A couple of weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we headed off to the races. In a part of the Prater called Krieau (Kree-ow) one finds a harness racing track. No galloping, these horses trot along at extreme speeds pulling a little cart, called a sulky. Instead of a jockey, they have a driver.
As at a standard racetrack there is a grandstand, wagering, and plentiful beer. Unlike at a standard racetrack, a horse is eliminated if he or she gallops. (The horses I bet on pretty much invariably galloped.)
There is actually a non-operational galloping track a little farther down in the Prater — it’s absolutely beautiful, an elegant, spindly Jugendstil structure that’s now used only for the occasional event; we were most recently there for a bicycle festival. The track itself is having a second life as a golf course. Though there’s no more racing there, the structure is under Denkmalschutz (historic preservation), so for the moment they’ve not knocked it down.
The nearby Trabrennbahn, or trotting track, was finished in 1913 in a Vienna Modernist style. It’s the second-oldest harness track in Europe. One does worry for its future, though. It’s poorly populated and looks run down. An entire section of the grandstand is not in use, basically in a shambles. Theoretically the horses are going to get new stabling (they’re now in older facilities beyond the track). But it’s a little hard to believe they won’t eventually tear the whole thing down and replace it with some awful contemporary structure that more immediately advances the cause of international capital.
The Krieau track sits cheek-by-jowl with the brand new, hideous, overweeningly self-important WU (Wirtschaftsuniversität, or Economics University), built on the edge of the Prater just in the last couple of years. It is seriously the ugliest thing ever, a mishmash of mishapen buildings by important architects, thrown up in haste. In this photo you can see the WU behind the track as well as the Messe Wien — the convention center that already put pressure on this area:
The area around the Prater is changing rapidly. New campus housing for the WU has already been built; more is being constructed. The old, pastoral, rambling days of the park are on borrowed time — and land. So are the trotters, and the timeless atmosphere that surrounds them. The race meet ends on June 1st. Still opportunity for a pleasant Sunday afternoon at the track.
Around the corner from our house, in the Lasallestrasse near the Vorgartenstrasse U-Bahn station, one finds a little shop that is so very Vienna. What kind of shop? An umbrella shop, that’s what. A sign over the door says, “Umbrellas.”
What’s so special about an umbrella shop? Squint your eyes and examine the objects in the window. You will see that this little store doesn’t just sell umbrellas—indeed no. It also sells toys:
This is one of those esoteric little Viennese stores that have been around forever, and where the owner offers a selection of whatever the hell he wants for the occasional neighborhood client who stops in. In this case, the owner, who is very happy to chat, told us that he’s been selling umbrellas in this shop for over 50 years. (This was surely the family business.) He makes and repairs umbrellas of all colors and styles.
Once upon a time, he probably did a lively business. Vienna, with its wild weather, is deadly for umbrellas; the wind just flips them inside-out without warning. A previous generation was likely investing often in umbrella repair. I am guessing that with the advent of cheap umbrellas from China he turned to selling toys on the side. Of course, it is also possible that he just sells toys because he likes them. One supposes this because he is also selling honey.
Yes. He sells umbrellas. Toys. And honey.
The honey he produces himself, as he is also a beekeeper with some fields along the Danube somewhere. He has wildflower and sunflower and lavender honey.
I love honey. I collect honey, jar upon jar, every possible flavor. Austria is honey heaven. I don’t know why, but there is just a lot of beekeeping going on in this country—you can get amazing honey in all the local markets. But honey and umbrellas and toys? That is unusual.
I love these crazy little Viennese stores that sell whatever they please with no regard for whether there’s a customer base. No market testing, no social media marketing, no special offers or landing pages or cross promotions or any of that shit. Just toys, handmade umbrellas, and homemade honey.
Needless to say, the owner of this charming but impractical business is going into Pension (retirement) in January. God knows what horror will take his place (cell phone shop?). Head to Lasallestrasse to get your umbrella fixed and your honey stockpiled while you still can.
Jewish Vienna is a constant balance of absence and presence. The history of Jews here is sitting in the open, and it is hidden everywhere. This may be why I resonate with it so strongly. I am entirely Ashkenazi Jewish on my mother’s side; my grandmother’s mother was born in Lithuania, my grandfather’s parents in Poland. All of them were in the US long before the second world war—they arrived closer to the Civil War. I know literally nothing about them beyond this. They are specters, along with all the family they left behind in Europe.
And yet, the Holocaust is a kind of proxy for knowledge; it gives a false sense that one can understand something of the ancestral experience vicariously via the six million. People who would be my distant cousins — who would be “me,” had my ancestors not struck out for foreign lands — went through a sequence of experiences that it’s possible via historical narrative to imagine (again, falsely) that one could know. And at the same time, the past is past, and shall remain as such. These things are irreconcilable. Yet they coexist. I am deeply drawn to that conflict; and since it can’t be resolved, I try to live within it.
