Oskar Schindler

Remembered as the subject of the 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark and 1993 film Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler is famous for saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, despite being a member of the Nazi Party. Schindler knew the consequences of his actions if he were caught, yet he persevered by spending his entire fortune on bribes and black-market purchases to save the lives of so many people.

Oskar Schindler was born on 28th April 1908 in Moravia, Austria-Hungary (now the Czech Republic). His father, Johann “Hans” Schindler, owned a farm machinery business, which he expected his son to work for after completing his schooling. Schindler worked with his father for three years but quit after marrying Emilie Pelzl (1907-2001) in 1928, despite living with his parents for another seven years.

Over the next two years, Schindler worked several jobs, including a brief stint in the Czech army as a lance corporal in the Tenth Infantry Regiment of the 31st Army. After 18 months, Schindler left the army to work at Moravian Electrotechnic, which promptly went bankrupt, leaving him jobless for a year. Schindler’s father’s businesses also folded, so he took a job with the Jaroslav Šimek Bank of Prague.

During the early 1930s, Schindler had an affair with Aurelie Schlegel, an old school friend. She bore two children, Emily (1933) and Oskar (1935), although Schindler claimed Oskar was not his. Around this time, Schindler also developed a drinking problem, resulting in several arrests for public drunkenness. His father was also an alcoholic and abandoned Schindler’s mother shortly before her death in 1935.

In 1935, Schindler joined the Sudeten German Party, a major pro-Nazi force in Czechoslovakia. Despite his nationality, the Nazi Party employed Schindler as a spy for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. Based in Breslau, Poland, Schindler collected information on railways and the military. He also recruited other spies in Czechoslovakia in preparation for an invasion of the country by Nazi Germany. Schindler was caught by the Czech government in 1938 and imprisoned, where he claimed he only took the job for the money to pay the debts accrued by his drinking problem.

After Schindler’s release as a political prisoner under the terms of the Munich Agreement, which aimed to prevent Germany from invading Czechoslovakia, Schindler became a member of the Nazi Party. He continued to work for the Abwehr and moved to Ostrava on the Czech-Polish border with his wife, who did not leave him despite his earlier affair. Schindler continued to conduct spy work, which helped Nazi Germany invade Czechoslovakia regardless of the Agreement. He was also instrumental in the invasion of Poland in 1939, which marked the beginning of the Second World War.

In October 1939, Schindler temporarily moved to Kraków on Abwehr business. Abwehr agent Josef “Sepp” Aue introduced him to Itzhak Stern (1901-69), his Jewish accountant. Sepp had taken over Stern’s Jewish firm when Jews were banned from owning places of business and homes and stripped of their rights. Schindler asked Stern to look over the accounts of a Jewish enamelware factory he intended to acquire. Stern advised him to buy it outright rather than through the Haupttreuhandstelle Ost (Main Trustee Office for the East), giving him more control about the running of the factory, for instance, the freedom to hire Jews.

Schindler followed Stern’s advice and purchased Rekord Ltd in November 1939, which he promptly renamed Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik (German Enamelware Factory). Over time, the company became known by the shorter name, Emalia. Schindler hired 250 Polish staff, only seven of whom were Jews. Much later, the number of staff increased to 1,750 workers, including one thousand Jews. Initially, the increase of Jews coincided with Schindler’s desire to earn money. Jews were cheaper to hire because the Nazi regime controlled their wages.

Life for the Jewish population in Poland became increasingly dangerous in 1940. Schindler felt concerned not just for his business, but for his employees as well. To protect his Jewish workers, Schindler listed his factory as a business essential to the war effort. This allowed his employees to claim exemptions from Nazi projects. Schindler even hired women, children and the disabled as essential workers.

On 1st August 1940, all Jews in Kraków were ordered to leave the city. Fortunately, those with essential jobs were allowed to stay, including Schindler’s workers. Of the 80,000 Jews in Kraków, only 15,000 remained by 1941. Unfortunately, those that stayed were forced to live in Kraków Ghetto, an area surrounded by barbed wire and tombstone-like walls. Aware of the unsanitary conditions of the ghetto, Schindler gradually expanded his factory to include a clinic, shop, kitchen and dining room for his workers. Using his connection with the Abwehr, Schindler smuggled in many items on the black market to improve the lives of the Jewish people in his care.

In 1941, the Nazis began transporting Jews to the Bełżec extermination camp in Poland, where they were murdered. Fortunately, due to their work at Emalia, Schindler’s Jews were saved from such a fate. In 1943, Schindler heard the Nazi party planned to liquidate the ghetto in Kraków and move the Jews to the Płaszów concentration camp. Fearing for his workers, Schindler arranged for them to stay at the factory to protect them from harm.

