I was a love-struck newlywed when Hitler came to Austria.
Outside, the Ringstrasse was streaming with cars, trams, and pedestrians in belted trench coats. Inside, we were waltzing and drinking French champagne. My dear friend Lily had just become engaged to a Catholic man, and the glittering ballroom was in full swing. Music was playing—it was Schubert—and men in bow ties were circulating with trays of crab cakes and miniature mushroom tortes. Someone toasted the happy couple. There was crystal, and dresses the colors of hyacinths and tulips. The dance floor was a blur of pastels.
It was a long time ago, but I can still see everything clearly.
I was wearing violet perfume, and dusk was approaching. Fritz moved like a panther in his tuxedo as he crossed the room toward me. My mother was wearing a shimmering gray dress, and my father was holding his bow over the cello strings when someone shouted, “The chancellor is making a speech.”
Aunt Adele was long in her grave, but I saw my uncle Ferdinand put out a hand to steady himself near the cocktail bar.
“Schuschnigg is on the radio,” the man shouted again in an angry voice. “Silence, everyone.”
The violinists ripped their bows from the strings, and our host turned up the volume on the radio. The chancellor’s voice rang across the room just as Fritz reached my side. Every bit of my husband’s childhood in the Jewish ghetto had been polished away by then, replaced by elegant manners, a starched white shirt, and a clear, operatic baritone. He put his arm around my shoulder and his ruby cuff link brushed my cheek, a cool spot in the warm room.
“Men and women of Austria: this day has placed before us a serious and decisive situation,” Chancellor von Schuschnigg said.
He took a choked breath that we could hear through the radio waves. Men I’d known since I was a girl turned pale. They lowered their champagne flutes and balled up their cocktail napkins. Lily wilted against her father’s thin frame. Someone tipped over a glass, and it shattered.
The chancellor said that Hitler’s army was at our borders, and for one more second I believed our small country was about to go to war. I thought we would fight the Germans, and that we could win.
“We have decided to order the troops to offer no resistance,” the chancellor said. “So I take leave of the Austrian people with a German word of farewell uttered from the depth of my heart—God protect Austria.”
A strange sound came from my husband’s throat. I saw my mother mouth my father’s name—Gustav—and my father mouth hers—Thedy—in a single moment that seared itself into my mind like a photograph. A woman fainted, and sirens began to wail in the streets outside. I saw Uncle Ferdinand waving in my direction, but my parents circled around us saying Secure your money. Secure your jewels. Go home. Lock your doors. Get your passports. Get out and then Fritz and I were pouring outside into the fading evening with everyone else.
Church bells were ringing, and hundreds of people were crowding into the streets waving Nazi flags. I had no idea there were so many Austrians just waiting for the Führer. But there they were, hordes of ordinary Gentiles who thought Hitler was right and the Jews were to blame for their problems—poverty, sadness, cold, whatever it was they were angry about, Hitler wanted them to blame us. And they did. They were smiling and laughing and waving their swastikas. They were shouting, Germany is united—long live Hitler.
We all knew what had been happening to the Jews in Germany, but until that moment it had seemed a world away. If that makes us willfully ignorant or foolish and naive, then that’s what we were. There’s no other way to say it.
Behind the wheel of our new black sedan, Fritz stared straight ahead. Men in brown uniforms marched arm in arm through the street as if they’d stepped right from the thick walls of the Ringstrasse buildings. Soldiers stood like hard marionettes with their chins thrust into the air. I wanted to ask Fritz where they’d been hiding with their pressed uniforms and shining swastika pins, but when I saw tears on my husband’s face I bit the inside of my cheek and swallowed my words.
By the time we reached the Altmann Textiles factory grounds, where we lived in our newlywed apartment, Fritz had composed himself and looked as much like the vice president of the business as he could manage.
“Four men were here asking for you,” the gateman said. Otto was a strong man with a clean, square jawline and two lovely children. He secured the padlock behind us, and for the first time in my life it occurred to me that I was locked inside the gates. “They wanted to see the man who runs the factory.”
“What did you tell them?” Fritz asked.
“I said Bernhard Altmann is away on business, and Fritz Altmann is here in Austria.”
“What did they say?”
“They said, ‘There is no Austria anymore.’ ”
Inside the apartment we bolted the door, turned off the lights, and crawled under the blankets. We’d been married only four months; I was twenty-two and Fritz was thirty, but we held each other like frightened children.
“You’ll leave right away,” Fritz whispered. “Tomorrow, if it’s possible. You go with Uncle Ferdinand, and I’ll join you as soon as I can.”
My uncle Ferdinand and Fritz’s brother Bernhard had both tried to warn us about Hitler, but their fears had seemed hazy and improbable and we’d listened the way most of Austria had listened: with one hand on the radio dial, searching for music and entertainment.
“I’m not leaving without you,” I said. “We’ll wait until your passport is renewed.”
