The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler

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  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.