Wednesday 31 December 2014


Let’s see now. What happened on 1 January 1915?
HMS Formidable was sunk by a German U-boat.
What happened on 1 January 1815?
The British started the bombardment of New Orleans.
What happened on 1 January 1715?
A homeless Scot was sentenced to be transported to a plantation in Virginia (Yes, there is a Directory of Scots Banished to the American Plantations). But really, who cares?
As David Hume pointed out in his treatise Of Personal Identity: Our memory is short. Who can tell me, for instance, what were his thoughts or actions on the 1st of January 1715?
There you go. Whatever happens on 1 January 2015, don’t worry. You’ll soon forget it.


Sunday 28 December 2014


Bad Ischl, an Austrian spa resort, became famous when Princess Sophie went there in 1828 to cure her infertility and within 2 years gave birth to the future Emperor Franz Joseph. It became the spa of choice for the imperial family.

But WW I put an end to the empire  -- and the glory of the resort. To quote the author of an essay lamenting the decline of the spa in 1922:
Chin up, old boy, and don’t spoil the joy of your 30th visit to Ischl. Accept that the times have changed.

And how did the times change the resort?
The aristocratic circle of courtiers has been replaced by a society which is the symbol of the new Austria: High-rollers with lips like negroes and hands like Cyclops, obliging ladies drawn by the money bags like iron by a magnet, the next generation of rascally teenagers who spend their money at the Café Zauner, the pastry shop in the Pfarrgasse… the fairy-tale automobiles whose owners have made their money in questionable transactions, and a mixed mob of currency-rich foreigners, who strut around here.

Well, Bad Ischl has survived the onslaught of the commoners, and the pastry shop Zauner still serves customers in the Pfarrgasse. According to the town’s official website, Bad Ischl is a charming place which offers tranquillity, the fragrance of unspoiled nature, and spectacular views. And the company of high-rollers, judging by the number of luxury hotels.

(Source: Essay in Neues Wiener Tagblatt quoted by Karl Kraus, Die Fackel, November 1922; my trans) 

Wednesday 24 December 2014




Sunday 21 December 2014


Kids partying while parents are away isn’t a modern phenomenon. It happened in Basel, 1536. Except then it was serious business for a young woman to lose her virginity. It made her damaged goods and hard to marry off.

And marriage wasn’t something that concerned only the two lovers. The cohabitation of a man and a woman is a civic matter and must therefore be agreed upon in public. Yes, the state had a say in what went on in the citizens’ bedrooms!

In this case, a young woman invited a young man to dinner while her parents were away, and dinner wasn’t the only thing that was consumed. She gave up her virginity to her lover because he had promised her marriage. The question was: Is a promise of marriage legally binding?

The answer in 1536: No, that would reward the dirty rascal with the woman he deceived. Besides,  an unmarried woman is under the authority of her father. Why then should anyone make her his own, against her father’s will? 

Oh morals! Oh laws! What times we are living in! The gist of the matter is: A virgin has lost her grace and honour, which we consider the principal part of her dowry. Who will marry her thereafter when she is marked by such a stigma? If someone steals my new clothes and returns them torn and stained with dirt, will he not be sentenced to return what he has taken away – that is, the clothes in their original state?

Unfortunately, virginity cannot be restored, so the scoundrel who took it should be made to pay a penalty. Let’s just go by the Old Testament law: if a man finds a virgin who is not betrothed …and lies with her, and they are found together, the man who lay with her must give the father fifty shekels.
There you are. Value of virginity: fifty shekels.

(Source: The Correspondence of Wolfgang Capito, Vol. 3 forthcoming; my translation)

Thursday 18 December 2014


Here in Toronto we had until last year a mayor who smoked crack and had a problem with alcohol. So, he probably wouldn’t have endorsed moral laws. And I bet he never got a letter like the one received by the city councillors of Strasbourg in 1535:

Strict, noble, valid, circumspect, honourable, wise, and beloved lords! We urge you to punish vices promptly and to promote discipline and honourable conduct in the community.

To begin with, let’s get rid of fortune-tellers like the man called Batt von Haguenau. For a fee he’ll point out thiefs, adulterers, and other evil persons. In consequence citizens harbour grave suspicions against each other.

And then there is the painter who offers for sale shameful idols, causing great scandal. We are good Protestants. We don’t want any paintings of saints. You should prohibit such filth and stop him from making a living through blasphemy.

