In the autumn of 1909, by dint of hard work and perseverance, Stefanie von Rothenberg became the only girl from the Salzburg-Altstadt kreis to matriculate in theology at the noble and ancient University of Vienna, in spite of prolonged arguments with her father, who wanted her to go to Paris to study dressmaking with Patrice, or, at the very least, music, with his old friend Bénoit Lévy, the pianist.
“Theology, for the love of God?” her father had exclaimed.
“In a manner of speaking, Pappi.”
“God, God, God,” her Pappi had muttered. “Leave Him to the priests. Young ladies should study piano, dressmaking, the culinary arts. Perhaps psychology. In Paris, it’s the capital of Europe. I mean, you already speak French. But theology? Unless it’s a nun you want to be?”
“Oh no, Pappi,” said young Stefanie. “I have no desire to be a nun. And I would love to see Paris, but that will come. You see, much of what we believe has been misunderstood. Half of Christianity’s based on false interpretation. Women see these things. Men only want to impress each other.”
“I’m very happy for you, gans,” Stefanie’s Mutti said on the day of her daughter’s departure. The Vienna express stood panting in Salzburg station.The Hohensalzburg castle stood out as clearly as a lithograph against the blinding white of the freshly snow-covered Salzkammergut range. Mother and daughter embraced affectionately. Pappi kissed Stefanie’s cheek, then stood back to light a cigar and pollute the crisp early-autumn air.
“Come on! Let’s get on the train,” said Stefanie’s cousin Fritzl. He was accompanying her as a chaperon, as eager to show her the Imperial capital as she was to see it; in Salzburg Munich was closer, and from there it seemed no effort to continue to Frankfurt, Berlin, or Paris, but Vienna lay in the other, eastern direction, and a mist of the exotic hung over it, as if it still were the westernmost outpost of the Turkish East: “Asia begins at the Landstrasse,” in the words of Metternich. Capital of Empire, den of iniquity, high place of all art and culture.
The train ride took three hours. On the way they passed through Linz.
“Old Linz again,” observed Fritzl, as the train pulled in. A red-faced and sweating Jewish family of parents and two children, the father heavily bearded, all four dressed in black, battled its way on board and tumbled, parents grumbling and shouting, into Stefanie’s and Fritzl’s compartment.
“Vienna?” the father inquired.
“No,” said Fritzl. “This train terminates at Melk.” More Yiddish grumbling, and confused perusal of tickets, followed. “This ticket says Vienna, this train,” said the father, frowning. “The Vienna train leaves from across the platform,” lied Fritzl smoothly. “You’d better hurry if you want to catch it.” Husband and wife conferred. The two children, a boy and a girl between four and six, stared at Stefanie. The boy smiled. Stefanie was already in some discomfort over Fritzl’s brazenness, yet she was deeply reluctant to share the compartment with anybody else, let alone a somewhat malodorous (wuerst or boiled beef or something worse) family of four, let alone Jews, with their bizarre ways and incessant muttering...the boy was still staring at her. He was winsome, pale, black-haired, huge-eyed.
"Hello," he said. Stefanie smiled. “Let’s go, let’s go,” said the boy’s father. “Thank you, mein Herr. Thank you, meine Frau.” He bowed to Fritzl and Stefanie and shepherded his brood out of the compartment. Seconds later they were on the station platform again, arguing loudly. Fritzl snorted.
“Bloody Jews. I wasn’t about to let them stink up our compartment, believe me.”
“Ach, Fritzl. You’re half a Jew, after all.”
“Ach Stefanie. You know what I mean. Papa’s not a Jew, he’s.” Fritzl struggled with the concept. “He was born Jewish, ja, but he’s not a Jew. Like them. You know what I mean,” he repeated, petulantly.
Stefanie knew exactly what he meant. It was common coin in the Austria of those days. With a shrug, she endorsed her cousin’s deception, and his hair-splitting distinctions. At least they had the compartment to themselves! (But she thought guiltily of the kids, too young to comprehend grownups’ maneuvering...ach, himmel donner wetter. Sometimes you have to deceive to live, ja?)
The train resumed its journey. On one side the broad Danube stroked by, on the other the city of Linz dealt itself out like a deck of cards, dealing out, too, with the rapid dexterity of a croupier, Stefanie’s memories of her years at the Linz Real-Gymnasium, years that had come to an end so recently...and friends, including one or two she was hoping to see in Vienna...and Adolf, awkward suitor, now fully an orphan, poor boy, so she’d heard, not having seen him since that day two years ago when she’d also seen something she’d rather forget. She’d had no repetition of the hallucinations, and wished for none. She wished, on the contrary, like all nineteen-year-old girls, for a semblance of normality, fun, success, and happiness. And what she wished for most of all, these days, was Vienna.
Two hours later, after glimpses of the monasteries of Melk and St. Polten, and the grim ruins of Schloss Duernstein mirrored in the placid Danube, she got the latter part of her wish.
