Sunday, October 14, 2012

Vienna Before the War

As seen through the eyes of a milliner. To quote:
In the 1930s, Demel's pastry shop and chocolatier on the Kohlmarkt in Vienna was the height of Austria's beau monde. Its little round tables were made of marble, the walls were of blue silk and magnificent crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. To it came women on shopping trips, courting couples and gentlemen and their lady friends, to gossip and eat Sachertorte and buy the violet sweets so beloved by Empress Sisi. One regular customer was Trudi Kanter, a young milliner whose showroom was not far away.

Trudi had bright red hair, often tucked into one of her chic little hats, and she was very beautiful; her business prospered. She filled her apartment above the showroom with Biedermeier furniture and kept two ornamental love birds in a gilt cage. In her showroom she employed 12 girls of whom she was very fond; the atmosphere was one of warmth and gaiety. Many of her rich and elegant customers, all part of Vienna's charmed life, were friends. Trudi was Jewish.

And then, in March 1938, the Germans marched in, bringing with them Nazi hooligans, oppression and anti-Semitism. There are some scenes, some historical events, that only memoirs can convey with real immediacy. Trudi Kanter's "Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler" is full of them. As befits a milliner, she has a remarkable eye for detail, the precise color of the plumes on her hats, the texture of the cakes at Demel's, the fold of the dresses her customers wear. Of a group of girls in the streets, she writes: "They are slender and well- coiffed, have clear, petal-smooth complexions, wear tiny hats, veils, camellias in their buttonholes." She uses this gift to describe, without hyperbole, what followed.

Hitler sent 100,000 soldiers into Austria. She listened to them arrive, the thud of perfectly marching feet, as she crouched in the dark in her apartment. Within hours, they were rampaging around Vienna, seeking out Jews. Houses and businesses were looted. The headquarters of the Vaterländische Front, the nationalist party that had opposed the Anschluss, was smashed to pieces just opposite her showroom. Later, when anti-Nazi slogans appeared on the pavements, Jewish men and women were made to scrub them off, on their hands and knees, using acid that burned their skin raw. Vienna was soon in the grip of informers, janitors paying off old scores, maids telling on their employers. (Read entire article.)

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