The Vienna Paradox

The Vienna Paradox

by Marjorie Perloff


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A fascinating memoir of refugee flight and survival, intellectual yet highly personal, by one America's eminent literary critics.

The Vienna Paradox is Marjorie Perloff's memoir of growing up in pre-World War II Vienna, her escape to America in 1938 with her upper-middle-class, highly cultured, and largely assimilated Jewish family, and her self-transformation from the German-speaking Gabriele Mintz to the English-speaking Marjorie—who also happened to be the granddaughter of Richard Schüller, the Austrian foreign minister under Chancellor Dollfuss and a special delegate to the League of Nations. Compelling as the story is, this is hardly a conventional memoir. Rather, it interweaves biographical anecdote and family history with speculations on the historical development of early 20th-century Vienna as it was experienced by her parents' generation, and how the loss of their "high" culture affected the lives of these cultivated refugees in a democratic United States that was, and remains, deeply suspicious of perceived "elitism." This is, in other words, an intellectual memoir, both elegant and heartfelt, by one of America's leading critics, a narrative in which literary and philosophical reference is as central as the personal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780811215718
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 04/21/2004
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Marjorie Perloff is the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of the Humanities Emerita at Stanford University and the author and editor of over a dozen books on literary and art criticism as well as cultural history.

Read an Excerpt

The Vienna Paradox


Chapter One

Anschluss: March 1938

A frontier is a division between countries. A history of a country is not a history of the changing of frontiers although many think so particularly those near the frontier the history of a country is why they like things which they have and which they do not exchange for other things for which they do not care. -Gertrude Stein, History or Messages from History (1930)

If we think of the world's future, we always mean where it will be if it keeps going as we see it going now and it doesn't occur to us that it is not going in a straight line but in a curve, constantly changing direction. -Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (1929)

Whenever I find myself in the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia or Euston Station in London or the Gare du Nord in Paris, I feel unaccountably sad. The lighting seems too dim, the air too heavy, and, down on the platform, the hum of the engines starting up especially melancholy. For years I thought I felt this way simply because most railroad stations are old, dark, and dingy, but when, once in Tokyo, I was waiting for the elegant bullet train on a sparkling clean and new platform and got the same familiar twinge of anxiety, I knew it must be something else. Like Wittgenstein in his critique of Freud, I tend to shy away from psychological explanation or linear narrative, but in this case, I think it's fair to say that my train phobia has to do with the night of March 13, 1938, the night I left Vienna for Zurich on the train. I was six and a half.

That night is commemorated for me in two written accounts. The first comprises two very short chapters of a narrative I produced at age seven in a lined black-and-white school notebook-the kind of notebook standard in the New York City public schools in 1939. My story was called Eine Reise nach Amerika (A Voyage to America) and in the Table of Contents, Chapter One is called "Die Abreise" ("The Departure"). But in the text, where the German words, already a bit unfamiliar to a child who was feverishly turning herself into an American, are often misspelled, the title reads "Die Areise." To a student of poetic language, the slip is not insignificant, meaning as it does, "The 'A' Journey." A journey, no doubt to a happier world but hardly perceived as such at the time!

Here is my translation of my first two chapters, "Die Areise" and "Im Zug":

"The Departure"

It was on the twelfth of March in the morning when my mother came into our room and said now we are no longer Austrians. Hitler has taken Austria. I cried hard but there was nothing to be done. Then when I went into my parents' room, I saw that our suitcases were packed and when my brother Walter and I asked why, my parents said maybe we will go away. Then the next day my grandmother, grandfather, and great-grandmother came for the last time. At 10 o'clock in the evening, we went to the train station where we met our cousins Hedy and Greta Strauss. As soon as we met, Greta said to my brother Walter, "Walter, why are you wearing your cap that way?" But since the train came, my brother couldn't answer.

"On the Train"

On the train, we went to sleep right away. But my cousins, as is typical of them, complained they didn't sleep all night. In Innsbruck, we had to get out and go to the police station where they unpacked all our luggage and my poor Mommy had to repack everything. There was such a mob and we had to wait so long that Mommy said she would unpack a book and I sat down on our hatbox and read. When we finished, we went to the station restaurant where we had ham rolls that tasted very good. And as I was sitting in this restaurant, I didn't yet have any idea that later in America I would write a hook. Well, I hadn't experienced much yet but, just wait, there will be much more!

Now compare this account, written by a second grader at P.S. 7, the Bronx, to the following letter sent by my mother, Ilse Schüller Mintz, to her sister Hilde, who had emigrated to London with her husband Otto Kurz the year before.