On 13th March 1943, all of Schindler’s workers avoided the horrors of the camp liquidation. Witnessing the event, Schindler felt appalled by the Nazi party and decided to save the lives of as many Jewish people as he could. He watched in horror as Jews were marched the two miles to the new camp, while those deemed unfit to work were shot in the streets. Those who reached the camp lived in fear of SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth (1908-46), who shot inmates at random every day.

Schindler could not hide his workers in the factory forever, so bribed Göth to let him open a subcamp at Emalia. After much flattery and money, Göth agreed, and Schindler opened his factory as a home to all his workers and 450 Jews from neighbouring factories. Safe from the threat of execution, Schindler’s Jews could observe religious practices and eat the food Schindler purchased on the black market.

Towards the end of 1943, Schindler received word from the Jewish resistance movement by Zionist leaders in Budapest, Hungary. They asked him to spy and report on the Nazi Party members who mistreated the Jews and deliver money from the Jewish Agency for Israel to the Jewish underground.

By 1944, the Red Army of the Soviet Union was drawing near the borders of Poland. The Nazis began closing concentration camps and transporting their prisoners to Auschwitz, a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps. The Nazis also planned to close all factories not directly involved with war work. To ensure his factory would not close, Schindler began manufacturing anti-tank grenades and sent more bribes to Göth. Eventually, Göth allowed Schindler to keep his factory, although made him move it to Brünnlitz in the Sudetenland (now the Czech Republic).

A list of 1,200 names was drawn up of Schindler’s 1,000 Jewish workers and 200 labourers at the textile factory belonging to Austrian businessman Julius Madritsch (1906-84). Schindler gradually transported his workers and equipment to Brünnlitz. Around 700 men accidentally ended up in a different camp before Schindler could arrange for their train to be re-routed to the new factory. Similarly, 300 women arrived at Auschwitz, forcing Schindler to send bribes of black market goods, food and diamonds to secure their release.

The move, which took several weeks, plus the money spent on bribes, restricted the amount of food and health care resources for Schindler’s workers. Output at the factory was poor due to the insufficient rations, but Schindler avoided suspicion by obtaining goods on the black market and selling them as his own. Meanwhile, Schindler’s wife, Emilie, surreptitiously gathered food and medicine for the workers.

Determined to save more Jews, Schindler arranged the transfer of 3,000 Jewish women out of Auschwitz to small textiles plants in the Sudetenland. Whilst he had little control over how they were treated by those running the plants, it increased the women’s chances of avoiding the gas chambers and surviving the war.

In January 1945, Schindler received a trainload of 250 Jewish prisoners from another camp. The doors to the wagons were frozen shut and took hours to open with a soldering iron. Twelve people died during the wait, and the remaining 238 were too poorly to work. Had they arrived in Auschwitz, the Jews would have been shot or sent to the gas chambers. Instead, Emilie set up a makeshift hospital and tended to their needs for the remainder of the war.

Schindler and his workers lived in the hope that the Red Army would arrive to liberate the camps in Poland. Schindler continued to bribe SS officers to prevent his workers from being taken away from him due to their inability to work. Finally, on 7th May 1945, the radio in the factory played British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s (1874-1965) announcement that Germany had surrendered. The war in Europe was over.

Following the surrender of Germany, Schindler’s Jews (Schindlerjuden) were taken to safety. Their names and photographs are on display at the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków, situated in Schindler’s original factory. Schindler, on the other hand, was far from safe. As a member of the Nazi Party and the Abwehr, he was at risk of arrest for war crimes. Itzhak Stern, who helped Schindler throughout the war, and several others wrote a letter detailing Schindler’s role in saving Jewish lives, which he could show to those trying to round up the war criminals.

Knowing the Soviets were unlikely to believe Schindler’s anti-Nazi actions, he and Emilie fled Poland until they reached American lines. In Passau, Germany, an American officer arranged transport to Switzerland. By this time, Schindler was destitute after spending all his money on bribes and the black market. Jewish organisations offered assistance, which Schindler reluctantly took. In 1948, he approached the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee with an estimated list of his expenditures at over $1,056,000 but only received $15,000 compensation.

Schindler and Emilie moved to Argentina in 1949 to try their luck raising chickens and coypu. Unfortunately, the business went bust in 1958, and Schindler returned to Germany alone to try to build a successful factory. While in Germany, Schindler received an invitation to visit Jerusalem. While there, a carob tree was planted in his honour on the Avenue of the Righteous. The Avenue honours non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Second World War.

In 1963, Schindler declared bankruptcy after a series of unsuccessful business ventures. The following year, he suffered a heart attack, which left him considerably weakened and less able to work. Fortunately, he remained in contact with several of his Schindlerjuden, who sent him donations as a thank you for saving their lives.

