Places, like objects and stories, can be passed down through the generations of a family. I have inherited a love of various houses, beaches, islands and cities from my parents, my grandparents and even great-grandparents – but one place in particular came with a very powerful connection. So as I visited Vienna for only the second time last weekend, it felt as much like a holiday as a family pilgrimage of sorts.
Vienna is the city where my great-grandparents, Max and Gretl, met and married in 1921, it is where Max ran a thriving leather-goods business, it is where my Oma and Great-Uncle were born and grew up, and it is the place they all had to leave in 1938. It is a place that generations of my family have visited and continue to visit.
On recommendation from a friend who knew none of this, we stayed in a lovely hotel on the edge of the 6th (Mariahilf) and 7th (Neubau) districts. Much of our visit was spent wondering the streets of these areas, which at times have the beautiful aesthetics of the 1950s. Just a two minute walk from our hotel, at 26 Westbahnstraße, was a tall white building facing a little church and looming larger than any other structure on the street. This building, now a combination of apartments, shops and offices, was once the headquarters of my great-grandfather’s business, Molmax. (I should have guessed, my family has a long-held obsession with the number 6).
I took a couple of trips to sit on the bench conveniently facing this building and try and imagine the great-grandfather I never met, known in the family as Opi, walking in and out of his workplace. The only images I have ever seen of this site are interior shots. They show the workshop of this Jewish business full of men and women sewing together leather bags, watched over by the portrait of Hitler and swastika symbol they were forced to mount on the wall. Not long afterwards, the business was confiscated and the family fled. While Max successfully reestablished Molmax as a British business, it seems that the Nazi’s took on the business and produced Molmax branded backpacks for their own airforce. (This is something I have yet to look into further).
Ten minutes walk south from 26 Westbahnstraße, just off the bustling shopping street Mariahilfer Straße, was the next stop on my family pilgrimage: 6 Nelkengasse. Also in District 6, this building contained the top-floor apartment where the Moldau family lived – with their resident maid and cook – until 1938. My great-uncle Heinz described the apartment as having ‘fine rooms which did justice to our parents’ good taste in furniture and fine art.’ This place I visited with more emotion than the business site, because this is where my greatly-missed Oma came and went as a girl, and fled for her life at the age of 14. This place too was confiscated by the Nazis. But a small memorial in the doorway to 6 Nelkengasse brings home how unbelievably lucky my family were. I read with trepidation the 12 small brass plaques that bear the names of other residents of the building who died in concentration camps around Europe, memorialised by these almost hidden squares of metal in the doorway of an apartment building.
Wondering out from one family story and into another, I also spent a little (imaginative) time with the de Waal / Ephrussi family during my Vienna trip. Many of you will have read the incredible memoir by Edmund de Waal – The Hare With Amber Eyes – and will recall his vivid descriptions of the grand Palais Ephrussi on Vienna’s smart Ringstraße. Having spent the morning enthralled by de Waal’s exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (post to follow), it felt right to stop by at the Palais. It was an incredibly imposing building, now occupied by various shops at street level, including a Starbucks. A plaque on one side of the building bore the name of Edmund de Waal’s Jewish great-grandfather – Ignaz Ehprussi – also forced to leave his family home in 1938.
I am incredibly privileged that my family associations with Vienna are not only connected to sites of loss. My pilgrimage included visits to places associated with warmth and fun and wonder, only poignant because I couldn’t send a postcard to my Oma telling her about my own encounters. We visited Meinl’s, my Grandfathers favourite shop in the world (and bought him some gifts while we were there). We walked through a packed out Demel’s and I recalled visiting on a very frosty-wintery day with my mother and sister eight years earlier. We drank a cocktail in the American bar – where my aunts and uncles apparently went a little overboard celebrating their parents 80th birthdays, and we stared up at the windows of the Graben trying to imagine the shops that were once visited by my fashionable great-grandmother and her family.
The 20th century history of Vienna is not that easy to access as a tourist, and despite asking around we did not manage to find a museum that covered the social history of the two World Wars. On my next trip I will build up the courage to visit the Jewish Museum, and will learn the names of the extended family lost to the Holocaust so that I can think of them when standing in front of Rachel Whitereads haunting memorial. There are so many other people that must make these same family pilgrimages, creating their own unique tours of city they know only through association and memory. One day I will get the courage (and the German!) to try and enter the top floor flat at 6 Nelkengasse. For now, it was wonderful to feel closer to those family members simply by inhabiting the city they lost.
Posts on the de Waal exhibition, and the incredible MAK museum to follow!
Further reading & viewing: