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Dec 2008 Journal

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Christmas in Vienna, 1937

Christmas. Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. I am eight years old and I quiver between dread and delight. I know what will happen because it happens every year. Dr Richter from the next-door apartment will come to take me to see the enormous tree which has been brought into their dining room and decorated with silver tinsel and silver balls and silver candle holders and white candles.

I shall have to go next door without my parents because that is the routine. They will come later to take me home. Dr Richter, whom I love, will lift me up to see the angel on top of the tree and I will smell the pine. Then she will take me to the window and point to a far-away light and tell me, as she tells me every year, that if we look hard we can see the Christ child coming. I know it isn't true, but it disturbs me to hear her say it. And I know that she feels sorry for me because I look sad. She misunderstands but I am too choked to say anything. I only feel sad because I am not going to have any of the chocolate wrapped in silver paper hanging from the tree; and I particularly covet the pipe, matches and tobacco, all made out of marzipan and covered in red cellophane, which lie at the foot of the tree. My mother has explained to these kind people that we do not keep Christmas, that we do not have presents. I understand that too, and already have some pride in being different. Yet I will finish up in tears of confusion. I do not believe in St Nicholas or the baby Jesus, but Christmas is the focus of weeks of preparation at school, in which I take no part, and my sense of exclusion is sealed by this annual viewing of the alien sparkling tree.

We are not religious. But I am religiously taught never to doubt what other people believe. I learn the Bible stories because they are good stories and I learn my parents’ version of being Jewish: a people, a race - Semitic like the Arabs - and with a history. I am encouraged to state firmly that I am a Jew. Later, I have to be forbidden to mention it.

Most of the people I know are Jews: family, friends, my father’s colleagues. They all talk about books, go to the theatre and the opera. They have subscription tickets to the Vienna Philharmonic dress rehearsals. They play chess and bridge. They meet in coffee houses and, when they take me, it is a special treat for an only child: hot chocolate with whipped cream and watching the grown-ups.

We are not well off but I appreciate that we are ‘cultured’. A term much used in our circle. We have a live-in maid. We do not own a car but on my birthdays we hire a taxi to take us to the Kahlenberg in the Vienna Woods. We could get there on the trams, but the taxi is the essence of the outing.

We don’t go on holidays. I have never seen the sea or the mountains. Instead, twice a year, we travel to Czechoslovakia to see our relations. My mother’s small, nervous family with another only child who is my age, and with my grandmother, who is my treasure. My father’s large, confident family with my other grandmother, who cooks rich food that I have to be coaxed to eat. Everyone is Jewish. No one from either family has ever married out. When I see them for the last time I do not know it is the last time.

The children in my school are not all Jewish. I am the only Jewish child in my class. Herman is one year behind and Hugo is two years ahead. We three go together to Hebrew class on Saturday afternoons, when we learn the language parrot fashion: the alphabet, the sounds, the prayers, line by line with the translation into German. At school, we are not allowed to stay in the classroom for ‘Catholic education’. I sit in the cloakroom with two Protestant children
and wait until the lesson is over.

I take sandwiches every day for the mid-morning break and I take extra ones for Gertrude, who comes from a poor family, the teacher says. I like Gertrude. She is tall and bony with black, lank hair and ringed, dark eyes. She comes to my house but I am never asked to hers and I never meet any of her family.

My father’s secretary is not Jewish. She spends a great deal of time with us because, my mother says, she is a lonely person, without a husband or children. So the secretary becomes my best friend. ‘Fräulein’ plays with me, reads to me, takes me out, talks to me about her hard life. My mother says that Fräulein has patience, an admired quality in our more restless household.

Our neighbours are not Jewish. They are decent Austrians. They are not anti-Semitic. The doctor’s elderly parents are ‘solid’, my parents say. Her sister is considered to be more flighty, and confirms this view when she marries a member of the National Socialist Party. But that comes later. Now, the apartment next door is homely and I am welcome any time. There are always baked biscuits and apples from their own tree. The doctor’s mother lets me watch while she cooks; it doesn’t make her irritable as it does my own mother, and I like to watch. I also like to watch the doctor’s father while he works in the garden. I trail around after him. He gives me his attention but we hardly speak.

This Christmas is exactly like all the others. As soon as it is dark, Dr Richter rings our bell, I am ready, I open the door, I take her hand and cross the hall with her and we go into her festive home. Half an hour later my parents come to collect me. I am tearful and they wisely remove me rapidly, wishing our neighbours a Merry Christmas.

There are no more such Christmases to come.
 

Hedi Schnabl

Hedi Schnabl

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