You don’t know me, there is no reason that you should. I am not a celebrity, a novelist, or historian.
But, if you are standing in this complex of buildings and in the lovely Palais des Beaux Arts Wien itself, I have a story to tell you.
The building is a part of me or, perhaps better said, I am a part of it even though we met only recently, lovers meeting only at the very end of the movie just before the credits roll.
This is an essay in the form of the story of the family that built this confection of a building, hovered over its wonderful creations for half a century, and then died.
In its death, it was both a microcosm of its apocalyptic time and insanely typical of millions of other deaths.
The story is my version of only a part of my family – my great-grandfather Arnold Bachwitz, my grandmother Grete Bachwitz Lebach, her son Theo Gottlieb, her second husband Willi Lebach, their friend Albert Einstein, and Theo’s wife Lisa.
Other characters, important in their own right, appear only as walk-on players in this version – siblings, spouses, descendants, victims, and Nazi perpetrators – but the six persons above play the leading roles.
If you keep these people in focus, the story will unfold clearly (I hope).
The evidence on which this is based is all that I could piece together from retold fragments, fugitive documents, historical documents, and books that have come to me over time.
Let us start from my beginnings rather than the story’s beginning.
As an American, I knew nothing of my ancestors in 20th century Germany and Austria for reasons that will become clear in the telling.
Being reasonably well-read though, I had a passing familiarity with modern European history from 1860 onward.
Born in 1942 and growing to adulthood in California, I thought little that what was “over there” and “back then” had any bearing on me.
As a secular Jewish man, I belonged to no particular “American Jewish community”.
Except those others like me, the children of urban, upper-middle class, German-or French-speaking refugees to the New World.
Individuals who followed their often-secular parents into the arts, academics, or business worlds without reliance on the Old World.
My father Theo, of Germany and Austria, passed away in 2001, in his mid-90s in New York City.
In 2003, after both my mother and father had passed away, I was contacted by phone, unexpectedly, by a very dedicated Orthodox Jewish gentleman in New York.
He acted as an intermediary for American descendants of Holocaust victims in placing claims against the Austrian General Settlement Fund.
This intermediary agent had read my father’s obituary in New York City newspapers and thought that I might have inherited my father’s claim for significant reparations from Austria.
He worked with me and Berlin-based attorneys and others diligently, intelligently, and exhaustively.
We developed the evidentiary basis underlying my claim for my father’s stolen property in Austria, a significant share of a large, prosperous international publishing company and fashion house Bachwitz AG.
My claim was based on the financial and physical properties that were confiscated from my family in 1938-1939 as part of Austrian Aryanization policies and laws.
The claim was supported by documents that detailed these takings; all this evidence was created by the Nazi administration and conveyed the disasters that befell each family member who could or would not escape their fates at the hands of this same regime.
It opened a door into a universe
that I had not known.
I was gratified to know this information and see copies of the original Nazi documents that chillingly recorded all of this.
Gratified is an odd expression.
I read the resulting claim with mounting horror and sadness.
Because I am a scientist, I am moved and gratified by the discovery of true things.
However that discovery occurs, whoever peels back the blinders to those things, and what they mean.
But I had no reason to pursue this history beyond this record.
I signed the claim, mailed it, laughed ruefully at the tiny reparation I received, and put the entire business behind me.
I did not comprehend, at that time, what the family had left that was still in existence.
The original Palais des Beaux Arts building itself, decades of extraordinary fashion magazines and journals produced by Bachwitz AG, and a story that seemed worth reconstructing from its several pieces.
As part of our inquiries, my agents uncovered, in the Wiener Stadt und Landesbibliothek, a cache of twenty-five 1938-1939 issues of Chic Parisien.
It was an international high fashion design magazine published by Bachwitz AG, founded decades earlier by my great-grandfather Arnold Bachwitz and owned at that time by my great-grandmother, grandmother, and grandaunt.
These magazines were part of the estate willed to my father Theo and his stepfather Willi. Subsequently, the library sent this cache to me.
When I received the small settlement amount in 2005, it was not accompanied with an explanation from the General Settlement Fund (GSF) officials as to why it amounted to a few thousand US dollars.
I knew that there were about 19,000 General Settlement Fund claimants overall so I surmised that each restitution was apportioned based on its relative scale of loss.
Clearly, the Habsburg family lost more castles and meadows than my family had lost to Nazification.
Later, when re-reading the Nazi documents of 1939 and onward, it dawned on me that I had an Austrian governmental rationale for why my shares were valued at a penny on the dollar.
