Toilet Culture

As late as 1985, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard has his misanthropic character Reger,  in the novel Old Masters, declare that “Vienna has no toilet culture. Its toilets are scandalous. Even in the most famous hotels in the city, scandalous toilets are to be found.”

Ninety years earlier, the young would-be architect Adolf Loos, returning to Vienna in 1896 from a few wanderjahre in America, made a similar complaint. “Our taps, sinks, water closets, washstands, and other things are still far inferior to the English and American fittings. What must seem most remarkable to an American is that in order to wash our hands, we must first go down the hall for a jug of water since there are toilets that do not have washing facilities. In this respect America is to Austria as Austria is to China.”

What Loos failed to mention was that the presence of any toilet at all in most apartments of fin-de-siècle Vienna–with or without washing facilities–was still considered a luxury, and not only among the lower classes. In each of the city’s twenty-one districts, except the aristocratic first, the number of toilets was less than the number of dwellings, and in six of those it was less by more than forty per cent! The water supply was usually communal as well—a tap in the corridor served several tenants.

This paucity of sanitation facilities, however, was the source of a family fortune on my mother’s side. In 1891, her paternal grandfather, Leopold Guttmann, went from several years of working at the traditional Jewish trade of jeweler and watchmaker to proud purveyor of “commodes and chamber pots” with a patented hygienic, hermetically sealed cover guaranteed to be completely odorless. The communal water basins, known as “bassenas,” were among his products as well.

Leopold Guttmann was born in 1852 in the Carpathian mountain town of Sobotiste in what was then Hungary, but is now Slovakia. At the time, Sobotiste had a Jewish community of about 500 families, but for Leopold, like for most ambitious Jewish young men from the provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna beckoned.

I discovered him in the imperial capital via Vienna’s very helpful precursor of the telephone book–Lehmann’s General Directory. Founded in 1859, it listed the addresses of established residents as well as businesses and organizations. The 26-year-old Leopold appears there for the first time in 1878 living in the 8th district and working as a trader in watches. From that point on, year by year, “the Lehmann,” charts his progress. By 1885, he has a watch-making factory, two years later he is also a wholesaler in gold and silver, and in 1890, “L. Guttman” is an incorporated firm handling watches, gold and silver, and jewelry.

What a surprise then, when from one year to the next in 1891, the commodes and chamber pots with their hygienic covers suddenly appear as products of the firm. Lehmann lists a patent under the name Siemang-Guttmann. Siemang, I discovered, was one Stefan Siemang.  He was not only the holder of several earlier patents, but also a professional soldier, a First Lieutenant in the Artillery Division of the Imperial Army. What could have brought the army officer and the watchmaker/jeweler together? And why was it only Leopold Guttmann who made a flourishing business of their device? Further speculations on this connection and the growing success of Leopold’s enterprise to follow in the next post.

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The Gray-Haired Romantic

From his books and articles, from the praise of others, I could make out what a dedicated professional my great-grandfather Dr. Wettendorfer had been. But how little I knew about his personal life. On July 16, 1906, the 25th jubilee of his practice, the local newspaper hailed him for his service to Baden, extolled his publications and saluted a medical reputation that had attracted patients from near and far. Nothing was said about his family. Even the dedication to his recently deceased wife that graced the 1912 edition of his book on Baden focused on his public endeavors. The doctor wrote “In memory of his unforgettable life companion and adviser Josefine Wettendorfer (1860-1911), whose unique understanding provided essential support to his years of striving in the interest of the spa .“

But in 1914, age 64, Dr. Wettendofer fell in love again and threw discretion to the winds. He publishing a collection of romantic poems titled First Ones (Erstlinge). One of them read:

Your hair, so wonderful,

Enchanted me:

But it is since I looked into your eyes

That I am,

Despite gray hair,

In love—madly.

(Dein Haar,

So wunderbar,

Hat mich entzückt:

Doch seit ich dir ins Aug’ geblickt,

Bin ich sogar

Trotz grauem Haar


Nonetheless, the doctor did not entirely give up on propriety. The first poem was dedicated to the memory of his “unforgettable” wife.

