Znojmo, Czechia

main entrance, H. Weinberger house, Znojmo

Yesterday I returned to Vienna by train from Znojmo, in the Czech Republic.  Znojmo was the terminus of my trip,  suggesting old links with Austria; however, the train was almost empty when it reached the town on Tuesday morning, and there were relatively few passengers at the beginning of my return.  The train is much more crowded as it nears or leaves Vienna. Otherwise it makes a number of stops at smaller country-side stations, on a trip of about an hour and three quarters. 

Znojmo, from the train

I am living some months this year in Vienna, to better understand my past and its present.  Under new legislation (much delayed), the Austrian government gave us citizenship in September 2020, and a city of limited interest (to me), became intriguing.  My mother was born in Vienna in 1928 and escaped to the United States in 1939. 

My visit to Znojmo was suggested and organized by a cousin, Lilian W. S., also born in Vienna, in 1933, and whose family lived in Znojmo before escaping to Switzerland at the end of 1938 and to United States in 1941. Lilian then grew up in New York  and married a cousin of my father.  But she has kept contact with her home town.  She reached out to a friend and asked him to organize a visit to her family’s former house, and to her maternal family’s factory. 

Lilian W. S. in the Hudson River Valley
photo by Eve

Znojmo is in Moravia, and Moravia and Bohemia were governed by the Austrian Hapsburgs, from the 16th century until 1918.  The population was a mixture of Czechs and Austrian Germans, although the border areas were more heavily German, the eventual basis for Nazi claims.  Znojmo (Znaim in German) is in this border area, then known as the Sudetenland, and annexed by Germany following the infamous Munich agreement of September 1938.   At the end of the Second World War, the German population was pushed out.  

Jews also lived in Znojmo beginning in at least the 14th century.  The community was probably the largest in Moravia in the early 1400’s, but was then expelled in 1454 and not permitted to return until 1851.  (In Vienna, we were expelled in 1670, but there were exceptions.  Austrian emancipation was granted following the Revolution of 1848.)  An impressive Moorish revival synagogue was built in Znojmo in 1878.  It burned on Kristallnacht, in November 1938, and was eventually torn down.

Lilian’s family, Weinbergers on her father’s side and Lichtensterns on her mother’s, were successful industrialists.  Her paternal grandfather, Alfred Weinberger (1860-1955) was born near Brno and owned a leather tannery in Znojmo.  Her maternal grandfather, Oskar Lichtenstern, was born in Vienna in 1878 and moved to Znojmo following the Lichtenstern family purchase of the existing Rudolf Ditmar ceramics factory in 1912.  The Lichtensterns later added a second Czech concern, creating Ditmar Urbach, to their original factory in Wilhelmsburg, west of Vienna.  They shifted to the production of sanitary ceramics and opened subsidiaries in central Europe, Switzerland, Milan and Bombay.  The businesses were expropriated by the Nazi’s in 1938 and 1939.  

Before the War, Lilian’s family was oriented to Vienna; both sides of her family had property there;  some eventually returned to Austria, but not to Czechoslovakia.  Lilian grew up speaking German, and in her occasional strict reserve, she is still, subtly, a refugee and Viennese.

Ditmar Urbach, hand painted bowl
courtesy Lilian W. S.

Ditmar Urbach bathroom fixtures, late 1920’s, posted on 1st Dibs.

Beyond the outskirts of Vienna, the train rode through a relatively flat landscape, but it undulates a bit, and the fields are very beautiful.  As we crossed the Czech border, a new conductor scanned my ticket for a second time. Approaching Znojmo there is more forest, and the landscape is more mountainous, although the elevations are modest.  The town is on a rise, overlooking the Dyje River.  

train station Znojmo

Lilian’s friend, David G., met me at the station. We walked into town, past the outer Ring (in the Viennese style), past the greenbelt that replaced the city’s fortifications, past a late-19th century apartment house that had belonged to his grandparents, and into the old town center, organized around two public squares.  Znojmo is not large, at about 33,000 residents, but it is concentrated, with an attractive and well-maintained historic core, a mixture of medieval, baroque and 19th century buildings, some courageously modernist 1930’s structures, and some very nice cafés. My hotel was small, some steps down from a medieval/baroque church, and from my room there was a view over the town’s outer districts, to the river, reservoir, and forested mountains.  The weather was cool and the leaves were changing color. 

Upper Square, Znojmo, and the 1930’s Bata Service Centre
Bata was a client of the Weinberger concern
the Wolf Tower, from the old city walls
The sculpture memorializes old phone booths. 19th century theater in the background
Upper Square in the 1920’s with the synagogue

David showed me around, and we had lunch before a 2:00 PM appointment at Lilian’s childhood house at 19 Rudoleckého Street.  In the 1920’s three houses were built for Alfred Weinberger and his two sons, Hans and Fritz. They were side-by-side, in a newer neighborhood, outside the former city walls. In the years after World War I, Rudoleckého Street was known as Wilson Street.

Lilian’s house, that is her father Hans’ house, was designed by the Jewish/Czech architect Norbert Troller, with the interiors done by a Viennese architect and designer, Armand Weiser.  The houses are still standing, but only the Hans Weinberger house is accessible; it is a nursery school. 

Hans Weinberger house, front facade

The staff member who met us had copies of interior photographs from a 1928 article in Innen-Dekoration, a German design magazine published in Darmstadt. She helpfully matched the rooms to the photographs as she showed us the house.  Here is the link to the full article:  https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/innendekoration1928/0435/image,info

The interior is largely intact, not so much upstairs, but on the main floor, where the entrance and main public rooms have been well preserved.  The house blends clean-lined early 20th century modernism with more traditionally grounded arts-and-crafts elements.  Its relatively small main entrance, on the side of the house, contrasts with a large cloak room and an enormous paneled “living hall”, still complete with built-in benches and a fireplace. 

A formal French salon, with original fabric panels, is also at the front of the house, and it opens to a mahogany paneled dining room, kitchen areas and a gentleman’s room at the rear.  Large paned windows face an enormous walled garden, now a worn play area, that must have given a beautiful view when it was fully planted. 

Hans Weinberger house, living hall, as published in Innen-Dekoration, 1928

salon, as published in Innen-Dekoration, 1928
bedroom, as published in Innen-Dekoration, 1928

The house is large, not huge; a breakfast room and a stove were at one time located adjacent to the bedrooms upstairs.  The taste was sophisticated and up-to-date, reflecting the preferences of many affluent Jewish families. The simplicity of the house’s outer form and its clean lines are forward looking. The richly detailed arts-and-craft interiors are more traditional, but through the lens of late 19th and early 20th century design. 

dining room, H. Weinberger house
rear view of the H. Weinberger house from the garden; Alfred Weinberger house to the left
The garden as it was, shared by all three houses.
Alfred Weinberger in the garden with his grandchildren at one of many family gatherings: Lilian (front center), her sister Anita (front left), cousin Georg (front right), cousin Herbert Low (rear), older girl unknown

This is a comfortable place, almost understated; it is not modestly middle class, and it does not mimic the aristocratic.  The house certainly depended on some level of staffing to operate. The school is evidently proud of the house; its interiors were protected by a former director; the local preservation office came in to give advice; and the woodwork is cleaned and treated once a year; clearly the memory of the house has some importance. Note the front windows, shaped like the tablets of the law, or like the round-arched windows on Moorish Revival synagogues; this subtle reference likely belongs to Norbert Troller.   

The Weinberger tannery no longer exists, but following the visit to the house, we crossed the railroad tracks and visited a large factory complex that was formerly owned by the Lilian’s maternal family, the Lichtensterns. The old buildings are still there; although they have been extensively remodeled.  And the factory still makes sanitary ceramics, toilets, sinks and shower basins, under the company name Laufen, which I see everywhere in Austria, now owned by the Barcelona-based Roca group.  The Lichtenstern grandparents’ house was on the factory grounds, apparently with a well-tended garden.  It is visible on an old print which hangs on the general manager’s office wall, but it no longer exists.    

front view of the Laufen factory complex, Znojmo

earthenware molds, Laufen factory, Znojmo
Oskar and Ema Lichtenstern, Lilian’s maternal grandparents, upstate New York

At the factory, I was welcomed to an interesting visit and short-course on sanitary ceramics production, by the smart, energetic general manager, Gabriel Mašek.  The earthenware is produced in molds that have a limited life span; the glaze is sprayed-on by hand, although there is also robotics equipment.   Earthenware is a natural material, occasionally inconsistent even under controlled conditions.  So there is a small loss factor, as not all of the imperfections can be repaired.  The Znojmo factory is not the largest in the group, but it produces some of the most specialized work.  This is an old place, still forward looking and modern.