Oskar Schindler passed away from liver failure on 9th October 1974. His body was buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, making him the only former member of the Nazi Party to be honoured in this way. His gravestone features the Hebrew inscription “Righteous Among the Nations”, below which a German inscription reads “The Unforgettable Lifesaver of 1200 Persecuted Jews”.

Schindler and his wife were both awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by the State of Israel. A few other members of the Nazi Party also received the title for their actions to save Jews during the war. Karl Plagge (1887-1958) rescued Jews during the Holocaust in Lithuania, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz (1904-73) helped resistance groups rescue 95% of Denmark’s Jewish population, Helmut Kleinicke (1907-79) saved Jews from Auschwitz, and Hans Walz (1883-1974) financed the emigration of Jews at the beginning of the war.

Schindler was one of the few members of the Nazi Party to turn against the regime and put his life on the line to save thousands of lives. His heroics are immortalised in the novel Schindler’s Ark written by Australian author Thomas Keneally (b.1935) in 1982. In 1993, Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) adapted the book into a film, Schindler’s List, starring Liam Neeson (b. 1952) as Schindler. The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning six for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction.

A copy of the list Schindler compiled of his Jewish workers exists at the State Library of New South Wales, Australia. Notable people on the list include Itzhak Stern, portrayed by Ben Kingsley (b. 1943) in Schindler’s List; Poldek Pfefferberg (1913–2001) portrayed by Jonathan Sagall (b. 1959); Joseph Bau (1920-2002), an artist; and Ryszard Horowitz (b. 1939), a pioneer of special effects photography.


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Alma Mahler

Alma Mahler c. 1908

Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is a well-known name amongst classical musicians, but far less are aware that his wife, Alma Mahler, was also a talented composer. During her career, Alma wrote approximately 50 works for voice and piano, but only 17 survive today. Unfortunately, Alma’s reputation in society had little to do with her talent, but rather her romantic liaisons with many men, three of whom she married. As singer and satirist Tom Lehrer (b.1928) said before singing a song about the lady, “Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady named Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe.”

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well,
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You’d never be free of her spell.
Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her beguine.
There were three famous ones whom she married,
And God knows how many between…

Alma – The loveliest girl in Vienna – Tom Lehrer (1965)
Alma, Anna and Grete

Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler was born in Vienna on 31st August 1879 to landscape artist Emil Jakob Schindler (1842-92) and Anna Sofie Bergen (1857-1938). Alma and her sister, Margaretha Julie (Grete, 1880-1942), received home tuition rather than enrol in a school but regularly attended the Catholic Church, which played a significant role in their early upbringing.

In 1886, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (1858-89) commissioned Alma’s father to paint landscapes of the Adriatic coast. The whole family accompanied Schindler on this trip, and his artworks featured in the Kronprinzenwerk (Crown Prince’s Work). This encyclopedia, officially named The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture, is a 24-volume written and visual description of the countries, regions and people of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Lands. Schindler was one of 587 contributors, and his paintings joined the 4,529 images that illustrated the work.

Despite spending a year travelling with their father, Alma and Grete saw little of his work after Schindler rented Castle Plankenberg, near Neulengbach, as his studio, where he also established an artist colony. Yet, Schindler adored his two daughters and arranged for them to have piano lessons with Adele Radnitzky-Mandlick. Their mother had a musical background but retired from public performances shortly after marriage. Some believe Schindler felt jealous of the attention his wife gained from her career, so forced her to quit the stage. Nonetheless, he encouraged his daughters to perform, and they made their public debut at the ages of ten and nine. Although the girls received homeschooling in their early years, their father insisted they obtain the best education, so he enrolled them in a private women’s academy, which was not common practice at the time.

Schindler monument by Edmund Hellmer

During a family holiday to the German isle of Sylt in 1892, Schindler passed away. Following his death, Alma concentrated on her musical education, studying composition with a blind organist called Josef Labor. Despite his disability, Labor also provided Alma with education about a “great deal of literature”. Although Alma attended school, she quit at the age of 15 in favour of Labor’s teaching. Yet, learning to play and compose music had its difficulties due to Alma’s decreasing hearing following childhood measles.

Max Burckhard (1854-1912), the director of the Burgtheater in Vienna and friend of Alma’s late father, became Alma’s music mentor. He also catered for her passion for literature and presented Alma with two large baskets of books on her 17th birthday. Shortly before this, Alma’s mother married Carl Moll (1861-1945), a former student of Schindler. In 1899, Alma gained another little sister, Maria (1899-1945).

Alma’s step-father Carl Moll was one of the founding members of the Vienna Succession, an Austrian art movement closely related to Art Nouveau. They were “a group organized for the purpose of breaking with Vienna’s tradition-bound Imperial Academy of the visual arts.” Through Moll, Alma met several painters associated with the Succession, including the symbolist painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who professed his undying love for her. Alma enjoyed the attention but did not desire him as a lover or husband. Nonetheless, they remained firm friends for the rest of Klimt’s life.

