On 28 June 1914 in Serajevo, the Serbian student Gavrilo Princip, a militant belonging to a nationalist group, killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria, and his wife, thus igniting long-standing international tensions like a tinderbox. On June 23rd, Austria presented a very harsh ultimatum to Serbia, and when it was rejected, on July 28th, declared war. By August 5th all the great powers of Europe (with the exception of Italy, which had proclaimed its neutrality on August 2nd) had mobilized and descended into battle.
Earlier in that fatal year, Armin had accepted the task of managing a factory of tinned food-stuffs for the army based in Przemysl, in Eastern Galicia.
The town owed its strategic importance to its location on the San, a navigable river, on the border of three states: Poland, Ruthenia and Hungary. Around Przemysl, between 1860 and the end of the century, the Austrians had built a 25-mile long fortification system.
According to the German authorities who examined it in 1913, Przemysl had become a storm-proof stronghold, comparable only with Metz. Nine main forts were arranged in a circle around the town. In these main works were enormous guns, mounted in armoured towers, operated by electricity, which automatically disappeared after the gun had discharged its shot. In the gaps between the main works there were nine smaller forts, with armour-plated cupolas, quick-firing guns, armoured machine-guns, and motor-batteries. There was also a girdle of shrapnel-proof trenches, barbed wire and land mines.
The rest of my family had remained in Vienna: the mounting tension between Russia and Austria would not allow the women’s transfer to Eastern Galicia, so dangerously close to Russia.
At the outbreak of the war, in August 1914, two Russian armies made a powerful attack on the Eastern front, invading eastern Prussia. Stemmed by the Germans in the battles of Tannenberg and Lake Masuri, they took their terrible revenge between September 8th and 12th, when they defeated the Austrians at Lemberg and besieged Przemysl for the first time, hoping to capture it and to advance straight to Krakow.
It was in this extremely critical situation that Armin began writing a diary, which after his death was left in the care of his daughter Wilma. In the winter of 1999 my cousin Henry, who lives in California, sent me a copy of the precious document: hundreds of pages written in the incomprehensible cursive Gothic handwriting. It took me several months and a lot of hard work to decipher it, but my effort was rewarded by the detection of the incredible adventure of my grandfather, who at the age of fifty was involved as a civilian in the siege of Przemysl, deported to Kazakistan and became, in spite of himself, a witness of historic events of extraordinary importance. What’s more, I am now able to appreciate the author’s intellectual brilliance, moral integrity and humanity, although he died eighteen years before I was born.
The first siege ended with a Russian failure, but the life of Austrian soldiers and civilians inside the fortress was becoming harder and harder: the railway connection with Krakow was cut off, making the delivery of food supplies and mail extremely difficult. Seventy thousand refugees – German, Austrian and Hungarian soldiers – had taken shelter in the town, exacerbating the problem of provisions.
The factory of tinned food-stuffs had by then come to a stand-still due to lack of supplies: the stoppage of business and the fear of a second siege which was becoming increasingly likely convinced my grandfather to leave Przemysl as soon as he could, without even informing his relatives in Vienna.
On 7 November 1914 the Austrian personnel of the Konservenfabrik left Przemysl in two open coaches, the only ones available, and proceeded on a country road which ran along river San, heading west in the direction of Dünow. The only other, shorter and more direct, way of escape through Sanok towards the southern part of the region, was at the time already under Russian control.
The early part of the journey went smoothly: not even when the runaways discovered that the route to safety went through several cholera-stricken villages did they give up their attempt, not least because the villagers looked neither ill nor worried:
We decide to cross the village and stop to eat only once we are out. On every other house we read the word “cholera” chalked on the door. This does not seem to concern the villagers – they bustle about as if nothing at all was the matter, go in and out of the “cholera houses”, there is hardly any trace of isolation.
Serious problems, however, began straight after their lunch-break, which they hurriedly took as soon as they were out of the village:
The road is getting closer and closer to the San. Ahead of us a diversion leads straight to the river – across the street is a wooded slope.
We’ve hardly arrived at this junction when we hear a short and piercing detonation which reminds me of a whiplash. A whole army of peasants, excited and gesturing, runs towards us shouting “Moskali! Moskali!”. We get out to decide what to do. One of the soldiers of our escort, who speaks a little German, points to the place from where the shot came. It is a wooden house overlooking the road about two hundred steps away – the gunshots come from the woods.
After several unsuccessful attempts to overcome the barrage, my grandfather and his companions realized that they were facing something more than an outpost: the cracking of the machine-gun, the cannon-shots, the well-known clouds created by the shrapnels caused the crew to mutiny. Most of them decided to go back, and at the end even stubborn and courageous Armin had to admit that a retreat was the lesser evil.
The travellers sadly began their return journey. They did not meet the Russians again, but in the darkness the most serious danger was now the Austrian sentries or the Ruthenian “allies”!