At the end of the day, David invited me to an unusual wine bar, with about 85 wines, in an old brewery, not far from my hotel.  Tasting is automated. He chose wines from a printed menu, locating each in refrigerator cases by number.  We then selected tasting, half glass or full glass portions, and tried a number of them, with a plate of sausage and cheese.

wine tasting room, Znojmo

refrigerated display and dispensers

Phylloxera, two world wars, and communism were hard on this old Moravian wine region, although production had become increasingly sophisticated in the late 19th century.  Since the fall of communism in 1989, there has again been an increase in education and new vineyards.  I am not an expert, but at least two of the 6-7 wines I tasted were extremely good.  Here is an article on Moravian wine production that is posted on-line:  https://www.europenowjournal.org/2020/11/09/bottle-revolution-the-emerging-importance-of-the-wine-industry-in-south-moravia/

On the second day of my visit, David drove me to the Jewish cemetery a few minutes out of town—that is the “new” one that was founded in the 19th century.  The medieval cemetery in town has mostly disappeared.  The new cemetery is owned by the Brno Jewish community, as there is no longer a Jewish community in Znojmo.  Most of the older stones are missing—sold during the communist era; they may now be paving stones in Prague and other cities. 

David G. with his father

David G. met Lilian at the cemetery in 2001 and then at a luncheon given for her a few years later, an event honoring the placement of brass stumbling stones or Stolpersteine, for her young cousin (pictured above with his grandfather) and an aunt who lived in the Weinberger house next door and disappeared during the War. 

Stolpersteine for cousin Georg and his mother Irena Weinberger, in German and Czech, “Here lived Georg Alexander Weinberger, Irena Weinberger, fled in 1942 before arrest and deportation; Slovakia, Hungary,
fate unknown”

David’s family, like Lilian’s, got out, just before the outbreak of the War, but returned to Znojmo, where he now lives with his wife and two children. His family was also very accomplished. His great-grandfather, a physician, moved to Znojmo from Bohemia and purchased the 19th century house he had shown me on the town’s outer Ring.  His grandfather was also a doctor, largely serving the Czech community; his father and his mother were physicians.  The family assimilated; neither David’s mother nor his wife are Jewish, but his father, grandparents and great-grandparents were, and they are buried in this cemetery. 

David and his family now live in the family house, the fourth generation, but as far has he knows, he is now the only self-identified Jew in the town. 

October 2022

vineyard, outside Znojmo
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Last week, I took the train south from Klagenfurt (in south Austria) to Trieste.  Reviewing Google maps, I had assumed that the train headed directly south through Slovenia.  But history or geography planned a route that skirts Slovenia completely.  The first train, running long distance to Venice,  entered Italy at approximately Tarvisio.  I changed to a local train in Udine that runs southeast to Gorizia, at the Slovenian border, before turning directly south, to the narrow spit of Italian coastal territory along the Adriatic that includes Trieste. 

My sister asks if our parents brought us to Trieste in the 1960’s, but I do not remember it, and if she is right, we likely drove through it, on our way to Opatija on the Yugoslav coast.   My present interest in Trieste comes from its relatively low profile.  It is a port, a coffee port, polyglot, with a mixture of Italians and Slovenes and other Balkans.  In this region Venice is the big draw for Americans, or sometimes the Croatian coast.  Unlike the Austrians who ruled it for centuries, we don’t know much about it, and despite many trips to Europe, I too knew nothing.   

And so my visit and observation has been in small increments, focusing on what I see and quickly reference on the internet, and now more broadly on my reading.  For this, I read an interesting and informative memoir by the Welsh writer, Jan Morris, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, published in 2001. 

My arrival in Trieste was at the main train station, where I walked through a modern addition with an impeccable marble and stainless steel bathroom, and then through an impressive, tall,  waiting room from the Austrian period.  I walked further, all the way to my hotel,  in order to see the city.  This was difficult, because of my heavy suitcase and the heat, but more so because the first streets were shabby and the handsome buildings ill-kept.  But then the walk took me to the impressive Canale Grande, an old docking port that was built into the center of town, and then just a few blocks further to my small hotel.    

the train station

What is it about Trieste that gives it an air of old time romance?  Its buildings are not among the most historic in Europe,  nor has it been a political capital, although it does have a Roman forum and amphitheatre.  

the Canale Grande and the church, Sant’Antonio Nuovo
a bank building on a square facing the canal

Instead it is the 19th century that dominates Trieste, its past more bourgeois than aristocratic, and that may be the source of its intrigue.  19th century Trieste,  that is Austrian Trieste–a port city, with its 4-6 story buildings and original, intact, facades–has been almost entirely preserved.  They are colorful and classical, modestly grand, with style and ornament that reference ancient Rome, or Vienna,  or occasionally Venice.  And the buildings, while not old by European standards, feel old, a bit frozen in time, still useable without having ceded to the present.  Collectively they say that Trieste is an active city, but that formerly it was a grand one.  Indeed its relative importance, as the main port for the Austrian Empire, declined after it was ceded to Italy at the end of the First World War.  And yet, Trieste is an active place, a commercial port, and a gateway city to the Balkans. 

Piazza della Borsa
Illy Café. Illy is headquartered in Trieste.

Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia

an ordinary café, but on the Piazza

My hotel, Residenza le 6A, is in an old apartment building.  It is really a pensione with just six rented rooms and a few short term rental units, on a stone-paved pedestrian street that terminates with a shopping street at one end and a white marble side of the classical church Sant’Antonio Nuovo, at the other.  In the pavement, in front of the large double entrance door, are four brass plaques, or “stumbling stones” for members of the Goldschmied family who were deported from here in the early 1940’s.  I was struck how this history had followed me from Vienna, where a few months ago, I stood at the doorway through which my grandmother’s older sister had also been deported. 

via Santa Catarina, outside my hotel

the building entrance to my hotel

Behind the doors, the entry hall is mammoth, with a tiled floor, huge glass and wrought iron doors at the rear, faded switches that add a few minutes of light, and a substantial stone staircase and tiny elevator to a large entry landing with two large pedimented double-doors and more switches.  And then inside the pensione, dim, quiet, music, comfortable furniture, a breakfast area, and a reception desk, occupied in the morning by a very helpful Andrea.  My room faces over the street, also quiet, with two new sets of windows, tall ceilings, an armoire, a side chair, a built in desk, air-conditioning, and a modern bathroom.  And this is where I am writing.    

On my second full day here, I took a public bus (6 or 36, across from the main train station)  to Castello Miramare,  perhaps the most visited site in Trieste.  Like the city, it was built in the mid-19th century by Maximilian, a younger brother of the Austrian emperor, who was briefly the emperor of Mexico before his execution by “rebels”.  It is pure gothic revival on the outside, more like an important English country house than a castle.  Inside it is opulent and eclectic reflecting both its time and its attachment to the further past.  It is grand, with an enfilade of gorgeous but not terribly private rooms, endless portraits of kings and Hapsburg family members and ancestors; there is even a grand bed of state—all a reminder of the authority and importance of the owner.  The placement of the house at the edge of the Adriatic, the marble walk around it, the terraced garden, the bathing steps into the sea; these are the real inspirations and the beauty of this place. 

Castello Miramare

Castello Miramare

Walking back to the bus, along a more plebian but living ocean front, I had lunch at a private beach club in its café overlooking the sea, then walked further along the shoreline, past sunbathers and some swimmers.   A younger man, muscled and wet from the water, climbed on a bicycle in front of me, wearing only a small bathing suit and backpack, and pedaled barefoot a bit further down the shore to a public shower.  A young woman, also shirtless and with smallish breasts,  lay back on a towel along the walk.  Everyone seemed at ease, their movement effortless and un-self-conscious. 

On my way to the bus station, I had seen a small pastry and chocolate shop.  So I stopped at  Bomboniera on the way back to the hotel.  The shop dates to the early 19th century, ornate, and high-ceilinged, with tall, carved display cases and a crystal chandelier.  My strudel was a rolled nut cake with apricot jam, served on a “silver” tray with the coffee and a small glass of hot chocolate.  The cake was better than what I find at most of the shops in Vienna.  There are a few indoor seats, and then outside, tables in the middle of the pedestrian street.  I saw this everywhere—pedestrian streets centered by café and restaurant tables.  Frequently these places are busy, and while there are many visitors, most of the patrons sound local.


