Beginnings for a Century and a Boy,1905-1915
Some people are born in tranquil places and are formed by gentle events within family, clan, and village. The life of Viktor Frankl and the twentieth century began and ended together, but in his time events were anything but gentle. His years were embedded in his family and in the city of Vienna, and also in the momentous events and international firestorms that overwhelmed them. He was destined to face the best and the worst of the age, and his life can be understood only against the backdrop of time and place.
Five years before Viktor's birth, the century had begun on a soaring note. Science, technology, and industry promised a bright future for humankind. Decades of relative peace had lulled people away from the dread of war. In Paris, the Universal Exposition of 1900 symbolized the wonders of the world to come. Transported on a near-miraculous moving sidewalk, visitors stepped on and off at will to see one dazzling display after another. Pavilions awash in electric lights exhibited technological marvels that fired everyone's imagination. With the Industrial Revolution spreading from Britain and America to the world, anything seemed possible!
If science and technology sent expectations soaring, so did the hope of prosperity and a better life for everyone. In 1900 many believed that education, literacy, and enlightenment would bring an end to wars in a new society of nations. At last all common people would attain the individual rights for which they longed. Communities, and even continents, would be linked by mechanized mass transportation on rail and sea, by motorized vehicles, and even by flying machines. Communication through newspapers and by wire would shrink the world into a family and--believe it or not--radios were about to start plucking news, music, and amusement from waves floating wireless in the wind. Entertainment was transformed as new movie houses began to show pictures that moved and soon would talk.
As the century opened, London was running not only its first motorbuses and subways, but also a huge chunk of the world--an empire so far-reaching that, as the saying went, the sun never set on it. Western empires ruled half the world from Europe to Africa to Asia and back.
When Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905, the city was still one of the majestic capitals of Europe and the imperial seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire--a vast union of many national groups without a common language. On the surface at least, Vienna shared the hopes of the new century, and its cobblestone streets, still clapped by the shoes of horses, bustled in anticipation of the new era. "The Ring," which surrounds Vienna's old inner city, is the royal boulevard of palaces and parks, music halls, theaters, museums, hotels, office buildings, businesses, and shops. Whether in a horse-drawn streetcar or carriage, or in a newfangled motorcar, riding the Ring in 1905 would remind one of the grandeur of Paris and Rome. From looking at the city's splendor no one would guess that the power of the monarchy and the unity of the empire were crumbling.
In music, Vienna stood alone in greatness. But the visitors who poured into the city from around the world did not come just for concerts. The University of Vienna was a hub of intellectual ferment and creativity, and visiting professors from other countries came to learn the latest from its celebrity faculty. Other visitors, with the means required, were patients coming to Vienna in search of the best that medical science could offer.
To put it simply, the city was simply grand when Viktor was born. More than any other metropolis, Vienna was sheltered and refreshed by vast surrounding forests. Among the hillside vineyards, large gardens were groomed for festive dining and drinking. There, dizzy patrons slurred through familiar songs as musicians moved from table to table, serenading locals and visitors alike. The Vienna Woods was sanctuary for citizens and tourists hooked on hiking, wine, and waltzes, in whatever order.
The city bore its share of the change and catastrophe that engulfed the world. As people of privilege and power danced and drank to celebrate the arrival of 1900, dismal masses of the poor huddled far from the flow of champagne. In Russia, czars lived in shameless luxury among millions of impoverished subjects, and the fault lines of a social earthquake were visible. China was a cauldron of social and political unrest. In Europe, chipper as it seemed, nations were arming themselves with novel technology for battle. Each political alliance was confident that war now would be quick if necessary and won if waged.
If the new century were to be so wonderful, why were the governments of Europe so edgy, so tied up in military alliances? In such a beautiful time--the "belle epoque"--why by 1914 were twenty-five million men trained for battle? Why were the nations developing machinery for mass killing? Technology was making carnage possible on a scale unknown before, both in war and in the holocausts perpetrated by governments on their own people.
But our story begins before World War I, when the citizens of Vienna were still rather optimistic. Gabriel Frankl and Elsa Lion, the parents-to-be of Viktor, had just married--February 24, 1901--in the main synagogue on Seitenstettengasse.
