The First Christmas in Exile 1938

Weihnachtsgeschenk an EWKs Mutter 4

Few societies deal more consequentially with Christmas than the Viennese. As a result, Viennese émigrés landing in such unlikely spots as Los Angeles or Shanghai felt particularly melancholic at this time of year. Even today, the buy & spend- intoxication, succinctly called ‘Kaufrausch’ in German, is less nakedly aggressive than in Anglo-Saxon countries. Having just come back from Vienna, I can confirm that though, yes, there is a Santa Claus selling Coca Cola (and in the intervening years, the Austrians now know who he is), the Christmas markets more than compensate. They carry on offering spiced punch, Glühwein and an assortment of handmade, organic, folksy items that can be heaped on the Gabentisch, or the table where the visiting Christ Child (Christkind) leaves presents, along with a magically conjured up tree, ablaze with countless candles and ornaments made of chocolate, gingerbread, straw, glass and goodness knows what else. The mood is set for children earlier in the month when St. Nicolaus and his demonic companion Krampus distribute chocolates to good children with switches and ashes going to the bad – and normally, all children receive a selection of both. It’s a very different seasonal experience from the never-ending piped Christmas crooners played in shopping malls from late October onwards. Even dietary traditions are different with carp served on Christmas Eve, the night when presents are opened, followed traditionally by goose on the 25th. For a month or so, there are never-ending plates of almond cookies and slices of Stollen or Kletzenbrot. It’s a very different experience and for those thrown out of Austria in 1938, it was perhaps the period when they felt most homesick. The British and Americans may have adapted  a protestant ‘German Christmas’  complete with tree and ‘Father Christmas/Santa Claus’ thanks to Prince Albert, but Austrian Christmas was Catholic, central European and something else again.

Vienna’s secular Jews – many who had converted or simply left the faith with no ersatz to hand – celebrated Christmas as a form of national, familial ritual. It was a period when concerts and church services were festive and everyone joined hands around the iconography of the tiny family in Bethlehem. Jews celebrated ‘Weihnukka’, a hybred between Weihnachten (Christmas) and Chanukah   – even decorating elaborate Weihnukka trees. It would never have occurred to most of Austria’s Jews that they were unwelcome during such periods of national and social bonding and most carried on trying as best they could to maintain their original Austrian traditions while living in new homelands. One of the most poignant testimonies of this comes from Julius Korngold. The Korngold family had a tradition of making their own cards (as shown in the accompanying photo from 1954, when Korngold has an American Santa Claus bring his mother a brand new television), and composing funny poems for birthdays and celebrations. Quite a few have been recorded for posterity, thanks to the resourcefulness of Erich’s son George, who would eventually become a respected recording producer.

 Julius Korngold

Julius was both prescient in preparing for what was about to be unleashed on his Austrian homeland, but utterly blind to the consequences of exile. He found it inexplicable that Los Angelinos neither knew nor cared who he was. There is nine-page letter to be found in the Korngold estate from Julius to Jack Warner written in the same haut en bas manner as his reviews for Die Neue Freie Presse. He lets Mr. Warner know who he is – ‘the successor to Eduard Hanslick’ no less, before going on to inform him how important it would be for Warner Bros. to make operas into movies. George’s brother Ernest dutifully translated it as best he could, but the result is pure self-delusion.  Jack Warner did not reply.

Yet his poem written for the first Christmas in exile in 1938 is heartrendingly poignant. I’ve translated it as follows very inadequately. Indeed, for German readers, I’ve included a transcription of the text. Unfortunately, nothing rhymes with ‘Vienna’ making it nearly impossible to bring across in English while keeping true to the verse’s punch-line.

Weihnachten das Fest, das alle Feiern,
läßt mich auch meine Werke herunter leiern
Und ob in der Dichtung ich lach’ oder weine, die Verse, die sind nur gerichtet an eine.
Wenn auch gewaltig die Schicksalshiebe, die Wünsche gelten für die, die ich liebe.
Nur diesen Winter noch Weihnachten im Sommer, unter dem Titel ‚Immigrated New-Comer‘.
Nächstes Jahr im Eis und Schnee, da feiern wir Weihnachten in Zell am See,
oder wo führen uns die Winde schon hin, im unseren immer noch heiß geliebten Wien —

There follow a few more lines about having to adapt to the times by singing Christmas songs into a recorder before he launches into ‘Silent Night’. Amusingly, it seems to wander atonally towards the end. Nevertheless, it’s a surprising rendition for a man in his 80s.

My stab at trying to find the same tone in English:

Christmas, celebrated by one and all
Compels me to set out my own poetic stall,
And if in these verses, I cry or laugh,
My rhymes are meant for only your behalf.
Though fate has knocked us with a hearless boxing glove,
This wish is meant for those whom I love:
Only this Winter shall we celebrate Christmas in Summer,
Under the title of ‘Immigrated New Comer’
Next year with Ice and snow, in Alpine winter,
should the winds permit,we’ll celebrate in our beloved Vienna

A reminder perhaps at this time of year, of all that we have to be grateful for and how many others have been forced to flee their own homes with few having the luxury of landing in either London or Los Angeles.