In 1900, 21-year-old Alma began composition lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), who also fell in love with her. Alma reciprocated his feelings but wished to keep their relationship secret. Zemlinsky had a Jewish background, of which Alma’s Catholic family disapproved. The few friends who knew about their romance urged Alma to end things, which she eventually did after the relationship grew strained.

Gustav Mahler 1909

Through her musical connections, Alma met the Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) at a party in November 1901. By early December, Alma and Mahler were engaged, although they kept this secret for a while. Alma and Zemlinsky’s relationship had not long ended, and it went against societal etiquette to fall in love so soon. They eventually announced their engagement two days before Christmas.

Friends of both Alma and Mahler expressed surprise about their engagement, especially because Mahler was Jewish. Also, Mahler’s family thought Alma a flirtatious, unreliable young lady. Nonetheless, they married on 9th March 1902, and the birth of their first daughter, Maria Anna (1902-07), followed in November. Their second daughter, Anna Justine (1904-88), became a successful sculptor, despite her parent’s musical backgrounds.

Alma Mahler with her daughters Maria (left) and Anna (right), 1906

“The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner.” This was Mahler’s view of marriage, and he refused to allow Alma to compose music. Alma expressed in her diary, “How hard it is to be so mercilessly deprived of … things closest to one’s heart”, but obeyed her husband’s wishes. As time passed, Alma grew resentful of Mahler, who insisted his music career came before his family’s needs.

In Vienna, anti-semitic activities made it difficult for Mahler to work in operatic theatres, so he took his family to Maiernigg in 1907 to have a break from the hostilities. Unfortunately, not long after arriving, both daughters contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria. Whilst Anna recovered, Maria grew steadily worse until she passed away on 12th July. Soon after this tragedy, Mahler learned he had a defective heart and needed treatment from specialist doctors in Vienna.

The death of Maria left Alma depressed and placed a strain on her marriage. She sought attention elsewhere, beginning an affair with the German architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in 1910. On learning of this, Mahler sought the advice of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), although the precise reason is unknown. Some suggest Mahler asked for help with his troubled feelings, whereas others believe he wanted marriage advice. The film Mahler on the Couch (2010) takes a different view, suggesting Mahler wished to curb Alma’s musical passion. Whatever the reason for the visit, family life changed a little in the Mahler household.

In an attempt to save his marriage, Mahler paid more attention to his wife, particularly her musical abilities. He claimed to regret his earlier attitudes towards Alma’s compositions and insisted on studying and editing them for publication. Mahler also encouraged her to write five more songs, which, under his guidance, were published at the end of 1910. Sadly, this newfound affection in their marriage lasted only a year, after which Mahler fell ill with an infection in February 1911. By May, he was dead.

Following Mahler’s death, Alma entered a stormy affair with the Austrian expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Lasting from 1912 to 1914, the relationship grew from one of passion to one of possessiveness. In 1913, Kokoschka painted The Bride of the Wind (Die Windsbraut), an allegorical artwork featuring the figures of Kokoschka and Alma in a loving embrace. Realising that Kokoschka was obsessed with her, Alma brought the relationship to an end.

Alma Mahler Fan

Kokoschka’s infatuation with Alma continued long after their breakup. In the early months of their relationship, Kokoschka produced portraits of Alma, such as one in the pose of Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, and later, romantic paintings featuring them as a couple. He illustrated stories about their time together, which he printed on fans and gifted to Alma as presents. He described them as “love letters in pictorial form” and continued to produce them after Alma had left him.

Dramatic sketches of Alma and Kokoschka suggest they conceived and lost a child in 1912. Some interpret from the images that Alma had an abortion, which caused Kokoshka emotional pain. Nonetheless, this event did not diminish Kokoschka’s love for Alma, and he continued to produce portraits of her. After their breakup, Kokoschka expressed his heartbreak and depression through his artwork, often using rapid brushstrokes.

Alma Doll

Unable to get over his obsession, Kokoschka commissioned Hermine Moos (1888-1928), a German doll maker, to produce a life-size doll of Alma. He wished to use the doll as a replacement for Alma, both in his portraits and, presumably, in his bed. “Yesterday I sent a life-size drawing of my beloved and I ask you to copy this most carefully and to transform it into reality. Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs. And take to heart the contours of body, e.g., the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly.” He sent Moos strict instructions and several paintings of Alma, hoping for a replica of his former lover. Unfortunately, Kokoschka’s expressionistic painting style was hardly realistic, and neither was the doll. After expressing his disappointment, Kokoschka tried to make the best of it, including the doll in his paintings.

