Ich bin ein Wiener: Roots

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Great grandma came from Vienna. I only remember meeting her twice as a kid. She took us down in her finished Cleveland basement and gave us ice cream pops from the freezer. Her humor reminded me of my beloved grandma. I remember later in life seeing a shot of her and my great grandad, I think a wedding shot of a dead serious youngish woman with hair up like a Gibson girl and leg of mutton sleeves.


My mother described grandma’s people as stylish and settled in Pittsburgh, where my only American grandparent was born. There was a love of music and my great grandfather was the first ethnic cop. My great grandmother was a strong Catholic. As the whole family is now dead, this is the backdrop, I came into Vienna with.

Wagner’s Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station

Great grandma might have passed through the emerging railway system which would become the Vienna U-bahn. As I walked through Vienna, and as I stayed, it was not uncomfortable listening to a softened German of which I know about 4 words, and coming out of the U-bahn seeing the different faces. I was not looking at blonde blue-eyed, but ethnic faces of mid-European. Some like mine. Vienna, like New York, was a melting pot for people who were part of the Austria Hungary Empire. That always does it for me.

Great Grandma might have also seen the Wiener Riesenrad, the giant Ferris wheel built in 1897 in the Prater, today’s amusement park. It has remained an enduring symbol of Vienna, or Wien, as it is really called. Vienna relates back to the old Roman name, as it was once a colony along the Danube (Donau, as it is really called). This is the famous site where Harry Lime first appears in The Third Man, which was actually shot in post-WWII Vienna.

I had thought what would it have been like to have been brought up in a city like this. Then sobriety set in, especially after seeing pictures of the bombed out Vienna Opera House. Austria had had an installed Nazi regime, and thousands of Jews in Vienna disappeared from the earth forever. Had Great Grandma stayed in Vienna would she have even survived the bombings and the war?

The Opera House stage, bombed in 1945

An Opera House is only a building, it is not a life, it can be rebuilt, replaced. In America, we throw war around like it was a toy. People want to go to war for spit. As I was reminded in Atlanta again, eternal is the cost of war.


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