Greta Weissensteiner was a passionate and compulsive reader who spent enormous amounts of her time and money in bookshops and libraries - too much time if you asked
the rest of her family. She spoke several languages fluently and was able to read her favourite Russian and German authors in their original versions. For her literary needs she frequently went to 'Mohr & Kling', a particularly renowned bookshop in the Bratislava city centre run by two German men. Greta adored their exquisite selection of beautifully bound and illustrated books, even though she could never afford such luxurious items herself.
The public library stocked mainly reference books and held only a minor collection
of dated or classic fiction. In there she rarely found any of her favourite writers which were the more modern romantics such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich Heine and Friedrich Hoelderlin.
“All starting with an aitch, I’ve noticed,” a Prussian looking junior sales assistant
commented one day while he wrapped her latest purchases. “Is that a coincidence
or are you working your way through the alphabet?”
His name was Wilhelm. He had spotted Greta from the moment she had first come into
the bookshop and was fascinated by her. He could hardly take his eyes of her while she browsed through both selections of delicate rare prints and the new additions to the stock, and he was astonished at her dedication as a reader. Her questions demonstrated a sound knowledge of literature and her choices proved that she could tell the good from the bad. She also had a slight hint of mystery about her and a set of dark, deep and penetrating eyes that suggested an extensive inner life and a seriousness of character; in many other regular readers, it usually merely signified a melancholic mood and pessimism. However, Greta possessed no such negativity, just pure enthusiasm for the written word and a clear focus on whatever she was doing. Wilhelm loved and knew all about German literature and welcomed a local girl taking such an interest in the excellent hidden treasures that this bookshop held.
Frequently there would be girls or young women trying to engage him in conversations about books, but many used this only as a pretext for flirting with the handsome new
assistant. Those silly and unworthy creatures soon exposed how little they actually knew about literature which put him off. His time was too precious for shallow discussions and idle chit chat. He could tell that Greta was the exact opposite.
She did not seem to notice him at all, her focus was always on the books and when
she asked him or the other assistants for information, she hardly ever even looked up at them. That, for the first time in his career, had created a desire in him to take the attention of a customer away from the literary treasures and bring her focus onto him. He was a good looking young man with strong facial features. Pleasant to the eye and well groomed, he was not used to having to work at being noticed. He thought it was ironic how her aloofness, the one quality missing in all the other woman who admired him, was the very thing that made him invisible to her.
In fact, his looks had not passed Greta by at all but she was a little put off by his confident manner, which didn't live up to her romantic ideals of a potential suitor. Yet there was something delicate and soft about him, hidden underneath his confidence, that she thought was very appealing.
His eyes were full of mischief as he spoke to her and his smile was disarmingly warm
and friendly. Greta was taken off guard and was almost lost for words. Whenever
she had seen him before, there had never been a simple pretext for speaking to him and being not the most confident 21 year old, Greta would never have thought that she would warrant a second look from him. Behind her rigid posture was more fear and anxiety than an outsider could have detected. When Wilhelm addressed her at the counter she only just managed to hold his provocative gaze and smiled back at him.
“The aitch is a coincidence,” she quietly got out before composing herself and stating with a bit more confidence: “All of the modern romantic authors are my favourites, really. There are so many, it would be hard to choose amongst them. I also love Dostoevsky and Gogol - Russians and Romantics. If I had more money I would probably collect their complete works.”
“You have an exquisite taste in books young lady,” Wilhelm complemented. “I would
recommend you have a look at Hegel and his work. He is also a German romanticist
beginning with an aitch and his work is very remarkable – that is if you were ever stuck for more inspiration – which doesn't seem likely.”
“Thank you. I will keep that in mind,” Greta said gratefully. Of her few friends and family, only her older brother, Egon, loved reading as much as she did, but he was solely interested in history books and was not very knowledgeable when it came to fiction or contemporary literature. Her sister Wilma often read what Greta chose for her but she lacked the ability to analyse and discuss the works in a way that Greta would have found stimulating. The young book lover was on her own in her quest for intellectual exchange and so Wilhelm's recommendations and comments were very welcome indeed. She wondered if she would ever be in a position where she could tell the assistant in a shop like this something he didn't yet know about books.
“If you wanted to, I could always lend you one of my books,” Wilhelm offered, looking around him to make sure no one was listening in on their little conversation. “You know, so you could keep expenses down – if money is a problem.”
Greta was taken aback by his sudden forwardness.
“Wouldn't that get you into trouble with your boss?” she said evasively.
“Probably, but only if he found out,” Wilhelm said with his mischievous look again.
“I would have to give you the books outside of work of course, not in here. Maybe I
could meet you somewhere for a coffee or a drink?” he asked with a little wink.
“Thank you,” she replied. “But I don't have a habit of meeting with complete strangers.
I am sorry.” She made for the door.
“Wait! Wait! Well, maybe I could just stop by your house and deliver a few books to you
sometime? We would not have to meet or talk if you don't want to. I would just give them to you and then leave. I promise.”
He was insistent this man and Greta felt charmed and singled out, but she wondered
whether this handsome German was a genuine admirer of romantic literature and
her, or whether he really was just a notorious flirt.
“Why would you do that for someone you do not even know? What would be in it for
you?” she asked, instantly regretting that she had given him a chance to explain his feelings, which she guessed were not of the purest type.
“Because I can tell that you really like our books,” he said, becoming a little more
uncomfortable and shy himself. “We don't get many young women in here that
appreciate our treasures as much as you do. I would like to help you with that!”
Wilhelm surprised her with his noble answer and the more genuine and kind tone
he was now using.
“Maybe,” she replied. “I am going to read these books first. Can we arrange the delivery
of your loan when I come here next?”
“Of course. When do you think that will be? Are you a fast reader?” he asked.
Greta had to laugh about the sudden panic she detected in his voice.
“I am, but I don't always get much time to read. My father runs a weaving and
embroidery business and we are always busy. As a matter of fact, I should be going right now. He sent me on some other errands and only allowed me ten minutes in here. He will be cross with me when he finds out how much longer I have been here and how much money I am spending.”
“There are only a few weavers in town. Maybe I know the place. Which one is your
father?” Wilhelm had left the desk and was following her as she approached the door to leave. “Just so that I can come by sometime for those books, then you would not have to leave work.”
He felt he was making a fool of himself but now that he had already gone this far,
he did not want to let her go. Normally it was he who set the boundaries for admiring ladies, now that the roles were reversed, he did not like it much.
“I am not sure that would be a good idea,” Greta said to his great disappointment.
“I don't think my father would like it if strangers came to the house unexpectedly.
When we are busy I don't even know if I could come out and talk to you when you
get there,” she told him.
“I will take the risk. So which weaver is your father? Please tell me!” he said with pleading eyes causing her to finally relent.
“We are the Weissensteiners on Gajova, in the dead end part of the road.”
Pleased with the small progress he had just made, he tried to engage her in further
“What other writers do you like?”
Greta hesitated a little, and then she replied briefly while looking towards the
“Schnitzler, Chekhov, Pushkin, Hoffmannsthal and Joseph Roth; the list has no end.” She laughed. “But I really need to go now.”
“What is your first name?”
“Greta. And yours?”
“Wilhelm. Wilhelm Winkelmeier.” He extended his hand and bowed slightly. “Nice
to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too. Goodbye then, Wilhelm.”