At the end of 1918, Kokoschka declared the doll had “managed to cure me completely of my Passion”. He held a champagne party, during which he displayed the doll dressed in beautiful clothing. The party lasted well into the early hours of the following day and, as dawn broke, a drunken Kokoschka took the doll into the garden and beheaded it.

Gropius and Alma with their daughter Manon, 1918

Meanwhile, Alma resurrected her relationship with Walter Gropius, who she married on 18th August 1915 in Berlin. In 1916, Alma gave birth to their daughter, Alma Manon (1916-35). Manon, or “Mutzi” as she was often called, spent the majority of her infancy with her nurse, Ida Gebauer, with whom she followed her mother between her many houses. Alma owned three homes in Vienna alone, and the family often visited Weimar in Germany, where Gropius founded the first Bauhaus school of art.

In 1918, Alma gave birth to a premature son, Martin Carl Johannes (1918-19). After a few months, rumours reached Gropius that the child did not belong to him. For some time, Alma had conducted an affair with the Austrian novelist Franz Werfel (1890-1945), and Alma eventually admitted that Werfel was the father of her child. Naturally, the relationship between Alma and Gropius broke down, and they agreed to divorce. Sadly, before these divorce proceedings could be set in progress, Alma’s son developed hydrocephalus and died before his first birthday.

To protect Alma’s reputation, Gropius staged a meeting with a prostitute so that he could be caught in the act of infidelity, thus giving Alma the means to file for divorce. He did not do this out of kindness, but in the agreement that he would have custody of their daughter. After the divorce became final in 1920, Gropius took Manon to Dessau, where he married her step-mother, Ise Frank (1897-1983). Alma fought back over this decision and brought her daughter home to Vienna, where she allowed Manon to do as she pleased, including running around naked as much as possible.

Werfel, Alma and Manon

After divorcing Gropius, Alma openly lived with Franz Werfel, although she refrained from marrying him until 6th July 1929. During this time, she supported Werfel’s career, helping him become an accomplished novelist, playwright and poet. Alma encouraged her daughter Manon to play the piano like her older daughter Anna, but Manon prefered performance arts over music. Unfortunately, Manon’s soon-to-be stepfather did not think Manon had the talent for acting and discouraged her dreams.

Alma’s early years as Mrs Mahler-Werfel were made difficult by the increasing activity of the Nazi party in Europe. Werfel, who lectured across Germany on the topic of the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government, was branded a propagandist. Nazi members burned many of his books, and he lost his job at the Prussian Academy of Arts. To escape the antagonism, Alma took Manon to Venice for a short holiday in 1934. Little did Alma know, life was about to become much worse.

While in Venice, Manon contracted Polio, which left her paralysed. After returning to Vienna, Manon regained some movement in her limbs but remained severely disabled. Alma tried to boost her 18-year-old daughter’s morale by arranging frequent visitors to the house. She also instigated a romance between Manon and the young autocrat Erich Cyhlar (d.1969), hoping for a future wedding. Despite Werfel’s dissuasion, Manon never let go of her desire to act, so Alma arranged for well-known acting teachers to make house calls. Almost a year after contracting Polio, Manon acted out a private performance for her mother and step-father. Sadly, she passed away a few days later from organ failure on Easter Monday, 22nd April 1935.

Manon’s grave in Grinzing Cemetery

Manon’s death greatly affected Alma, who outlived three of her four children. Werfel, who had been like a father to the young woman, dedicated his future novel The Song of Bernadette (1942) to Manon. Anna Mahler sculpted a young woman holding an hourglass to mark Manon’s grave, but Nazi activity prevented it from being installed. The triangular slab that now marks Manon’s resting place was designed by her father, Walter Gropius, and put in place during the 1950s.

Life continued to grow difficult for Werfel, who had Jewish roots, and after the Anschluss in 1938, Alma and Werfel decided to flee Austria. With the assistance of the American journalist Varian Fry (1907-67), they secretly fled to the French Riviera, where they stayed until 1940. Finding themselves in danger again, Fry organised a secret crossing over the Pyrenees on foot, from where they made their way to Spain then Portugal. On 4th October 1940, Alma and Werfel boarded the S.S. Nea Hellas and arrived in New York nine days later.

Alma and Werfel finally settled in Los Angeles, where Werfel found work as a playwright. One of his successful plays, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, later became the 1958 film Me and the Colonel, and his book The Song of Bernadette became a film in 1943. Alma, meanwhile, opened their home to visitors, many of whom were also escaping persecution from the Nazis. Guests included German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Austrian film director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). As Werfel’s reputation grew, so did their social circle, but before he could publish his final science fiction novel, Star of the Unborn, Werfel suffered a fatal heart attack in 1945.

Alma with a score of Gustav Mahler’s

Although a widow twice over, Alma did not shy away from society. Thomas Mann nicknamed her the “Great Widow”, and people easily recognised her from her gigantic hats with ostrich feathers. In 1946, she became a US Citizen and eventually moved to New York, where she befriended composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-90). Bernstein greatly admired the music of Alma’s first husband, and Alma often attended the rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic to watch him conduct. Alma also met the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76), who dedicated to her his Nocturne for Tenor and Small Orchestra.

In 1947, Alma briefly returned to Vienna to settle some financial matters. Her mother had passed away in 1938, her sister Grete had died in a mental institution in 1942, and her half-sister Maria, a member of the Nazi Party, committed suicide in 1945. Back in New York, Alma celebrated her 70th birthday and received a birthday book full of greetings from past and present friends and acquaintances. Amongst the signatures were messages from her ex-husband Gropius and former lover Kokoschka, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, and Igor Stravinsky. German composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) composed a birthday song containing the lyrics “Centre of gravitation of your own solar system, orbited by radiant satellites, this is how your life appears to the admirer.”

And the Bridge is Love

During the 1950s, Alma worked on her autobiography And the Bridge is Love. She based it on the diaries she kept throughout her life, although employed ghost-writers to help her put them into book format. The first ghost-writer, Austrian writer Paul Frischauer (1898-1977), fell out with Alma over her anti-semitic ideas, which had become ingrained in her character from her parents’ strong opinions. Her second ghost-writer, E. B. Ashton (1909-83), also pointed out the discriminatory terminology and suggested censoring some of her thoughts, especially sections about those people still alive. 

Reactions to Alma’s biography were varied. Walter Gropius felt hurt about Alma’s portrayal of their relationship, and others felt awkward about her racist political views. Before the German version entered print, Alma told the editor to “Please remove all traces of the whole Jewish question.” The German biography was published under the title Mein Leben (My Life) but did not garner any praise. Critics called it salacious and egocentric, pointing out that Alma contradicted herself many times. She lost many long-term friends as a result.

Alma Mahler, New York 1962

Alma Mahler-Werfel passed away on 11th December 1964 at the age of 85. Her funeral took place two days later, but it was not until 8th February 1965 when her body was buried in Grinzing Cemetery, Vienna, in the same grave as her daughter, Manon. Many obituaries appeared in newspapers following her death, although they were based upon her autobiography and focused on her love affairs. Tom Lehrer wrote the song Alma in response to one of the obituaries, singing about Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel “as each in turn came under her spell”. 

Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg (1908-79) offered an alternative view in his obituary about the late Alma Mahler-Werfel. He claimed that, although there is no denying she had many lovers, Alma was not the flirtatious, promiscuous woman the world observed. Creative men were attracted to her because she inspired them; she was their muse. She enthused over their work and made personal sacrifices to ensure they achieved their goals. Once her husbands and lovers became successful, Alma no longer felt needed and moved on. Only those who acknowledged Alma’s contribution to their careers retained her friendship, for instance, her third husband, Werfel.

Alma on her deathbed

It is difficult to ascertain Alma’s true character because her memoirs are considered an exaggerated truth. For years, Alma’s account of Gustav Mahler was the basis of the composer’s biography but recently discovered letters and documents suggest an alternative history. Was Alma Mahler-Werfel the woman her obituaries claimed or was her outward persona a mask to cover the tragedies she experienced? Alma lost three children, four if you include the miscarriage, she lost her home, she lost two husbands, and she had to flee from danger more than once. Life was certainly not kind to Alma.

A young Alma once aspired to be a composer. She learned to play the piano as a child and began composing in 1888. Up until her marriage to Gustav Mahler in 1902, Alma produced several songs, twenty piano pieces and a scene for an opera. Her husband put an end to her aspirations, and Alma did not compose again until Mahler attempted to save their relationship in 1910. After 1915, Alma stopped composing altogether. The work of her husbands always took precedence, and only seventeen of Alma’s songs survive today. Attempts to reestablish Alma as a composer in her own right have been underway since the early 21st century.

Whatever personal opinions people hold about Alma Mahler, it remains certain that she did not receive the opportunity to realise her talent as a composer and musician. Arguably, the main reason for this is that she was a woman, and by marrying, she gave up her right to have a career. In today’s world, Alma could have had more success than her husbands, but the world will never learn of what she was capable. Some of Alma Mahler’s surviving compositions are available to listen to on Youtube, for instance, Die stille Stadt, Kennst du meine Nächte? and Hymne.


