Vienna (English Version)
Copyright © 2011 by Richard Morris Usatinsky
The moral right of the author has been asserted
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews
THERE ARE SOME MOMENTS IN LIFE that we should be able to relive time and time again. I remember it well, the moment we met in Vienna after the war on that warm autumn day in 1918. What I don’t remember is exactly how I arrived there with my leg so badly wounded that the doctor who was looking after me said it would take a miracle to save. And there was Juan, my sister’s husband (you remember Sonia and Juan), who took me in his cart from Carinthia to my mother’s home in Salzkammergut near Lake Grundlsee where we spent the summer.
It was also during that long summer in Salzkammergut that I met Margarete when my aunt Ana introduced us that day at the farmers’ market. She was slender and quite plain, shy to a point and if I must be completely honest I thought she was a young man at first glance. Not that she wasn’t attractive—she was, though in a handsome sort of way like women I had seen in Paris and Monte Carlo—but her long trousers and the rolled up sleeves of her wrinkled shirt reminded me of how my father looked when he came home from long days at his factory.
But once the initial impression I had made of her yielded to my sensibilities and better judgment, there was little I could to stop myself from falling in love with her; and, stranger still, this was the first time I had fallen in love. Not Margarete though. She had met Anton at the Kunstgewerbeschule where she had spent the last six months studying architecture and freeing herself from her controlling mother and a stepfather who would at times arrive home from his bank manager’s job so inebriated that he would ridicule Margarete and her mother until he passed out in his chair beside the fireplace.
Margarete’s relationship with Anton, however, was doomed from the start as Anton was not only her teacher and considerably older, he was also married to the daughter of the local police commissioner who soon confronted him about his philandering, threatening to ensure that his university tenure would be terminated if he didn’t place the needs of his family before those of his.
Thinking about it now, after all these years, though she was kind and affectionate and treated me splendidly, Margarete never loved me the way that I loved her. For her it was a passing fancy, a frivolous affair designed to diminish the anguish of having lost the man she really loved, the man whose child she would give birth to in the coming spring. I also can now understand that when we made love for the first time, her tears, the ones she said were tears of joy, were really tears of the most profound sadness a person could ever know. I only regret having been too young and too naïve not to have been able to recognize that and to offer her the comfort she so badly craved.
We spent that summer together, inseparable. We swam naked in the lake, made love in the fields in Katrinalm; we ate sweet Kaiserschmarrn that we would steal from my auntie’s kitchen; we would walk hand in hand down the cobblestone streets of Hallstatt, a picturesque village on the shores of the River Hallstätter that I have never again visited in my futile attempts to erase from my memory the love that I lost within her walls.
It was there in Hallstatt on one of the most beautiful summer mornings I can ever recall, that Margarete woke me in a flourish of kisses. We made love bathed in the warm rays of the sun shining between the dusty wooden slats of the venetian blinds, while a cool and gentle breeze whispered in through the open window of our hotel room. Afterwards, as we lay in each other’s embrace, she looked at me with teary eyes and told me she wanted to be with me forever, that when she passed from this world to the next, she wanted mine to be the last face she ever saw. Those were exactly the words she spoke.
While sitting at a table overlooking the lake just having finished our late breakfast, Margarete excused herself saying that she was going to back to our room for something to tie back her hair before we ventured out on our morning walk along the lake. Concerned that after ten minutes she did not return, I went up to our room to find that she and her things were gone. Not a trace. It was as if she had never been there at all and I never saw Margarete again.
Years later, I read in the newspaper that Margarete had married the architect Wilhelm Schütte in 1927. Schütte vitalized and inspired Margarete and was the catalyst that drove her early career. He even financed her first major project, the construction of a series of schools in and around Vienna that were based on the ideas of Maria Montessori. Margarete died in Vienna in 2002, days before her 103rd birthday and more than forty years after my own passing.