In the dead of night I approach the factory. After a few steps I see something shining in front of me. This Ruthenian pig has already taken aim and is shouting something that I don’t understand. Luckily I manage to grasp the word Legitimacy. I stand like a statue and search for my pass in my pockets. Then I give the sentry a piece of my mind but of course he thinks he is right!
Disappointed, freezing and exhausted, Armin and his companions regained the town late at night and allowed themselves a break at Café Habsburg with a cup of tea, which slowly succeeded in warming them up. Once the danger was over and the strain subsided, my grandfather indulged in gloomy considerations:
I had imagined the scene so well – simply turning up, like this, in Albertgasse – and instead I am still here! If only I knew what the future has in store for us, where I can look for another job…
It’s already past eleven. By now we would already be at Sanok – or on the train travelling towards Neu Sandez and Pest – if only we were really there!!
On 18 November 1914, while my grandfather was trapped in Przemysl, my nineteen-year-old father presented himself before the recruiting office, to volunteer. His wartime deeds are proved by his service record, kept in Vienna’s Kriegsarchiv (war archives). Three forms written in the usual, almost illegible cursive handwriting, summarise the information relevant to his enlistment, career and noteworthy military actions.
Nineteen-year-old Ernst had doubtlessly been carried away by patriotic fervour which swept through Vienna in that autumn. Schoolchildren learned war songs, and the imperial flag waved from every pennon. English and French were banned from restaurant menus. Stefan Zweig gave a vivid picture of the atmosphere that people breathed in Vienna in those days:
The first fear of the war…had suddenly turned into enthusiasm. Processions were led on the streets, young recruits were marching in triumph and their faces were radiant with happiness for the cheers which were directed at them, small ordinary people, never noticed and celebrated before… All differences of condition, language, class, religion were overwhelmed at that very moment by an increasing feeling of brotherhood…The modest post-office clerk, the copyist, the shoemaker now suddenly had a romantic chance in their life: becoming heroes. Although the Rosenbaums belonged to a minority, just tolerated and often harassed, Austria was, and would always be to them (to express it with Franz Werfel’s words), “a wonderful fatherland, a country which was humane to everyone, without distinction of blood and confession, origin and destination of its children”. A fatherland for which Ernst was prepared to fight and die, with the dream of helping somehow in rescuing his father from the Russians.
After a long training period in Salzburg’s fortress, he was sent to Hungary, to face a Serbian attack which was feared but never took place. In his eyes war was still an exciting but harmless game, as is witnessed by a postcard with a self-portrait in China ink drawn on it, which he sent in those days to his youngest sister Wilma, who treasured it for eighty-two years.
On November 12, 1914 the second siege of Przemysl began, led by the Russians with only five divisions of old reservists aged over forty, under the command of General Selivanov, a seventy year-old veteran, whose forces at first were much inferior to the Austro-Hungarian garrison. Since he had no siege artillery, he gave up the idea of a pitched battle and decided to capture the fortress by famine.
Armin’s diary stops for over four months. I can therefore only imagine his difficult life in the besieged town. Food came only from requisitions, the post was carried by airplanes and airships exposed to the fire of Russian batteries.
In the second week of March the situation of the defenders became desperate. For some time they had been subsisting on reduced rations, but even these gave out suddenly, because it was found that a large store of tinned meat (most likely the very one produced in Armin’s factory) had decayed.
On March 17th, the Austrian General Kusmanek served out the last rations and addressed his troops with an appeal resoundant with desperate patriotism, on the eve of the last attempt to break the encircling: but such was the feeling of dispiritment of the besieged that only 20,000 men, mainly Hungarians, answered it. At five o’clock on March 19th, they marched out of the fortress in an easterly direction, but after nine hours’ fighting they were unable to reach the Russian trenches. Eight thousand of them were killed, and nearly four thousand were taken prisoner.
On 22 March 1915 famine compelled Przemysl to surrender. On that historic day my grandfather lived not only through his own drama, but also through the tragedy of his fatherland, with which he empathized.
22 March 1915!!!
The day which I shall never forget for the rest of my life, and which I had rather never live through. Poor, poor Austria! Last night I didn’t manage to fall asleep before eleven o’clock due to the excitement of these last days – nowhere were we safe from risk. The uncertainty of our future and the thunder of Przemysl’s guns impended over us and did not let us sleep.
Finally, after pulling the blanket over my ears, I dozed off and slept until half past twelve. Then, however, the cracking of the shots woke me up and the infernal din didn’t allow me to think of sleeping again…
The sky is slowly turning grey as dawn approaches. At quarter to four I hear the noise of a crowd marching incessantly along our street. I think they are the inhabitants of Szesanie [the Przemysl district across the river San] who have just been informed about the imminent demolition of the bridges.