The hills in Trieste are older and quieter than the commercial city.   The original city, the forum, the Roman amphitheater, the old city walls and the city’s cathedral are on a hill.   So too are many 19th century buildings, and more meandering and some narrower streets, a contrast to the rational grid below, and some small café’s and restaurants.   Also high up are some modern buildings, often depressing due to their lesser quality and maintenance, and some old 19th century mansions, indicating perhaps that portions of these hills were formerly bucolic and more desirable.  As it is they are residential, quieter, and greener, with some flights of steps and small parks. 

a hillside park in bloom
hillside mansion, behind its garden and an iron gate
hillside apartments with shutters

What may be the grandest mansion in Trieste is in a 19th century enclave near the port.  Now the Museo Revoltella (Via Armando Diaz 27), the house was built for Pasquale Revoltella, a self-made importer, investor, and a significant backer of the construction of the Suez Canal.  He was enobled by the Austrian emperor and left his wealth and the house to the city. The house, designed by a German-Jewish-to-Lutheran architect, George Hitzig, was converted into a museum in 1872,   with its art collection and furniture intact.  It is opulent, huge in scale, even larger due to its combination with an adjacent house.  The permanent art collection and the furniture are impressive but arguably not extremely significant.  However, the temporary exhibition was extraordinary, a collection of Impressionist paintings of Normandy, including two Monets.  (Here is the link, https://museorevoltella.it/monet-e-gli-impressionisti-in-normandia/ ).  I am rarely able to look at art of this quality without looking past or through other people.  Here I was almost alone in the exhibition rooms and in the main house, a rare pleasure while traveling.   

19th century enfilade, Museo Revoltella

There were even fewer visitors at the Museum of Antiquity, J.J. Winckelmann (via della Cattredrale, 15) , named after a well-known German art historian and archeologist, who was murdered in Trieste in 1768, likely in a fit of anti-homosexual rage.  The museum is also in a 19th century house. It and its institutional improvements are gently aging, but it has a large walled garden,  sprinkled with antiquities,  and inside,  an excellent and accessible collection of ancient stone heads, busts and pottery.   In the garden, and on the steps leading up the hill to the Cathedral, is a small temple, with inside, a monument to the archeologist.

Museum of Antiquity

Museum of Antiquity

I have eaten in various restaurants and cafés in Trieste, and generally, the food is more Italian than Viennese, and it is good.  Eataly has a very attractive building on the port, much less crowded than the one in New York, and its restaurant has a gorgeous view, but it was closed for dinner when I went.  Instead, anticipating a splurge, I stopped at Harry’s, which sits prominently on the Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia, linked with the five star Grand Hotel Duchi D’Aosta.  I typically avoid places like this, but I was in a mood, and I’m writing, so I stopped first for a local white wine served with chips, nuts and olives and then moved across the terrace for a second glass of wine, pasta, and coffee.  The service was friendly and elegant.  Some, not all of the patrons, were very privileged Americans.  The pasta was filling and very good; the bill was 40 euros. 

view over vegetables to an Eataly restaurant
Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia from Harry’s bar

On the morning before I left Trieste, I visited the Museum of the Jewish Community of Trieste at via del Monte 5/7, just a few blocks from my hotel. The museum is in a building that it shares with apartments (like my hotel), but it was formerly a Jewish hospital and later a refugee center and way-station for Jews fleeing central Europe for Palestine, the United States, or elsewhere.  During the 1930’s the Jewish community helped others fleeing the Nazis, unaware that its members would also, eventually, need to be saved.

I was the only visitor, as the main synagogue is the more frequent draw, and learned that the Jewish community in Trieste now numbers only about 300 in a regional Jewish population of about 500.  This small group is much reduced from its pre-World War II numbers (about 6,000 in 1938 per Wikipedia),  but it nevertheless maintains a cemetery, the museum and a large neo-Moorish synagogue that was opened in 1912.  The detailed and extensive exhibition focuses on the history of the community and its cultural contribution.   Afterwards, I downloaded and am now reading  Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo.  I was told that he is required reading in Italian literature classes, although his fame was initially due to the support of James Joyce and French literary circles. 

It has been very hot in Trieste the past couple of days.  It is a late June afternoon, at 5 o’clock, at 91 degrees Fahrenheit (32.8 degrees Celsius), and I am hiding in my hotel room.  I have seen enough on this trip and need to write down my admiration for this city’s manageable scale and frequent beauty. Next time, I’ll combine a visit with a ferry to the Croatian coast. Tomorrow, I am on nine-hour train back to Vienna.  The first class ticket was for a small premium—well worth it for a long, but hopefully relaxing trip. 

Trieste, June 27, 2022

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My Sister

I started this story yesterday and then lost the draft, so I have started it again, and I need to make hay of it. . . .

My sister is a something of a hero; she is stable, thoughtful, considerate. . . accomplished, and her life is about more than herself.  She is an academic and an independent woman, the ideal daughter of our parents.  She could be no one else’s daughter.  Yet she is unlike either of them.

So I’ve written a brief story about her.  A story about who she is and how she became that way. I have written it as a fiction, because my sister also represents other women whom I know, and while my goal is to describe her, I do not want to be constrained by accuracy or by the realities of what may actually occur.  And since this is a short essay, I’d like to focus it on her most important relationship, which is that with her daughter. 

For while my sister is her mother’s daughter, she is also her daughter’s mother.  She has brought into her adult life the values and encouragement of her parents, but she is decidedly unlike her mother; nor did she want her mother’s life.  She deliberately raised her daughter differently than she was raised.  Only her daughter’s occasional unhappiness ruffles her generally calm composure, and yet there is something very familiar about my sister as a mother.  And that is the intensity of her love and commitment.  Never, as a child in our parents’ home, was there was anything more important than the children—not until we had moved out.  In this, my sister is very much her mother.    

My sister
Mallorca, 2022


My sister, whom I’ll call Charla, lives in a solid, brick, Victorian house on one of those straight streets you see in Toronto or in smaller Ontario towns.  This one is London,  or as we call it “little London”, a small 19th century city with an established business community and a large public university where both my sister and her husband teach. 

Charla was not raised in London.  She is an American,  a California girl, born in San Jose in the mid-1950’s.  She doesn’t fit any California stereotype, and yet she is west coast, in a careful way that retains a low-key informality, and a relaxed, pacific, American accent.  She is slim and physically fit, well-dressed but informal, with something original in her choices.  Charla moved to London for a man;  not her husband, but the earlier one, the one she met as a young professor at Stanford—the one who didn’t work out and no longer matters. 

She is a professional woman, an academic, a social scientist, speaking Mandarin and analyzing regressions.  As a child in Asia, she was stared at by those unused to seeing “Europeans”.  As a young woman, she was also used to being watched, one of the rare westerners in Chinese villages, speaking with farmers, collecting and analyzing data on household production.  Now she is a senior professor, with a long list of publications, a significant China economics prize, a network of colleagues, and ongoing research projects.  She is the kind of woman who thinks carefully and does her homework; the kind whose sexuality and professional opinions are careful and discrete, so as not to ruffle her mostly-male colleagues; the kind of sister who studies the menu before ordering. 

Today, she is cleaning up, focusing first on the kitchen and then moving into the double living room and the dining room.   The cleaning service comes just once or twice a month, and Charla’s husband (and daughter) have never been particularly conscious about where they leave things.  But Charla prefers order, and she is cleaning up for her daughter, Thea, now 28 and due home later this afternoon from London, that is the “big” London in Great Britain.   

Thea is an actress, an artist, and a writer, and she is free in a way that my sister has never been.  Charla saw her daughter’s unusual character and encouraged it, unlike her own glamorous mother, who loved her, but insisted on rules and discipline, on prescribed social behavior, on control, and whose decisions were rarely negotiable. 

Charla’s mother was of another generation; she had a different life, one that could never let go entirely of the horrible things she saw in Europe.  She wanted her children to stand out, but not too obviously; she wanted them to adapt and get along in many different circumstances.  She wanted them to move forward, but she also wanted them to be safe.  Charla’s mother was influenced early by the women’s movement.  She went back to work and paid for two expensive college educations.  She insisted that her husband make some changes around the house, but not too many changes.  She took it as far as she could.  For her daughter she wanted more; she wanted independence.  “You can have a man but not need one.”, she said. 

My sister and her (our) mother
India, early 1960’s

And so Charla did.  Her husband makes some traditionalist noises, but not much more than that.  He is articulate and Canadian, that is low key; he does his own thing and leaves the women in his family to do theirs.  As a child, Thea was blond and gorgeous, outspoken and unafraid, or so it seemed.  Her grandmother’s fears were not even a distant memory, and her mother, unlike her grandmother, was unwilling and unable to be an absolutist.