Gabriel hailed from the little village of Porolitz (Pohorelice, today in the Czech Republic), about fifty miles north of Vienna and just off the main road to BrYnn (Brno). His father and mother, Jakob and Regina Frankl, lived in the house at 445 School Street, upstairs from the toolmaker shop of a brother. Jakob provided for his household as a bookbinder, and the dwelling was crowded already when Gabriel was born there March 28, 1861. The elementary school he attended was not even a block down School Street, which today is a cobblestone alley much as it was then.
As a teenager Gabriel moved to Vienna and attended high school in Leopoldstadt, a city district. During his time there the high school moved to a new location in the Kleine Sperlgasse. From then on it was called the Sperlgymnasium. A Gymnasium in Vienna was similar to an American high school, but students started at a younger age and advanced further toward university. Attendance for eight years was typical.
Elsa Lion, much younger than her husband-to-be, was born February 8, 1879, to Jakob and Regina (Wien) Lion--that the same first names are shared by Viktor Frankl's maternal and paternal grandparents seems a notable coincidence. Elsa did have a famous ancestor in a long line of rabbis, however. He was High Rabbi Low [Lion] (1520-1609) of Prague. For centuries his grave has been the most venerated in the ancient Old Jewish Cemetery there. As head of a Talmudic school in Prague, Rabbi Low became famous for his scholarly work and also for his mysterious powers. It is told that he fashioned "the Golem" from clay, put a parchment or stone tablet in its mouth, and it became a living being. In legend and film, and in the literature of Gustav Meyrink and others, the Golem is portrayed variously as a buffoon or as a genuine protector of the Jews. In any case, the Golem went crazy and had to be subdued and reduced again to clay by Rabbi Low.
Elsa's birthplace was in the winemaking region of Prague where foreign embassies are located today. In a man's world, less attention was paid to her heritage and so less was remembered.
As bride and groom, Elsa and Gabriel Frankl hunted for an apartment in the already familiar Leopoldstadt--the mainly Jewish Second District of Vienna. Together with Brigittenau (District 20), Leopoldstadt--defined by the Danube River to the east and by the Danube Canal which cuts through the city to the west--was once dubbed "Matzo Island" because of its many Jews. There the newlyweds found a flat at Czerningasse 6. It was in a busy, desirable street of mostly residential buildings, running nearly parallel to the broad Prater Strasse--both leading to the famed Prater park.
All three of the Frankl children were born in the tiny Czerningasse flat. Walter August, firstborn, was two and a half when the second child was due and, on the day of Viktor's birth, Gabriel and a very pregnant Elsa were spending a sunny Sunday afternoon in a typically Viennese way: chatting, reading, and sipping at a coffeehouse. The popular Cafe Siller on Postgasse was a short walk from home, just across the Aspern Bridge and near the canal.
Elsa felt her first contractions that afternoon, so she and Gabriel left the Siller quickly and returned to their home in Czerningasse. Since their flat was on the top floor, as always they had to climb the five long flights of winding concrete stairs. Before the day was out, Elsa gave birth to a second son. They named him Viktor Emil. It was March 26, 1905. Within the family they called him "Vicky."
The Frankls' flat was very modest, at door 25 just off the highest stairwell landing. They had only two rooms, plus kitchen and foyer. A dining table in the bedroom was used for meals. Four years after Viktor's birth, Gabriel and Elsa and their two sons made room for a daughter, Stella Josefina. In addition to this family of five, for several years a young girl lived in as a helper, sleeping on a divan in the foyer. Such an arrangement was common even in families of limited means, since many poor immigrant girls obtained room and board in exchange for their domestic help.
The household relied on Gabriel's salary, drawn from his steady employment in the monarchy, first as a parliamentary stenographer for ten years and then, for thirty-five years, as assistant to Minister Joseph Maria von Barnreither of the department of child protection and youth welfare. By the time the Frankl children were born, Gabriel's income was "little but certain."
More than twenty years earlier in 1883, Gabriel had been forced to drop out of medical school for financial reasons after completing five years and everything except the Rigorosa--a series of comprehensive exams. In light of this we can understand Gabriel's delight when his three-year-old Vicky began to talk about being a physician someday, maybe even a navy doctor.
Elsa was mother and homemaker in the manner of the time, and the nurturing of the children and the emotional security of the family can be traced largely to this warmhearted and able woman.