From half past five in the morning, the Austrian artificers blew up, one after the other, all the fortifications of which the Austro-Hungarian army was so proud, and the ammunition depot with its 30 million cartridges and its 24,000 rifles. As a crowning-piece after so much devastation, three explosions louder than the previous ones heralded the destruction of the three bridges on the river San, which the imperial troops had blown up to prevent them being used by the enemy.
My grandfather’s diary describes the entry of the Russian troops into Przemysl with a kind of calm curiosity, contrasting with the population’s panic-stricken attitude: the Russians’ antisemitic feelings were well known in the Jewish community, and the memory of pogroms was handed on from father to son.
Only at half past eight in the morning do the first Russians march into the town through Casmirstrasse singing and shouting “hurrah”. The Jews and the rest of the population run before them in a mass-flight. The Russian company must have advanced with a forced march as only two hours have gone by. At half past nine the Cossacks from the Urals make their entrance with their flag, followed by a troop of Russian uhlans, all armed with spears. The Cossacks are riding their small hairy horses.
The first impression of the enemy’s behaviour had been positive, but soon Armin received a confirmation of the occupants' anti-Semitism, which resulted in violent and overbearing actions against the Jewish community.
Ravages caused by the blasts are visible in the Jewish temple too: shattered windows and doors, the big candelabrum at the centre of the hall crashed to the ground. Here I watch the first disagreeable scene: a patrol of six men, amongst whom four officers, move forward. One of them spurs his horse directly against some children encircling them, they scatter as quick as lightning. Then he steps on the pavement on horseback, trots his horse up to the entrance of the café and there has an animated discussion with the inn-keeper. It must be the same officer who in the afternoon hit a poor old white-haired Jew with his whip because he had not paid his respects to him.
Until then Armin had been a detached witness of the occupation: the long siege had been so painful that being finally able to look the enemy in the face was a diversion and almost a relief to him. On that very day, however, his business suffered irretrievable damage.
In the afternoon at the food-store I witness a fearful scene: the hungry soldiers and the civilians plunder all that is left. People get hit with the rifle butts – it’s all useless, it is a proper raid. They smash the boxes of tinned food, then fight furiously for their content. Bleeding and wounded people walk away with their prey. In the store all shops have been plundered, the nearby streets are covered in coffee. Whole bales of tea are scattered on the ground, mixed with salt, cocoa and matches. The value of the goods spread on the ground in confusion is priceless.
The big steam-engine is literally in pieces – in my factory all the expensive machines are shattered, ruined. It is natural for me to think that those responsible for the devastation must be utterly despicable fellows.
At eight p.m., tired to death, I went to bed and finally slept for the whole night until half past five in the morning.
Faced with the collapse of his world, Armin was reacting with the disillusioned resignation of someone well aware of human reality, not least because he was the descendant of people used for centuries to persecution and flight, to the sudden ruin of a laboriously gained welfare.
The uncertainty of his fate didn’t last long. Since the factory’s production was destined to the Austrian troops, its personnel was put on the same footing as the officers of the enemy army and deported to Russia along with the whole garrison (120,000 men!).
The transfer of Armin and the other Austrian civilian began two days later and lasted about one month, amid inexplicable slow-downs, halts, turnabouts. The first part of the journey took place in a goods-wagon, in very harsh conditions. My grandfather however never lost his curiositas, the intelligent wonder of travellers of past times, so different from the present customers of self-services and duty-free shops, and from time to time he jotted down some interesting remarks of the ethnographic or psychological kind.
From Kiev onward the train travelled on a secondary line, without passing through Moscow, crossing Ukraine and the Volga Heights. Understandably, Armin’s mood blackened because of the long journey on uncomfortable conditions. The gradual change in the landscape contributed to his depression: cultivated fields had given way to wild steppe, giving him the impression of leaving behind, perhaps forever, “civilized” Europe.
The death of a fellow-traveller inspired him to words of sincere indignation deploring the brutal manners the Russians had towards the private soldiers who were their prisoners: twenty-five years later, the Nazi transportations of the Jews to the east would make Armin’s journey appear like a school-trip.
We have been travelling for eight days now. Last night a man died in the next carriage and two more had to be discharged from the train – due to an unknown illness and to their extreme weakness.
Of course! At Przemysl they forcefully crammed the carriages by force with men who could hardly stand, gave them absolutely nothing to eat for three days – no wonder someone dies of weakness on the way...
It is disgraceful how the Russians treat us in general, but it’s a crime how they treat the soldiers, who were starved out for weeks at Przemysl: people are forced back into the carriages most brutally with rifle-butts and bayonetts if they simply ask to have some water or want to buy something with their money, which is often robbed from them. Typical Russian behaviour.
On 15 April at six o’clock the train got to Kuibysev, (today called Samara), about 800 kilometres east of Moscow. Here the railway forked: now, Armin thought, they would at least know whether they would continue nothwards, heading to Siberia, or southwards, in the direction of western Turkestan (today’s Kazakistan).