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Out of Austria

Marking the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss (annexation of Austria) on 12th March 1938
14th March – 29th April 2018

On Saturday 12th March 1938, German troops marched into Austria unopposed; Hitler was now in control. Although many Austrians welcomed the Wehrmacht with cheering, Nazi salutes and waving flags, this invasion made the country a dangerous place for thousands of people, particularly Jews. Between 1933 when Hitler began to gain power and 1945 when the era of National Socialism came to an end, approximately 130,000 Jews escaped from Austria, 30,000 of whom found refuge in Great Britain. Within this grand total, a number of artists crossed The Channel to safety and, in remembrance of the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss Österreichs, the Ben Uri Gallery produced an exhibition of over 40 works by a score of these refugees.

outside-e1471442834671The Ben Uri Gallery, established in 1915 by the Russian émigré artist Lazar Berson, is dedicated to celebrating the work and lives of migrant minorities. Originally an art venue for Jewish immigrant craftsmen, the gallery’s mission is to be known as “The Art Museum for Everyone” with no ethnic, religious or other barriers.

The gallery was named after Bezalel Ben Uri or Bezalel son of Uri from the tribe of Judah who was an immigrant craftsman in the Bible. He was the master artisan in charge of creating the tabernacle for the spirit of the Lord to dwell as well as building the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-covered wooden chest in which to place the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.
– Exodus 31:1-6

As a registered charity and the only specialist art museum in Europe that focuses on the issues of identity and migration through the visual arts, the Ben Uri Gallery takes every opportunity to not only showcase the artworks of migrant minorities but to tell the world their story. Although only a small building, the curators of the exhibition Out of Austria utilised the space to display a variety of different types of art, such as paintings, graphics, sculptures and ceramics. Very few of the Austrian artists are still alive, therefore, the exhibit also served as a museum of the annexation of Austria.

Anschluss was essentially an inevitable event for the idea of grouping all the German-speaking countries together had been a subject of discussion since the ending of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Austrian people were split between wanting to merge with Germany and staying loyal to the Habsburg Monarchy despite its collapse in 1918. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the government in Austria was targetted with propaganda advocating for an Anschluss to the German Reich, including the constant repetition of the phrase Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer (“One People, One Empire, One Leader”).

Gradually, the Austrian government withdrew, allowing Hitler to make his move to create a union between his birth country Austria and Germany, an “all-German Reich“. This had been his aim since 1925 when he wrote in his autobiography Mein Kampf, “German-Austria must be restored to the great German Motherland … People of the same blood should be in the same Reich.”

Some Austrian-born Jews began seeking refuge as early as 1933, five years before the Anschluss, as a result of Hitler’s anti-Semitic legislation. Others fled after the event in an attempt to find a place of safety, passing through various European countries, finally settling in Britain. With no homeland, livelihood or familiar culture, it was a challenge for all refugees to reestablish their lives and careers, including painters, sculptors and so forth. This exhibition not only showed the works of these artists but examined their struggles and experiences as they began to rebuild their lives.

Out of Austria was divided into sections, grouping artworks by theme rather than by artist. Some of the works express the reality of the internment many Jews faced on reaching British shores. Between 1940 and 1941, many refugees were held as “enemy aliens” in camps such as Huyton in Liverpool and the Hutchinson and Onchan camps on the Isle of Man. Despite the circumstances, the artists displayed in this gallery refused to let it stop them from doing what they do best – creating art. With limited resources, artists used whatever they could get their hands on.

dachinger-art-behind-barbed-wre

Portrait of a Man: Wilhelm Hollitscher, Dachinger, 1940

One of the artists caught up in Churchill’s decree to “collar the lot” of Jewish refugees was Hugo Dachinger (1908-95), occasionally known as “Puck” who immigrated to Britain via Denmark in 1938. For the first two years, Dachinger was able to live in relative safety, however, after Churchill’s decision in June 1940 to detain “enemy aliens”, Dachinger was interred in Huyton Camp for five months, followed by a final two months in Mooragh Camp on the Isle of Man. Despite his incarceration, Dachinger continued to paint, eventually holding an exhibition of the works produced during these months entitled Art Behind Barbed Wire.

Dachinger was an Austrian Jew born in Gmunden, Upper Austria who had spent three years of study at the Leipzig School of Arts and Crafts before moving to Vienna to work as a graphic designer. He also patented a system of moveable type and co-founded the successful but short-lived Transposter Advertising Ltd firm.

Whilst in the British camps, Dachinger completed a bountiful portfolio of work, which included landscapes, scenes of the everyday life within the confines of the eight-metre high barbed wire, posters and coloured portraits. The example of Dachinger’s work owned by the Ben Uri gallery was painted during the third month of his internment. Titled Portrait of a Man, it is thought that the elderly sitter was one of the intellectuals, either a writer or an artist named Wilhelm Holitscher, who Dachinger socialised within the camp.

Limited to resources that he could find in the camp, Dachinger used newspaper sheets as his canvas, preferring The Times over others on account of the better quality paper. Unable to purchase paints, Dachinger and other artists had to use whatever equipment they had brought with them or invent their own pigments by melting and combining various ingredients. For example, he made ersatz paint by grounding brick dust or food with the olive oil from sardine tins. On other occasions, Dachinger mixed toothpaste and watercolours, which can be seen in the hair of Portrait of a Man. To produce black charcoal, wood, such as twigs from trees, were burnt to ashes.