Because of your negligence, vices have seriously gained ground, such as excessive drinking. And young people have started to be disobedient to their elders and masters on account of such incitements.

Not to speak of the whores, who walk around in satin and velvet and other fine garments. There is bound to be trouble if wicked woman are free to indulge in all pleasure, pomp, and luxury. They give wrong ideas to pious women who are young and good-looking.
God forbid that they, too, would want to wear fine dresses!

Thank God, Torontonians don’t have to worry about that. The weather enforces a moral dress code. The women are all in black and bundled up. Not to worry about satin and velvet or any (goose)flesh showing in public.

(Source: The Correspondence of Wolfgang Capito, vol. 3 forthcoming, my trans.)

Sunday 14 December 2014


Take Mark Twain’s handy test. Do you have
  • A large private income?Damn it, failed the first condition!
  • Experience of swell society life? Does being in the same room with Margaret Atwood count?
  • The gift of reserve – on occasion? I did show reserve on a few occasions.
  • The gift of talk -- on other occasions? I’ll be superb on those other occasions.
  • Personal dignity, native courtesy, trained good manners?  Uh-oh.
  • Familiarity with the French and German languages? Familiarity is the keyword, right? He doesn’t mention fluency anywhere.

I got 4 out of 6. How did you rate?
(Source: Mark Twain, American Representation in Austria)

By the way, Addison Harris, the American ambassador to Austria in 1899, fulfilled not a single one of these conditions, according to M.T.

Thursday 11 December 2014


By 1891, the Union for the Resistance to Anti-semitism founded by Artur Suttner had 1100 members. In an open letter published in Die Neue Freie Presse he wrote:

The anti-Semitic party (inspired by Adolf Stöcker’s Christian Social Party in Prussia) lays moral siege to Austria and puts pressure on timid minds -- and there are more than enough of those. They conform because they don't want to be labelled  Judenknecht (a servant to Jews). 

Special laws against Jews such as those flourishing in Russia would soon have made their appearance…and laws against all who do not think as do those gentlemen of the persecuting partyThank God, there are still Austrians who resist their reign of terror. 

The anti-Semitic party first tried to make it a question of religion. Their purpose, they said, was to fight those who take up position against Christianity in favor of the Jews. But as Suttner pointed out, the Union had Catholic priests and Protestant pastors among its members.

Then they emphasized the racial difference. This approach was not very successful in multi-cultural Vienna. Finally they found an effective means of arousing hatred and envy: financial competition.

Concentration of money (Grosskapital) kill the little man, they say, and money is concentrated in the hands of the Jews….They neglected the fact that among Jews too there are people who have barely enough to eat, but that phenomenon does not exist for those logicians. They see only the little Christian and the big Jew.
Their arguments are built on feet of clay…but the average citizen is easily persuaded. They are taught all sorts of things in school, except logic.

One of our purposes is to stimulate independent thinking…our twin weapons should be reason and a sense of justice.

Suttner was confident that Austrians would come around to his point of view. The great majority today is better educated, and rowdy attacks in word and deed are not to the taste of cultured Austrians.
But a generation later…

(Source: Article in Neue Freie Presse, 22 July 1891, my translation)

Sunday 7 December 2014


This phenomenon aroused lively disgust in us, Bertha von Suttner wrote in 1891. She wrote a number of articles against this reversion to the Middle Ages. But the Viennese newspapers turned them down on the grounds that the proper attitude toward [anti-Semitism] would be contemptuous silence.

Suttner objected: Wrong must be withstood if it is recognized as such. There is no other way. In such cases silence, though professing to express contempt, is itself contemptible. Not only the victims but their fellow citizens must act. No one should stand by when they see injustice. Silence is complicity.

The antisemitic movement in Vienna had led to brutal attacks, her husband, Artur von Suttner, wrote: I mention only the suburban heroes who smashed the windows of Jewish women and shouted threats of murder, the soldier who struck down an old man in the street, the schoolboy who thrust a knife into the eye of his Jewish fellow pupil.

To combat discrimination, he founded a Union for the Resistance to Anti-semitism. It was officially incorporated in the summer of 1891. The announcement  was published in Die Neue Freie Presse on 22 July 1891:

The purpose of the Union was to take action against that hostile movement which is aimed directly against a segment of our fellow-citizens.The fight against antisemitism would be carried on through public lectures and the dissemination literature, but (rather oddly, in my view) not through political action.

