I Heard The Blues On The Danube

When Eva-Lis walked in the Vienna Woods she found the ghosts of a romantic legend and a ragged city dreaming of past glory

EVA-LIS WUORIO January 15 1950

I Heard The Blues On The Danube

When Eva-Lis walked in the Vienna Woods she found the ghosts of a romantic legend and a ragged city dreaming of past glory

EVA-LIS WUORIO January 15 1950
VIENNA to me, I suppose, had always been part Blue Danube, part Jeanette Macdonald singing “Wiener Wald,” driving in woods that looked like Montreal mountain at dawn, part Bemelmans, and odd parts of Franz Josef, Graustark and Nelson Eddy. Part, too, of a childhood memory of a lovely picture of the tragic Empress Elizabeth. All of it spiced with a sort of swaying, waltzing, nostalgia-tinted romance.

If I thought of anything I thought of things like that as the Air France plane left Munich airfield with its cloaked shepherd and flock of sheep on the runway and the short, black-shawled Calvinist women flat-footing it into a huge silver Swiss airliner.

The plane ran out of the clouds into hot sunshine; a couple of the crew brought out red toy cars they’d bought in Munich and raced them down the aisle, and most of the passengers settled down to jellied chicken and champagne. Appropriate approach to Vienna, obviously.

Yes? Yet below our sky floor of sunshine and the international luxury of the plane rolled dank mist, heavy clouds in a sullen sky. And one remembered, too, the two weeks Russia alone had taken over Vienna; and the four years Russians, Americans, French and British had occupied a sector of each storied street and long-loved square; and that a lot of Vienna Woods—“. I walk the Vienna Woods again, and sing to you a sweet refrain —-was firewood for the homeless and the unwanted. And where were the waltzes of yesteryears?

SHARPLY, upon brown fields below, ruins jutted jaggedly. The air station was a vast, bleak, barracklike hangar. The drab uniforms below the unsmiling thin faces fitted into the tangled barbwire, crumbling-walls, scene. The only cheery sight was the big, blue-lettered sign, “R.A.F. Station,” newly painted.

“Could I change some money?” I asked the customs man. A young Frenchman who had been on the plane dug me in the ribs. “Not here,” he said. “It’s foolish.”

“I need some. For the cab, and stuff.”

“Wait,” he said.

On the airline bus, grunting over the muddy, bumping roads, he explained: “The legal rate is 10 schillings to an American dollar—worth nothing. Black market is 30. I will see for you a black market dealer.”

The Russians, who, of course, liberated Austria, completely circle the city with their occupying forces. They hold the soggy, brown, rutted fields we jogged uncomfortably through. Closer to the city crowds of people began to appear, most of them in black. They poured out of ancient tramcars, from taxis dating to the early years of the Ford. They bicycled precariously, sometimes two grownups and a child on the same machine, wreaths slung over their arms and shoulders. They’d disappear in a steady file behind high grey walls, misted with dampness and drooping vines.

I learned it was All Saints’ Day, the occasion to visit cemeteries. Each mourner, this November day of grief 1949, carried besides his wreath also his identification card. For all the cemeteries are in Russian territory. The main requirement on the cards are the 13 official stamps. Some Russian guards, the Viennese say with a slight smile, can’t read, but they can count. Up to 13.

The Air France office was on the famed Vienna “Ring,” that tree-lined avenue circling the centre of the city. I stood for a moment under the nearly bare trees that raw afternoon watching a smartly uniformed Russian lieutenant march ahead of a baby carriage and a slovenly woman pushing it while people moved out of their way but with an air of not seeing them. It was far from home.

Cab to the hotel passes a square where the Russians have set up a huge statue of a helmeted soldier painted gold—a loud contrast to the gracious stone and marble statues of Vienna. All the best hotels (as well as the best houses and apartments and most of the old palaces) are occupied by the four Powers. My hotel is second rate, still in Viennese hands, dimly lit, a little shabby. En route there we pass three zones; nothing marks zones except that the Americans are beginning to put up signs at the borders of theirs, more to keep their own troops in than anyone out.

That first night I have dinner with members of occupation troops. A unique experience.

Couple of blocks from my hotel my escort says, “You’ve got your papers, of course.”

“Why no,” I say. “Bulky. Left them at the hotel.”

He raps sharply on the cab window. “Back,” he orders and advises me, “In Vienna you do not move without your papers.” (No one ever asked for them except when entering and leaving government offices, or registering at hotels.)