While they were waiting to receive the important information, the halt lasted for the whole day, without the prisoners being given anything to eat: for three days they hadn’t had anything warm but tea! My grandfather found solace in the spring weather and in a delightful action which moved him.
Good news, at least from the weather. We are heading towards spring. The now had already retreated after Pensa – now it has completely disappeared.
Moreover Tashkent – if we remain there – has the same climate as Naples. On the way we crossed a tiny, dilapidated Russian village. At the station, where we did not stop, several smartly dressed people threw cigarettes, bread, even matches etc., into the train. In a box we found a piece of paper with only one word written on it as signature: it read children!
Accept in return a heartfelt thank-you from the German and Austrian civilians, war prisoners, who have arrived this far without complaining. Good-bye!
At last the train left again and it was obvious that the destination was not dreadful Siberia, but warm Turkestan. The following morning Armin witnessed an extraordinary spectacle:
I woke up before three o’clock. The sky is purple-red shading into golden yellow, with grey purple-striped clouds – I had never before seen such a sea of colours. At three the sun rose like a huge ball of fire on the horizon: as long as I live, I will never forget dawn on the steppe.
Taking advantage of a halt at a station to check the engine, on that very evening Armin, the Rosenbaum’s Marco Polo, visited a camp of Kirghisians and wrote the following report, just tinged with the good-natured racism of a civilized European:
In the first tent there are a young woman and a young camel, a bonfire, at the entrance some laundry stretched on a line. The second tent is decidedly more elegant with some carpets in it and a sort of mandoline with a long green-painted neck. Inside is a girl of about sixteen with green velvet trousers and a silk chemise with floral embroidery, a white turban with a golden fringe, fairly pretty for this race – a very interesting excursion. The old kirghisian (or perhaps he was young, it’s difficult to tell) was all smiles when I gave him 15 kopecks for the visit.
The next morning a sand storm blew up, which lasted three days and not only interrupted the journey, but also prevented the travellers from leaving the carriages. Once the storm was over, the train travelled on and finally the convicts were informed of their destination: Perovsk, in Kazakistan, where the train arrived on the evening of April 23rd. The journey had lasted one month, and for Armin now began the worst period of his life, that of endless captivity.
After the arrival in the inhospitable place of internment, my grandfather stopped writing his diary for over a year. In July 1916, when he resumed in a new note-book, his frame of mind had undergone a deep change. He was less open to the external world, and increasingly concentrated on his family. Above all he worried about the fate of his wife, left alone in Albertgasse to face the increasing financial and psychological hardships: he guessed her fragility before the rubs of life. His sensitivity, made more acute by distance and difficulty of communication, made him detect coldness and unconcern in hs wife’s postcards, which in reality only conveyed anguish and pain.
I gave up hope of returning home this year. More and more frequently do I think that I will never again see my dear ones. Our mood here borders on desperation, nobody is able to act and think in a positive way any more. Then there is the sun, the blazing pitiless sun, every day from three in the morning, day after day! Nights are no better, even a bath offers no relief. The water is warm, when we venture outdoors the ground is burning under our feet.
The latest news from home doesn’t tell me anything! I worry about Henryka too. Her patience and strength are drawing to an end – she is not hardened against these troublesome times. Besides, how cold her letters are! She can’t find a good word to write. If my daughters, I mean Helene and Emmy, didn’t write to me sometimes in such a way as to remind me that they love me (and Kathy too) )I might as well not have a family at all.
How much Armin would have suffered, had he been able to foresee that his Henriette, which a snapshot taken in those months portrays with a thoughtful, melancholic expression, twenty-nine years later would relive a painful wait of the same kind in a foreign country, devoid of her husband’s support, while the SS were hunting for her children!
To Ernst, instead, Armin initially showed an ambivalent attitude: he was puzzled and a little disappointed by the lack of progress in his military career: a convenient rank would grant him a salary, which was very useful at such a difficult time.
I finally received a postcard dated 19th May from Kathy, Emmy and Ernst. He was either lazy and light-headed or he must have been as unlucky as all of us, because after one and a half year he is still Zugführer [squad leader], while he could already be earning 250 crowns a month like Leo and be Henryka’s support.
But in our family everything carries on like this: sometimes I feel so awful that I would rather not live any more. In this way at least everything, everything would be over.
To fight against depression, my grandfather committed himself to new activities to keep his mind busy. The next two pages of his diaries are filled with the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, side by side the corresponding characters of the Latin alphabet, and the correct pronunciation beside each letter.
Today I am starting to study Russian. For what purpose? For Vienna’s Central Cemetery? But I cannot keep going anymore without anything to do! The foreign alphabet and the pronunciation are still giving me some problems. I will be happy if I manage to understand just a few sentences. Professor Maske will be teaching me a lesson every evening.