Viktor and his siblings, Walter and Stella, thrived in family and neighborhood and attended the elementary school just down the street at Czerninplatz. Their apartment building at Czerningasse 6 was large and square, its four sections surrounding an inner courtyard, open to the sky above (as it still is today). There the Frankl children played, and Elsa could watch them from their fifth-floor windows above. Vicky was rather frail, and as he grew he was always more interested in talking about ideas than in playing competitive games.
The family went often to the Prater, only a fifteen-minute walk from home. After many years as a private imperial hunting reserve, the Prater was open to the public by 1770. The Haupt Allee was a three-mile, tree-lined promenade straight through the park where people strolled or sat on benches. The Prater was fairgrounds, public gardens, circus, zoo, and amusement park all wrapped into one and dotted with restaurants and wine gardens. The 1905 Baedeker guide to Austria-Hungary describes the Prater as "the favourite haunt of the humbler classes, especially on Sunday and holiday afternoons . . . when many fine horses, elegant toilettes, and handsome faces will be observed."
In 1896 the world's grandest Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, had been constructed and quickly became a symbol of the city. Its enclosed cars, each carrying a dozen people or more, made a slow revolution. Passengers could walk around inside to catch various vistas of the city. Today the views from the top of the Riesenrad are still spectacular. And while the wheel remains a city symbol, the sprawling Prater now hosts a more seedy amusement park--no place for children to roam free, and not a place to sit long in lofty conversation as Freud and many other intellectuals once did. While Gabriel was at work, Elsa often took their little ones to the Prater, staking out a circular bench where she could sit with other women. There Vicky and his playmates spent long hours in the huge sandbox at the center, in view of their chatting mothers.
Vicky also accompanied his mother on errands in their neighborhood. Sometimes they walked hand-in-hand down Schmelzgasse and past a favorite pastry shop. Occasionally they could afford a treat called Schaumschnitten: a sweet dessert on a crust, with two inches of fluffy whipped egg whites and sugar topped with a thin layer of chocolate--Vicky's favorite. Near the pastry shop one day he abruptly stopped his mother to ask, "Mama, what is the meaning of the navel?" Giving her no time to venture an explanation, the little boy offered his own. "But mama, I know already the meaning of the navel! It is a decoration on that boring flat stomach--an ornament to make it more interesting." This imaginative theory recalls that in many of Vienna's older dwellings there is a cuplike ornament placed at the center of high ceilings--similar to a mount for a chandelier but of no function whatsoever except decoration. In the conversation, a precocious child already was asking about meaning, purpose.
It is possible, by stepping back to particular times in Viktor's boyhood, to glimpse the world around him and the drama of which he was becoming part. The year of his birth provides one such vista. Sigmund Freud had received his MD degree in 1881, and since 1891 had been living and writing at his famous Berggasse 19 address. In 1905, fifty-year-old Freud published his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, which outraged Victorian sensibilities with its frankness about sexual perversions and claims of sexuality in infants and children. At the same time, thirty-five-year-old Alfred Adler was already closely associated with Freud and psychoanalysis. (Adler had completed his medical degree in 1895 and had continued with a residency at the Vienna Poliklinik Hospital near the university.) The Adlers were living not only in Leopoldstadt, but at Czerningasse 7--a building directly across the street from the Frankl place. The Czerningasse entrance led to Adler's new medical office, while the family quarters were further in, overlooking Prater Strasse on the other side of the block.
In 1902, Adler had become one of four founding members of Freud's Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Two years before that Adler had left his Jewish faith rather painlessly and, together with his daughters, was baptized in the Protestant Church in Dorotheergasse, First District. This may have suited Freud who--while he kept his own Jewish identity--did not want his psychoanalysis to be regarded as something exclusively Jewish. By 1905, Adler was one of Freud's most trusted followers, going at least weekly from Leopoldstadt across the inner city to the Freud home in the Ninth District. Adler frequented the Cafe Siller, walking the same short route to the coffeehouse that the Frankls used. During all this, little Vicky Frankl was born in the building just across the street from the Adler home.
Excerpted from When Life Calls Out to Us by Haddon Klingberg, Jr.. Copyright © 2001 by Haddon Klingberg, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.