I spent the rest of that summer recuperating from my broken heart at my mother’s house. I passed the long days alone in my room reading or helping my mother with the accounting and paperwork. I also spent some time with my father during his short stays when he would arrive from Vienna late Friday night, spending the weekend only having to return to the city after our Sunday dinner. Those are the only memories I have of my father, his constant coming and going and thinking how his dedication to his family and those endless hours at the factory—especially after having lost more than half of his workforce during the war—took their toll on all of us and how the twenty hours of work a day he put in to insure the factory would keep going would end up killing him at just forty-six.
As that wretched summer came to a close, I returned to Vienna with my sister who was offered a job as a governess for the two young daughters of a wealthy widow who lived on a large estate just outside the city limits. I had my mind set on working as a chef’s apprentice at Griechenbeisl, one of Vienna’s oldest restaurants that claims to have served the likes of Beethoven, Brahms and the American author Mark Twain, and then go on to work running one of the hotels my mother owned in Linz. However, those plans changed when my sister sent word one day that her wealthy widow was in desperate need of a new cook as hers had stolen away with one of the maids in the middle of the night.
I was a pretty good cook having learned the art in the army and on my travels throughout France, so when the opportunity arose to run my own kitchen and work for the same household as my sister, I thought the least I could do was present myself for the job. Besides, I’d have the rest of my life to run my mother’s hotels and saw this as a chance to do something of my own merit.
My sister arranged for me to meet her employer on a sunny Saturday afternoon where I would have a chance to see the kitchen and meet the rest of the household staff which consisted of a maid, chauffer, gardener and a diminutive person who was introduced to me as the Italian, who to this day no one has ever claimed to have been certain of his or her exact gender and just why he or she was called the Italian as it was obvious this person neither spoke nor understood the Italian tongue as was demonstrated on many occasions when I tried to engage him or her in conversation in what I consider to be the most romantic of the romance languages and one that I must admit speak with great fluency.
I arrived at the house just before midday and after my sister finished showing me around the house and introducing to the staff, she told me that the wealthy widow insisted that I stay and join them for lunch (my sister was the only member of the household staff allowed to dine with the wealthy widow and her daughters). While waiting for the meal to be served, my sister and I sat talking in the garden of what was surely the biggest house I had ever seen (even bigger than my mother’s hotel in Salzburg which was named The Palace for its magnificent size).
Meanwhile, the gardener who I had met earlier was attending to a vegetable garden at the side of the enormous house while two young girls—the wealthy widow’s daughters I surmised—ran in and out of a beautiful spruce playhouse at the opposite end of the garden. But the most picturesque scene that afternoon had to have been of the two albino Greyhounds that slept beneath the shade of a Gingko Biloba—a rare tree to be seen in Austria—with its beautiful, droopy golden leaves which fell sporadically two or three at a time reminding me of golden tears falling from a white satin sky.
Having not yet met the famous wealthy widow, I was thinking that perhaps she didn’t really exist; perhaps she was a phantom or a figment of the imagination. And just as I was about to ask my sister about her, a woman emerged from the house carrying in her long slender arms a tray which held a shiny silver coffee service that reflected so that it temporarily blinded me, leaving me unable to get a better look at the servant or the other delicacies that might have been on the tray as it drew nearer.
As the servant approached I could not remember meeting her with the other household staff and asked my sister who she was while mentioning how surprised I was that such a thin and frail looking woman would be permitted to carry a heavy tray from one end of the garden to the other. More surprising still was that the servant was completely barefoot which I immediately pointed out to my sister who was now trying in vain to suppress a fit of giggles.
As the servant reached the table my sister stood at once to help the woman set the tray on the table.
“Beatrix Roth, I’d like to introduce you to my brother, Jakob Zilber.”
