Australian art critic and environmental lawyer Tim Bonyhady has written a book of multilayered history refracted through the prism of his family, an economic and cultural powerhouse in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. While it is not always easy to keep all the family names straight, the central themes of Good Living Street are vivid and open-ended.
They include the blend of culture and commerce in Vienna before World War I, the vexing complexities of assimilation, the growth of anti-Semitism, the ambiguity of identity in a diaspora, and what it means to feel at home. The last matters particularly to Bonyhady, a Jew from an Austrian family that more often than not practiced Catholicism, largely due to reasons of faith but partially also in defense.
This book is Bonyhady’s attempt to grasp his complicated heritage and so come to terms with his own identity. In a sense, it’s history as reclamation, which is common. But it's also something rarer: history as forgiveness.
The work bubbles with the intellectual ferment of a brief era – basically, the first decade of the 20th century – in which such giants-to-be as Gustav Mahler, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and, soon, Arnold Schoenberg, ushered modernism into music and art. Also key: architects and designers such as Josef Hofmann and Koloman Moser, drivers of the Wiener Werkstaette, Vienna’s most famous workshop. (Klimt founded the Secession in rebellion against the more traditional Kuenstlerhaus.)
Bonyhady’s grandparents, Hermine and Moriz Gallia, hung paintings by Klimt and Emil Orlik on their walls and furnished their grand rooms on Wohllebengasse (“Good Living Street”) with work by Hofmann and his colleagues. To the Gallias, such patronage bespoke culture, status, and local support. But during World War II, when their children had to flee Austria after the Anschluss, the Gallia collection also scattered and devalued. Only in the latter half of the 20th century did Bonyhady’s mother, Anne, a staunch Catholic who never told her family that she was born Jewish, benefit financially from the sale of the few remarkable objects that made it through.
But there’s more to the story than arts and culture. There is the saga of a family that benefited from the technological advances of the turn of the 20th century (Moriz was a pioneer in gas lamps), prospering until the defeat of Germany in World War I also snuffed out the Austro-Hungarian Empire, reducing Austria to a country of 7 million.
As anti-Semitism deepened, members of the Gallia family web reacted variously. Some left Austria pronto; others stayed behind in hopes things would get better. Yet others died in concentration camps. “The persecution that made Austria’s Jews the most unfortunate in the world in 1938 ultimately worked in their favor by spurring the majority to try to leave while there was still time,” Bonyhady writes. “The assimilation of Austria’s Jews also benefited them because it made Australia more inclined to accept them. As a result, three in four survived the war, almost twice the European average. Yet sixty-five thousand Austrian Jews died, devastating many families.”
When Bonyhady asked his mother to write her story, Anne offered broad strokes but no detail. When Bonyhady delved deeper, he discovered disappearances and suicides, changing his worldview. There are many characters here, some more vivid than others. I particularly liked Gretl, Anne’s mother, a spoiled, yet fiercely independent woman who, as a member of Vienna’s haute bourgeoisie, didn’t know the meaning of work. In Australia, however, Gretl figured out how to capitalize on her cultural acumen, finally coming into her self-supporting own far, far from home. Her story – of ambiguity, survival, and bittersweet transformation – makes “Good Living Street” both elegy and celebration.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer and book critic based in Cleveland.