When he first showed up at her father's workshop a few days later Greta seemed almost
cross with him and acted very abruptly. Much later she explained to him that she was only worried at the time that she would get into trouble with her father or her co-workers about the unannounced interference with her work life. As the daughter of the owner, she had usually no more rights than any of the other employees were permitted; they didn't like it when she got preferential treatment and her father, Jonah Weissensteiner, did not want to alienate his work force by allowing his children any more freedom or liberties. Weaving had become a fragile business and with the continuing growth of industrialization in the sector – more so in other countries than in Czechoslovakia - competition was fierce. The Weissensteiners owned a few semi-automatic looms, which were already substandard in France and Britain but productive enough for the kind of work they attracted.
The income of the family fortunately did not entirely depend on those looms and the
production of fabrics. Previous generations of the family had acquired traditional embroidery skills in the Ukraine and ran this part of the company as an artistic side-line. Numerous commissions for hand woven 'made to order' work - usually for the local nobility - was the most lucrative branch of the business and Greta’s father was lucky to have made a good name for himself. While he designed and spent endless hours on individual orders, his children and staff had to take shifts in overseeing the looms for the production of blankets and fabrics. Even though this was less demanding than other work, everyone disliked doing it because it was incredibly dull, which was why Jonah insisted that everyone took a fair share of these shifts. He knew that disgruntled employees meant lower quality and damage to his own reputation. When Wilhelm arrived to bring Greta the promised books, she had been on one of those boring shifts and had to make one of the other girls take over for her which earned her a hateful
Wilhelm had brought her two books to start with. Of course, it had been a lie that he
had his own private book collection at home. He had left all of his books back in Berlin from where the Winkelmeier family recently had moved. He had none of her favourite German romantics at his family home on a farm just outside of the Bratislava city limits.
He owned up to his lie right away and admitted that to impress her he had taken the
books from the shop store room and he would have to ask her to be careful with them so that he could put them back on the shelves before the next inventory. Greta laughed and promised she would treat them with the utmost care, but she had to go back to her duties now and so the meeting was over quickly.
He swore he would be back the following week to see how she had gotten on but she
did not hear him as she rushed back into the house to relieve her angry and impatiently waiting colleague.
On his next visit, only five days later, she had already read the first two
“I couldn't help myself,” she told him. “I started before going to bed every night
and I only meant to read a chapter or two, but I got so drawn into the books
that hours passed before I realized how late it was and that I really had to go
to sleep. Thank you Wilhelm, these were really a pleasure. Look, I made sure
they are still clean and proper.”
Wilhelm was impressed that she had such a passion for books and that she had been able to keep her concentration up till late at night. It appeared that she was having
to work very hard at her father’s company and yet her passion was able to overcome her tiredness.
Originally he had meant to wait much longer before coming to see her again to give her
sufficient time to read the books he had brought, but he was so eager to hear what she thought of the books that he could not help himself. Besides, with no friends in this foreign land, he really had nothing better to do. 'Mohr & Kling' was far from his home and he spent a large part of his day commuting on foot. Frequently, he also worked right through lunch, completing orders and store paper work to impress the owners and secure his position. Usually he only had a little snack in one of the back rooms before being able to do a little reading of his own.
The owner, Herbert Kling, insisted that Wilhelm should go and stretch his legs and
made him leave the shop for lunch at least a few times every week but Wilhelm
was not grateful for the kindly meant gesture as it interfered with his precious
Hopeful that Greta had managed to finish at least one of the books he had brought with
him the last time, Wilhelm had come with a few more treasures for her. He had
managed to find her a book by Lessing. His own favourite, ‘Nathan the Wise’, had
recently been banned because, as the German newspaper in Bratislava, Der Grenzbote, had quoted as the given reason, it 'practically put the Jewish faith on the same footing as Christianity'.
“It is such a shame that one possible interpretation of the book put it on the black
list,” Wilhelm complained. “You Slovaks are incredibly strict when it comes to
“Do you think so?” she asked surprised.
“Oh yes, I do,” came the instant reply.
“Who else do you like apart from Lessing?” Greta wanted to know.
“I do like the Enlightenment movement,” he told her. “Do you know Schiller and
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, I have to say that although I am less worried about the religious implications
of their argument, I share their belief in the greatness of the intelligent abilities of mankind. I like how Kant encourages people to make up their own mind and to take responsibility for their actions, rather than to look for already made up rules to live by,” he said passionately.
“You are quite a philosopher I see.” Greta observed.
“I guess I am. I like meaning in a book. Everything needs meaning!”
“What do you think about Romanticism then?” she asked. “That not always has a serious
“I also love passion which is in both the Sturm und Drang writings and the Romantic
period,” he consoled her. “It would be a mistake to limit oneself by reading just one particular type of genre over and over again. I hope that this is not what you are doing by reading so much of the Romantics? That would be an insult to your potential.”
Greta thought that this was a very nice thing to say and a valid point to make about
her reading habits. She had been rather one sided in her choices and so from now
on she encouraged him to bring something she had asked for and also something he
The next time he visited she was pleased to tell him that she had liked the book by
Lessing he had brought and she regretted having to miss out on the banned book,
which sounded so very interesting. Fortunately he had managed to get her some
early works by Goethe which she devoured with speed and passion. Even though he
could not supply her with some of the literature she was looking for – Jewish
writers for example were more difficult to sell and were often not even in stock
anyway - she said she was always open to his suggestions. He rejoiced in her
willingness to read whatever author he recommended and could not wait for her to
have read the books so he could bring her some more. He considered himself
extremely lucky that no one in the book shop seemed to notice his
Jonah Weissensteiner was very happy for Wilhelm to come to the workshop and supply his daughter with books. He had words with all the employees and promised them that
they too could receive short visits like Greta and thanked them for their understanding. Jonah could be very persuasive when he chose to be and with the other workers on board, it was occasionally even possible for Wilhelm and Greta to have at least a little chat about the books before she had to return to her tasks. Jonah wanted Greta to find someone that liked her for herself and not only for her noticeably good looks. This young man had things in common with his daughter and treated her with respect, which was the most important quality he searched for in any potential son-in-law.
Wilhelm with his good looks could have his pick of the girls and his eyes were clearly
set on Greta, which secretly made Jonah a very proud father.
“Does he not mind you being Jewish, that German book boy?” Jonah asked her one evening over dinner.
“I am not sure he even knows yet,” Greta told him. “The way he talks about the
Jews, it doesn't seem to have any reference to me at all.”
“How does he talk about the Jews?” Jonah said with raised eyebrows.
“He just mentions them in passing, like ... so and so is a Jew so we do not have his
books in our shop. I don't think he has an opinion about it himself,” Greta
“But the name Weissensteiner, that is a Jewish name! He must know,” insisted Jonah.
“I often wished we could have changed that. It would make life easier, wouldn't
“It only sounds Jewish to you because you know that it is,” disagreed Greta. “It
could pass as a German name to a naïve young man, which I think Wilhelm just
“In that case you should bring the matter up soon before this 'book lending' goes
any further,” Jonah lectured.
“He seems very smitten with you my darling daughter. It wouldn't hurt to get it out
of the way before you waste any more of your time on him or any of his time on
you, unless of course you were only in it for the books?”
“No I am not just in it for the books father,” she admitted. “I like him. I think I
really like him. He is very interesting. He thinks a lot.”
