A Bit­ter­sweet Home­com­ing

Arthur Kern Re­turns to the City He Fled

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Lilly Maier

It was a sunny af­ter­noon in March . Birds were singing out­side, and the first flow­ers had just started to blos­som on our quiet street in Vi­enna. At that time, I lived in an old apart­ment built around the turn of the past cen­tury, with high win­dows and even higher ceil­ings. It was lo­cated in the Ninth Dis­trict, a part of Vi­enna that houses some of the grand palaces that give the city its im­pe­rial charm. In the first half of the th cen­tury, Sig­mund Freud lived nearby; so did the author Heim­ito von Doderer. Then as now, the Ninth Dis­trict was an up­per-mid­dle class neigh­bor­hood that at­tracted many writ­ers, so it was fit­ting that my mother, a jour­nal­ist, had de­cided to move there and that we col­lec­tively filled our apart­ment with books.

My mom put the last touches on a flower ar­range­ment in our liv­ing room and went to the kitchen to get Mar­morkuchen, a typ­i­cal Vi­en­nese vanilla-choco­late cake. To this day, I have never seen our apart­ment in a bet­ter state; we’ve even taken pic­tures to re­mind our­selves how beau­ti­ful our home could look after we had spent two en­tire days clean­ing it. Even my own bed­room had been trans­formed into what looked like some­thing out of a cat­a­log. All my books stood ex­actly in line on my oak shelf; my stu‰ed an­i­mals were neatly dis­played on the top of my bunk bed, and the freshly washed red cur­tains moved gen­tly in the light spring breeze.

I was ‹‹ and the time, and I re­mem­ber that Shakira gave a con­cert in Vi­enna on that same day, and, for sev­eral weeks, many of my school friends had been look­ing for­ward to it. I didn’t get to meet any pop stars on that March day, but I met a cou­ple of peo­ple who were much more im­por­tant: Trudie and Arthur Kern.

Arthur Kern was a ‘’-year-old Amer­i­can man with short white hair that sur­rounded a bald patch. He wore navy blue trousers, big glasses and a striped gray polo shirt that ac­cen­tu­ated his Cal­i­for­nia tan.

De­spite the fact that he had just come o‰ a transat­lantic flight, he didn’t look tired or jet-lagged. His eyes sparkled as he walked en­er­get­i­cally through our apart­ment. “Das war das Klavierz­im­mer!” he ex­claimed as he en­tered my bed­room — “This used to be the pi­ano room!”

My bed­room had not been the pi­ano room for a very long time, not since the ‹˜ s. As a small boy, Kern had lived in the same Vi­en­nese apart­ment that my mother and I had moved to in ‹˜˜˜. In the ‹˜ s, his name was Oswald Kern­berg, a typ­i­cal Jew­ish sur­name that trans­lates loosely to “core moun­tain.” Lit­tle Oswald — or “Ossie,” as he was nick­named by his fam­ily — lived in the apart­ment with his el­der brother, Fritz; their par­ents, Frieda and Her­mann Kern­berg, and a maid whom he re­mem­bered to be a much bet­ter cook than his mother ever was.

The Kern­bergs lived the good life of a Jew­ish mid­dle-class fam­ily in the Vi­enna of the in­ter­war pe­riod. Her­mann Kern­berg owned a knit­ting fac­tory, and his wife helped with the busi­ness. Frieda Kern­berg of­ten trav­eled with her sis­ter, Erna, to Marien­bad, a pop­u­lar spa town in the Czech Re­pub­lic. The two boys, Ossie and Fritz, once spent an en­tire sum­mer in a va­ca­tion camp in Grado, Italy. But their good life changed abruptly when Hitler an­nexed Aus­tria to Nazi Ger­many in ‹˜ Ÿ. Only the youngest mem­ber of the fam­ily, Ossie, sur­vived the Holo­caust.

