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  Books   22 Dec 2017  A story of survival, resilience & redemption

A story of survival, resilience & redemption

Published : Dec 22, 2017, 6:45 am IST
Updated : Dec 22, 2017, 6:45 am IST

Married to a former Austrian ambassador to India, Herbert Traxl, Shovana has lovingly researched the life and times of her father-in-law, Erwin.

The family: Erwin Ishan Traxl, Perkha Ahmed, Shovana  Narayan Traxl and Herbert Traxl
 The family: Erwin Ishan Traxl, Perkha Ahmed, Shovana Narayan Traxl and Herbert Traxl

Those who enjoy delving into history may still be a bit fuzzy about the breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and its effects on the populations of Central and Eastern Europe. The results of the breakup of the multicultural, multilingual Hapsburg Empire on the real politic supporting Hitler’s rise are central to the trajectory of this biography. The life experiences of the Austrian Erwin Traxl detail how simply and inexorably one family walks, stumbles and survives rising fascism. His personal courage is inspirational for those who value multiculturalism over tribal identity and integrity over exploitation.

Beyond filling in the gaps in our general knowledge of modern history, the imagined internal monologues of Erwin Traxl and the external actions he took based on personal and family values, mirror very current issues facing civil society in large democracies.

The biographer, Shovana Narayan Traxl, is a celebrated Kathak exponent and retired senior civil servant. Married to a former Austrian ambassador to India, Herbert Traxl, Shovana has lovingly researched the life and times of her father-in-law, Erwin. With her trans-national sensibilities, she has brought to life the major conflicts of the 20th century from the perspective of a small European German-speaking country. The trajectory expresses the confusions of living in troubled times interspersed with the mundane realities and of daily life.

Erwin Traxl when he worked as mechanical engineerErwin Traxl when he worked as mechanical engineer

From 1848 till 1916 Emperor Franz Joseph ruled over 15 nations and 50 million inhabitants. Austrian-Hungarian Army officers were required to give commands in 11 languages besides German. “With the granting of full citizenship rights in 1867 to the Jews, there was a surge of energy that saw the Empire scaling upwards in intellectual, economic, medical, and various streams of activities.” At the same time, the Emperor demolished the old city fortifications and the Ringstause development included the University, City Hall, Parliament and magnificent buildings, some by Jewish Austrians now permitted to own property.

Using date headings in lieu of chapters, the biography begins on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, critical in setting off the chain of events that led to the World War-I.

Erwin, aged 30, a trained engineer and artillery lieutenant, was immediately sent to the Russian front, the nation that had supported the Serbian national movement prompting the assassination. The war started a month later and not only ended the Empire, but also the vibrant life of Vienna in a suddenly shrunken Austria.

Walther Traxl, Erwin’s chemist brother, chafed at his perceived unfairness to Austria when Britain wasn’t held accountable for the Opium Wars and could have intervened to stop Germany’s promised aid to Austria. By the early 1930’s Walther was anti-Pan-European Union in favor of national socialism, a brand of nationalism Erwin called “negative as it rejects rationalism, democratic values and human rights”.

In kitchen table conversations, Shovana paraphrases family arguments in the terminology of today to make Erwin’s assertions crystal clear. “We are all human beings, Walther. There is no issue of being superior or inferior. Our land was multi-cultural and multi-lingual. We celebrated diversity of language and logic...Yes, it hurts to see how our lands have been taken away. But why should we lose our sense of humanity?”

A major undercurrent in this story is the family’s awareness of the growing politically motivated and cynical anti-Semitism affecting their friends losing jobs, going into hiding, immigrating and finally being among the millions slaughtered in the Nazi genocide.

Erwin Traxl’s story unfolds from facts, family interactions and conversations to give a sense of upper-middle class life between the Great War and that havoc of WW II. While mountaineering in 1925 at the age of 41, he met and soon married the 23-year-old Gertrude. We join them at the Vienna Philharmonic Ball dancing to Richard Strauss waltzes. (Strauss is punished for ant-Nazi stance in the 1940’s)We see a society where women got the vote in 1919 yet Erwin’s mother Oma always maintained the family tradition of only men invited to Sunday luncheons.

In 1935 Hitler agreed to support Mussolini in Ethiopia on the personal assurance that he would not demand the return of former Austrian territories in return. Days after a suicide in the General Assembly of the League of Nations “to protest against the treatment being meted out to Jews” the League lifted sanctions against Italy. This was swiftly followed by Austria agreeing to favor Germany in its policies and free key members of a 1934 July coup attempt by pro-Nazis in an agreement in which Germany pledged to respect Austrian sovereignty.

when he was in his late twenties when he was in his late twenties

Meanwhile, the family experiences increasing difficulty in finding schools for daughters Ilse and Moni; schools that did not fire teachers for being openly critical of anti-Semitic feelings followed by even arresting students not sufficiently pro-Nazi within a few years. By the start of 1937 all boys between 10 and 18 were required to join Hitler Youth and consider themselves to be Aryan Supermen.

