Life & Culture

A taste of the past at her family’s lost café

London lawyer Meriel Schindler's absorbing memoir traces the history of her family in Austria - a story that takes in Kafka, Klimt, Hitler's doctor and the best-known Schindler of all - Oskar Schindler.


"Exhibit Number One”, declares Meriel Schindler, who is, as it happens, a leading London lawyer. She scrambles over to a bookshelf behind her and produces a wide, deep coffee cup, the kind of shape familiar to travellers in Europe who will recall the pleasure of hot chocolate, served in just such a cup, probably with an accompanying croissant.

The cup features a logo of an eagle and the letter S. It is one of the few survivors of a lost world: in fact, part of the fixtures and fittings of Café Schindler, Meriel Schindler’s family café in Innsbruck, in Tyrolean Austria.

In an absorbing memoir, The Lost Café Schindler, she brings back to life the story of her Jewish family, replete with goodies, baddies, Nazis, and even a relative who was doctor to Hitler and his mother. For good measure there are mouth-watering recipes, including definitive cheesecake and apple strudel.

But most of all, Meriel Schindler’s detective story, told with forensic detail as befits her legal background, is a settling of debts with her difficult, complex father, Kurt, who seems to have had two mantras for his wife and daughters. To his daughters, he repeated over and over again: “Never tell anyone you are Jewish.” And to his wife, or anyone who questioned his erratic behaviour —“I had no choice”.

Having no choice is an understatement. As Meriel tells it, childhood for her and her sister Sophie was a roller-coaster of high times followed by disaster, with bailiffs on the trail, accommodation in luxury followed by desperate re-settling in council flats. All of this was because Kurt, handsome and charming but with no business sense whatsoever, embarked on a series of disastrous ventures which eventually ended in his going to prison.

The girls’ mother, blonde and beautiful — and not Jewish — nevertheless adored their father. When Meriel was 14, Kurt came out of prison and the following year decided to remove the family to Austria, first to Trins and then to Innsbruck. It meant a massive upheaval, culture shock, and the necessity of becoming fluent in German for Meriel — something which was ultimately to stand her in good stead.

Kurt Schindler died in May 2017, aged 91. A month later Meriel and her sister, together with their husbands, arrived at his cottage to try to sort out the masses of papers he had left behind. All her life, she says, he poured stories into the family’s ears, claiming kinship with all manner of people, including, inevitably, the best-known Schindler of all — Oskar Schindler, the card-carrying Nazi who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Franz Kafka? Yes. Alma Schindler, wife of Gustav Mahler? Of course. Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of Klimt’s Woman in Gold painting? Certainly.

Kurt talked endlessly about the family’s luxurious house in Innsbruck, the Villa Schindler, about the café in the centre of town launched by his father, Hugo, in 1922, and about witnessing an attack on Hugo on Kristallnacht, in November 1938, when Hugo was beaten about the head with Kurt’s own toboggan. Talk about shades of Citizen Kane.

He was also, his daughter reports, obsessed with restitution, of stolen art, of his maternal grandfather’s match factory, of a tobacco shop concession on the ground floor of the Café Schindler. Meriel writes: “As I was the only lawyer in the family, Kurt usually wanted to discuss [the claims] when we saw each other. I would arrive at his Hampshire cottage to be faced with reams of paper to read. However, he never wanted to hear any advice that contradicted what he already wanted to do. Tired of his obsessions and unconvinced by the merits of his various claims, I stopped listening. When he died, the endless piles of papers in his house were evidence of a lifetime of litigation and an inability to move on to a more fruitful life”.

In the end, the two sisters simply scooped up what they could, including 13 of Kurt’s own photo albums. They closed the door on his cottage and left everything else to rot.

Given Kurt’s free-and-easy relationship with the truth, it must have been hard to know what to believe. But eventually Meriel Schindler decided to check out the facts for herself. She began her research a year after her father’s death, and then, in 2019, negotiated a three-month leave of absence from her law firm, and, armed with her good German, and a newly acquired Austrian passport, combed archives in Austria, and found members of her family in America.

She describes her father as “maddeningly puzzling in so many ways” — not the least of which was his attitude to being Jewish. “He perceived being Jewish, I think, as something which was dangerous… it might tell against you or bring you down. I didn’t grow up keeping kosher, we didn’t go to shul. But Judaism was important, because at the same time he was proud of his ancestry, and pursuing many restitution claims, which obviously you could only do if you were Jewish.”

Some of the things about which Kurt had boasted, Meriel knew to be true from her teenage years in Innsbruck. Her father made a point of showing his daughters the site of Café Schindler, smack in the centre of town, and the former home, “in the fanciest part of town and in the guidebooks as the Schindler villa”. As well, there was a liquor store which formerly belonged to the family, and a jam factory whose sign, Schindler, could still be seen from the motorway. There were the few pieces of crockery, the vestiges of items used in the café.

But the rest of Kurt’s claims, the intangible ones, demanded a great deal more research. With a complicated family tree and a host of relations who, over the generations, grew assimilated and gradually defined themselves as Tyrolean first and Jewish a long way behind, the rise of Hitler and antisemitism came as a huge shock to the Schindler family.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary stories in the book is that of Kurt’s relation, Dr Eduard Bloch, the man who treated Hitler and his mother long before Hitler rose to power. In March 1938 Hitler made a victory parade in “his favourite Austrian city”, Linz, where Dr Bloch lived and worked. According to the doctor’s own account, Hitler asked after him as soon as he reached Linz City Hall. “Tell me”, he asked a Linz councillor, “is my good old house doctor Dr Bloch, still alive? Yes, if all Jews were like him, then there would be no antisemitism”.

Sixteen days after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, officers arrived at Dr Bloch’s house while he was out visiting a patient. From a local newspaper article, they knew that he had souvenirs from Hitler: two postcards and a painting. The Gestapo asked for them, and, reluctantly, Eduard’s wife Lilli handed over the postcards, but said they no longer had the painting.

The postcards, says Meriel, became Eduard Bloch’s “insurance”, and in fact he survived the war without suffering the fate of his fellow Jewish citizens. The painting never resurfaced: but Meriel thinks it might be held somewhere in private hands.

And as for those 13 photo albums belonging to her father: they proved, categorically, that on Kristallnacht, Kurt could not have witnessed any toboggan-led attack on his father Hugo. Because the pictures show that he and his mother Edith were safely in London. Sometimes, Meriel surmises, people convince themselves of a memory and come to believe in it. That may have been the case with Kurt and Kristallnacht.

Eventually — and one longs to know what Kurt Schindler would have made of it — Meriel and her sister decided to rebury his ashes, and those of their mother, Mary, in “the beautiful little Jewish cemetery in Innsbruck”.

It is a ceremony yet to take place, delayed by Covid — but there is a sense of Meriel having come to terms with the ghosts of her family. And the ghosts of Café Schindler, too. The café has been revived: in March 2010, in the same premises as the original, a man called Bernhard Baumann opened a 30s-themed Austrian café called “Das Schindler”, an all-day venue with music and fine dining. Meriel and her family have — inevitably — eaten Apfelstrudel there.


The Lost Café Schindler by Meriel Schindler is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20

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