Politics is excluded: primarily because our Union is not political, and secondly because this is a question of social practices in the strict sense of the word and has nothing to do with the business of government (Staatspraxis).

At a time when societies are founded to protect animals from cruelty – and rightly so – it is, I think, only logical that we should at last take a stand also against cruelty to our fellow-men, all the more as the attacks have not been confined to assault on the honour of Jews, but have taken the form of actual assaults, which have given our Jewish fellow-citizens every reason to fear for their lives.

More on the subject in my next blog post on Thursday.

(Source: Bertha von Suttner’s autobiography and Artur von Suttner's article in Neue Freie Presse, 22 July 1891, my translation)

Thursday 4 December 2014


This poster depicting the ideal wife circulated in the 16th century Germany:

The framed texts explain the desirable characteristics:

Eyes: like a hawk to guard myself from anyone plotting against my honour.
Ears: listening to God’s word
Mouth: wearing a golden lock upon my lips
Breast: faithful like a turtle dove. No fault of his will break my loyalty.
Waist: girded with snakes to protect me from evil love and shameful play.
Feet: hooves to remain steadfast.

Not sure hooves and (life) snake belts will be trending any time soon. Hardware on lip? Yup, we've bought into that.

(Source: Woodcut by Anton Woensam, Vienna c. 1525)

Sunday 30 November 2014


  • Abrasions: Wipe surface clean, using lint. Too bad I just had my jacket cleaned. No lint in my pockets.
  • Bites and rabid animals: Do not kill animal, tie it up and consult local health officer. God, it’s hard to tie up a porcupine!
  • Childbirth (sudden): Okay, so the baby is breathing. What do I do next? Save afterbirth for doctor’s inspection, and do not clean up blood clots, etc. Oh good, I didn’t have the energy to clean up anyway.
  • Foreign objects, extraction of: If the object is lodged in the nose, cause patient to blow nose violently. Insect in ear? Fill ear with olive oil, it will float to the surface. In case of child tie hands down. Crochet hook in hand? I don't know any violent crochet hookers, so I think we can skip that.
  • Fire (person on): Lie flat, flames uppermost, smother flames with anything handy. Call for assistance.
  • Cut throat: If patient is fully conscious, keep seated.

And no, I didn’t make any of this up.

(Source: Pocket guide to First Aid issued by the Grand Priory of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, 4th edition, 1946)

Thursday 27 November 2014

Douglas Fairbanks, Knight of the Order, 1958

I’ve just come across a POCKET GUIDE TO FIRST AID published by the Grand Priory of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in 1946. No, I did not make that up.
Here is some useful advice from that remarkable book.
  • Apoplexy: Lay patient on back. Send for doctor.
  • Drowning: Lay patient in prone position. Send for doctor as soon as possible.
  • Nose bleed: Place patient in sitting position head thrown back…Keep mouth open, no blowing of nose.
  • Shock: A serious condition which frequently follows severe accidents…Lay on back, loosen clothing, keep warm.
  • Frozen person: There must be no sudden application of heat to a frozen person…Thawing should be carried out in cool room with open window.

Okay, but do I lay the frozen person on the back or in the prone position?
  • Gas Poisoning: Remove from poison air.
  • Hysteria: Avoid sympathy, speak firmly.
  • Hanging: Do not wait for police…cut rope.

Okay, I’ll say it again: No, I didn’t make that up. It’s all in the book, which was published in Canada, by the way, and is therefore bilingual. En Français:
Apoplexie: Couchez le malade sur le dos. Envoyez cherche le médicin…

Sunday 23 November 2014


In the air there are foul and pestilent emanations, the waters are unhealthy, navigation perilous, winters harsh, the heat of summer unbearable, …and many diseases derived from food.
As in pollution and climate change? No, wait, we are talking 1526. Oh, they had those problems then, too?
Who could enumerate the kinds of poisons and black arts that conspire for man’s mutual destruction? So many weapons against a body so weak that a grape or even a grape pip stuck in his throat can choke him, and some people are suddenly carried off to their deaths for reasons unknown.
So much for the environment in 1526. And the people? Just as nasty.
They are driven by the wish to be superior to others and, worse than that, by the instinct to oppress, so that they can live a life of leisure and profit from the labours of others.
Sound familiar? Read on.
They hold all the power and are surrounded by a gang whom they have recruited by trickery or fear to support their tyranny.
And they think the only good thing is money.
Hence the common phrase: What was the benefit of that? What was the advantage of that?
But Vives wants you to change your attitude. Think beyond money.  If you want to benefit others, don’t give them cash. 
The most important and greatest good deed is to help another in the exercise of virtue…and to educate that most lofty part of man, the mind.
Give with no regard to usefulness!
So, please: not another word about soup kitchens.

