Archive | October, 2015

Moral dilemmas

29 Oct

A Russian prisoner at Buchenwald berating a brutal Nazi officer after the liberation of the camp, 1945.

A short little story exemplifying the kind of moral and ethical traumas that still confront many Germans and Austrians today:  yesterday we went to visit an old friend, Jutta (I have changed their names here). We met her through American friends  in Vienna when we lived here in 1980-81. Her husband Johann was a painting conservator at one of the museums–through him I was able to view several Renaissance paintings in the process of restoration, which was a thrilling experience. Johann and Jutta and their children lived an hour by tram from the city, in a lovely old building with a fantastic garden.  They were a very interesting pair:  Johann was from peasant family and a die-hard Communist of the gentlest, most idealistic kind. He was much more political than she, who was raised in the DDR and was most interested in alternative education (their children all went to non-traditional schools) and organic gardens. In America, these two would have been ”back to the landers” of the most committed sort.  The children, I remember, were encouraged and supported to go and help the Nicaraguans during the Daniel Ortega days. We had only stayed in touch by occasional Christmas letters, and I hadn’t communicated with them around the time that The Berlin Wall came down, but I’m sure it was a bitter disappointment for Johann. He died in the early 2000s after a long illness.

Jutta still lives in the same house, has several grandchildren, whom she sees from time to time. She still lives a very simple life, with no television or computer, does interesting artwork, re-writes fairy tales, and until last year worked with children who have learning disabilities. In other words, an old-fashioned, generous humanist who believes art and peaceful occupations can help the world become a better place. I can’t imagine she has ever had an enemy or a violent thought in her life. But here comes the burden of the German past: a few years ago, her older brother, already in his 60s, decided he wanted to know what their father did during the war. He fell at the Russian front when Jutta was 5 and her brother was 10; her mother never talked about him or what he had done once he left their home in a region of Eastern Germany in 1939. They knew he had done something administrative ”somewhere in what is now Poland”, but that was all. In the age of the internet, where everything is online, more information was not hard to find. Another sibling did a simple search, and found specific documents talking about their father. He had been appointed as the administrator of an Eastern region of Germany, in 1939–a very telling year. After having the documents online translated from Polish, the siblings found out the horrible truth: their father had been responsible for the organization of the deportation of 6,000 Jews from ”his” region to the concentration camps, and had written that he did this in such a way as to not ”disturb” the German people.

This was, understandably, shattering news to the siblings, who knew nothing about this. Jutta said that one time while doing a report in high school, she had asked her mother about her father during the war, and she had simply said, ”Es war alles damals zu hart”–it was all too tough at the time. Just imagine learning this about your own father after so many years. Did the mother know? Did she want to know?  Did any of the women want to know?  As Jutta said, most Germans tried to forget the past and rationalize the atrocious events of the time by saying they were just living their lives, and that they really didn’t know what was happening. But here were these good people learning that their own flesh and blood willingly and actively participated in the atrocities. ”It’s actually a blessing for us all that he died in the war,” Jutta said. It is no wonder that people have only begun to face this painful past in the last few years, and why so many Germans simply did not want to talk about any of it. I really feel for Jutta–this is now a horrible burden that this good woman must carry with her for the rest of her life.

Footnote: Frau Kern’s obituary

27 Oct


(I have written, as part of my ”Three German Women” project, two profiles of Irmgard Rexroth-Kern–see my blog for 25 and 8 June 2015. I have now found the obituary that was written for her in the paper she often worked for, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The author was an old friend of hers, Karl Korn, who in 1949 founded the FAZ. Korn was a controversial figure–a defender of Heidegger, and a contrarian conservative. George, who knew and liked Frau Kern very much, finds this obituary a bit dour, but I do feel that she was always a little lost and sad, having suffered so much, physically and spiritually. We did know her, too, in those final years when she was so active in Erbach, when she had a moment of happy creativity. I do wish I could provide photos, but I have none, and her son Vincent seems to be reluctant to continue his participation in my efforts to honor his mother. The following is my translation of a rather complicated journalistic German, so I beg for understanding if it reads a little haltingly.)

Obituary for Frau Kern, FAZ 13. July 1983, by Karl Korn:

The writer and journalist Irmgard Kern-Rexroth died recently in Darmstadt after a long illness. When, after long silent intervals, she would appear again in one of the publications of the Rhein-Main region, there was always an aura of homelessness and loneliness about her. The last time I saw her she was wearing, as always in dreary winter weather, her broad coat, which always reminded me of the coat Sherlock Holmes wore. She seemed to be looking for someone–and I, who had known her in passing since student days, seemed to fit the bill. She seemed more unsteady, shyer, lonelier, and also more stubborn than I remembered her from the 1950s. As a writer she had achieved a name for herself long ago. She worked for quite a while for the city page of this newspaper. She had an affinity for sensitive profiles, chiefly of women, and children, too.  I remember a literary vignette in which she depicts a little boy with his mother waiting at a street light; the boy starts to cross at the wrong moment and is with horrifying force pulled back by a protective arm.

In 1936, Irmgard Kern had married against her parents’ wishes the talented literary student H.G. Rexroth. Her Berlin family had been of the bourgeois educated milieu. She had already caused a sensation in 1934 when, as a 27-year-old, she had written a highly unusual series of anonymously autobiographical observations in the Frankfurter Zeitung.  Apparently Benno Reifenberg and Eugen Claasen, who ran the press at the time, and who prized Kern’s talent, had spurred her on to this literary achievement, which was perhaps her best work. Whoever reads this ‘Autobiography of a Young Woman’ today will experience an eyewitness account–or, more to the point, a testimonial of suffering–that still has relevance today, because it is filled with merciless truth, with hardly a moment’s reflection on the experiences recounted. Only toward the conclusion, shortly before the break with her family and what today would be called a ‘healthy’ world, does she write:  ‘We discovered, only hazily, that we had lost the norms that still determined the directions of our parents and teachers…Our revolutionary will was forced into our souls—I observed the students [at a dance lesson] in a kind of spiteful irritability…my nastiness a kind of original sin that I had to bear.’

