Transport 20

This post is the tragic heart of Refugee Tales. It is the story of what happened to my maternal grandparents, Olga and Bruno Guttmann, who never made it out of Vienna as the Nazi regime closed in on the Jews. The facts are brutal but I believe they cannot be excised from the family history I have been recording. THOSE FOR WHOM THESE EVENTS ARE TOO DISTURBING SHOULD NOT READ FURTHER.


First Lieutenant Bruno Guttmann

Olga was 51 and Bruno 57 when they were deported on Transport 20. It left  Vienna for Izbica, Poland on May 5, 1942.  The Yad Vashem web site lists the 1,000 Austrian Jews who were on that transport and describes their fate:

The Central Office for Jewish Emigration (Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung), under the command of Alois Brunner, was responsible for deportations from Vienna (Wien). As in previous transports of Jewish deportees, the Central Office distributed orders to the Jews on the deportation list, which included instructions where and when they had to report. Each deportee was allowed to take personal luggage weighing no more than 50 kg and cash amounting to 100 Reichsmark (RM).The Jews that had been selected for this transport had to report to the assembly camp in a former school situated in the 2nd Viennese district, Kleine Sperlgasse 2.

On arrival at the school grounds, Jewish deportees had to hand over the keys to their homes. The assembly camp was supervised by members of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration. Sometimes as many as 2,000 people were stranded for days – even weeks – at the site, awaiting deportation. They would sleep on the floor or on bags filled with straw. The sanitary conditions at the site were terrible, as was the mood of the deportees. While they waited for deportation the Jews underwent a registration process (Kommissionierung), which was often accompanied by violence. The staff of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Vienna, along them Anton Brunner, forced the Jews to declare their property. Then they had to sign a document confirming that they transferred everything to the state. They were also forced to hand over all valuables and cash to the representatives of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration. The Jewish property was sold by the Gestapo after the transport left.

Transport number 20 departed from the Aspangbahnhof in Vienna (Wien) at 8:15 pm on May 12th, 1942, and arrived at Izbica in the Lublin district a few days later. 1,000 Jews were deported on this train, 232 of them were older than 61 years. The average age of the deportees was 49. Fifteen armed uniformed policemen under the command of an officer named Johann Kranzler were deployed to the Aspangbahnhof. They arrived at 11 am and guarded the deportees during the boarding process and the trainride to Izbica.

By June 5th, 1942, four transports had left Vienna for Izbica carrying a total of 4,000 Jewish deportees. These deportees represented approximately one third of the total Izbica Ghetto population. On June 8 and October 15, 1942, most of them were sent to the Belzec extermination camp, where they were murdered in the gas chambers.

Of all 1,000 Jews that went to Izbica with transport no. 20, not a single person survived the Holocaust.


The Holocaust Memorial on Vienna’s Judenplatz

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The Cummington Story–correction

Correction:  Youtube address for The Cummington Story should read:

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The Cummington Story

    After D-day in June of 1944, when American troops began to move through Europe, the U.S. Office of War Information set up an Overseas Film Division to produce a series of short documentaries.  As one of the directors described them, they were intended to “show the people in allied and liberated countries what life in America was really like.” Under the overall title of “The American Scene,” fourteen such films were produced for foreign distribution only. Among them was The Cummington Story, which dealt with the gradual absorption of the members of the refugee hostel into the New England town.  Given a musical score composed especially for the movie by Aaron Copland, it featured Carl Sangree, the founder of the refugee hostel, as the narrator, and my uncle, Werner Königsberger, as the main character, albeit under the name Joseph.(Possibly “Werner” struck too German a  note.) Another woman from the hostel, not my Aunt Grete, played the role of his wife Anna.

 Readers of this blog can view The Cummington Story at  It begins at a town meeting with the narrator announcing, somewhat mysteriously, that Joseph is to speak there for the first and last time. Before he does so, however, there is a flashback to the arrival of the refugees amid the initial hostility of the locals. With Sangree’s assistance, they find roles for themselves in the town’s life and culture. Finally, their integration seemingly complete, they are seen sharing the high spirits of the entire community at the Cummington State Fair. The film then returns to the town meeting for Joseph to have his say. He had come to say good-by, the narrator explains. “He would be leaving soon to return home to help rebuild his own country, but would take with him many things he had learned in Cummington.”

 The film’s ending always stunned me. Wouldn’t it have been more inspiring to depict the reality of Werner Königsberger’s experience in the U.S.—that he and his wife had not only settled comfortably in New England, but prospered? Anomalies in the film shed some light on the purpose of this finale. For instance, it is never made clear what the group of foreigners is taking refuge from. When they arrive, they are merely depicted as homeless and different. Appearing at the church service, they are described as belonging to many different “churches and denominations—Catholic, Jewish (sic) and Protestant,” and this is the only time the word “Jewish” occurs. In only one scene is the situation in Europe referred to directly. When the fine printer from Austria pages through some of the precious volumes in the library at the homestead of the American poet William Cullen Bryant, the narrator explains that many of the books were the same “as those burned on the streets of his home town.”

 The omissions made me realize that the subject of the film was not the refugee’s plight at all, but the country in which they had found refuge. Meant to be shown overseas exclusively, the movie was selling America. And to that end, there was a handy visual guide  underpinning  several of the scenes. In January 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt had given the famous speech in which he defined the essential “four freedoms people everywhere ought to enjoy”–freedom of speech and of worship; freedom from want and fear. These concepts were further popularized in 1943 when Norman Rockwell illustrated them in the four oil paintings that then appeared on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. (When the pictures subsequently toured the country, they helped raise millions in war bonds.)

 In The Cummington Story, the scenes of the town meeting,(freedom of speech), the church service (freedom of worship), and the mother tucking in her child (freedom from fear), were almost direct Rockwell quotes. Only the original image for freedom from want—a lavish Thanksgiving dinner—was replaced with the bounty of the harvest at the State Fair. These were the messages Joseph was to take back “home.”

     Four Freedoms

 The film was made in the autumn of 1944. By then, brave couriers had sent some information to the U.S.  about the existence of Nazi extermination and concentration camps, but there had been little coverage of these revelations in the press. The shocking physical reality of what went on there did not become part of the national consciousness until the liberation of Dachau in the spring of 1945. Very few Austrian Jews would have had any desire to return home after those revelations. And the ones who made the attempt to resume their old lives were faced with reluctant Austrian government officials. Their attitude was succinctly summed up by the comment made by Minister of the Interior Oskar Helmer in 1948. When confronted by Jewish claims to property seized during the war, he was quoted as saying “I’m for dragging things out as long as possible.” (“Ich wäre dafür, dass man die Sache in die Länge zieht.”)

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Crafting Survival

   At the end of my last post, my father’s sister Helen and her husband had acquired a car soon after the end of their arduous journey to the U.S. Judicious financial arrangements made beforehand had clearly eased their entry. It was more difficult for members of the family remaining in Nazi Austria to pave the way for their escape. They were forced to leave all their assets behind.

While waiting for American visas, my aunt Grete (Grandfather Bruno Guttmann’s sister), and her husband Werner Königsberger, a couple who had lived comfortably on Werner’s earnings as an insurance company executive in Vienna, went to evening classes. He studied decoupage—the application, antiquing, and varnishing of printed images on metal, wood, and parchment. She turned her hand to suede accessories. These crafts were intended to mollify a promised sponsor— the owner of a gift shop in California. Unfortunately, when the two arrived in New York in the spring of 1940 with only a few dollars on hand, the connection fell through. Nonetheless, their new skills proved to be the saving of them after all.

At almost the same time that the Königsbergers arrived in New York, their fate was being determined almost 200 miles to the north of the city in the small New England town of Cummington, in western Massachusetts. Carl Sangree, the Minister of the local Congregational Church, who had been a conscientious objector during World War I, asked his superiors whether there was an official line with regard to the war raging in Europe. They were not taking any particular stand, he was told, but if he was set on doing something that would make a difference, he should find a way to help the refugees. Sangree realized he had the means to do so. A small house he owned in the village was standing empty and could be put to use as a hostel. Local townspeople and churches would help with furnishing and food, but Sangree wanted to do more than provide shelter. He decided that a stay at the hostel should be seen as temporary–a way station while searching for employment and a place to put down roots. With this philosophy, the dozen or so refugees who came to live in the little house at any one time were chosen for the talents and skills that would enable them to move on. Sangree’s job would be to make connections for them and serve as their guide to local opportunities.