I extended my arm which was greeted by a firm and sincere handshake though I couldn’t believe that this waifish woman who looked as though she could be no more than twenty years old was really the mistress of the house; a wealthy widow, owner of this majestic abode and sprawling country estate; mother of the two precious children that played nearby; owner of Greyhounds and—now that I recall the garden scene even clearer—rabbits, hens, goats and a single fawn who stood behind a wire fence near the door from where the woman emerged just minutes before.
“Ah, yes, your brother the master chef. Welcome to my home. You don’t look like any of the chefs I’ve ever met. That’s to say I don’t recall ever meeting a chef with such a slender composition. Precisely why I could never be a cook as I fear I would blow up like an elephant by merely smelling all of the delicacies one finds in modern kitchens these days.”
“Thank you for the compliment but I must confess that I am hardly a master chef. I worked in the mess hall during my time in the army and no little more than fiddled about concocting my own recipes in my mother’s kitchen.”
“You’re too modest, my dear young man, your sister here tells me that you are quite at home in the kitchen and that you have traveled to France and Spain. Why, I’d be more than delighted dining on snails, Chateaubriand and Jerez every night!”
The two women laughed concordantly as if they were sisters or lifelong friends, hardly what I would expect from an employer and her employee.
We passed a most splendid afternoon in the wealthy widow’s garden, eating, drinking and conversing—about everything it seems: politics, poetry, philosophy and dog racing—though throughout the entire day I could not overcome the sensation that there was something familiar about this woman, something I couldn’t put my finger on but all the same made me feel more at ease than I had in quite some time in the presence of a woman.
Somehow before the afternoon was over, conversation turned to the wealthy widow’s late husband (a grandson of the well-known Austrian coffee magnate Julius Meinl) who was captured and executed during the First Battle of Isonzo in the Italian Alps (which form part of modern-day Slovenia), in July 1915. The widow’s husband, also named Julius, had been leading a regiment of soldiers when they were ambushed by Italian troops while bathing in the river and having their afternoon meal. The Italians slaughtered half of Julius’ men (the ones that were conveniently in the water thus easily disposed of) and marched the remaining troops back to their basecamp where they were all shot at sunrise the following morning.
When her husband’s cadaver was returned to Austria, it arrived dressed in full military regalia but completely barefoot. It was a common practice during the war that shoes, which were always in high demand by soldiers, were often swapped, even stolen, to replace the battle worn boots of soldiers who had long been on the front lines.
Before her husband’s military funeral—out of respect for his widow and family—new shoes were found and placed on the body. As the chaplain began the service, Beatrix noticed a young soldier standing beside her husband’s casket holding the Austrian flag, his shoes badly tattered and stained by what appeared to be dried blood. At once, even as the chaplain was conferring last rites upon her slain husband, Beatrix stood up, walked over to the open casket and proceeded to remove the shoes from her husband’s cold white feet and place them on the floor beside the soldier with the tatty and bloodied boots. From that day on—as a queer, almost macabre homage to her late husband—Beatrix has refused to wear anything on her feet; thus rarely leaving her estate; and on the rare occasions when, out of necessity, she must travel to the city or a neighboring town, she remains barefoot, equally in rain or shine as in the ice and snow.
By the end of that unforgettable day, the barefoot wealthy widow had convinced me to accept her generous offer of employment and the following Monday I incorporated into her small household staff in the capacity of Culinary Director, though truth be told I was little more than an overpaid mess hall cook in a toque blanche and starched white uniform with my initials embroidered on the jacket in large royal blue cursive.
But my employment in the household of the barefoot wealthy widow was short lived as we soon fell in love and were married that spring in the very garden where I first laid eyes upon this most rare and incomparable woman. And that is how I have come to find myself in this very place at this very moment in time; I have returned to keep a solemn promise I made to beloved Beatrix, that one day I would return and find the person responsible for the unspeakable murders that claimed the life of the woman I loved more than life itself and her children and nearly took the life of the daughter we had in common.
