A Hundred Years of Plenitude
They just stand out, these remarkable people. When, after decades of travelling, and tens of thousands of handshakes and smiles, your mind surveys the blurred, grey-blue landscape of the past, there are certain faces which swim clearly into focus. People whose lives have touched yours, who have taught you something of value. Individuals whose spirits linger in your thoughts long after you have parted company.
One such person was Gusti Glauber who died this year at the age of 101 in New York City.
When I met Gusti four years ago, she was already 97 years old. I was in NYC on holiday with my sister, and the opportunity suddenly arose to travel out to Queens to meet this member of my wife's extended family. Being Jewish, the family members had fled Vienna in 1938 when Hitler marched in, and been scattered all over the world, from Sheffield to Shanghai, and from Cardiff to Rio, and of course right there in the Big Apple.
Setting out for Queens on a crisp and bright Manhattan morning, we finally reached a peacefully sunlit street with neat bungalows, meticulously tended gardens, and brass nameplates evoking the Central Europe so many of these genteel residents had left behind.
Or had they? To enter Gusti's house was suddenly to find yourself right back in that pre-war world. Heavy dark Viennese furniture, net curtains, a table laid with petits fours. A silver- framed black-and-white picture of her, a girlfriend and two dashing men back in the 30s on one of Vienna's most fashionable squares. In the corner an ancient typewriter on which Gusti wrote out her letters and recipes, and which, in this age of laptops, could only be repaired by one remaining local expert, himself a Jew in his 90s. And there in the middle of the room, on a comfortable armchair, this bright-eyed lady, now slightly infirm, but with a mind as alert and sharp as a ferret. A mind which contained a hundred years of memories.
When I heard of Gusti's passing, I got in touch with her daughter Eleanor, herself in her 70s, who was able to furnish me with some fascinating background, and a brief autobiography hammered out on that clapped-out machine by Gusti herself, while already well in her 80s and 90s. It's a wonderful piece of work, full of vivid period details. and humorous observations, some of which would strike a chord with many readers here in Bangladesh. Here are just a few of the highlights from a colourful life.
Gusti Mayer grew up in Vienna. Her parents were in the textile business and she spent her childhood in a suburban house whose garden was filled with apricot and cherry trees, roaming chickens, and flanked by a stable where the horse-drawn vans stood, ready to deliver the finished goods, although these would later be replaced by trucks. Gusti's grandmother was an active worker in the family business, alongside the not insignificant task of bringing up seven children.
Gusti attended an elementary school in which she and her sister were the only Jewish girls, the others all being the daughters of local vegetable farmers. In 1916 at the age of ten she went to school six days a week from 8am to 2pm, supplemented by a huge amount of homework. What little free time remained was devoted to piano and French lessons. Each day, she would be quizzed by their parents on the marks she'd got from school, and her end-of-term report cards were always exactingly scrutinised, and usually found wanting. Her travel time home from school was also carefully measured, and any unexplained lateness would lead to the imposition of more studying or piano practice. Such things were thought to be “improving”, unlike the reading of books which was
considered frivolous. Gusti soon learned to hide her novels behind her textbooks. Any discovery of fiction would be met with a reprimand: “Don't you have anything better to do than read? What don't you practice the piano or mend the stockings?”
As Gusti entered her late teenage years there was little time for social life, despite the glittering appeal of evenings at the theatre or the opera. Only rarely could she and her friends attend, and even then would have to leave early so as not to miss the last streetcar home clattering through the Viennese night.
But Gusti's main passion was for skiing in the woods and gentle hills around the city. Many of her friends frequented dancing classes, but Gusti was not allowed by her parents, fearful of the consequences of exposure to young Viennese suitors. Only when an approved teacher was found and a private hall hired in the basement of a local coffee house could she go.
Ironically it was dancing that led to a life-changing encounter. Invited as a special honour to declare open a Jewish Youth Ball, Gusti needed an escort to share the occasion. A family member, perhaps with an eye for matchmaking, suggested young Emil Glauber, an engineer, who turned out to be a superb waltz dancer. Soon the pair were devoted to each other, and arranged all sorts of meetings, not always reporting to her parents. Speaking frequently on the phone, they used English, which hardly anyone understood, in order to avoid eavesdroppers.
Despite this obvious mutual attraction, it was also considered extremely important at the time for a girl to have nice legs, and Emil wasn't sure of the quality of Gusti's. He enlisted his brother Walter to come along and be a judge. Evidently, Gusti passed this test, and the pair were married in 1928, although Emil, a workaholic, had to be sent a telegram reminding him to come back from a business trip to Belgium in time for the wedding day.
A huge wedding ensued, with over 600 invitations mailed out to family and friends. Even then, it was inevitable that some would be omitted and feel offended. The ceremony took place at the oldest synagogue in Vienna, with a lavish reception at the Hotel Metropol, which was later to find infamy as the Vienna HQ of the Gestapo.
Moving to be nearer her husband's new factory in Germany in the 30s, Gusti found herself longing for the diverse cultural scene she'd left behind in Vienna, and sought out the company of other young women like herself, playing bridge to while away the afternoons, and visiting the great cities of Berlin and Dresden on the weekends. These years saw the rise to power of Hitler of course, and the chatter at the coffee houses took on an edge of alarm and tension. Luckily, Gusti's family had both the foresight and the means to move out soon after Hitler marched into Austria on March 11th, 1938.
Their escape eventually led them to the States, to an unsettled few years in the Mid West during the war, ending up in New York in 1945. Gusti took a job at the offices of a ladies' magazine, which cost 2 cents at the supermarket, tracking advertising and relating it to purchases in the years before computerised consumer databases. Indeed for a girl from a city like Vienna, the only real place to work was in Manhattan, where all culture, art and business were centred. The magazine offices were in midtown, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, affording plenty of opportunities for lunches with cosmopolitan friends. And all the time the house was home to a sort of cultural salon, with visitors popping in, recreating the atmosphere of the Vienna they'd left behind.
Emil meanwhile continued all his life to maintain his successful textile business, travelling worldwide in the process. His ambition had been to live in three centuries. And he made it. Born in 1895, he died at the age of 104 in 2000.
When I met Gusti, I was moved by the thought of how someone would feel on losing a partner after 78 years of togetherness? With remarkable cheerfulness she looked at me with her piercing eyes and said she had nothing to complain about. She just wanted to give thanks for a hundred years full of blessings and the gift of such lifelong companionship. It's this resilience and optimism which remains with me now, this sense of a life lived to the full, despite great upheaval and recent personal bereavement. I just hope I can feel the same way if I ever reach the century mark.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007