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SFE No. 56: George Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna

Elegy to a Family

I have a photo of Aunt Margaret standing outside Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, beret jauntily askew. It is 1937 and, aged 28, she is on her return with a friend from Czechoslovakia, travelling in an Austin Ruby. Margaret – think Joyce Grenfell in St Trinian’s – always maintained she crossed Central Europe without difficulty despite losing her passport. It seems improbable but maybe not impossible. Regardless, the small black-and-white image enduringly appeals because it was taken amid perilous events in Austria of which Margaret, in her artless exuberance for life, was probably unaware. I wanted to know more of that time.

Vienna fascinates. In its fin-de-siècle pomp it was not only the centre of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire but also the most cultured city in Europe. Reduced by the First World War to being the unhappy capital of a small country riven by political violence, in 1937 it was only months from Hitler’s Anschluss. Less than five years later, in the one-time home of such Jewish giants of literature and philosophy as Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austria’s Reich Governor Baldur von Schirach hailed his own ‘contribution to European culture’: the ‘joyous cleansing’ of Vienna through the deportation of 65,000 Jews to the camps. For a witness to what Zweig called in his Memoirs of Yesterday ‘the most terrible defeat of reason and the most savage triumph of brutality in the chronicles of time’ we can turn to George Clare and his Last Waltz in Vienna.

Last Waltz was first published in English in 1981, with the subtitle The Destruction of a Family, 1842–1942. However, the subtitle is misleading and absent from the 2007 edition. For although Clare’s family’s destination is horrific, his memoir is as much an elegy to the vitality of a Jewish family in a vanished age as a record of its descent to annihilation. In revealing its humanity – sometimes noble, sometimes flawed – and in detailing its joys and pains, he makes us aware of the individual lives masked by too familiar statistics of genocide. It is a story poignant enough to bring tears to the eyes.

Clare was born Georg Klaar in 1920 into a divide at the heart of pre-war Central European Jewry: between those who embraced assimilation and those who clung more tenaciously to their Jewish identity. The Klaars had risen from the ghettoes of Bukovina, straddling present-day Ukraine and Romania, to become proud citizens of the country they loved. They were Austrians of the Jewish faith. In contrast Georg’s maternal family, the Immerdauers and Schapiras, were Galician Jews rooted by history and geography in orthodoxy. They were Jews who lived in Austria.

The two strains merge in the marriage of Georg’s father, Ernst, to Stella Schapira in November 1919. Ernst, a senior bank accountant and a stern but loving parent, is a lover of Goethe, Schiller and Rilke, and is passionately interested in objets d’art and paintings; gentle Stella, governed more by reason than emotion, adores Dickens and Galsworthy. Their life is one of bourgeois respectability: hosting dinner parties for intellectual friends at their flat in Pichlergasse, going to the theatre to see the comedies of Franz Molnar and taking holidays in Bad Ischl, a favourite haunt of leading Austrian writers and actors.

Nearby, Georg’s grandmother Julie Klaar receives visitors in her gaslit sitting-room which has not changed since the time of Emperor Franz-Josef. She has entirely shed her Eastern roots and reigns as family sovereign over her children: Ernst, Uncle Paul, a GP and gynaecologist, chain-smoking Uncle Fritz – a jobless, moustachioed former army captain looking like a figure from a Lehár operetta – Uncle Joseph and home-loving Aunt Sally, who is gently steered into marrying a regrettably impotent concert pianist.

Grandfather Bernhard Schapira and his formidable wife Adele live in grander style in the Turkenschanzplatz district. With his gold pince-nez, expensive suits and ‘masterful composure’ Bernhard, a wealthy member of the Stock Exchange who is chauffeured in an expensive Adler car, has all the pomposity of a grand seigneur. But, unlike the Klaars, the family observe their religion and Adele’s Yiddish-accented German betrays her roots in the ghettoes of Eastern Europe.

How secure it all appears to only child Georg. At home, he feels enfolded in such love that he has the ‘utter certainty that no evil could reach me’. In cafés, matrons enjoying a life of elegant futility gossip over whipped cream coffees and cloying pastries. The Burgtheater and Konzerthaus still play to packed galleries, recalling happier imperial times. But beneath this smug veneer of Gemütlichkeit, and away from the imposing mansions along the Ringstrasse, lie poverty and despair. Thousands of the city’s children live close to starvation, inflation and unemployment are rampant, and back streets are littered with refuse combed by the homeless. ‘Behind the baroque masonry lay dark, dank corridors filled with the stale smell of over-boiled cabbage and the indefinable but clearly discernible odour of hatred and envy.’ Austria is about to erupt.

Writing with restrained pathos and the authority of a first-hand witness, Clare takes us through the political and social collapse of a nation. It is an enthralling and terrible drama whose momentous events – the failed Nazi putsch of 1934, the murder of Chancellor Dollfuss, the increasingly futile political attempts by his successor Kurt von Schuschnigg to stem Hitler’s ambitions – have all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy as Austria stumbles towards nemesis.

