Caroline Moorehead

From Austria to Australia

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Good Living Street: The Fortunes of My Viennese Family

Tim Bonyhady

Allen & Unwin, pp. 376, £

Moriz Gallia from Moravia and Hermine Hamburger from Silesia met and married in Vienna in 1893, when the city was the third largest European capital after London and Paris. They were rich, from making and supplying gas mantles, and they were generous patrons of Vienna’s exceptionally lively artistic world. When their two daughters, Gretl and Käthe, fled to Australia after Kristallnacht, they took with them the finest collection of central European pictures, furniture, silver, glass, jewellery and porcelain to escape the Nazi looters.

Good Living Street — the author’s translation of Wohllebengasse, the name of the fashionable street on which the family lived — is not only the story of three generations of a wealthy and cultured Jewish family told through the odyssey of their lives across 20th-century European history, but a portrait of fin-de-siècle Vienna in all its artistic glory, with Mahler transforming the opera into the most celebrated orchestra in Europe, and the Secessionist painters, and the Wiener Werkstätte, the celebrated Vienna crafts works, reaching their peak of excellence and popularity. To be rich and cultivated in Austria before the first world war was to have a remarkable life.

Tim Bonyhady is Moriz and Hermine’s great-grandson, the son of Gretl’s daughter Annelore. After his mother’s death, he discovered cupboards full of papers, letters, menus, diaries and autograph books dating back to the late 19th century. It was an archive most biographers only dream of.

As Moriz and Hermine grew richer, so they took to commissioning portraits by Klimt and furniture by Joseph Hoffmann, who worked in ebony and gold leaf. When they came to build their own house, they brought in architects and decorators to design everything, from bookshelves to fabrics and carpets. Though they did not have long to enjoy the splendour of their mansion to the full — they moved in just six months before the first world war — their fortune was such that even through the Depression their granddaughter used to celebrate Christmas with 47 days of presents, culminating in gifts of pearls.

Music was a shared passion. It was not unusual for Gretl and her daughter Annelore to attend an opera or a concert virtually every evening. Wagner was their favourite composer and they were regular visitors to Bayreuth. Portraits commissioned from Viennese society photographers show the women in their ball dresses wearing ravishing jewels.

Like other anxious Viennese Jews, some of the Gallias converted to Catholicism, but this did not protect them for long from the Nuremberg laws. With the Anschluss, they ceased to be Austrian citizens and became German Jews. Though Moriz and Hermine — a spoilt and tyrannical woman who treated her divorced daughter Gretl like a superior servant — were by now dead, their children and relations were soon subject to Gestapo raids. Curators and dealers, whose galleries and workshops they had so lavishly patronised, became predators.

Käthe and Gretl were shrewd and very lucky. Even as the Nazis were destroying or stealing Vienna’s most important Jewish collections, the two sisters managed to secure visas for Australia for themselves and Annelore, and to ship out much of their inheritance. Two pianos, an upright and a grand, went with them to a suburb of Sydney. Gold coins, covered in fabric and sewn on to winter coats as buttons, provided cash. Erni, their brother, despatched 215 household items, which included not just five bookcases, 24 chairs, and two beds, but a 277-piece floral dinner service and 264 napkins (all later impounded by the fascists when their consignment of boxes was stopped in Trieste). The Australians, who resisted taking Polish Jews on the grounds that they were little better than aborigines, felt more welcoming towards these cosmopolitan heiresses.

Not that Australia proved easy. As ‘reffos’, the name given to the new arrivals, and, once war was declared, enemy aliens, they struggled to ‘become good Australians’. To make ends meet they taught and cleaned; they were remarkably uncomplaining, conscious always of the 65,000 Austrian Jews who had died in the camps and those who, too ill or frail to get away in time, had preferred suicide to arrest.

Annelore became Anne, Käthe, Kathe. One Jewish welfare society advised: ‘Do not try to teach the cows German. They would rather be milked in English.’ The squabbles over religion which had bedevilled the family in the Thirties continued down the generations when Anne — by then a devout Catholic — married into an orthodox Jewish family. The sisters bickered. Anne divorced.

Not long before his mother’s death, Tim Bonyhady asked her to write down the story of her life (like many Jewish survivors she had spoken little of the past). Her account of her first 17 years, the contents of her bulging cupboards, and diligent research in archives throughout Austria and Australia, have resulted in a book so rich in texture, so full of artistic and visual detail, that a whole lost central European world, and particularly its art, architecture and music, comes alive on the page.

Käthe and Gretl were lastingly grateful to the country that gave them sanctuary. And yet they could never quite forget the past nor put behind them their yearning for a marvellous stolen world. On some deep level, they remained refugees. In her will, Gretl wrote:

I want my ashes to be scattered. But I definitely do not want them to be buried in Australia. In death, at least, I do not want to be a foreigner.