A Letter to My Son, Chris

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My friend Robi Paul Richard

Recently, you told me about a new lady who joined your laboratory and how, being from India, she is familiar with the works of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. This triggered a memory in me, a recollection in connection with my best childhood friend, Robi Paul Richard.

My mother befriended Robi’s grandparents, Fritz and Frida Richard, when they were actors performing in the play “Jedermann” by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the annual Salzburg Festival and bought a house in the neighbourhood. It must have been after the war, probably in 1946, that I visited them with my mother, but years before, the Richards were affiliated with a theater in Berlin with the director Max Reinhardt. In the late 1920s, Reinhardt staged a production of Tagore’s “The Post Office”, in which Trude Richard, the youngest daughter, played a leading role. Tagore himself came to see his play.02

I must imagine that in the magical aura of the play itself, and with the allure of the exotic Tagore and his entourage of Indian men, Trude became enchanted and, hence, romantically involved. In 1927, she gave birth to an obviously Indian boy. One of Tagore’s traveling companions came forward to claim responsibility for siring the boy, and Tagore (then aged 65) agreed to be the boy’s godfather. As you have probably guessed, the boy was named Robi Richard.

It occurred to me only today that Tagore’s name in the Bengali pronunciation is “Robindronat”. Perhaps, as a child, he was also given the affectionate diminutive of “Robi”! Hmmm.

When Robi Richard immigrated to the USA, he changed his Hindu name to “Paul”. Nevertheless, when he arrived in the States, he was listed on the roster as “coloured”. Trude, who could not live without her son, followed him to New York within the year. Then Robi, along with an old classmate from Vienna, Ivan Illich, enticed me to come to America, as well. Because it would have meant a wait of seven years for me to obtain a US immigration visa, my friends suggested that I make the passage to Canada instead. I agreed, and after pawning his valuable microscope, Robi advanced the necessary funds for me to do so and I arrived in Montreal with you and your mother in 1953.

Years later, Robi suffered a brain tumor and passed away. His mother, Trude, had already been cremated for some time. Robi’s wife called me to come to New York to collect Trude’s ashes, (along with the ashes of her cat), saying that the alternative was for them to be flushed down the toilet. Your mother and I drove down, picked up the ashes, then years later deposited them, according to Trude’s wishes, in her parents’ grave in the cemetery in Aigen, a suburb of Salzburg. You, Chris, faced a similar task with your mother’s ashes, and will face it again when my time comes.

There are so many examples I can think of in my life that prove to me that all is a matter of destiny. Nothing happens naturally or by chance. Everything that happens, happens through some guiding, spiritual cause and effect. I would now advise anyone to become mindful of the spiritual intervention around us and treat it with reverence, as I have learned to do. Particularly, I have come to learn that women have been undervalued, have not been recognized as the most vital part of humanity, and it will only be through them that an advancement to a universal peace will be possible, an advancement which male dominance has failed to achieve since time immemorial.

Your Dad

Rabindranath-Tagore-thoughts

The Krampus – A True Story

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I was born in Salzburg, Austria, a city populated primarily with Roman Catholics. We began each year’s celebration of the birth of Christ with Advent on the first Sunday in December. As children, nearly a century ago, our traditions were quite different from those I share with my family in North America today. For one thing, we were not permitted see the decorated Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. And for another, we did not have a ‘Santa Claus’, the roly-poly jolly man shouting “Ho-Ho-Ho!” with a toy factory at the North Pole and a sled drawn by magic flying reindeer.
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Saint Nicholas was a Greek Bishop of the 4th century and was canonized as the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants and pawnbrokers, for the miracles that were attributed to him at that time.
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I do not know when it became a custom in Austria for Saint Nicholas to make his rounds to households with children, nor do I know why it became tradition for him to be accompanied by a descendant of Satan as his helper, a creature with black fur, who toted the Bishop’s sack of goodies, but also carried a threatening bundle of brushwood switches. In any case, these were the personalities that symbolized the beginning of our Christmas season – Saint Nicholas and the Krampus.
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I remember only one of these visits from Saint Nicholas and his demonic assistant. I was five years old, the youngest of six children. My parents had had us prepare for this anticipated visit by writing our lists of Christmas wishes which we would have to hand over to the Bishop at nightfall on December 6th only after we had been given his blessing and been forgiven for our sins. I didn’t really know, at that age, what to expect. All I knew was that there were wishes to be fulfilled.

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As promised, the Bishop with his ugly, terrifying furry companion arrived at our door when the sun had gone down. Saint Nicholas proceeded to list the petty crimes I had committed over the course of the last year, then pointed out my bad habits. I started to cry for surely this holy man, looking into the souls of sinners, could see the truth! And whenever he pointed out one of my transgressions or faults, the black horned Krampus, hunchbacked and leering, would raise his bundle of switches to swipe at me. The kind bishop calmly held him off each time, but I shivered, waiting for the sin that would have me whipped.
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Finally, the Bishop ordered the Krampus to lower his weapon and instead to open the sack. Through my tears, I was greatly relieved to see that I was being handed a present. I was forgiven.