One day in February 1932, ten years after Beatrix’s death, I discovered that her late husband Julius had an illegitimate brother, Karl, who was madly in love with her. It was this same illegitimate brother who it turns out betrayed his brother during the war passing intelligence of his brother’s regiment’s whereabouts to the Italians leading to the subsequent ambush and Julius’s demise. All this to move in and claim his brother’s widow as his own and be in line to control the vast fortune she possessed. But Karl was immediately rebuffed by Beatrix who had never liked nor trusted him and easily saw what was behind his amorous gestures. But Karl wasn’t as easily spurned and decided that, given Beatrix’s mistrust, the only way he was to get what he was after would be to kill Beatrix.
On May 5, 1921, a year after our wedding, Beatrix gave birth to a beautiful baby girl we named Abigail. That day had a bittersweet taste as it was also on that first Thursday in May that one of my father’s best friends, the Jewish-Austrian writer Alfred Hermann Freid, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1911, passed away in the very same hospital in Vienna where Abigail was born hours earlier.
Then, fourteen months later, in that stifling hot July of 1922 just after five o’clock in the afternoon, Gisela, one of our maids, found Beatrix and her two children dead in the master bedroom, baby Abigail playing with a ragdoll on the floor at her dead mother’s feet.
The cause of death was ruled a homicide by poisoning. And it was me who prepared the meal that day—tafelspitz and kasnudeln—as it was common for me to prepare the family meal on the cook’s day off. All five of us at the table ate the exact same thing made from precisely the same ingredients, so how and where the food had become tainted was not the only mystery; why weren’t Abigail and I poisoned as well?
My trial lasted a mere two days and I was found guilty of the murder of my wife and her two children and the attempted murder of my daughter and was sentenced to thirty years hard labor. Looking back at it now, it was an easy decision for the judge as I had all of the motives one needed to kill a wealthy widow; I stood to inherit my wife’s fortune, her house and a good portion of the estate of her late husband. And as it was mentioned on more than one occasion during my trial, I would have rid myself of the shame that was no doubt cast upon my family by my having married a shoeless widow and would now be free to marry a woman more suitable to a man in my position; one who wore shoes and acted in greater concordance with the privileged social class in which I was a reluctant affiliate.
And so it was that my life had become an unbearable nightmare; not only was I tried and found guilty of murders I did not commit, I lost the woman I loved and her two children who meant as much to me as if they were of my own flesh and blood. And then there was Abigail, my precious daughter, who I feared I would never see again. There were moments during those first months in prison, that if it hadn’t been for the hope of one day being reunited with Abigail I fear I would have gone mad, or worse still taken my own life.
I was incarcerated in the Suben Abbey in the Schärding district in Upper Austria where I remained until the end of the Second World War. Then in March of 1945, Karl, the illegitimate brother of my poor Beatrix’s first husband Julius Meinl, confessed to her murder just hours before he was hanged for his crimes against humanity during the war following the famous Nuremburg Trials.
After my release from prison, I moved to the small Andalusian town of Granada in the south of Spain to be near to my daughter Abigail, who had gone to live with my sister and her Spanish husband some years earlier. It was there in Granada, in a small but brightly lit apartment in the barrio de Zaidín that I spent my remaining years until my death on June 20, 1963. It was a Thursday, nearly midnight when Granada was tranquil and moonlit. I had a lovely supper with my family at my sister’s house and returned home. I switched on the radio and sat in my favorite armchair looking out into the darkness of the street below. I thought of you, as I did every night. And as I closed my eyes for the last time I remembered your lovely face, your long silky hair that gently caressed my face while we made love; I could almost smell your sweet breath and taste your full lips upon my mouth. And I recalled the last time I saw you, there on the floor of our bedroom, dead, no life remaining and the world stopped turning.
I didn’t exactly keep the promise I made to see justice brought upon the person responsible for your death—God, in his greatness, saw to that—but I did keep an even more important vow, the vow I made when I promised you that one day we would be together again. Together to live the life that was robbed from us so many, many years ago.