Thea was verbal and intelligent, and she preferred to show her real feelings, even as she strove to fit into the largely working-class city around her.  She gravitated to other girls, and makeup and clothes and femininity, initially to those glamorous and slim, blond and brunette girls who get a lot of attention in smaller north American towns, but she had a brashness and originality that eventually led her to a more eclectic group of creative kids in her high school years. Thea enjoys attention, more so than either of her parents, but she adores her friends and is perfectly happy to turn her attention elsewhere.  She has an associative intellect, unlike the more linear mind of my sister;  and so her parents guided and encouraged her inclinations, leading to an arts-based education and eventually to training as an actress in an English university.

Thea is coming home this afternoon with a man–not the first young man that my niece has dated, nor the first that they have met, since Thea hides nothing from her parents.  But this man sounds serious, at least Thea says he is.  He is a tall, slim, Anglo-American, who was born in England and mostly raised in the western United States.  He too is an actor, and like Thea a very good one. 

Charla’s daughter is now a young woman, still blond and beautiful with what in previous generations might have been called an English complexion, so well-shaped that one does not immediately notice that she is tiny.  Her features have some tinge of our Jewish family familiar, but physically she is more clearly a re-incarnation of her beloved paternal grandmother.  With all this, she has constituted an exquisite, glamorous young woman, who carries herself carefully, but with a certain freedom, aware that she is attractive—she is certainly not a prude–but not too much so.  She can be timid, but she is more notably out-going and outspoken, with strong opinions, unwilling to tolerate any injustice, a bit brash, even a little loud, in contrast to her exquisite, small person.  She loves her many, many, sometimes unconventional and well-chosen clothes.  In her style and her presence, her fusion of glamour and strength, her occasional vulnerability, she reminds my sister of her own mother.  “I’m raising my mother.” my sister has said.

My sister’s daughter taking a break from an acting gig, somewhere in the Mediterranean, 2022.

And like her grandmother she is, intensely proud of the Jewishness she has inherited from her, of her refugee origins and her grandfather’s commitment to social justice.  Like her mother (and her uncle) she was raised with everyone, in a primarily Christian world where Jews are a tiny minority.  Her assimilation is innate, in her closeness to her father and his very large Ontario-Canadian family.  Yet in her Jewishness she is linked to her mother, to her grandmother, and to the oppressed.  She is not so familiar with ethnic Judaism as we know it in New York, or even in Los Angeles, but in little London she was introduced to antisemitism much earlier than her northern California mother.  She has educated herself about the tribe she was not raised with, through summer camp, through some of her friends, through the mediums of film and theater, and through her script writing, and she has committed herself to it.

The outline of this visit home will not be unusual in its outward forms.  There will be breakfasts and dinners, walks in the park along the Thames River, visits to the covered market downtown.  There will be long conversations, and I, the uncle, as always, will be very far away, getting my telephone reports afterwards from my sister.

Of course Charla is aware of all of this, but this afternoon she is focused on the present, on the joy of seeing her daughter, her preparations at home and the anticipation of meeting the young man she has heard about.  

For Thea this man is important, and so is her parents’ reaction to him.  There is a little stress, as she cannot imagine forgoing the love of any of them.  This young man is not like anyone in her family.  He is tall; he is boyish, he is seemingly relaxed, attentive, auburn, creative, strong.  He is distinctly non-Jewish, or so it appears.  She doesn’t idolize him; he can be so annoying; he isn’t always listening, and he doesn’t always give in to what she wants.  And yet she does. 

She has been seeing him for about a year.  Although this is fiction, I’m not sure I want to give this man a name.  The purpose of this story is not only to invent but also to observe a reality, that is an eventuality, in my sister’s life. This is that her daughter will bring home a man who is delightful, but who may be foreign.  Someone that my sister, who listens to everyone, and has met everyone, will have to work a bit to understand.  Someone who is not like Charla’s father, a bit more like her husband, but much younger, less formed, and therefore less clear to her.  There may be nothing wrong with this young man, but she has limited experience with this kind of person, and if this is serious, she wants to be convinced.

Thea and her beau are scheduled to arrive at about noon in Toronto, and then after a two-hour layover, sometime after three at home in little London.  Thea’s arrival is never anti-climactic.  It is with a rush of feeling and happiness, an enthusiasm that reaches out to her parents, to her friends and even to her room.  It is high-octane and genuinely happy, suited to a girl who is loved by her parents and loves them back, and to Thea’s enthusiastic love of the family dog.  The dog’s primo is Charla, but when Thea visits, he often sleeps in her bed. 

On this trip Thea is not alone, and what matters to Charla is what she observes in this young couple, in this young man.  Would he be a reliable husband to her daughter;  can he handle her outgoing ways, her vulnerability;  is he strong enough; does he have his own life and his own way forward;  does he love her?   Has he even asked her?   Clearly he adores her, but Charla chose appreciation not adoration, which she distrusts.  Her father adored her mother consistently for fifty-five years, but he could not always see her.  But Thea is a young woman who wants to be loved and adored, and so reclaims some of the traditional interaction of male-to-female relationships, because she has the freedom to do so.  She is not threatened by it.  She can need and have a man.

And this one is truly pleasant to look at, tall and with the boyish good looks that are my niece’s preference.  Friendly, just a little shy, which is appropriate when first meeting a woman’s parents. Smart and reasonably articulate,  although not in the manner of my sister’s colleagues, and he doesn’t talk too much, leaving Thea plenty of room to assert herself.  He is successful, in his way, with some good theater parts in his resumé, and a willingness to fill-in financially with voice-over and restaurant work—he trained as a sommelier.  

But need she marry another actor, and is he reliable?  So many young men walk away as the adoration fades, from the responsibility of children.  Charla’s husband needs space, but she can count on him. He certainly pulled weight when Thea was a child, and Charla was working for weeks or months in  China.   And Charla’s father was reliable and a protector.  Her mother was free to take on whatever challenge she did or did not want, knowing that her husband would always be there.

Yes, money does matter, particularly when there are children.  Thea is an actress, a good one.  She is doing well in London, but acting does not provide a regular income, unless the actor is extremely successful.  Charla and her husband have been good with savings, but there is only so much of it.  Must Thea choose another actor?  Why not a guy with a stable job, who will reliably be at home while she is working?  Will this all work?   And this young man—does he measure up to Charla’s two men?  My niece wants children, not one or two, but three or four, so it matters. But Charla is not one to readily misjudge, and how can she tell? 

The young man is a good guest.  He takes their luggage up to Thea’s room ; he is willing to talk and offers to help while meals are being made; he helps clear the table.  He is friendly and chatty, certainly about cultural things, and he answers questions, without revealing too much about himself.  Thea says he’s a bit shy.  But his parents, what are they like?   Our own grandfather was an alcoholic and a failure; our father the most reliable man she ever met. . . so does it matter?  Charla likes this guy, not overwhelmingly, but he is easy to get along with.  And does liking him really matter, if her daughter is happy with him?  Her husband grouses a bit at night, after they have gone to bed, but he would have a critical eye on any man whom his daughter brought home, and she sees that he has enjoyed talking to this one. 

And so without a firm basis for knowing, Charla cannot yet exercise instinct; she’s just not able to.  So she decides to put her opinions on hold.  Her job, at this point, is to enjoy her daughter’s visit, to have a good time, to get to know this young man in case this seriousness persists. 

And so for a wonderful week, she enjoys the long conversations at breakfast, or while walking the dog, the visits to her mother-in-law and from her brothers-in-law and their wives, visits from a few of Thea’s cousins who are around.  They spend a day in Toronto, to hear a concert and to have lunch.  She leaves the young couple their time alone, to explore London or to visit close high school friends.  Parenting is no longer a full time job, not even part time.  The thoughts are still there, but the effort can and must go to other things.  Charla and her husband are retired now.  She has her research and her reading, an occasional teaching or consulting gig abroad;  he has his art, an occasional exhibition, and his interest in other people’s work.  Someday, perhaps, they will be grandparents and then will step up again and help, assuming that Thea doesn’t wait too long. 

My sister and her daughter

So she’ll encourage Thea to wait a little, not too long,  enough to have some ups and downs before committing to marriage, certainly to children.  And she won’t attempt to control it.  She doesn’t need to.  It isn’t her decision; this is her daughter’s life.  She’ll suffer if her daughter is unhappy, but that comes with the territory.  Her job is to help her daughter be free, to be herself, to shine and do good in the world, to make her own mistakes.  This is what her own freedom, her independence, has allowed her to do.  She raised and helped her daughter as best she could; but she cannot control the backward or forward of it. 

