Kurt Schindler often told his children that they had famous connections.
Members of their extended family included Oskar Schindler, who saved Jews from the Holocaust; Franz Kafka; Alma Schindler, the wife of Gustav Mahler and Walter Gropius; and Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of Gustav Klimt’s painting, A Woman in Gold.
Schindler also told stories about growing up in Innsbruck, where his parents owned a distillery, jam factory and an iconic café, which served the best apple strudel in Austria. These glory days ended abruptly on Kristallnacht in 1938, he said, when he watched Nazi thugs brutally beat up his father. This trauma, his daughter concluded, was Schindler’s way of explaining his poor mental health, his propensity to run up debt he could not repay, and his unrelenting pursuit of restitution from Austria. It was why he told his girls, “Never tell anyone you are Jewish.”
When Schindler died in 2017, at age 91, Meriel Schindler, a lawyer based in London, discovered an avalanche of documents her father kept in his cottage. She decided to consult archives in Austria to understand “this maddening man,” whom she had always kept at arm’s length, and what happened to “the Schindler empire.” The result is The Lost Café Schindler, an intimate and often moving account of life in Austria during two world wars and a “family tradition devoted to good food, good drink, good music and good dancing.”
Meriel reveals that Schindler’s claims about illustrious connections were exaggerated or, in the case of Oskar Schindler, false. And she discovers that Schindler was in England on Kristallnacht.
Many of her father’s most compelling tales, however, turned out to be true.
Dr. Eduard Bloch, Schindler’s uncle (by marriage), we learn, performed a mastectomy on Klara Hitler in 1907 – and tried to console her devastated teenage son. When Klara’s cancer returned, Bloch visited her daily. After she died Adolf told him, “I will be eternally grateful,” a sentiment he repeated in two postcards.
Although the two men never met face-to-face again, the postcards shielded Bloch from the antisemitic measures implemented by the Gestapo in the 1930s. Bloch and his wife kept their apartment, telephone, and passports; their ration cards were not stamped with a “J.” Bloch (who always told Nazis he was a Jew, “through and through”), used his protected status to make his flat a sanctuary for his Jewish neighbors and lobby authorities to release those who had been arrested or faced deportation.
But as his practice dwindled – only a handful of Jews remained in Linz in 1940 – and his passport was due to expire, Bloch left Austria, after having been forced to write a letter thanking the Fuhrer for the privileges accorded him. Eduard and Lilli Bloch arrived in New York in January 1941.
Not surprisingly, the Innsbruck Schindlers occupy center stage in this book. Three of Schindler’s uncles served in World War I; one of them was killed. But in post-war Austria, Jews joined communists as scapegoats for the collapse of the monarchy, riots, inflation, and depression. The Schindlers, who had never been active members of the Jewish community, Meriel writes, “could no longer wrap themselves in the blanket of assimilation.” Nonetheless, for a time, Café Schindler created for Aryan and Jewish Tyroleans, “in miniature, their very own Jazz Age.”
Until the Anschluss, which allowed Hitler to swallow Austria and terminate Jews’ civil and legal rights. Schindler’s mother took him to England, leaving Hugo Schindler behind to sell the family’s businesses and their villa. Threatened, beaten, and jailed, his home vandalized, despite pleas that he had done nothing to harm anyone, Hugo was forced to sell his holdings for a pittance, managing only to get a clause in the contract that employees would be retained – if they were Aryan.
Needless to say, the Nazis impounded the purchase price and the Schindlers received virtually none of it. In December 1938 Hugo departed for France, and then England. He was, his granddaughter points out, “among the luckier ones.” Sophie Schindler, Kurt Schindler’s grandmother, and his Aunt Martha were not.
Since 2010, Meriel reports, “an old ghost has reasserted itself”: A man named Bernhard Baumann owns and operates an establishment on the first floor of the building that once housed her family’s café. Open all day, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and Sachertorte-style cakes and strudel, it’s called “Das Schindler.” Merial is delighted: “The Schindlers have come home.”
And yet, quite appropriately, given her conflicted memories, she is pleased as well that after decades of denial or semi-denial, Linz has erected plaques in schools to commemorate students who died in the Holocaust; and placed posts with facsimile doorbells outside homes where Jews once resided. Innsbruck has constructed a tall, slender menorah with the names of Jews who were murdered on Kristallnacht in the center of town, landscaped recently to accommodate skateboarding, “a place whose purpose is to attract the young, a place where they hang out, dance, and listen to music,” a place where they “may now absorb some of the past.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
The Lost Café SchindlerBy Meriel SchindlerW.W. Norton & Company 408 pages; $28.95