(Source: Juan Luis Vives, De subventione pauperum, trans. C. Fantazzi)

Thursday 20 November 2014


In 1526 the philosopher Juan Luis Vives published a treatise On the Relief of the Poor. His book is addressed to the mayor and city council of Bruges and argues that it was the responsibility of the state to look after the poor. Sounds progressive? Well, not quite. The 16th century mentality prevails. Here is Vives’ advice to the poor:

First, they should consider that their poverty has been sent to them by God in a most just and secret design…Therefore they should not only tolerate poverty with resignation but gladly embrace it as a gift of God.
Question: If poverty is God-given, why try to fight it and waste taxpayer’s money on poor relief? A good editor would have cut that bit out. Instead, Vives develops the thought further:

And since they suffer evil in this life, let them strive and do their best not to fare worse in the next. In other words, be good and don’t make God angry.
Let them pray much and with pious sentiments for the good of their own soul and the souls of those who help them in the necessities of life, that the Lord Jesus may deign to reward them a hundredfold in the goods of eternity.
Okay, so that takes care of the goods of eternity, but what about temporal goods?

Let them beg and conduct themselves modestly and honestly…What is more intolerable than a proud pauper? Right. Let’s not overdo it with the self-respect.

One other bit of good advice:
Those who can work must not be idle. That’s the problem with the poor, see? They don’t want to work. Nothing is sweeter to them now than that slothful and torpid idleness.
And if they have kids (and usually do, what with all the sweet idleness),
let them bring up and instruct their children piously and religiously, and although they will not leave them any material goods, they will leave them virtue and wisdom, which is the preferred legacy.
Problem solved.

If they live in this way, I know and I dare to promise…that when food is lacking to them from human sources, it will never be lacking from God in heaven.
Stay tuned for Vives’ advice to the rich.

(Source: Vives, De subventione pauperum, trans. C. Fantazzi)

Sunday 16 November 2014


Yes, Nobel had a fine sense of irony. He supported Bertha von Suttner’s peace movement, but when she asked him to endorse her programmatic book DOWN WITH ARMS, he replied: That’s a little cruel. Where am I supposed to sell my new powder if world peace breaks out?

When he met with the Dynamiteurs, as he called the directors and administrators of the Society for Dynamite (yes, such a club existed!), he ardently wished for a new Mephistopheles to heat up the fire for those evil-doers (malfaisants). Well, maybe that was hypocrisy rather than irony. He was writing this to a pacifist after all.

You are a veritable Amazon, to make war on war, he tells Suttner.

From another letter to her: I feel old and worm-eaten…I want to finish a certain business I have in hand before retiring to the Hotel des Invalides, a Paris hospital built in 1680 for veterans.

Best example of Nobel’s irony? His “autobiography”:
A humane physician should have terminated my wretched half-life when I made my bawling entrance into life. Greatest merit: keeping my nails clean and burdening no one. Greatest failing: no family, no good mood, no good stomach. Greatest and only request: Don’t bury me alive. Greatest sin: Did not worship Mammon. Most significant events in my life: None.

(Translated from E. Biedermann, Der Briefwechsel zwischen Alfred Nobel und Bertha von Suttner)

Thursday 13 November 2014


Victor Karben: Purification ceremonies
They prepare for the 10th of September with fasting, alms-giving and other good works… They all go together to a stream and wade in up to their chest. They are naked and wear nothing, not even a loin cloth around their private parts… Then everyone stands in the water up to his chest and silently makes his confession, beating his breast and his heart with his fist, and not gently. Furthermore a male person must be present, either in the water or on the bank, who takes note and watches everything that is done. The people must dip their heads into the water three times to the point that no hair on their head is visible. If someone does this correctly twice, but not the third time, he is told to repeat the process… Coming out of the water and cleansed in this way, they believe they are as pure as they were coming out of the womb of their mothers.