Vienna, Austria, June 2022

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My Country, a mourning and a hope

I am grieving for my country, for the optimism that we have lost.

When I was young, I believed a myth, a trajectory, that is in the ongoing and historic progress of America, a country that was endlessly innovative and improving, energetic, affluent, broad-based, democratic and egalitarian. 

That the myth couldn’t include everyone was not then believed, as indicated by the Civil War, the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights and against the imperialism of the Vietnam War.  Whatever the reality, the myth was sustained by both the actuality and the illusion of progress.

My belief was taught in the national narrative and grounded in my own advantages; the arrival of my ancestors with nothing, the steady improvements of their circumstances, our acceptance as Jews, our material security, and the opportunities to work towards the goals we considered to be important. 

Because I lived in the myth, because my parents believed in it and the door was open, I worked hard in school and in my professional life, through challenges and successes, believing that improvement was possible at my own initiative, that resources and opportunities would always be there for me as long as I had the determination and made the effort.  That prejudices against me or people like me were temporary or an inconvenience; that nothing fundamentally held me back except the choices and impediments inside of me.  

And so I am an American—in my inner and outer life.  American is the reason for whatever I have become.  It is the ability to retain whatever I choose to retain from the past, and to move forward with and beyond it:  to individuate, to create my own identity and to benefit from an ahistorical basis in opportunity and freedom.  And whatever my limitations and my disappointments, which are many, I am distinctly aware that as a Jewish man and a gay one, now in my late 60’s, more was given or made available to me than at any previous time in history. 

Photographer, Ad Meskens, Wikimedia.org

Now I am retired and living abroad, and I am looking at an America that has lost itself and its myth. Of course the myth was never really true, not entirely, not even for me, but it sustained me through struggles of external and internal acceptance—that I was a nerd; that my Jewish identity was important, but that it shouldn’t be too obvious, that my middle-class background wasn’t quite good enough, that I had to make money to be successful, even when other things mattered more to me, that my attraction to men was unacceptable and literally unsafe.  

Yet I was sustained and propelled forward by the belief in the myth.  Reality was hard for most of my contemporaries, but together the belief and the reality of progress sustained us, gave us a common language, held us together and moved us forward.  There are those for whom doors always appeared to be open, but everyone struggled with something, some made compromises I was unwilling to make, and everyone gave up some part of themselves in growing up. 

In America there were others, for whom opportunities were promised, but never adequately provided; others to whom the door remained closed; and still others, the most ignored, from whom this country was taken.  Likely they never believed the myth, but they did not have the numbers or the influence to kill it.  Now there is an ongoing, imperfect and inadequate effort to reverse the injustice that was done them.

At the same time, and in my lifetime, many who previously had modest and solid privileges have had them eroded or taken away.  American society, indeed the world, is much more competitive and in an unfortunate way.  Many still move here from elsewhere, to take full advantage of a freer life or higher living standards.  We have plenty of room and capacity for the skilled, the ambitious and the talented.  But most people have ordinary capabilities and opportunity.  Those who preceded us, and their descendants, largely white, and working or middle class, who paid the taxes and provided the safety and education we needed while we were getting our footing, are no longer appreciated or secure. Their stories are no longer identified with the myth of progress.  Instead, those who succeed or who suffer even greater deprivations dominate the current narrative.  We later-comers have indeed replaced them, and many of them in-turn have moved to the right, identifying with increasingly terrifying resentments and story-lines. 

And so we have lost the essential myth, that is the belief that life America can be better for anyone and everyone.  Increasingly, individual success appears to depend on talent or brilliance, lots of money, celebrity or special access.  Or, it depends on correcting injustice,  breaking the power of those who impede us, or fighting off those who seek to replace us.  The country is fragmented by the loss of its story line.  We no longer believe in progress, unless it is purely material.  For some to succeed, others must give way.  Of course America was never an entirely open and fluid place; as elsewhere, it is filled with selfishness and exploitation, and yet we need our myth back. 

Because everyone should live in an America that has the belief that in turn can rally the resources to solve the problems and create the dreams. Because, without a myth, we can recriminate about life in America, but we cannot come together, and if we cannot come together, we are stuck and cannot improve it.  We need to go back to the old story of open opportunity and redefine it in ways that make sense for the country we are now.  Once again we should redefine success and continue to open up who has access to it.  There is nothing new to this;  we need to get back to it.

We need to bend and rework the institutions that funnel the power, the attention and the benefits to very few, be they rich white men, undervalued women or deserving minorities.  America is bigger than that.  It is not more minorities or women at Princeton that we need, although that is laudable, but more Princetons, so that we can accommodate everyone qualified, including those too-often overlooked, as well as young white men and the children of the rich.  Because everyone has a right to succeed and make a contribution. Of course it has never and may never really work out as it should.  But we must be willing to believe that it can, in order to open our society up and improve it.  We should have a myth and reach for it. Without that belief, without a vision, our society is  a fixed pie, where limited benefits must be taken from those who dominate or kept from those who claim and threaten.  It is a country that will be constantly at war with itself.  And that is not the America that I have loved. 

May 15, 2022

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Vienna Observed (1)

Vienna is not huge. It is a substantial city, and it is a capital city, with about 2 million inhabitants, and about 2.6 million in its metropolitan area.  It has a long history, combining remnants of Imperial Majesty with established and privileged middle class culture, the memory of terrible prejudices, and a strong and sometimes right-wing tradition of populism and social democracy.  It is a cosmopolitan center, a mixed place for a very long time, attracting and blending Germans, Slavs, Italians and Hungarians.  There used to be many Jews, now very few, although our number will grow with new Jewish refugees from the Ukraine and the several thousand passports that have/are being given to descendants of Austria’s Nazi victims.  There are Turks, who have now been here for some time, and a sprinkling of everyone from everywhere else.  

Vienna from the gardens of the Belvedere Palace

Have I seen and understood all this in a mere six weeks?  Certainly not,  at least not too deeply.  But I can see elements of it, and they are a unique and entrancing blend that make this an interesting and urbane place, although calmer and smaller than the New York I have been used to.    

At the center of Vienna is its Innere Stadt (Inner City), and the old Hofburg or Imperial Palace of the Hapsburgs, who ruled this place and many others for hundreds of years.  I haven’t yet been to the Hofburg; I confess that Imperial Majesty does not particularly interest me.  Grandeur is often more impressive than it is exquisite.

I am a new Austrian citizen, one of those descendants of Nazi victims, now living in a short-term rental apartment in the Meidling District (Bezirk 12), a collection of former villages melded into an urban working class  neighborhood at the end of the 19th century.   The buildings are low-rise, five or six stories generally,  with flat stucco/cement facades. They are colorless, and the streets don’t have trees. I am told that much of this area was bombed at the end of World War II and then rebuilt.

Nevertheless, I am enjoying the Meidling. It is clean and the services are superb, with at least three supermarkets within a five-minute walk and a very good outdoor market, the Meidlinger Markt, with permanent structures on a nearby square.  Every basic service imaginable is within a few blocks of me, many on a large pedestrian shopping street, the Meidlinger Hauptstrassse, where strangely enough (to the New Yorker) none of the stores are vacant or closed and all look busy with pedestrian shoppers.  Most of the stores are chains, and few of them beautiful, but here and there are places to get special things. This especially at the Markt which has a superb small restaurant and a very good wine and cheese store. I have met the owners of these places, and they are interesting people whose English is far better than my German.

The supermarkets are reasonably priced and well-stocked.  One has an in-market bakery and a cheese section; another has inexpensive jams and alcohol.  I bought a sim card and phone number in one, with an ID card, and the monthly subscription is $11-12, for calls within Austria. 

The bread here is very good, dense, grainy, tasty.  I find it in the supermarkets, on the market square and at a nearby bakery.   Eating it in the morning is like having a full meal.  And at the bakery, there is a plain, elongated pastry, with a sweet poppyseed filling, which reminds me of the humentaschen we had as children at Purim.  It has a different shape and name, and the crust and the taste are better, but it is very much the same.

