AN AUSPICIOUS BEGINNING ?
This is a photo of the Niedernhart Mental Asylum in Linz, Austria. During the years after the annexation of Austria by Germany, this hospital was affiliated with the Mauthausen concentration camp and here prisoners were evaluated for their fitness to work in the camp's gruesome stone quarries. If found "unfit" they were euthanized. More than 1,000 Mauthausen prisoners were put to death in this place.
On Saturday, April 27, 1946, a cold and sleety day according to my grandfather, I was born in this hospital just after midnight. The facility had survived the massive bombing raids of 1944 and 1945 and was one of the few institutions staffed and used as general hospitals.
This place of birth has been the source of some amusement to my friends over the years. It is a good conversation starter when you can state: "I was born in an insane asylum" Of course, others, not so well disposed toward me would shake their head sadly and probably thought "I always knew there was something about him...."
The date of my birth came exactly one year after the occupation of Austria by allied forces, 11 months after my father's repatriation from having been a prisoner of war by British forces and two years before the creation of the state of Israel.
The principal reason my father was brought home so rapidly was that for generations we had owned large vineyards and steel works and people were needed for the rebuilding of industry. Of the steel works there was not much left, it had been bombed back into the Iron age. But, some halls were standing, two blast furnaces had survived and with the help of my grandfather, an architect and engineer who was one of the principals charged with the reconstruction of the Austrian railway system, we soon added a rail line to the iron works.
Grandfather had left Austria two months after the "Anschluss", the annexation, took his family, his architects and his money to neutral Switzerland where he had an uneventful W.W.II at his home in Locarno Monti. But he did see the need to come home and start over, deeply saddened by the fact that his fears about the fate of his beloved Austria had been realized to a far greater extent then he could ever had imagined.
So - here I was, son of an 18 year old mother and a 32 year old father, ensconced in a quiet roomy home on the outskirts of my beloved home town Linz. Some of my earliest memories are of two distinct smells: In spring the air was pungent with the sweet odor of linden blossoms. Linz was founded as a border fortification on the Danube, part of the Roman Limes line, the northernmost border of the empire. Originally named Lentia, the Latin name means "forest of linden trees". They still stand in all their majesty. The second smell that still lingers I memory is of brick dust. The city had been severely damaged and ruined brick structures dominated everywhere. There was brick dust on the roads and in the fields, on roofs and even on the banks of the Danube river and at whatever places children could claim as their playgrounds. My greatest joy as a little kid was when we could take the old 1937 Opel Kadett sedan into the forests on weekends. To this day I cherish the fresh smell of pine needles and that of a clear stream running along a mossy bank.
My birth had been an accident of hormones, not a planned event and it did not take me very long to understand that my parents really did not have much time for me. When I was 14 months old I was installed at the spacious old home of my loving grandparents and for years to come I would give their names as "parents" when asked in school. At fist we had family get-togethers on weekends but that tapered off rapidly and during most of my early school years and after the death of my grandmother, my grandfather and I were dinner guests at my parents home on Thursday evenings. Then my mother died, my father rapidly married again and created a half sister and half brother and the string finally broke almost completely. I lived with my grandfather until I entered University and those were the most happy and formative years of my life.
This is as good a time as any to talk about my paternal heritage: I am the only member of our family that was actually born in Austria proper. For almost 12 generations everyone was born at our estate on Marburg (Maribor) in todays Slovenia. This part of former Yugoslavia had of course been part of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy and a lot of the more affluent Austrians had traditionally maintained homes in the warmer parts of the empire. I still have a great fondness of Slovenia, a garden spot of Europe ringed by the alps in the north and the Adriatic sea in the south. Well-to-do Austrians had their business interests or their jobs in or around the major cities of Vienna, Linz, Salzburg, Graz etc., but come summer they craved the sun. When I grew up that still held true to some degree as my grandfather would have rather been broke than give up the summer house on Lago di Orta in Italy...
Grandfather was born Alois Hermann Rieder von Starhemberg, earned a Doctorate in Architecture and a variety of engineering degrees before he started his own offices in Vienna. He also maintained a large interest in the steel works and the vineyards which were responsible for the Rieder part of our name. A "ried" is a designated area of a vineyard and thus, such owners were called Rieder (vineyard owner). In 1917 he was drafted into the Austrian army, saw fighting near the Eastern front and ended up a prisoner of war by the Russians. He was interred at a logging camp at Irkutsk on lake Baikal, did not like it and so he escaped and walked home which took him longer than necessary because when he finally crossed from Hungary to Austria, the war had been over for almost three months. For the first time of his life he was charged with the rebuilding of bridges and infrastructure, almost the same he did after the second war.
My dad did not have a bad war either. His Stuka bomber was shot down by the British near Plioesty, Bulgaria, in August 1943 . He ended up in a camp on lake Bitter on the Suez canal and his main occupation was to organize soccer matches between German prisoners of war and British officers, a task he accomplished by driving from camp to camp on a 1939 AJS 350 motorbike. During that time he also established contacts and friendships with British friends which would prove invaluable to him after the war and were one of the reasons for his rapid arrival back in Linz.
This then is the broad canvas of my background and in the next installment I shall try to speak about my early years and schooling.