May 2011 Journal

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Felix Austria

Well, lucky for some, at any rate. I have recently returned from a trip to my native Vienna, having paid maybe half a dozen visits since the war. Not a regular caller, as you might gather. Most of these visits were on some kind of business and I kept them short and not particularly sweet.

This has not been true of my visits to other parts of Austria, which were annual and enjoyable and mainly devoted to fishing and country pursuits. I have described in this journal how some of us felt that the mountains and lakes around Aussee were extra-territorial - in fact belonged to ‘us’, an oasis to which the natives had access on sufferance. All nonsense, I know, but sustaining in its way, notwithstanding the fact that both Eichmann and Goebbels intruded during our unavoidable absence. But with the passing years even Grundlsee was changing - the fish I caught got smaller and fewer - and so in 2000 I took silent leave, certain that with the last year of the millennium a suitable moment for closure had been reached.

And then, after ten years of painless abstinence, came the invitation: would I give a talk in the Freud Museum in Vienna about the link between the Freuds and my family, and do a broadcast on the next day enlarging the subject somewhat to take in my attitude to Austria? I thought long and hard before accepting, and did so only because it was an opportunity to honour my parents. My mother, in particular, was the link with the Freuds, both Sigmund and Anna, and I had given the museum in the Berggasse a substantial hoard of family memorabilia covering not only the Freud connection but also my grandparents’ life in the theatre in Vienna, Berlin and New York. There was to be a small exhibition of relevant books, pictures and letters, and my talk would mark the opening.

The Freud Museum in Vienna is very different from the one in London. The former, in what used to be Sigmund Freud’s apartment, is bare and functional, no longer a home but a site for lectures, an archive, offices. The London Freud Museum, in Hampstead, is where the professor died. His study is as he left it; it contains the famous couch, his desk and chair, his collection of antique artefacts, and the bulk of his library, which he was allowed to remove from Austria when he had to leave in 1938. (‘I can recommend the Gestapo as very efficient removal men,’ he wrote at the bottom of the receipt he was made to sign.)

On arrival in Vienna, I was confronted with a very poor exhibition of my family treasures: not enough thought had been given to selecting pieces that told a story, that were significant in documenting the connection between the families. By that time it was too late to make changes, and my hope to make up for the dull display with sparkling wit and authentic recollections didn’t come off either. I was able to tell my audience they were looking at the last survivor of Freud’s 70th birthday party in 1926, at which I had been present as a child. The audience was stiffly unimpressed, even though I reminded them that they were being addressed in the very room in which the party was held.

I got more of a response - or at least intermittent signs of life - when I moved on to talk about show business and could throw in that Marlene Dietrich had slept in my house and on my bed (although not while I was around) and was able to report on my one and only encounter with an American president – a three-minute visit with Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office - for which I had prepared a suitable anecdote: I told him I had seen Hedi Lamarr in the nude, not in the notorious film, but in the flesh. His reaction: ‘Great bust, bad legs.’

The impact of my broadcast is more difficult to judge. It was not live and I lacked any sense of who my audience might be. My interviewer was under-prepared, and I had to coach her in questions to ask. There hovered over the whole enterprise, chat and broadcast a deadening lack of professionalism, unthinkable in this country. I thought listeners might be interested in my thoughts on being a ‘visitor’ to Austria, whether I felt Austrian or English. My answer was neither but, while you could take the Ross out of Austria, you could not take Austria out of the Ross (or, more elegantly, in German: ‘Ich hafte nicht an Österreich, aber Österreich haftet an mir’). This gem may well end up on the floor of the editing suite.

One comes away from a trip such as this with conflicting emotions. But there is a constant that has not varied since my first visit in 1952. Whenever I talk to acquaintances who have been through the war, their tales of hardship are never about Hitler’s unspeakable horrors - the trains, the camps, the stench of the ovens, or hunger or shame - not even about the firestorms unleashed by our bombers, but only and always about their fear of the Russian army and what it meant to be in its power.

I shall leave the last word to Thomas Bernhard, Austria’s foremost playwright, speaking through the leading character in his masterpiece Heldenplatz, which I saw on my last night in Vienna. Here is what Professor Schuster, recently returned from having spent the war years in Cambridge, has to say about his fellow Austrians (my translation): ‘In the end, people are always deceived by Austria. They eat a nice meal, they drink a cup of good coffee, and forget they are in the most dangerous country in Europe, where evil is routine and human rights are trampled on.’

Victor Ross

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