I was never a boy who had an interest in trains, yet I am wowed by the transportation system, the metro lines and the streetcars—I have hardly yet tried the buses.  Some of the tracks are below ground or partially so, and some are elevated, so the scenery and the light are constantly changing.  What I see from the trains is not a consistent street pattern, but a series of places that have been tied together.

a metro entrance near the Schönbrunn Palace
metro station at Gumpendorfer Strasse
Gumpendorfer Strasse station, looking to the street

Google maps points me easily to the best routes to take, and I am nearly anywhere I want to go in a half hour or less.  The trains are quiet and sometimes busy, but not overcrowded, the stations are well maintained, with working elevators, and they are clean. What a pleasant surprise!  Some, presumably those pictured here, are more than a century old, designed by the famous Viennese architect, Otto Wagner.  Many, particularly the larger ones, are more recent, as the system was expanded beginning in the 1970’s.  Riding is peaceful.  There are a few crazy people and a few asking for money or imposing their music.  But in far fewer numbers than in New York.  Are there fewer of them, or are they taken care of differently?  I don’t know yet.

Generally, the city is very clean, both the streets and the metro stations.  There are public bathrooms, sometimes in the stations or in parks, markets, and squares.  They are manned (or wo-manned), sometimes renovated and typically spotless.  The cost is 50 cents, and well worth it.  What a pleasure to avoid the stress of looking for a bathroom.  (In New York, I walk into cafés, restaurants or hotels—sometimes I have to ask.  Fortunately, I can. . . a freedom perhaps not available to everyone.  Here anybody just pays.)  And then there are the public swimming pools, to be discussed. . . !

Some of the most extraordinary elements of Vienna developed from its 19th century bourgeois culture, they are for and by those who can pay something for them.  Luxury had been extremely limited, before being brought forward to a much broader public in the 19th century.   The three most evident here are the coffee house, the museum and the concert hall.  But a detailed discussion of these, again, will follow.

Regarding the streetscape, many neighborhoods are also dominated by buildings from the 19th century.  When I read about the development of Vienna—more specifically when I read the historian Carl Schorske, I understand Vienna’s pre-modern Inner City to have been surrounded by its 19th century Ringstrasse. But my walks are leading me to the broader observation that 19th century buildings not only surround, but also penetrate the inner core.  There is a thick band of buildings inside much of the Ring, and even at the center of the Innere Stadt, that is 19th century buildings as well.  

Beyond the Ring, there is yet another thick band of 19th century construction and beyond that, even more 19th century neighborhoods. Vienna’s grandeur largely reflects this 19th century peak in its urban development, or what Schorske describes as the peak of its Liberal order. This grandeur post-dates the city’s prime as an Imperial Capital, since Austria was relatively stronger in the 18th than it was in the late 19th century.  (Faced with Napoleon, the Hapsburgs dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and lost a significant war to Prussia in 1866.)

the Ringstrasse in its elegance

and in its austerity, behind the Ringstrasse, looking towards the Innere Stadt

The architectural character of Vienna, in the eclectic historical style of the 19th century, is nevertheless austere.  The facades are detailed, but somber. The facades dominate the street, generally not the trees and not what inhabits them.  The buildings are primarily residential, and retail space often seems unimportant, a characteristic again described by Schorske.  In fact active retail is often nonexistent except in the old center, on certain commercial streets, and on the most central segment of the Ringstrasse.

Thus there is stature but an often austere emptiness to Vienna’s 19th century streetscape that is completely unlike the more lively dense streets of the Innere Stadt.  And as Schorske mentions, the 19th century buildings are typically an adjunct to the movement of the street, which he contrasts with the oppositional view of buildings on a square.  In Paris, the 19th century boulevard often has a focal point, the Arc de Triomphe, La Madeleine, the Place de la Concorde, and it often has active outdoor cafés and retail space.  The Innere Stadt has these; but not so much the 19th century districts. 

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Aunt Dora

Aunt Dora, our grandmother’s sister,  is someone we never knew.  We did not know her because she was unable to get out of Austria.  

While preparing our Austrian citizenship applications, our lawyers hired an archivist to  document evidence that our family were victims of Nazi persecution.  The archivist discovered that  Aunt Dora was deported in 1941.  The archivist also found her name in the Yad Vashem Holocaust database in Jerusalem.  Without our asking, her name was added to the wall of names at the new Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, dedicated a few months ago.

Why does Aunt Dora matter?   She has been dead for decades, and she we was never part of my life.  But she should have been.  She was divorced and re-married, without children of her own.  For a number of years she lived in our grandparents’ building in Vienna’s Ottakring district, and she worked with them.  She knew her niece (my mother) and her nephews.  

She was relatively young when she died, about 46.  I too am single and an uncle.  Won’t I meet my niece’s children? 

I never really thought about her, but now I see that because she was taken,  it was important that she be forgotten.  And now that I am in Vienna, reconciliation with the past means that I want to know something about her, even if it is very little.  This although the events that took her away were those that created me. 

So let me write what I do know.  I have posted this photograph before, but with an eye to my great-grandfather and to my grandmother on the right.  The dark-haired woman on the left is Aunt Dora.

Dora Landau, on the left, with her father Leib and her younger sister, Clara (my grandmother).

My mother, Alice (born 1928), had two brothers.  The older uncle George  (born in 1922) wrote several entries about Dora in a memoir:

“Her [his mother, Clara’s] father had been a farmer in Galicia, then a part of the Austria-Hungary Empire.  At the start of World War I, he sold his farm and parents and daughters moved to Vienna.  Her older sister [Dora] soon married, her younger sister was sent to a girl’s home in Slovakia, and Clara went to one in Vienna, diligently learning the trade of sheitel maker.”

According to the archivist’s research,  Dora was born in Tysminiza-Stanislau on May 10, 1895. She married Zalel Diamant in 1920 and divorced him in 1921. 

My younger uncle, Jack (born 1924), wrote this about Vienna:

“Wagons drawn by horses were fun. You jumped on the back of the wagon until the driver saw you and chased you off.  One day on such a ride, the driver snapped his whip and caught my new coat before I could jump off.   It made a slit in my coat.  How was I going to explain this one.  Well I had my favorite aunt living in the same building as I did.  She took me to a tailor who was able to fix it so you could not see the damage.  After this I only jumped on closed wagons that had a platform in the back and the driver could not see me. . . . “  

My cousin Elliot sent me this a year or two ago.  Uncle Jack was a charming writer, and he should be given credit, as he spoke only German until he was 15.   

But George wrote much more, and he had a remarkable, almost photographic, memory:

His parents met when his mother made a new wig, or sheitel, for his paternal grandmother.  My grandfather, at the time, was a widower with, two young boys:

“To take care of us children he hired a young farm girl.  He stayed a widower for almost two years until he met Clara Landau, the wig maker, who then decided to act as a matchmaker.

Clara’s older sister [Dora] had been divorced and was childless.  A chance for the sister to marry the widower was in the making.  But my father decided to woo the young, beautiful, blond virgin rather than the older divorcee.  They were wed in March of 1926, and I now had a new mother.  Every place I went with her I always introduced her as my “New Mother”.

“Once when we had my aunts (my new mother’s sisters) visiting, we all sat around in the veranda.  Because some funny stories were being told, I just had to butt in with a story myself.

I remember it was something about meeting a bear and fighting that bear with a stick and driving him off.  I was really proud of myself, but without my noticing it, my Aunt Dora left the room, picked up a bearskin rug from my parents’ bedroom and crept into the veranda on her hands and knees.  I remember screaming and running to hide in back of somebody.  My aunt stood up, and dropping the rug, wanted to know where the brave little boy was now.  I cried inconsolably for quite a while; I don’t know whether it was because I was so frightened or because I had been shown up about that made-up story. “

At some point, in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, a portion of the rear of George’s parents’ courtyard building was converted into an apartment for his new grandparents and their oldest and younger daughters.  Aunt Dora helped in the restaurant that his parents opened on the ground floor.  (They later bought and operated a larger Gasthaus, a 7 Hell Gasse, four blocks away.)

George also described going to the Danube beach to play, with his Mother and Aunt Dora.  The women sat on blankets with the baby, my mother, while the boys ran around,  sometimes on top of the levees or playing balls.  It was Aunt Dora who went after them when they went too far.  And then again, “One summer, when I was eight years old, we actually went to the country. . . My father had made arrangements for the family to stay on a farm on the outskirts of Vienna for a month.  Alice was still very young and our Aunt Dora came along to help take care of her because by this time we no longer had a hired maid/nanny. . . When my Aunt Dora saw a cockroach (they were about one-and-a-half inches long there) running over the table, she had to run outside to vomit, but we stayed there anyway. . . “

During another summer, “When Jack came home from camp, I went with my Aunt Dora to pick him up where the bus dropped everybody off.   He came back with only the clothing on his back and one pair of dirty underwear in his backpack.  We attempted to complain to the person in charge when he was checked off to go home, but were brushed aside.”

