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Interview with an Austro-Hungarian

August 20th, 2013 · 1 Comment · Austria

Given that I’ve been re-reading Alan Furst, who spends a lot of time in Central Europe, and that World War I concluded with the end of the fairly ridiculous concept that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire … the other day I remembered a conversation I had more than 35 years ago — with someone who grew up in the the Dual Monarchy.

Even then I was impressed with that. “This person sitting in front of me remembers Emperor Franz Joseph!”

And she had a really interesting story to tell.

To back up for a minute, my meeting with the woman was a fortuitous event at what otherwise was a difficult (for me) social situation.

At the time I had something rather like a girlfriend, my first, and I knew even less about women then than I do now, and apparently we were closer than I knew.

So, long story short, I was invited to her house to meet the parents … and various other relatives. Which I was in no way ready for, but somehow was talked around to — even though I was fairly sure I would be miserable.

And then I met my friend’s grandmother … who was a refugee from the breakup of Austria-Hungary in 1918.

I thought she was the most interesting person there. And I sat next to her for an hour, at least, peppering her with questions. “What was it like, before Europe tore itself apart? How did you get out? What do you remember of the cities? Did you like the emperor?”

My friend thought I was neglecting her and other family members, and I suppose I was. And, at the time, several million people who were old enough to remember World War I must still have been alive.

I had never met one, however.

So, the outline of her story, as I remember it. Her family was Austrian or perhaps Polish. Members of the Central European bourgeoisie. Perfectly fine with the Dual Monarchy.

Then came the catastrophe that was the Great War, a conflagration Austria-Hungary never should have gotten caught up in, it being weak and riven by internal issues pertaining to the numerous minorities (Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Slovenes, Romanians, Poles, etc.) inside its borders … and it ended badly.

It was chaos in 1918, and her parents looked for a way out. Somehow, they ended up in southern Russia, having moved east instead of west (though I no longer remember why) … and the south of Russia was part of the country controlled by anti-communist anti-revolutionaries … but when things began to go badly (or even before) they decided they needed to get to the Pacific Ocean.

So, they somehow worked their way up to the Trans-Siberian Railroad, along around 1920 or so, during the Russian Civil War, and managed to reach Vladivostok.

They lived in China for a while, which might be where her descendants got the idea of taking off shoes before entering a house. (I remember being in socks.)

And, eventually, they came to the United States a few years later.

This grandmother could speak German, and perhaps another language or two. Being a polyglot was handy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And I realized that this older person … had done things and seen things I (at the time) did not associate with someone of that age … things I would never see or do. She had lived in a world that was quite vanished. At the time, most of it was behind the Iron Curtain.

It’s not often you meet someone from a vanished empire. It’s worth a few questions, even if others think you’re being more rude than curious.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Ben Bolch // Aug 22, 2013 at 8:50 AM

    I take it that girlfriend wasn’t in the picture very long.

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