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U3A Writing: Grandmother's Guest Book

When Ilse Erber discovered her grandmother's guest book memories both happy and sad were reawakened.

I found the little book, bound in a light brown cotton cloth with a red border, among my mother's possessions after she died. The paper is smooth and thick and each page is edged with gold. The frontispiece, translated from the German reads, "I dedicate this book to my dear guests in the heartfelt hope that they may feel at home here." Hedda Neurath, Vienna April 1935

Hedda Neurath was my grandmother.

My grandparents lived in a large flat in Vienna. Most people in Vienna lived in flats. It was only the very wealthy who owned a house with a garden, usually in the outskirts of the city. My grandfather was arguably Vienna's leading paediatrician and, as the flat was located close to the city's main hospital and to the university, many of the guests whose names appear in the guest book were academics or members of the medical profession.

As I read the inscriptions I wonder about the people who wrote them. What sort of people were they? Why were they in Vienna? Some inscriptions are in English, some in German, and one is in Chinese, accompanied by an English translation.

The guests came from all over the world from Britain, several from the United States, one beautiful young woman who added her photograph came from Norway.

One Indian guest illustrated his inscription with drawings to show how he felt when he first arrived in Vienna and then how he felt on leaving three weeks later. In the first drawing a stick figure of a man is overwhelmed by St. Stephen's cathedral, while in the second drawing, the stick figure towers over the cathedral and the Danube River.

There is a puzzling inscription in English by Robert and Anita Simonds, who say that after spending four years of their five year stay in Vienna, they were not sure that they liked the city, but after they arrived at my grandparents' flat they decided it was worthwhile staying in Vienna for four years to have experienced a fifth year with our family. I can't help wondering what they were doing all this time in Vienna.

My parents and I lived in the flat with my grandparents. I was too young for most of these strangers who came and went to make an impression on me, but the final inscription, dated 27.1.38, holds the most meaning for me. It is signed by a Dutch lady, Bien van Huiden and beside her signature there is the childish scrawl of her son, Dickie who was a year older than I was. I was allowed to accompany Dickie and his mother on many of their outings, and Dickie and I became firm friends.

Just over a year after Bienand Dickie had stayed with us, my parents and I left Vienna to travel to Australia to escape the Nazi onslaught. As we were to travel on a Dutch ship, we spent a week in Holland with Bien and Dickie before embarking. It was August, summer holiday time in Europe, and Bien, a schoolteacher, was the supervisor of a children's play area in the popular beachside district of Scheveningen, where they lived.

It was here that I made my first aquaintance with the sea, as Austria is a landlocked country. Imagine my utter amazement when I discovered that the water in which I had been playing all day was salty.

After the war my father tried desperately to locate Bien and Dickie, but with no success. After some months he received a letter from the International Red Cross, saying that it must be assumed that they had both perished in a concentration camp. Even now, I cannot help wondering whether by some miracle one of them managed to survive, and when I visit Holland later this year I plan to do some detective work of my own.

Grandmother's guest book is a rare treasure , indeed.


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