But for young Georg these history-shaping events are merely the backdrop to the small dramas of his own life. More important are visits to relatives, hiking holidays, a trip to Prague where he gets drunk for the first time and, of course, inevitable teenage rows as his growing independence clashes with paternal authoritarianism. At school, occasional anti-Semitic jokes directed at Jewish pupils by their peers are delivered more in mocking humour than malice. There are thugs on the street, but they ignore Georg. Above all, there are the joys of romance with girlfriend Lisl, later to become Georg’s wife. It was ‘the only taste I ever had of what it means to be young and carefree and in love with love’.

By late 1937, however, the atmosphere in the city has become so toxic that it cannot be ignored even by the self-absorption of youth. In December that year, Georg and Lisl are at Vienna’s most famous satirical cabaret, the Simplicissimus. With the rest of the largely Jewish audience they briefly forget their concerns, ‘all of us behaving as if we had not a care in the world’. It is only later that Georg understands that the jokes of the Jewish comedians Farkas and Grünbaum are freighted with an ‘almost prophetic awareness of the menace suffusing the very air we breathed’.

Yet even as the skies darken, Georg still feels that ‘everything was possible, that I was special somehow and life was about to begin’. Only three months later his naïve optimism is extinguished when the Germans march in, predators welcomed as saviours. Last Waltz moves from the dusk into the dark.

Clare remembers the day Austria surrendered to Hitler with awful clarity. Moments after Schuschnigg announces on the radio his nation’s capitulation, the Klaars hear the shouts of hundreds of men outside. They switch off the lights and gaze out on Nussdorferstrasse as frenzied Nazis pass below in a stream of swastika-draped lorries:

Ein volk, ein Reich, ein Führer! they were chanting in chorus, followed by Ju-da verr-rrecke! Ju-da verr-rrecke! (Perish Judah!) . . . coming from a thousand throats, screaming it out in the full fury of their hate . . . it is a sound one can never forget.

After they leave, Georg looks out and sees a policeman wearing a swastika armband beating a man at his feet with a truncheon. He has known that policeman all his life, seen him salute his father and befriend the family. ‘Yesterday’s protector had been transformed into tomorrow’s persecutor and tormentor. Nothing could have driven home more clearly what had happened on this one day.’ By the next afternoon, Jews are being rounded up for street cleaning in front of jeering mobs.

Scenting the Nazi stench blowing from Germany, many of Vienna’s wealthier and savvier Jews have already fled the country. Ernst, indeed, is so concerned at the swelling tide of anti-Semitism that in 1938 he toys with moving the family to Switzerland. But like thousands of other Jews he decides to stay, believing the crisis will blow over. How, we ask with hindsight, could so many have been so delusional? It was, says Clare, a collective act of ‘self-induced blindness’. To the end, these people so strongly and proudly absorbed into Austrian society refused to believe that the nation they loved, and for which many had fought, would turn on them. ‘How could they foresee the bestialities that were to be committed in the name of the country so dear to them? How could anyone?’

The illusion brutally exposed, flight now becomes imperative and the final hundred pages of Last Waltz are both gripping and heartbreaking. We know that Georg will find freedom and ultimately serve in the British Army. His sinuous road to a new life, involving daunting obstacles and the threat of capture by the Gestapo, takes him from Vienna to Berlin, Latvia and Ireland before he finds sanctuary in England. We know, too, that his parents, like most of his wider family, will not survive. Their own route takes them to France where, after living in Paris and Marseilles, they are forced by the Vichy government to move to St Pierreville, a mountain village in the Ardèche, and placed under house arrest. In 1942, Ernst is arrested. Stella, who has met the challenge of their desolated lives with greater fortitude than her husband, steadfastly refuses to leave his side. They vanish from the outside world into the awful anonymity of the camps.

There is one last family sighting. The later edition of Last Waltz closes with a letter written by Uncle Paul who in 1945 returned to Vienna, ‘burnt out and guilt-ridden’, from the Theresienstadt ghetto. Here, he reveals, he was reunited with his mother Julie who died in his arms whispering, ‘I never knew dying could be that hard.’ Ernst and Stella’s fate is unknown.

In a world saturated with reminiscences of that terrible time, Last Waltz remains a unique chronicle that deserves to be read and whose message still resonates. It gives us three stories: the intimate record of a boy growing up embraced by love in a time of hate; a study of how a civilized society can fatally fracture under the weight of its own divisions and insecurities; and, finally, an examination of that oldest and most poisonous of mankind’s prejudices, anti-Semitism. In the words of the historian Edward Crankshaw: ‘Clare leads us gently, but inexorably, to the edge of the pit and then leaves us to look down into it.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Patrick Welland 2021
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 56: Last Waltz in Vienna

About the contributor

Patrick Welland is a retired national newspaper journalist. He regrets that he was born too late to enjoy a life of elegant futility in late nineteenth-century Vienna.

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