More than ¡ years later, Arthur Kern told us his fam­ily his­tory as we con­tin­ued our tour through the light-flooded

apart­ment. He metic­u­lously took notes on a small pad of pa­per while he ex­plained our sur­round­ings. My bed­room had been the pi­ano room; my mom’s ožffice the din­ing room; our liv­ing room the mas­ter bed­room, and the ad­ja­cent small bed­room, where my mother now slept, the broth­ers’ nurs­ery. The stor­age room on the left side of the kitchen had been the maid’s quar­ters, and the long cor­ri­dors were used by Ossie as a bike lane when his mother wasn’t around.

In­stead of the white, fu­tur­is­tic iMac

I had placed there, a can­dle­holder had stood on the table. The tile stove was used for heat­ing and not just as a mere dec­o­ra­tion. And the mu­sic came not from a stylish black Bang & Olufsen stereo but from a real pi­ano.

Sud­denly, “Für Elise,” the fa­mous pi­ano solo that com­poser Lud­wig van Beethoven had writ­ten in Vi­enna in the early th cen­tury, sounded through our apart­ment.

Trudie and Arthur Kern had flown all the way from North Hills, Cal­i­for­nia, to Vi­enna; they had found the lit­tle street in the Ninth Dis­trict hid­den be­hind the glass-walled Franz-Joseph’s train sta­tion; they had knocked on our door at the mez­za­nine, an in­ter­me­di­ate level be­tween ground and first floor in old turn of the cen­tury houses, and they had toured ev­ery cor­ner of the apart­ment. Arthur never stopped smil­ing. And now, as he played, the melodic sounds of a pi­ano once again filled the Klavierz­im­mer, which was now my bed­room.

The mu­sic em­anated from a tiny black pi­ano, with golden em­bel­lish­ments and a slen­der stick that held it open. Lit­tle an­gels moved to the rhythm of the melody, chubby baroque an­gels with white wings and huge smiles painted onto their pink faces. When the mu­sic stopped play­ing and the an­gels stopped mov­ing, it took only three or four spins to start the mu­sic box again. The Kerns had brought it as a present for me, to re­mem­ber the pi­ano my room once housed.

We went back to the liv­ing room to eat some of the mar­ble cake my mother had pre­pared. The four of us sat around our rec­tan­gu­lar glass table, on yel­low-and-or­ange leather chairs. While we en­joyed the cake, Arthur told us about his fam­ily. The two-hour chat was a funny mix­ture of Ger­man and English: I had just started tak­ing English classes the pre­vi­ous year.

Trudie Kern, who also grew up in Vi­enna, had lived in the United States for half a cen­tury, and had for­got­ten most of her Ger­man. Her hus­band still spoke Ger­man al­most flu­ently, al­though he ad­mit­ted that his vo­cab­u­lary was lim­ited to that of a  -year-old, the age he was when he had left Aus­tria.

A pic­ture that my mother took at the end of their visit shows me sit­ting be­tween the Kerns — each has an arm around my shoul­ders. Trudie wears a jolly blue pais­ley T-shirt; I’m in a white blouse and a red neck­lace. I ap­pear pale next to their Cal­i­for­nia tans, and quite small. This is one of the last pho­tos of my child­hood where I don’t yet wear a pair of glasses, so it’s only the two sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans who hide their bright eyes be­hind big, round glasses. All three of us are smil­ing. The photo ef­fort­lessly cap­tures the har­mony of the mo­ment, and ev­ery time I look at it it seems to ra­di­ate peace. In the back­ground one can see parts of our liv­ing room: the white leather fu­ton, the round mod­ern paint­ing that al­most masks an en­tire wall, and the light-or­ange cur­tains that re­flect the last rays of the sink­ing sun.

This was the sec­ond time that Arthur had tried to visit his old apart­ment. Dur­ing his first at­tempt, in the  s, he couldn’t even get in­side the build­ing. Decades later he planned an­other trip, and this time he asked a Vi­en­nese cou­ple that he had met on a cruise to ask us for per­mis­sion. Some­time in the fall of

ƒ ƒ, Brigitte and Fritz Ko­dras showed up unan­nounced at our door. They were so ner­vous that for the longest time my mother and I thought they were Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses: They sim­ply wouldn’t say what they wanted from us.

