Aug 2007 Journal

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What we did in the holidays

We did what every Jewish middle-class family in Vienna did every summer: pack trunks with three months’ worth of clothes and household gear and move into a rented house that had to meet three conditions - to be by a lake, in the mountains, and within easy reach of the Salzburg Music Festival. Total bliss was taken for granted; a lid for the wooden seat over the cesspit was a desirable extra.

For me, bliss started even before we reached our destination, at a railway junction called Attnang Puchheim, two words that gave me the giggles and can raise a smile even today. How Austrian they sound: funny and useless. On arrival, my mother and assorted helpers started to equip the near-empty house - typically the solid winter quarters of a local peasant family who would move next door into their ramshackle ‘summer house’, often no better than a hayloft above the stables. I couldn’t wait to get into my lederhosen, stiff and smelly with age. At night they stood empty by my bed, ready to be stepped into in the morning. Once a week I had a proper wash - a hot tub in the public baths. Otherwise, swimming in the lake took the strain.

The company we kept was finely layered. At the bottom were the locals, the solid base, living their hard lives among their beasts. Up one step came the bohemians, some of them permanent residents, some like summer’s swallows, mainly actors ‘resting’ between engagements and Communists resting between bouts of tribal warfare. Nude bathing provided the bond between them. Our kind came next - broad-minded professionals, with half-tamed children and untidy marital arrangements. The real bourgeois, whom we despised, were stolid Viennese, who had their local garb made to measure in Salzburg, drank the waters, and went for healthy hikes.
Top of the heap were the local aristocrats. Those who could, fled to their stately homes in Germany, letting their antler-studded villas to the more prosperous among the seasonal invaders. I remember my mother looking for suitable accommodation for the Freud family and watching recognition dawn on the owner’s face: ‘Sigmund Freud’, he said. ‘Of course, the well-known psychopath.’

So much for the natural order. Came the holiday season, everybody changed places: the invading psychoanalysts donned dirndls and lederhosen, becoming peasants overnight; the locals moved in with the bohemia, posing for the painters by day and sharing their beds at night, while the actors dabbled in psychoanalysis in the vacuum left by the pros.

I dabbled in drawing, smuggling myself into an impromptu life class, showing more zest than talent for rendering pubic hair with bold strokes of charcoal. My teacher's scant claim to fame was as a portraitist of Viennese bankers, working from photographs. He never lost out: when he failed to make the sale, he added a beard, changed the nose, and palmed off the result on some Zionist organisation as a likeness of Herzl. Ummalen auf Herzl occupied much of his time.

The magnet that drew us (and the more famous such as Felix ‘Bambi’ Salten, Jakob Wassermann, Carl Zuckmayer, Freud and his mainly American camp followers) to this paradise was the scenery, brooding and forbidding though it could be at times. Its beauty awed the bold and liberated the timid. Its heart beat in the songs of the people. At night, at home, or in the many inns, there was always singing and dancing, accompanied by the syncopated clapping known as poschen: once you had mastered it, and learned to savour the bawdy of the patter songs, you could claim to belong. This well of folk music, centuries deep, drew on the rhythm of the loggers as they swung the axe, echoed to the swish of the scythe as the women made hay in the fields. None of it had ever been written down until Konrad Mautner, another Jew in lederhosen, made it his life’s work to record words and melodies. No wonder we regarded them as ‘ours’ and prided ourselves on understanding the strange patois.

There were terrors too: ear-splitting, tree-splitting thunderstorms, the lake in white-capped uproar. Even at peace, the lake threatened: I knew my father expected me to swim across, because my sister had done so. And I dreaded the tiring mountain walks. What I liked best was to get on my bike very early in the morning, before the mist had cleared and anybody was about, and fish for small trout in the forbidden streams that fed the lake. As the sun rose, I felt the warmth of pure happiness.
As suddenly as it had started, the merry-go-round stopped. My mother folded away her dirndls, the trunks were packed and taken to the station in horse-drawn coaches, the psychoanalysts put on hats, coats and thoughtful expressions, the actors rang their agents. The locals reverted to the laboured High German they reserved for day trippers; my hayloft playmates looked sheepish as I begged a last kiss. Attnang Puchheim beckoned, and then it was over for another year.

And then it was over for ten years. In 1946 we discovered that Eichmann had made our paradise his temporary hiding place at the end of the war. My father never set foot there again. I did, year after year, with my own sons and mixed feelings, but drawing the line at lederhosen. The lake and mountains were the same, but paradise was lost.


Victor Ross

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