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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1 Response to Before the Dark

  1. Josef says:

    Concise and vivid history and such poignant photos!

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