I had a valid passport, but Fritz’s had expired after our honeymoon. We’d filled out the paperwork, filed for a renewal, and forgotten about it. That had been a month ago.
“I’m not going to get a passport now,” Fritz said. Lights from the factory grounds shone through our bedroom window, illuminating his face in zigzagged shadows. “The Nazis aren’t going to give me one. You go first, and I’ll come as soon as I can.”
“Go where?” I asked. “I don’t want to go anywhere without you.”
“Go with your uncle to Jungfer Brezan,” he said. “That’s where he said he would go if Hitler came. Czechoslovakia will be safe.”
Only then did I remember my uncle waving to me on the dance floor.
“I’ll call Uncle Ferdinand in the morning,” I said. “He’ll make sure we can get out together.”
I pressed my cheek against Fritz’s, and recalled the faint cinnamon of his aftershave on the night we’d met. There had been music and men in tuxedos that night, too—a cool breeze coming through an open window at the Lawyers’ Ball, and a line of women holding their dance cards and waiting for the second waltz.
“Just look at him,” I’d breathed to Lily when Fritz walked by. He’d moved as I thought a lover might move when he wanted a woman, as if there was velvet under his feet. And there was the cinnamon scent, like warm bread and breakfast in bed, lingering in his wake.
“That’s Fritz Altmann,” Lily had whispered. “He’s an amateur opera singer and a real charmer. I admit he’s a looker, but don’t waste your time on him—he’s crazy about a married woman.”
I might have heeded my friend’s warning if Fritz hadn’t climbed onto the music stage just then and silenced the room with Schubert’s aching love song: You are peace, the gentle peace—you are longing, and what stills it. Maybe he was a playboy, but his voice had the warmth of a roaring fire. He sang about longing, pleasure, and pain. He sang as if he wanted a home, and that very night I’d made one for him inside myself.
I wouldn’t leave Austria or Vienna without him. To even think of it was terrifying.
I was swallowing a bite of dry toast the next morning when a delivery boy in a blue hat hammered at the kitchen door. The sky was flat as Fritz gave the boy a silver coin and read the cable from his brother.
Safe in Paris. Secure the books. Come immediately or await my instructions. Stop. Bernhard.
“Of course,” Fritz said in a tight voice. “I have to secure the ledgers.”
The newspaper was unopened on our table, with a photograph of Hitler’s motorcade crossing the Danube River above a boxed notice that read: EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY Jews must report all property, holdings, and cash to the Central Offices of the Reich. Those failing to cooperate will be subject to seizure and imprisonment.
“I’m calling Uncle Ferdinand,” I said. I hit the telephone receiver once, then twice. The line was dead, and that gave me a new sense of urgency. “I’m going over there. He might already have a passport and papers for you.”
“You can’t go out there,” Fritz said. “We have no idea what’s happening in the streets.”
I buttoned up my coat and pulled on my scarf and gloves. My resolve was a metronome clacking inside me: I can’t leave without you, I won’t leave without you, I can’t leave without you, I won’t leave without you.
“You get the ledgers. I’ll see my uncle, and then I’m going to check on my parents,” I said. “I’ll be home in three hours, maybe less.”
The Altmann Textiles factory was set on four acres in Vienna’s Margareten District, southwest of the city center. The buildings were yellow and whitewashed brick connected by a maze of smooth pathways. There was a modern cafeteria where everyone ate lunch together, and Fritz and Bernhard knew each of their three hundred employees by name.
Fritz walked me to the front gate, when we found Otto still on duty at the guardhouse.
“Where’s the morning man?” Fritz asked.
The workers usually began arriving before eight in the morning, but that day the grounds were still empty.
“He didn’t show up,” Otto said with a shrug. He looked at my sturdy shoes. “Frau Altmann, the streets are dangerous. I hope you’re not going out there.”
“Wait,” Fritz said. “I’ll go with you later.”
“I’m going now.” I pressed my face against his. “You take care of the books.”
Outside the gates, our street was deserted and the houses silent. Shades pulled low across dark drawing room windows seemed to flutter and blink as I walked away from home. I was much more frightened than I’d let on to Fritz. At the tram stop I kept my eyes on the ground and pulled my collar up around my face. I tried not to think of anything. I tried only to breathe and stay calm.
There was no ticket taker on the tram. The seats were full of silent workmen and servants in white starched uniforms. I shoved my ticket into my pocket and held on to a leather strap as the rail rolled beneath me. As we rounded the Mariahilf District, there was an angry red Nazi banner hanging from a tall building. We all turned to look, and the car buzzed with something that seemed to hang between anticipation and terror.
At the stop near the Naschmarkt, a big man in a black uniform stepped onto the streetcar and shouted, Heil Hitler. The entire car saluted back, but I hesitated. The man barked again, Heil Hitler, and stared until I put up my arm and mouthed the words. As I did, I saw the Secession gallery slide by on my left. Soldiers stood in a line across the museum steps, unfurling a red banner that covered the slogan that had been there all my life. I struggled to recall the words, but they slid away as quickly as the golden dome slid from view.