At the hotel he stopped me tipping the porter. “They are only Austrians.”

Again on the way, he says, “It will be better if we do not say you are a journalist. You may hear something interesting. I shall say you are a student.”

“Student of what?” I ask.

He shrugs. “It is sufficient to be a student. Who is not a student?”

The party includes an allied requisitions official, a round man with pink, smooth face, bow lips, heavy-lidded knowing eyes, a light, easy laugh and a resonant voice that could switch to petulance in a second. There was an army captain with a Casanova air who reported he’d found out about a cache of champagne. He needed a requisitions slip to “liberate” it.

“After all,” he said, “what use has an Austrian for champagne? They are too sad already, now.”

A lawyer, who claimed to be on a sentimental journey to Vienna, heartily approved of the plan. The slip was signed.

The meal is at one of the allied-requisitioned hotels, one of Vienna’s best. No Austrian could get accommodation here. No Austrian sounds in the room; even the servants are foreign. The meal is excellent, five courses amply supported with wines. The prices, I was told, were less than for Austrians in Austrian restaurants.

“And, of course, they pay for this too,” the requisitions man explained with his light laugh. “They pay for the occupation, you know.” Afterward someone suggests a heuriger, for it is the new wine season. Heurigers are Vienna and Vienna in the fall has always meant heurigers. The word, actually, is the city’s vernacular for new wine, but it has come to include the taverns where you drink it and the singing and music and food and comradeship that go with it.

Most heurigers are in Grinzing, on the outskirts of the town, at the foot of the Vienna Woods. We drive there. The dark city, with its ruined buildings standing skeleton stark here and there in the weak street-lamp light, gives way to a suburb out of an operetta and a singing dream. Pine branches swing from long poles stuck to the sides of the picturesque houses. This means that new wine is being served inside.

We stop under a swinging sign saying “Hartman Pepi.” The place is bright and clean. Out of a musical with Strauss melodies. We order white new wine. The three old men with the accordion, harp and violin tune up, and a fourth begins to sing in a cracked voice.

This is more than the captain can stand. He begins to bang the table to the tune of a song of his own, shouted rather than sung. Couple of the other customers get up, put on their coats slowly, nod to Frau Hartman behind the long, low serving table and go out. Except for the captain and the four performers the place is quiet.

The requisitions official says petulantly, “I don’t know what’s wrong. This is supposed to be very gay, everybody sings. Must be the All Souls’ Day —they are probably home counting their dead.”

Finally the musicians cease competing, pack up their instruments and leave. My companions either do not see any of it or pretend they don’t.

Now the captain has picked up an ancient iron door knocker from the mantel. “They don’t need this, I’ll requisition it,” he says. “Or I’ll be generous, I’ll buy it. Fifty groschen,” he shouts to Frau Hartman. Fifty groschen is less than half a cent.

I say I want to go home.

“We will go to the club,” says the requisitioning official. The club turns out to be a dreary hostel requisitioned for this particular group of occupying allies. Young soldiers dance with Austrian girls. The girls seem quiet; the men here, among their fellows, off-hand, slightly superior. Perhaps they are warmer out in the darkness and the moonlight.

I have a hot grog, feeling deeply depressed about humanity, and go home to my Austrian hotel as to a refuge.

As I go up the wide sweep of staircase, my footfall deadened by the thick, shabby carpet, I suddenly think of something. I have been in Vienna a whole day. I haven’t even glimpsed the Blue Danube. This sad Vienna.

The next day I must meet the Austrians.

In drafty stone-walled offices, or others stuffy from the glowing, pot-bellied Quebec heaters, incongruous in the high-ceilinged rooms, we talk of Vienna, past, and of today.

First snow of the year drifts down by the porticoes and towers and archways, fluttering about the palaces and the lovely faded statuary. Incredible weariness seems to rest about everything. Only at the bombed State Opera are workmen busy at repairs. Elsewhere the ruins stand gaunt and deserted.

The main talk is of the State Treaty. A close second is the Occupation, spiced with stories, especially about the Russians. The underlying theme is the desperately high cost of living, the unavoidable black market and grey market—and the cause of it all, the Occupation costs.

These, paid by the Austrian Government, up to the beginning of 1949 had amounted to 4,750 million schillings. The Austrians I met feel this an unfair and unwarranted tribute to rich and powerful allies occupying their country. They point out that at numerous conferences of the Big Four it was decided and reiterated that Austria was not to be classed as an ex-enemy country and that therefore she would not be liable to pay reparations. But she’s paying them.