As Erwin shuddered at the “radical indoctrination into racism of the very young”, he was also aware that his ant-Nazi and pro-Austria stance could soon find him out of a job. He trained in accounting which, along with his engineering qualifications, enabled him to maintain his household when the inevitable happened.

There is a vast difference between experiencing uncertainties as they unfold rather than viewing them in hindsight. The tightening grip of Italian and German expansionism can be compared to the old truism about about a frog in a pot adjusting to increasing heat and dying whereas it would jump out if the water was already hot.

Great Britain, France and the USA’s 1938 ambiguous stands, Neville Chamberlain’s plan of appeasement towards Hitler carried out by the new foreign secretary Halifax, were soon followed by the Anschluss annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. Erwin was fortunate to return home after Gestapo interrogations about his Catholic leanings and support for Austrian independence and even to receive half pension after being dismissed from his job. With his additional training, Erwin found a job as the Chief Financial Manager-Accountant and House Manager for the up market Vienna Bathhouse.

Erwin Traxl with a colleague  during World War I Erwin Traxl with a colleague during World War I

1938 continues with life threatening illness of daughter Ilsa, transports of Jewish children to uncertain futures abroad as their parents were left behind to soon die in gas chambers amidst the total curtailment movement of free speech with spies everywhere leading to arrest on any pretext. Mentally or physically handicapped individuals were rounded up and killed. Picasso, Van Gogh, Chagall, Ensor, Matisse among many others, some Jewish, some not, were decried as degenerate and burned in bonfires as were books. When the end of 1938 saw 6,000 Jews deported to Daschau concentration camp in one night and a Hapsburg princess cleaning urinals at the Vienna railway station, his best friend’s “Ezra Grocery Shop” vandalized, Walther could see that his idea of a purely Germanic nation was wrong.

An interesting side note was Gertrude’s classmate from teacher training, Maria Kutschera, having been first governess and then wife of Capt Von Trapp, escaping across the Alps with her new family which later inspired the musical and film, The Sound of Music.

In 1939, the family debated giving up ancestral property in Czechoslovakia when it was occupied by Germany along with discussing Adolf Eichmann’s Central Office of Jewish Emigration where he could appropriate assets in return for a certificate to leave. A polio epidemic tragically affected all three of Erwin’s children as well as cousins and friends. Moni fortunately suffered only a mild abortive polio attack, Ilse was left with weakened stomach muscles that ended a promising career as a Soprano singer but young Klaus succumbed. The year ended with Erwin’s closest friend Aaron killed by the Nazis, Aaron’s wife Sharon and family sent to a concentration camp and Hitler’s invasion of Poland sparking WW II.

Shovana writes of Erwin’s fears coming true: America’s almost overnight transition from peace mode to war mode, Soviet factories out producing the Germans, eminent Jewish musicians and artists sent to the gas chambers as well as Roma gypsies and ant-Nazi Catholics. Amidst all this, Shovana’s husband-to-be was born, Vienna experienced massive bombing and 100,000 homes were destroyed by the time the war ended. (The over 50,000 Jews of Vienna killed in death camps may have helped relieve the housing shortage and survivors were strongly discouraged from returning home)

Erwin played his part in the rapid rebuilding of Austria as head of the acquisition department of the city’s transport system especially in restoring tram lines. Ten years after the war Austria was free of occupation after declaring permanent neutrality. Massive foreign aid and local enterprise returned Vienna to its old self.

At the age of 75, Erwin enrolled for a PhD on the effects of precipitation on glaciers owing to his love of the mountains and concern for climate change. His doctorate was awarded just two years before son Herbert’s in 1964. He lived to see Herbert off to India as a young foreign service officer, still wondering if the age old fears, ego and xenophobia will recur (as conjectured by his biographer)

As a post script, the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria just received a prominent role in the country’s government.  

“It is sad and distressing that such a platform should receive more than a quarter of the vote and become the country’s second party,” said Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress. “It is still full of xenophobes and racists and is, mildly put, very ambiguous toward Austria’s Nazi past.”


The writer is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of modern dance and ballet in the US and an MA in dance from the
University of Michigan. She can be  contacted at

Tags: parliament, kathak, nazi genocide
Location: India, West Bengal, Calcutta [Kolkata]