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On Thelemanngasse

The history of a Vienna property teaches that nothing is forever, and it provides a warning on the dangers of national vanity.

February 20, 2006|Frederic Morton | FREDERIC MORTON is the author, most recently, of "Runaway Waltz: A Memoir from Vienna to New York." His books "The Rothschilds" and "A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889," were National Book Award finalists.

Vienna — LAST MONTH, I boarded the No. 43 tram again, right after unpacking in my hotel. At the eighth stop I got off, walked one block south and one block west, came to a halt, and then just stood there. Stood there for minutes on end to look at a plain spot in an otherwise flamboyant city, a backwater street called Thelemanngasse.

I was born here and, in fact, I still own the house I was facing. On cobblestones long since asphalted, I once hopscotched, misbehaved, sulked, tumbled for the tousled first 13 years of my life. And now I was loitering on the sidewalk, a doleful baldy, reminiscing.

This time, though, the ritual visit to native ground turned into something beyond nostalgia. Remembrance of Vienna's past became brooding over America's future. It wasn't just the dark news out of Iraq that caused the connection. It was that I happened to have reached Thelemanngasse at the right hour. From the ground floor of the building before me came a wail, a low chant, a murmuring choir. I, a Jew, am the landlord of a mosque.

The sound conjured not only that paradox but a much larger one: the affinity between the fortunes of the world's dominant power and those of a drab little street in Mitteleuropa.

At the end of the 19th century, my grandfather, Bernhard Mandelbaum, started a workshop on Thelemanngasse devoted to the cultivation of glory. He made medals that Emperor Franz Joseph awarded to champions of Habsburg luster.

There was much luster and many medals. My grandfather, prospering, bought the building, Thelemanngasse No. 8, then bought a second building, No. 4, to establish a factory producing yet more triumphal tokens.

The space vacated at No. 8 he turned over to a synagogue whose congregation sang God's praises for anointing them his special people, and as such petitioned him to preserve the monarch and his dominions, plumed as they were with the pedigree of the Holy Roman Empire.

Nevertheless, the emperor died. World War I shattered his realm. Out of the ruins crept the small, threadbare Austrian Republic. At Thelemanngasse No. 4, my father, after my grandfather's passing, manufactured badges for political parties, most of them promising to restore the radiance that was no more.

Indeed, Vienna did shine again, with the glow of greatness redux -- the glow of the Greater German Reich. In 1938, Hitler's tanks rumbled through the city's jubilant streets, cannons polished and beflagged. A Nazi mob hacked to pieces the pews and the torahs at No. 8. Where cantors once chanted kaddish, where Muslims would later invoke Allah, brownshirts sang "Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles," celebrating Germany's manifest destiny. Swastikas bloomed in buttonholes, tens of thousands of them produced by the factory at No. 4, "Aryanized" by an Obersturmbannfuehrer.

Seven years more, and this plant turning out Nazi decorations was bombed to pieces. However, a sample line of the medals of "the thousand-year Reich" survived. Iron Crosses, Ehrenorden and Ritter-kreuze were left behind at the Thelemanngasse property, which was returned to my father, Franz Mandelbaum (by then Frank Morton). He in turn passed them on to me, his son, who astounds his Upper West Side friends with a nightmare's glittering relics.

And who last month lingered on the Thelemanngasse corner, listening to a muezzin's wail, struck by transmogrifications so routine to history, so confounding to us. It was at that point that I wondered if some clue couldn't be retrieved from the very confoundment; some lesson about the conquistadorial dimension of Islam, about the imperatives of Israel acting as God's chosen and, most urgently, about the global righteousness of American power. An instruction, moreover, suggested by the writ inspiring all three, the Old Testament.

From Ecclesiastes 9:11 (fateful digits and all): "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong ... but time and chance happen to them all." Or, more profanely expressed, "History is a web of unintended consequences."

Nothing is stronger, thought this bald Jew, loitering and listening on Thelemanngasse, nothing in the world is stronger or swifter than the arsenal commanded by the Pentagon. And yet how unintended the consequences of unleashing that strength and that speed!

The sound of prayer followed me as I walked away from my little street. What whispered in my ear, though, was not a sura from the Koran but Ecclesiastes again: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher ... all is vanity."

Whereupon I asked some prayerful questions myself. Couldn't America profit from its chastening by time and chance? Would it wean itself from the messianism of its hegemony, its military, economic and political grandeurs? For God's sake, wasn't it high time to shock the world by being -- just a bit, for starters -- humble?

Humility, saith Thelemanngasse, is more than scriptural wisdom. It's a survival skill.

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