The Austrian Riveter: A Shelving Problem by Jake Schneider

The phrase ‘Austrian literature’ carries various assumptions about the word ‘Austrian’. Out of context, you might expect this literature to have been written in German, in or near the Alps, and by someone from a Catholic family. An image begins to form of a certain type of book by a certain type of writer. You might picture ski slopes, landscaped gardens, orchestras, cathedrals. To approach the problem from another direction, imagine you run a bookshop full of literature from around the world, organised by country, and you are pondering over a memoir written in Yiddish in New York and published in Buenos Aires. The author, Malka Lee, was born in 1904 in a town then called Monastrishtsh, which is now Monastyryska, Ukraine. Where in your shop does the book belong?

Whatever your approach to the problem, I assume you did not shelve it with the Austrian books. But a case could be made. In 1904, Monastrishtsh was in Galicia, a province in the Austrian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In other words, Malka Lee was born an Austrian citizen. Languages played a different role then. Galicia’s population was a mix of native Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish, and German speakers who often lived side by side, occupying distinct economic niches. The wider empire had fourteen official languages, and the word ‘Austrian’ stretched like an elastic band around centuries’ worth of imperial conquests and dynastic acquisitions across central and southeastern Europe. 

The old Austrian empire had absorbed a natural profusion of languages, ethnicities, and religions. Empires have big appetites, and the ethnographic map of Europe retained many more intricate, ancient overlaps. Today’s far smaller republic makes German-speaking Catholics seem like the natural natives, and anyone else seem like marginal newcomers.

In the modern nation-state system, certain books lack an obvious shelf: not all people, and not all peoples, correspond neatly to a country on the map. Which is why, in a magazine devoted to Austria’s literature, you are reading about multilingual writers who were just passing through.

In one of the opening chess moves of the First World War, Russia invaded Ukraine. That is, the Russian Empire invaded the Austro-Hungarian Empire, specifically Galicia, which was home to the largest concentration of Jews in Europe and two-thirds of the western empire’s Jewish population. Combined with the adjoining province of Bukovina, that added up to a million people who were especially afraid of the invading force’s reputation for anti-Semitic violence. Meanwhile, some of their hometowns were being turned into active battlefields. 

Malka Lee was in her early teens and already fleeing with her family when she first encountered the Russian army up close. In her unshelvable memoir Durkh Kindershe Oygn (‘Through a Child’s Eyes’), she recalls: ‘The firing line was set up beneath the town. […] We packed ourselves with foodstuffs like camels in a desert and continued on our way. We ran. Behind our backs, the bullets ran after us.’ Most of the destitute Jewish refugees – roughly 150,000 of them by the spring of 1915 – eventually made their way by train to Vienna’s Northern Station and strayed no farther than the nearby district of Leopoldstadt, named for a Kaiser who had banished the Jews centuries prior. In the early 20th century, the district acquired a new nickname, ‘die Mazzesinsel’ (‘the island of matzah’). This is the unleavened bread eaten at Passover. The moniker is all the more apt because according to the Book of Exodus, the very first matzahs were consumed by Jews fleeing an advancing army.

Malka Lee, Rose Ausländer, Debora Vogel and Rokhl Korn were all born in Galicia or Bukovina, all spent part of their teenage years as refugees in wartime Vienna, and all became prolific and distinguished poets, despite the even greater obstacles confronting women writers of their generation. They wrote poems in Yiddish, German, Polish, Hebrew, and/or English – two or more languages per poet. They had the Austro-Hungarian Empire in common; individually they also lived in the Republic of Austria, Canada, Romania, Sweden, the US, the USSR, and West Germany. Was there a link between their time in Vienna and their successes as writers? Or between that period and the aesthetics of their future work? Which shelf or shelves do they belong on?

The territory of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire corresponds to all or parts of the following countries on today’s map: Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine. Other than Austria itself, all these country names match the names of the country’s majority language.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm, born in Egypt to an Austrian mother and a British father, describes growing up in 1920s Vienna in his English-language memoir:

I spent my childhood in the impoverished capital of a great empire, attached, after the empire’s collapse, to a smallish provincial republic of great beauty, which did not believe it ought to exist. […] The world of the Viennese middle class, and certainly of the Jews who formed so large a proportion of it, was still that of the vast polyglotregion whose migrants had, in the past 80 years, turned its capital into a city of two million […] Our relatives had come from, or were still living in, places like Bielitz (now in Poland), Kaschau (now in Czechoslovakia) or Grosswardein (now in Romania).

Our grocers and the porters of our apartment buildings were almost certainly Czech, our servant-girls or child-minders not native Viennese: I still remember the tales of werewolves told me by one from Slovenia. None of them was or felt uprooted or cut adrift from ‘the old country’[.]

Vienna, the capital of the Republic of Austria, is not quite the same city as Vienna, the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Neither is Monastrishtsh, Eastern Galicia quite the same place as today’s Monastyryska, Ukraine. And therefore Malka Lee’s memoir Durkh Kindershe Oygn is not quite Austrian, not really Ukrainian, not exactly American, though certainly Jewish literature. To this day, books like these lack an obvious shelf.

The world we live and read in today is still mostly demarcated by the same borders drawn after the First World War with a goal, in Hobsbawm’s words, of establishing ‘coherent territorial states each inhabited by a separate ethnically and linguistically homogeneous population’. The disconnect between that nationalist vision and the multi-ethnic profusion of places like imperial Galicia and Vienna would lead to the mass murder and forced migration of millions in the ensuing decades.

The same disconnect between nations as we imagine them and people, in their messy distribution across the planet, is one reason why, without a more sophisticated and inclusive shelving system, so many important books and authors are left without a home.

Jake Schneider

Read The Austrian Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Austrian Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Austrian Riveter page.

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