An Austrian Officer

Refugee Tales resumes again in the New Year.

In the last post, dated August 2011, I concluded with what little information I could muster about the fourth of my quartet of great-grandfathers. The patriarch of the Mayer clan in Jemnice, Moravia, was the only one who stayed where he was born and did not take advantage of the post-1848 benefits of mobility, education, and industrialization that had done so much for Dr. Alexander Wettendorfer in Baden, the manufacturer Leopold Guttmann in Vienna, and the industrialist David Spitzer in Skotschau.

My daughter has taken me to task for writing so little about the great-grandmothers. In a time when women were not encouraged to display themselves, it is difficult to find out more about them in the documents at hand. Many years of their early lives were taken over by childbearing. Rosa Spitzer, for instance, had nine children. Some became helpmeets. Josefine Wettendorfer, who had three daughters, was cited by her husband after her death in 1911 as not only an “unforgettable companion,” but also as an “adviser. . . in his years of striving in the interest of the spa.” Anna Guttmann, the mother of six, began working with her husband as early as 1890, one year before the birth of her youngest child. She is noted as an officer of her husband’s company from then on.

These great-grandparents, members of the first generation of emancipated Jews in Austria-Hungary, were the lucky ones. Their children, my grandparents, faced a far more precarious existence. Although born twenty years apart–Emanuel Spitzer in 1864, Bruno Guttmann in 1885– both saw their surroundings and expectations changed drastically by World War 1. When hostilities ended, Austria had lost its Empire and Silesia was part of Poland.

Thanks again to the efforts of my Viennese friend, the dedicated archivist Peter Prokop, I was able to reconstruct the military life of Bruno Guttmann, who enlisted as a one-year volunteer in the Austrian army at the age of twenty in 1905. In this program, like that of the American ROTC, young men, in school, or fresh out of it, were trained to become officers in the reserve before any hostilities were on the horizon. Bruno’s instructors reported that he was “lively, good-natured, sociable, decent, and easy to get along with.” More important, he earned his commission as a reserve Lieutenant by demonstrating skill at leading patrols and handling weapons.

On March 29, 1914, 29-year-old Bruno Guttman married the twenty-three-year-old Olga Wettendorfer. On June 28th, Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, and his wife Sophie, were killed by a Serbian assassin in Sarajevo. On August 1, Austria declared war on Serbia. Olga was two months pregnant when Bruno, now a First Lieutenant, joined his infantry regiment as a platoon commander and was on his way to Bosnia.

There, to my amazement he took part in the battle at Visegrad on the River Drina, the very town I had become familiar with by reading Ivo Andric’s epic tale of “The Bridge on the Drina.” The span, a masterpiece of Islamic engineering built between 1566 and 1571 by Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic, a native son who had become the Grand Vizier at the Ottoman court, had stood for nearly three and a half centuries. But in August 1914, the Austrians saw it as a dangerous causeway linking Bosnia (annexed as part of the Habsburg Empire only six years before) and the Serbian border just across the river. At the close of his book, Andric damned the indifference of the Austrian colonizers in the words of a local witness to the bridge’s destruction: “For so many years he had seen how they had always been concerning themselves with the bridge; they had cleaned it, embellished it, repaired it down to its foundations, taken the water supply across it, lit it with electricity and then one day blown it all into the skies as if it had been some stone in a mountain quarry and not a thing of beauty and value, a bequest.”

I do not know if Bruno was there when the bridge was blown up, nor if he knew anything of Bosnian history. He owed his fealty to Austria and, perhaps, like most soldiers, did not
look beyond the orders of his superiors. The Serbians held fast in those first months of war in battles that claimed thousands of lives on both sides. Bruno was lucky to have survived. On October 19 he became ill, was taken to a Bosnian hospital in Zavidovic and then sent home to recuperate in Vienna . When he returned to duty on December 28, 1914, he was assigned to another troubled front—facing off against the Italians along the Isonzo River.

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1 Response to An Austrian Officer

  1. Josef says:

    Lovely. If I remember rightly, the bridge was rebuilt and blown up again in the Bosnian fighting of 1990 (?)

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