Reminiscences from Vienna

By Varon, Benno Weiser | Midstream, May-June 2000 | Go to article overview

Reminiscences from Vienna


Varon, Benno Weiser, Midstream


"Literaturhaus," which deals with Austrian literature, sent me an invitation to participate in an "Erich Fried Symposium." I did not know Erich Fried, but I knew Literaturhaus, at some of whose get-togethers in Vienna I had appeared. I also accepted because all expenses would be paid by the hosts and because I have made it a habit to go to Vienna only when invited. I consider it a kind of restitution for damage inflicted.

Another reason for my acceptance was because one part of the symposium was called "Das erzaehlte ich (literally, "The told I"): Autobiography, Biography, und Text." Since I had published an autobiography, Professions of a Lucky Jew, a few years ago, my participation would not demand any work from me. I would just have to recite parts of my book. All I would have to do would be to go over some parts -- en route -- on the plane.

As we boarded in Boston, my wife, Miriam, took the window seat, as usual. I unpacked my book and a yellow marker and began.

Vienna is, of course, the town in which I lived before the Anschluss, the town where I went to "gymnasium" and to medical school. Among the minor crimes Hitler committed was that he deprived my mother of being able to refer to me as "my son, the doctor." Hitler's impatience cost me my medical degree by three months. This may have saved some innocent lives, and I have no regrets. I have had a full and interesting life, and my mother had the chance of calling me her "son, the ambassador."

I started to read a conversation that took place upon my arrival in Ecuador.

   "You write under `nationality,' `Austrian,' but you have a German
   passport?" asked the legal advisor of the foreign office.

      I answered: "I did not ask for this passport, Germany invaded my
   country. I am an Austrian."

      "But Austria doesn't exist anymore," said the advisor, with compassion.
   "Where were you born?"

      I answered: "In Czernowitz."

      The inevitable happened: "and in what country is Czernowitz?"

      "Oh, please," I begged, "we'll only get lost."

      But he was adamant. So I said: "When I was born in Czernowitz, it was in
   Austria. After World War I, it became Rumanian. On the eve of World War II
   the Russians occupied it. During this war the Germans conquered it. And now
   the Russians reconquered it."

      "In this case," said the legal adviser after due deliberation, "you are
   for me, at best, a White Russian."

      The "at best" implied that he absolved me of being a Red Russian, i.e.,
   a bolshevik.

      I was a little exasperated; I said: "Look here, when I was born in
   Czernowitz, it was in Austria. When I moved from Czernowitz to Vienna, both
   Czernowitz and Vienna were in Austria. I did not emigrate -- Czernowitz
   did!"

Here is another paragraph:

   Uncle Markus was a colorful man. He had run away from his Galician home
   with some money he appropriated from his father. Nothing was heard from him
   for a while, until a letter arrived from Switzerland. It contained two
   dried Edelweiss and a very short note: "Plucked under danger to life and
   limb." Yet when the war broke out, he left neutral Switzerland and
   volunteered for Austrian army service, determined to "defeat the Tsar."
   Come to think of it, he was the only soldier on the German and Austrian
   side who won the war. He achieved his goal.

Julio Rosenstock, an engineer and my father's brother-in-law, had been sent to Ecuador in 1913 by the A.E.G. There he participated in the construction of one of the world's most remarkable railroads, which connects the seaport of Guayaquil with the Andean capital of Quito, altitude 9,300 feet, skirting the Chimbirazo, almost twice its height. World War I stranded him in Ecuador, and he became an Ecuadoran citizen. In 1929, he was sent to Vienna as Ecuadoran honorary consul-general.

One day, while I was at summer camp in Carinthia, I received an urgent call from Consul Rosenstock. …

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