Irmgard Kern-Rexroth was a motherly woman. One can see her marriage with the talented, proletarian H.G. Rexroth in this light. When she lost her husband in the war in 1944, she lived for her son who had not yet been born; she named him Vincent in remembrance of Van Gogh. She never understood how to make a professional career. She could write, as the saying goes, but she remained unsure of herself, never found her footing. She was in spirit wide awake, and believed she could gain some peace of mind through educated discussions. Only late in life did she manage for a few years to have an effect on the regional cultural life of Erbach, in the Odenwald, a more marked effect than she knew herself. As heir to her father, the art historian and painter, she reported on topics as diverse as old ivories and East Asian art–and always a little writing about the quiet corners of the destruction of the soul. Years ago now (1976), she–who knew all too well some episodes of suffering–took part in a discussion on WDR Television, with medical professionals, on this topic: pain.


25 Oct

brno_cafeera_staircaseMy friend and former student David Lightfoot, who spent some years in Brno and speaks Czech, was certainly right about one thing: the Brno train station has got to be one of the ugliest in Europe, and I think always was. The post office next to the station is a true Soviet relic, which in its metallic shabbiness is worth seeing. David informs me it has an open elevator that is like a “man eating escalator,” but we managed to avoid that one.

The rest of Brno, however, was quite pleasant. David also gave us directions up to the Cafe Era (the sexy staircase above is in the cafe), which is in the tonier part of town, with some excellent examples of Czech functionalist architecture from the 1920s and 30s. Despite the good directions, we still got a little lost–being once again, like Poland, somewhere in which not a word makes any sense to us–and found that, as David had suggested, almost all Czechs can speak some English, or if they’re old enough, some German. We asked either old ladies in German or teenagers in English, and they were amazingly helpful and friendly. A nice older woman actually walked us right to Cafe Era’s door.

And what a lovely place it was! brno_cafeera_ext_facadeGreat food–we had rabbit (Kralick in Czech)–very friendly waiters, and fantastic architectural surroundings. The building, which was derelict and nearly lost in the Soviet-era days, was built in 1927 by a young Czech architect Josef Kranz, under the thrall of the Dutch de Stijl architect Oud, who had just completed his famous Cafe de Unie in Rotterdam.  450px-WLANL_-_Adfoto_-_Café_De_Unie,_JJP_Oud_(1925)The spaces are wonderful, and nothing beats that sexy staircase!brno_cafeera_signonpatio

We were so happy to find such good food, and such pleasant surroundings–the students eating there looked like they could have been from Minneapolis–that we stayed for a long time. brno_cafeera_ee&hands2 brno_cafeera_gbeatingrabbit2

Not surprisingly, the cafe is within walking distance of the main architectural attraction in Brno, Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece, the Villa Tugendhat.  We once again had to ask directions, this time of two very eager students of the university who were more than happy to speak English and give us specific directions to the Villa. Although we already knew that we hadn’t been able to get reservations for the limited tours of the interior, we hoped that we would somehow have been able to get in. We almost pulled it off by tagging along with a group, but in the end, we could only pay for admission to the gardens, which was fine with us, since all I really wanted to see was the exterior anyway. While trying to get in, we did sneak a photo of the garage, which held this car, apparently owned by the Tugendhats. brno_villatugendhat_car


This house is really Mies’s masterpiece, built in 1928-30 for a supportive patron, at the same time he was formulating his ideas for the famous Barcelona Pavilion of 1929. When you see this back facade from the garden, with its enormous glass windows, geometric edges and clean lines, you understand how much Mies was inspired by and appreciated German Neoclassicism. brno_villatugendhat_ext_balcony_sideIt now all looks so common to us, but at the time, this whole conception must have looked like something from another planet to good bourgeois neighbors.  I have always said that the real beauty of what later came to be called The International Style can be seen in the architects’domestic structures, not in their corporate designs. And since the whole structure is essentially comprised of glass (Mies is the one who created the first glass house at Farnsworth, Illinois, before inspiring Philip Johnson’s better known one in Connecticut), it was possible to look inside and see the famous Tugendhat Chairs.brno_villatugendhat_int_redchairs And a nice display in the lower floor, to which we were admitted, included a fascinating video showing how complex was the construction of these chairs, which the latest renovation team lovingly recreated.brno_villatugendhat_exhib_designforchair_straps

We unfortunately had scheduled too little time in town to go see the other gems of Brno’s functionalist heyday, because we were also drawn to one of the other historical aspects of the town: Brno was the site of the work of Gregor Mendel, widely considered the father of modern genetics. Out of obligation to Max , we felt we really had to see the tiny museum in Mendel’s honor, in the very Abbey where he carried out his famous experiments with peas and bees.brno_mendelmuseum_signonlawn brno_mendelmuseum_greensignoutsideHere we found a cheery example of the Czech character. While the museum was rather modest and a bit dorky, a fun team of designers had played up the color green–for Mendel’s peas, get it? They had funny postcards, with peas and bees, and instructive information about DNA presented in a breezy way.

They even had created t-shirts with humorous logos like these: P1010820

And in the exhibition, they included the original beehives that Mendel had used, complete with audios of buzzing bees!


We then walked around the abbey’s gardens, where Mendel had actually presided as abbot, and where he began his work. Once again, although less stridently than in Poland, we were struck by the fact that while Mendel was actually of German descent, and only learned Czech late in life, and lived in Brno when it was known as Brunn, no signs or information appeared in German anywhere.


But as we were leaving the Abbey grounds, just along the path from the statue of Mendel, we came upon this plaque: P1010823

It says ”On 30. May 1945 the Germans of Brünn and its ‘Sprachinsel’ had to leave their homeland.  In the future may all people in Europe live in peace and with respect for human rights. Erected by the Brünner Homeland Group on 30. May 1995.” A duplicate plaque in Czech stood next to this one, a rather pointed reminder of the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans at the end of the war.  The fact that the Czechs allowed such a memorial to be erected is, I think, evidence of their gentler nature. While I really shouldn’t make any sweeping generalities after such short associations with the Czech people, my feeling is that their character is a little more laid back, a kind of bemused maturity in their outlook. ”Wry” is the word that my friend David uses to describe them. They do seem to have a great sense of humor, and to have endured a bumpy history with dignified irony. (But if our experience both coming and going is anything to go by, the trains do not run on time….)

