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Schwarzenegger Is Still Their Hometown Hero

Residents of Thal and Graz, Austria, remember an athletic, inquisitive youth whose political thinking was molded by a Jewish mentor.

September 10, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

THAL, Austria — The contradictory history of Arnold Schwarzenegger begins here, near the leafy shores of the green lake called Thalersee.

Up the hillside stands the two-story house where Schwarzenegger was born to a local police chief and former Nazi, Gustav, and his wife, Aurelia. It was 1947, two years after the end of World War II, and Austrians had not recovered from the horrors of the era. They also had not reconciled themselves to their nation's own dark role -- nor would they for decades to come.

A young Arnold swam in the lake and, with other boys, did chin-ups on a masterful oak tree whose branches hung over the water.

Among the scrawny boys -- Arnold towered over most of them -- was Karl Gerstl, from the adjacent town of Graz, whose friendship would prove crucial. Karl's father, Alfred, a Jew, took Arnold under his wing and, by many accounts, was an important force in molding his life, thoughts and early career.

That Gustav Schwarzenegger had served a regime dedicated to killing Jews, while his son's mentor was a Jew who had fled that regime and battled it from the underground, is typical of the contradictions that ricochet through the lush, gentle hills of southern Austria.

In the Austria where Arnold Schwarzenegger grew up, a culture of denial thrived for many years after the war. Austrians lagged well behind the Germans in acknowledging their role in the war and in the persecution of Jews; the country of Hitler's birth preferred to think of itself as the Nazi leader's first victim, not his enthusiastic accomplice.

The province of Styria, where Graz and Thal sit side by side, was known for a deep strain of centuries-old anti-Semitism. Jews were evicted from the area in 1497 and banned for the next 350 years. The lone synagogue in Graz was destroyed in 1938; it wasn't rebuilt until 2000.

Alfred Gerstl, the man who would mentor Schwarzenegger, was born between the two world wars, the son of a Jewish father, with a grandfather who was a cantor in Brooklyn, and an Austrian Catholic mother who converted to Judaism for her wedding.

Gerstl would eventually become president of the upper house of the Austrian parliament, but in the late 1950s and throughout the '60s, he ran a club for student athletes in Graz.

Gerstl said he took it upon himself to teach the young men, Schwarzenegger among them, about a history his country was denying and about the dangers of anti-Semitism and fascism.

"I gathered the young people together for sports, but the condition was they had to listen," Gerstl, 80, said in an interview at his apartment in Graz. "Arnold was very inquisitive. He always wanted to know why we were against the Nazis. He always understood the need to protect the weak."

In after-school sessions at his home, Gerstl would play records of operatic music and tell Schwarzenegger that the beautiful voices he heard were those of persecuted Jews. Gerstl, his son Karl, Schwarzenegger and others would have long talks about sports and life and, occasionally, politics.

"A whole generation in Austria grew up without any historical background," said Albert Kaufmann, 51, the son of a Jewish resistance fighter from Graz and another of the boys who showed up for training with the Gerstls. Schwarzenegger's time at the Gerstl house "influenced Arnold and provided him with a historical perspective."

It is unclear how much of that early indoctrination stuck. Schwarzenegger, who left Austria for good in 1968, has said he "hated" the arts as a child and retained youthful prejudices until spending time in a more open, progressive United States.

Gerstl is fond of remembering a brave schoolmaster in Graz in the early 1960s who arranged a field trip to Mauthausen, the main Nazi-era concentration camp in Austria that was preserved as a museum. Reactionary groups attacked the man for airing Austria's dirty laundry, especially before students. Schwarzenegger, although he did not go on the field trip, was among the youths who staged a counter-demonstration in defense of the headmaster and against the right-wingers, according to Gerstl.

Schwarzenegger's many admiring friends in Thal and Graz hold up these anecdotes as evidence that he could not possibly be anti-Semitic.

Rumors that he harbored anti-Jewish or pro-Nazi beliefs have dogged the actor for years, in large part because of his father's membership in the Nazi party and his own friendship with Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian president who lied about his service in a Nazi army intelligence unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans.

Schwarzenegger has said that he never knew what his father did during the war and that he learned of the Nazi party membership only after asking the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to investigate in 1990.

"In those days you didn't ask your father," said Werner Kopacka, 53, Graz correspondent for the Kronen Zeitung newspaper who befriended Schwarzenegger in the 1980s. "None of us talked much about the war."

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