A Visit to the Homeland: Burgenland. An unlikely tale of regrets, spas, wine, and photos of old houses.
When my husband and I decided to take a cruise down the Danube River, it seemed like the perfect time to try to find the town in Austria where my grandmother had been born. When my mom died, I found a lot of old documents and photos among her things, including my grandmother’s immigration papers, certificates from Austria written in an incomprehensible script, and lots of old photos. I also had a family tree I had made in high school, with my grandmother’s help, that listed the names of her parents and siblings. These were all shoved in various boxes, willy-nilly, among other photos and relics. One of the relics, in fact, was a plait of my grandmother’s hair that she had cut off when it was still the color of mine. I started digging through all of this and began to piece together a plan of where to go.
My grandmother lived with my parents and me in Chicago from before I was born until after I had moved out at 21. She was 70 when I was born and played a huge role in my upbringing. She was at home with me when my parents were working. I remember her taking me on long walks (yes, she was in good shape, up until her late 80s) and teaching me to bake. My grandmother could also be a stern and suspicious woman, critical of everything, disapproving. Her grown kids respected her and told tales of her strictness. My mom told me that my grandmother had been raised by an older sister after their mother had died, a resentful older sister who was quite mean. Having no real model for motherhood, she did the best she could as an immigrant during the depression, raising my mom, her two sisters, and six step-children.
I live with regrets about my relationship with my grandmother. As a child, I didn’t have the empathy for her history that I do now. I only knew that when I spilled some flour while helping her bake, she would say sternly, “Why did you throw that down?” Nothing was ever right or good enough. When I became a teen-ager, she listened in my phone conversations and snooped in my bedroom when I was not home. She criticized my clothes and friends, and arguments often ensued. “Leave me alone!” I would say, and she would mock me in her German accent, “Leave me alone!” It seemed that finding hapiness or joy in anything was an affront. Her sayings haunted me for years until they were finally (hopefully) dispelled by therapy: “Laugh before breakfast, cry before dinner,” and “First you laugh, then you cry.” Those mottos were a caution to her daughters, and to me, that to enjoy anything was tempting fate and fate’s cruelty would punish you later.
I regret that I didn’t do more to try to understand my grandmother, to learn more from her experience. I regret that I didn’t learn what it was like to emigrate from Austria in your 20s, to come to a strange place and make your way by living with some relatives, working as a housekeeper, and then marrying a fellow immigrant with six motherless kids. I regret I didn’t learn more about her story, the place she came from, the people she left behind, the poverty and hopelessness that must have motivated her to leave all she knew and gamble on her future. Given the hardships she endured in Chicago — the kids, the Great Depression, the husband who drank too much, the big city life — I am not sure if she would have said that the wager paid off.
My research into my grandmother’s past led me to discover she had come from the Burgenland region of Austria. This is a small strip of land that had been part of Hungary at the time my granmother was born in 1895. The events of World War I transferred this region to Austria. When my grandmother emigrated in 1922, she came from Austria. My mother had told me that my grandmother spoke Hungarian as well as German. I never knew why or thought to ask. Research tells me that folks in Burgenland spoke three languages back then –German, Hungarian and Croat. It’s a border area, a mixing place. Even today, road signs are are in both German and Hungarian. My ability to research was limited by this language issue, as original birth records, while perhaps are accessible on the internet, are in Hungarian. Spellings of towns and people’s names are different and incomprehensible to me. I don’t speak German but can at least read it, sound things out, and type them into Google translate. Hungarian, nope.
I found a helpful internet group called “Burgenland Bunch,” who admitted me to its membership after vetting where my grandmother was born. Maps on their site helped me to locate her town and also to understand the Austrian/Hungarian border issue. I also developed a snail-mail correspondence with an 80-year-old distant cousin, who had more information.
Armed with my documents and photos, we rented a car in Vienna and drove to Bad Tatzmannsdorf. This seemed the closest place to my grandmother’s town of Podgoria that had lodging. My husband booked us at a family-run pension. The town is known for its thermal baths. We drove into town at dusk, tired, and checked in at the pension’s restaurant. After travels in Munich, Vienna, a river cruise, and Budapest, we were spoiled by English-speaking people everywhere. Not so in Bad Tatzmannsdorf! Luckily, our hotel owner spoke English. We refreshed ourselves with a drink in the restaurant bar, next to a cozy fire, and then set out to explore on foot.
We were in the central square/park of Bad Tatzmannsdorf. It was the off-season and it appeared that almost everything was closed. We quickly located a place to eat and decided we had better get dinner immediately, as it seemed possible that the few open places would be shutting soon for lack of customers. We ate in a dim restaurant in a basement. Like our pension, it was decorated in a style that Americans would remember from the 1970s. The staff did not speak English. We managed to find vegetarian and fish sections on the menu, used our phrase book to read the items, and to order. A happy surpise was the reasonable price of good local wine.
After eating, we spied “Burgenland Stube,” the local bar. We were able to order red wine (blaufrankisch, bitte) with our few German words and took a seat in a booth. The wood-paneled room was smoky, booths full of folks talking and some playing cards. The 5 or 6 stools at the bar were full of men smoking and chatting with the bartender, a friendly woman in sparkley-pocket jeans with her blonde hair in an up-do. It was clear we were the only foreigners, and perhaps that it was unusual to get foreigners here. The crowd thinned a little and we had another glass of wine. When the bartender came to our table, I asked her if she spoke English. “A little,” she said. We visited with her for a short time. I asked her about the drink advertised on a small handwritten poster on the door, Sturm. From her description, it sounded like partially-fermented wine, and was available a short time only. I said I might try it the next night. We paid 9 Euros for our 4 glasses of wine and said Wedersehen.
