Sep 2011 Journal

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A tale of three cities

My brother tells me he was at the Westbahnhof on 6 September 1938 when I fled from Vienna. My parents must have been there. Anyone else? I don’t know. My mind has chosen to blot out the moments of leave-taking.

I’m on a train, on my way to Paris, where I am to spend three days on my way to England. I share the compartment with a pleasant young woman who offers me sweets. So I’m going to Paris? Yes. To learn French? Yes. She gets off the train, with many good wishes for my stay in Paris. I’m alone.

The journey takes 23 hours. I try to sleep but can’t. We are close to the French border and I can feel my heart knocking against my ribs. Stories have been circulating in Vienna about Jews being taken off trains, searched, interrogated ….

A conductor enters the compartment, wants to see my passport (still Austrian without the tell-tale J) and my ticket. I have taken off my shoes and put them on the luggage rack and point this out to him sheepishly. He smiles broadly: ‘Quite right too. Off with them if they pinch!’

And that’s it. There are French voices. There is France. There is freedom.

For three days I stayed in Paris with relatives who were waiting for their Australian visa, and it took me by storm. I was to live and work there from 1947 to 1949, and each day the city charmed me with its beauty.

On 10 September 1938 I left Paris with a heavy heart for a new life in England.

London, after Paris, was something of a disappointment. It seemed somewhat staid, lacking excitement. True, there were things that impressed me. In Vienna’s neat little parks you were sternly told that ‘Das Betreten des Rasens ist verboten.’ In London’s magnificent public gardens no one kept off the grass. People walked across it, children played games on it, lovers loved each other on it. I also admired the picture houses, which seemed to me more like palaces than cinemas.

I actually didn’t spend much time in London between 1938 and 1945. There were three short-lived domestic jobs before the war and I was there during the Blitz. The rest of the time I spent in various parts of England.

In July 1945 I left Britain to work for the US army in Germany and, after intervals in Paris and Sydney, my husband and I finally settled in London in January 1952. And that’s when my love affair with London began. It wasn’t the coup de foudre I had experienced for Paris. London grew on me.

The other day my true-blue friend Dorothy (some of my best friends vote Conservative) complained: ‘My dear, London isn’t what it used to be when I was a gal!’ I know what she meant. When she was a ‘gal’ London was English, London was white. Nowadays, anywhere in the city, one finds every shade from the palest white to the darkest black and hears a multitude of languages. True, London in 1952 was different - but not necessarily better. Some folk would let rooms to ‘Gentiles only’; others discouraged dogs and the Irish from applying for accommodation.

Nevertheless, even then, there was much to appreciate about London. And I don’t just mean such obvious tourist attractions as Westminster Abbey and the Tower. Then, as now, you could escape the hustle of a busy road and find refuge in a tranquil square, just a few steps way. Or you could visit any of London’s great art galleries and museums for free!

And what about Kenwood on Hampstead Heath? Only six kilometres from Trafalgar Square, it offers you not only magnificent views of the city but allows you to combine admiring Rembrandt’s self-portrait in an elegant 18th century house with rambling, swimming, fishing and flying kites.

There are three cities, then, vying for my affection. There is Vienna, the city of my birth, where I spent my formative years; there is Paris; and there is London.

Vienna will always be part of me. I go there occasionally and what had once seemed the centre of the universe now strikes me as rather provincial. Yet the street names evoke memories, both good and bad, and I try to hold on to the good ones and keep the ghosts at bay.

Paris, which I visit frequently, will never cease to seduce me.

But there is no doubt in my mind where I wish to spend whatever is left of my life. I know I’ll never be English and have no problems with that. But, after almost 60 years of continuous residence, I’d feel honoured if I were allowed to call myself a Londoner.

Edith Argy

previous article:AJR’s 70th Anniversary Celebrations: Reception at Austrian Ambassador’s Residence
next article:A Kindertransport memoir