More than 50 refugees were eventually to stay in the hostel between May 1940 and September 1944. The first to arrive was Johannes Gaides, an agricultural economist who was forced out of Germany for his political views. He immediately transformed the hostel’s weedy garden into a fertile vegetable plot. The Königsbergers arrived in November 1940. Among those who followed were Gustav Wolf, a graphic artist, the writers Paul Amman and Jacob Picard, Hans Kallman, who had been an editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung and the painter Paul Weighardt and his wife, sculptor Nelly Barr.

As soon as they arrived, the Königsbergers set up a small workshop. Encouraged by Sangree and emboldened by a connection to a New York agent selling gift items to shops all over the country, they embarked on a wholesale business under the name “Art Craft Studio.” By August 1941, the demand for Werner’s decoupage waste baskets, magazine racks, trays, and lampshades, and Grete’s hand-cut suede corsages had grown to such an extent, that they moved into their own small house and hired fellow villagers to work for them.

Sangree’s experiment soon caught the eye of the press and the Königsbergers and their enterprise, got special attention. Much was made of how well these Viennese cosmopolitans had found a way to fit in to the life of a small New England town. Grete’s handicrafts were displayed at the Women’s Exchange and she gave talks at the Women’s Society of Christian Service. Werner, who was an accomplished violinist played at weddings, dances, and church events and, on occasion, gave solo performances. “Old-world charm” was the epithet most often applied to them and one journalist couldn’t resist reprinting Grete’s recipe for the “Guglhupf,” she had been served, describing it as an Austrian-Bavarian coffeecake.


Most of the refugees soon found their way in the U.S. and settled elsewhere. The Königsbergers were the only ones to stay in Cummington. By 1944, the Art Craft Studio was doing so well, they were able to buy a large house on the edge of town. Built in the 1870’s by a successful local resident who had made a fortune raising sheep out West, the house had seven bedrooms and two barns. In 1890 it became “The Cummington Inn.” Re-named “The Riverside,” at the turn of the century, it was described in a contemporary brochure as the “ultimate in summer boarding houses with spacious rooms and indoor plumbing.”

"The Cummington Inn" 1890


It was in that wonderful old house, that I met my aunt and uncle for the first time when we arrived fresh from England after the war. By then, Werner and Grete, were completely acclimated. He went about in overalls, she had traded in Guglhupf for a mean apple pie. Thanks to the vision of Carl Sangree, and the Königsbergers’ enterprising spirit, this descendant of an Austrian-Jewish family could lay claim to a New England childhood.

POSTSCRIPT: There is another version of the Königsberger’s “refugee tale,” that differs somewhat from the one I relate here. In 1945, a film was made about Carl Sangree’s hostel. Werner Königsberger had the leading role and most of the events depicted were reflections of his life. This was a propaganda film, however, and the directors decided to give him another fate. More on “The Cummington Story,” as the movie was called, in the next post.

A return to Cummington

A return to Cummington

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A Dangerous Voyage

Until the spring of 1940, the members of my family who had arrived in England believed they were safe from Hitler’s designs on the Jews. From April on, however, as the German leader, in a matter of months, successfully invaded and conquered six countries—Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France—they began to feel they had not fled far enough. By the end of May, the British were evacuating more than 300,000 troops from the French beaches at Dunkirk. Could there be any doubt that Hitler saw England as his next prize?

But where and how could the family run? The grandparents—Emma and Emanuel Spitzer—were too old, my mother’s teen-age sister Franziska, who had arrived on a Kindertransport from Vienna, too young, and my parents were nurturing a newborn. The only ones capable of leaving were Helen and Fritz, my father’s sister and her husband. So dire did the situation seem, they were willing to risk an ocean voyage to Panama even if it meant sailing through waterways infested by German submarines and protected by only the smallest of convoys after the many British naval losses in Norway.

Helen kept a diary during that voyage and the six months that followed in Central America. She and Fritz, and their beloved dog “Darki,” boarded the Napier Star, at Tilbury on the Thames on June 17, 1940. The cargo ship, making for Liverpool, Panama and New Zealand, had room for seventeen passengers.

After several days spent gathering a convoy, the ship had just moved out of the English Channel when submarines were sighted. The Napier Star sped hurriedly away in a zig-zag course, but two of the accompanying boats were torpedoed. With passengers on deck in life-jackets,  a hair-raising  two hours followed before escape was considered assured.

