by Robert Birnecker
You have been in the U.S. for quite some time now, but what was your life like in Vienna with your father being the head of the Jewish Community in the 1930s?
The Community was a state within a state – it was recognized by the Austrian government as autonomous. You had to pay taxes to the Community as well as to the Austrian state and every four years there were elections. My father, Josef Löwenherz, had always volunteered for the Community and was eventually elected to be vice-president, still an unpaid job. In 1936, he gave up his law practice to become “Amtsdirektor,” a paid fulltime position to run the administration.
When the Nazis took over in March of 1938, the whole situation changed. The president of the Community, Desider Friedmann and the first vice president, Robert Stricker were arrested before we could even look around; as was the representative of the Jewish Community to parliament, Jakob Ehrlich, and my father.
In May 1938 I was still in Vienna, but I remember coming home one day and the widow of Jakob Ehrlich was sitting in our living room. She had just received a letter from Dachau that said that they regretted to inform her that her husband had died and that his ashes would be sent. Friedmann was never seen again, he was murdered, so was the vice president Stricker.
My father was taken out of jail to attend the International Evian Conference On Jewish Refugees. The Nazis were predominantly concerned with getting the Jews out of Germany and Austria. Anybody who wanted to leave Austria though had to ask for permission, which cost 10.000 Schilling, which is about $10.000 today. Possible for some, impossible for others, and of course they lost everything they had to leave behind. My father’s job was to get visas, permits and money from Evian to help people get out.
The Jews in Vienna feared he would not come back – he was nuts to come back – but he was stubborn and felt he had a responsibility. He brought back what ever he could from Evian and saved many lives. He also kept the hospitals going, the schools going, and was constantly helping people get out.
What was life like in Vienna as a Jew before you emigrated?
I don’t recall my parents having a single non-Jewish friend, and at Gymnasium, I did not have much contact with non-Jews. We did not feel deprived. I took it for granted. I became more aware of it at the university because the illegality of the Nazi movement inspired most of the students. I had an experience that illustrates the situation. There was a non-Jewish student by the name of Wagner (no relation to the composer) and we were both working on our PhDs. We had no social contact but I liked him and he liked me and we helped each other in the library. After a couple of years of casual contact, I said to him, “Isn’t it high time we use the informal “Du” form?” but he answered that it was unfortunately not possible for him to do that, and I understood what he meant.
When exactly did you leave Austria and how exactly did your emigration take place?
An uncle of mine had emigrated to the U.S. in the 1890s. The story goes that he came down the stairs with a packed suitcase and his mother asked where he was going and he said that he had told her that when he reached 17 he was moving to America, and he did. He was very successful there as an engineer. He invited me to the U.S., a place that seemed very far away for me at the time, but he warned that Europe was doomed and that I should consider moving to the US upon completing the Matura. In 1932 when I finished my Matura I stayed with him in the United States for a year.
The year in the U.S., however, was a real eye-opener for me. I realized that one could be a musician and have a half way decent life, which was very different than Vienna where it was virtually impossible for a Jew to have a musical career given how politicized everything was. I loved Vienna very much, as a city, the population a little less, and the thought of moving to the US was like exile.
I returned to Vienna to study conducting at the Conservatory and music at the University of Vienna, but in 1937 I got a visa for the U.S. and a ship ticket for July 1938. At the time of the Anschluß, just before my father went to jail, he told me to get out of Austria immediately. I guess I inherited a certain stubbornness from him and decided to stay until July. I missed my promotion at the University in July 1938, but managed to find someone to attend for me to get my PhD. diploma.
It was sheer luck that I got to America. I got here in August, and my uncle arranged for me to teach at a high school in Chicago. I didn’t stay there for very long, because the University of Chicago had offered me a job by then.
The recent discovery of documents in Vienna has given you renewed links to Austria (Nationalmuseum). Do you have any other ties with Austria as well?
My last personal ties have unfortunately passed away. I remained in contact with Leopold Novak, one of my music professors, until he died. He was the only one on the music faculty who had not been friendly with the Nazis. Novak went out of his way to make things comfortable for me when I was at the University. When the building was filled with Nazis, he brazenly walked with me through the halls and even led me through a passageway reserved for faculty, he took my hand and said, “We’ll make it through this.” He had a very successful career and eventually became the head of the Austrian National Library. There was also Joseph Mertin (a professor of mine at the conservatory who had a resounding influence on my career), and my oldest friend, Marcel Faust, who died in 2006.
Other than Zaunerstollen and Sachertorte is there anything else you miss?
It has been years since I have had Beuschel – years. They are not allowed to sell it in New York. As I said though, I was enormously fond of Vienna’s architecture and I suffer over everything they have done to ruin it, like, for instance, that building facing Stephansdom – a scandal, it does not belong at all. Vienna is still a beautiful city; the Vienna Musikvereinsaal still has the best acoustics in the world. I spent all of my time at the Opera growing up, I went two or three times a week. It shaped my career, I learned so much. I would not have had that in any other city.
Siegmund Levarie was born in Vienna in 1914 and has come to be one of the most prominent musicologists of the twentieth century. In addition to his conducting, he has written ten books and over eighty scholarly papers for a variety of international journals and conferences. Though now retired, he taught at University of Chicago, where he is credited with having introduced the Collegium Musicum to perform early music, the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, and the City University of New York in Brooklyn.
by Robert Birnecker