When they fi­nally man­aged to tell us about the Kerns, my mom im­me­di­ately agreed to let Arthur see his old apart­ment. It didn’t ever cross her mind to say no, but she was ad­mit­tedly a lit­tle scared that the visit might bring sad­ness and un­re­solved feel­ings into our quiet life. After all, we now knew that — ex­cept for Kern — all the pre­vi­ous ten­ants of our apart­ment had been killed by the Nazis.

In or­der to counter this un­com­fort­able feel­ing, my mom wanted there to be more to the visit than just a tour and a round of small talk, so she signed me up for A Let­ter to the Stars, a na­tion­wide his­tory project for Aus­trian high school stu­dents. Aus­tria has a long his­tory of re­fus­ing to ad­mit com­plic­ity in the Holo­caust and in­sist­ing that Aus­tria was the first vic­tim of the Nazis. A Let­ter to the Stars was the first big-scale school project re­vis­it­ing Aus­tria’s role in the Third Re­ich, con­sid­er­ably later than com­pa­ra­ble projects in Ger­many. Since the pro­gram started, in ƒ ƒ, – , stu­dents have re­searched the bi­ogra­phies of Holo­caust vic­tims and sur­vivors.

I had re­searched Kern’s mother, Frieda Kern­berg, née Gold­feld. I called my short bi­og­ra­phy, “To­day I Am Liv­ing in Her Old Apart­ment.” With the help of Kern’s de­scrip­tions and of doc­u­ments he still had from his par­ents, I de­scribed an en­er­getic woman who liked to play cards and eat grape­fruit, and who was a good busi­ness woman but a ter­ri­ble cook.

For seven years, Frieda Kern­berg and her fam­ily had lived in “my” apart­ment

We now knew that all the pre­vi­ous ten­ants of our apart­ment — ex­cept for Kern — had been killed by the Nazis.

in the Ninth Vi­en­nese dis­trict. Then, in ’™š’, she was de­ported to Opole, Poland, with Her­mann Kern­berg and with their el­dest son, Fritz. Al­ready in ’™–™, Ossie’s par­ents had man­aged to send him to safety on a so-called Kin­der­trans­port, or chil­dren’s trans­port. First, the ’Š-year-old boy came to France, where he lived in sev­eral chil­dren’s homes with other Jew­ish Aus­trian and Ger­man refugee chil­dren. Then, in ’™š’, he and some of the other chil­dren were sent to New York on one of the last ships to leave Europe be­fore the United States joined the war in Europe.

De­spite all this, my mom had not needed to worry, for the Kerns didn’t bring sad­ness or un­re­solved bad feel­ings into our home; they brought peace­ful­ness, open hearts and a huge por­tion of Jew­ish hu­mor.

It made for a nice story that I lived in the same apart­ment as Kern, and a cou­ple of news­pa­pers wrote about it. An ar­ti­cle in the daily news­pa­per Kurier printed a pic­ture of me hold­ing a sepia photo of Frieda Kern­berg. The photo was seen by Va­lerie Bar­tos, an ‰–-year-old Vi­en­nese lady who had been a friend of a friend of the late Kern­berg fam­ily. For over £Š years, Bar­tos had guarded a pack­age that Frieda and Her­mann Kern­berg had left be­hind for safe­keep­ing when they were de­ported to Poland. Afraid that the Nazis might come and look for it, Bar­tos had taped it to the un­der­side of a wooden closet. The pack­age in­cluded pass­ports, pic­tures, busi­ness cer­tifi­cates from their fac­tory, a life in­surance pol­icy and a lit­tle mezuza. Bar­tos never heard from any of the Kern­bergs again, but over the years, she had kept the pack­age safe. When the el­derly lady rec­og­nized the pic­ture of Frieda Kern­berg that I was hold­ing, she con­tacted my fam­ily through the news­pa­per to re­turn the doc­u­ments to Arthur.

