Book Review: Meine Neun Leben (My Nine Lives), by Martin Katz
Hunted by the Nazis in Vienna, conquering the elite in Munich: A review of the astonishing survival of a single man in Nazi Austria
The Nine Lives of Martin Katz
"A few months ago I turned 91," wrote Martin Katz, "and I think that I don’t have an endless amount of time to report to the generation of my grandchildren about the miracle that I’ve experienced: I have survived."
His memoir, Meine Neun Leben (My Nine Lives) was published by Kremayr & Scheriau in March, and he felt a new sense of urgency to tell his story to a wider audience. Written in first person perspective, filled with specifics, anecdotes, dates and times, it is a powerful retelling, a fascinating, even breathtaking story of his life as a Jewish teenager in Vienna in the 1930s, the details of his own particular hell and unlikely good fortune in surviving Nazi persecution. He managed – what only too few could – to survive. It is a story whose horror and subsequent triumph left the audience speechless, silent and stunned. We have heard these stories before, yet the immediacy will always fade. Hearing Martin Katz, the importance and power of this history unfolded once again.
I arrived a few minutes late at the theater, slipping into a seat right in front, as Martin Katz had slowly just begun to make his way to the stage. The long, narrow hall was filled, the audience visibly excited, even restless to see the frail old man behind the story.
Minutes later, Katz and Austrian journalist Peter Michael Lingens took their seats onstage at a small round glass table. Director Amira Bibawy of the Theater Nestroyhof-Hamakom quickly briefed the audience about the theater’s history. Built in 1898, the Jugendstil theater had been a center for Jewish theater between 1927-38. In 2008, Bibawy and partner Frederic Lion formed the renamed Theater Nestroyhof- Hamakom, Hebrew for "The Place." Publisher Martin Scheriau then read a quote from literature Nobel Prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek:
"What a destiny!" Jelinek had written. "There must have been more than nine lives that Martin Katz has lived. At some point I stopped counting them. From a young black marketer in Vienna, whose father was beaten to death by the Nazis and mother deported, to the limelight of the glamorous life of post-war Munich. And back again.
"One cannot believe it, one must just have lived it. And it must be read."
Now, the stage was free for the elderly, charming, sweet-tempered and funny man whose life had brought the audience together that evening.
"Thank you all for coming," Katz began. "It means a lot to me that so many people came to hear about my story." He thanked the publishers, his daughter and assistant Janine Prader, and Peter Lingens, who would read tonight.
Lingens began with excerpts showing the hardships Katz had gone through and the coincidences that allowed him to survive the Nazi regime in Austria. Katz had been imprisoned in Vienna, awaiting either immediate execution or Auschwitz. Despite being one of the newest arrivals, he was one of the first taken out of the cell he shared with 35 others. He was brought to a room, last in a line of about ten. Finally, he stood in front of an officer. "Please, what will happen to me?" Katz asked. The officer replied, "Sie gengan z’Haus" You’re going home. He thought it was a joke, and didn’t move, barely breathing. But the man repeated it, "Ja, Sie gengan z’Haus" Yes, you’re going home. Only when the warden took off his handcuffs and ordered him to leave the room, did Katz believe the miracle.
He was free again. But whenever he passed Nazi officers in the streets, he stared them straight in the eye. Always. If he looked down or away, they would think he was Jewish.
In another harrowing sequence of events, Katz’s father was beaten to death and shortly thereafter, his mother was deported to Auschwitz. That day, just by chance, Katz had taken a different route home, and was approached by someone he knew. He shouldn’t go home, he was told, as the Gestapo’s trucks just arrived to deport people from his building. If he went home to try and save his mothers life, he would die as well. It was one of the hardest decisions he ever made. He did what his mother would have wanted him to do.
He slowly walked home, pretending to look inside some shop windows, and when he got closer, he stopped at a street corner and saw the trucks. It was a day he would never forget.
After that, he survived by trading food vouchers and jewelry with the Nazis to obtain food and other necessities for himself, his girlfriend Renee and her mother that allowed them to survive. He resided here and there, in people’s attics or apartments as he didn’t know how long before fleeing to Munich. There better times awaited him.
Even for Lingens, though, it was hard going. As the journalist got to the part where the Gestapo took Katz’s mother, his eyes welled up with tears and his voice quivered; I later learned that he too had lost his mother to the Gestapo. While he read, Katz sat patiently listening, completely concentrated on the retelling of his past, occasionally looking around the packed theater at the people in the audience. It mattered to him that it mattered to us.
After 20 minutes – often with listeners shaking their heads in disbelief – the stage was free for Katz. Lingens asked him a few questions about his 1940s-era girlfriend Renee – the love of his life – if she were still alive. Were they still in contact? As Katz began to speak, the crowd suddenly became silent and fully attentive. She had survived by moving to Sweden, Katz said, and then later to Canada, where she still lives today. But no, they had no further contact. And left it at that. Some things need to remain private.
He went on to describe harrowing situations, from when he hid from the Nazis at other people’s homes, to when a woman had had the courage to lie to the Nazis about his hiding in her apartment, to bribing officials to obtain a passport.
Once in Munich, Katz’s social and financial recovery came when he opened his Operncafe, which would eventually become a prominent meeting place. As director of the "Theater unter den Arkaden" and owner of a few taverns, Katz achieved more than he ever would have dared to dream of. Then he had a streak of bad luck, as the Operncafe had to close down, and after an extended odyssey, he came back to Vienna. With his relentless will to live, Katz overcame every obstacle that crossed his path.
But more than half a century later, he said, the sudden ring of his doorbell still gives him chills… The room hushed, as the listeners realized what this man had gone through, what tragedies he had encountered. His soft voice filled the silence of the room as he slowly answered the questions. He described the times when he had no place to sleep and didn’t know what the next minutes, hours, and days would bring. Alone, not being able to trust a soul. From time to time, Katz paused to catch his breath, but he pushed through the questions. Even today, he does not give up.
Today, Martin Katz lives (yet again) in the 2nd District, a seven-minute walk from the apartment from where the Nazis evicted his family, six minutes away from the room where he himself hid. The cafes where he once traded goods with the Nazis, he visits yet again, to have a cup of coffee and reflect of the extraordinary turns of fate that had led him here.
Some people are amazingly adaptable. Martin Katz is one of them. He has not just survived, but lived on.
Meine Neun Leben
Kremayr & Scheriau 2011
Available at: Thalia
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