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Friday, December 9, 2016

My Mother's Chauffeur

Note: This is a personal space for writing now. Older posts on frugality remain; frugality  is a timeless practice.

I know so little about life in Vienna, the city my mother's family left in 1938. On election night, I felt an increasing sense of panic and fear. I said to my family: Perhaps this is 1% of what my grandparents felt in the years before they left Vienna, while in Belgrade, and even when they arrived at Ellis Island.

Although my mother's photos were all lost during her move to Florida, her cousin's widow gave me some photos. I have a thumb-sized photo of Herbert and his parents getting ready to board their ship for America. And then I remember an exhibit of anonymous newspaper photos that we saw in Amsterdam: the one that haunts me was of an upper-middle class young Jewish couple, she in a fur coat, he in a suit, being turned away by immigration officials in Cuba in the late 30s. The look of horror on their faces. They knew what they were in for.

Sadly, I only have fragments. The people who did remember have been gone for many years. My mother mostly says she remembers nothing. Many years ago she said "We had a chauffeur to take me to school." When I expressed amazement, she airily replied, "Oh, everyone did."

This comment has given my husband the impression that my mother's family was extremely wealthy. That is not the case. They were middle-class in a time when middle-class families had household help, as my husband's family in the midwest also did.

A few months ago, a thought popped into my head. Why a chauffeur? My grandparents lived right across from the Freud Museum at Bergasse 19. Surely in that densely populated residential area, there were schools within walking distance.

Then the next thought: Was my mother driven to school so she would not have to walk? Then a worse thought: Did my mother have to wear a yellow star?

I have not had the courage to ask my mother these questions. She is 86 and seems to be fading. Perhaps I will ask. I do want to know.

From Viennacitytours (!)

By the turn of the century, Jews were adding to the prosperity of Vienna in all areas of cultural and economic life. Such prominent names as Oscar Straus and Sigmund Freud were recognized as making large contributions in the fields of music and science. In fact, three out of four Austrian citizens awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine were Jewish. More than half of Austria's physicians and dentists were Jewish, as well as more than sixty percent of lawyers and the majority of university professors. Many were also leaders within the Social Democratic Party.

Because of an atmosphere of religious, economic, and cultural freedoms, the Jewish population of Vienna grew exponentially. While there were only 6,200 Jews residing in Vienna in 1860, in 1870 there were 40,200. By 1900, this had increased to 147,000, and in 1938 the population peaked at 185,000. 

While anti-Semitism had been steadily increasing as the Jewish population had continued to prosper in the first three decades of the 20th century, violent displays were always policed. Nonetheless, Vienna's prominent mayor, Karl Leuger, was elected five times. Together with Georg Schonerer, another prominent anti-Semite, Leuger was was noted by Hitler as being one of his biggest mentors.
Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. Jewish apartments and businesses were pillaged, prominent Jews were forced to scrub the city's sidewalks and were chased through the streets. Any residents who tried to aid their Jewish neighbors were likewise arrested and deported to concentration camps. In May 1938, Nazi Germany put the Nuremberg Racial Laws into practice. Jews were subsequently stripped of most of their civil liberties, excluded from most professions as well as the city's universities, and were obliged to wear a yellow Star of David badges at all times. Jews fled Austria, with over 30,000 settling in the United States.

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