Australian art historian Bonyhady (Words for Country: Landscape & Language in Australia, 2001, etc.) revisits the lives and collections of several generations of his family, members of whom had to flee the Nazis.
When the Nazis swooped into Vienna, the author’s grandmother, grandaunt and mother escaped the country with “the best private collection of art and design to escape Nazi Austria.” As a boy, the author saw some of this in Sydney and, later, was inspired to research and write the story of the women, only one of whom, his mother, remained alive. And she was reluctant to revisit her life. Bonyhady proceeds chronologically, relating the history of Jews in Vienna, the cultural ambiance of the city and the genesis of the fortune accumulated by his great-grandparents, a fortune enjoyed and increased until the worldwide depression and the Nazis fractured it. Members of his family were friends with Mahler, collected the works of Gustav Klimt, lived in spaces designed by Josef Hoffmann and experienced luxury and comfort unknown to most Viennese. Their neighborhood included Wohllebengasse, the street whose name in English translation forms Bonyhady’s title. Although the author spends some space cataloging his family’s possessions (and they were impressive), he confesses, too, that such wealth embarrasses him. The author was fortunate that these women were fairly fastidious about keeping diaries and letters and programs to the opera and such, and he mines them assiduously for material. He tells of love affairs (licit and otherwise) and marriages (successful and otherwise) and saves the real excitement for the women’s escape from Europe in 1938, their resettlement in Australia, their adjustment to a more austere life and the sales of their possessions.
Political, economic and art history effectively combine with memoir to create a compelling story.