Then, “. .  my Aunt Dora went to pick up Alice from school, as she usually did.  (She also always took Alice to school in the morning.  She had done this since Alice started school.)  When the girls in Alice’s class lined up and started down the stairs from their classroom, Alice was pushed and she fell down the whole flight of stairs.  Luckily, she didn’t seem to be hurt too badly and Aunt Dora consoled her and brought her to the Gasthaus.”

Dress clothes were made at the tailor, generally for Passover or the High Holidays.  “But Aunt Salka [the younger sister] or Aunt Dora most always sewed our shirts and underwear.”

And then more seriously, my uncle’s description of a visit from the Nazi stormtroopers:

“Juden, macht auf!” “Juden macht auf!”  Heavy fists were banging on our door.

I put my forefinger over my lips for everyone to be quiet and motioned to them to go into the kitchen. What should we do? Thoughts were racing through my mind. What will happen if we opened up? What if we played that nobody was home? Would they go away? Was our fate now thrust into my 15 ½ years old hands?

More banging and “Juden macht auf!” “Juden macht auf!”

What if we went into our parents’ bedroom and hid under the bed? What if the door finally gave away and they came in and found us? What if we went from the kitchen into the veranda and from there into an attic of an adjoining building and hid there? Could we do it without making any noise? What if they found us anyway? Would it be better if we opened up?

“Juden macht auf!” “Juden macht auf!”

The door to our apartment was a double door. The stationary side was bolted to the transom on top and to the floor on the bottom. The floor bolt seemed to hold; the top bolt started to splinter the transom bottom but the lock in the center still held. I looked into the dark kitchen. My sister, turned ten in the middle of March, was cowering terrified in the corner behind a credenza. My fourteen-year-old brother was next to her on the floor.  I can still visualize the terror in his eyes. My aunt was on the floor next to them, slowly stroking their heads trying to keep them calm. If we were quiet, maybe they would go away.” The stormtroopers left because the neighbor, a shoemaker, told them that no one was at home.

In December 1938, the death of Dora and Clara’s father coincided roughly with my grandparents’ approval to leave for the United States. They left in January 1939, but Dora’s paperwork was not ready, and she had to stay behind.  My mother once said that Dora had stayed to take care of her father, and this is alluded to here:

“My Aunt Dora still had not received her affidavit and, therefore, could not make arrangements to leave Austria.  (It apparently was very difficult to provide these affidavits here in America.  While my father’s family was able to get them for us, there were apparently insufficient guarantees to include her.  She had two brothers and several cousins here.   It took all their efforts to provide affidavits for her and my Aunt Salka and her husband who were in Switzerland.  This, however, did not occur until we were already in America.  By the time her papers were ready, they were of no use.  She had married, for companionship or to save another soul who could come with her to America as her husband.  It did not matter.  The process had to be started again.  By that time we had lost contact with her, never to hear from her again.”

My grandfather had died on December 14th and thus blessedly relieved her of taking care of him or having to worry what to do if he still lived when she was ready to leave.”

Please excuse me if all of this has been too long for the reader.  What it says is that my grandparents took care of their parents and of Dora, and that she took care of them, until they had to leave without her.  My older uncle did not attribute to her the strong personality with which he described his “new mother”, but the children knew her.  She was there. 

Someone, my mother or George, said that she was living in my grandparents’ building when they left—or rather my grandfather had traded that building for some factory equipment, which was sent ahead to the US, and for some kind of protection for Dora.    

According to the Yad Vashem database Dora was deported to Minsk in transport 12 on the 28th of November 1941, from an address at 21/27 Türkenstrasse in Vienna’s 9th District.  She even had a prisoner number, 849.   Here is the Yad Vashem link that details Transport 12,  https://deportation.yadvashem.org/index.html?language=en&itemId=7003403     Dora was murdered on May 20, 1942.

Here is a section of the new Holocaust Memorial and, at the bottom of the lower photo, Aunt Dora’s name.

And below, hauntingly, is the building at 21/27 Türkenstrasse.   There are memorial plaques on the pavers outside, one generally for the 35 people who were deported from this building.  Four others, for individuals, one of whom was sent to Minsk on the same date.  Why was Dora here?  Was she forced to move here?   Did her husband live here?   I do not know. 

As I understand Viennese addresses 21/27 Türkenstrasse is building number 21, visible here, and apartment number 27. This building is not too far from the new memorial and the Ringstrasse.
On the left: “In commemoration of the 35 Jewish women, men, and children who lived in this house. Before they were deported by the Nazis and murdered.” Note also, upper right hand corner, that Ms. Ketschkemet, was also deported to Minsk, on the same date as Dora.

Both George’s memoir and our mother spoke of their mother Clara’s grief and guilt at her disappearance.  She had been saved, and her sister had not. She had married the man that she intended for her sister, and consequently the sister had not lived.  This is perhaps why Dora, in some sense, had to be forgotten. Or more precisely, forgotten by my mother, who was only 11 when she left Austria—and who said very little about her except that she had disappeared. 

And so I’ve come back here, Dora, to acknowledge your existence, even though I cannot know you.  You had a family; you were not forgotten, and you exist here again, through me. 

A side note:  There was a bit of difficulty matching Dora Diamant to her Landau family.  However, as noted, the archivist located a Dora Landau who was married to Zalel Diamant in 1920 and divorced in 1921.  She was born in 1895 in Tysminiza/Stanislau.   Stanislau is now known as Ivano Frankivsk, and Tysminiza is to its east.   Uncle George notes that both Grandfather Leib Landau and Clara Landau, his mother, were from Jaslowitce (now known as Pomortsky), a bit further east.  (Spellings for these towns vary with the source.)  Both Tysminiza and Jaslowitce are southeast of Lemburg (now known as Lviv). 

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March 12, 2022

“Among the so-called neurotics of our day there are a good many who in other ages would not have been neurotic—that is divided against themselves.  If they had lived in a period and in a milieu in which man was still linked by myth with the world of his ancestors, and thus with nature truly experienced and not merely seen from the outside, they would have been spared this division with themselves.  I am speaking of those who cannot tolerate the loss of myth and who can neither find a way to a merely exterior world, to the world as seen by science, nor rest satisfied with an intellectual juggling with words, which has nothing whatsoever to do with wisdom.” 

Carl Jung, Memories Dreams and Reflections, p. 172 (Thanks to Gerry Perlman for recommending this book.)

“My whole being was seeking for something still unknown which might confer meaning upon the banality of life.” 

Carl Jung, Ibid., p. 197

Thousands of stories have been written about the Holocaust and its individual experiences.  So many, perhaps, that some may feel that its evil is too endlessly repeated and no greater than many others.  The present currency of the term “Nazi” finds moral equivalence between today’s evils and those of the 1930’s.  To me this perspective is insulting; now I’ve made myself clear and have no need to go further.  But I do not believe that my observations have more significance than others’.  I am searching and writing now for me, for my personal development.  I share only to express myself, and perhaps to help someone else.

I am an American, now in Vienna, and I realized yesterday that I want to be as Austrian as I am French, because in doing so, something will heal inside of me. 

Living in France, as a young man, I  found a freedom, through language and friends, to connect with sensibilities that were not fully developed where I had lived, a freedom to enlarge myself in ways that had not previously been available to me.  Did this have something to do with my mother?  I don’t really know.  It will be much harder to do this now—I am 68—but that is what I would like to do in Vienna. 

I do not yet understand how, but it is important to connect with the world my mother and her ancestors left.  Our family turned its back completely on Germany and Austria (Nazis), and on central and eastern Europe (anti-Semites generally–which why, now, I am giving to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, to help Ukrainian refugees, and to have Jewish organizations be seen helping them.)  Unlike some other families who retained ties with German or Austrian culture, ours had no interest in keeping any of it. 

From Austria, we had, occasionally, wiener schnitzel and apple strudel.  Otherwise we  retained only our Judaism, and then assimilated into America, into California, as quickly as we could. 

Was my family ever really Austrian?  My mother and her brothers were born in Vienna. And, yes, in the broader, imperial sense, their parents were German speakers, lived in Vienna, and had moved to Vienna from Galicia, an Austrian province, presently divided between Poland and the Ukraine. Yes, because our grandfather, a great-grandfather, and a great uncle served in the Austrian army in World War I.  Yes, because Austria was a polyglot empire that included Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, Slavs and Jews.  Yes, because Vienna, even today, has residents of and descended from these various backgrounds. Yes, because our family was assimilating, that is letting go of the habits of Jewish orthodoxy, and more broadly interacting in pre-World War II Vienna. 