City Hotel, Zurich 15 III 1938

Dearest Hilde:

Where shall I begin? We have been through so much and I am so tired and confused that I only noticed now that I've been in the house for 1/2 hour and still have my hat on. And then there are so terribly many crucial decisions to make! But, I will try to relate to you the events one by one.

When on Friday afternoon we heard the terrible news, our first thought was "Away!" We wanted to go to Budapest Saturday morning. I packed half the night, then lay awake in bed for a few miserable hours. In the morning, I learned that one couldn't cross the border. My first reaction was one of relief that at least we could still see our parents. Saturday was taken up with visits, while outside there were incessant shouts of "Sieg Heil!," bombers flew by overhead, and army vehicles drove down the street. The Ungers [friends] tried to go to Hungary by car but were turned back. Bommi [another friend] visited us, was practically in tears. Karl Schlesinger has killed himself. Hugo [Ilse's uncle] and Ritti [his wife] naturally in despair. I didn't get to see the Aunts. Papa [her father, Richard Schüller] calm, looks well, says he slept well.

Sunday at noon we heard by coincidence that one could still cross the border, but not to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We inquired at the train station, the police, etc. and had this verified. So we finished packing and left in the evening: my father-in-law [Alexander Mintz], Stella, Otto, Hedy and Greta [Stella Strauss, my father's sister, her husband Otto and their twin daughters], and Aunt Gerti [Gertrude Schüller, the widow of Ludwig Schüller, Richard's brother]. Those who didn't have the same last name had to pretend not to know one another. This applied to the children as well: they were not allowed to speak and in fact didn't speak. We traveled comfortably second-class as far as Innsbruck. The children slept. In Innsbruck, there was passport control: for Jews, the order was, "Get off the train with your luggage." Aunt Gerti was allowed to continue. Evidently, they took her for Aryan although no one asked. We were taken by the S.A. to the police office, across from the railway station. There, we were held in a narrow corridor, heavily guarded. One after another, we were called into a room where our passports were examined, our money mostly confiscated (since the rules had been changed overnight). They took 850 marks and the equivalent in schillings. We didn't care in the slightest. Our thought was only: will they let us travel further? Will we be arrested? Then all of our luggage was unpacked piece by piece. Finally, we were allowed to leave.

We sat till 2 A.M. in the station restaurant, then we continued. In Feldkirch, everyone had to get out again and we were again searched, the children and I body-searched as well. Not a handkerchief was left unfolded. The tone: "Aha, from Vienna? Surely from the Leopoldstadt!" Max [Maximilian Mintz, my father] had his war medal with him. "If you really served at the Front, you wouldn't be leaving." One had to force oneself to keep quiet. Back on the train, we passed one military convoy after another going the other way.

At 10 in the evening, we arrived [in Zurich]. Why they let us go we still don't know. The children were fabulous. When, after we had crossed the border, they were reunited with Hedy and Greta, they were immediately cheerful, despite everything that had happened.

Here we are deciding what to do next. Erwin [my mother's first cousin, son of Aunt Gerti] is naturally a great support; he is charm and graciousness itself. He thinks our parents will be able to enter Italy legally.

Enough for today. Can you imagine that the whole passage through snowy mountains under gorgeous blue skies didn't induce the slightest feeling of regret in me? From this you can surmise what the last days have been like. In Vienna, no one without a swastika, the Wasa Gymnasium [across the street from our apartment] a barracks for the Hitler Youth, etc. I'll write soon again and I hope better. Write: Zurich / main post office. To Vienna write very cautiously: about us only, "I have very good news from Ilse."

My first reaction today to the juxtaposition of my own account to my mother's is one of enormous gratitude and admiration for a mother who could make what must have been a nightmare trip so relatively benign for us children that my immediate memory, a year or so later, was of the delicious ham sandwiches we ate at what I euphemistically refer to as the station restaurant. And indeed, in the next chapter of Eine Reise nach Amerika I am already writing about the games we played at the Pension Schmelzberg in Zurich, where we spent the next two months and where the only war on our horizon was the "war" my brother Walter and I declared on our cousins and their new friend, Winnetou. The latter was a slightly older girl, who was staying with her Jewish mother (her father was evidently "Aryan"), at our pension: they too were trying to obtain a visa. Winnetou, ironically enough, was named for the Apache chief who is the protagonist of the exotic adventure tales of Karl May, the popular author on whose fiction Winnetou's dramatist father had evidently based one of his plays. Ironically, Karl May also happened to be the favorite boyhood author of Hitler. "I read him," Hitler was to recall, "by candlelight and with a large magnifying glass by moonlight." And when, some time later, May was exposed as having invented many of his historical and geographical "facts" about American Indians, Hitler-who borrowed dress clothes so as to attend a lecture May gave in Vienna in 1912, a lecture calling for a future world in which there would only be a single race-was thrilled by May's words and remained a staunch Winnetou defender. "At Easter," I wrote in my third chapter, "Winnetou's mother told us we should stop fighting. But suddenly the word came that we were going to America and we had to learn English quickly." Mother, who had studied English at school, gave us daily lessons. Within a few weeks we had learned enough to perform Little Red Riding Hood. Walter, of course, was the wolf and I Red Riding Hood. But since Mother and Daddy's English had the standard British speech inflections that German speakers in those days learned as a matter of course, it did not quite prepare us for the actual language we would soon be hearing in New York.