We will go back and experience more of the place!

A day in Vienna

22 Oct

St. Stephan’s Cathedral, with classic Viennese Fiaker–horse-drawn carriages.

[Written in long-hand yesterday while waiting for a Brno-Vienna train]


Brno’s unattractive train station.

I am sitting in the particularly insalubrious train station in Brno, Czech Republic. Our train back to Vienna–coming from Prague–has been delayed by an hour (and was delayed by half an hour getting here). I had planned to write up my entry about our lovely Vienna day yesterday while on the train, so I will now try to wax literary while sitting on this hard marble bench and listening to the female voice making endless announcements in Czech that are starting to sound kind of “1984” to me. I am so behind on my reports that this day in Brno will have to wait to be described while I write rather abbreviated accounts of other days and other themes. I do have a couple of significant thematic/topical ideas floating around as well, but will probably have to take an entire day just to write up things. (I’m typing this right now way after my bedtime).


One of the reading rooms of the Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek. Certainly a change from its old Baroque splendor!

Yesterday we had a little bit of everything happening, but at a nice pace, and as we wanted it to go.  Both of us are still struggling with our urge to feel that we must accomplish something in the day instead of getting into an indolent mode that retirees are supposed to nurture but which, I think, must be nearly impossible for most of us to achieve. I have now registered at the Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek and the Wienbibliothek, so I can do research there–since research is what I do best. So I am now on the trail of the last of my trio of influential German-speaking women I have known, who stand as emblems of the history of the 20th century. Anna Spitzmueller–Spitzi to all of us–was my art history teacher when I first came to Vienna in 1969-70, and her story is the happiest one, although not without trauma, as she was directly involved in the Viennese art world in turbulent, and controversial times. I have wanted to learn more about her family and background. So I have had an excuse to once again learn all the new processes of digitized libraries that I used 30 years ago while writing my thesis here. I am never happier, or feel more USEFUL, than when I am learning the ropes of a new library system, and especially when I end up with some new information as I did yesterday. (Spitzi was born in Znaim, and her father was an Imperial general named Amadeo Spitzmueller von Tonalewehr!) So I came home for lunch happy and fulfilled.

We then went to find a small exhibition in a photo gallery that my Australian friend Gael Newton had told us about. For reasons that have to do with my inability ever to afford anything offered in an art or photo gallery, I have never been comfortable going into these small gallery rooms, which usually require going up to an upper floor of a chic building and ringing a bell to be admitted. It always makes me feel that I have no right to be gawking at things that the owner wants to sell. But because these images interested me, and because our friend (and landlady!) Nora is an accomplished photographer looking for a gallery, we went to the Johannes Faber Gallery on Brahmsplatz.


Lilith the Norwegian Forest cat, spirit of the Faber gallery.


George in the Johannes Faber Galerie, Brahmsplatz 7.

A beautiful sunny space, with the most wonderful Norwegian Forest Cat to greet us–“ein richtiger Waldgeist”, a real spirit of the forest, as the owner calls her.


Charles Schwartz’s artworks from his ”orphan collection” of daguerreotypes. Quite moving.

The exhibit of what the artist and collector Charles Schwartz calls his “orphan collection”–damaged daguerreotypes that he has enlarged to incorporate the damages and imperfections into the aesthetic experience–was poignant and moving.



And I loved the gallery’s building–an old Sezession-era structure with some of the ornamentation remaining, and even an old-fashioned lift complete with velvet seat.


After some back and forthing on the U-Bahn–the real benefit of having the Viennese Transit’s monthly card is being able to go back and forth whenever you want to!–we ended up at Stephansplatz at about 4:30, with the light already beginning to be low enough to cast rays across St. Stephan’s itself. (That’s St. Stephan’s from the side above, with fiacres.)


An inner courtyard on Bäckerstrasse, in the inner city.

This is my favorite time of day to walk through my favorite part of the inner city. This is the oldest section of Vienna, with Renaissance buildings, small streets, cozy courtyards, and charmingly narrow passageways between the crooked streets. We found a fantastic bookshop (Morawa), which has every conceivable magazine in about ten languages as well as floors of books; a real old-fashioned barbershop (rare to find in Vienna–George was dreading having to go to the ”Friseur”); and tiny shops specializing in everything from honey to leathergoods to Wiener Werkstätte jewelry.


Jesuitenkirche–also known as the Universitätskirche–designed by Andrea Pozzo, 1702.

Then we turned the corner to find the magnificent Jesuitenkirche, where the organist was practicing on the church’s immense organ–so a free concert in a nearly empty church!

We sat and listened until one of the lay women tidying up the altar turned off the church’s lights. vienna_jesuitenkirche_ceiling vienna_jesuitenkirche_toaltar


Plaques on the side of the old University’s buildings.


Heiligenkreuzerhof. [Photo: Andreas Praefcke]

We strolled around the old university buildings–where Zwingli and Leibniz studied–making our way into Heiligenkreuzerhof. This peaceful courtyard is listed in the book Unbekanntes Wien as the quietest place in the inner city. Along with its still-functioning Cistercian cloister (they have been here since the 12th century), it is now home to the School for Applied Arts (Design!) and several violin makers. The great Austrian actor and writer Helmut Qualtinger was born here, and the founder of the Tierschutz movement (animal welfare) Ignaz Franz Castelli lived here in the 19th century.


Greek Orthodox Church, Fleischmarkt, Vienna.


Griechengasse, 1. Bezirk.

My favorite little streets down in this section of town–we are now very close to the Donaukanal, which marks the other side of the Ring–are those in the so-called Griechischen Viertel, the Greek district, where the Greek Orthodox Church fronts the passageway to the ”Griechenbeisl”, now a rather touristy restaurant where, according to legend, the folk song ”Ach du lieber Augustin” was penned in the 17th century. Greek merchants have lived here since the 18th century.


Old synagogue, built in 1823 by Joseph Kornhäusel, on Seitenstettengasse. It still serves the Jewish community of Vienna.

This neighborhood is also where Vienna’s original synagogue was built and still remains.

