The Schindlers of Maria-Theresien-Strasse

One of my favorite places to have lunch with a touch of elegance is Das Schindler. It is a low-keyed, modern restaurant bar, roomy and inviting with spiffy 1930s décor, on the first floor overlooking St. Anna’s Column in the middle of Maria Theresian Strasse – which is to say in the middle of Innsbruck where I’ve lived for about forty years. Like many of its guests, I am vaguely aware that something more grand was once here and I sometimes wonder what that might have been.

Now, Meriel Schindler’s eminently readable narrative has provided an answer, including everything day-dreamers like me and serious historians curious about this city’s long history.

Schindler’s point of departure is existential and, on the surface, more a matter of pathology than the cultural history it becomes.  It begins with her father and her childhood in England hiding and running from his creditors, as one failed business venture after another drove him further and further into debt.

What caused Kurt Schindler to be so cavalier about money? Success in business was part of his illustrious family heritage, he told his daughter, relating the trauma of watching Nazi thugs beat his father, Hugo Schindler, nearly to death on Kristallnacht. This event became the point of departure for Meriel’s research. What were the achievements Kurt Schindler was so keen to imitate? Exactly what got lost when the family was dispossessed? Readers find them in “lost” Café Schindler, on the site of the current Lokal, one of the fullest embodiments of a lost world skillfully called back to life in the author’s search for his, and her own, identity.

The story of Café Schindler on the first two floors of the house where the restaurant bar stands today, is a tale that spans generations. It was a classical Viennese Kaffeehaus, like Café Central a block away, that preceded it, only more modern, offering all the accompanying delights: food, above all delicious pastries, cards and billiards as well as being Innsbruck’s first dance café with a trio providing the music. But his was only the centerpiece of the numerous jeweled properties of the Schindlers’ Innsbruck cityscape.

Stemming from a Bohemian family of Schnappsbrenner (a typical Jewish enterprise in the period when the options for Jewish entrepreneurs was limited) who found their way to Linz and Innsbruck after the Ausgleich of 1867 opened the professions to Jews. The Schindler-Dubsky cousinhood, which originated with the union of Samuel Schindler with the formidable Sophie Dubsky, formed a large, prosperous family  “vernetzt” throughout what is today Austria. Other parts of the cousin-hood were the Kafkas (but not the writer to the disappointment of Meriel’s father Kurt) and the Blochs in Linz and the Salzers in Innsbruck. Whatever relationship might have existed between these Schindler’s and the now famous Oscar Schindler of “Schindler’s List” is remote.

Perhaps the most remarkable personage in that cousinhood was Dr. Eduard Bloch, the husband of Meriel’s great aunt Lilli Kafka. He was a young and idealistic medical practitioner who treated with out charge a poor woman by the name of Klara Hitler, terminally ill with cancer. This gained the praise of her devoted young son, Adolf, who is said to have remarked that there would be no anti-Semitism, if all Jews were like him. Later, the full blown anti-Semitic German Führer would intervene on behalf of his esteemed Dr. Bloch, who would escape the Holocaust only to die in abject poverty in New York, where he was not allowed to practice. He too is part of the Schindler story.

Be that as it may, it was typical of Schnappsbrenner that they would open Kaffeehäuser to purvey their wares, expanding into the production of jam, another fruit-product. Thus the successes that Samuel Schindler was able to pass on to his sons Erich (1887) and Hugo (1888), were a café, followed by a second one, several retail stores and a jam factory.  Both young men served with distinction with the 1stTiroler Kaiserjäger in World War I. They were without question K.u.K. patriots.

The Schindlers were also part of a bourgeoisie for whom “conspicuous consumption” was part of the modus vivendi.  So the brothers Erich and Hugo purchased adjoining plots of land on the southern bank of the Inn abutting on the Imperial Gardens. The house that Hugo built there, the Villa Schindler, was the most splendid dwelling in the most elegant residential district in the city. Such grand dwellings, of course, were to become fatal to the Jewish entrepreneurs as the Nazis came to power. The magnificence of the Villa Schindler was coveted by Franz Hofer the Gauleiter of Tyrol and Vorarlberg, who “ayrianized” it at the first opportunity.

The ultimate opportunist, Hofer would negotiate free passage for himself to Germany from an American spy Fred Meyer, whom his thugs had beaten half to death, in exchange for surrendering Innsbruck without a battle – allowing him to live out his days in comfortable seclusion in Bavaria, in the story that formed the basis for the hit film Inglorious Basterds.

Perhaps the most bizarre element in Ms. Schindler’s story comes towards the end of the book when she relates the story of how her perennially penniless father visited Franz Hofer in his Bavarian hideaway in the hope of collecting the back rent he was owedfor the seven years that he lived in the Villa Schindler. Thus result was a kind of friendship that would have him travelling to Bavaria from time to time to enjoy fine Austrian food and wine with Hofer.

But while the story-line of The Lost Café Schindler is fascinating enough, the way of telling it are no less interesting. The Schindlers returned to Austria to reclaim stolen property (mostly unsuccessfully) but also because, in spite it all, they loved the country and were really only at home there.  So Meriel would spend the last five years of her school life in Innsbruck, making possible rich, well-illustrated descriptions of the town, especially the Wilten district where I spent more than a decade. It also gave her the language skills, further refined by her training as a solicitor, guiding her through the challenge of the often-impenetrable Amtsdeutschof the official record. There are even a half-dozen recipes for Schindler’s celebrated pastries.

And along the way, Meriel Schindler meticulously describes step for step her reconstruction of a complex family history from records, pictures, letters and stories, visits to military and civil archives, combing through boxes of old photographs as she works at reasonable reconstructions of the various elements in detail. In the end, we learn things that not even the family knew, for example, that her strange father had lied his whole life about seeing his father beaten by Nazi thugs on Kristallnacht, when in fact he was not even in the country.

Another fascinating twist is her discovery that the current owner of Das Schindler gave the restaurant its name out of respect for her grandfather’s legacy. Since then, the two have struck up a friendship and Meriel’s family have become (like the Janiks!) regulars at Das Schindler.

So when you’re next in Innsbruck….

The Lost Cafè Schindler:
One Family, Two Wars and the Search for Truth
By Meriel Schindler.
Hodder& Stoughton, 2021.