To begin one's exile from Nazi Austria with a performance of a Grimm fairy tale in which one of the actors was a refugee girl named Winnetou: this is the sort of paradox that haunted the Viennese-Jewish culture of my childhood. It is significant, for example, that my mother's words of explanation to us children were, "Now we are no longer Austrians. Hitler has taken Austria." There is no mention of our having to leave as Jews, no doubt because despite our nominal Jewishness, we had been brought up as Austrians. In the photographs taken on summer vacations in the Salzkammergut or the Tyrol, we children-and here even my mother (but not Great-grandmother Rosenthal)-are dressed in dirndls or lederhosen [Figure 1].

Indeed, the wearing of the traditional costume (Volkstracht), with its emphasis on Heimat and the Land, stems back to fin-de-siècle Vienna. In 1907, my mother Ilse is depicted on vacation in Igls, wearing a particularly elegant dirndl [Figure 2]: And in a 1913 photograph [Figure 3], posed in the studio as a scene in front of a little Alpine hut, Ilse and her sisters wear "simple" dirndls, while their two boy cousins Stephan and Friedl Berndt, the sons of Hedi and Herman Blau, sport lederhosen and peasant jackets. Against the backdrop of this "Alpine Hut," my mother is holding a butter churn, and the caption above the window reads "Da gibs koa Sünd!"-Austrian dialect for "Here there's no evil!"

As late as 1937 in Selva [Figure 4], my father, holding my hand, is wearing the familiar costume-loden jacket, lederhosen, embroidered suspenders, and high white socks and mountain boots-whereby the most sophisticated of Viennese urbanites might play at being so many authentic Germanic peasants. What my father did not know is that, within the year, there would be a new Nazi government that would pass a law forbidding Jews to wear dirndls and loden suits.

In pre-World War II Vienna, national identity regularly trumped ethnicity, not to mention religion. So "assimilated" were the Austrian upper-middle-class Jewish families like my own, many of whose members had been baptized decades earlier, that the Nazi takeover of Austria and immediate expulsion and torture of the Jews came, as my mother notes, as a terrible-and unanticipated-shock. Indeed, the Nazi police taunt-"Aha, from Vienna? Surely from the Leopoldstadt"-must have been perceived by my parents as the ultimate insult: the Leopoldstadt was the enclave of the unassimilated Eastern Jews-men and women in strange garb who spoke Yiddish and went to the synagogue-men and women who were entirely "foreign" to us and counted as vulgar (ordinär) and uneducated (ungebildet). Years later in New York, when someone once asked my father what he thought of a certain Austrian refugee who had become a professor of economics at a local university, he shrugged and said, "Ein mieser Jud' [an unattractive Jew, a poor slob] von der Leopoldstadt."

Such class consciousness was exacerbated, in the case of my own family, by a particular circumstance. My mother's special sense of shock at the "terrible news" of the Anschluss -a coup with hindsight largely predictable for months before it occurred, if not as early as July 1934, when Nazi thugs openly murdered the devoutly Catholic and conservative but staunchly anti-Nazi Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss-had to do with the position of my maternal grandfather, Richard Schüller. At sixty-eight, after a long and distinguished career as diplomat and statesman, Grandfather was a close advisor to Kurt Schuschnigg, who had succeeded Dollfuss and was to be the last chancellor of an independent Austria.

Richard Schüller was born in 1870 in Brünn (Brno) in what is now the Czech Republic. The son of a well-off wool manufacturer whose business failed in the late 1880s, he went to Vienna to study law and then economics with the famous Professor Karl Menger, supporting himself in part as a tutor (Hauslehrer) to the children of rich families. His dream was to become a professor, but in 1898 he was invited to enter the government, first in the Department of Commerce, then, after World War I, in the Foreign Office [see Figure 5].


Excerpted from The Vienna Paradox by Marjorie Perloff Copyright © 2004 by Marjorie Perloff. Excerpted by permission.
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