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,

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,     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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The Best Upper West Side Apartments

This morning (Sunday, June 6), I searched the  StreetEasy website for real estate in Manhattan and found 282 cooperative and condominium apartment listings on the Upper West Side, priced from $3 to $10 million.  Most buyers would not look across so broad a price range, but roughly half of them (144) are priced from $3 to $5 million, and the remaining (138) are asking above $5  and up to $10

In these elevated price ranges, many would expect to see a number of large and beautiful apartments. 

Emphatically that is not the case.  Many of the apartments are underwhelming. Their insufficiency is not a  function of price, since the market generally imposes its discipline on overpriced apartments, nor of condition, since older or inadequate renovations can be redone.   

Many available units lack interest because they have poor light, poor views and outlooks, or awkward floor plans.  Often they are architecturally uninteresting, or have high monthly maintenance charges.  These faults are not easily corrected. 

Certainly, every apartment can eventually be sold to someone who loves it.  Size and beauty are dictated largely by individual needs and tastes. Nevertheless, it is not worth buying a place to live that is dark and faces nothing or that has an unworkable plan.  That is not quality, no matter how good the address.  There are better things to be found elsewhere. 

They may be hard to find.  Over many years, I have seen beautiful places in nearly every price range, including well below $3,000,000, but there are relatively few of them.  And they may not be available at any particular point in time.

Among the 282 apartments, I have chosen four that are interesting.

67 Riverside Drive, 9B,  asking $3,200,000,  monthly $4,757: This apartment is beautiful, despite some flaws, and it offers an unusual combination of light and views, in a three-bedroom layout, with appealing detailing, and in superb, remodeled condition.  The building is a small 1906 cooperative, a few steps up from the sidewalk and was built only four apartments per floor; it does not have a doorman, which narrows its appeal, but the lobby and hallways are extraordinarily clean and polished. The height of the views from the 9th floor from nearly every room, is perfect–through big windows and delicate iron railings, over a wide stone shelves and the clearly visible trees of Riverside Park to the River.  Every room has built-ins, and the kitchen and bathrooms have been flawlessly renovated in a respectful, up-to-date taste.  The living-dining room, master bedroom and kitchen are large, for an apartment that the Brown Harris listing broker indicated at about 1,500 square feet.  Critiques of the interior plan are a relatively small master bathroom, and the placement of the large main bathroom in what is now the main entry hallway.  This apartment has the larger front rooms of what was originally a larger, longer apartment.  Here is the link.

33 West 67th Street,  5RW,  $4,795,000, monthly $6,127 : I favor smaller buildings.  They offer intimacy and privacy and ironically encourage you to know your neighbors.  33 West 67th Street is one of three nearly-identical co-ops, located on a famous art-studio block between Central Park West and Columbus Avenues.   Built in 1903 with 33 apartments, it has housed Philippe Halsman, the portrait photographer,  Candace Wheeler (founder of the School of Decorative Arts), James Montgomery Flagg (Uncle Sam, 1917), and briefly, Marcel Duchamp.    

Apartment 5FW, on the 9th and 10th floors, has a generous, double-height living room (about 17’) and a tall studio window facing north over the Upper West Side,  a working fireplace, large open cook’s kitchen and dining room, powder room, and three bedrooms with two baths.  It has been extensively renovated and updated, with central air-conditioning and an ideal master suite.   This is my listing at Sotheby’s.

Angela Davis by Philippe Halsman, 1974, Wikimedia Commons

41 Central Park West, 6B, $5,750,000, monthly $5,130: I seem to have a weakness for pre-World War I apartments, since this is the third one here.  This 64th Street building is distinguished by its tan brick entry court, manned gatehouse and intimate entry lobbies.  Apartment 6B is a corner unit, facing Central Park and the skyline of Central Park South.  It has two sets of French doors, with panes, each of which sits between a pair of single, vertical-sash windows and opens to a balcony with decorative iron and copper railing.

The apartment has been extensively and attractively renovated.  The placement of the kitchen is not ideal, but has left room for two nice bedrooms with baths.  It is on the market with Compass. 

The same apartment on the 9th floor has not been remodeled, but is currently under contract following an asking price of $3,900,000.  Its floor plan is probably closer to the original.

The actor Arnold Daly, a resident of
Harperly Hall
Theatre Magazine 1904

262 Central Park West,  5A,  $8,500,000, monthly $5,864: The White House is a large white and tan brick 1927 building that is not particularly distinguished, but its plain envelope contains some very good apartments.  This one, estimated at 3,200 square feet, is on a corner of the building.  Its gracious, useable layout includes an 18’ x 9’9” entry gallery, opening to the living room, dining room, library and eat-in kitchen (with maid’s room and bath).  The library has a full bathroom and walk-in closet, and there is also a separate hallway with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.  The floor height is good enough for a view and low enough to see what is going on.  The windows are very large and some are with single panes, lending a contemporary feel to a pre-war apartment.

Morris Henry Sugarman of Sugarman and Berger, architects of 262 Central Park West, NYTimes 1946
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A New Austrian

I am a new Austrian.  That is I was recently given Austrian citizenship and a passport under Section 58c of the Austrian nationality act (2019), which offers dual nationality to descendants of victims of Nazi persecution. 