The "Napier Star"

The “Napier Star”

Thereafter the voyage was peaceful, a brief respite from the fears of the past and the insecurity of the future. As they headed south, it was possible to swim in a small pool on board, play deck tennis, and converse with the crew. Passengers were given a tour of the ship from the bridge to the machine room, and shown the navigational instruments,  the many maps. Once in the Caribbean, they sailed past Curacao and Aruba, and, after a farewell champagne dinner,  arrived in Colon on Panama’s east coast on July 7.

The town made a bad first impression on Helen. Half of it had recently undergone a fire and everything seemed dusty and ugly to her. And her travel experiences in Europe had not prepared her for the the racial diversity of the population “Negros, Mulattos, Japanese, Chinese , mixed races of every sort ” overwhelm her. Initially, only the rich vegetation and the tropical colors give her comfort. In this new world, and without any knowledge of Spanish, she now had to deal with a daunting two-fold task: Find a country that would allow them a temporary stay and, at the same time, pursue the ultimate goal of a U.S. visa.

At first they had their eyes on Ecuador and Helen admits to the successful deployment of her feminine wiles in catching they eye of that country’s consul. Then it became clear that Panama, with its strong American presence in the Canal Zone, would be a better bet. After endless machinations and a move to Panama City, permission to stay was finally granted. Only then did Helen gradually adjust to her surroundings. She recognized the appeal of Colon as a harbor town and–its variety of bars and nightclubs. As bad as the performances in the latter were, she enjoyed observing the artists and the audiences. She even begin to take Spanish lessons, but the news from Europe left her no peace. The diary is a record of desperation. Again and again she rues the day she left the family in England where the Battle of Britain had now begun to rage fiercely and London was under constant attack from the Luftwaffe. Letters took far longer to arrive than news of the latest bombing raids.

Especially distressing during those weeks of waiting, was the news that the Napier Star had been torpedoed and sunk on December 18 while on its return voyage.  The captain, fifty-eight crew members, and twelve passengers were lost. “Poor, beloved, old ship,” Helen wrote,” I remember it as a good friend. Each member of the crew remains in my memory.”

By the end of February, 1941,  Helen and Fritz were finally on the way to New York. The trip, via Guatemala, Mexico, and across the States, took two months.  Only when that journey ended did Helen receive the sad news  that her father, with whom she had been very close, had died in March.   She was heartbroken. “He was buried far, far from me in foreign soil,” she wrote. “I couldn’t say good-by, not even at his grave.”

The last entry in the diary dated June 14, 1941, marks a year since her departure from England. “Perhaps I am ungrateful,” she concludes. “My life today is varied and has tempo, but something that should fulfill me is missing. Something that would have made the hectic journey worthwhile. Is it the pressure of the war and the world situation? Or the worry about all the danger my loved ones are in? Or, above all, the misery of losing my father, or what it will be like when I am re-united with the others? Today we got a wonderful new car. I have what I want and need and yet I seldom feel a spark of pleasure.”

Emanuel Spitzer's Grave, Oxford, England

Emanuel Spitzer’s Grave, Oxford, England

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My Father’s Passport

My father was obsessed with the news. He interrupted meals to listen to the broadcast of WQXR’s bulletins “every hour on the hour.” He read the The New York Times daily and fussed about keeping the pages in correct order and the paper properly folded. In later life, half-conscious after surgery, fingering the newspaper’s pages gave him comfort, and, on the night before he died, age 90, in 1995, the day’s paper hung neatly on the guard rail of his hospital bed. I began to understand the source of his fixation only recently when I looked more closely at the Polish passport he had never thrown away. This was the passport that enabled him, together with my mother, to escape his homeland for England on August 24, 1939, just one week before Hitler invaded Poland on September 1.


It was not easy for my father to move around Europe in the late 1930’s. He had to have a transit pass from each of the countries he traveled though to get to an ultimate destination. In the stamped and re-stamped document issued to Oskar Spitzer in October 1938, German, Czech, Hungarian, French, Dutch and Swedish permits pepper the pages. Many of those official seals reveal his response to shifts in Nazi policy and I could see that he tried to hold on to his way of life as long as possible.

By the 1930’s my father was the heir-apparent of the expanding family enterprise. What had started out as a small tannery for turning a few hides into leather had become a large factory that was one of the town of Skoczòw’s major employers.When,  age 33 in 1937, he married my mother,  he felt so secure in his way of life that he commissioned the Viennese architect Jacques Groag to design a house for them. It was  to be a modest villa built on a hillside just outside of town with a view of the Vistula River and the distant Beskid mountains. They were a modern couple. In their free time, they played tennis, went skiing, took trips abroad. But less than a year after their wedding, the world of Central Europe changed drastically. In March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria; the following September, the Munich Accord allowed the Nazi dictator to begin his dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Following these bloodless conquests, the Jews were treated just as they were in Germany. They lost their rights as citizens, were forced to give up their occupations and businesses, and were vilified in the press.