“Wien,” boomed the conductor, a florid gentleman with Franz-Josefine dundrearies. “Wien Westbahnhof, next and final stop.”
“Here we are, dear cousin,” said Fritzl. “Now the adventure begins.”
Stefanie hesitantly followed her cousin out of the echoing Westbahnhof into the bustle of the Bahnhofplatz. The autumn sun filled the hazy air with pale gold motes of light. It was mild, almost warm, a different climate entirely from Salzburg’s knife-edged Alpine air. This was the plain, the mighty Danube, the first march of the steppes to the Black Sea, the first city of the Balkans: Mitteleuropa with a vengeance!
Fritzl raised a hand.
“I can get us a cab if you just give me a minute,” he said.
The bustle was intense. Landaus, barouches and hackney cabs; grocer’s carts, coal wagons and motor cars; a Royal and Imperial carriage; the country smell of manure and the city-scent of petrol fumes; well-dressed people in grey and black; scruffy people in a grubbier spectrum of reds, browns, beiges and blues; people tall, short and of medium height; dark-skinned people, yellow-skinned people, people pinkish-gray; an organ-grinder, complete with performing monkey, playing “Rimini, My Rimini”; a police sergeant quite majestic atop a muscular bay...
“Vienna,” sighed Stefanie.
“Maybe we should take one of those cabs,” said Fritzl.
“I’ll just follow my nose,” said Stefanie.
“Forget your nose. Look! A motorbus.”
They mounted, were borne away, past the Gurtel, down the busy Mariahilferstrasse, into the center of the metropolis. Stefanie gawked at the shops, the teeming crowds, the traffic. Another bus, and a short walk across the Ringstrasse (“Look! The Opera!”), brought them to the Johannesgasse near the Stadtpark residence of Frizl’s parents the Baron and Baroness Ottoheinz, a restrained mansion, an urban palais.
“Hello, Aunt Liesl. Uncle Ernst.”
"Good evening, young lady."
“My heavens!” exclaimed the Baron. “Quite the young lady indeed! And the last time I saw you, you were so, um. Small!”
And so began Stefanie’s life as a Viennese. Vienna, emotionally, became her deepest home, no matter where else she might reside: Wien, Wien, noch du allein! For the first four years she lived in the cozy mansion at No. 101 Johannesgasse, in a third-floor attic room with a mansard window and a view over the Stadtpark, famous for its autumn roses, a view that took on an indefinable melancholy on winter evenings when the lamps came on and the strollers were shades in a misty never-land. Throughout her sojourn Stefanie got along surprisingly well with her aunt and uncle, the parvenu nobles—riding on a fortune created from wood-pulp and newsprint—and even did quite well with cheeky cousin Fritzl. Of course, cousin Fritzl was three years older than she, and he was engaged to the daughter of a wealthy Bavarian landowner. These facts kept flirtation and cousinly teasing to a minimum; moreover, Fritzl was a harmless youth whose ambitions were circumscribed by average intelligence and total lack of malice. Both of these would become irrelevant when he married his rich Catholic princess from Bavaria and thereby furthered the process of assimilation, not that Fritzl, blond and blue-eyed as he was, had very far to go. His father the Baron had Austrianized, or de-Judaized, himself to such an extent as to be quite unrecognizable as a Son of Israel (except, as Fritzl would point out at moments of ire, for his nose); bluff and grandiose, an aficionado of the opera and the hunt, an admirer of fine brandies and (when Aunt Liesl was elsewhere) of pretty women, Baron Ernst, né Isidor Kahane in Kallischt, Bohemia, was much like Stefanie’s father, indeed much like a dozen Austrian Pappis she could name. As with those others, ostentatious civility reigned, and the Baron was never less than courteous in his dealings with his niece. With others he could be less accommodating, as befit a man of business and wood-pulp millionaire. He remained a dandy, but over the four years of Stefanie’s sojourn his neck turned ropy, his hearing deteriorated and the once-silken tones of his voice aged into a husky blare made huskier by his incessant smoking of Egyptian cigarettes and loud prolonged sinus-clearing hoots.
“I must move out of this city,” he was wont to say, in spurious despair. “Hüüüüm! How can anyone live in such a climate?”
“You’ll never move, Uncle,” Stefanie would reply, in a kind of pantomime argument. “And the climate isn’t so bad.”
