The End of Empire and the End of the Shtetl
Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, Austria entered the Balkans, the Germans declared their support of the Austrians, the Russians, the British and the Germans declared their opposition. World War I erupted on the face of Europe.
The Austrian army came to every village to draft every able bodied man. My grandfather managed to evade them. The Austrians became so desperate that cartoons show the army MD examining a skeleton and declaring,” Fit for Service”. They became short even of the doctors and drafted first year medical students to serve as physicians. The only solution the young army doctors had for mutilated limbs was summed up in one word,” Aspirin.”
The Russian armies advanced on the Eastern front of Austria and the heaviest fighting between the two armies was in Galicia, as the Russian armies made their way through, and then were driven back. The front lines went straight through the Dolyna region
Hundreds of thousands were dislocated. Many Jews fled from the advancing armies for the capital, Vienna. The Weinbergs were among them.They fled at the time of the High Holy Days. Yom Kippur befell them and they took temporary refuge in a town on the way. There was one Shul, a Hasidic shteibl. They went inside and joined the worshippers.
The two brothers were wearing their gymnasia clothes, in this, a Chasidic shtiebl. The Rebbe stopped the service, looked at the two boys, 17 and 13, raised himself to full height, and declared,”Du hast dus Krieg gefangen.” You brought this war upon us.
Over the years, my father never forgot the chant of that shtiebl, as the Rebbe intoned, “ Ato ato behartonu- You have chosen us from among all people and have elevated us from among all the nations and desired us and sanctified us with your commandments and loved us.” Outside, the cannons roared and the flower of mankind lay dying on Flanders Field, in the Pripet Marshes, and in the Carpatho-Rus.
All for a jacket.
They made their way to Vienna, which was now flooded with refugees from the battle zone.
As refugees, with all their possessions fallen under the roaring guns of the opposing armies, the young brothers, hitherto accustomed to comfort , learned what it meant to do without. Little did they realize that this would be training for far more frightening deprivation years later. Young hands, that hitherto held only paper and pen, were now put to work, as I mentioned, shredding old newspapers for army coat insulation.
Much more came tumbling down in those years. Austria, with the help of Germany, won its battles with Tsarist Russia, but lost the peace.
The regime of the Tsar , with all its autocracy and Pan-Slavic and Russian Orthodox ideology, collapsed, to be replaced by a Republic, under Kerensky, only shortly again to be replaced by the Soviet Socialist Republic, at first led by the Mensheviks( majority) and then by the dictatorial Bolsheviks( minority) under Lenin. In the process, the German armies dictated humiliating terms to the new regime and the Austrian front against Russia was spared, only to be dismantled at Versailles. [*Historical note-Bolshevik, meaning "majority" were the minority party until Lenin manipulated the machinery and ousted the majority, which he then labeled as "menshevik", minority].
From Russia and Ukraine eastward to Vladivostok and beyond, the inhabitants of the largest empire, in terms of area in the history of humanity would endure a lifetime, seventy years of bloodshed and oppression.
The Ottoman Empire , which also won the battles but lost the peace, was replaced by the secular Republic under Kamal Ataturk. In the process, the horror of the Turk’s slaughter of the Armenians would become an inspiration for an even great slaughter of the Jews. The Empire ,too, was dismantled in such away that every border included populations of people who did not belong together. A hundred year of conflict ensued: Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, Christian and Moslem in Lebanon, Shiite and Sunni in Iraq, Allawi and Sunni in Syria. The land of Israel was promised to the Jews; then three quarters of the promised land was given to the Hashemite Emir Abdullah and the rest was to be subdivided yet again.
The German Second Reich, established under Bismark, was replaced by the Weimar Republic and huge territories were lopped off. Polish was reestablished as an independent state, but one with large a large ethnic German population; part of Germany was detached from the rest- the Danzig corridor. Ethnic Germans would be part of the new Republic of Czechoslovakia.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire would be chopped up and dissected. Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Slovenes and Croatians, the Carpathian Poles and Ukrainians- populated completely new states in which no ethnic group was entirely in the border of its own country. Austria was left as a rump state with Vienna, the Danube, and some lovely alpine scenery and memories.
In American political discourse, Woodrow Wilson is an exemplar of international virtue who advanced the caused of the rights of all ethnic groups to national independence. For that reason, when the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, co-authored a psychoanalysis of Wilson, jointly with a respected American diplomat, William Bullitt, critics had trouble comprehending the degree of disdain that Freud displayed in what may be one of his least respected works. My father ,too, shared this disdain, from the perspective of his academic studies in political science. I discovered, over the years, that this disdain was shared by many Jews who had lived in the former Austro-Hungarian empire.
While Austria may have been the home of the first politician to win on a political plank of Jew-hatred ( 19th century Mayor Luger of Vienna) and birthplace of the son of Alois Schickelgruber, it was also a United Nations of Europe. The same polyglot and multi-cultural texture that drove a Hitler to burning hatred also created the wonders of MittelEuropa ( Central Europe)- Viennese Waltz, Hungarian charm, Czech literature, Mozart and Beethoven. Gemütlichkeit is an attitude one can associate with the Austrians, not with the Germans. For Jews, despite the anti-Semitism that pervaded as it did most of Europe, the Kaiser and his government offered them fertile ground for prosperity and culture, both religious and secular. That part of Europe gave rise to Herzl and Zionism, Buber and I-Thou theology, the depth psychology of the likes of Freud and Adler, the dark visions of Kafka.
Kaiser Franz Joseph was highly regarded and when prayers were offered in the synagogue , as they were in other countries for Queen Victoria or Kaiser Wilhelm, they were offered with great sincerity.
The Austrian empire, in short, was a great agglomeration of many small parts, the whole being greater than the sum. Under the inspiration of Wilson, as my father and other saw it, the parts , separate, amounted to much of nothing. With the fall of the empire, my father pointed out, there was no buffer state that could hold off German expansionism on the one hand and a militant Bolshevism on the other.
The vacuum meant that catastrophe was inevitable.
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