Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/36 posted by hidden europe on

It was only after the old man had beaten us both at chess that he opened the worn leather satchel. He carefully took out a small bundle of papers. Removing the twine that gave the pile of documents some structure, he showed us fragments of his life - among the papers a letter from his grandmother.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

It was only after the old man had beaten us both at chess that he opened the worn leather satchel. He carefully took out a small bundle of papers. Removing the twine that gave the pile of documents some structure, he showed us fragments of his life - among the papers a letter from his grandmother. It had been posted to the family home in Volhynia and relayed that the writer had found a place to stay in the Kleine Schiffgasse in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna and was looking for work. The letter was written in 1909, long before Yitzhak was born. Those were the last words that anyone in Volhynia ever heard from the woman who had one day packed her bag, left her family and the shtetl where she had spent her entire life to set off for Vienna.

Intrigued by the tale, we found out a little about the street where Yitzhak's grandmother had settled in Vienna. The name of the road has long since changed. It is Franz-Hochedlinger-Gasse nowadays. A century ago this street was in the very heart of Vienna's Jewish district, an area that the writer Joseph Roth described as being "a sort of voluntary ghetto." Roth actually gave an evocative account of Kleine Schiffgasse in his book The Wandering Jews: "The Kleine Schiffgasse smells of onions and kerosene, herrings and soap, dishwater and rubbish, petroleum and cooking, mold and delicatessen. Dirty children play in the Kleine Schiffgasse. Carpets are beaten and featherbeds aired in its open windows. Goosedown drifts in the air."

The Kleine Schiffgasse was evidently quite a spot, a road of small workshops and a community that echoed to Jewish voices and the clatter of sewing machines. There was a Hasidic prayer room at Number 2, and a café just along the street where the faithful gathered after prayers. So taken were we by the many accounts we read of Kleine Schiffgasse, that we stopped in Vienna a few months ago and walked across town to Leopoldstadt.

Franz-Hochedlinger-Gasse is neat and tidy nowadays. No longer do children play in the street, no more does the area smell of herrings and soap. We saw a silver Mercedes car parked outside a lawyer's office. Actually there are lots of lawyers' offices. There are IT consultancy companies and a design studio. We went to the spot where once there stood the Hasidic prayer room. Today it is a very smart Japanese restaurant.

Yitzhak asks from time to time: "Have you two been to Vienna yet?" We keep stumm. Wouldn't you?

Changes at hidden europe

We are making a few changes at hidden europe. We have revamped our website and invite you to take a look. Our new website is very much a work in progress, but we hope you'll like the new look. It is less cluttered, we think, and much easier to navigate. The introduction of a tagging system means that readers can more easily identify articles that relate to a common theme, and the search facility on the new website knocks spots off its predecessor.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
editors / hidden europe

The quote from 'The Wandering Jews 'by Joseph Roth is taken from the 2001 English edition published by Granta Books in London. Michael Hofman was the translator. It is a volume we heartily recommend.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.