Christmas in Vienna
Christmas is fast approaching, and Christmas carols are in the air. I enjoyed some old favourites only last night at my sister’s place, played with wonderful verve by three young musicians, two with violins and one a cello. Several oldies in the audience, wine glasses in hands, hummed along.
Thinking about this later, an old memory surfaced.
In the early 1940s when I was a small boy, perhaps only 5 years old, my mother used to organize an unusual little event each year on Christmas Eve. Just after sunset, Mum and Dad, my two elder sisters Jill and Jenny and my younger brother Peter, and I would be bundled into Dad’s old Ford and we would drive around to a house in Nedlands, about 15 minutes away. I can’t remember the exact address, but I can picture the house in my memory – always dark, and surrounded by shrubs and trees. It was within walking distance of the university.
Dad would park up the street a bit and then the family would creep down to the house, and up the path to the front door. My mother would light a candle and hold it aloft. Then, at a signal from her we would very softly start to sing one of the Christmas carols, usually Silent Night.
We were all musical kids and had those sweet, clear voices of children (well that’s the way I remember it) and we knew the words and the tune to perfection.
All is calm, all is bright ….
… we would sing. After a moment or two, the door would open – we had been expected – and the old man and woman inside would stand there, immobile with emotion. After a rendition of something more jolly like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen or Good King Wenceslas looked out, we would all troop inside where goodies were laid out on the table. There were fresh apricots and peaches, nuts, gingerbread, iced cakes, lemonade and a bottle of sherry for the adults. It was a happy occasion.
The two old people were Hans and Margaret (always known as 'Mim') Pollak. They were Austrian, and Hans was the Senior Lecturer in the German department at the university, and a colleague of my father. In those days, there was a strong social network between the wives of university academics, and so Mim and my mother were friends. The Pollaks were interesting people, with their international experiences and their links to current events in Europe. Moreover, philology was then (and is even more so today) an obscure subject in which to be an expert, as was Hans, so it had a certain cache.
The family carol singing on Christmas Eve was a kindly gesture by my mother, who knew that the Pollaks were especially nostalgic for their homeland at that time of the year. They had no children of their own.
I daresay Mim and Hans were no more than about 60 years old at the time, but they seemed very old to me. Both were tiny people, stooped, grey-haired and dressed in dark, formal clothes. Mim had apple cheeks and Hans an endearing stammer – both spoke good, but heavily accented English. They pressed food and little gifts on us and clearly thought the Underwood children were wonderful. This, for me at least, was a welcome concept (I was a naughty little boy, I am told, regarded as a serious nuisance by my sisters).
You can look up the details of Hans’s life and academic career in the excellent entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, written by Geoffrey Bolton. In short, he was born in 1885 in Vienna, of Jewish parents, and became a philologist, with university and high school appointments (teaching German and Latin) in Scandanavia and Austria. In 1939, he was expelled from his university position in Vienna by the Nazis because of his Jewish background, but he was able to secure teaching positions in Australia. Here he ended up at the University of WA, where eventually he became a well-known and well-loved figure, famous for his scholarship, old-world courtesy and exceptional teaching skills. He was an active philologist as well as a teacher, established a popular newsletter that circulated in Perth, and published many papers in international journals.
Many years later I discovered that there was another, and important element to our Christmas Eve carol singing. During the War, the Pollaks had been forced into house arrest by the Australian authorities who were fearful that the old couple, Jewish to boot, might be supportive of Hitler and might undermine the Australian war effort. House arrest meant that they could go nowhere, other than Hans to his office and lectures at the University, and Mim once a week to the shop. Otherwise for several years during the latter part of the war, they were virtually prisoners in their own home. I suspect that our carol singing visits were illegal, as house arrest also prohibited visitors, but my mother, of course, took no notice of that. You would have had to feel sorry for any government official or police officer who tried to interfere with our little Christmas Eve ceremony on the Pollak’s front veranda, if my mother had been feeling feisty.
The story also has an interesting postscript. About 25 years later, I was living at Mundaring Weir, being the Officer in Charge of the Forests Department's district station there. Ellen and I lived in the lovely old district forester’s house next to the office. One winter’s day, a Sunday I recall, there was a knock at the door, and who should be standing there but Mim and Hans Pollak, now well into their 80s, bent and shuffling, but still with a sparkle in their eyes. I think my mother must have told them about us and how to find us.
The story was this. During the War when they were constrained by house arrest, the authorities “kindly” allowed them one day’s holiday a year, a day when they could leave the house and go anywhere they felt like – so long as they were home by nightfall. On their One Day of the Year, they would catch the train to Mundaring Weir (there was one train a day in and out of the Weir village back then), and then with rucksacks and walking sticks, they would head off on foot for a day in the pine plantations at Greystones and Helena. The resinous aroma of the pines, and the sound of the wind in the needles, the opportunity to collect fungi and pine cones, to eat their picnic in the fresh air remote from suburbia – this was “heaven” to the Pollaks, reminding them of their youth in the coniferous forests of the Vienna woods.
Pine plantation at Greystones, near Mundaring Weir
Now, in 1968, they were making one last pilgrimage. They had travelled all the way from Nedlands in a taxi, had enjoyed a brief nostalgic walk in the pines, and then called in to say hello to me, and exchange memories of Christmas Past. I remember the occasion with as much pleasure as any associated with many Christmases over the years.
Hans Pollak died in 1976, aged 91, survived for a few years by Mim. In Geoffrey Bolton’s words, "the Pollaks were a devoted couple whose cosmopolitan perspectives contributed, unobtrusively but valuably, to the provincial culture of Perth in the 1940s and 1950s".