Although undoubtedly my grandparents viewed themselves as Viennese, or Polish, and not as German,  the movement away from orthodoxy and the ghetto was not complete.  It was aborted, and the benefits (and losses) of assimilation were only fully achieved in the United States.

A secularized American, I have returned to Vienna as a new Austrian citizen, and therefore quite clearly as a Jew.  Many others are taking advantage of new Austrian legislation that has allowed us to claim or re-claim its citizenship.  Others have moved here or are visiting.  But this is a very alone and individual effort for me.  

On Monday, I took a local train and a streetcar to Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof, or Central Cemetery, in order to visit the grave of our great-grandfather.  The coordinates were given to us by our Vienna lawyers, during research for our citizenship applications.  Gate IV, the new Jewish section, Group 021,  Row 033,  Grab 029.   I found it; after a couple of wrong-turns, and I was looking right at it.  Leib Landau, after whom I am named, was buried here in his eighties, in December 1938. 

Behind Gate 4 in the Zentralfriedhof
Group 21, Row 33
Grave 029, but the burial was in 1938, not 1939

I know relatively little about Grandfather Landau.  My mother told me that he was a wealthy farmer, who sold his property in Poland, moved to Vienna, lost everything in a currency crash, and never recovered.  He had three daughters, my grandmother Clara and two aunts; Salka, like my grandmother and her family, escaped and settled on Manhattan’s Lower East Side;  Dora was unable to get out and disappeared.  (We learned in during our citizenship applications that she was deported to Minsk.) There was also an Uncle Jack in New York, who helped organize the guarantees of support then necessary for his sisters to emigrate to the US;  he was gay, my mother said and committed suicide. 

Our Uncle George’s writes that Leib Landau was born in Jaslowitce, Austria (Poland); his tomb stone shows his birth as 1854.   (On the internet  this town is now Pomortsky, located southeast of Lviv, in the Ukraine.)  He married Chana Pfeffer, with whom he had six children, three boys followed by three girls.  The oldest left for the United States at the beginning of World War I.  Another went to Palestine. The gay son fought in an Austrian mountain brigade.  I saw a picture of him somewhere in a Tyrolean hat. The family moved to Vienna, also at the beginning of World War I.  Leib and Chana eventually moved into my grandparents’ small apartment building at Freidrich-Kaiser-Gasse 21 in Vienna.  Chana died in 1934. 

Chana Pfeffer Landau, photo from Fran Shaller

Chana and Leib Landau, photo from Fran Shaller
Aunt Salka, Fran, Anny, and Uncle Jack, in New York

The pictures help, but this is a pretty dry narrative; I didn’t know any of them; I hardly even remember my grandmother. 

But at the cemetery, I had a strong feeling that I was the first one there, the first family member to have visited since 1938. 

My mother’s family left for New York a month after the burial, in January 1939.  There cannot have been a gravestone, as these are traditionally placed a year after death. ) Might the remaining daughter have visited, after the Germans were in Vienna?  Might another descendant have shown up?  A descendant of the New York or Palestine brothers, about whom I know nothing?  Or is my intuition true?

I think it is.  Until now, none of us ever thought about or wanted to come back.   

There are a few more mysteries, at least for now.  

  • It is a relatively new gravestone with other identical new gravestones around it: of others who died at about the same time.  Who put these here, the Jewish community?  
  • Where is our great-grandmother, Chana Landau?   Why aren’t they together?
  • There are many recent gravestones behind Gate IV.  The Viennese Jewish community, I thought, was fairly small.   Can it have filled these recent graves?  Or have refugees asked to be returned to Vienna for burial?

I hope to find this out in the coming weeks or months.

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I am in Vienna

March 4, 2022

I flew into Vienna on Wednesday, and today, briefly, I felt that I was out of my mind to have come.  I have some old, inherited fear. . . But the move is temporary, and it feels important, although I can’t explain exactly why.

Why would I want to move to such a place—that is a place that we ran from over eight decades ago?  A city where my grandparents were migrants, from present-day Poland and (unbelievably now) the Ukraine, a city that my mother left as a child?  There was no feeling of loss on her part—except the loss of security and of innocence–only fear and loathing.

So why do I care?  Because I have always felt that there was something unexplained. I did not feel quite at home as a child in California (although that may have been home, more than anyplace else), and I was no better than an acclimated foreigner in Asia or in Paris.  (Although they taught me much that drew me in.)  I never quite “fit-in” to New York, even during thirty-six years.  I don’t like its values, what it encourage us to become, although I am very lucky to have lived there–for my generation, it was the ideal place for the adult life of a gay man.  I may not belong to any place, but I am still looking.

There is something in Vienna that is unexplained, something psychological or emotional that draws from further east and from the past; it reminds us that we do not merely spring from our own lifetimes.  I felt a bit of it in Israel, and I’m sure I could find more of it there—an emotional familiarity, a link with a very long shared history.  But I can’t just step into modern Israel, with all of its wonderfulness, because its problems trouble me—I don’t want or need to own them, despite its importance.  Before I try Israel again, there is something that comes in-between Israel and America, almost 2,000 years in Europe.  I felt some of it in France; but we are from central and eastern Europe.  I’d like to know whether there is a bond; how it formed me/us (not just in the negative sense, the persecution, although there was plenty of that). 

Great-grandfather, Leib Landau, above, died in Vienna in December 1938. Dora Landau Diamant (left) was deported to Minsk in November 1941. Clara (right), our grandmother, escaped to the United States. Photo sent to me by Fran Shaller, daughter of a third sister, Salka, whose parents also escaped to New York, through Switzerland.

I have some immediate business here.  A great grandfather’s grave to visit–I am his namesake—and a great-aunt to honor.  (She was deported and did not survive.)  I’d like to bring these people forward a bit, in our minds.  And of course, there is a lot here to satisfy the aesthete.  Because during all of this, my travels, my personal relationships, and my work have taught me an appreciation for beautiful things.  

I am here to reconcile with Vienna and to see what it has become. 

A little Bauhaus, near the Schönbrunn Park

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Retirement, deciding

October 2021

My friends may wonder why I choose to retire now.  Although well past 65, there is no employer asking me to leave;  I have clients and can still work, and I have a good life in New York,  with good friends—including my best friends–an apartment that has been home since 1989 and an upstate house.  Why would I give this all up?   

It is not that I want to let go, rather that I have imagined something else. This imagining has developed over time, while what I have here is no longer working.  So, I have decided to leave to pursue other interests.  

For many years, I was a real estate appraiser and more recently a broker.  I was drawn to housing by beauty and saw a lot of it. Sometimes it was not so beautiful close-up, but I enjoyed it, became good at it, was paid for it, and perhaps continued with it for too long.  I did  a lot of writing, of lengthy, detailed appraisal reports, and many articles, mostly about the Manhattan housing market.  Now I want to see and write about other things. 

Me, when I had bigger dreams
(In a photo saved by Scot Coughlin.)

There are regrets. Regrets about some of my relationships; regret that I never focused too much on earning money so that retirement may be tight.  Regret that I may eventually give up my apartment, where I feel most at home, and perhaps eventually a house that I love very much.

Earlier in my life, I read and thought about broader issues–many of us did. I lived abroad, first with my parents and then on my own, studied languages, read history and politics,  roamed a bit, met different types of people and learned different ways of thinking.  But then I narrowed myself, to be secure, and now I want to take the time available to me to broaden again and dig deeper.  I’m 68, so I’m hoping for ten years of adventure before settling down to something quiet.  

It is now time to tell the people I love that I will stay close, even when not around. 

Vienna calls me;  my mother was a refugee from Vienna, although we were protected from this past.  I now have an Austrian passport, and there is something for me to see and resolve.  I’m not sure what.  

Once we nearly two hundred thousand; now there are hardly any Jews left in Austria, so in my older age I am perhaps more of a Jew than I have ever been, an American Jew invited back.  I am intrigued, and the direction of politics in my own country makes me less inclined to feel judgmental. 

This is a tall hill to climb.  I speak French, not German. My family moved beyond the past; we assimilated; German was not spoken; we were only mildly observant.  Now I’m studying Hebrew and German and so reclaiming some things that were purposefully forgotten. I cannot be my ancestors, a wig maker or a restaurant owner in Vienna, a religious judge, a farmer, an orthodox rabbi in Galicia, a multi-lingual customs official in Odessa, but I can show up as I am now, see what Vienna has to teach me, and show others what America did for us and whom we have become. 

Vienna may never feel like home, but that is not the point.  There is something there, for a year, or two, or more, before I move elsewhere or come home.

Larry Sicular

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