In the meantime, on the southern front, the Austrian army had started an attack, trying to enter the Po Valley through Trentino, and to break the enemy forces in two. The Italians were caught by surprise by the Strafexpedition but wearily succeeded in stemming it on the plateau of Asiago. On June 16th general Cadorna began the counter-offensive, conquering Gorizia and most of the Karst plateau. In August Armin got the news that his son had been transferred to that very front, where fighting was fierce. Thus he found out that Ernst’s career no longer interested him, what really counted was his life!
Still no news from Ernst! The poor lad has come to the front at the worst time. The Russians are advancing further – they have already reconquered Sanislav – it is rumoured that the Italians have poison gas.
The Italian offensive is just what we needed so now we are being beaten on both fronts!
Poor Henryka! How much she must worry about me and Ernst! If only I knew what was happening to my son! Since May 15th, therefore for three months, I have had no news either about him or from him. The news from the front is awful. The Italians really do have gas. The Russians are advancing further and further – according to their reports, in the last few days they took more than 8,000 prisoners.
In those very days my grandfather learnt that all his luggage in Przemysl (reconquered by the Austro-Germans in June) was lost. The uncertainty about the future, about how to survive after the war, turned into the obsessive thought of returning home. As he was in this mood, his birthday, rather that a merry occasion, was a very sad one. Armin had turned 52, and he felt old and tired.
Today is my 52nd (!!) birthday – another reason for great joy. Eder gave me a bottle of wine and a cake – last year I was still happy to celebrate this unhappy day. No post yet!
The approach of winter with its first cold days made the prisoners’ condition even harder. His savings having run out long before and his monthly remittances from the bank in Vienna having inexplicably ceased, Armin was reduced to starving and freezing.
Fortunately, a Red Cross delegation, led by Countess Horn, visited the camp of Perovsk and received the prisoners’ requests and complaints.
The countess told Armin that she would commit herself to obtaining “the exchange of prisoners over 50 years of age” and gave 150 rubles to each civilian. My grandfather could now discharge the debts he had got into in the camp and trust in the future a little more.
Captivity had made him understand the importance of family love, too long neglected in the vain pursuit of wealth. For him now the most important thing was to recover his relationship with Henriette: the 25th anniversary of their wedding recurred in those days.
If only I could come together with my family again and still be of sound body and mind! In these last years of life with Henryka which I have left, I want to try and relieve all the pain I caused, and to do her some good, if I get home safe and sound, and hopefully I’ll succeed. Our kids are growing up and leaving us and we old people have to think about it and become again what we were twenty-five years ago!
Last night there was a small party for the 25th anniversary of my wedding – I was presented with a big chocolate cake with a myrtle crown made out of sugar and the number 25 on it. I found two bottles of wine which were drunk to Henryka’s health.
It is impossible to describe how home-sick I felt last night and this morning! I reviewed in my mind the last 25 years, from the first day I saw Henryka at Aussee until the evening when I took my leave of her at the Northern Station – I summed up – summed up and subtracted, and the amount I owe Henryka in settlement of our account is so exorbitant that even this time, as always in my life, liabilities exceed the assets.
I must rely completely on my creditor’s goodwill to settle my accounts at least partially!
At last, like a river in flood, crashing the barrier of rigid discipline he had been imparted as a child, his heart overflowed with anguish and affection for his son far away at the front, from whom he had had no news for a month. War was a stupid and cruel gamble, and Armin didn’t even have a faith to comfort him: he therefore had to find moral support in himself or else pray “fate”
There is still no post – sometimes I wake up in despair in the middle of the night. You have a son, you bring him up – he has just overcome the first obstacles in his life – and now he is like a number on the wheel of a lottery. Thrown together with hundreds of thousands of other numbers – and fate with blindfolded eyes picks a number. But those numbers are our children! Among those numbers is my boy!!!
From August, his “boy”, my father, had been in a trench at 1,500 metres above sea-level, on Mount Val Piana. In October he was given a dangerous task: leading a detachment entrusted with the mining of Val Maso. In mid-November the front moved forward again and Ernst spent Christmas and New Year’s Day in Val Sugana.
1917 was a crucial year for the outcome of the war and for my family’s destiny. The year began on a sad note: on 21st November 1916 old emperor Franz Josef died and Charles of Habsburg came to the throne at a time when the position of the Austro-Hungarian empire was seriously compromised. He would reign for little more than two years, then Austria would become a small republic and the last emperor would retire to the Isle of Madeira.
In the first days of the new year, however, my grandfather was cheered by the good news which arrived from Vienna.
1st January, 1917.
I got a card from Kathy, in which she writes that she has received good news from Ernst. If only I knew that my boy was already at home, I would happily accept to spend another year in captivity.
I am so happy that at least Kathy received my postcard with the wishes for the 25th anniversary of my wedding, in this way the event did not pass totally unnoticed.