“Oh he thinks a lot does he?” Jonah said, with a little sarcasm in his voice. “Then
it is important that he learns to do something as well, thinking alone will only
give him a headache.”
“Do you like him father?” Greta asked, ignoring his previous statement.
“Does it matter if I like him? You must like the goy and make sure he does not mind
your family,” her father warned. “I'll like him enough if he makes you happy; even if he thinks all day until his head hurts. If a thinker you want, then a thinker you shall have. You have the pick of the men, my beautiful. Trust me. Make sure you choose a good man and that you do really like him.”
“I do like him, father. He seems such a gentle man from what I can tell from our
short meetings but I still need to get to know him better,” she admitted.
“You take as long as you like to make up your mind. I hope you realise that he has
already made up his mind about you. It is written all over his face how enchanted he is. He could accuse you of playing with him if you let him visit this often and your decision is not the one he hopes for. You must not lead him on. Be careful, you know, because I don't think we need to wait much longer for a proposal from this one.”
“I am not so sure. There are plenty of girls who make eyes at him, maybe he just
loves talking about books. That could be all he wants from me,” Greta said more
to herself than to her father.
“Yes, if you were a fifty-year-old librarian that probably would be all,” Jonah said
with a roaring laugh. “Why is he not content talking about his Goethe with the old men in his book shop then? I tell you why, they are not his type. Always remember that men of his young age mainly think with their loins. Once they have satisfied such needs, they may not be interested in your views on books anymore and go back to the shop to discuss literature there. An attractive girl like yourself always needs to choose wisely.”
“I don't think he is like that, he is so serious,” Greta defended.
“Yes he is serious, the Germans often are. Now let’s hope his seriousness is good for
something and makes him worthy of you.” Jonah laughed.
Like in other regions of Czechoslovakia, there were a lot of ethnic Germans in Bratislava at this time. They often appeared like a closed circle, even though that was far from the truth. One part of these ethnic Germans were Austrians, many of whom had only recently arrived here and now found themselves stuck in the remains of what used to be a part of their glorious Habsburg Empire. Other Germans in the region were settlers from the German Empire who had moved there over the course of many centuries. Both groups moved in separate circles.
Wilhelm’s Teutonic family roots had helped him to get his job at 'Mohr& Kling'. The
Slovak population was generally friendly, if somewhat distant towards the Germans, but the communities did not mingle much.
Formerly known as Upper Hungary, the eastern provinces of Czechoslovakia also harboured large numbers of Hungarians who were less popular with the locals, were seen more of a threat and were considered as unwelcome aliens. By the time that the
new state of Czechoslovakia had come into existence, many of them had already returned to Hungary to avoid an existence as a minority. After the Great War, international lobbying by Czechs and Slovaks in exile had persuaded the Allies to create this new state. The massive German population in the Czech border regions needed to be neutralized which was why Slovakia was separated from Hungary for the first time in centuries and added to the new state, where Germans and remaining Hungarians were now comfortably outnumbered by the combined total of Czech and Slovak citizens.
For the first time, the Slovaks had their own recognised region and their politicians were eager to use this historical moment and achieve more self-rule than they had been used to under Habsburger rule. Understandably the Slovakians longed to become an equal partner with the Czechs. In their view, the Germans were a harmless minority and not a serious threat to their cause. Political parties representing the German minorities were becoming more vocal of late, but this was mainly felt in the Czech part of the country, especially Prague or near the borders in the Sudetenland. Bratislava was little affected by these politics and remained the somewhat sleepy capital of a Slovakia that was
quietly focused on its overdue independence.
The problem of Anti-Semitism had never been exclusively associated with the Germans
and was present in all regions of the state, but Bratislava had a large Jewish population that seemed widely tolerated. It was certainly not a foregone conclusion that Wilhelm would object to Greta's roots. After the Great War many Jewish refugees had fled the Russian pogroms and had swamped Central and Eastern Europe where they had received few welcomes.
The way Wilhelm had spoken about the Jewish intellectuals and writers had been both
respectful and factual, and made Greta optimistic about a future with him. Still she kept delaying telling him more details about her family. The Weissensteiners were originally from the neighbouring Carpathian Ruthenia, part of the North Hungarian Oberland, that since the end of the war belonged to the Ukraine. There the family had conversed in Yiddish in their settlement, or shtetl, and in German in their home, but they also had learnt to speak Hungarian and Russian.
Jonah Weissensteiner had spent large parts of his childhood in a Jewish shtetl,
which existed separately to the Russian, Ukrainian or Polish communities and
villages in the region. His family moved to Slovakia long before the Great War
because there was not enough demand for weaving work and because it seemed wise
to his father to be further away from Russia with its growing anti-Semitism and
As the only Jews in their new, rural setting the Weissensteiners were tolerated well enough. Jonah was a good craftsman and earned the respect of the villagers. He made sure to appear as unorthodox as possible. He celebrated only a few Jewish holidays, and unlike other Jews, he observed the Sunday and Catholic holidays. Jonah had picked up the local language in Slovakia very quickly. Greta and her siblings had already been born here and they were fluent in German, the Slovak dialect and learned Hungarian and Russian which helped with the business.
The family observed the Sabbath because – as Jonah said - as long as he could
afford it, he loved a day off.
Their diet was not kosher and they only sporadically went to a synagogue, which was
too far away to attend the Sabbath service and not violate the travel restrictions. Some of the other Jews they had met at the congregation were outraged with the apparent lack of faith or discipline and accused the Weissensteiner family of opportunistic assimilation without acknowledging their own roots. Such disagreements were nothing new to Jonah and he had become an expert at avoiding answering any provocative questions. He knew that it was common in exile minorities to preserve their unity by sticking to the dogma
because they felt they could not afford to deviate from it in hostile territories. Oberlander Jews were particularly notorious for their orthodox beliefs and many of them had pressured Jonah’s father and his family to stick to their own kind and be part of their orthodox-leaning community.
Just like his father before him, Jonah refused to give in to such pressure on principle. For him, Judaism had always been a personal search to find the right way and whether it was a neighbour or a Rabbi, Jonah would always personally decide whether they were right or wrong.
After the war, Jonah had taken his family from the rural home in the Trnava province
and had moved to Bratislava. Without the connections to the Hungarian trade across the border, he thought his business would be safer in a bigger city. Bratislava was not only the biggest city in the Slovak part of the new republic, it was also historically the only city - in what was then Hungary - that allowed Jews civil rights; everywhere else Jews were only tolerated or, at most, were given the right to practice their faith. Kaiser Joseph II had made protective statements for the Jews in Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it was called the Edict of Toleration but executed law and order in the provinces had not always followed this liberal guidance.
Over the centuries Bratislava had become an island within widespread anti-Semitic
sentiment and had attracted a large Jewish community from all over eastern Europe. Not trusting that deep rooted prejudice and hatred could be erased by modern laws, Jonah’s main aim was to blend in when they got to the city and to not be noticed as Jews. Too close an association with the Jewish community might attract unwanted attention and damage his business, which was why he chose not to set up shop in the Jewish quarters of the city. In the 1921 census he avoided the issue by using a loophole; he did not declare his family as being of 'Jewish Nationality' but wrote that his mother tongue was German and so by the rules of the census form his nationality must be German.