Kern was ’Š years old when he had said good­bye to his par­ents and his brother. When he was ¤¥, more than £Š years later, he re­ceived this fi­nal pack­age from them: a me­mento from a past life.

I like to think that I was meant to meet Kern and his won­der­ful fam­ily, and I feel in­cred­i­bly grate­ful that he chose to share his story with me.

On May ¥, •ŠŠ–, the Na­tional Re­mem­brance Day for the Vic­tims of Na­tional So­cial­ism, I stood in a crowd at the Helden­platz, a pub­lic space in Vi­enna. Fif­teen thou­sand high school stu­dents from all parts of Aus­tria as­sem­bled at the ex­act same spot where, £¥ years ear­lier, Aus­tri­ans had cheered Hitler and the an­nexa- tion of their coun­try to Nazi Ger­many. After hear­ing touch­ing mem­o­ries from Holo­caust sur­vivors, con­certs by mu­si­cians and speeches from politi­cians, we let go of ‰Š,ŠŠŠ white bal­loons with let­ters at­tached to them — one for each Aus­trian per­son killed by the Nazis dur­ing the Shoah. Clouds of ‰Š,ŠŠŠ white bal­loons were caught by the wind and as­cended to the sky. There were so many the airspace around Vi­enna was closed for half an hour and no plane was al­lowed to take oŽ or land.

In the post­card that I at­tached to a white bal­loon meant for Arthur’s mother, I wrote to her of how I got to know her youngest son. “Ich hoffe, dass es dir im Him­mel gefällt,” I wrote at the end, mean­ing, “I hope you like it in heaven.” The let­ter I had writ­ten, one of thou­sands upon thou­sands of hand­writ­ten let­ters, was my very per­sonal Let­ter to the Stars.

I am writ­ing this more than ’Š years after I first met the Kerns. I of­ten like to think back to that warm March day in •ŠŠ– — the birds singing out­side; the light breeze bring­ing with it the first signs of spring. At the time, none of us re­al­ized how much this meet­ing would in­flu­ence all of our lives and how a sin­gle apart­ment in Vi­enna would for­ever bind our fam­i­lies. I went on to meet many more won­der­ful and in­spir­ing Holo­caust sur­vivors through A Let­ter to the Stars. I started study­ing his­tory and re­search­ing the long-term effŽects of the Kin­der­trans­port. I be­came a mu­seum do­cent in Dachau, at the Con­cen­tra­tion Camp Memo­rial Site, and I started giv­ing talks about the Holo­caust.

Not only did this meet­ing in­still in me a pas­sion for his­tory, it also gave me a third pair of grand­par­ents. I don’t re­mem­ber ex­actly when, but at some point in the past decade, the Kerns started call­ing me their “Aus­trian grand­daugh­ter.” And dur­ing many visits, their fam­ily has wel­comed me with open arms. Arthur Kern told me that at one point in his life he had de­cided to make peace with his ter­ri­ble past — for his own sake and for his fam­ily’s. “You have to de­feat the ha­tred in your heart,” he told me.

Kern died last sum­mer, but soon I will be fly­ing to Cal­i­for­nia to cel­e­brate Thanks­giv­ing with Trudie Kern, along with her fam­ily. When I come back, a black pi­ano will be stand­ing on my book­shelf, and chubby baroque an­gels will be mov­ing to the quiet melody of “Für Elise.”

This es­say is adapted from “Arthur und Lilly,” by Lilly Maier (Heyne 2018).

BE­HIND THESE DOORS, A HIS­TORY: The street en­trance at 1 Gussen­bauer­gasse.

MEM­O­RIES ALOFT: An air­borne trib­ute to the vic­tims of the Holo­caust in con­tem­po­rary Vi­enna

A SHARED HIS­TORY: Lilly Maier with Arthur Kern at Thanks­giv­ing in 2013.

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