Balkan-wise Hubert Harrison, now Reuters man in Vienna, quoted an Austrian friend to me. It seemed to cover the matter. This is what he had said:

“It is as though four friends who have admittedly helped you out of a very difficult situation decided to come to live in your house. You are very grateful to them at first and offer them the warmest hospitality. They take your best rooms, misuse your most valuable furniture, interfere in the running of the house and order your servants about just when you need them the most yourself.

“Some of them bring their own food, but others eat up all your best joints.

“One of them even brings rich gifts for which you are very grateful, but all of them hold noisy parties and force their attentions on your daughters. Some of them rape the maids and steal your valuables.

“After a few years of this they have entirely outworn their welcome. You become tired to death of their quarrels, noise and dirt, and want nothing better than to be left alone to run your house quietly in the way you want to.

“On top of the intrusion and the financial loss caused by their presence they actually have the cheek to present you with a huge bill for the cost of their stay with you.”

If the State Treaty finally goes through, as everybody in Vienna hopefully expected, it will mean the departure of occupation forces probably by late spring.

What the Russians think either of the prospects of the treaty or of the prospects of leaving Austria is their secret. However, in Vienna they tell stories like this:

An Austrian nun was crossing the zonal boundary from the British to the Russian zone. A Red Army sentry, seeing the nun telling her beads, asked, “What are you doing there?”

“I am praying for you,” the nun replied.


“So that you will go to heaven.”

“But I don’t want to go to heaven,” the sentry declared. “I want to stay here in Austria.”

The Russians have taken their occupation duties seriously. Although there is no intermingling socially you see more Russians on the streets than any other of the Allies, marching down the “Ring,” sweeping by on their motorcycles, attending the ballet with their plump women with astonished eyes.

Their chief sport appears to have been kidnapping. Recently, so the Viennese tell it, Russian officers and soldiers were transporting an Austrian civilian prisoner across the city to Baden which the cynical citizens call “the first step on the road to Siberia.”

As the Russian jeep slopped on the Philadelphia Bridge in the British sector to ask the way the civilian, though hemmed in between three officers, bashed a window of the jeep and scrambled out, shouting, “I am being kidnapped.”

The Russians ran after him, struck him over the head with the butt of a submachine gun and dragged him back.

In the meantime an Austrian motorcyclist drew across the front of the jeep to stop it from moving off. In seconds a lorry driver had parked so as to cut off the jeep’s retreat. Within minutes the jeep was completely surrounded.

A taxi driver crawled under the jeep and slashed two of its tires. A crowd of more than 1,000 surrounded the Russians, throwing stones, hurling abuse and demanding that the prisoner, now bleeding badly, be set free.

When one of the Russian officers, a colonel, drew his revolver and threatened the crowd, a woman knocked the gun from his hand.

The noise and confusion of the mob by now had aroused official British attention. Ten fully armed troops of the East Yorkshire Regiment, with tin hats and fixed bayonets, marched up.

The crowd cheered. “Down with Russia.” “We want freedom.” “No more kidnapping.” “Long Live England.”

The British Assistant Provost Marshal, Major B. J. M. White, asked the Russians to allow the prisoner, fast losing blood, to be taken to the hospital. The Russians refused.

So Major White, unarmed, pushed the Russians aside, took the prisoner (whose trousers had been removed) and put him in an ambulance.

The Russians made no claim for the man. They ignored the incident in their papers and the radio programs they sponsor. The prisoner said he was Dr. Karl Sonderman, had been returning from a business trip to Germany when he was taken from the train at Enns Bridge and accused of being a spy. He’d shared his prison with some 40 to 50 people who had also been removed from the train in the last few days.

But these things have been seen before, have passed, and will pass again. Even in the grey November day the loveliness of Vienna comes through. The pockmarks of bombings somehow accentuate signatures of elder, more gracious ages in stone and marble and spire.

In this scene the Viennese look shabby. Many children wear suits made out of old uniforms, the beautiful women are lost with the snows of yesteryear, quite a few men are in the grey and green national costume which was popularized during the Nazi occupation as a sign of independence and now is worn for economic reasons. The stuff’s thick and wears out less quickly.