When I lived here in 1970, my roommate Celine, who is Jewish, and I came to services here, and met the handsomest boys we knew in Vienna. The whole experience was quite emotional, especially for Celine, since it was then still resonantly apparent that the Nazi SS headquarters had been on the corner, at Judengasse. It is no surprise to find here those heart-wrenching Stolpersteine–stumbling blocks–marking the place where Viennese Jews lived, were deported, and murdered. Vienna does have memorials to these horrid events, but there is still some ambivalence here about Austria’s role in the Holocaust.  vienna_stolpersteine_judengasse

Vienna_ruprechtskirche_entrance2 vienna_ruprechtskirche_entrance

At the end of the synagogue’s street is St, Ruprecht, Vienna’s oldest extant church, dating to the 11th century.  It is so good to see that it has endured, and that its fans are in the midst of a campaign to fund more renovations. I just love its location, and try to imagine what it was like sitting quietly here atop a little rise next to the river.

The only way to experience this part of town is on foot, which we love to do, but by this time (and at our age, I’m afraid), all the walking over irregular cobblestones and up granite and marble steps does deplete us after a while, so we took the U3 from Stephansplatz back to the Volkstheater stop, walked home and had leftover Mexican food for dinner. P1010756

Now that’s what I call a successful day in our new indolent lives!

More on Maria

16 Oct

Maria Webber and her twin sister Augusta (Gusti), Berlin, 1932.

In London last month, I met with Maria Steinberg’s nieces, Helena Meyer-Knapp and Jenny Nutbeem, to fill in details about Maria’s life for my project on Three German Women (see my blog entries for November 5, 2014 and August 24, 2014 for my other entries on Maria). Helena is Maria’s older sister Paula’s daughter, and Jenny is her brother Jan’s daughter. They both knew and loved Maria, and were very happy to share photos, memoirs, and stories about her and her family. The two of them had just returned from Germany, where they had been tracing their family history in Oldenburg, so this was an opportune moment to talk of such things with them. I am most grateful to Helena, for sharing these wonderful photos of Maria as a girl, and to Jenny, for sending her father’s comprehensive writings about the Webbers and Maria’s sibling’s lives.

Right now, I am just going to write up what bits and pieces I gleaned from our conversations, before I forget too many details. Helena and Jenny found Maria’s father’s memoirs in Oldenburg, written in Alte Schrift, which today is very difficult to decipher since no one in Germany learns to read it anymore. They have had the memoirs transcribed, and I hope to be able to read them some day soon.  In the meantime, Jenny’s father Jan’s reminiscences gave me meticulous details about their lives in Berlin and out in their countryside home in Löpten, about 60 kilometers from Berlin.

Here’s what I learned:

August Weber, Maria’s distinguished father, came from Oldenburg; his mother was a Westerholt.  They were prosperous farmers and landowners, but not members of the rich or aristocracy. August went to university and became a self-made man, joining the banking firm that ultimately became Deutsche Bank. Their mother, Maria Cohn, was from prominent Jewish Berlin family; her mother was from Holland and proud of her Dutch heritage.

Maria_twins in fancy dress 1926_2

Maria and Gusti dressed as Dutch children, 1926. Their maternal grandmother was Dutch.

The parents met through August’s brother in law, another Oldenburger and renowned historian at the University of Heidelberg named Hermann Oncken. His entry in Wikipedia gives only a brief introduction to his importance in hisotrical studies: Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-2006-1027-500,_Hermann_Oncken.jpg (565×800)

Maria’s mother, who was the first woman to earn a PhD at a German university, studied with Oncken in Heidelberg; as a good friend of August, married to Weber’s favorite sister, Oncken introduced the two. As Jan writes in his memoirs, ”I have some of their letters – it was a very rapid romance. They got engaged in May and married in July 1914 not long before the outbreak of war.”  According to Jan’s memoirs, Maria’s parents, and especially her mother, opposed the marriage; not only was August not Jewish, but he was not of the same social status as the Cohn family. Jan also wrote that when he asked his mother why she married him, she said that she admired the fact that he was a self-made man, that he had earned his status as a banker and politician.

Maria_Granny, babies_1919

Maria Cohn Weber with her children Paula, Jan, and twin girls Maria and Augusta, Berlin 1919.

Maria’s oldest sister Paula (Helena’s mother) and Jan (Jenny’s father) were born in Berlin, when the parents lived in an apartment on Sigismundstrasse; the building was destroyed in the bombing of World War II.  In 1919, when Maria and her twin sister were born, the family lived at 44 Königin Augustastrasse directly on the Landwehrkanal; today the street has been renamed Reichspietchufer.

I am so grateful to Helena for sending me these wonderful photos; I especially love this one of Maria holding her new twins (twins run in the family!). Mother looks a little tired, as any new mother would be, and the children look a little perplexed, as siblings always do when confronted with new members of the family.  This is the same beautiful woman who appears in the Anders Zorn painting as a young girl. Helena and Jenny also told me that it was Maria, while working at the Rifkind, who found that this painting still existed and was in Sweden.Zorn - Marie Cohn 65.7x52cm

Both Helena and Jenny had known their grandparents when they were small, and could give impressions of their character. Maria, they said, always seemed an elegant, somewhat flighty, example of her class and station in life, not at all ambitious or assertive–a fact that intrigues me, since she had to have had some intellectual persistence to follow through on advanced studies at a time when this was unusual for women to pursue.  Jan in his memoirs, describes her thus:

”..mother was highly impractical, and since granny was a competent housewife and cook albeit during much of her life assisted by servants, it is surprising that mother did not emerge into adult life with some of these accomplishments. I suppose that in Paris mother perfected her French and was instructed in the social graces, learning to move with confidence in Society, acquiring good taste and exquisite manners. Her domestic training was postponed until she found herself in exile in London. On reflection she also left much to be desired as a mother. She found it difficult to cope with her children. One cannot accuse her of being unfeeling but most of her love flowed out to her husband who unfailingly loved her back.” The children were raised with lots of nannies, governesses, and great educational opportunities, and learned English from a young age. Paula and Jan were sent in 1926 to Salem School, founded by the extraordinary Kurt Hahn, whose pedagogical ideas about teaching through experience led to the founding of Outward Bound in England and America. Jan worked closely with Hahn for many years, both in Germany and in England.