My dear Old Ryka – with the silver ring and her unfortunately already white hair! How I loved that hair, so wavy and unruly! I wonder if my daughters remembered the anniversary?
On January 17th Armin said an envious good-bye to a friend, an officer who was freed thanks to an exchange of prisoners. Shortly afterwards, it looked as if luck had smiled down on him too. A special committee acknowledged his invalidity (a sclerosis of the auditory canals in his right ear), but this act was only the first step towards his still distant liberation.
By a twist of fate, instead of freedom came illness, so often invoked as an excuse to obtain the declaration of invalidity: a serious ear infection. A few weeks earlier my grandfather had witnessed the suicide of a fellow-prisoner, caused by the terrible pain of an badly treated infection. Fear was certainly tormenting him too, even if, out of shame or superstition, he never mentioned the topic in his diary.
Since the 25th I have been really ill. I caught a cold during the medical, and after the cold I developed a bronchitis followed by a mild otitis, very painful anyway, and a slight temperature. How often I thought of poor Henryka – this pain and this buzzing in my ear – every heartbeat is like a stab – the flowing of my blood is like the roar of the stormy sea. My hearing through my right ear has been poor for about two years, but now I have troublewith the left.
Luckily, Armin’s conditions improved considerably within a few days thanks to the “air showers” to which Dr. Lehner, the camp doctor, exposed him every day. On the other hand, his hopes to be included in an exchange of prisoners or sent to a neutral country seemed to have vanished once and for all.
But new, upsetting events were at hand. In Russia the political situation was precipitating because of the serious food supplies crisis and the threat of famine in the big cities. On March 8th (27 February according to the old calendar) the strike in Petersburg turned into a proper insurrection, on the 12th the troops joined the rebels and the Provisional Executive Committee was created. Three days later Nicholas II abdicated the crown and was arrested along with the whole royal family.
Revolution in Russia!
The Czar and the Czarina have been imprisoned. In reality these events go back to February, now Russia is ruled by the workers and the soldiers.
Here in Perovsk a delegation of soldiers is in charge. They arrested the Czar’s governor and appointed a captain as commander. They do what they like!
What follows is a faithful account of last Sunday’s big demonstration. The soldiers built a platform in a clear area in front of the barracks. The soldiers (the officers and the troops), with little red flags on their bayonetts, had a cockade of red material pinned on their uniform – all the municipal employees wore red badges – ladies wore red-trained dresses – then two popes in white vestments arrived. The flag of the regiment was taken in parade, at the sides of which marched two soldiers with red flags.
The regiment’s ensigns marched holding red drapes with the words “Liberty, equality, fraternity” written on them. And the pope blessed those three flags – the very pope who the other day said his prayers for our emperor.
Countless speeches of Russian soldiers and workers followed, many “Yesses!”, then everybody went home.
It’s only we that are left to suffer as before, not to mention a search which, due to the soldiers’ hostility, has been carried out much more strictly than usual…
Armin’ diary abruptly stops on these disillusioned, bitter notes written in spring 1917, leaving me unsure as to when and how he was released. Perhaps the exchange of prisoners invoked by him had a positive outcome and he returned to Vienna before the summer. It is not impossibòle, however, that he may have had to wait for the Peace of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918) to embrace his family again.
In any case, at the very moment he was rejoicing at the good news which came from the Italian front, where Ernst had finally gained the rank of lieutenant, the hardest trial was beginning for his son.
At the end of May my father was sent to the Carnic front, to the Alp of Siusi, and on October 24th took part in the overwhelming advance of the Austrian army, reinforced by seven German divisions, on the upper Isonzo, which forced the Italian 2nd army to retire to the river Tagliamento and then to the Po, and the 4th army to entrench themselves on Mount Grappa. The 4th infantry regiment, to which my father belonged, continued its attack on the plateau of Asiago. On November 26th, the Austrians attacked mount Pertica, which changed hands seven times on one day. Three weeks later lieutenant Ernst with his fellow-soldiers reached the top of Mount Asolone, from which he had an evocative view of the wide Po valley, which he would never reach with a weapon in his hand, but which would unexpectedly host him after the war.
On 21 December 1917 what Armin had feared and almost foreseen became true: intoxicated by Italian poison-gas, my father was trasported to Innsbruck’s tenth Garnisonspital, unconscious and with his feet in the initial stages of frostbite.
On 4 January 1914, needing specialized treatment, he was moved to Innsbruck’s Canisianum and thence to Vienna, Reservespital n°2, Rafaelgasse. On March19th, he was declared recovered and benefitted from four weeks’ convalescence leave. On April 16th he returned to the regiment, but after June 1918 there are no annotations on his personal file: one can infer that my father was no longer involved in noteworthy military operation.
War dragged on for the whole year (the armistice with Italy was signed as late as November 3rd) and ended with Austria’s defeat and the breaking up of its empire.