In the early afternoon dusk I drive up to the Vienna Woods with a silent Austrian. We pass the houses of Grinzing where Mozart lived and Beethoven quarreled with his landladies, where Haydn composed the “Emperor” and Wagner thought of the idea for the Meistersingers. That heroic age of music seems very close here, in the narrow streets fronted by the old white-washed houses, with glimpses of autumnal gardens behind the high walls, while at the ends of the curving, cobbled streets the vineyards begin to climb in regular rows toward the woods and the hills.

As the car climbs the Kahlenberg you see how close to the land Vienna lies. Nearly half of the ancient city still consists of woods, farmland, of vineyards patterning the hillsides.

The silent Austrian begins to hum, ‘ Wien, Wien, ja nur Du allein, Sollst die stadt meiner träume zein .” I oblige with, “I walk the Vienna Woods again.”

Shades of Hollywood, that mecca of Viennese culture, I think as we pass the crumbling, greying marble palaces with ugly tarred shacks set upon the terraced lawns for the homeless D.P.’s.

Yet the magic of the place is such that behind the bent, ragged figures of the homeless, grubbing among the woodpiles and the litter of their squalor, you catch ghostly glimpses of the grand dames in glowing satins and the swaggering figures of the Uhlans and the Hussars who not so long ago came out of candle-lighted ballrooms to the moonlight of these same terraces.

On top of the mountain the wind blows harsh and strong, swirling a little snow from the mountains beyond. Here Polish Sobieski stemmed the Tartar tide, here on summer days the Viennese make love under the ancient trees. I come to the edge of the lookout —Leopoldberg topped with its mist-clad castle to the left—and at last see the Danube.

Far below in the valley the Danube twists, taking its tortured course between the castled mountains and the wooded hills, toward Vienna where already lights are beginning to spark on like fallen, faded stars. Drifting blue mists lace the river’s shape, make it unreal—a river of the heart and a hundred memories keyed to a song.

I shiver there on the height, but I can’t turn away. Danube so blue, so blue; from here, on this November afternoon, it is a silver blue, a painting of a song.

In the days that remain for me in Vienna I find the way beneath the crusty surface of the Occupation to that inherited gaiety and graciousness the Viennese have always been famed for. Still, I find, people gather in the coffeehouses (the ones not requisitioned by the Allies) for their favorite brand of coffee, though few can afford more than a cup throughout the afternoon. Still the waiters know the customers’ favorite tables and favorite newspapers. Still a poet will pen his sonnet on a napkin, or an author leave his unheated room to write a chapter amid the mellow rumble of conversation.

And, on my last night, the memory of that first heuriger fades. I go with some Austrians to another new-wine tavern and here, for a few hours, wars and occupations, treaties and household worries cease to exist.

As all the taverns, this is brightly lit; light wood and scrolled iron, gay. Two young men with accordions play to you all the old favorites, songs of Vienna and love and of a carefree summer night. The steins are lifted high and frequently and the golden amber of the mellow wine from the vineyards outside gets a connoisseur’s going-over.

As always, everybody speaks to everybody else—it’s heuriger privilege and no one would think to continue a heuriger acquaintanceship when morning comes. That would be taking advantage of a tradition. Princes and cobblers, countesses and parlormaids, have always sung and laughed so, together, when the new wine runs golden in Vienna.

We part in a coffeehouse in town as dawn begins to finger the sky, and walk through the echoing courts of Franz Josef’s palace homeward. In the shadowed archways, by the old pillboxes, there seem to be stirring shapes of the past, or perhaps just a couple pausing for a kiss on the long way home.

The gaudy huge picture of Stalin on the main wall of the palace facing the vast court, where Viennese for centuries gathered to watch the guard change, seems impermanent and without threat. The drowsy beat of horses’ hoofs on the cobbles, the driver nodding on the high seat of the carriage and the lantern blinking, is an echo, too, of other ages.

For a moment we stop at the small, old church on Lightenthall Strass where Schubert was christened, where he learned to play that organ on which, later, he composed some of his melodies. There are a few people kneeling in the fading, candlelit dark. A shabby old woman, a young woman with a market basket, a blond young man in Tyrolese costume.

The 500 years of faith steal over you, and the stone is cold under your knees. It’s cold, cold, in the old Roman church and the candles grow faint in the whispering draught.

Somewhere surely Schubert is fingering another song out of his own heart and his own sadness; surely, again, that song will come to echo from these waiting stones, surely it will ease the waiting hearts, and then, with spring, the winter’s dragging days will leave us the Vienna of your young, good dreams.