The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler

Standard

  This is a different sort of family Holocaust memoir, partly because it’s got recipes at the back, and partly because it’s about Innsbruck.  Not Warsaw, Lodz, Vilnius, Kyiv, Minsk, Vienna, Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Berlin, Prague or a little shtetl somewhere, but Innsbruck.  And I was going to say that this is the first time I’ve come across a Holocaust book about Tyrol, but, of course, the first ever slightly Holocaust-related book I read was The Chalet School in Exile.  And, for nearly 40 years, I have tied myself in knots over Austria – land of the Chalet School (which has played and continues to play a big part in my life), The Sound of Music (which I’ve seen 85 billion times), Sachertorte (which I like to have on my birthday, and at various other times during rhe year), strudel, coffee houses, lakes, mountains, waltzes, white horses, grand palaces … and, in the not too distant past, Nazis.  I’ve got photos dotted about the house of myself in Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.  Hey, I scoffed a huge piece of apple strudel from an Austrian stall at the Christmas market in Manchester last weekend.  But I still tie myself in knots over it all.

Most people probably know that, until recently, The Sound of Music had never been shown on state Austrian TV, because of Austria’s issues with itself.  And just to wander a bit off topic, Tony Warren, the late, great, creator of Coronation Street, addressed this issue in The Lights of Manchester, in which a character gets spooked during a romantic weekend in Vienna.  I even wrote a Chalet School fanfic to try to sort it all out in my head, but it really is difficult.

In this, we’ve got a British author inheriting a large amount of family papers from her Tyrolean-born father, who escaped from Innsbruck as a schoolboy in 1938, and looking into her family history – centred on the Cafe Schindler, the very popular coffee house on the Mariatheresienstrasse which was founded by her great-grandparents.  It was seized from the family after the Anschluss, but they did eventually get it back, but then sold it on in the 1950s … and it still exists.

The author seems to have started her research because she had questions about her dad and her complicated relationship with him.  I’m not sure that she needed to be so negative about him in a published book, but that was her choice.  The questions about him are never really answered, but there’s a lot in this, going back to the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, and how the various members of her family came to be in Innsbruck, or elsewhere.

There’s a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction subplot about a relative by marriage, Dr Eduard Bloch, a Jewish doctor in Linz who treated both Hitler and his mother before the Great War, and got some sort of special protection in the 1930s because Hitler had always liked him.   But the main character ends up being Hugo Schindler, the author’s grandfather – a proud Tyrolean, proud Austrian, who sometimes wore lederhosen and a little green hat, fought for Austria-Hungary in the Great War … and was badly beaten by people from his own local community on Kristallnacht, and lost his mother, sister and brother-in-law in the concentration camps.

The book takes us through the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the awarding of South Tyrol to Italy, and shows us the Schindler family setting up their cafe and how it became very popular in a city coping with the shock of everything that had happened.  Innsbruck wasn’t Vienna: there were very few non-Catholics there, and there were no “Jewish areas” – everyone lived together, one community.  But then, and this was something I found out myself when doing some research a few years ago, the events of Kristallnacht were particularly brutal in Innsbruck … and it has to be said that Tyrol has a history of intolerance of religious minorities.

And yet, after the war, the Schindler family chose to return.  The author talks about the complexities of the post-war era and how it suited everyone to cast Austria as a victim, when in fact Austria had welcomed the Nazis in.  There’s a lot of personal stuff in this book, which is, after all, a family history – family feuds, different members of the family ending up in different places, etc, but the main focus is on the Cafe Schindler, and they did eventually get it back.   The story isn’t always set out in the clearest of ways, but there’s a moving end in which the author ensures that “steine”, memorial stones marking the place where a Holocaust victim lived – I saw quite a few of them in Budapest in 2019 – are placed for her great-grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle.

Then there are recipes for Kaiserschmarm, apple strudel and Sachertorte.  I made sure that I had all of those when I went to the Vienna Christmas markets in 2019.  In fact, pretty much the first thing I did after leaving my luggage at the hotel was to rush off to the Cafe Sacher to have genuine Sacher Torte on its home patch.   Austria, land of coffee houses.  And Nazis.  But time moves on, and, as the author says, very few of the people who had anything to do with Nazi atrocities are still alive.  And the Cafe Schindler’s still there.  I very much hope to go back to Innsbruck one day, and, if I do, I’ll be calling in.

Love and Death in Vienna by Bunny Paine-Clemes

Standard

Oh dear.  “Life was a Sachertorte, and she had arrived with a spoon to lick the whipped cream of its sweetness.”  “His soul?  Sometimes he felt her sucking it, like a greedy vampire.  She was a child with a straw, and he was the seltzer water.”  “I am the seltzer water, you are the straw” … it’s not exactly the most romantic line ever, is it?   And I suppose it might be quite nice if life was a Sachertorte (although someone possibly needs to explain to the author that the whipped cream comes on the side and isn’t actually part of the torte), but it’s not really the sort of line you can take very seriously 🙂 .  I was a bit put off before I even started reading this, after the author said in the foreword that she asked for the scenes to come to her in dreams.  OK, whatever works for you, but it just seemed rather odd.

