Good Living Street by Tim Bonyhady
Good Living Street by Tim Bonyhady is sub-titled The Fortunes of My Viennese Family. Preparing for a visit to friends in Vienna, and wanting to read about the history, especially the art and cultural history of the city, I found Good Living Street the perfect place to start. Another book about the same time and place is The Hare With the Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal – if you liked that book you’ll love this one.
Tim Bonyhady was born in Australia, and this book is the story of his discovery of his family history. His grandmother, Gretl, and his Great- Aunt Kathe, lived in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss – the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. They knew they could no longer live safely in Vienna. No matter that this Jewish family did not live as Jews and had, in fact, happily converted to Catholicism years earlier. Their children were baptized and attended Catholic schools, but they were still considered Jews by the Nazi regime and would have been arrested and sent to a concentration camp – and most probably have been murdered – if they stayed in Vienna.
This family had come to Austria from the east a generation earlier to make their fortunes – and they did just that. They became involved in the development of gas light fixtures, and later electric light fixtures, becoming very wealthy in just one generation. As Tim Bonyhady’s great grandparents, Hermine and Moriz Gallia, became more and more wealthy, they spent their money attending the theatre and the opera, and supporting painters, often commissioning portraits, the most notable the Portrait of Hermine Gallia by Gustav Klimt. They built a modern apartment building to house their family and others, on Wohllebengasse – translation, Good Living Street. And it was very good living they experienced there. Their own space was designed and decorated by Josef Hoffman with other furniture and fixtures by designers such as Adolf Loos, known best for his famous American Bar in Vienna. Paintings by members of the Vienna Secession movement adorned their walls, and fixtures and furniture by members of the Wiener Werkstätte made the home of Hermine and Moriz seriously avant-garde. They hosted parties and balls, and raised their son and daughters in opulence and security, until it all ended abruptly, for this family, after Kristallnacht. Life for Jews of any social class became one of restrictions and fear for personal safety. By 1938 Hermine and Moriz had already died, but most of their children were still alive and living in Vienna.
Tim Bonyhady centers his story on the experiences of his grandmother, Gretl, his aunt, Kathe, and his own mother, Anne. These three women together immigrated to Australia, arriving in January 1939. By leaving Vienna at this time they were able to sell many of their possessions but took many more with them. They not only saved themselves from deportation and probable death, but also saved an astounding collection of Vienna Secession art, furniture and other items.
I found reading about the time period after the immigration to Australia the most fascinating. These women left an incredibly privileged life to become refugees in a country very far from home. Their adjustment was not easy – they left behind other family members, to discover after the war that most were murdered in the concentration camps. They did not live in poverty in Australia, but it was nowhere near the opulence of the past. The women each found work and lived together in a house over-looking the bay in Sydney.
Anne went to school, married, and had children. Tim Bonyhady and his brother were raised by their mother without knowing a great deal about their heritage, but regularly visited the older women in their home, filled to bursting with large dark Viennese furniture – and cupboards stuffed with possessions brought from Europe. In the immediate post war years this was simply old stuff, but as time passed many of these pieces became very valuable – especially the Klimt painting of Hermine. By the 1970’s Gretl and all of her siblings had died and it was left to Anne to deal with her inheritance – and to tell the story of her family to her sons.
Good Living Street gives us a unique glimpse into the life of the very well to do world of a Viennese family prior to the Second World War. We learn about a world of art and culture – and what the war did to that society and to this family in particular. Tim Bonyhady is an accomplished writer, and shares with the reader the knowledge he gained about the cultural and historical importance of the art and furniture his family collected – not only in his own life, but also for all of those who now see these pieces in museums around the world.