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.”
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.