It is amusing to compare Dr. Wettendorfer’s 1904 article on “The Kiss from the Standpoint of Hygiene” with his attitude to the same physical gesture in his poem “The ABC of Love.” In the former,  he reminded readers that “the lips are particularly sensitive to the slightest excitement. For that reason, the inclination to increase the number of kisses is understandable.”  The poem, too, had a pedagogical tone:  it offered step-by-step instructions on seduction (flowers, promenades below her window), and concluded:

You can risk several kisses in the dark

Even if she calls you a “naughty gentleman,”

To keep up your courage, remember,

“In the darkness, all women like to kiss.”

(Kannst im Dunkeln viele Küsse wagen,

Mag schelten sie dich einen “schlimmen Herrn”,

Und lass’ dir zur Ermuntrung hoch sagen:

“Im Finstern küssen alle Frauen gern!”)

Dr. Wettendorfer lived a full life until his death age 75 in 1924.  He had three daughters from his first marriage.  Olga, the youngest, born in 1891, was my maternal grandmother.

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A Medical Man of Letters

It was a long journey for a little book. To view the only copy in the U.S. of Alexander Wettendorfer’s Causes and Prevention of Consumption of the Lungs: A Popular Treatment for the Educated of All Classes, I traveled back and forth from New York to Washington D.C. in one day. Before noon I was at the Medical Center metro station in Bethesda, Maryland, making my way up an escalator so long and steep it appeared to culminate in the heavens. Not a bad image for a journey to the past. Once at the top, proof of identity was required to enter the grounds of the National Institute of Health, and an application for a library card to work in the National Library of Medicine. But, within the hour, duly labeled and photographed, I had my great-grandfather’s 144-page, 1888 publication before me.

It turned out to be the first volume in an ambitious series on medical science for the layman written by “reliable and capable doctors.” I was delighted to see that the eminent Viennese doctor Johann Schnitzler, the founder and director of Vienna’s Polyclinic and editor of a widely-read medical journal, had written the introduction. Second-hand fame for the father of the playwright only came later. In 1888, the 28-year-old Arthur, also a doctor, was working as an assistant in his father’s clinic and just beginning to publish.

The first part of Dr. Wettendorfers’s little volume summed up Robert Koch’s recent discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus in Berlin, and presented detailed anatomical drawings of the effects of the disease. Most of the text, however, was devoted to the crucial issues of vulnerability and contagion. And here Dr. Wettendorfer revealed himself to be a pragmatist, a visionary, and a wily man of letters. To describe the body’s capacity for resistance he had an apt Shakespeare quote handy –“this fortress built by nature for herself against infection.” No matter that the line came from Richard II and referred to the “sceptered isle’s” geographic advantages.

Since tuberculosis was an opportunistic infection—preying on the unhealthy, proving fatal to the weak—the doctor encouraged his readers to take an active role in their own well-being. There was a contemporary ring to his recommendations of good nutrition and exercise. To help readers along, he offered detailed menus and supplied vivid illustrations of a little man in 19th -century exercise gear demonstrating the correct way to strengthen arms and legs. Women were warned of the dangers of tight corsets. And though Wettendorfer was writing before Freud made his mark, he urged doctors to take their patient’s psyche into account by “encouraging the timid, cheering the melancholy, controlling the frivolous.”

Beyond these suggestions, the author had a wider agenda. Prescriptions for the health of the individual were of of no use without the support of the state. He urged the government to maintain strict standards of hygiene, take up arms against child labor and occupational hazards, combat the high prices for meat and bread, and, in the cause of cleanliness, make sure entrance fees to public baths were affordable. Above all, spacious, and airy living spaces had to be constructed for the lower classes—a vision that did not see reality until the achievements of Red Vienna after World War I.