Jonah was well informed about the political situation in Nazi Germany and its
potential implications for Jews in Czechoslovakia. In his view it could only be advantageous for Greta to have a German boyfriend. The boycott of Jewish products was starting to make life difficult for Jews in Germany. If this started to spread over here, having a German passport and husband, especially one that did not seem to mind her heritage, could be good for the entire family.
Greta was a hopelessly romantic girl. Wilhelm knew this much from her book choices.
When it came to girls he was admittedly less of a romantic at heart and more of a slave to his own raging and tormented hormones. He had convincingly played the enchanted lover to Greta, read her poetry and wrote passionate long love letters which he inserted in the books he kept giving her. Not before long, he had managed to make her fall in love with him, yet his own feelings were still a little ambiguous.
Greta interested him as a person, that much was true. She was intelligent and wise but
as important as her love for books was to him, he was becoming painfully aware that this had become an increasingly smaller part of her appeal. He respected her and found her ideas on literature very impressive but in his relationship with her his physical needs became soon the most important factor. So it turned out that he did not mind her Jewish heritage at all when she finally told him on his next visit to the workshop, following her father’s orders to do so. She confessed that since the official census the family was officially known to the state as Lutheran Germans but there was always a danger that their lie might be uncovered.
To her relief Wilhelm was not in the least worried about any of this. When Greta
commented how unusual it was to find a man who was so relaxed about the Jewish
issue he curtly replied that he had once heard rumours that it was the Jews who had caused the crash at Wall Street but that meant nothing to him at all, especially since it was hardly Greta's doing what had happened over there.
Blissfully ignorant of most prejudices against the Jews he could not find anything wrong
with his sweetheart. The closer and more 'intimate' the two of them grew, the less he wanted to hear about it. He knew that her family had not much money, so they had certainly nothing to do with the ‘nasty Jewish financiers and bankers’ that everyone so hated. She was simply the most attractive woman he had ever known, her eyes were seductive and her beauty taunting. All he wanted to talk about that afternoon was what it would feel like to be alone with her and spend a night with her. Nothing else mattered to him. At any other time she might have found his remarks rude or offensive but on that particular day she was too relieved to take offence and see the shallowness behind them.
He didn't have to wait very long for his 'curiosity' to be satisfied. Now that they knew he was kosher, her father encouraged her to progress with this relationship and she possessed none of the inhibitions other young women of her age were plagued with. Wilhelm bombarded her with compliments and declarations of eternal love and his hypnotic blue eyes made her melt in his arms. Before long they were kissing by the church wall after work. Soon kissing became only the first part of their amorous games and within a few months they consummated their passion, hiding in his family’s farm barn on Sundays when everyone else in the house had gone to church. He claimed he had to go to work for an inventory which raised no suspicions whatsoever. Wilhelm was known as a keen worker and as he had not told anyone about Greta, his cover story was coherent with his usual dedication to the shop.
The Winkelmeiers were not even aware of her existence. Wilhelm did not want to
become the laughing stock of his brothers, who were not very romantic and who
would only talk dirtily about girls when they were in their own company. Wilhelm
was far less romantic than Greta but compared to his brothers he was certainly a
gentleman. Conversations amongst the siblings about his feelings were out of the
The length of his stay in Czechoslovakia had also never been decided, which made her
being Jewish not a pressing matter. Wilhelm’s family had come from Berlin to Bratislava in 1931 after the Great Depression. There were no jobs and no money for the men in the family in Berlin and so Wilhelm's father, Oskar, decided that the best place to survive would be with their relatives in the country where food was often more available in times of famine. Oskar had a cousin called Klaus Winkelmeier in Brno but Klaus and his family were struggling to survive and organized for Oskar, his wife Elizabeth and their children to live with another cousin, Benedikt, who owned a farm near Bratislava and who, assured Klaus, could easily accommodate and feed their Berlin relatives as long as they could help out on the farm.
Benedikt was an arrogant patriarch and anxious to preserve his status, from the very
first day he treated the family as intruders. Initially, Oskar found that very trying but he managed to keep his head down and quickly began to enjoy the developing camaraderie between himself and Benedikt. Having been unemployed for a while, he appreciated the physical sensation of hard work and the way it made him feel like a real man again. He gradually earned Benedikt's respect for his strength and the effort he put into his work. Benedikt gradually started to trust him with bigger tasks and Oskar was always eager and proud to prove himself worthy.
Oskar's other two sons, Ludwig and Bernhard, were also a huge help to Benedikt, who had only two daughters and a teenage son, all of who could help with some of the
lighter farm work but not with the really heavy loads. It was a relief for Benedikt not having to hire so many strangers for the season. You never knew how reliable these workers were and if any of them had long fingers or would try to get fresh with his daughters.
Benedikt’s farm was in a good location and he was renting out some of his machinery to
another farm which brought in additional income. Having family staying, for which he only had to provide food and accommodation, was very convenient. It also meant that Benedikt's wife, Johanna, could stop wasting all of her time in the kitchen and do more of the regular housework like sewing and cleaning which she had lately neglected.
Oskar's wife Elizabeth was known for her expertise in the kitchen and took over those
tasks. In addition, she taught Johanna's girls, Maria and Roswitha, a few tricks in that department that could come in handy when they were looking for husbands at some point in the future. The girls were still a few years away from the courting age but they had both inherited the good looks from their mother, who despite her sometimes harsh and bitter facial features was still able to turn admiring heads on the street.
Maria was the older of the two sisters and at seventeen probably the one Benedikt had
to be protective over the most. She had completed her eight years of compulsory education at the German school in Bratislava and was now back at home helping full time on the farm. Her grades had been above average but Benedikt did not
believe in educating her any further than necessary. She was beautiful enough to hope for a good marriage, especially with her links to a well-run farm and as the oldest child, he had naturally treated her with the harshest discipline so that she could be used as an example to the younger ones. The effect of this on Maria was that she had learnt to keep her mouth shut at all times and to always do as she was told. She spoke little, sat with her head down and appeared grateful for any attention she was given.
Any young farmer would be lucky to have such an obedient and hardworking wife,
Benedikt often thought, and he felt incredibly proud of forming her character so successfully.
Maria however was far from being a happy girl even though she never complained. From
early childhood, she had learned that this would get her nothing but a few slaps and humiliation from her parents. The rough treatment had beaten most of her personality out of her and unlike many of her friends at school, she felt completely useless and empty inside. Most of them were not the children of farmers but the offspring of rich landowners and skilled tradesmen. They never accepted this wallflower in their midst and ridiculed her for smelling of cows and horses. Even when she got good grades, the other students laughed about her outside the school building, screaming that she was empty in her head and that was why she could remember everything that they had been taught in the lessons so well.
In comparison, her younger sister Roswitha was outgoing, lively and always appeared
to be happy, even though this too was not quite the case. At fifteen she had suffered two years less of the severe punishments than Maria and she had very quickly learned from her older sister's behavioural mistakes and become more compliant and submissive.
Roswitha was not as pretty as Maria and she was much slower at farm work and in school. She did however look much happier than Maria; she smiled more because she had realised that it was possible to charm people with a pleasant demeanour and they
were more likely to give her attention if she seemed obliging. She enjoyed working as long as she was able to chat and socialize, unlike her sister who preferred to be left alone. Roswitha loved it best when the whole family was working in a field together and her happiest moments were the evenings when everyone was gathered around the wood stove in the living room and someone told tales or sang. She hated to be alone and when Wilhelm's family moved to the farm she was delighted to give up her room for the boys and to share with Maria.