The next stop was Karlsplatz, where the Church of St. Charles anchored the square. I got off without looking back. The church doors were flung open, the bells were ringing, and there was a crowd of people in front of the fountain. I turned the other way, clutched my handbag to my side, and tried not to run through the streets.
My uncle’s house was on Elisabethstrasse, overlooking Schiller Park. As I rounded a stand of naked shrubs, I nearly tripped over a line of old women on their knees. The women were dressed in fur coats and patent leather boots, and they were scrubbing the sidewalks with toothbrushes. I lost my footing and came to a full stop, nearly retching in the street.
“If you do a good job, filthy Jew, maybe I’ll let you keep that fat diamond ring,” a soldier barked. He butted a woman with his rifle, and I felt a sharp pain in my jaw, as if he’d struck me, too. The woman cried out, and he struck her again. I scanned the old faces, praying I wouldn’t see anyone I knew.
“Join us, fräulein,” a soldier leered at me. Another one laughed, and I thought I might faint. “We can use a pretty young one like you.”
I fled from the park, hurried up the steps at 18 Elisabethstrasse and banged on the door.
“Uncle Ferdinand?” I called first for my uncle, then for his butler. “Georg? Are you in there? It’s Maria—it’s me, please open the door.”
A gunshot rang out in the park behind me, and my knees went weak.
The door opened and my uncle’s cook was standing in her white uniform, a dish towel over her shoulder. I was prepared to throw myself into her arms, but she looked at me with a cool eye.
“Your uncle isn’t here,” Brigitte said. “He left before dawn. He’s probably across the border by now.”
“Left?” I asked numbly. It had not occurred to me that my uncle might leave without us.
“Without a word to anyone.” Brigitte’s mouth twisted. “Georg saw him pack his papers and lock up the safe. He’s probably gone to Jungfer Brezan.”
“Did he leave anything for me?” I asked. “A package or an envelope?”
“I’d like to check his study.” Even to my ears, it was clear the words were a plea.
“Suit yourself,” she said, and stepped aside.
The grand palais was silent. The furniture seemed to cast long shadows across the parlor, and the grandfather clock on the landing kept time like ticking dynamite. Upstairs, my uncle’s desk was impossibly tidy. I tried the desk drawers, but they were locked. I looked under the radio and the ink blotter and ran my hand along the clean bookshelves. There wasn’t even a layer of dust.
I could smell my uncle’s cigars, but very quickly it was clear that he’d left nothing for me. My last chance was Aunt Adele’s sitting room, where her golden portrait hung. The room was a shrine to my aunt, filled with her favorite paintings and books. The curtains were drawn, and the air inside was stale. Her portrait was filled with gold and silver baubles and strange symbols I’d never been able to puzzle out. I’d often had coffee and cake in that room with my uncle, nibbling on sweets while he talked about the wife who’d died when I was only nine.
“She was celebrated throughout Europe and the empire. One day that legacy will belong to you, Maria,” my uncle had said. He’d leaned over and brushed my cheek. “You’re the daughter we never had. The daughter she longed for.”
Outside the palais a woman screamed, and gunshots followed. I pushed aside thick curtains and saw two women lying in pools of blood. My knees buckled, and for a moment my eyes went black. An engine roared, a horn blared, and there was the sound of dogs’ frenzied barking.
I pulled away from the window and grabbed for Adele’s letter opener in a panic. I felt sure there was something hidden in the room for me—perhaps behind the portrait or slipped into a picture frame.
Another shot rang out, and a jeep screeched to a stop outside. I heard heavy boots on the landing, and loud knocking. Men barked my uncle’s name, and blood pounded in my ears like a loud siren.
“Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer? We’re here for Herr Bloch-Bauer.”
“He’s gone,” I heard the cook say calmly. “But his niece Maria Altmann is upstairs in the dead wife’s sitting room.”
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Book Cover Image (jpg): Stolen Beauty
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Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. During Adele’s life, there is an ongoing debate about which is more essential, beauty in art, or truth in art. What do you believe the primary aim of art should be? Why? Are beauty and/or truth integral to artistic works? Why, or why not?
2. Do you think Adele loved Gustav Klimt, or just the lifestyle he represented? Discuss.
3. In retaliation to his critics, Klimt paints Adele as the heroic Jewish widow Judith. Do you think his response is effective? Why or why not? On page 78, Klimt claims, “There’s no solution in words. . . . The only answer is art.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree/disagree?
4. Throughout the book, sex and death are connected visually and in the characters’ minds. Find some passages that illustrate this connection. Why do you think this is a significant motif for Adele or Maria?
5. Both Maria and Adele must contend with the issue of faithfulness in marriage. What are the different messages the two stories provide on this topic? Which do you believe is more important, fidelity see more