Johann Pfefferkorn: The Kapparot Ceremony
Every Jew, young or old, obtains a white rooster; the women a white hen if possible; and if a woman is pregnant, she must obtain a rooster and a hen, for herself and the unborn child, although it has not committed any sin yet but has been conceived in carnal lust.  The master of the house stands with his rooster in the circle of his family. They keep a pious silence and ponder their sins. Thereafter, he takes his rooster by the legs and swings it thrice around his head, so that the rooster flutters his wings and claps them together. Then he says to him: You are the forgiver [“vergeber”] of my sins, which go from me to you and are transferred to you. I am now free of my sins, and you bear the guilt on my behalf. You die, and I go on to eternal life. ..Then they roast and boil the fowl.

Karben adds:
I should also mention that the Jews rise early on the 9th of September and curse the first Christian whom they meet and say: “May God make you my rooster for this year. And the women do the same thing with Christian women. No Jew minds if he has to wait in the same place for an hour or two until he meets a Christian, especially one who has grievously harmed him and whom he may curse on this occasion.

Pfefferkorn continues:
And if someone thinks that he has not been quite purified of his sins and still has scruples, he goes to his nearest friend and neighbour at the synagogue and kneels down with his head bowed to the ground. The other man lifts up his clothes in the rear, where some sins may be left, and strikes him thirty-nine times with a thong or a belt. After that his purification is complete. And they sit down happily at table and eat their confessors and their own sins until they are sated.
(Translated from Karben’s De vita et moribus Iudeorum, 1511, and Johann Pfefferkorn’s Die Judenbeicht, 1508)

Sunday 9 November 2014

I suppose Nobel had enough money to buy his own theatre, but he had his pride. So he discreetly informed Bertha von Suttner of his literary efforts. After all, she owed him a favour or two for all the donations he had made to her foundation, The Austrian Society of Friends for Peace:
Dear Countess and friend…I have written a tragedy…I have taken my subject from the touching story of Beatrice Cenci, but have treated it in a manner very different from Shelley’s. In deference to an inflexible public I have toned down the hateful subject of incest to the point of practically suppressing it. …I am curious to see whether someone will stage my little piece, in which the dramatic effect is quite good, in my opinion.
A week later Suttner writes back: 
Beatrice Cenci? That is a dramatic subject! I am curious. Besides, I am sure it is well written…If you believe that it is plausible in its dramatic effect and that the scabrous side is sufficiently played down, I am quite certain that a theatre in Vienna will take it. She even considered translating the play into German herself: 
If my name is attached to it, it will arouse interest… Beatrice Cenci would be a good role for Hohenfels or perhaps Sandrock (the famous actress who later had a stellar career in film).
Nobel has doubts about putting the play on in Vienna: It won’t be allowed in Austria because the clergy comes off as bullies. Besides, he says, the piece is written in Swedish.
Oh, Swedish? Suttner replies. I thought you had written it in French (the language in which they corresponded). And you are right: in Vienna one couldn’t risk putting on something that has an anticlerical slant. But one might try Berlin.
Nothing more was said about the matter. Six months later, Nobel was dead. I don't think his play was ever performed.

(My translation of the French text in E. Biedermann, Briefwechsel)

Thursday 6 November 2014

ADOPT A CHILD AND A SECOND DOG: Alfred Nobel’s advice to his lover.

In 1888 a friend congratulated Alfred Nobel on his marriage – an embarrassing mistake since the woman who called herself  “Mrs. Noble” was his Viennese lover, Sofie Hess. In fact he himself had addressed letters to her as “Mrs. Nobel” to camouflage their affair. Yet he complained to Sofie about her use of his name without his permission. This faux-pas – he called it Namenspfuscherei – made it impossible for him to meet her in Vienna.

A year later, he was still sore about this point: There is nothing more stupid than you staying in Vienna, he wrote to Sofie. You have compromised both me and yourself there. Every cobblestone can tell a story, but you are insensitive to all that because you haven’t the foggiest concept of honour.

A few weeks later he complained again about her using his name without permission, running around with diverse louts, presenting a filthy child as my niece, and expecting me to feed all of Israel -- he meant Sofie’s family! She was of Jewish descent.