For her, the climate was perfect; she loved the damp chill of the alluvial plain, the frosty breath on the cheek on an autumn morning (in Vienna even well into late spring a melancholy wisp of winter lurks), the billowing steam-clouds emanating from the kitchens and laundries in the still morning when the tramcars rattled down the Ringstrasse and the delivery horses clip-clopped by, billowing tusks of nose-vapor, and students trudged their thoughtful (or fearful or lovelorn or hungover) way through the city, in Stefanie’s case briskly walking the length of Johannesgasse as far as the Kartnerstrasse and the glorious baroque pile of the Augustiner Church, passing by the somber gray enigma of the Hofburg (where one morning she saw the Archduke again, this time driving himself in an open motorcar, no Sophie at his side) and so down the Herrengasse to the Schottentor and past the slender linden trees of the Schottenring to the entrance to the University, where 32 statues of great men of the ages dominated, with a fustian air of venerable masculinity, the main courtyard, as at a gentleman’s club. Although women were admitted, just (she was once asked at high volume by a steely-eyed veteran doorman for her papers and “a telephone number where your father can be reached”), life in the distaff column was rigorous in the Theology faculty, most masculine sanctum sanctorum of the great institution’s venerable departments. In fact, in the first trimester, Stefanie’s ambition to qualify as a Doctor of Theology was thwarted by mockery and double entendre—and, on one or two occasions, hostility (“A girl should be a wife or a cabaret dancer, nothing else”; “As if we hadn’t enough whores in this town already!”; “Did you make the coffee yet, meine kleine schmetterling?”)—-but Stefanie von Rothenberg was of the mold of greatness, and greatness wavers not. The study of God and His relations with His creatures was Stefanie’s passport to wisdom. In her first trimestrial exams she scored three 10s, top marks grudgingly but respectfully given by the two Ancients, Herrn Doktoren Professoren von Schnitzl and Braun. Indeed, Herr Professor Braun succumbed to the ailment common to aging men: the need, with or without sexual undertones (with, in the professor’s case), to take under their wings female fledglings. Fortunately, confusingly allied as they were with strong feelings of fatherhood, Professor Braun’s urges led nowhere more daring than the Café Landtmann, once, for a kaffee mit schlagober and a slice of Indianer cake.
“Fraulein von Rothenberg, your point concerning the ineluctability of the Wittenberg Principles was exceedingly well taken,” said Professor Braun, no dab hand at the niceties of polite conversation (unsurprising, after forty-three years at the Faculty). “But I question your interest in the mystical experiences of Martin Luther. As far as I know, he had none. But on the other hand, he may have had. Who am I, ah ha ha, to judge? Another cognac?”
Not that Stefanie, at age twenty, was by any means a fledgling: She was poised, elegant, more worldly by the day, and could be mordant in her humor. Other men younger than Professor Braun were attracted, and were invariably turned away. One made it through the front door of the Palais Ottoheinz long enough to sample Aunt Liesl’s Kaffee Maria Theresia and Braun Apfel at one of the family’s monthly jours, or at-homes.
“Delicious,” he said, but was ignored, and fell silent, chewing. Stefanie took note of this, and of the lad’s reluctance to proclaim his existence any more loudly, and, unforgivingly, she affixed a note to her mental ledger reading NO beside his name (Baldur). She despised the timid, the ignorant, the pusillanimous, the conformist; she had all the confident, even brassy determination of an intelligent young woman of her class who had been well-loved as a child. Few men, indeed, matched her demands, or aroused her desires. One who briefly did was a Polish violinist named Tadeusz Banaczynski, who performed Tchaikovsky, Clementi, and Josef Strauss one night at her aunt and uncle’s, and who conversed with her, politely and quietly, after the performance. His prematurely-graying beard, and the touch of aspersion in his humor, bid fair to win her over completely, but one night a week later the Royal and Imperial police forestalled any further amorousness by removing Tadeusz from the concert stage at the Musikverein; the second violinist in the Krakow Salon Ensemble had, it seemed, implicated the violinist in a plot to assassinate the Austrian Governor of Galicia.
“I believe our Stefanie had her eye on him,” murmured the Baroness one evening after supper.
“Hmmm,” replied the Baron, fishing for his matches.
“Banaczynski? The Polish violinist turned mad bomber? Dear?”
“Bomber? Ah yes.That schleimer.” The Baron slewed around and, magically conjuring a handkerchief, uttered a long low sinus-clearing hoot. “Hüüüüümmm.”
“How perceptive of you, Aunt,” said Stefanie, from the doorway. “I found him sensitive, intelligent and original. I was as surprised as anyone to learn that he was...”
“An agent provocateur?” interjected the Baroness.
“Such a fine violinist.”
Nodding sagely, the Baron lit his Egyptian cigarette and smoothly exhaled a stream of pungent Levantine smoke.
Happily, Tadeusz Banaczynski’s life and accomplishments were by no means over. He was recruited to the Habsburg Secret Service by the not-yet-notorious Colonel Redl; arrested by Marshal Pilsudski’s security forces in the 1920s; and rescued from the Krakow jail by a devoted female admirer with whom he spent nine years in Paris, finishing his life as a violin tutor in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York, USA, where, one morning in 1954, he read of Stefanie in the Gazeta Wyborcza and remembered, suddenly, that evening at the Palais Ottoheinz in the long-ago Vienna of yesteryear, the girl with the shining eyes, another age, another world, as if Tadeusz himself had lived from medieval times clear through to the Nuclear Age...then he died.
Franz Schubert and Friends at a "Schubertiade," 1825.