I’ve just got back from a Central European holiday with my family. We flew to Slovakia and then travelled by train from Bratislava to Vienna, followed by a long train journey to Kosice, the second city of Slovakia, in the eastern borderland area near Poland and Ukraine.
Internet access was intermittent and the frequent change of cities and hotels meant that I was rarely in front of a computer for long enough to blog. But now I’m back in the UK, and this is as good a time as any to celebrate the remarkable Last Waltz In Vienna (1982) by George Clare, which I read while I was away.
Clare, who died only three years ago at the age of 88, was born Georg Klaar, the only son of a middle-class Viennese Jewish family. He Anglicised his name after an enforced exile first to Ireland, and then to England, as a result of the 1938 Anschluss and the vicious persecution of Austrian Jewry that followed.
His parents left with him, but they weren’t able to find the safe haven that Clare obtained. A convoluted set of circumstances and coincidences left them stranded in Paris at the time of the German invasion of France in 1940. They were subsequently confined to a small village in the Ardèche by the Vichy regime, which subsequently deported them both to Auschwitz, where both of them perished.
Clare’s book is subtitled ‘The Rise and Destruction of a Family, 1842-1942’ and it is a riveting and illuminating chronicle of middle-class Austrian Jewish life before the war, that traces his family history from ghettoisation in Burkovina, to emanicipation and assimilation as a result of the more liberal policies adopted by the Austro-Hungarian empire in the mid-nineteenth century, culminating in the catastrophe of Nazism.
The result is quite simply one of the greatest memoirs that I’ve ever read, and one of those rare books that one feels privileged and grateful to have come across. On one level it’s an intimate and loving tribute to Clare’s beloved parents, and a study of the shifting expectations of a Jewish family that believed itself to be thoroughly assimilated and completely Austrian even as the Nazi trap closed shut around them.
Clare evokes the world of his parents with humor, warmth and humanity. His determination throughout is not just to mourn his parents, but to celebrate their lives and retrieve them as living, breathing individuals from the faceless anonymity of Holocaust statistics.
In this he succeeds magnificently, and brings the reader into an extraordinary and seemingly effortless intimacy with Ernst and Stella Klaar, in ways that haunt the reader long after the final page.
Clare wrote his book more than forty years after the war, and writing it was clearly an act of painful catharsis for him, but he never allows the tragedy and horror to swamp his narrative. Nor does he ever lose sight of the history that destroyed his family and so many other Austrian Jews.
He is a sharp and insightful observer of pre-World War II Austrian society. As a chronicle of the intellectual world of Hapsburg Vienna and the Austrian ‘state that no one wanted’ that followed the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, his book easily stands comparison with Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday or even with Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March.
Clare is as alive to the virtues of the society that produced Karl Krauss, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, and Zweig, as he is to the hypocrisies, contradictions and tensions that pushed independent Austria into the arms of Hitler. Take this compelling passage:
The world in which my father grew up was a highly romantic one, a world where young men, literally and figuratively, sat at the feet of writers and poets. Heatedly they argued about the latest poem from the pen of Rainer Maria Rilke, the newest polemic from the rapier-like brain of Karl Kraus; till late into the night they analysed the true meaning of a passage from the latest play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
The list of writers, poets, musicians who fired their imagination is almost endless. There were few cities in the world where artists were held in such high esteem, enjoyed so much social prestige, as in Franz-Josef’s Vienna. But in their art there was also, however subtly, a kind of death-longing, a decadent joy in the decline of Austria-Hungary and of Europe’s last ‘sunlit decades’.
Their spirit of unrest and despair led them into a sick disgust with the civilisation in which they lived, made them yearn for its destruction. Their writings, paintings, music contained within all their beauty some of the seeds from which grew the blood-soaked poppies of the Great War battlefields. They wanted war, some consciously, some unconsciously.
As Clare observes, this ‘intellectual hot-house atmosphere’ with its ‘stifling, humid air produced not only luxuriant blooms, but poisonous weeds as well.’
One of these weeds was Adolf Hitler, another Austrian, who was born in the same year as Clare’s father, and Clare’s examination of the role that Austria played in the nightmare that engulfed Central Europe in the mid-twentieth century makes Last Waltz essential reading.
In short readers, we are talking about a flat-out masterpiece. If you haven’t read it or heard of it, I urge you to chase it down.
And when you’ve finished, you might want to check out Clare’s follow-up Berlin Days, which describes his return to Germany as a soldier with the British occupation forces in 1945-6.