Meanwhile people in Vienna were starving. As Stefan Zweig tells us,
What was left [of Austria] was a mutilated trunk, bleeding in all its parts. Out of six or seven million people now compelled to call themselves Austro-Germans, two million crowded the capital alone, starving and shivering with cold; the factories, which had once enriched the country, were in foreign territory, railways were reduced to miserable stumps, the national bank had been deprived of its gold and oppressed by the huge load of war-loans. For my family a difficult post-war period was beginning, albeit comforted by the homecoming of the two missing men. The escaped danger was celebrated in Albertgasse, very likely with the memorable drink my grandfather had dreamt of in the endless days of his captivity.
3 IN ITALY
“Our kids are growing up and leaving us us”: writing those melancholic lines from captivity, Armin had proved a true prophet. Coming back to peace and normality, as far as one could talk about normality in a country like Austria, reduced to starvation and despair, meant for the two eldest daughters choosing a partner and flying away from the Albertgasse “nest”.
It is very meaningful that both my aunts bound themselves to men who belonged, for family tradition if not for religious creed, to that very Jewish community which their father had officially left as early as 1905. This might be proof of how difficult it was to break out of the circle of diffidence which impalpably surrounded Jews or “ex-Jews” in Austria. As for the rest, however, their choices were very different.
Helene fell in love with a Viennese worker, Bernhard Brumer, her contemporary. It looks as if Bernhard’s fate was marked by tragedy since his birth. His father, Arnold Brumer, had been a specialized mechanic working in a watch factory in Vienna. A Jew by faith, like his wife Amalia Planes, he had died when little Bernhard was just two years old, leaving him the Jewish religion as only legacy. His mother, pushed by necessity, married a Catholic land-owner, Josef Lehner, who gave her five children.
Since the age of fourteen Bernhard had to earn his living. He found employment in Vienna with Thonet-Mundus, a company which became famous worldwide for its curved wooden furniture. Bernhard had a quick understanding and was a tireless worker. He therefore had a good career within the firm and a managing position was already looming on his horizon when the outbreak of the war thwarted his ambitions.
Bernhard threw himself into the war with all his ardour and his desire to raise himself up from the hardships of life. Wounded in action and taken prisoner by the Russians in 1917, taking advantage of the upheaval and unrest caused by revolution amongst the soldiers, he escaped from imprisonment with other officers and returned to his country. There, showing uncommon patriotism, he volunteered to take up arms again and regained his place in the trench. At the end of the war the array of his decorations was very rich, since he had gained on the battle-field two medals besides the Cross of Emperor Charles I for the fighters and the much desired “third-class cross with swords for military merits”.
No wonder that, with such an impressive curriculum, twenty-four-year-old Bernhard managed to win Helene’s heart : during the war my aunt too had “served her country” as a Red Cross nurse. Under all other aspects, the couple had rather contrasting personalitis: she was haughty and somewhat vain, the typical product of an aristocratic, refined society destined to vanish; he, instead, was friendly and “democratic” to his subordinates, never forgetful of his humble origins.
Their engagement and marriage followed one another fairly rapidly. The ceremony was celebrated on 19 January 1920 by a rabbi of Vienna’s Jewish community. My father (the bride’s brother)and Alois Repak, a friend of the groom’s, attended as witnesses.
Bernhard, who had just resumed his job with Thonet, didn’t have enough money to buy a flat, and was therefore “adopted” by the Rosenbaums: since January 23rd, the house of his parents-in-law became his new residence.
In spite of Armin’s and Henriette’s generous hospitality, cohabitation could be accepted only as a temporary solution by the young married couple, who therefore welcomed Bernhard’s promotion and the glamorous task which Thonet-Mundus gave to the young and brilliant ex-worker in 1922: the management of its Italian branch, whose offices were in Milan, at first in the Duomo (cathedral) square, later in via Camperio n°11.
Helene’s residence permit records November 1922 as the date of the couple’s arrival in Italy; however, Vienna’s archives register Bernhard’s presence at Albertgasse as late as May 1924, thereafter the following annotation is entered: “abgemeldet Milano”. The most likely explanation is that my uncle notified Vienna’s offices of his change of residence quite late, waiting until he could be sure that his job was steady.
Until 1938, the presence in Italy of Elena and Bernardo - they had Italianized their names very quickly, this is what my mother called them and what I will call them from now onwards – is documented mostly by dozens of photographs, nearly all taken by my uncle, who was really keen on that art. My aunt loved to be photographed in the most fashionable poses and attire: therefore she is pictured, having just arrived in Italy, very young, in front of the mirror, a mysterious and seductive look in her eyes; and again with her husband and a friend in spring 1923 on the beach of hotel Sturla, in the Genoa district bearing the same name, not far away from Nervi. The glorious hotel has been recently turned into a block of service flats, and the beach, now public, is a dreary garbage dump.