Dr. Wettendorfer was a lucky man. All guests using Baden’s thermal facilities had to visit a local spa doctor, who, after a check-up, would indicate how much drinking of (or immersion in) the mineral waters was appropriate. Since most of the visitors were either in good health or on the mend, Dr. Wettendorfer’s practice was a cheerful one. The “taking of the waters” took very little time during the day and Baden competed with other spas in offering such diversions as scenic walks in the surrounding countryside, concerts in the spa park, and, above all, opportunities to socialize. An amusing comment on this strange half-convalescent life was made by the 19-year-old Alma Schindler (later Mahler-Werfel) in her diary while on a visit to a spa in 1898. “It’s strange,” she writes, “how everyone here takes pride in his or her physical shortcomings–shows off about them. Everyone walks proudly with their glass [for drinking the mineral water] at their side and is ashamed when they don’t have it with them.”

Over many years, Dr. Wettendorfer sang the praises of the special place he had chosen to live and work in. He extolled the virtues of Baden for the French in his Les eaux minérales de Baden près de Vienne. Guide pratique pour les médecins et pour les malades in 1891, and followed this with five editions of the German version between 1895 and 1912. He was also a regular contributor to the local newspaper on both communal and medical matters. In 1904 one of his pieces was titled“The Kiss from the Standpoint of Hygiene.” Quite a different attitude to kissing could be found in his first book of poetry. It appeared in 1914, three years after his wife’s death.

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A Spa Doctor in Baden bei Wien

All my mother told me about Alexander Wettendorfer, her maternal grandfather, was that he had been a spa doctor in Baden, the health resort close to Vienna. In her family, he had become persona non grata when, late in life, as a comfortable widower, he married his much-younger nurse and eventually left all his worldly goods to her. Pointing the way to his resurrection, was a chance discovery I made while browsing in Dorothy Singer’s enterprising bookshop adjacent to The Jewish Museum in Vienna.

In a book I found there published in 2002–The Jews of Baden and Their Cemetery (Die Juden von Baden und Ihr Friedhof) by Hans Meissner and Kornelius Fleischmann–Alexander Wettendorfer was listed in the index. When the authors, both of whom were native Badeners, agreed to see me, I jumped at the chance and knew just how to get there. For more than a hundred years, the tram known as the Badener Bahn has departed from the stop in front of the Vienna Opera and an hour later deposited its passengers in the center of the little town with its healing waters. Pulling into the Josefplatz, I spied two elderly men awaiting me, one of them holding The Herald Tribune to his chest as an identity card.

Accompanying me to the cemetery to view Alexander Wettendorfer’s grave (1848-1924),  as well as that of his first wife Josefine(1860-1911), my escorts related the story behind their joint project. Born in Baden in the early 1920’s, both Hans Meissner and Kornelius Fleischmann had remained in their hometown to work as teachers and historians after the war. Individually they had published several books about Baden’s history and some of its leading figures, but there was one aspect of the spa’s past they had vowed to address together after their retirement. Back in the 1930’s, when they were in high school, many of their classmates and friends had belonged to the large and active Baden Jewish community. Not only had they disappeared after 1938, but in all the decades that followed, the community was rarely referred to in local publications. The two elderly historians determined to put the Jews of Baden back into the annals of the town.

From that point on, thanks to continued contact with Hans Meissner, I was able to fill in the profile of the elusive Dr. Wettendorfer. To start with, there were his origins in Rechnitz, today a town in Austria’s Burgenland, but before 1921, a part of western Hungary. Jews had lived there safely, if not comfortably, since 1687 when the local noble, Adam Batthyanyi II had signed a Schutzbrief(Letter of Protection) promising to “shelter and shield” those who had settled in Rechnitz after fleeing prosecution elsewhere. For the Counts Batthanyi, the presence of Jews had several advantages. Unlike the rest of the population, most of them could read, write, and handle numbers. As merchants and peddlers they often had cash on hand and, if more was wanted, could be called upon to draw on their far-flung connections. Above all, in exchange for “protection,” the ruling family could lay on heavy taxes. The Jews, in turn, were allowed to have their own school, prayer house, burying ground, and kosher slaughtering facility. They even had the right to their own courts, but those decisions could be overruled. Despite the assured privileges, the community was still vulnerable to public obloquy. One article of the Schutzbrief read “The guilty will have to ride the sow”–a humiliating punishment for Jews seen in images throughout the middle ages.