Both girls were picture perfect blonde specimens of Aryan beauty, even though
Roswitha's hair was much darker than Maria's. The sisters were not very close to
each other which was due to Maria's almost permanent silence. Roswitha could
talk for the two of them and would tell her sister everything there was to say about her life but she could not get through the quiet and blank exterior.
Maria was very grateful for the attention but somehow felt too timid, vacuous and
uninterested to share much of her own life; she was often simply too unsure what
would be expected of her and what might be an appropriate reply. Nothing ever
happened to her anyway, so what could she tell that could compete with the
elaborate stories of her sister?
Roswitha did not know how to read these silences. She carried on talking regardless and,
in the absence of protests, hoped this to be fine but the one-sided nature of their conversation did not allow for much closeness between the two of them.
Now that both girls were back from school they were even less likely to have anything interesting happening to them. Their lives were dull and monotonous. A few excursions to the market with their mother were all they ever were treated to and even those trips were performed under time pressure and strict adult supervision.
The local country youth was mainly Slovak and the girls would have felt out of place
trying to socialize with them. Benedikt warned them to stay away from the boys in the village. His daughters should try and find German husbands and he was concerned that the youth around here might persuade them otherwise. To meet fellow Germans they would have had to go into Bratislava, here in the rural areas there were only Slav peasants.
Their brother, Gunther, was the youngest of the three children and at the age of
fourteen he was already regarded as a weakling in his parent’s eyes, much better
off at school than inefficiently wrestling with the heavy and physically demanding farm work that he was so clearly not cut out for. Gunther was intelligent and would probably make a much better living than his father one day; he was best advised to earn his money with his brain rather than with his two left hands and with the arrival of the Berlin relatives there was an opportunity for the boy to fulfil this dream without causing a labour shortage on the farm.
Gunter was actually much stronger than Benedikt gave him credit for but in the latter’s
macho male ideas of a boy of his age, he would always fall short of expectations and without fail would be made aware of these disappointments. This permanent criticism had robbed the lad of all his confidence and without a chance of ever catching up with his father's demands, he had long stopped even trying. It had never been spoken about but it was clear that Gunter would neither inherit the farm nor even ever work on it later in his life. Benedikt had used him as little as possible as help, worrying that he would constantly have to check anything Gunter had done to ensure that no mistakes had been made. With the arrival of the Berlin boys the heat was definitely off him. Oskar’s sons, Ludwig and Bernhard, filled the role of farm hands effortlessly and far beyond Benedikt’s already high standards. The farmer loved to instruct the two physically strong
boys in the farm work and to see finally the results of his coaching in the way he wished his own son could have done; the fact that the Berlin boys were much older did not matter. In his view, Gunter was a failure of the highest order, always had been and that shame would stay with his father forever.
Benedikt also thought that Wilhelm was a bit of a weakling and probably not much use at the farm. His mother, Elizabeth, had suggested right away that he should maybe
find work in a library or a bookshop as he was so fond of reading and with the help of some people at the German club, Wilhelm was soon set up at the bookshop and even managed slightly to supplement the farm income with his salary. Wilhelm was away from the farm for most of the day and was hardly ever even noticed. That suited Benedikt very well; Wilhelm was the only handsome son of his cousin and he did not want his daughters to get any wrong ideas. Wilhelm was not ever likely to run the farm either, so the less the girls saw of him the better.
Despite their different backgrounds, the two Winkelmeier families bonded surprisingly
well. Johanna was a very cold woman and not comfortable as the female leader of the clan but Elizabeth took on the role as the warm and giving heart of house and kitchen to whom the girls came with questions and their problems. For the first time in its history, the house started to have a friendly feel to it. Elizabeth hated shouting and arguing and she always tried to bring people back together rather than stirring things up like Johanna was used to doing.
The attention starved Roswitha loved that there was a person on the farm that made
time for her and seemed to like her without any conditions attached. The more introvert Maria on the other hand was just relieved that she no longer had to help her mother in the kitchen. Although Benedikt had ordered the two girls to learn everything that they could from the new domestic boss, Elizabeth was not interested in pressurizing anyone into something they did not want to do and so she let Maria quietly steal herself back to the fields, where the girl could be as isolated as she wanted to be and so suffer less from the social pressures on the farm. Gunter was also extremely pleased about the new developments on the farm, mainly because of the superior cooking. All three children were content with the new situation and Benedikt’s wife Johanna was relieved too that a
competent woman had taken all these unwanted tasks of her hands. She did not form a strong bond with Elizabeth but was polite and thankful to her – much more than Benedikt would have expected from his otherwise cold and closed wife.
Oskar and his boys obeyed the laws of the ruling patriarch and accepted his role as
teacher and leader without the slightest hint of questioning his authority, which pleased Benedikt no end. Everyone seemed happy.
After only a few times of her and Wilhelm meeting in the barn, Greta became pregnant
and the young Prussian – despite his feelings towards her still being a little unsure - decided to do the right thing by her and proposed. Now that fate or bad luck had tied him to the bibliophile woman he became aware of the reasons behind his earlier hesitations.
Greta was more of a muse and a fantasy lover to him than a woman he would have chosen to marry. Too many practicalities were speaking against it and he did not even
know if she could cook and be a good wife. It was his code of honour that forbid him walking away from her now. They got married in a civil ceremony in 1934 with little Karl already showing through her wedding dress.
Wilhelm’s family was not particularly pleased with this marriage either but felt it only
right that no Winkelmeier child should ever be brought up a bastard. When Wilhelm told the family about her background, Oskar had raised the issue of having a Jewish wife in these difficult times but Elizabeth made him see that the damage was already done and that there was no other Christian way out of this situation. A Christian solution was not necessarily something that would have mattered to Benedikt, but he was fond of the idea of grandchildren and the continuation of the family. The sooner this process began, the more he would be able to personally pass on and mould the next generation; a thought that was dear to someone who was so self-loving and arrogant, and so he gave his blessing. Besides, the bride was not an official Jew and her presence would destroy any ideas his daughters might have about the handsome young book seller.
After the wedding, Greta and Wilhelm lived together in a small room on the farm and
soon after the birth of their son, when she was not nursing little Karl, Greta was called upon to help on the farm. Having been brought up so liberally by her father, she initially found it difficult to adjust to the new harsh climate where Benedict dictated what would be done and where she had the lowest part in the female pecking order. Working in the fields would have taken her too far away from Karl, so for most of the day she was made to cook and clean. Greta hardly managed to read, so exhausted was she in the evenings. She had to take orders from both Johanna and Elizabeth and while the latter was gentle and caring, the former could not have given a damn about the ‘Jewish whore’ who had
trapped ‘her’ beloved handsome Berlin boy into marriage.
Wilhelm got promoted to assistant buyer at his book shop, a favour to the family out of
respect for his new role as young father. He came home even later every day and then still had to read or work till late at night. Jonah had offered for them to live with him in Bratislava at the workshop, but Johanna and Elizabeth both were heavily opposed to the young family living with Jews. For the sake of peace and with one eye on the political situation in Germany, the Weissensteiners agreed that the farm would be a much safer place for the little boy to grow up.
