IN the spring of 1938, Franz Hofer, a senior Nazi official, rang the doorbell of Hugo Schindler’s house in the Austrian city of Innsbruck.
Reporting directly to Adolf Hitler, Hofer was one of Austria’s most powerful Nazis.
Hugo was a respected Jewish business owner in the city and was at work when Hofer called.
Hugo’s 12-year-old son Kurt was home alone and opened the door.
When Hofer politely asked if he could come in, Kurt hesitantly showed him around the big house – Villa Schindler.
Weeks before Hofer’s visit, Hitler annexed Austria to Nazi Germany, and the Reich’s anti-Semitic legislation that removed Jewish citizenship rights was quickly extended to Austria.
In July 1938, Hugo was arrested on false corruption charges and held in a Gestapo prison.
Hofer threatened Hugo that unless he agreed to sell him the villa, Hugo would be sent to a concentration camp.
Although Hugo was effectively forced to sell the villa to Hofer for a fraction of its value, Hugo never received the money.
By the end of 1938, the Nazis, for nominal prices, had stripped Hugo and his family of all of their business – including a distillery, factory, and Café Schindler.
Soon Hofer and his family were living in Hugo’s former home, and the region’s Nazi elite were drinking in the converted family cafe, once a Jewish venue.
In a twofold irony, Café Schindler was founded in 1922 to alleviate the horrors of the First World War.
Viennese-style café-patisserie with live music and dancing, the café has become the core of Innsbruck’s social and cultural life in a country shattered by political instability after its defeat against the Allies in World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The cafe was founded by Hugo. Meriel Schindler, author of The Lost Café Schindler, is Hugo’s granddaughter and Kurt’s daughter.
Digging through her family’s extraordinary history, Meriel maps the striking intersections between the personal and the political in a memoir that frankly seeks to account for the past.
Meriel traces her family history back to a dynasty of Jewish distillers dating back to the mid-18th century in Bohemia (in what is now the Czech Republic, but then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and has famous people among her relatives.
Meriel is a distant relative of novelist Franz Kafka and is a great-niece of Eduard Bloc, the Jewish doctor who treated Hitler’s mother, Klara.
For six weeks after Klara was diagnosed with breast cancer, Bloc visited her every day at her home in the Austrian city of Linz.
She died in 1907. Bloc wrote that he had never seen someone so destroyed by grief as Hitler was on the day Klara died.
When Hitler moved to Vienna, he sent Bloc two postcards, one hand painted, writing that the Hitler family was “eternally grateful” to Bloc.
After Austria’s annexation in 1938, the first city Hitler visited in the country was Linz.
Hitler asked an official if Bloc was still alive and reportedly said “if all Jews were like him [Bloc], then there would be no anti-Semitism ”.
Indicating how closely Schindler’s family felt assimilated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hugo and his brother enlisted in his army during World War I.
One million soldiers died fighting for this empire.
Hugo and his brother fought on the Alpine front: high altitude trench warfare on the border between Austria-Hungary and Italy.
Remarkably, 60,000 men of Hugo’s regiment were killed by avalanches.
On November 9, 1938, Hugo felt the devastating effects of Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, when the Nazis attacked Jews and their property in Germany and Austria.
In Innsbruck, local Nazis broke down the door to Hugo’s apartment.
They picked up Kurt’s slide, which was leaning against a wall, and smashed it over Hugo’s head.
A strip of iron nailed to the slide made a deep vertical laceration along Hugo’s forehead.
While on the ground, a gang member with spiked boots hit Hugo in the face and knocked him unconscious.
When Hugo was found, the four-inch gash on his head was bleeding profusely and was deep enough to show his skull.
Throughout his life, Hugo’s son Kurt (Meriel’s father) has recounted seeing his father’s assault.
When, as an adult, Kurt saw psychiatrists about his poor mental health, he isolated the traumatic experience of, at age 13, seeing the Nazis attack his father like a touchstone.
But Kurt couldn’t have witnessed the incident.
Shortly after the Nazis took control of Austria, Kurt’s mother fled the country with her son.
Meriel’s research established that on Kristallnacht’s day, the night of Hugo’s attack, Kurt was in England with his mother.
She believes some of Kurt’s lies were “false memories” where he inadvertently incorporated stories he had heard about others into his life story.
But Meriel also concedes that Kurt deliberately inserted himself into episodes, such as Kristallnacht, to perpetuate the deception and escape responsibility.
This statement corresponds to an essential part of the book.
Meriel had a complicated relationship with Kurt.
“I have spent my whole adult life keeping my father at bay,” she writes, “talking to him as little as possible about myself.” Charming and persuasive, Kurt has racked up huge debts in his various trading companies, rarely paying suppliers and never paying taxes.
At the Old Bailey in 1976, Kurt was convicted of trading fraud for £ 370,000.
He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Kurt’s family were kicked out of their stable in Kensington and spent months living in a squat in Ealing.
Kurt’s death at the age of 91 in 2017 sparked this book.
The genesis of The Lost Café Schindler as a family investigation is both a strength and a limitation.
The book is complacent at times, straying into areas that probably won’t interest anyone outside of Meriel’s family.
A more rigorous editing would have given a more impactful reading.
Yet the pulse of the book is Meriel’s wispy-eyed focus on the intimate consequences of high-profile international events.
Writing in 2000 about the profusion of Irish childhood memories that recalled the pain of institutionalism, historian Catríona Crowe wrote that “official records can tell us what happened, but rarely what we felt” .
It resonates with Meriel’s intention here.
By reconstructing – through letters, photos and archival documents – the specific experiences of her family, Meriel articulates a revealing and often heartbreaking insider perspective that illuminates the larger narrative.
The Lost Café Schindler is free from a surrealist postscript.
After the war, Hofer, the Nazi who forced Hugo to sell him his house on pain of deportation to a death camp, was a fugitive from justice and lived in northern Germany.
In a bizarre reversal of Hofer’s unexpected arrival in 1938 at Villa Schindler, Kurt tracked down Hofer in 1950 and knocked on his front door.
After an awkward little chat, Kurt asked Hofer to pay rent for the seven years he and his family lived in Villa Schindler.
Hofer agreed and for years afterwards Kurt regularly drove 750 kilometers from Innsbruck to Hofer’s home in Germany and collected Hofer’s rent arrears before Hofer and Kurt dined and drank together. Austrian white wine.
The episode highlights the challenges Meriel faced in trying to understand the contradictions of Kurt, a man who initiated this baffling relationship with a prominent party member whose policies resulted in the deaths of approximately 65,000 Austrian Jews in the Nazi death camps, including aunt, uncle, and grandmother.
“If I were to understand this infuriating man,” writes Meriel at the beginning of the book, “I would have to… unravel a larger and longer family history.”
The Lost Café Schindler is Meriel’s admirable attempt to do both.