The book’s about the affair between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary and the 17-year-old Baroness Mary/Marie Vetsera, who famously and tragically died in the  Mayerling Incident of 1889.  The whole thing was hushed up, and Mary was buried without even her mother being allowed to attend.  First it was claimed that Rudolf had had a heart attack.  Then that he’d been poisoned.  Then that it was a suicide pact.  There’ve been claims that it was a double murder by foreign agents, or that Rudolf was killed by Mary’s angry relatives and she was shot by accident, or that Mary died due to a botched abortion and Rudolf killed himself out of grief; but the suicide pact explanation, with Rudolf killing Mary and then himself, seems the most likely, and that’s the one which Bunny Paine-Clemes has gone for.

What’s even less clear is how long the affair had been going on for – was it just a few months, or had it been going on for a few years?  No-one really seems to know.  Mary was only 17 when she died, but it’s possible that an affair had started when she was only 15 … and Rudolf in his late 30s, and married with a child.  The story given in the book is that Mary was obsessed with Rudolf from an early age, and that they were introduced by a family friend of hers who was also a relative of his, and began an affair.

It was an odd relationship.  Rudolf already had a long-term mistress, an actress – and, with all due respect, an actress or maybe a married noblewoman would have been the usual choice of mistress for a crown prince, not a 17-year-old unmarried baroness.  Mary’s family, obviously, hoped for a good match for her – and there was a real chance that she could have married the Duke of Braganza, the Miguelist pretender to the Portuguese throne, living in exile in Vienna.  Instead, she got embroiled with Rudolf.

The author clearly has a lot of sympathy for Rudolf, but she goes overboard which a lot of what she says.  He apparently wanted to end all discrimination on the grounds of race and class.  Excuse me?  He, his mother Sisi, his brother Maximilian and his cousin Franz Ferdinand all had more liberal ideas than Franz Joseph, but that’s going a bit OTT!  And, apparently, the Hungarian nobility did too.  That’ll be the same Hungarian nobility of whom many members were involved in the White Terror of the 1920s and the pro-Nazi government of the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Hmm.

Sorry, but I really find it hard to have much sympathy for Rudolf.  There’s a rather amusing scene in which we see him chatting to the Prince of Wales about how they’re both stuck in a rut until their respective parents vacate their thrones by dying, but Bertie/Edward did not infect his wife with an STD, causing her to become infertile, and get involved with a girl who may have been as young as 15 when their relationship began.  Rudolf did.  I can sympathise with the fact that he seemed to be suffering from mental illness, whether it was depression or whether it was brought on by the STD, but the book makes it sound as if Mary did all the chasing.  I appreciate that the idea of “MeToo” was not exactly around in the 1880s, but she was barely an adult.

Did Rudolf talk her into a suicide pact?  It seems likely.  What a tragedy.

It’s a sad story, and an interesting one, and one which still attracts a lot of attention.  But it’s quite hard to take this style of writing seriously, and I’m also not very comfortable with the idea that a teenage girl with a crush is the one driving a relationship with a married man who’s twice her age and knows very well that he could be infecting her with gonorrhoea.  Not a great book.  But I’ve got a piece of Sachertorte in the freezer, and I really want to eat it now …

 

Vienna Blood – BBC 2

Standard

I don’t usually watch detective/murder mystery programmes, but this one appealed because it was set in early 20th century Vienna – and what a brilliant evocation of time and place it provided.  We got the elegance, the buildings, the music, the art, the development of the study of psychology … and, beneath it, something sinister, which the viewer knows will come to the surface in the 1930s.  The actual detective stuff was fairly bonkers, but it was worth watching for the setting.

Two lots of serial killing (so far, with a third episode to come).  Mostly involving women.  Either the scriptwriter or the author of the books on which it’s based is weirdly obsessed with violence against women and dead female bodies, which is a bit creepy.  The first one involved a séance and someone getting shot on the Riesenrad.  The second one involved a duel and someone murdering people he thought represented characters from an opera.  As I said, a bit mad.  But the solving of them using Freud’s new science was pretty interesting.

Our hero is Dr Max Liebermann, a British junior doctor living in Vienna for nebulous reasons to do with his dad’s emporium.  He’s working alongside a rather useless inspector, Oskar Rheinhardt.  Max is a devotee of Freud.  We also got a musical evening at which Mahler played, and an art exhibition given by Klimt.  And all those lovely, elegant buildings.  Beautiful, beautiful Vienna.  The only thing lacking was the coffee house culture.  No Sachertorte. No strudel.  What was going on with that?!

But there were unpleasant elements to it too.  Max was frequently called “Dr Jew” by colleagues, and the subject of some other nasty anti-Semitic cracks: a review in the Independent compared it to reading a Momentum member’s social media feed.  And there was an extremist group mounting attacks on black people and immigrants to Vienna from the Slavic parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Vienna is beautiful … but dangerous.  As is the study of psychology – we were actually shown electric shock treatment being carried out.

So there was a lot going on.  This is something very different – it’s been compared to Sherlock Holmes, but Sherlock Holmes isn’t set in the fascinating cultural melee that was Vienna in the early 1900s.  I’m quite sorry that there are only three episodes.  Another series, please!