The first entries in Oskar’s passport center around a business trip to Stockholm in early November 1938. His trip home by train through Western Prussia took place on November 11, two days after Kristallnacht. In almost every city he passed through– Stettin, Schneidemühl, Glogau, Breslau and the border town of Beuthen, where his passport was stamped as he entered Poland–he could see the results of the vicious Nazi pogrom that had raged throughout the Reich. In all these places Jewish communities had flourished for centuries, but now their synagogues lay in smoldering ruins and the glass from shattered Jewish shop windows still littered the streets. (Among the houses of worship destroyed was the Neudeggergasse Synagogue in Vienna where my parents had been married fifteen months earlier.) Oskar’s reaction was immediate. Only four days later he went to the nearby city of Katowice where he arranged for a visa from the British consulate. This invaluable piece of paper pasted into the passport and marked “business visitor” was good for one year. He relied on it immediately, traveling to London where the tannery had several customers. Using the address of one of them, he opened a bank account


In mid-March 1939, Hitler tightened his grip on Central Europe. He broke the Munich Accord and took over the rest of Czechoslovakia. A week later, he bullied the Lithuanians into ceding the port of Memel. Now in possession of outposts along Poland’s northern and southern borders, he became increasingly belligerent toward the government in Warsaw. These events impelled my father to take a second trip to England, this time with my mother. She was granted her own one-year British visa justified by the phrase “accompanying husband,” and dated March 17.

The situation got worse while they were away. On March 31, after the Czech debacle, the English finally took a stand. Prime Minister Chamberlain guaranteed that Britain would come to Poland’s aid if its independence was threatened. France soon followed suit. In response, Hitler announced on April 28 that the 1934 non-aggression pact with Poland was no longer valid. Newspapers reported that Germany was gearing up for war. And yet my parents returned to Skoczòw in early May. My father was not yet ready to leave the place to which he was uniquely tied by his personal history. There was also his responsibility for the tannery. In 1939, it had over 100 employees. Probably, like many in Europe, he was relying on what appeared to be the last possibility of averting hostilities–an agreement between Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Throughout May and June newspapers were optimistic that such a treaty, with its implied threat of a two-front war against Germany, could be a viable deterrent to Hitler.

My parents did no more traveling in the early summer of 1939. My mother was pregnant. By August she was in her third month. These were pleasant months in Skoczòw. They enjoyed the garden of their new home and, like the other locals, went swimming in the Vistula River. At the tannery, productivity was high. Each week tons of skins were transformed into a variety of leathers for bags, shoes, gloves, book bindings. In a photograph taken on July 24, 1939, exactly a month before his departure, my father sits young and dapper amid the factory’s volunteer firemen.


Then the unthinkable happened: the ultimate push to leave came without warning. At 11:00 p.m. on August 21, a news bulletin interrupted regular radio broadcasts throughout Europe for a shocking announcement: The two countries considered arch-enemies—Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia—had consented to a non-aggression agreement. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, named after the two Foreign Ministers who had negotiated the settlement, would do away with the two-front threat that everyone had assumed would serve as a brake on Hitler’s military ambitions. My father remembered that a close friend in town was so shaken by the news that he rang the villa’s bell at midnight to urge my parents to leave before what was now the inevitable Nazi invasion of Poland.

With the two British visas in hand, my parents could return to England. But with war imminent, there might not be time to collect the transit passes needed to reach the Channel ports. And there was another problem. Oskar had served in the Polish army in 1926. Mobilization was sure to occur soon and he might be conscripted and not be allowed to leave Poland at all.

The very next day my father had solved the two dilemmas. The only way to avoid the transit issue was to go directly from Poland to England. In the same file in which my father had kept his Polish passport, I found the fragments of two airline tickets purchased on August 22 for a flight from Warsaw to London two days later. British Airways Limited, then a fledgling airline, was the only company offering that connection to England with flights just once a day. There is still an unused coupon on my father’s ticket for a return trip to Warsaw. If there had been any questions about the mobilization at the airport, he could show his intent to come back.