I only found out years later that Saint Nicholas was, in fact, an old uncle of mine, and Krampus was played by our cook, a dark shaggy rug thrown over a sack of chicken feed on her back transforming her too convincingly for a small boy of five to see through the charade. My brothers and sisters had merely played along.

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My mother held me on her lap, consoling me after my ordeal, while the Bishop and the Krampus were given drinks to toast a merry Christmas, and everyone was given an edible replica of the devilish helper. I held the six-inch figure made of black dried prunes in my small hands, but looking wide-eyed at the real thing across the table, was a bit nervous to actually bite into my Zwetschgen Krampus.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you.

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Photos sourced through Google Images.

Musings Inspired by my Journey to Vienna Part 4

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The most vivid memories that my trip to Vienna stirred were, of course, of my last days there, after I got married in the Fall of 1949. I had been anxious to be married before my final exams because I did not believe that I could pass them all unless my sweetheart was with me, and we wanted to have our marriage confirmed in a Catholic church in Vienna because my Protestant family had been opposed to my sudden engagement. We were more amicably received by our Viennese relatives. Geraldine and I were married in St. Mary’s Church in December. And, my aunt Liesl made the arrangements for a proper reception, at which we were to have a surprise guest, someone I had never before met. Aunt Liesl had gone to some trouble to find his address and send him a written invitation.

St. Mary's church, Vienna, The statue of Joseph Hayden in the foreground

St. Mary’s church, Vienna, The statue of Joseph Hayden in the foreground

My mother’s youngest brother, Teddy Jauner, had been one of the opposing party in the estate battle after Grandma Jauner’s death in 1923. My father had been furious over my uncle’s role in the affair, and we were forbidden from mentioning his name in our household. After almost three decades, my mother was longing to let bygones be bygones, but she did not dare suggest this to our father. When I went to Vienna to study, she took me aside in confidence and asked if I would try to find out how Teddy is doing and, if possible, arrange to meet him to pass on his sister’s greetings, to tell him that she wishes him well.

Geraldine and I did not meet Uncle Teddy until we were assembled in the sacristy of the church to sign our marriage papers. He had slipped into the church unnoticed to witness the wedding ceremony, then snuck into the sacristy to meet us and to kiss the bride. He wished us well and told me that finally, after 25 years, he had called my mother in Salzburg and had a pleasant talk with her. Before my aunt Liesl could invite him to the dinner party that she had arranged for all the wedding guests, however, he had vanished.

I am happy to say that we did have the opportunity to meet him again, though. He invited us to have lunch with him in his small apartment, where we could have a heart-to-heat talk. We learned about his life and his work. He had written a self-published biography of Franz Ritter von Jauner, the famous theatre director and his own uncle, and was now living life in general isolation. He also described the tragic misunderstandings that had occurred upon the death of my grandmother.

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Franz Ritter von Jauner

Times were very hard after World War I. The depression and mounting inflation gave rise to a sect of greedy, artful lawyers and government agents who preyed on the ignorance of the relatives of those who had been lost, robbing them of their inheritance. A few years earlier, Uncle Teddy had received a pittance from the estate, then a letter from the two sisters of his lawyer who had passed away. The sisters were packing up their brother’s office and had found a heavy box marked ‘Jauner’. When Uncle Teddy brought the box home and opened it, he found it was packed with stock certificates that had been issued to his mother. The companies in question had flourished during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, but now their stock was, as he said, “worth as much as wallpaper”.

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Geraldine and I met with Uncle Teddy a few more times and I was able to put him in touch with my brother, Benvenuto, when he moved to Vienna as well. At least he then had something of a semblance to family. Unfortunately, he and my mother never had the opportunity to meet, ever again, in person.

Yes, Vienna is still very much on my mind and will continue to be as I complete the English translation of Uncle Teddy’s manuscript, Franz Ritter von Jauner: The King of the Operetta. I am very happy that I had the chance to become reconnected with my brother’s children in the most pleasant way. I hope that, one day, they will come to visit me in Canada.

And now 60 years later, the Eastern Townships, where I live, does not seem so different.

The Eastern Townships of Quebec, where I have now lived for 60 years, does not seem so different from home.

Photo source, google images

Musings Inspired by my Journey to Vienna Part 3

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My Alma Mater, University of Vienna

On the Ring Boulevard, driving by the main university building of my alma mater, I remembered my uncle Bobble, the younger brother of my father, Alfred Wilhelm Freiherr von Kap-herr. Uncle Bobble was the highest ranking member of the Federal Department of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, promoted to the position of Chief of that department in Vienna in the early 1940s, when he came to live there with his wife and three small children. He recognised early on that the war in Russia would end in a miserable defeat for Germany, and that Vienna would be subject to a brutal occupation by the Red Army. With this foresight, he brought several trainloads of dried peas, a non-perishable staple, from Bulgaria, and had it stored in warehouses across several districts of Vienna. And as it turned out, when the Russian army invaded Vienna, they raided every food store, but left the peas to the populace to sustain themselves.

