The Hapsburg Versailles

Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, the 1,441-room summer residence of the Hapsburg rulers, built on property they acquired in 1569.

Schönbrunn Palace
Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria. Photographed in June 2023.

Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s initial 1688 drawings set a grand design in motion, but it was not until three quarters of a century later that Empress Maria Theresa and her architect, Nicolaus Pacassi, began the decades of building that would culminate in the extravagant Schönbrunn Palace. Built on a scale to rival Versailles, the magnificent baroque complex was and remains renowned for its gardens, follies and zoo, much of which have been open to the public since 1779. On November, 11, 1918, when Emperor Karl I issued his proclamation relinquishing governmental power and departed Schönbrunn, the new Austrian Republic took possession of the palace with almost immediate plans to make it a museum. The zoo had been devastated by the war, but by the next year, tours of the rooms were likely taking place1Schmöckel, Sonja. Schönbrunn in der Zwischenkriegszeit – Schloss ohne Kaiser, accessed June 21, 2023. and more and more of the formerly private garden areas were opened to the public. From April 20, 1919, organized groups of children were permitted to visit the Fasanengarten (the pheasant garden).

Like Vienna, the city of Breslau was not within the theater of combat, but its citizens suffered profoundly economically and from shortage of food. From the onset of the war, prices soared. As wheat became scarce, bakers were allowed to augment wheat flour with potato flour. In 1915, bread was rationed. And later, other foodstuffs as well. Then, during the disastrous Kohlrübenwinter (Turnip Winter) of 1917, the potato harvest was only 50% of its peacetime output.2Käser, Peter. Mitten im Krieg: Der Kohlrübenwinter 1916/17 in Deutschland. Die Behörden raten, jeden Bissen 83 Mal zu kauen, Heimat Museum Vilsbiburg, February, 2017. The only relatively plentiful substitute was the rutabaga. German authorities published copious instructions on how to make everything out of turnips, as if it was actually possible to make everything out of turnips. Consequently, women struggled to make soup, cutlets, bread and cake out of a vegetable that had traditionally been animal feed and had significantly less calories than potatoes. The populace were severely malnourished. Many died. After the Armistice, organizations and individuals stepped up to help children affected by the war. The newly-formed Save the Children in England and Sweden provided food and clothing for kids in cities across Germany. Julie Bikle in Switzerland, for instance, organized 6-week, later 8-week, stays for German children with families and institutions in eastern Switzerland. Others spearheaded similar programs in Holland and Denmark.

Ismar David turned four just one month after the First World War started. He could nevertheless remember that bread was sold a day after it had been baked, so that slices could be cut thinner. He recalled picking the chaff from his teeth, because fillers were used to extend volume. And he was one of the, in his words, “starving war children,” who were sent to vacation outside of the country after the war. His host family had a maidservant whose pleasure it was to rise early and devise desserts for the household. Every day something different. So far, we have no record how the trip was organized, where David was sent or how long he remained. We only know that he passed through or near Vienna, a city which also had its share of suffering children. He cannot have been much more than 10, when he and another boy in the program ran off for a day to experience the wonder of Schönbrunn Palace.

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