Thursday, 28 April 2011

Wittgenstein Family

(Happier times: Paul (left) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (right) with their three sisters: Helen (left), Hermine (middle) and Gretl (left))

A quick recap: In the previous posts I have written about the four brother's of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: Hans, Rudi, Konrad--all three committed suicides--and Paul, who, in the 1920s and 1930s, became a distinguished musician. The last post saw the family's fortunes declining after the annexation of Austria to Germany.

The Wittgenstein family was one of the richest in Austria. The family wealth was essentially created in two generations: Herman Christian Wittgenstein, the children's grandfather, had started the family on the path of prosperity with his business enterprises. Karl Wittgenstein, the children's father, had sent the family's fortunes into stratosphere; what is more, he had invested money very wisely, both in and outside of Austria.

A great part of the family’s fortune was invested in foreign currency. Gretl had incorporated a company in Switzerland, under the name Wistag, AG & Cie. The company had a subsidiary trust that held Wittgensteins’ entire foreign investments, which, in 1939, were valued at 9.6 million Swiss francs! The deeds of the incorporation stipulated that while each of the share-holder (all the Wittgenstein children except probably Ludwig) could receive a small sum of interest from the trust, the capital sum must remain with the company for ten years. This meant that the trust could not be broken and the capital could not be taken out until 1947. 

Paul Wittgenstein Escapes Austria and goes to Switzerland 

It was at this stage that Paul Wittgenstein became convinced that he must leave Austria; he could think or speak of nothing else. His sister Hermine remembered that Paul suffered ‘indescribably’ during this period because of the abominable prohibitions . . . that wounded his self-esteem.’ 

Hitler was still allowing the Jews to leave, but not before fleecing them and divesting them of their wealth. So long as Paul had money abroad the authorities were not going to let him out. They demanded that Paul bring all his foreign money back and then pay 25% Reich-sfluchtsteuer (emigration tax) and all the other tariffs the regime had put in place to rob the emigrating Jews. 

Paul’s problem was all his foreign assets were locked in the Swiss trust until 1947. He decided to flee the country. 

Even at this late stage, the family was very well connected, and Gretl managed to cadge an interview with Arthur Seyss-Inquart (hanged in 1946 in Nuremberg for war crimes), the Reichsstatthalter or head of Osmark, as Austria was now called. Gretl had known Seyss-Inquart’s brother, Richard, indeed she had nursed him when he had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1928 when he was going through divorce. Gretl pleaded with Arthur Seyss-Inquart the case of her brother. She admitted that emigration was out of the question, but since his racial status was not fully determined (the family was still searching for evidence that their grandfather was an illegitimate son of an Aryan) she requested that Paul be granted a leave of three weeks so that he could give a few concerts in England. Seyss-Inquart granted permission. 

On 24 august 1938 Paul left Vienna for England. In England he stayed with his friend Marga Denke who tried to persuade him to stay there. England would have been a natural choice for Paul in many ways. He spoke English fluently, had visited the country every year for the previous fifteen years, and his younger brother with whom he got on well (at that time) also lived there. However Paul rejected the idea. He would have needed one or two years to get British citizenship, and if the war broke out between England and Germany, he faced the prospect of either getting deported back to Austria or facing imprisonment as a resident alien.  

Five days before his permit expired, Paul returned to Vienna into deep trouble. He was summoned to appear in court on a charge of Rassenschande—the Nazis had discovered his Aryan mistress and children—, and faced a minimum of four to five years of hard labour for the crime of having had an extra-marital intercourse with an Aryan. 

Paul had to act swiftly; and he did. He packed his bags, cramming as many valuables as he could into his pockets and suitcase. He left the Wittgenstein Palais without saying goodbye to his sisters and servants, and boarded a train for the Austro-Swiss border (he had an unexpired Swiss visa). Miraculously he was not stopped at the border and was safely in Switzerland.  

               (Salon of Palais Wittgenstein. It was pulled down in the 1950s

Paul’s first act after arriving in Switzerland was to send a message for Hilde to bring herself and their children immediately out of Austria. Hilde left with their daughters for Italy—without informing her father, who, having embraced the new regime with the zeal of a convert, had moved into a flat of a Jewish family, driven out after the night of Kristallnacht—the night when Nazi hooligans all over Germany and Austria looted thousands of Jewish homes and destroyed synagogues— (Franz Scania resided in the flat until his death in 1970)—and waited at the Italian-Swiss border while Paul organized their entry visas. In due course they were united with Paul.

By this time the Reichbank had got wind of the Wittgenstein fortune stashed away in Switzerland, as also of the 215 kilograms of gold—worth more than the one tenth of the national gold reserves of Czechoslovakia, which the Germans had invaded. Since the trust could be broken only with the agreement of all the beneficiaries, in order to get their grubby hands on the Wittgenstein wealth the Nazis would have to negotiate with Paul, who was now out of their clutches. 

Gretl, who could move across countries without hindrance because of her American passport, met with Paul in Switzerland. This was a difficult meeting between the brother and sister. Gretl gave Paul a rocket for having fled Austria and putting her in a very awkward position with the Nazis). In the meeting (which marked the beginning of the problems between Paul and Gretl) Paul left Gretl in no doubt as to the fate awaiting their sisters, Hermine and Helena, if they carried on living in Austria. His advice: they should do everything in their powers to get out of Austria. This is what Gretl attempted to do when she returned to Vienna. 

Gretl's Unsuccessful Attempt to get her Sisters out of Austria

                                                 (A painting of Gretl Wittgenstein)

After her return to Vienna, Gretal attempted to obtain fake Yugoslavian passports for Helena and Hermine. The plan backfired and all the sisters were arrested. They spent two nights in the police cells, before they were transferred to the National Prison. They spent the next week in prison, before Helena’s daughter-in-law managed to get everyone, except Gretl, out, after paying a huge sum for a bail.  Gretl, who had decided to take all the blame for the fake passport fiasco (she felt she would be able to get away with it because of her American citizenship), emerged much later, in a shocking condition, having been treated very roughly by the prison officers. The hearing was set in April 1939, but Helene, who was not deemed to have been a party to the original fraud, was not charged. In the court Gretl and Hermine pleaded guilty, yet were acquitted by the judge and the jury. It is very likely that the family who was still very well connected pulled strings to get the favourable verdict (‘We are protected!’ they would often say).

Paul Wittgenstein Leaves Switzerland for America

Paul, who believed he was more ‘Jewish looking’ than any of his siblings, was becoming increasingly restless in Switzerland. He had had to sell his precious violins to pay the mounting hotel bills; also he was becoming alarmed by the rising anti-Semitism in Switzerland. He came to the conclusion that Switzerland was not going to be the safe haven he was hoping for, and decided to move again: to America. 

Hilde joined Paul with the girls in November 1938, only to be told that he would be leaving for America in a week’s time. 

On 1 December 1938 Paul sailed for America, leaving Hilde and the girls behind in Switzerland. Arriving in New York, Paul was detained for twenty-four hours by the immigration officers, who classified him as a ‘German Hebrew’. 

Paul's nephew, John, or Ji, Stonborugh (Gretl’s son), who was all this time leading a life-style not very different from that which his uncle, Kurt, had led twenty-five years ago, arranged for Paul to meet influential officials in the visa office, who arranged to extend Paul’s visiting visa. 

To the end of his life Ji remained furious that his uncle did not, at the time, seem appropriately gratefully. (Much later, Ji recalled that he disliked Paul intensely, and did not like Ludwig much either). 

(to be continued)