Market peas

Market peas

However, food resources were still a terrible problem. By April 1947, the people of Vienna were becoming desperate, as the Austrian government was no longer able to distribute any rations. On the 5th of May, this state of near-starvation culminated in a violent food riot. The people of Vienna, driven mad by their exclusively pea diet, exploded. To mollify them, the Russian occupation forces began to allow the purchase of a particularly intoxicating alcoholic beverage, ominously called ‘Sturm’. Translated to English, it means ‘storm’ and consists of fermented freshly pressed grape juice.

Quick fermentation in oak casks. Peels and all

Quick fermentation in oak casks. Peels and all

Thankfully, before the Viennese starved to death, the United States government released $300 million in food aid. My uncle left Vienna with his family before the end of the war, so did not witness the survival of its people, mainly thanks to his wisdom and his conscientious contribution of provisions. When I returned to Vienna from my summer holidays in Salzburg to resume my studies in September, I was impressed by the happy-go-lucky spirit of the Viennese people. Of course, they were spared from their depression by a pleasant fog of spirit fumes and flatulence.

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To be cont.

Musings Inspired by my Journey to Vienna Part 2

Vienna Streets

Vienna Streets

When grandmother died in 1923, there ensued a battle over her estate, a prolonged legal battle waged between expensive lawyers who, having control, began to sell off parts of the estate to cover their own exorbitant fees. My uncle, Ludwig Jauner, who was on my mother’s side, had a friend. This friend suggested that my mother sell the valuable pearl necklace that my grandmother had left her in the interest of salvaging what remained of the estate. My mother agreed, so he took the precious pearls with him to Amsterdam and sold them, but before he boarded a steamer to South America, he sent my uncle a postcard with just one short message:

Dear Mr. Jauner,

I am sorry, but pearls just bring tears.

Your friend, XYZ

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My mother had another idea. Just before the lawyers tried to sell my grandmother’s apartment house in Vienna, at Strohgasse 10, she decided she would move there to live and give birth to me. During the journey she contracted puerperal fever and it nearly killed her, however, she recovered under the tireless care of an old friend. They shared a bedroom at the Sacré Cœur nunnery in Baden near Vienna until my mother was well and had borne her child. That lady, whom I called Aunt Liesl, also took care of me and later let me stay at her apartment, rent-free, during my years of study from 1946 to 1949.

When my father sold his share in a business in Salzburg early in the 1930s in order to join his old comrades from the First World War, the family moved to Munich, then to another city in Germany before settling in Berlin. I first attended a boarding school in Bavaria, then went to a high school in Berlin, which, when the Second World War began to rage, transferred its student classes to safer places. I was billeted, along with my classmates, in Leitmeritz, Czechoslovakia, but I applied for military service in the Luftwaffe. However, I had to forego a three-month stint with the Nazi Arbeitsdienst to help build a stretch of highway in the province of Silesia instead. In the meantime, my mother relocated the household, including her two concert pianos, to a villa in Mödling, a suburb of Vienna, to escape the bombing raids.

My Mother

My Mother

My oldest brother, Benvenuto d’Albert, instead of following the orders of the Swiss government to relocate back to Switzerland and perform his military service there, joined the German Mountaineers troop with his friends. He went to war in Russia and later fought against the partisans in Yugoslavia. On one of his leaves he came to Vienna to stay in our mother’s villa. One night, there was an air raid, and rather than seek refuge with the family in a bomb shelter, he stayed at the house. He had not witnessed the onset of these city bombings, having been on the front lines. Curious, he went out onto the terrace to watch the bomber formations in the sky, but when he heard the tell-tale whistling of the bombs falling, he dove back into the living room and crouched between the two pianos. This decision saved his life. A bomb exploded on the roof and the second floor of the villa collapsed, burying my brother under the debris. The pianos saved his life, but only just, as a bolder from the chimney had lodged itself against his neck and shoulder. He was paralysed for several hours in the hospital and later said that he was probably safer at the front than in the city, although by the end of the war he had been wounded nine times and had earned the golden hand-to-hand combat order, a decoration which was awarded only three hundred times during the course of the whole war.

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After that bombing raid, my mother could no longer bear to stay in Vienna. When I completed my service in the Arbeitsdienst, I went back to stay with her for a week, to help pack whatever belongings could be salvaged, then to drive the delivery truck to Salzburg where my sister Wilfriede was living with her two girls. My mother’s things were stored in a farmer’s barn.

I then received my orders to join the Luftwaffe and to report at a camp near Munich on August 23rd, 1943… However, that is another story, to be related some other time, as it does not pertain to my reminiscences of Vienna during my recent trip.

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To be cont.