On August 23rd my parents locked the door of their new house, said a few good-bys to friends and business colleagues, and boarded the train to Warsaw. Their Lockheed 14 aircraft, carrying only nine passengers, left the Polish capital at 11 a.m. the next day and two hours later made a forty-minute fuel stop in Berlin. My mother recalled that before the flight continued on, she had to leave the plane briefly in the capital of the Reich because she was suffering from morning sickness. At 5:25 in the afternoon they landed at London’s Heston Airport, an arrival stamped in both their passports. Two days later when the Soviet-Nazi pact was actually signed, my parents would have been trapped. On August 26th all German airports were closed and German airspace became a restricted zone.

Germany invaded Poland on September 1. King George VI declared war on Germany two days later. In the next five years, my parents were to experience all that the war brought to England—the blitz, the food shortages–but they were not rounded up to be killed as they would have been in Poland. In the last minute, my father had saved his own and my mother’s life. And mine as well. I was born in London in February 1940. Many factors contributed to our escape. My father had money, contacts abroad, experience as a traveler. But none of these would have helped without his foresight, his early recognition of the tinder box under his feet. The Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact caught him unawares, but not unprepared. And though he did not have to confront such a threatening situation again in his lifetime, he never ceased to keep tabs on world politics, just in case.

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The Missing Architect

The discovery I alluded to in my last post–”Vienna on the Vistula”—came my way by sheer chance. In 2004, working on a paper about Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession, I paged through Eduard Sekler’s monograph on Joseph Hoffmann. Perusing the index, the name Sinaiberger suddenly caught my eye. Sure enough, my aunt and uncle had turned to the Austrian architect to help design their villa in Skoczòw in 1933. Eager to know more, I wrote to the Hoffmann archive in Zug, Switzerland, and received copies of all his drawings for the project.


Once a leader of Austrian modernism at the turn of the century, Hoffmann was no longer in the forefront by the 1930’s.  This can be seen in his plan for a house designed on a north-south axis with a pitched roof, an arched loggia and an oriel window. In the end, someone with another vision intervened in the construction of the villa, but Hoffmann’s concept for its setting: the stone-walled garden terrace running along the east side of the building and the patio with a small pool to the south was kept.

14_ Sinaibergervillaearly30smiddle

     As built, the villa has a flat roof and Hoffmann’s loggia, and what was to have been the winter garden below, became an upper terrace shading a patio. This terrace matches the one on the north side of the facade with which Hoffmann had crowned the separate wing designed to be Sinaiberger’s studio. In the constructed version, the studio is integrated into the facade and given a large window. The upper story, now framed by two terraces, is made an integral part of the central block with a grouping of three windows that is equal in size to the great picture window below.  As a result, the shaded patio, the central feature, and the atelier now read as one extended unit. Seen from below, the facade bears a startling resemblance to a nearby modernist icon a short distance away in Brno, Czechoslovakia, close to Frederick Sinaiberger’s hometown Ivancice.  Only a few years before—between 1928 and 1930–the pioneering German architect Mies van der Rohe had completed the Tugendhat House there. The Tugendhats were acquaintances of the Sinaibergers. Was the new designer of the Sinaiberger villa inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s domestic masterpiece?

15_MiesTugendhathouse Even if this last query remains a supposition till more evidence can be found, just the names associated with the Spitzer/Sinaiberger patronage—Sergius Pauser, Josef Hoffmann, Jacques and Jacqueline Groag, and our anonymous Mies-inspired builder—suggest the rich cultural milieu that flourished too briefly on this Silesian hillside.

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“Vienna on the Vistula”

When Skotschau became Skoczów after 1918, my father and his older sister Helen were teen-agers. Even though they were living in a new country, their cultural orientation did not change. Their native language was German, their cuisine kept its decidedly Austrian flavor, and Vienna was still the city they went to for music, theater, art.

Theirs was the third generation to enjoy the comfortable life made possible by the success of the family enterprise and the first to harbor ambitions of cultural patronage. That desire was awakened by the artist Frederick Sinaiberger, the man Helen married in 1926. (They were later to change their name to Serger.)

“Fritz,” came from a wealthy manufacturing family in Ivancice, Moravia –a town in the new state of Czechoslovakia that had also once been part of the Austrian empire. On marrying Helen, he sold the shares he held in his family’s company, invested the money in the Skoczów tannery—known from then on as Spitzer-Sinaiberger—and improvised a life as a gentleman artist in his wife’s hometown. They enjoyed long stays in Paris where he participated in the Salon d’Automne and in 1936 had a one-man show at the gallery Bernheim Jeune. But when Helen and Fritz took on the role of patrons, it was  Austria  they turned to for inspiration.