The Nazi government and its semi-private commissioners confiscated a highly-valued commodity, Bachwitz AG.
Then, they ran it rapidly into the ground financially, and transferred its almost worthless shares and its ultimate ownership to the government after the war destroyed its international market.
That was probably Austria’s basis for calculating what my family had lost, at that historically-low and legally-defensible point of transfer.
It owed me only a small proportional amount of a totally devalued commodity.
Until I was in my own 6th decade, I had no special interest in my family history.
I possessed little of it, mostly bits and pieces, and no prospect of finding more through mining in German and Austrian records.
Because my family was Jewish (although also good Germans and Austrians) and I had only passing familiarity with the German language,
I thought I lacked an access port to enter that past world of people I never knew, my blood relatives but strangers to me.
My parents spoke of it very little and reluctantly, a natural response to their own dreadful experiences, memories, and losses.
I had no surviving relatives with a different attitude toward memory, so this past appeared closed.
It never dawned on me that but for this family history, I would have never come into existence.
And that by a thread, as the only son of an only son of an only son of an only son.
Because I am no longer a child, I do not need this story for my own identity.
I have become, over the decades, my own person without contact with or reference to my unknown Viennese ancestors, other than my own parents.
I recall as a child asking my mother Lisa often about her life in Vienna and my Austrian heritage.
She spoke wistfully but little about her Jewish Austrian princess childhood.
Her teenage brother posing as the urbane daring Viennese princeling, smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk, but holding an ashtray in his free hand.
Nothing about her mother except as a loving person, nothing about her father or stepfather or home life.
Only a touch here and there – dancing in the Corps de Ballet of the Vienna State Opera, her work as a nurse to the elderly Jewish men and women forced to be housed in her mother’s apartment by Nazi authorities, and so on.
I could not tell if she did not remember or would not remember in order to protect herself or me-as-a-child.
It was as if her life began only when she and my father Theo reunited in California just prior to America’s entrance into World War II.
Reintroduced to my father much, much later in his and my life, I found him more forthcoming about his past in Europe before the war, probably because he would not have been moved to shield me from those realities.
I assume that he was quite used to telling at least some part of his story.
To his closest friends and to strangers, to reporters, critics, biographers, publicists, even his audiences, as part of his professional persona, a theatrical creation of his, dubbed “Brother Theodore.”
It was only after his and Lisa’s death, however, with the rivulet of documents and questions that appeared without asking from various researchers that I could begin to explain the hows and whys of my parents’ lives and those of my ancestors.
Theo both lived in and apart from America, probably because New York City is its own country and has its own cultures.
Theo found that in New York, he could construct a European life he was familiar with, filled with familiar characters and situations that fed his curiosity and sardonic humor.
And, somehow, he could find a way to transmit his bizarre comic performances very effectively to American audiences.
Who, if not always understanding what the performances meant – dark sermons and German horror-filled children’s fairy tales twisted into comic endings – could be mesmerized by his performance itself.
Lisa always pined for Austria, for Vienna, for her pre-war way of life.
While becoming a successful American, she never really liked America or Americans compared with the Vienna she knew or recalled decades later.
Her most important late-in-life travel was returning to Vienna and renewing her childhood friendship with a Catholic girlfriend.
Only my stepfather Ernest seemed at home in America.
As a theatrical director steeped in the dynamic issues in pre-and post-WWI European plays, he was fully aware of the violent abyss that he had barely escaped.
But life in his theater was more prominent than anything else but his sons (my two step-brothers and me).
He despised the very idea of Austria.
With the exception of symphonic masterpieces and opera.
Ernest came very late and older to the United States and with no English, but was, oddly, the most American, even with his thick accent.
He adored FDR and what he saw as social democracy in this country. He was as passionate about baseball as he was about anti-fascism.
He was generous to the poor, egalitarian to a fault, forgiving (except for with actors whom he often considered cattle).
As if care and feeling for the dispossessed reminded him of who he had been when his homeland collapsed into Nazi horror.
What sustained him, as with Theo, was his passion for the theater, his theater.
Creating something out of nothing but words, gestures, and sets.
And what sustained Lisa and Ernest was that they built things together.
People always say that someone should remember, either for the dead or the actions they took or did not take, or as object lessons about something terrible or wonderful.
If one is going to keep the flames alive for the victims, no doubt someone else will keep the flames alive for the perpetrators.
Thomas D. Lonner