The next morning was bright and shiny. At breakfast, our hostess asked what our plans were for the day, if we intended to go to the spa. We told her we were headed to Podgoria and asked if she knew where it was. Her husband, who did not seem comfortable with English, grabbed a map and drew us a route. The lines he drew didn’t seem to correspond to roads, but he was confident and told us to follow signs to “Weiden bei Rechnitz.” Armed with our map and my documents and photos, we headed out. In the daylight, we could see that the area was lovely. Rolling hills, farmland, tiny and impossibly clean towns, deciduous woods that were displaying their fall colors, goregeous vistas at the top of every crest. We saw deer and hawks, some livestock. We followed road signs on twisty narrow lanes, through a variety of small towns — most of them so small they seemed to lack a store or restaurant or public building of any kind.
We rolled into Oberpodgoria and found the same thing — the only public buildings were saw were a fire house and a church. Upon inspection, both were locked. We had parked near the entrance of town, as the tiny lanes had no place to park, only private driveways to the homes. My husband took my photo in front of the town sign, with the name in both German and Hungarian. We walked around and compared the houses to the photos I had brought. I had a photo of my grandmother’s sister Karoline, taken in the 1970s. She was standing in the garden and a house number was visible behind her: 14. We looked for house 14 to no avail. I also had a photo, black and white, taken earlier, of the house where my grandmother was born. It was an L-shape, with a horse-drawn wagon in front of it. When I was in high school, my grandmother had told me the photo was taken and sent to her when the house was being restored.
Near house 15, we saw a woman raking leaves and wheelbarrowing them somewhere. My husband approached her. She didn’t speak English, but when we showed her the photos, she told us house 14 was “kaput.” She recognized the other house and led us to meet a 90 year-old woman who might know something.
She took us to a farm house and asked a few people there to direct her to this woman. We found her near the edge of the fields, with some men who were working on a tractor. One of the men spoke some English. We showed her some pictures and names. One of the men commented that Chicago had a lot of Burgenlanders. She remembered Karoline and brought us to sit down at a study picnic table under a tree, near the house. A lady brought us out cushions to sit on and some homemade apple cider.
She told us that Karoline’s son had sold the house (where my grandmother was born) and land to someone and had made a bad contract where his mother did not get to continue to live there. She was kicked out and had to move, settling finally in number 14, with her son. Very sad, a tragedy, the man told us. When our translator friend bought this farm, he said, the old lady got a contract to live there until she “moves to the cemetery.” We all laughed.
The wonderful lady told us all about Karoline and the other sisters who remained in Burgenland — who they married, where they moved, children’s names or locations. She had even heard of my grandmother and her younger sister, who moved to Chicago. She remembered the younger sister’s illegitimate son, who remained in Burgenland. She seemed to enjoy talking about that, but unfortunately, the man didn’t translate all of the story!
The two of them directed us to house #1, the house from the photo, where my grandmother was raised. It was the house right at the edge of town, where we had parked the car across from the “Podgoria” sign. The house was now used as a farm building and a new house was built next to it. We walked around the old house and took a few photos. We thought we heard someone in the adjoining barn, but it was only some cows. I thought about my grandmother and her living here, on this beautiful land. I am guessing the view is largely the same as when she lived there — farm fields and forests. I could picture her working on the farm and could also understand how a large family in such a remote place would struggle to survive. And how, with so many of their men killed in World War I, young women like my grandmother would have bleak choices available to them.
We tried to raise someone at the new house on the property, to see if we could enter the house. The young blond woman who answered the door didn’t speak English (in fact, I don’t think she was speaking German either!). When I showed her the photo, she was dismissive. We didn’t want to press our luck and be the ugly Americans, so we took our leave, visiting the cemetery on the way out of town. We then visited Artholdis and Kohlstatten, places where my relatives lived before and after being in Podgoria. All of the cemeteries were meticulously kept up, with flowers, landscaping and sometimes even lit candles on the graves. I never did find the graves of my grandmother’s parents, but did see her sister.
That evening, we took a seat at the bar at Burgenland Stube and visited with Maria, our bartender/owner. She was awaiting a visit from her boyfriend, who she said spoke very good English. He, Wolfgang, turned up a little later and we talked to him all evening. We learned that Bad Tatzmannsdorf’s main industry was health care. Evidently in Austria, if you have a heart attack or heart surgery, your insurance sends you there for three weeks to get therapy and take the healing waters. The big hotels we saw that seemed suspiciously like assisted living homes were these “cure hotels,” where the patients stayed during their rehabilitation.
His grandparents emigrated to the US in the 1920s as well. He told us about the system where Burgenlanders were often given free tickets to the US or Canada in exchange for a year of work, usually on a farm. After fulfilling their farm service, he said, many moved to urban areas where they worked in breweries or in manufacturing. His own family story was interesting, but not mine to tell. As the evening wore on, Wolfgang translated that one of the other patrons just became a grandfather and was buying us all drinks to celebrate. Having just become a grandfather the week before, my husband bonded with this fellow — hell, we all bonded after drinking blaufrankisch and then the special Burgenland wine and liqueurs made from Uhudler. It was described to us as a native grape, one immune to diseases that produces even in adverse circumstances. I found the wine to be a nice, somewhat sweet rose’, and the liquers to be delicious. They all went down well after many toasts in English and German. Prost!
The next day, chilly but sunny, found us at the Avita Thermal Spa. We spent most of the day exploring the various therapeutic pools, indoors and out, along with saunas and steam rooms. An outdoor pool where we floated under the sun with a bunch of other naked people was a highlight. Hot mineral water is good for what ails you and revives the tired traveller.
Alas, that night we had our last glasses of wine at Burgenland Stube, and the next morning left for Vienna…and home.
Homeland, Burgenland, thank you for everything!