To have been born in 1848, the year revolution roiled the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and grown up during its gradual transition into a modern state, meant that Alexander Wettendorfer had a life of opportunity ahead of him. He probably left Rechnitz as a young man to attend medical school in either Budapest or Vienna. At the age of 31 in 1879, the same year he married nineteen-year-old Josefine Deutsch in Vienna, he moved to Baden to start his practice. Before 1861 no Jew had been allowed to reside in the spa, but by the time the young doctor arrived there a flourishing Jewish community included several other former Rechnitzers, all of them recognizable by their Hungarian-accented German.

Dr. Wettendorfer proved to have considerable talents as a writer along with his medical skills, and was soon actively promoting his new hometown. Only four years after settling there, he published his first guide to the benefits of Baden’s thermal waters and the pleasures of its natural surroundings. In the introduction to his “Medical Letters Concerning Baden near Vienna,” he claimed to have been encouraged by friends to write about everything that might interest a visitor to the spa in order to attract new guests to its “splendid baths.”

His debut as a writer must have attracted the attention of the medical establishment in Vienna, because a few years later he was commissioned to write a pamphlet for the layman explaining the implications of the most important medical discovery of the century–the isolation of the tuberculin bacillus announced by Dr. Robert Koch in Berlin in 1882.

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Lost Worlds of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Today, the word “refugee” has gone out of fashion, and yet it is still a handy term distinguishing  immigrants seeking political “refuge,” from those driven to leave their countries for a better life. My parents were “refugees” from Hitler when they came to the United States  in 1946. Their families had flourished in Austria and Poland, but after World War II the thriving Jewish populations of Central Europe were no more. Since my father and mother could not return to the culture of their youth, they rarely alluded to their lost heritage: they looked to the future, to their new lives in a new land. Sadly, by the time I wanted to learn more about their origins, they were no longer around to help me. Reconstructing their past on my own, I traveled to the towns they came from, sought out local historians, pored through archives. This blog is dedicated to the stories I uncovered.

Any story of a Jewish family with roots in Austria-Hungary has to begin with the Emperor Josef II and his 1772 Edict of Toleration. This imperial decree, an attempt to integrate the Empire’s religious minorities into the economic mainstream, broke up the autonomy of Jewish communities and gradually drew their members into the society around them. Until then they had been socially and culturally isolated. They spoke and kept records in Hebrew and Yiddish, had their own courts, charities, and schools, and were limited to certain occupations. Josef’s  Edict allowed them to enter universities and engage in most branches of commerce. But there was a price. They had to accept German as their language, take German names, and submit to secular law. It was a first step towards assimilation but still far from emancipation. Residence requirements still held. Jews could not move from place to place since the number of Jewish families allowed in each region was limited. In towns and cities they still lived in their own separate quarters or ghettos with the boundaries strictly marked and in some places the neighborhood was cordoned off on Sundays so Jews could not  mingle with Christians as they went to church.

It was precisely in these kinds of ghettos in the small towns of Moravia (Terlicko, Jemnice) and Hungary (Rechnitz, Sobotiste) that my great-grandfathers were  born between 1833 and 1852 (see map in About section of this blog). They had the luck to be members of the first generation emancipated by the revolution of 1848. After that upheaval, Jews were no longer restricted in their movements and could settle throughout the Empire. By 1867 they were declared equal citizens before the law. Of the four young men starting out in life at this crucial moment, three took advantage of their new mobility to  leave the confined surroundings of their birth. My initial posts will be dedicated to these pioneers—David Spitzer, born in Moravia, Leopold Guttman and Alexander Wettendorfer, originating in Hungary. By the end of their lives they had advanced so far that each, in his own way, was able to have an influence on the society their forefathers had been forbidden to enter.

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