Vienna is constantly, uncomfortably exposing the seams between various pasts and the present. In Vienna, the story of Europe’s Jews, and their near eradication, is laid out spatially across the city’s geography. The messages these sites send are complicated, troubling. They refuse to nurture that desire that the past be contained and narratable, owned by the present—and rightly so. Here, for example, is a sculpture along the Ringstrasse (the main road encircling the city center, built on the eradicated foundations of the medieval city walls):
That is Karl Lueger, surveying the Platz that bears his name. In fact, there used to be an entire section of the Ring named for him; it’s now called the Universitätsring in an effort to address increasingly loud complaints about Lueger’s name all over Vienna’s most important street. Karl Lueger is bit by bit losing his eponymous locations. Lueger was mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, though he’d been elected earlier — his opponents, including the emperor, temporarily kept him from office. He was the founder of the Christian Social Party, which succeeded largely by channeling the religious, social and economic frustrations of German-speaking Austrians and petit-bourgeois business people. He was populist, but anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, both systems he attributed to Jews. He was vocally anti-semitic, blaming Jews for the financial struggles of Austrian workers and shopkeepers.
Typical apologies for Lueger’s attitudes involve a sense that his anti-semitism was merely political (as if that makes it better); that he had friends who were Jews (leading to his famous statement, “I decide who is a Jew”); that he didn’t actually try to murder any Jews (though he did limit their participation in government and education); and that he modernized Vienna by regularizing the water and gas systems and integrating the outlying districts (the old “Mussolini made the trains run on time” line).
Thin gruel—though all of these excuses, such as they are, are true. Including that he was vocally anti-semitic, aware of the benefit this attitude was to his political ambitions, and that he abetted a thread of Austrian anti-semitism so virulent it even surprised the Germans upon their, um, arrival. Despite constant complaints about Karl Lueger Platz and the sculpture upon it, it remains in place. Most tourists have no idea who he was; most Viennese give the whole thing a shrug. I am conflicted, having gone from being scandalized, to thinking that whitewashing history by erasing its shameful elements doesn’t do anyone any favors. I don’t like Lueger; I also don’t like whitewash. I would prefer that Karl Lueger Platz provided some context not only for who Lueger was and the moment in which he lived, but also for why a previous generation had such an unconflicted attitude to him. Of course, that is not what monuments like this do.
From Karl Lueger Platz, head north and west and cross the Canal into the second district, and you will find a rather different sort of landmark. Here, you are in the historical Jewish district of Vienna, the Leopoldstadt (ironically, it is named for the emperor who expelled the Jews from Vienna in 1670). This was never a ghetto. But the Nazis did force Jews to relocate to this district, and eventually deported them from it. 130,000 or so Jews emigrated from Vienna as a result of Nazi efforts; some 65,000 were deported from Austria and murdered. The 2nd district was besieged over a seven-year period beginning with the Kristallnacht, and the traces are present—if you know where to look for them. Here in the Grosse Schiffgasse, for instance, is what looks at first glance like any other empty lot:
I’m going to give you a piece of advice: In this part of Europe, always suspect the empty lot near the urban center. In this case, the lot in question was the site of a 19th century synagogue. There were a couple dozen of these in Vienna in the 1930s; only one survived the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. It wasn’t this one.
There may be a plaque in the area to commemorate the loss, as there are on other former synagogue sites (I’ll show you some another time); if so, I couldn’t find it. The building next door was a part of the original complex, and now hosts a couple of Jewish institutions, invisible from the street. But the original site of the Schiffschul (named for the street) still stands empty, with no decision as to what it will be, and therefore what it will mean.
The entire second district near the canal needs to be looked at in terms of these kinds of losses, and the way that the city has, like thickly poured oil, both filled and exposed them. Only a few obsessives like me know what this empty lot was, or means. But would it be more “true” to the history of the place if there were a monument there, something modern, apologetic, and inspiring?
What do you say to this ground floor room, in a building near the Karmelitermarkt, which a history of the Jewish establishments in the 2nd district tells me was once a prayer room, now an architecture office:
Should it be emptied out? Returned to someone (to whom? How?)? Is it sufficient, or excessive, or unnecessary, or fortuitous, or essential, or intrusive, that I, an American half-Jew, showed up here and looked up its address and told its current occupants that, before 1938, it was a place for Jewish prayer (not a synagogue — something much less formal)? The occupants were surprised and pleased to know of its long history. I was happy to discover and share that history.