After staying in Genoa for one year, in 1923 the Brumers moved to Milan, where they lived at first in via Monte Bianco, then in viale Sabotino 6, which, by a strange coincidence, is just a few steps away from my present home.
It is common knowledge that the Fascists’ climb to power began in Lombardy’s capital: after their defeat in the political election of 15 May 1915, the Milanese fascists reacted with barricades to the general strike called by the socialists and the trade-unions on 1st August 1922.
On August 3rd, while Mussolini was away from the city, the fascist squadracce (thuggish militiamen) attacked Milan’s townhall, breaking down the main door with a truck and taking possession of the building. At eleven o’clock in the evening D’Annunzio spoke to the crowd from the balcony, having arrived there from Hotel Cavour, where he happened to be for an affair. On the 27th of October 1922 Mussolini got on the sleeper train that would take him to Rome, towards which columns of fascists from all over Italy were marching: the king was waiting for him to appoint him Prime Minister. At the December municipal elections, the right-wing alliance obtained the majority with 87,000 votes. The new Mayor was professor Mangiagalli, a physician.
In 1923 Milan had more than 800,000 inhabitants, after absorbing small communes such as Lorenteggio and Ronchetto sul Naviglio. On March 26th the new Premier Benito Mussolini came to give the first pickaxe blow to the first European motorway, the Milan-Lakes; the Milan-Varese section was completed the following year.
I asked myself why two Jews had chosen to emigrate to a country where fascism had just came to power by a revolution, and I came to the conclusion that they didn’t feel in danger at all: the antisemitic statements of a part of the Fascist press and the duce’s invectives against the jewish-masonic plots fostering Bolshevism were never followed by practical measures. In a conversation with Rome’s rabbi Angelo Sacerdoti, in November 1923, Mussolini reassured him with these words:
The Italian government and Fascism have never intended to adopt, and are not adopting an antisemitic policy. [Mussolini actually deplored] the fact that antisemitic parties abroad were exploiting for their own purposes the attraction which fascism had on the whole world. In August 1926, when the Milanese fascist weekly Il fascio published a violent antisemitic pamphlet signed by C.M. Boemi, Mussolini forced the magazine’s editor to write the following correction, appeared on September 4th:
Amongst the things which are inconceivable for an Italian one can number the possibility of creating a Jewish problem in Italy…Young Boemi should know that there are large numbers of non-Jews who are much worse, in terms of nobleness of soul, generosity and patriotism, than a few depraved Jews, who are sometimes exploited for utterly shameful reasons. For many years industrial activity secured a well-off, care-free life to Bernardo and his wife. Elena never had to work and was helped by a maid until racial laws forbade it.
Both of them loved Italian beaches and mountains and were surrounded by Italian friends. The many photographs which are in my possession portray them at the seaside and on the ski-slopes, confirming my belief that they enjoyed a fairly large income.
Liguria was still their favoured destination for the summer holidays: in June 1924 (the year of Matteotti’s assassination) Elena was once again at Sturla (since the end of the previous century the refuge of wealthy and slightly snobbish Milanese), portrayed with her parasol beside an unknown child; in the month of July of the same year she was at Santa Margherita1, on board a sailing-boat.
Meanwhile, in the happy eyes of the two well-off immigrants, Milan was changing into a European metropolis: in 1924 the City of Studies2 was completed, in 1925 the first traffic-light was installed in the Duomo square and the first radio station began broadcasting, playing mainly records and conversations, but also operas and concerts. In 1926 busses began to circulate and the San Siro stadium was inaugurated, while the race-course had been active as early as 1921.
In 1926 Ernst too left Austria to move to Italy, the country against which he had fought ten years earlier, and became “Ernesto”. What pushed him to that decisive step were his love of adventure, the spell that Italy cast over him on the occasion of a short holiday, but above all the opportunity to accept the position which he was offered by his brother-in-law.
My father’s post-war years had already been marked by drastic decisions: on the 8th of January 1919 he was converted to the Evangelical religion. His baptism was celebrated by pastor Gustav Zwernemann in the Reformierte Stadtkirche at Dorotheergasse. Two years later came the major break, the change of surname, which was meant to mark his final separation from Hebraism. This step did not stand for a rebellion or a refusal to identify with his family: it was rather the logical consequence of his father Armin’s resignation from Littau’s Jewish community, and it was accepted and approved by the whole family. The surname which he originally chose was Roeder, but the magistrate did not accept it because, allegedly, there were several Roeders in the Austrian Gotha. My father was therefore content with Roedner, a new name for a new identity.
Then he began his studies of architecture at Vienna University, which he probably never completed and threw to the wind with his decision to go in for the profession of travelling salesman as a subordinate of Bernardo’s: a choice upon which he commented self-ironically in an amusing ballad which he wrote and sent to his sister Wilma from Dolo, on the outskirts of Venice: