: “You see? Alles ist in Ordnung.”
            The two guys nodded and put their wheely back in the ambulance, and took off.
            “Let’s go to a restaurant and let me see if I can get this thing under control at least,” I said, pointing to the blood dripping from my elbow.
            We began to walk, very slowly of course, and soon, as if by a miracle, a restaurant appeared, indeed, a very ritzy-looking one with white linen tablecloths and napkins, silverware, and crystal goblets. Fancy that, Place Elegance in Old Bratislava, I thought.
            Someone showed us to a table or we simply sat down at one—I don’t recall anymore. “Vodka,” I ordered, “in  fact, make it a double.” My intention was to dip a corner of my napkin in it and gently apply it to my elbow, still dripping with blood, and to my equally messed-up knee. However, no sooner did the waiter set the glass before me than Arnold made a grab for it.
            “Hey!” I yelled. “No fair!”
            Too late: he’d  tossed the whole thing off.  “I couldn’t help it,” he sort of gasped. It had been a very trying day, and looking at him then, I could see that he was very upset.
            I ordered another and proceeded with the disinfecting, now to the amazement of the waiters, who had become tuned in to what was going on.
            Outside on the street again, we decided to head back to the Bahnhof, and somehow a taxi materialized. I remember that the car was rather small and the driver very tall. Also, his hair was blond, Aryan-blond, and he was overly sunburned.
            At the Bahnhof, Arnold paid him and then got out of the car and went round to the other side to open the door for me.  I took this occasion to grin at the driver and show him my arm, now bleeding again, I guess by way of explaining to him why it was necessary for Arnold to come around. But he misread. His red face immediately contorted with alarm.
            I read his mind: somehow I’d gotten injured in his vehicle, and because of it, he’d lose his job and license—maybe even his freedom and his life!
            “No, no, not to worry! It didn’t happen here!” I said, gesticulating. Whether he understood me or not and, if he did, whether he believed me or not, is anyone’s guess.
            Arnold helped me get out and up on my feet, and we proceeded to the ticket counter—and now came a new scene. Realizing that I needed some kind of help before we boarded the train, I held my bloody elbow up there, causing the person behind the glass to gasp.
            The next thing I knew I was being briskly ushered to a first aid station, a darkish room opening onto one of the station platforms.
            Immediately on entering, I saw that I was in something resembling a time capsule, left over not from World War II but World War I. It was a sort of operating room with a table and what seemed like a kerosene lamp hanging over it. On all sides were immaculate glass-doored cabinets on whose shelves were carefully ranged containers full of various liquids and powders that looked like large salt shakers. Presiding over it all was a severe-looking middle-aged woman swathed from head to foot in many layers of white, right out of an Erich von Stroheim movie..
            Indicating that I was to lie down, she got out several containers from the cabinets, shook some of the white contents from each onto my arm, and then proceeded to swathe it in bandages. Needless to say, I made a mental note to loosen or even remove these as soon as I got out of her clutches—lest gangrene, the scourge of World War I, set in, I thought grimly.
            Did I want her to do something with the cheek or knee, she then asked, I guess.           
            “No, no, everything’s fine. Alles ist in Ordnung. Thanks very much,” I said, beating a hasty retreat....
            The train compartment that Arnold and I ended up in was full of Viennese, all with the self-satisfied looks of folks coming home from successful shopping expeditions.
            As soon as we entered, eyes darted toward me and darted away.
            I looked down at myself: I seemed to be covered in blood from head to foot. What could they be thinking? Here was another one of those dreadful Americans drunk again?...
            Later that evening, back at our digs in Mödling, Arnold telephoned our friend Hans Frischauf, who was a physician, and began telling him of our day’s adventures, ending finally with “Sie hat geblutet wie ein Schwein!” How very funny, what a funny way to put it. I began to laugh and am laughing still.           

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