I first began to piece together their circle when visiting Vienna with my mother in 1996. An exhibit of paintings by Sergius Pauser ( 1896-1970) was on view and she recalled that the Austrian artist had often visited Skoczów before the war. What surprised us both was the biographical description at the start of the show stating that Frederick Sinaiberger had been Pauser’s patron between 1934 and 1938. I now understood why several of his canvases had been among my uncle’s possessions. Pauser, it turned out, had been a regular summer visitor in Skoczów and the two artists had spent time painting together and sharing models. One of them was the raven-haired, green-eyed wife of the Czech architect Jacques Groag.( See Pauser above, Serger, below). Groag, in turn, designed my parents’ home after their marriage in 1937.



With the Groags, the Skoczów circle had a direct line to the Vienna avant-garde. Jacques Groag had been an assistant to Adolf Loos in the 1920’s and served as the director of construction for the Vienna town house designed by Ludwig Wittgenstein for his sister Margarethe Stoneborough (1926-28). Hilde Blumberger (later known as Jacqueline Groag), was a successful textile designer who had studied under Josef Hoffman at Vienna’s School for Applied Art. Her designs, which were much in demand in both Vienna and Paris, were given special recognition at both the 1933 Milan Triennale and the 1937 Paris World Expo.

As I began to find out more about the various participants in this “Vienna on the Vistula,” the Sinaibergers had created for themselves, I made another intriguing discovery. It will be the subject of the next post.


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Before the Dark


With the marriage of my parents, Sylvia Guttmann to Oskar Spitzer, on August 28,1937, the families I have been tracing on this blog are joined. Thanks to the success of their immediate forebears, the first generation of emancipated Austrian Jews, the members of the wedding party–pictured here in front of Vienna’s Neudeggergasse Synagogue–are all solid citizens of modern central Europe. Seen together with Sylvia’s 13-year-old sister Franziska, are the parents of the bride–Bruno Guttmann, the decorated war hero, and his wife Olga, daughter of Dr. Wettendorfer, avid promoter of Baden and its spa.  Emma and Emanuel Spitzer, standing behind their son, continue the legacy of Emanuel’s father, David, back home in Poland. The tannery he founded in Skoczòw is now the most important business in town and the synagogue he helped build flourishes with their support.

What is ahead for the bride and groom? Sylvia, at twenty-two, is leaving her family, her urban life in Vienna, and all she is familiar with for a completely new (but comfortable) existence in a small town in another country. Oskar, eleven years older, a seasoned and worldly businessman, heir-apparent of the family concern, leaves behind his reputation as a ladies man to settle down.

A marriage is a vote of confidence in the future. But what could that future have looked like in the summer of 1937? Under Hitler, the situation of the Jews in Germany was growing worse every year. On the international scene, Mussolini had ignored the demands of the League of Nations and, in 1935, conquered Abyssynia. The following year, Germany broke the Locarno Treaty and re-militarized the Rhineland. After only minimal protests, England and France had acquiesced to both these infractions. There was civil war in Spain and Japan had launched the invasion of China. Closer to home, Kurt Schuschnigg, the leader of the single-party Austrian state, was being pressured by Hitler to placate the local Nazis.

1937 was the last year it was possible to sustain some hope. War did not yet seem inevitable. In May, Neville Chamberlain, a politician obsessed with keeping the peace, became Prime Minister of Great Britain. At the same time, France, under the leadership of Lèon Blum, focused on a policy of rapprochement with Germany to encourage its participation in the ambitious Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, a world’s fair to be held in Paris  from May to November. A visit to the Exposition was the highlight of Sylvia and Oskar’s honeymoon trip to the French capital.


It is only in hindsight that the signs of impending doom could be read at the Expo. The monolithic pavilions of the U.S.S.R. and the German Reich, built on a larger scale than any of the other national contributions, faced off at the very beginning of the pedestrian esplanade. The 78-foot high sculpture of a Russian couple striding into space–worker and peasant woman waving aloft the hammer and sickle–confronted the giant eagle holding the swastika in its claws atop Germany’s towering column. And on display in Spain’s Pavilion was Picasso’s Guernica —the artist’s response to the very recent bombing of civilians in the small Basque town by a squadron of the German Luftwaffe. That drastic image of naked terror was a prescient vision of what was to come.

Guernica in 40's on exhibit at museum(unidentified)

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A Problematic City

The shifting world of postwar Europe was the background of my parents’ youth–Oscar Spitzer born in 1904, Sylvia Guttmann in 1915.  As described in my last post, the Spitzer family had to adjust to becoming citizens of another country– the newly constituted republic of Poland. As for the Guttmanns, they were still living in Vienna in 1918. The city,  though it retained its imperial grandeur, was now no more than the capital of the small Alpine republic of Austria. The much-reduced country, deprived of the bounty that had come its way from the far-flung Empire, suffered acutely in those early years of its existence. Wheat no longer arrived from Hungary, nor livestock from Croatia, or coal from Bohemia and Moravia. Hunger, cold and unemployment led to bouts of social unrest that threatened to break down the new and fragile democratic government. A short-lived coalition of left- and right-wing parties, and the efforts of Social Democratic politicians to resist Marxist rabble-rousing, finally kept at bay the kind of Communist putsch that had briefly succeeded in Hungary, Bavaria and Berlin.

Toward the end of 1920, with the advent of greater stability, the coalition fell apart and the conservative Christian Socials won the majority in the national legislature. Thereafter, progressive ideas about the future were relegated to Vienna where the Social-Democrats were still in control. Made an independent province by the new constitution, the city became the first socialist-run capital in the world.

Bruno Guttmann was lucky to come home from the war to find his father’s well-established business waiting for him. He and his brother Otto joined the firm which soon benefited from the ambitious campaign of social housing launched by the municipal government. Since the company specialized in plumbing, it was well placed to share in what was, for Vienna, a revolutionary provision of the housing scheme. Toilets and running water were to be included in every one of the 64,000 apartments constructed for the city’s working class.

My mother, Sylvia, by this time of school age, was also a beneficiary of Socialist innovations. Under the leadership of Otto Glöckl, who headed the Vienna School Board, reforms were put in place establishing a new type of education free of 19th-century constraints. Teacher training was overhauled and lesson plans revised so that the atmosphere in the classrooms would be more democratic, more sensitive to personal psychology. The most controversial of Glöckl’s reforms was to loosen the ties between the Catholic Church and the public schools. He ruled that religious education, although still mandatory, would no longer be part of the curriculum. Instead, classes in religion would be given outside the schools once a week with Christian and Jewish students going their separate ways.

Those lessons made little impression on my mother. Her parents had left all religious observance behind. Nor could she recall experiencing any overt anti-Semitism, although the right-wing political parties and press continued to depict Jews as a disturbing presence in the body politic. Despite this dispiriting undertone, Jews had a prominent and even popular role to play in Vienna’s public life in the first decade after the war. Historian Steven Beller, in his Concise History of Austria, writes that “much of what made Vienna 1900 famous was actually the product of the interwar period. . . .” He cites the prominent role of Jews in the city’s lively modernist and mass culture during those years. Freud was attracting followers and expanding the field of psychology. Arthur Schnitzler, Joseph Roth, and Elias Canetti, to name only a few, were among a whole cadre of Jewish writers. Jews wrote hit songs, composed operettas, mounted cabarets. and had begun to play a role in the film industry.


The general acceptance of these seemingly inimical strands of Austrian life—anti-Semitism on the one hand, Jewish prominence in so many fields on the other—emboldened one author to point out its ironies. In 1922, Hugo Bettauer published a novel with the provocative title Die Stadt ohne Juden (“The City Without Jews”).  Taking his cue from graffiti with the slogan “out with the Jews,” scribbled here and there in the city, Bettauer, a Jew himself, decided to write a satire on what life would be like if the Jews actually departed. The book begins with an attitude familiar to the Viennese— Jews being blamed for an economic setback. Following this reaction to its logical end, the fictional government decides it can solve the problem by forcing all Jews to leave the country. But after they depart, Vienna loses all its charm. There are no more operettas, no more fashionable shops, and cafés are closed for want of loquacious customers. In the end, everyone realizes the Jews are essential and must come back. “My dear Jew,” is how the mayor greets the first returnee. That such an open acknowledgment of a culture’s inconsistencies could be published, would seem to testify to the health of the society it reflected. But in 1925 Hugo Bettauer was assassinated—the perpetrator was a member of the growing Austrian Nazi party.



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