I was blind and now I can see.
As I continue working on my novel-in-progress, The Music of the Mountain, I am often tempted to turn down unexpected yet rewarding paths that I pray don’t blind me to where God wants me to go, to see what he wants me to see, to tell a tale he wants me to tell. The most recent path has taken me to Vienna in 1938 and the Anschluss (annexation), the invasion of Austria by Hitler in March and the following Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) in November. Over this horrific time period over 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to camps.
The question is often asked, why didn’t they see this coming? Why didn’t more escape, immigrate, hide? Vienna posed one of the classic answers, that with their wealth and perceived assimilation, their conversion to Catholicism or simply becoming secular Jews they thought they were immune. Many, to be sure, didn’t think of themselves as Jewish. They had intermarried and had provided the Vienna community with the greatest art and music, intellectuals and writers, Europe has ever known and probably will never know again.
I became intrigued with Vienna when a friend gave me a calendar of Gustav Klimt’s paintings. Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter (1862-1918). The story of his painting of the Viennese Jewish socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925), “The Lady in Gold,” using icon-style gold leaf, ushered me into fin-de-siecle Vienna, a time of the great literary and music salons. I was intrigued, particularly since I would be including in my novel a Holocaust story. Would this be the tale I would tell? There were many to choose from.
So I read the book that tells the tale of Adele by Anne-Marie O’Connor (The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, New York: Vintage, 2012). I then saw the movie based on this story of the fight for ownership of the painting (featuring Helen Mirren), involving a dispute between Adele’s heirs and the Austrian government, finally settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. I wasn’t as interested in the court case and effort to recover Nazi stolen art as I was with the early chapters in the book describing Viennese society at the turn of the nineteenth century, with the rise of industry and banking. Adele’s father was head of one of the largest banks in the Hapsburg Empire and head of the Orient Express. Her husband is Ferdinand Bauer, a sugar-beet baron. They were significant patrons of the arts. She was an early feminist, desiring to be educated as men were (!). She posed for the well-known painter Klimt, and reigned over the grand salons in her palace.
While she was not directly affected by the Holocaust, her world was. I suddenly realized why they didn’t see it all coming. They had become decadent, assuming that society needed them, considering all they had given to society, so very true. Recall that Vienna was home to Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss, Freud and Adler, to name a few. Vienna must have seemed like the center of the cultured world, glittering and golden, brilliant and artistic.
Just like Americans today.
We too, have become decadent, seeing the greater world as dependent upon us, our talent and wealth, and so it has been in past and for the most part still is. But we don’t want to be blinded by our creature comforts and most of all, our pride. We have become soft, used to modern conveniences, used to being entertained, used to supermarkets laden with food and dry goods, used to doing little for our world and contributing less. Today, I read, people have the “right not to work,” to be paid by those who do work.
Then came the pandemic and lockdowns and shortages, the escalating gas prices and homelessness, the rising crime and mass shootings, the brainwashing of our children, the takeover of major institutions by the radical left, and yes, the unsurprising rise of anti-Semitism, the traditional scapegoat for burgeoning inflation and general unhappiness.
The Gospel lesson today was the healing of the blind man on the road to Jerusalem. He is healed because of his faith: “Receive thy sight,” Jesus says. “Thy faith hath saved thee.” (Luke 18: 31+, BCP 123). This third Sunday of Pre-Lent, as we prepare to receive the ashen cross on our foreheads this Wednesday, as we begin our own journey to Jerusalem, our own passion, our own healing and salvation, following Christ’s footsteps to the Cross – as we prepare to step alongside him, we pray to see the truth of our world and our own souls. Heal us, we cry, have mercy upon us, that we may see. We are told by our censors to be silent, to not cause a disturbance, just as the blind man was told. But we, like him, speak out, crying to Our Lord that our world may see, may be awakened.
And so, the question remains. Will I be using this Viennese story in my novel-in-progress, the story of why a few escaped because they could see, and why most were murdered because they refused to see? I placed the research in a pile of other stories, keeping the Lady in Gold in my sight. Then I read about “Leopoldstadt,” the brilliant play by Tom Stoppard. An excellent review can be found in January’s Commentary. The play is set in Vienna, from the fin-de-siecle to 1955. While it is fiction, of course, it is based on many stories of the time, including Tom Stoppard’s. It turns out that he is Jewish and his mother and father, along with their two young sons fled Czechoslovakia, from a town near the Austrian border called Zlin. They fled on March 15, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded. His name then was Tomas Straussler, and his father’s employer moved his Jewish employees to Singapore, to another factory. Of course I ordered the recent biography of Tom Stoppard. An interview by director Patrick Marber is excellent and fascinating.
The play opened in London in 2020 and recently in New York. It takes place in a drawing room in a grand palais in Vienna and we see how the families portrayed didn’t see, we see how easily blinded one can become. I’m looking forward to reading the script. Another pathway beckons… but yes, I think the experience of the Jewish community in Vienna will be one of my backstories. Leopoldstadt, the Jewish quarter in Vienna produced much of the West’s civilization, and somehow mirrors today’s challenges in eerie and frightening ways.
And I shall pray for healing as we follow the path to Jerusalem.
I can’t imagine the loss to humanity and the loss of our humanity brought by WW2. We are in an exponential downward spiral of evil that only Divine Intervention can correct. Thank you, as always, for your observations. I look forward to your new book.
This is incredible, Christine. I am so intrigued by your research for your next novel.
I would like to find a time to speak with you. Weighing heavier on my heart is the task of writing a book, possibly entitled “Will Our Children Be Free” … yet I know not where to even begin.
It seems so overwhelming that I feel defeated at the thought of even starting. Maybe this is normal?!
May God guide your endeavor. Monique
Monique Robles, MD, MS Bioethics Pediatric Critical Care Physician, Bioethicist, Writer http://www.humandignityspeaks.comhttp://www.humandignityspeaks.com/ ________________________________