Maria_4 in checks_1927

The Weber children, ca. 1928, Berlin. Maria is second from the right.

Maria–who, Helena told me, was always called ”Mia” by the family–was from a very young age the most gifted student in math and sciences. Her twin Gusti was never as academic as any of the other siblings, but was, it seems, the most artistic of the four. When in the early 1930s, their father knew that dangerous times were ahead, the twins were sent to Geneva, Switzerland, to live with their maternal grandmother; here Mia studied at the University of Geneva. (In 1932, August Weber had given a speech in the Reichstag warning of the dangers of Hitler; this led to several arrests once the Nazis were in power.) Jan and Paula were in London by 1935. Through the sponsorship of an artist named Simon Moselsio, whom August Weber had earlier helped financially in Berlin and who had managed to escape to America to teach at Bennington, Gusti was able to get to America in 1938. (A photo of Moselsio at work appears in Life magazine for November 22, 1937, p. 42.)

Mia stayed in Geneva until after the war, working at a school in Lausanne. By the end of the war, Gusti was able to sponsor Mia to join her in Vermont. Maria then went to Cornell in Ithaca, New York, where she received her second Ph.D. in mathematics. Jan, meanwhile, became one  of the ”Dunera Boys”, that shameful incident in which German refugees were shipped to Australia, only to be interred there and treated harshly as enemies. He was eventually repatriated into the British Army. Paula worked in London as a translator at the BBC.

By 1947, Maria was in California, teaching at Cal Tech. Gusti had already moved to Calabasas, outside of Los Angeles, at that time still a farming community in the middle of nowhere. At some time, Gusti moved to Colorado, where she lived when I knew Maria.  It was in Los Angeles that Maria met Robert Steinberg, ”Bobby”, and they married in 1953.

Other bits of information:  through their mother’s family, the Weber children were privy to much of Berlin’s artistic life in the 1920s and 1930s. Grete Ring, the niece of Max Liebermann, was a good friend of their mother, as was Walter Feilchenfeldt, the art dealer and associate of the great publisher Paul Cassirer. According to Helena, Feilchenfeldt managed to get the Liebermann portrait of August Weber out of Berlin to the Netherlands.

The cousins Jenny and Helena also spoke of the fate of their family’s Löpten property, the country estate that August Weber acquired in the 1920s (Jan’s memoirs give meticulous and fascinating details about the property and life on the land in the Spreewald at this time). They say that the house is no longer there, but the outbuildings are, and used as a riding school. Maria had told me the story, which the cousins confirmed, that when they went back to visit in the DDR days, the people who had been their servants were then living in the buildings, and were not at all happy to see the old owners, since they thought they would be demanding restitution. But none of the Webers wanted to take that path at all.

Helena was quite involved with taking care of Bobby after Maria died; she was also able to substantiate that Maria had indeed gone out the way she wanted to. After her sister died, and recognizing that her immense stamina and mental capacities were starting to wane, at 92 she just stopped eating. Stubborn and rational until the end. What an amazing life.

George’s contribution: Dinner Oct 16

16 Oct


Just to show that I’m not idle…

Beef stew for dinner.  What a mess to start.

I’d bought some cheap meat — meant for goulash — and found it to be totally gristle and only some edible meat.

I fried, then boiled the gristly bits, then went to the local shop for some proper stew beef.  Fried the mushrooms, fried the beef.  Did Miriam Ungerer’s soup ( — fried chopped leak, then added potatoes and the broth from the gristly bits.  Whirred when soft and added the mushrooms, beef and some chopped carrots and potatoes.   Added some mashed potatoes to thicken late.   Quite edible.

Here’s the trick:  remember the edible bits from the goulash meat?  Fried and boiled them.

A couple of days later, added this to the left over beef stew.  It was good.  Froze enough for lunch.

Incidentally, for biscuits, Weizenmehl universal (though too finely ground) and Bio-Weinstein Backpulver work okay at 225 c.

2 c flour

1 t salt

1 t backing powder

2-3 T butter

300 grams yogurt


If you’ll excuse a test of the capacity of WordPress to cope with html files from another source:


It seems odd to me. A  significant part of a bee’s biology deals with flight late in life.  They are exquisitely designed toapple flower with bee take nectar and pollen from flowers in daylight, yet they spend almost all of their time in a pitch black hive. During most of her life she hangs around, wanders here and there in the hive touching friends and things.  Sleeping, stopping to clean something or fiddle with wax and comb.  Less than a third of the day is spent working or sleeping.  The comings and goings of her sisters during the daylight sets the tempo. ttest test test testtest test test testtest test test testtest test test testtest test test testest test test test

Vienna 46 years later

11 Oct


In the days when American colleges were still rich enough–at least against the European economies–many of them offered Junior Year Abroad programs as selling points for recruiting students to their campuses. This lure was the main reason I chose Colorado Women’s College for my undergraduate study (well, that and the fact that they gave me a full scholarship). As a German major, I was thrilled at the prospect of going to Vienna for a year. At the time the college had just changed its name to Temple Buell College, after said entrepreneur Temple Buell had promised the school an endowment of $25 million–an endowment that never materialized after several of his former wives sued him for big sums of money. Shaken by this dismal embarrassment, and having lost most of their other donors, the College changed its name back to Colorado Women’s College, and then after years of fighting the inevitable, closed its doors some time in the 80s. My class was the only one that attended the school for the full four years it was known by that name, and the only ones to graduate with a diploma that says Temple Buell College.

But there were marvelous Junior Year Abroad programs while those salad days in the 1960s lasted, when Americans could still live well for practically nothing in Europe.  Our group lived with Viennese families and all our classes at the Austro-American Institute, just across the street from the Opera House, were conducted in German. We had fantastic teachers, tickets to the Vienna Philharmonic and the Opera, and excursions throughout Austria and to Prague. This was 1969-70, an amazing time to be in Europe. The effects of the Summer of 1968 were hardly felt in Vienna, which was still pretty conservative and recovering from the War, but stuck in a Habsburgian dreamworld of Franz Josef, Sissi, ball season, Mozartkugeln, and Schlag, but there were signs of change ahead. A trip to Prague, where one could still see all the bullet holes on the buildings of the main square where the Russian tanks had arrived the year before, was a real eye opener for we naive young things from Nebraska and California.  And oh, we were so ignorant! We had no idea how privileged we were to have tickets to the Philharmonic, for example, and would sometimes just sleep in rather than go, not realizing there were Viennese who would have died to have the chance to have them. And we were spoiled little rich girls sometimes in ways that I don’t even want to remember now.