Greta was able to see her sister and family at most once a week. When everyone else
went to church on Sunday mornings, she was allowed to walk into town with the
little one. Elizabeth and Oskar were not very religious but succumbed to the continuous social pressure from Benedikt and Johanna, who said that village life revolved entirely around church attendance. If you wanted to be part of the community, or at least find buyers for your goods, you had to stay friendly and always show your face at church. The rural population was incredibly devoted to Catholicism and it was best to go at least to be seen regardless of your actual beliefs, which in the case of the Winkelmeiers were Lutheran.
Hardly any of the locals knew them more than by name and no one ever came to visit
apart from those farmers that borrowed or rented Benedikt’s equipment, but keeping up appearances could never harm. Elizabeth and Oskar gave in to this logic and made their children go regularly to mass as well, but they didn't quite dare to ask Greta to come to church too.
Only Johanna tried to persuade Greta to convert. She found an unlikely ally in this
campaign in Jonah Weissensteiner, the father of the bride. He felt that a family should be all of one faith and go to church or the temple in unison. When Wilhelm pointed out that the Winkelmeiers were actually not even Catholic but Lutherans, he shrugged and said why could they not convert, after all they were already going to the services, it should not make any difference to them.
Lutherans at that time were particularly unpopular in Slovakia because the politicians in
Prague appeared to favour them. There was already a lot of ill feeling towards the government because it consisted mainly of members of the dominant Czech half of the country and the resentment was transferred to the innocent Protestants.
Johanna caught on to Jonah's idea and suggested immediately that her family should all
convert together. It would ingratiate them deeply in to the local community and one could always do with some allies among the neighbours.
Greta refused to convert, saying that she felt it wrong to commit herself to a church
she did not believe in, but since she was not a very committed Jewess either she
declared herself happy to attend some of the church services. Since those occurred at the one time a week that Greta had been allowed to visit her family in Bratislava, she asked to be excused from at least a few services so she would be able to carry on with the visits to the workshop.
Johanna noticed how weak Greta sounded when she voiced this request and it seemed a good opportunity to try and bargain further with the young mother. Would Greta be
prepared to have Karl baptised - after all it would do wonders for his future if he was raised in the predominant faith of the region? Greta said she would leave that up to Wilhelm. If he felt strongly enough to support Johanna's suggestions then she would happily go along with it. Secretly she was sure Wilhelm would never agree to such a silly idea and such an obvious sucking up to the local church members. However, to her surprise Wilhelm was very enthusiastic with the plan. His superior at the book shop, Herbert Kling, came from the Catholic Bavaria and had often commented on him not having had a church wedding. Wilhelm had laughed it off with much appreciated rude comments about the bride not being able to wear white at the wedding and refusing to walk down the aisle in a different coloured dress, but it was made clear to him that if he converted to Catholicism and baptised his son Karl, it would be appreciated and his career prospects would be much stronger.
To everyone’s surprise the local priest seemed the first real hurdle. He was not particularly happy for any of them to convert and was certainly not prepared to
baptise them without a series of harsh conditions. Father Bernhard Haslinger was
of the old guard and demanded that they should all attend regular catechism
lessons for several months during which he would test their current knowledge of
the Bible and then teach them in detail the differences between the two branches
of Christianity. He also scolded them for having gone to Catholic Church so
frequently when in fact they were not of the right faith. In his book that was
as blasphemous as eating meat on a Friday.
Benedikt found it hard to keep his anger in check and to let the priest carry on with his
sermon, but Johanna and Elizabeth made up for his offensive body language by
throwing admiring glances at the priest, playing up to his own grand vision of
himself as the wise and charitable saviour of these poor souls before him.
Wilhelm and his father Oscar kept quiet and when put on the spot, they showed their lack of knowledge without any attempts to hide it or even make excuses for it. Father
Haslinger was enraged whenever he saw the depths of their ignorance and ordered
them to do homework. He knew that it was the women who were behind this whole
conversion idea and if the men were ready to take on the new faith, he wanted to
make sure they had to work for it. It shouldn't be made easy for anyone to convert and receive the reward of salvation. Baptism was a privilege and its right should be earned.
When the date of their baptism was near, Johanna mentioned little Karl to the priest
and asked him if - after his father Wilhelm had become a Catholic – it would be
possible to baptise Karl too? Father Haslinger thought about this for a while
and then he said he would only do so if Karl’s mother was a Catholic too.
Johanna immediately saw where this was going and in a desperate attempt to hide from the priest that Greta was a Jew she said, yes, the mother was kind of a Catholic, but she had only been baptised, had not been raised in the faith after that and had not received her confirmation. Elizabeth stared in disbelief at such speedy lying but Oskar punched her gently in the side to signal that she had to go along with it.
“I will personally see to it that she receives the sacrament if she is willing to. I can't have a little Catholic boy raised by a non-believer. It would not be in God’s will,” Father Haslinger stated with seriousness in his eyes and turned to leave.
Johanna rolled her eyes behind his back and then addressed him with as much humbleness that she could muster without laughing. “You are too kind. Of course you are right. I will speak to the mother.”
Greta was shocked when she heard the proposal by Johanna.
“You want me to pretend I am baptised so I can learn about Catholicism and convert,
just so that my son can be baptised as well? That is a lot of lying and effort for something so unimportant. Will your God not punish you for all this deceit of a priest?” she said.
“It must be better in his eyes than remaining Protestant or Jewish,” Johanna
“Do you really think that it will make such a difference in the community? No one is
interested in Germans, regardless of their religion,” Greta guessed.
"I think it will make a big difference with the locals. It is not too much of an effort. We have all just taken that stupid course, so don't worry about the studying. We all can help you with the preparation. After that you only need to go to church once in a while, just like before,” Johanna assured her. “Who knows when we might need the help of our neighbours. It can't be wrong to make more friends and get the locals to see us as peers and fellow church goers and not just as rich German land owners. The Catholics love seeing someone come onto the right path with them. We'd have the Father as an ally which is good and the congregation hangs on his every word.”
Soon Greta gave in and went to the lessons, even though it meant she had to give up
even more of her precious little spare time allotted to reading. Father Haslinger was less strict with her than he had been with the others. He was quite aware that Greta was not doing this for herself but for her son and he admired nothing more than a selfless mother. Unlike in his other lessons, he was incredibly patient and gave her much less homework than he had done with the other Winkelmeiers. He was content as long as she could recite some prayers and knew the main parts of the Catholic Church service and, of course, how to confess her sins. In his eyes, this woman had singlehandedly shown more dedication and Christian spirit than her whole family.
“Greta, the only thing I would dearly ask you to do now is to get married in a Catholic
Church service. It pains me to see you living in sin in the eyes of God. Everyone in the village assumed you were married in a different church in town, but now that I know you only went to the registry office, I don't feel this is right. Once you are both Catholic you should seek the right blessing for your union. I can do it secretly so you won't have the shame of being exposed. You know that in the eyes of your God it needs to be done.”
“You will need to speak to my husband and his family. If they are happy with it then
so am I.” Greta said, quietly accepting her fate.
“That is very good of you. What about your own family? Why did they never carry on
with their faith?” the priest asked.
“My father converted to Catholicism for my mother. When she died of the Spanish flu
he was very upset and neglected his duties,” she said, reciting her well-rehearsed lie. “He was very modern in his thinking.”
“What a shame,” Father Haslinger responded. “Especially when in the midst of pain and
sorrow one should look up to Him for guidance and find faith, not lose it.”
A few months later Greta went through the absurd charade of being confirmed one
day and getting married the next, all in secret, and lacking all the formal
foundations as well as all the ones of true faith. When she had her mandatory
confession before both sacraments, she had to omit so much of her lying and
other sins that she thought she should have been struck down by lightning if
this Catholic God really cared that much.
Father Haslinger congratulated her with tears of joy in his eyes and welcomed the whole
Winkelmeier family into the Catholic community. The whole affair had one big
advantage, Father Haslinger gave Karl and Greta an official accreditation as non-Jews, adding their names into the church’s lists of the faithful, something that was always handy in these days of potentially renewed pogroms.
However, Greta soon had a rude awakening when she found herself continuously pressured into going to church. This happened more or less every Sunday - despite the
sworn promises that she would still be able to regularly see her family during that time. In their longing to become integrated into the community, Johanna and Elizabeth both insisted that the whole family displayed the strength of their faith and their belonging to the church. Nothing would make that point stronger than if they could all show up together every Sunday without fail. Johanna especially argued further that the locals had to know about young Karl and start to see him as one of their local church community. If the stigma of being a half Jew could be put to rest at all then it could probably only be achieved by showing him at church time after time. In trade for this concession, Greta was granted the right to see her family on some Saturdays which her father often
still managed to spend in the Jewish tradition of not working or travelling.
Wilma was always incredibly happy to see her and the two sisters spent the days
exchanging gossip. Greta told her about the Winkelmeiers and how their new
belonging to the Catholic Church had probably made them more of a laughing stock
amongst the local community than the respected citizens they had intended to
become. Wilma laughed when she saw Greta impersonating her new family and their
behaviour during mass, the over acted facial expressions, the loud singing of
hymns and the passionate and exaggerated head nodding during the sermon.
Admittedly, some of the other church members needed to express their faith with
equal intensity and exhibitionism, but surely everyone else had to find this as
ridiculous as Greta and her sister did.
Wilma told her about the news at the weaver workshop where business had picked up
again. A former Hungarian countess had taken up residency in a large manor house
outside of Bratislava and had ordered two massive hand-woven wall carpets, including one depicting her family history and another that displayed a variety of Bible figures. Jewish people were not supposed to be involved in the manufacture of symbols of the Christian faith as far as the Church and local law were concerned, so there was a little bit of a risk involved, but it was too much of an opportunity to turn down. The project meant that all three remaining Weissensteiners would have to weave continuously on these two commissioned works and leave the hired help to oversee the looms all by themselves. For the next few months the family would earn a lot and Jonah was positive that the display of his work in such a reputable home would bring in more custom, which was why they had to work doubly hard to make sure they delivered immaculate carpets to the best of their ability.
The Countess fancied herself as the sponsor of traditional and modern art alike and
frequently came to the workshop to instruct Jonah with her latest ideas and last
minute changes to the agreed designs. Despite being a tough business woman during negotiations, she also became a kind and a warm hearted friend, and she adored Greta and her little boy Karl. She took a strong personal interest in the entire family without ever letting anyone come too close. There was never a mentioning of a husband or a Count and the ageing woman exuded a strong air of in-approachability on the subject matter and so no one ever asked her about it. Her status and riches were intimidating and helped her to keep a distance whenever she wanted.
One of the young girls in Jonah's employ had asked for a raise during that period as
the work would be so boring. Jonah was outraged at her cheek, but the girl was sure that it would not be possible for Jonah to find a sufficiently qualified or trained replacement for her on such short notice now that the big order had been placed. Jonah had agreed to the raise but he had immediately written to some of his fellow tradesmen seeking to replace the cheeky and greedy woman. The Countess also supplied him with a few addresses of craftsmen she thought might be able to help him out.
The rich aristocrat loved to join Greta and Wilma when they talked about the books
they had read or wanted to read and she frequently made recommendations. Sadly,
Wilhelm only brought books home for himself these days and only occasionally did
he keep them at home long enough for Greta to have enough time to read them too.
Wilma was, by nature often too restless to sit down and read a book but if she did read, it was always something her sister had chosen. Occasionally the Countess brought books from her own large library for the two sisters to read, emphasising how important it was for young ladies to have a sound knowledge of literature and the arts. When they were on their own, Greta and Wilma were often rather unladylike. They started a silly competition between them about who would grow the longest hair. Greta had a slight advantage as her hair was less thick and therefore easier to look after. Wilma’s hair curled slightly and never seemed as long as Greta's because of its structure. They even got their brother Egon to use a piece of knitting wool and measure each woman's hair; when pulled, Wilma's hair was longer than it seemed but she never caught quite up with Greta all the same.
While Jonah played with his grandson and tried to teach him to talk, the women braided
their hair and tried out different hair styles. Egon usually read a book by the window or in the winter on a bench by the oven. He didn’t make much fuss about his sister or his nephew. He loved his sisters in his own way but he wished he had a brother with whom he could share his more scientific interests or with whom he could have pursued more manly pastimes. His sisters were a disappointment in these areas and, in his opinion, they fussed too much about everything. They usually talked too much as well.
At school Egon had found it difficult to socialize. When the family moved to Bratislava, all three children had been admitted to the German school. Greta had found it easiest to make new friends there because of her good looks. She also had only two years left at school when they moved and found the girls her age surprisingly mature and reasonable compared to some of the girls at her school in the countryside. Wilma, only a year younger than her sister, found friends through association with Greta. Her class mates knew that she had the protection of her older sister's friends and left her alone - even during her last year when Greta had already left the school. Egon on the other hand was the youngest and had to spend four long years at the school. He was not a great athlete and unfortunately in his age group, that had been the only way to earn the respect of his class mates. He was considered odd and had it not been for his excellent grasp of science and his willingness to let other boys copy his homework, he would have probably ended up having a much harder time. There was an unspoken truce between him and his class mates that allowed him to exist quietly without being picked on, but to strike up a proper friendship with anyone was not on the cards.
While they still lived out in the province, Egon had developed a strong bond with a
Jewish boy named Daniel and after his mother had died in 1918 of the Spanish flu, had spent a lot of time with Daniel’s family after. Egon had been impressed by the philosophical approach which Daniel and his family had to death. This was only the beginning of further spiritual inspiration Egon received from his friend and gradually Egon had developed a surprisingly strong sense of being Jewish. He felt he could never tell his grief stricken father or sisters about it, who seemed to be coping fine without religious guidance. On Jonah’s instructions, Egon attended the Protestant religious education classes at the German school - just like his sisters - and he was immediately intimidated by the obvious anti-Jewish teachings and sentiments in these classes. He was mortified that he should be found out and this further added to his difficulty
in making friends.
When Jonah and his parents had lived in the shtetl in the Ukraine, they always used
to light the Sabbath candles, a habit that the weaver had carried on, more out of a sense of tradition rather than out of actual belief, when he had moved into the Trnava province. The Weissensteiner family had moved there before the big waves of Jewish immigration and were accepted as just another Ukrainian family. When the big mass exodus of Jews expelled from the Russians happened, many of those who arrived in Slovakia were orthodox and very noticeable; the anti-Semitic sentiment began to grow.
Wanting a better life for his family and not being discriminated against as he had seen
happening to the new arrivals in Trnava, Jonah decided to hide his already only lukewarm faith completely when he arrived in Bratislava. Since he and his family
were coming from a Slovak province and not from Russia directly, they were never
questioned when they called themselves Protestants and with their language being
assimilated too, they found themselves easily separated from the Jewish community. As they were not living in a Jewish quarter, Jonah had to abandon some of the traditions like lightning the Sabbath candles - very much to Egon's regret. The Jewish community however did notice them all the same. Especially in the early days of the workshops on Gajova, Orthodox Jews would visit and try to persuade Jonah and his family to come to the synagogue regularly. Jonah always treated them kindly and with generous hospitality, but stood firm on his decision not to practice his faith. He knew how dangerous it was to offend the very faithful of any religion and so he offered donations to the Jewish community to maintain friendly relations, explaining that he just did not feel
comfortable in any religious community. Of course, this did not buy him the respect of the Rabbis, but the donations lessened the frequency and intensity of their visits, which was important to Jonah and his plans to remain religiously anonymous. It was suspicious enough that they made the girls in their employ work most Saturdays on their own with only minimal supervision from the Weissensteiner family, but so far the plan had worked and their secret was safe.
Jonah was particularly pleased about Greta’s conversion to Catholicism and the
prospects this would bring to his grandson Karl. If this was what society demanded from his child and grandson to treat them with the respect they deserved, then lying was a minor price to pay. To Jonah, the only thing that counted was your inner life and that, no one could control. He wished his other children would do the same. Wilma and Egon were very lethargic and seemed to have no interest in either a good or an exciting life. If only they would be interested in the other sex or at least go out from time to time and experience things. It seemed they would be staying at home with him for quite some time to come. Greta however was his pride and joy, and his hope. She could not come
home often enough to satisfy Jonah’s longing for her.
Whenever Greta came back home from such visits to her family in Bratislava, Johanna
couldn't help herself and immediately found as many tasks for her to do as she could, just to show that the time away from the farm was like missed working hours that needed to be made up for. Johanna hoped this would discourage Greta from going away as often as she did, but the young mother possessed an abundance of patience and never showed any signs of rebellion against these orders. Elizabeth however, had more understanding and always managed secretly to save some food for Greta and Karl, knowing full well that there wouldn't have been much food to be had at the Weissensteiner house, especially ever since that mad and disorganised sister Wilma had become the one responsible for the domestic duties.
While Greta was being fed in the kitchen, Roswitha was always keen to play with little
Karl and to carry him around. She cherished these moments during which she could
be in charge of the little child.
In exchange for a smile and a little warmth, Maria was also happy to help out and
she would assist Greta with those tasks that Johanna had compiled for her on her
return. Since the start of these arrangements, Johanna had unwittingly created a
team of deceivers in the four women and instead of punishing Greta for leaving,
she had given her an opportunity to grow closer to the women of the farm. A real
circle of friends had developed from which Johanna herself was excluded.
Johanna however persisted in her campaign to keep Greta from leaving the farm so often and started to suggest that it should be the Weissensteiners who should make the
journey from now on – if they wanted to see so much of their Greta. The Winkelmeiers could not afford to spare her for such long periods of time anymore and, as far as Johanna was concerned, it just was not natural for a married woman to spend so much of her time with her old family. Elizabeth tried to intervene on Greta's behalf but Johanna was adamant, even though it was an obvious exaggeration. Benedikt could not care less and in order to be left alone he decided in favour of his wife's demands. From here on, the Weissensteiners would have to travel on the Sabbath to the farm or they would not get to see their beloved Greta.
Q & A with Christoph Fischer
My father’s side of the family was from the area and was forced to leave after the war. They were a German minority in Bratislava and no longer welcome. I never got to know the exact details, as my father did not like to speak about it. He preferred to live in the present. So I decided to learn more about it and was so fascinated by what I learned that the idea for the novel came to my
How hard is it to write something that is historically accurate?
A very good question and the short answer is: It is very hard.
Many documents and archives were destroyed in and after the war. The communist government falsified many facts to suit their ideology. Eyewitnesses have died and some of them lie to protect their image and that of their country. I read a lot of books and I used only what I could verify, everything else I portrayed in the book as a speculation of my characters.
How do you decide how many details to include while still keeping the readers interested?
I tried to include only what was necessary to understand the changes that were going on and how they affected the characters. Some people tell me I included too many, I deliberately decided to include a lot to give the reader the chance to have a complete picture but I may have lost a few readers who felt it was too much. A tough call.
Do you have any personal connections to this time period and place?
Yes, my father was born in Bratislava in 1933.
Did you have to do research on Bratislava at the time period depicted in the story or did you already know what it was like at that time?
I had to do a lot of research, spoke to people who lived at the time and spoke to people who live there now. I googled pictures and maps and tried to read anything about the city and the country. You should try it, it is amazing what pictures you can find.
How did you pick the title?
It just came to me one day. My characters do not end up in a concentration camp (sorry for the spoiler if you are going to read the book). However, when you go through so much hardship and drama in your life, what is luck? Surviving? Keeping your family? Keeping you love? Each character will have their own personal take on what they had hoped for and what happened.
How long did it take you to write this novel?
I wrote day and night for about three months for the first draft and then re-wrote and changed it several times. I would say just under 6 months writing full time.
Who is your favorite character?
I loved Jonah, Greta’s father. He was a lot like my father, a really nice person. But in the book Johanna undergoes some changes and turns a little more soft and needy, not so nasty and dictatorial. I loved her for this honesty and change of heart for the better, so I have also developed a soft spot for her.
And here are a couple of Christoph's comments to the students' responses to this excerpt:
"One of the "His own favourite, ‘Nathan the Wise’, had recently been banned because, as the German newspaper in Bratislava, Der Grenzbote, had quoted as the given reason, it 'practically put the Jewish faith on the same footing as Christianity'." (From The Luck of the Weissensteiners by Christoph Fischer)
With just a little bit of research into 'Nathan the Wise'(search bing.com) this detail that seems to just be thrown in there takes on a bigger meaning. The book is about religious tolerance and is banned on one interpretation of the meaning. It helps add the "star crossed lovers" thing into the mix.
That is a very good point and one that I hope will make the issue relevant for us today.
Do you think we have religious tolerance in the heart and not just by law today?
(We'll talk about this question in class, and I'll post our thoughts here)
A student wrote:
Obviously, in this time period, a relationship between a German person and a Jewish person will be complicated. Religion will be a huge factor, as well as economically, since neither family is particularly rich. As the anti-semetic propaganda becomes more widespread, I could see them struggling to maintain their outer appearances of being devout Catholics. I could also see a problem arising with Wilhelm's devotion to Greta since his exact feelings toward her aren't stated, he just observes her as more of a muse than a lover or soul mate. He may say she is the most beautiful girl he's ever seen, but I don't think it goes any deeper than that.
Very well spotted, Wilhelm is not all that he seems. He is so wrapped in himself and
keeps reading and talking about books. Later he reads Nazi propaganda and it
changes his feelings.
A student wrote:
What is eye-opening is that you learn that the United States wasn’t the center of
this war. In the lives of these ordinary folks, the United States played an almost peripheral role.
A very good point! I had the very same experience when I researched the novel. I was
also surprised to find out how different the war experience was for people in different countries. I only knew about the war from a German perspective. I recently read a book set in the Philippines during that era and again there was so much I had never known about. There were so many different locations, ‘theatres’ of this ‘world’ war and so many different personal tragedies.