When History Hits Close to the Heart

I DIDN'T set out to find my own past in Vienna. A young American, my personal history stretched back about as far as the bell-bottoms I wore in nursery school, and after that it got murky. Dad says he plopped me in front of the television to witness Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind, but I'm not sure it made as much of an impact as Sesame Street did at the time.

In going to Vienna, I wanted to decipher other people's pasts - to unlock their treasures and peer through their windows. History was more of a fascinating jigsaw puzzle than a pilgrimage. Fresh out of college and eager to test my shiny new analytical skills, I planned on using the former imperial capital to study social and political upheavals in the 19th and 20th centuries. My mother once asked, gently, if I would visit her mother's old apartment in the third district. I wasn't sure I would make it, I murmured, wishing she would understand that I had other things to do.

"Your grandmother lived at Rechte Wienzeile 23," she said lightly, but she didn't press the issue. Perhaps she felt, as I did, that exploring my relatives' pasts could only distract me from my studies of more important historical characters - the ones who already had earned places in the academic journals. But no one would ever write the history of my grandparents, Josefa and Leopold of the third district, and we saw each other so seldom anyway.

OF course, history had interested me from the start in college, but I rarely took it personally. I did marvel with Parisians at the Tennis Court Oath, and gaped at Bismarck's iron hold on power. I wished I could have listened as Disraeli and Gladstone debated the Englishman's right to vote, and to have spoken up as the quiet Stalin calculated his rise in the Central Committee. Yet the world's tumultuous past and history's lessons hardly extended all the way down to the relatively mundane life of the indi vidual student.

Studying in Vienna changed all that. The city is history, and its inhabitants tell of the Turkish invasion of 1683 as if it happened last week, and of Franz Joseph II as if he were still their beloved emperor, even though he came to the throne in 1848. At first, I listened to such tales nonchalantly, since I'd grown up in Boston and was used to stories about the Pilgrims, the tea party, and the 1986 NBA Championship. A few weeks into my stay, however, I realized that the stories were not just for tourist s, or to amuse history students. They didn't always ring of self-serving partriotism as the cynical B.A. in me half expected. They vibrated with immediacy, sometimes with humor, and often hit close to the heart.

Even the tap water has its story. At the turn of the century, Mayor Karl Lueger made sure that Vienna's water was the envy of all Europe by having the fresh reservoirs in the hills piped into the city. In doing so, Lueger elevated the capital's sanitation standards to impressive levels. Today, each coffeehouse serves a complementary glass of water (unheard of on the continent) with coffee orders as a salute to the man who made the water delicious.

"Some Swiss friends were in town for a visit, and they loved the taste of the water," a friend reported proudly. "I told them they do not have water from the hills as we do. They have more money, but we have the fresh water." I wondered if my city's mayor at the turn of the century had been equally productive. I didn't even remember his name.

Of course, as the world has come to know, not all stories from Austria are lighthearted. After World War I, no one expected the shorn empire to last long, and Vienna spent 20 years grappling with political strife, economic despair, and interminable prejudice. When Hitler marched across the border on March 12, 1938, the government hardly had an ideological argument against him, let alone any military strength. Thousands cheered the Fuhrer as he announced the annexation of his home to the Reich.

I heard a young man continue that story. "Seventy thousand Austrians were arrested immediately," he said softly. "The Nazis painted the stones and pavement in the city with graffiti, and made the Jews get down on their hands and knees to scrub it off with toothbrushes." His voice grew hoarse. "And the next night, the Nazis painted the stones so the Jews would have to do it again and again, while the SS watched." His voice broke, and he had to stop. I stared at him and saw that he had communicated no inte llectual drama, but his own sorrow for his country's tragedy. He felt his country's past intimately without experiencing it. However horrible, history's impact made him intensely sympathetic to his countrymen and to the problems they faced. Likewise, I could and should find such profound meaning in my own history.

I began to wonder what my grandparents had thought of Austria's First Republic and Hitler's rise to power. Leopold and Josefa left the capital in 1921, escaping before the debt-laden country would finally crumble.

I went to the opulent Karlskirche; they had scrimped in order to be married at one of the side altars there. Every so often I would stroll through the open market in front of Rechte Wienzeile 23 and try to see Josefa bargaining for peaches and turnips.

Somewhere on the street, I dimly recalled, must be the old shoe store where my great-grandfather had crafted custom-made shoes for the nobility. The inevitable Industrial Revolution and the fall of the Empire must have been crushing. I couldn't find any shoe store. The apartment had new tenants. I became a bit discouraged; I had tried, but it seemed too late to retrace my family's footsteps.

I finished my year in Austria, and studied my share of history's grand events - with a little more insight into the lives they molded and the consequences they wrought. Upon my return, my grandmother happened to be visiting. She didn't speak English, and although I spoke German, she always had seemed distant. I hoped this visit would be different, and I recounted many of my adventures in her first home. One day, I was baking bread for the family, and she watched. I asked her if she remebered doing the sa me in Vienna.

`NO, never," she recalled instantly. The soft Viennese lilt was still in her voice. "I always went to Ankerbrot."

The bakery at the open market. The same one I'd been to - I knew the name. She smiled at me. The years fell away, and I imagined myself with young Josefa, two young girls walking down the boulevard together in our pulled-back hair, starched collars, and black boots with our Kronen. Turning in at the bakery, she would order sugar-powdered white Krapfen for a snack as I purchased a strong wheat loaf for dinner.

I saw us then skip away with our goods, wave at her father in his shop, and finally part ways until the next day. History finally hit home, and my grandmother and I laughed together.

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