For most of my 68-year life, this was unimaginable.  My mother was born in Vienna, and fled in 1939, but turned away from the place that turned away from her.  She did not think of herself as Austrian.  The United States was her country and California her home.  Otherwise only Israel really mattered.  She rarely spoke German and never with us. 

Mom as a young immigrant

We lived in Asia as children, in India and Singapore, traveling in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Japan. . . and then came back through Europe in the 1960’s, where we spent three ill-considered weeks in Austria.

For Mom that was it.  She had no further interest, and unlike her friends, she never went to Europe again.  The Austrians could not be separated from the Nazis, nor the Poles from anti-Semitism.  Dad read European history extensively, trying to make sense of Germany, but I didn’t listen to him.

And as I knew her, an American

Mom did arrange French lessons for me, and I continued in school and into college, before moving to Paris (funded by my parents) in 1972.   Mom also taught social discipline, attentiveness.  She told us to watch and respect the habits of our hosts.  “Your country is judged by your behavior” she said.

With some adjustments, France was a liberation for the son of a European immigrant.  I stopped struggling to be like everyone else and knew intuitively how to act. Such was the background to my lifelong relationship with France: an admiration for sophistication–a disdain for the overly material or obvious, a preference for food that tastes.

France became my idea of Europe.  It is where my friends were, so I grounded there when traveling to England, Italy, Spain, or Berlin.  A history course about Vienna, with Carl Schorske at Princeton, and a class in German (which I barely passed) didn’t hold me.  It was France that had my interest.  I didn’t think much about Austria, until last year when my sister told me we could apply for Austrian passports.  I was surprised and pleased.  An EU passport would allow me to spend more time in France.   

Sometime in the lengthy application process, my interest changed.  My grandfather,  a progressive orthodox rabbi’s son, moved from Galicia to Vienna as a teenager and then served in the Austrian army in World War I.  My grandmother was as a sheitel macher (a wig maker for Orthodox women), although her own glory was her long blond hair.  I am named after her father, who is buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery, but I have never been there. 

My grandparents started a few small businesses and by the late 1930’s owned a couple of small buildings and a workingman’s restaurant (Gasthaus).  They spoke German and assimilated, but they were not part of the Viennese bourgeoisie.  

I don’t want to kid myself.  We are far distant. I hardly knew them and cannot go back to where they left off.  But there is something there for me; something I’d like to understand more deeply; a sensibility or an outlook that could feel familiar; something different from France. 

So far I’ve not done much; a few history books and German lessons with a language professor in Klagenfurt (south Austria).  I’d like a trip to Vienna, when the Covid doors re-open; perhaps a class in history or political science;  another doorway to Europe; an understanding of a history and culture that was strikingly influenced by Jews, a closer link to what we purposefully forgot.  My sister has used the term reconciliation. 

I’d like to follow this road a bit before old age catches up with me.

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For current action in the Manhattan market over $4 million–consult the Olshan Report.

Donna Olshan and Emily Chen, at Olshan Realty, have been carefully tracking contracts signed, at $4 million or more, on a weekly and monthly basis since 2011.  Contracts are an important measure of current market activity, sales to not usually close for a month or more.

Here is a link to their report:

Their monthly findings are summarized in the table below and show that monthly contract volume, for the most expensive apartments and townhouses, collapsed in April 2020. It increased in every subsequent month (although the market was closed to physical showings until late June) but remained well below volume in the prior three years. However, contract volume reached 2019 levels in October, and then stunningly in November it exceeded the number of deals in both November 2019 and November 2018.

As of December 13, 2020, in the prior two weeks, 44 contracts were signed, so the strengthening market continues, perhaps the positive and immediate impact of the election and Covid vaccines.

As is also indicated, condominiums dominate the upper end of Manhattan’s housing market.  This is clearly the case in 2020 and the prior 3 years, but certainly would not have been the case when I started in this business some decades ago. Then the upper end was dominated by the cooperative market on Park-Fifth Avenues and Central Park West.  More recently, the bulk of luxury listing inventory and contracts is for condos, despite higher prices.

April total 11 88 142 118
April – co-ops1283934
April – townhouses1989
April – condos9519575
May total 22 98 101 121
May – co-ops9292729
May – townhouses21068
May – condos11596884
June total 30 119 103 107
June – co-ops6232917
June – townhouses5151513
June – condos19815977
July total 39 45 95 86
July – co-ops9102116
July – townhouses64118
July – condos24316362
August total 45 57 71 60
August – co-ops9141414
August – townhouses71275
August – condos29315041
September totals 56 67 84 60
Sept. – co-ops8132011
Sept. – townhouses51086
Sept. – condos43445643
October totals 55 53 83 103
Oct. – co-ops8132011
Oct. – townhouses51086
Oct. – condos43445643
November totals 95 85 71 98
Nov. – co-ops22252019
Nov. – townhouses155812
Nov. – condos58554367
Total April – Nov. 353 612 750 753
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