Behind the Beauty and Facades of Vienna

19 Apr

My husband and I took our children to Vienna in 1999. We went to Austria and Hungary primarily to see the total eclipse of the sun. But our tour started in Vienna. I was not sure I wanted to go there. My grandfather was from Galecia, when it was part of Austria. His entire family was murdered in the Shoah. So should I go to a place that hated my family, my people and my traditions so much?

But on the other hand, my grandfather also told me that he bought his property and built his bungalow colony in the Catskills because the hills reminded him of his home. I wanted to see that part of Austria. And I did, when we left Vienna to go into the Vienna Woods, into the rolling hills above the city, I saw what he meant.

It did remind me of the Catskills. And I understood that even though he would never, ever leave the USA. That he would never go back to Galecia, he still had that piece of home in his heart when he was in the Catskills.

In Vienna we also saw the Hundertwasser haus designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Born, Friedrich Stowasser, the son of a Jewish mother, as a child, he and his mother posed as Catholics during the war. His mother lost almost 70 members of her family. When we went up into the mountains, we stayed at the Bad Blumau Spa, which he designed. My son called this place the wacky hotel. It was an amazing spot. It is a place of beauty and peace designed by a Jewish man who was able to survive and provide beauty to the world.

While in Vienna, I made sure that my children went to the Jewish Museum and to the Judenplatz, the area of Vienna where most of the Jews had lived. At the time there was no memorial to the Shoah or an additional museum to memorialize what happened there. When we went, the central grounds in the Judenplatz was in the midst of construction. There were signs about what would be built there. And there was a plaque on one of the buildings describing, in German, what had happened during the war, after the Anschluss with Germany in March 1938.

We stayed for three nights in Vienna. Because we were traveling as a family of four within a tour group, the hotel reservations clerk upgraded our hotel rooms from two small rooms next to each other to an actual apartment suite that was on two floors. It was a lovely suite. We had a view of the city. Our children loved this elegant accommodation. But the entire first day, I felt unsettled.

On Saturday morning, as we were eating breakfast in the hotel dining room, I heard chanting and prayers. I followed the sounds and found several women sitting in a hallway outside a room where a traditional Shabbat service was being held. I was amazed. There was still a Jewish presence in Vienna? People were celebrating Shabbat here? We were not the only Jews in the city? I felt a bit comforted that the hotel we were staying in allowed Jewish services and provided a spot for those who wanted to celebrate the Shabbat and keep kosher. A bit of my angst left me.

We did all the tourist stops in Vienna. We went to the Schonbrunn Castle; The Belvedere; and the Spanish Riding School, home of the Lipizzaner horses. I had to see the Spanish Riding School, because I remember seeing the Disney movie, “The Miracle of the White Stallions,” as a child and have always been intrigued by these horses. At the Schonbrunn Palace we learned about Sisi, Empress Elizabeth of Austria and her very long hair!

I bought souvenirs, some lace, white ceramics, gifts for the children, and of course post cards of art work from the museums, including the beautiful Klimt paintings. They were magnificent.

The Klimt paintings, especially the one of the woman painted and then covered in gold, was amazing.   But there was much going on in the background of that painting that we did not know. There was no mention that the woman in gold was stolen from a Jewish home during the Shoah, along with other artwork.

My views of Vienna changed again when I went to see the movie, “The Woman in Gold” and found out the true story of this painting and others like it. I had a totally different reaction than when I saw the “Miracle of the White Stallions” so many years ago.

Although “The Woman in Gold” has not received wonderful reviews, I found it fascinating.   Perhaps with my somewhat Austrian roots and my previous time spent in Austria and Vienna, I related on to the film a different level. Perhaps because my family was destroyed after the Anschluss, so I felt the story on that level as well.

Of course my family was not multi-millionaires. But they did own a farm and property that was all stolen. And they did suffer through the murders and destruction.

I wish the movie shown that Maria Altman had children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The Maria in the movie seems to be alone. And that was not the case. I wish the movie shown her triumphant in her life as well as in her fight against Austria to win the return of what belonged to her family.

For me the continuation of her family, as well as the return of the stolen property would have made the story even stronger. Not only did she get the beautiful Klimt, but she also made a lovely life.

I do not know if I will ever go back to Vienna. But I know that with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, we cannot stand back and say nothing.   So I am glad that movies such as “The Woman in Gold” have been made and are shown throughout the world.

Vienna in 1999 was a different Vienna than in 1938, but now I know that they were still not facing the truth of what had happened.   Vienna is a beautiful city. This is a fact. The pastry shops, the museums, the buildings, the parts are all stunning. But behind the facades, for me, will always be the homes, art, jewelry and lives taken.

9 Responses to “Behind the Beauty and Facades of Vienna”

  1. Amy April 19, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

    Thank you for writing this. We will be in Vienna in next month as part of a trip to Prague, Krakow, and Budapest. Originally Vienna was not on our list for some of the reasons you mentioned, but our best flight option was in and out of Vienna so we added a couple of days there. Your insights are really meaningful.

    • zicharon April 19, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

      Go to the judenplatz. There is now a Shoah museum there. The synagogue is not far. And to hundretwasser haus.

      • Amy April 19, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

        Thank you, I will be sure to note those down.

  2. Bev April 19, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

    Peter was born in Vienna after the Anschloss. We have been back three times and found his Dad’s place of business and the even gotten into the apartment where he was born. His parents lived about a block from the Prater.

    • zicharon April 19, 2015 at 4:22 pm #

      How does he feel when he goes?

  3. Amy June 2, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

    Just wanted you to know that we have returned from our trip, and although we only had a day and a half in VIenna, I remembered your words when we were there. If we had not gone to the Jewish Museum (both locations—there is now one at the Judenplatz), I would never have known there were Jews in Vienna from what we saw. Even the Holocaust Memorial on Judenplatz lost some of its power, as there were people sitting on it eating, oblivious to the names of the concentration camps inscribed behind them where people starved to death. There was a lot I liked about Vienna—it is beautiful. But the city’s history of anti-Semitism before and after the Holocaust is deeply troubling.

    • zicharon June 2, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

      The one at the Judenplatz wasn’t built when I was there. But I am sad to know that people treated it disrespectfully. The anti-Semitism throughout the world is appalling.

      • Amy June 2, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

        Yes, it is. Walking through the former Jewish Quarters in Prague, Krakow, and Budapest was very haunting (though Budapest still has an active Jewish community).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: