“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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From Austria to Poland

The effects of World War I were felt most keenly in Skotschau after the hostilities ended on November 11, 1918. At that time, grandfather Emanuel Spitzer was 54 years old and had been managing the tannery since his father’s death in 1910. In fact, the war had provided a windfall for the factory. Requisitioned to provide for the army, the business thrived. Leather was required for the soldiers’ footwear and for the reins and saddles of the horses that still hauled the steam kitchens and supply wagons to and from the fronts.

But all this had been done in the service of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and in 1918 it had ceased to exist. Skotschau, once an entity in Austrian Silesia, would now be Skoczów, a town in the newly constituted, but by no means settled, Republic of Poland. It would take four more years and six wars—-large and small-—to confirm the country’s borders and Skoczów was to be at the center of the skirmish concerning one of them. Because of its well developed industries, productive coal mines, and key railway hubs, the part of former Austrian Silesia that lay in Skoczów’s vicinity—-the border area surrounding the city of Cieszyn—-was claimed by both the Czechs and the Poles, though the latter were in the majority.

On January 23, 1919, when Polish officials began to set up procedures for elections to the new national Parliament in Cieszyn, the Czechs objected. They threatened to attack the Poles if they did not begin to evacuate the the city within two hours and move as far as the Biala River twenty miles inland. When there was no compliance, the Czechs occupied Cieszyn and forced the outnumbered Polish army–most members of which were involved on other fronts–to retreat as far as Skoczów . A second attack planned for January 31st and already announced as the “Battle of Skoczów” was only averted by the intervention of the peace makers working out the postwar treaties in Paris. The Czechs withdrew to a line outside Cieszyn and an International Commission arrived to supervise the border negotiations.

This must have been a tense moment for the population of Skoczów. No longer citizens of Austria, were they now to be Polish or Czech? All I remember my father telling me about those days was that as a curious teenager of 14, he had spied on an officer handing over his sabre to an adjutant before taking care of some personal needs in a nearby field.

One of the ironies of history is that the city of Cieszyn, being fought over so bitterly between the Poles and the Czechs, had been transformed by the Austrians over the decades of their control. As a British member of the International Commission recalled, it was “a thoroughly German town with German beerhouses and cafés and restaurants, German policemen in Austrian uniform, German tram-cars, German churches, German banks, German cinemas and German theater. There was nothing Czech about it except an inscription above a bank, or Polish except for the lace caps of the married women of the poorer classes.” Even General Franciszek Latinik, who commanded the Polish forces, had been trained as an Austrian soldier.

My family was a product of the Polish-Austrian symbiosis of that region. Produced over generations, it could not be wiped out with the signing of border treaties or even the creation of a new country. German and Polish continued to be spoken interchangeably in Skoczów. And after the border issues were settled to no one’s real satisfaction at the 1920 conference held in Spa, Belgium, the Spitzer tannery drew on the profits made from the war to expand, grow, and extend its benefits to the new economy to which it had been relegated.

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A Courageous Officer

When Lieutenant Bruno Guttmann was sent to serve on the Isonzo River frontier between Austria and Italy in January, 1915, it was not yet a war zone. The Italians were still maintaining a neutral stance in accord with an 1882 agreement known as the Triple Alliance that they had signed with Germany and Austria. Intent on gaining lost territory for themselves, however, they put a price on their neutrality, demanding the return of South Tyrol and autonomy for the city of Trieste.

Germany pushed the Emperor Franz Josef to accede to Italy’s request, but he refused, despite rumors that the Italians might move over to the enemy. Indeed, the Italians’ demand for concessions from the Austrians served as a cover for secret negotiations with England and France. On April 26 they signed the Treaty of London and on May 23 declared war on Austria.

If the Emperor did not admit to the danger on Austria’s frontier with Italy, his military had taken no chances. Border units had been on the alert since August 1914 and Lieutenant Guttmann was among the reinforcements sent to the region at the start of the next year. Over the course of the war, twelve battles took place on the Isonzo—four in 1915, five in 1916, and three in 1917. Bruno Guttman served as a company commander in the first (June 23-July 7) and third (October 18-November 4).

The Italians mounted their offensives from the river valley, while the Austrian army took a stand back from the border on the high ground. Perched above on the surrounding mountains, they held to a defensive posture well protected by triple rows of barbed wire, land mines, and bunkers for machine guns and artillery. Above all, situated as they were on the heights, they had the visual and physical advantage as they watched the Italians clamber up the steep slopes inadequately protected by artillery support from below. But the Italians were determined and courageous and the Austrians undermanned. The result was thousands of casualties on both sides. In the two battles Bruno participated in, the Austrians lost 78,000 men.  He, himself,  was wounded on August 29th and spent a month in a field hospital. He returned to the Isonzo front until he was finally given home leave on November 11.  Coming back to Vienna after ten months, he saw his baby daughter for the first time. Sylvia Marie Guttmann (my mother) had entered the war-torn world on February 28th.

Bruno was able to stay home for only two weeks, before being sent to serve for another six months in the Balkans. There,  he took part in the routs of Montenegro and Albania. His military record ends in May 1916 with a list of the four medals he received: a bronze and a silver medal for outstanding achievements in war; a military service cross, third class, given to “officers who gave proof of exceptional circumspection, courage and determination;”and the Emperor Karl Troop Cross for at least two months service on the front and participation in a battle.



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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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Granny’s Tales

The fourth member of my quartet of great-grandfathers is the one I know least about. The family name was Mayer and they hailed from Jemnice, an old walled town in southern Moravia. There was a Jewish quarter nestled just inside the fortification. (According to a 1727 decree by the Emperor Charle VI, Jews were not allowed to live within sight of a church nor on the route of religious processions.)

But I have not yet been to Jemnice, nor have I had any of the lucky contacts that made it possible to reconstruct the lives of Alexander Wettendorfer in Baden, Leopold Guttmann in Vienna, and David Spitzer in Skotschau. However, the youngest daughter of the patriarch of the clan was my grandmother Emma (b. 1878) who married David Spitzer’s son Emanuel. She was my only living witness of that earlier generation.

During my childhood in Kew Gardens, Queens, Emma, widowed by then, lived near us in a “pension.” With the arrival of so many German- and Austrian-Jewish refugees, this was a European institution that had a brief life in the U.S. for a few years after the war. What it meant was that she rented a comfortable room in a big private house alongside a number of other elderly people who also spoke German. Meals, prepared by the owner, were taken together in the capacious dining room, but otherwise everyone led independent lives. She helped pay the rent by crocheting summer gloves for a Manhattan supplier of these accessories. They were still being worn by women on more formal occasions. Denizens of the outer boroughs, for instance, would wear them for trips to Manhattan, or, as we called it, “the city.”

I enjoyed stopping by to see her after school. She always kept chocolates and cookies for me in the drawer of her dresser and, if I was lucky, would tell me something about her Jemnice childhood. But since I was too young to ask concrete questions and what she chose to tell me was not part of a coherent narrative, their lack of connection to anything in my 1950’s American life made them all the more vivid. Two, in particular, remain with me still.

The first concerned her father’s trade. Before becoming a shopkeeper, she told me, he worked as a peddler, going from town to town the entire week selling basic necessities such as needles, thread, buttons and ribbons. It was a hard life and sometimes, making his way home in his open cart after dark, he was pursued by wolves. Till then I had believed that the crossing of that thin line between the security of civilization and the rapacity of the wild was only the stuff of fairy stories. What I heard were echoes of Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Pigs. It frightened me to realize the tales had their source in a real life, one only as distant as my grandmother’s youth.

The social world of fairy tales with their emphasis on the nobly born also seemed to come alive in another description of life in Jemnice. Members of the Pallavacini family—Italian aristocrats–inhabited a palatial home in the town amid a large park. They had arrived in 1842, established lumber mills, distilleries, and other enterprises, and taken over nearly 9000 acres of land. In my grandmother’s childhood, that is during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the nobility could still show off the privileges of their class to the general populace. She described to me the tradition known as “am Strecke.” When the Pallavacini and their guests returned from a successful hunting expedition, the kill would be put on display in the park and lit by torches for all the locals to admire.

That these exotic details, were characteristic of the life of many 19th-century Moravian country towns only became clear to me many years later when reading Helen Epstein’s “Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s Story” (Penguin 1977). Epstein’s great-grandmother came from Brtnice, a town in the same part of Moravia, and her description of its demographic mix surely held for Jemnice too: ”The Italian aristocrats in the castle, the German-speaking administrators, the Czech peasants and the Jews. . . .The count and his entourage hunted and entertained. The administrators kept the books. The peasants slaved in the fields. . .” As for the Jews, Epstein confirms that most were “traders who left town on Sunday morning and walked from village to village . . . . “

Unlike the other three figures whose stories have been related here, great-grandfather Mayer did not sally forth to perform greater deeds when emancipation made it possible. Instead his daughter was to be his emissary all the way to the New World.

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