 

One of the themes that was explored in the exhibition Out of Austria was the prevailing mother and child trope that has appeared in artworks throughout history. It is usually associated with Catholicism and the representation of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, an unusual choice for Jewish artists to depict, however, perhaps these artists who had fled their homeland were drawn to this subject on account of their separation from their families. Amongst the artworks exhibited in this section were sketches, photographs, ceramics and sculptures.

One of the sculptures, lent from a private collection, was fashioned from bronze by the Austrian-born Georg Ehrlich (1887-1966). A year before the Anschluss, Ehrlich and his wife fled from the Austrian capital to the British capital where he remained for the rest of his life, excluding a brief internment in one of the camps. Although he had trained as a graphic designer at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, Ehrlich had established himself as a sculptor by 1923.

Ehrlich mainly restricted his sculptures to animals and children, however, also produced several war memorials including one for the Garden of Rest at Coventry. It is likely that Ehrlich’s sculptures provided the money he and his wife needed in order to live comfortably in their adopted country. Standing Boy, displayed as part of the exhibition, sold for £200 in 1941, the most expensive of any of the works bought at that time.

Another sculptor who found safety on the British Isles was Wilhelm “Willi” Soukop (1907-95), the son of a Moravian shoemaker, who fled from Vienna as early as 1934. Although he was deported and interred in Canada in 1940, he returned to London nine months later establishing himself as a teacher at various art schools. His post-war sculpture Mother and Child (1947), lent to the gallery for this exhibition, was purchased by the University of Chichester in 1952 where it usually sits above the altar in the University Chapel.

 

Continuing with the theme of mother and child, Bettina (1903-85), the wife of the aforementioned Georg Ehrlich, launched a new career as a children’s author and illustrator as a result of fleeing to London in 1938. By 1940, Bettina had penned and illustrated her first book Poo-Tsee, the Water Tortoise, which was followed by a further 20 books during her lifetime. As well as writing her own stories, Bettina worked as an illustrator for other authors including the American writer Virginia Haviland (1911-88).

A copy of Haviland’s Favorite Fairy Tales Told in England had been lent to the Ben Uri Gallery specifically for the Out of Austria exhibition, which was displayed in a glass case, opened to a page containing two elegant pen and ink illustrations. Included nearby was an initial study for an illustration that was never got used for the story Molly Whuppie in which the small girl, Molly, steals a giant’s purse from under his pillow whilst he sleeps.

Although these books and illustrations were produced after the end of World War Two and have no direct connection to the events of the Anschluss, they go to show the success Bettina achieved as a result of fleeing her home country. Had she remained in Austria, chances are she would have ended up in a Nazi concentration camp and possibly never seen again. By abandoning everything she was familiar with, she and her husband not only survived but created a positive future.

 

The exhibition Out of Austria ended with a selection of post-war artworks produced by Austrian-Jewish refugees. Some of these had returned to Austria or other countries in Europe, whereas, others decided to make Britain their permanent home. Regardless of where they ended up, they continued painting, sculpting and so forth, adopting new methods that evolved as a result of the war. Abstract art emerged as artists began to come to terms with the horrors of war, needing a suitable method of expressing their emotions. Political anxieties were also at the forefront of people’s minds but experiences of Nazi Germany made many wary of speaking or visualising their opinions in clear, obvious manners.

The Ben Uri Gallery selected works that were not predominantly war focused, instead emphasising the determination of the Austrian immigrants to persevere with their artistic careers. From fleeing their homes, facing several months in British camps, scavenging for resources, the determination of these artists to carry on when they could so easily have given up is an inspiration to all craftsmen today.

Despite the exhibition being in honour of the memory of the annexation of Austria, it was interesting to view a range of themes and styles rather than visual representations of war. Out of Austria was a personal insight into individual artists – unique human beings – instead of a formal, grave account of the Anschluss, although accurate facts and figures were also given.

It was refreshing to note a large number of female artists amongst the 20 or so featured in the exhibition. Women have generally been written out of the history of art and are only just beginning to receive the recognition they deserve. Anschluss affected both men and women, everyone was equal in this respect.

Out of Austria finished on 29th April, however, the Ben Uri Gallery hosts a number of exhibitions throughout the year that celebrates the lives of various individuals and groups of refugees. Regardless of who the future exhibitions focus on, visitors can expect a well thought out display that truly expresses the personalities and lives of the artists despite events they have been through.

The next exhibition to take place at the Ben Uri Gallery will be Adi Nes: Bible Stories beginning on 22nd May until 10th June 2018.