Book Review: George Clare's Last Waltz in Vienna
Paying a visit to Georg Klaar’s family apartment, just before their Last Waltz in Vienna; a sense of the past still lingers
House Call in Währing
What is a home? A place on a map? A house wrapped in a relationship, or a role, or an identity? Not only: Home is also a sense of being present and awake to our true selves wherever we are, in every moment.
For Georg Klaar, author of Last Waltz in Vienna, home became an abstract phenomenon, a choice to recover, since being Jewish in Vienna at the outbreak of World War II could only mean loss. My own sense of loss feels similar, at least to me: a life uprooted, and the struggle to find myself again in turmoil, surrounded by ambitious people and luminous places that feel alien and out of reach—being lost somewhere between voguish glamour and genuine self-realization. The book evoked my own hidden fears.
Klaar, who became ‘George Clare’ in the England of his new life, tells the story of his Viennese family and through their characters portrays the tragedy of Austria’s Jews, evoking their last hopes and bitter cry for salvation. In what philosopher Allan Janik, co-author of Wittgenstein’s Vienna calls the one of the best memoirs of the period, we follow the Klaar family through several moves, following the line of resistance to the advancing Nazis to their eventual new home in London. But in Clare’s memory, the place that really represents home, or at least comes the closest, is his parents’ apartment in Vienna’s 9th District:
The flat where I walked with Father in my memory was big and spacious. It paired elegance with comfort and, seen through the eyes of the child and growing boy, it encompassed within its walls everything that was beautiful and good and kind, everything that was my parents’ life and my life, all that the word home can mean… The boy George had grown up in one flat, the young adult George had seen the second, and I visited the third.
A blonde Viennese woman opened the door on that early-June Monday morning. She was expecting me. The family currently residing in the residence had three members: a 14-year-old boy who had rushed out the door just as I came in, a mother finishing her morning coffee, and a 16-year-old girl who was applying her make-up before she left to school. They have been living here since 1999:
"My son plays the piano, and we chose this apartment because the couple who lived here earlier also had a son who played," explained the mother. So the neighbours were used to it.
First evidence that I was at the right place: There were the protective steel strips that the Klaar family had installed inside the entrance door in the 1930s to make it burglar-proof… but the key of terror opens all doors, however well they may be protected, Clare wrote. A door to the left led to a kitchen, the colour of high-backed clay. In front of me, a white door led to another room. As George remembered it, the back room had belonged to the family’s maid Poldi, whom the eight-year-old boy had been desperately in love with: Mad with jealousy on discovering that Poldi was engaged to be married, I had taken the kitchen knife and stabbed the door again and again… No cuts in the wood - the storage room door has been restored.
Walking back into the hallway, I saw the corner curtains and heard the telephone ringing. I pictured Frau Klaar answering, and handing the phone to her husband. There, I could almost see Herr Klaar as he approached, focused, taking a call from a bank official where he used to work. Now there were no curtains, and no ‘black ringing box’ attached to the wall. Moreover, the door to the right that used to lead to the parents’ bedroom was out of use. Now, you had to enter the living room first in order to navigate through the rest of the apartment.
Opening the door, I discovered a new and very different world, where the Klaars had never lived.
Here it was as if an artist had taken his colour palette and scattered the rainbow around the room: orange curtains, furniture in red and pink mixed with tones of violet, and blue pillows. Spare, stylish, Vienna modern - no sign of the Klaar family, apart from the gold leaf chandeliers and old, wooden window frames.
In contrast, what had once been the parents’, and was now the daughter’s bedroom, still resembled a part of the Klaar history: here was the green stove in the corner, as George remembered it. From there, one entered the boy’s room, once his little haven. Where a couch had filled the corner, there was now a wardrobe.
"I apologise, the walls haven’t been painted in a while," the woman said. But that of course was exactly the atmosphere I was desperately seeking. I wanted to find the world that had meant so much to the writer of a book that has come to mean so much to me.
Back through the living room, another bedroom emerged, once Herr Klaar’s study: It had peculiar, rather elegant shape, trapeziform with one corner cut off. Here, every morning punctually at 8:15, the ritual was performed: Josef Lippert, Herr Klaar’s personal barber whose shop was at the corner in Pichlergasse, laid out his instruments, worked up a lovely lather in his soap bowl, still one of those shaped like Don Quixote’s famous helmet, and began his operations. Now the room was almost empty, and the only real piece of furniture was a big bed at the center of a circular room. No smell of barber’s eau-de-Cologne, no satisfaction on Herr Klaar’s face.
Later on, right before the Anschluß, George reflected back on a snowy Sunday morning, looking out from the study into the Nußdorferstraße, [he] saw the white snow turning into dirty slush under stamping jackboots and the exhaust fumes of innumerable army lorries. The German Wehrmacht was moving in.
The window was slightly open, and I could hear the rumbling of the Straßenbahn. Had it sounded something like that? No, surely much louder, harsher. On the other side, is a view onto calm and still sleepy Pichlergasse. The Vienna in which George grew up, pretending to be a world metropolis of cosmopolitan elegance, had moved beyond its imposing façade of former imperial splendor, lurking defeat, poverty and fear.
But the memories never die, and remind us once again that history never repeats itself, man always does.
Last Waltz in Vienna
by George Clare
Macmillan UK (2007)
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