But Vienna was the revelatory moment of my life. It showed me that there was another world out there aside from suburban Los Angeles or cowtown Colorado, one of culture, old traditions, real art and beautiful buildings. And of course, there were boyfriends, which had more to do with the time of our lives than with Vienna per se, but we were liberated in Europe in a way that was different than it would have been in the States then. I had my first serious romance in Vienna, which certainly helped my German, and taught me a lot about young love and, eventually, heartbreak. Vienna changed my life, and set me on a path that determined my career as an art historian and my sense of self.

The Institute hired as our art history professor Anne von Spitzmueller, who everyone called Spitzi. She had been the first woman curator in Vienna, at the Albertina, and then at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and she was absolutely inspirational. I will write more about her at the end of this visit, as one of my “Three German Women” project, so I’ll not go into details here. Our other teachers were just as good, even if we didn’t realize it. The German teacher, Frau Bernhardt, introduced us to Austrian literature, and only spoke to us in German. The music teacher, who was an American, actually had Nicholas von Harnoncourt come to our classroom to talk about Baroque instruments.

The photo above is of that very classroom.  I took the photo last Friday, when I came to the Institute–still at the same address–for an English-speaking meeting of AA, 46 years after I was last in those rooms, and now for a very different purpose.  My, my, what memories, and how the world turns! It also gave me pause to remember that it was in Vienna that my drinking career began–it was so elegant and such a grown-up thing to do. I could never have known then that many years later, the elegance was all gone for me, and only the craving remained. But oh, the gratefulness that I let it go, almost 20 years ago, and that even here in Vienna, I could find that fellowship that helps me to remember why I had to let it go.

The most amazing thing is that before the meeting, I went into the Institute’s office just out of curiosity, and when I told the secretary I had studied there 46 years ago, the woman in the next room came out to say that she was the wife of the Institute’s director back then!  Her son was now the director, and she could tell me all about the people who had been there at that time. She also told me that the Institute was having a reunion next year of Colorado Women’s College students who had participated in the programs back then. She was so pleased to meet me that she immediately signed me up for the Institute, and when I offered to give some lectures to their students–now mostly classes for German speakers wanting to learn English–she was most enthusiastic about the idea.  So I’ve come full circle, back to the place where my scholarly life began.

I love Vienna!

Danzig briefly, and other things Polish

7 Oct


After our meanderings in the Pomeranian countryside, we made a very quick trip into the Haneseatic city of Gdansk, which in German was Danzig. As you can see from the photo, I LOVED the place! As soon as we got to the riverfront, next to what is called the Golden Gate into the Old City, I was enchanted. One feels immediately that this was an important trading town, bustling with mercantile energy as grain and other goods were traded as early as the 13th century. The architecture is just gorgeous, all those compact Dutch-style houses of the wealthy merchants on big plazas and on the waterfront–these are my kind of places! P1010374 danzig_mainsquarehousesAnd it turns out I wasn’t wrong to think these houses looked Dutch. As a Hanseatic city, Danzig attracted many Dutch merchants in the 16th century, who brought along their architecture–and, it turns out, their Mennonite dam builders. My  mother had always said that my grandfather told her that his ancestors had been brought to Danzig from Holland in the 16th century because they were being persecuted in Holland, and this privileged city, with its own regulations and interest in commerce, was willing to tolerate their religious beliefs if they could offer them such an essential service as dike-building. Still, local German and Polish merchants would not allow them to become citizens of the city-state, but gave them instead farmland out in the rich fields around the Vistula River. I always thought this might be a bit of a legend, but apparently, it turns out to be true.


Pieta Gdansk, ca. 1410, in Marienkirche, Gdansk/Danzig, Poland.


Facade of Marienkirche, Cathedral of Gdansk/Danzig, Poland.

Given Gdansk’s turbulent history, it’s no surprise that it was bombed to smithereens by the Russians in World War II, leading to my only disappointment with the brief visit we made, and that was the Marienkirche, the cathedral.  Begun in the 14th century and completed in the 16th, it was the largest brick building in the world, and once it became a Lutheran church after the Reformation, the largest Lutheran structure in the world. It was filled with art treasures and relics, 40 % of which were destroyed in the bombing of the city. While it was rebuilt immediately after the war by the Poles, it was so heavily damaged that the decision was made to simply white wash the walls and install what treasures were left in the side altars.  For me, the affect was nearly iconoclastic.


From a fresco on the side of a Buergerhaus in Gdansk–appropriately, a mermaid!

But I would love to come back to this city–if only I could learn Polish!

On that note, just a few other observations about the Poland we saw in this quick trip. We were really struck by how American so many of the Polish people looked to us. There were young guys walking around that looked like they could be linebackers for Peoria High School’s football team! And I definitely know where my hair comes from! Everyone really looked so “normal” to us. I had no idea that the German-Slavic mixture was the dominant gene pool of the American Midwest.

Everyone was quite accommodating, even though their English was minimal. Not warm and cuddly, but accepting of strangers, and not surprised or hostile to the idea of finding two old Americans wandering around in their villages. The waitresses in the hotel were astonished and happy when we tried to say “thank you” in Polish: “Dziękuję!” (pronounced “Jeenquay”, or something like that….)

Finally, we must say that driving on the few Polish freeways was a breeze, but a lot of our drive from  and back to Berlin was on small roads, and there was no other way to go. While it was a bit interesting to see the countryside, it was perhaps a little too ambitious trying to go so far in such a short time. Now I wish we could have seen Krakow and Warsaw!


Where was West Prussia?

6 Oct


Two things struck us as peculiar as we drove from Berlin through the Polish countryside on our way to the outskirts of Gdansk/Danzig:  McDonalds and hookers. The minute we crossed the border into Poland (with utterly no border control at all, by the way), we saw the Golden Arches hovering above the skyline in every town we came to! Then we started noticing all these women standing on the side of the road in small clearings near the truck stops. At first we thought they must be waiting for the bus, but then we realized that they were all on the truck routes, and near a place in the forest where trucks could turn off.  The oldest profession is alive and well in Poland, even as American fast food has taken over.

As those of you who have been following this blog know, I wanted to come to this part of Poland because my grandfather Esau was born here, in 1884 (!), when it was West Prussia. He left in 1910, ending up in Los Angeles in about 1918. (See my blog entry “Pop of Broeske” from May 18). I tracked down the Polish name of the tiny village that he came from, and decided that we could take a little side trip at the end of our Berlin stay to seek out my roots. I booked us into a hotel about 13 km from Gdansk, about 15 km from this little village, in what was then Pomerania. (I made the booking through, just more evidence of how thoroughly modern Poland is now).

The hotel turned out to be a charming set up, Cedrowy Dworek, which means Cedar Inn, in a one-street village Cedry Wielkie, which also means something like Great Cedars.P1010397  Aside from the great cedar beams in the hotel’s excellent restaurant, I saw no cedar trees. From what I could gather from the all-Polish historical signs–it’s always fascinating to me to be in a country where none of the words make any sense to me!–the buildings were originally a 19th-century barn and surrounding farm structures.P1010396

And here’s the scene that greeted us from our hotel balcony:
cedrywielkie_hotel_horsesLittle Polish ponies in a field against a beautiful sunset!  That night we had fantastic regional food from the hotel’s chef, (the cuisine is from the area called Zulawy in Polish)  which made us feel happily at home. cedrywielkie_hotel_restaurant_gb&duck cedrywielkie_hotel_restaurant_eemeal

We were ready for the next day, and our trip to my grandfather’s birthplace.

Having had such a search to track down the Polish names of the once-German settlements in this region, I knew it was going to be difficult to find any sign of the region’s Prussian days, but I expected that there would be some evidence, at least in graveyards, of the thriving Mennonite communities that had been here since the 16th century. I was wrong; although all of the villages remain, and many of the buildings are still there, no signs exist in German, and the graveyards are filled entirely with garish Polish tombstones. This complete erasure of German presence is, of course, understandable when one considers how much Poland has suffered at the hands of not only the Germans, but also the Russians and the Austrians, who will-nilly carved up this proud country in the 18th century, and treated the Polish people abominably. Read Simon Winder’s excellent book Danubia for insights into this whole tragic mess.

But there were wonders to discover! Aside from the fascinating Mennonite houses, which were certainly there when my grandfather lived nearby, lubieszewo_ee&mennonitehouse we also made a tremendously interesting find in the village of Lubieszewo, about 5 km from my grandfather’s village, in what was then called Ladekopp and was the center of Mennonite culture in the region. We had stopped to look at the graveyard, hoping it would have some evidence of a German population ostaszewo_onlygermangrave (the only German one left was of the minister of the German flock in the 1880s), but decided to look inside the church, too, since the Polish signs seemed to indicate that it was historically significant and being renovated by EU organizations. What a delightful surprise!

lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_plaque I was first struck by the unusual combination of brick and wooden steeple–we hadn’t seen this in other villages–and it was obvious this was a substantial church. lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_tower_ext

At first we couldn’t figure out what exactly was happening on the ceiling, but when we finally got inside and looked more closely, we saw that the entire ceiling was covered in wooden planks that had been painted with dark clouds, filled with angels and saints and biblical scenes:

lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_int_viewfromaltar lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_int_ceilingwithorgan lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_int_ceiling_harp lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_int_ceiling&organ

As we were there, two people arrived to work on the organ–we assume part of the team doing the renovations. The church also had several indications of its German roots, in altars and small sculptures, and other paintings along the pews.


Sculpture of the Madonna, 1375, St. Elizabeth Church, Lubieszewo, Poland.


18th-century altar memorial to a German priest at St. Elizabeth Church, Lubieszewo, Poland.

I have never seen a church with a painted wooden ceiling like this, so I was pleased.  Whether Mennonites were buried here or not, I wasn’t able to find out, but at least I know it was something my grandfather would have seen. So on to the next village!

And there it was: the sign for Brzozski, brzozki_sign

which was Broeske in the German days. On the ship’s manifest where my grandfather’s name appears, it lists Broeske as his birthplace. Later on, in other papers, he listed it as Neukirch–now Nowa Cerkiew–so I assume he lived somewhere on a Hof in between the two villages. In any case, I took photos of all the buildings in this tiny, one-street place, which had very little to offer in the way of interesting sights.

brzozki_barn brzozki_fachwerkhouse

It’s no wonder that men like my grandfather would have left these farming communities, where there would have been few prospects, especially second and third sons who would not have inherited land. But I did feel emotional being in this place, even if not a sign of past inhabitants could be found.

We then travelled to the other village of Now Cerkiew, finding along the way, in the neighboring village of Gniazdowo,  excellent examples of Mennonite houses gniazdowo_mennonitehouse_frontview gnniazdowo_mennonitehouse_fachwerk

and even met one of the inhabitants, a sweet old Ukrainian woman who had worked in Germany at one time, and was happy to speak some German, although she couldn’t tell us anything about the house or its history. She gave us two pears from the garden, though.gniazdowo_bigmennonitehouse_ukrainiangrandma

In Nowa Cerkiew we saw again some great wooden houses that I would like to think my grandfather lived in, but that’s pure fantasy on my part. nowacerkiew_mennonitehouse_otherside nowacerkiew_mennonitehouse_frontview

So we left the sleeping cat on the sunny porch, and headed on to Danzig. P1010343


2 Oct

Sunset from our porch in Prenzlauer Berg–like a Caspar David Friedrich painting.

As we ride on the train out of Berlin to Vienna, after a 1500-km round trip drive from Berlin to Danzig/Gdansk and back, some final thoughts about our time in Berlin:

Berliners are abrupt and blunt in demeanor—a bit like New Yorkers but more laconic, less contentious. We found in the Eastern part of the city that sometimes there was an abruptness that bordered on rude hostility, at least among those in service positions where a little courtesy would have been helpful.

On the other hand, the lovely old ladies who lived around us in our little garden house—widows of DDR architects and diplomats—could not have been friendlier and happier to have us there.


One of our lovely neighbors in Sigridstrasse holding Pepe, another neighbor’s young cat.



On the path through the Volksgarten Prenzlauer Berg, built on the rubble of the city of Berlin after WWII.

The best thing about Berlin is the tremendous number of beautiful big parks, green spaces, and old trees.

P1010133 (1)

George in Volkspark Friedrichshain, a lovely city park laid out in the 1840s.


Maerchenbrunnen, Fairy-Tale Fountain, in Volkspark Friedrichshain.


Dornroeschen, Rose Red, one of the many fairy-tale sculptures around the Maerchenbrunnen.

Many of the city parks were first laid out in the 19th century, with elegant allees, fanciful fountains, and carefully considered floral plantings.  These are absolutely wonderful to visit and both Berliners and tourists take full advantage of their spaces. Our favorite was Volkspark Friedrichshain, with its Maerchenbrunnen, the Fairy-Tale Fountain, built in 1908 by the city architect Ludwig Hoffmann, which must have been a destination for generations of Berlin children.

The most touching, poignant, and typically German green spaces are the Trümmerparke, the enormous forested hills created out of the rubble of the city of Berlin after the war. Behind our garden house was the Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg, one of these “rubble mountains”, which is now filled with trees, birds, hedgehogs, foxes, squirrels, and lovely pathways meant for invigorating walks. Nature is always very evident in Berlin, even in the most bustling locales.


Red squirrels!!!



The view in the other direction was one big construction site.

The worst thing about Berlin—at least for me—is the endless, constant, ubiquitous construction. Cranes and earth-moving equipment, scaffolds and jackhammers, still appear everywhere, and construction sites still destroy any sense of aesthetically pleasing cityscape. For me, this was particularly striking and irritating at Brandenburger Tor, that much anticipated symbol of Berlin’s tumultuous history. Not only is the view into the East thoroughly obscured by the building of a new train station, but nearly every building in the whole area is covered in scaffolds and surrounded by cement trucks. It occurs to me that this has been the natural state of Berlin for at least 70 years—first with the re-building of the thoroughly bombed-out city, then after the fall of the Wall in 1989, the grabbing up of East Berlin territory and the reconstruction of all the historic sites that were never really taken care of by the East Germans. While some of the old Soviet-era structures remain, it’s pretty obvious that developers got their hands on all this cheap property early on, and have “renovated” much of it into slick, new hotels and restaurants.



At the Jewish Cemetery Weissensee. A memorial to all the Jewish Berliners who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Berlin’s devastating past confronts you everywhere, making it an emotionally charged, and in the end palpably sad, place to visit. For totally serendipitous reasons—and so they were meant to be—we were confronted at every turn with reminders of the cultural presence and eventual fate of Berlin’s Jewish population. We visited two Jewish cemeteries, where so many of Berlin’s brightest and most famous intellectual lights are buried, judfriedhof_schoenhauser_sandweg_berlin both of them now beautiful, tranquil places, but simply pulsating with memorials to the greatest tragedy, the most incomprehensible moment, in the 20th century. And all over the city, in the sidewalks, are the most moving reminders: the so-called “stolpersteine”–literally stumbling blocks–the little plaques in front of the houses where Jews were taken away and murdered in one of many camps throughout the Reich. P1010105 (1)

These give such a visceral sense of the shocking reality of it all:  this is where these ordinary people lived, and this is the ground where they stood when they were taken away and killed.  You find them in Berlin everywhere.


At Topographie des Terrors–Topography of Terror–where a bit of the Wall remains, and behind it the site of the Nazi headquarters of the SS. Bristling with tragedy.

Then there are the reminders of the era of The Berlin Wall, that abysmally absurd moment in history during which this vibrant, thriving city was cut in half, in order to keep people in the Socialist paradise of the German Democratic Republic from fleeing to that evil capitalist place where, who’d have thought, all their citizens wanted to live. Remnants of that time are, of course, all around when you stay in the eastern part of town, from the names of the streets (Karl-Marx-, Karl-Liebknecht Strassen, Kaethe-Kollwitz- and Rosa-Luxemburg-Plaetze) to the look of some of the workers’ buildings. The DDR days now seem so far away, and no one in the East talks about them, except in the nostalgic museums about spies and the Stasi.

My sense of transcendent sadness was probably abetted by the fact that I was reading at the same time A Woman in Berlin, the extraordinary diary of an anonymous Berlin woman recording the very last days of the war, when Russian troops systematically raped the women of the city as they marched through. As she writes, “These are strange times–history experienced first hand, the stuff of tales yet untold and songs unsung. But seen up close, history is much more troublesome–nothing but burdens and fears.”


Berlin is filled with children and wonderful places for children to be, from playgrounds to schools to special museums and libraries geared for them. P1010128 And what a wonderful relief to see them all walking to and from school alone without parental supervision, playing wildly with wood and hammers and other weapons of destruction in parks made specifically for them and for that reason. A sign that we have been in Los Angeles for a long time is that we were amazed that so many of these kids were blond and blue-eyed and going to PUBLIC SCHOOL! Crossing streets on their own!  Being allowed to have unstructured playtime and activities!  It was such a comfortable, happy feeling.


With my first sip of German coffee, I remembered:  I have never found German coffee good at all. Even when we bought “French roast” at Kaufland and made it ourselves, it just isn’t the taste I’m looking for in coffee.  Perhaps if we had waited in line at the Five Elephant Cafe in Kreuzberg, we would have felt differently. And German food: well, all those photos of George with Rotkraut says it all, doesn’t it?


We obviously spent too much time in the East and not enough in the West, so I really feel that we perhaps missed out on where it was all happening, but I really didn’t get the buzz and a sense of some hot art scene that everyone goes on about when they talk about Berlin. We were in both Kreuzberg and Wedding, and also down on Fasanenstrasse near the Kudamm, which was lovely and had some gorgeous old-fashioned establishment galleries, but not the zappiness of contemporary artwork. And the street art was horrible–just ugly graffiti. I was happy to see one sign of that old Weimar spirit, though: DADA LIVES! P1010055