He had this to say about their relationship:
There is no different between married and unmarried women as long as the two parties have freely entered into a union. This is not at all the case with us. I never asked you to be my lover and never agreed to you using my name. On the contrary, I advised you to return to your parents and absolutely forbade you the use of my name. And what do you do? You present yourself as my wife and run around with lovers… If my name wasn’t so well-known, it would matter less.

The subject comes up again:
To be married is good. Not to be married is good as well, but no decent man can tolerate the hybrid story you and your family have concocted, especially not a man like me, who is so sensitive to honour and morals.

Needless to say, Sofie was unhappy. Perhaps her biological clock was ticking. Nobel suggested she adopt a child and a second dog and move to a place where she could assume the persona of a young widow.
Instead Sophie got pregnant…
(My translation from the German. Source: E. Biedermann, Der Briefwechsel zwischen Alfred Nobel und Bertha von Suttner)

Sunday 2 November 2014


More excerpts from my translation of Karben’s The Life and Customs of the Jews , 1511

Chapter 15
Why the Jews discriminate against women.
They cannot even prove that they are Jews like their husbands or the other males, who can prove it by their circumcision. For this reason they are not considered worthy to have an eternal life or to converse with God. For God has often called on men, but never on women. See Proverbs 8: “O men, I call to you.” Thus Jewish men have a special prayer which they say every single day: “Praise to God in eternity for making me a man rather than a woman!” 

Chapter 16
The Feast of Yom Teru’ah.
They celebrate the 1st of September with great joy. They sing and blow trumpets and horns – not just any kind, but instruments made of bone and the horns of rams.  The origin of the custom is the biblical passage describing Isaac being spared because the ram’s horns are caught in a thicket.
Karben also connects the feast with the fall of Jericho’s walls at the sound of trumpets (Joshua 6). Furthermore, the Jews believe that demons cannot bear hearing the noise of those horns and therefore cannot prevent prayers from rising to heaven. The man who blows the horn must be an excellent and most respectable Jew worthy of that holy instrument. If he blows it properly, the people are incredibly pleased. If not, you will see them much aggrieved. For they say a mistake [in blowing the horn] does not happen without reason. No doubt it happened on account of their sins, and they believe they will not be successful in anything that whole year.
They also connect the first day of September with the creation of the world.
On that day they hope God will write their name in the Book of Life, and no one dares to sleep that day, lest God’s angel be obliged to sleep as well.
In the morning they go to a nearby river. They stand on the bridge that spans the river and carefully search the water for small fish. When they see them, they are full of joy and cast their clothes over them. As the fish scatter, their sins too are being carried away, or so they believe.
On the 10th day of September, they gather in the synagogue to pray. If a Christian saw them, he would certainly wonder at their uncoordinated movements and distracted behaviour. For as they pray to God, they yell and shout and at the same time move their bodies to the right and the left, forward and backward.

(Next: Yom Kippur, as described by Karben)

Thursday 30 October 2014


More from my translation of Ida Hahn-Hahn’s novel Sibylle.(1846):

Sibylle (like the author) was Protestant. When she first attended a Catholic mass, she was profoundly moved. Her English governess declared it idol worship and was set against it, but her tutor was Catholic. He explained to me the symbols of the mass and gave me a prayer book so that I could follow the rites. They made an overpowering impression on me…Music, incense, flowers, the exquisite garb [of the priest], images, gleaming gold, candle light, illuminated altars, the majesty of the dome – it was a grand picture of worldly power, of the earthly grandeur Christ despised…and yet I felt as if an angel had given wings to my heart.

Like the author, Sibylle married a cousin. The bridegroom was twenty-eight. Sibylle was fifteen. Now I was a married woman. Cultivating warm and simple sentiments, taking over a certain sphere of household duties, and engage in orderly activities is the natural and healthiest atmosphere for developing the character of a wife. But her husband, Paul, took her away on a long honeymoon to Paris, Florence, and Rome, where she spent a great deal of money and learned to push Paul’s buttons.

I tried the limits, and pitied Paul [when he gave in], but that pity turned to disrespect, not to say scorn. A man, who was unable to say no!
Wherever they ended up on their travels, she was restless and wanted to be elsewhere. I hoped it was merely a desire for more intellectual stimulation, but as she came to realize: it was an indication that she didn’t love Paul and didn’t enjoy his company.
Eventually they settled in London, where Sibylle continued to spend lavishly. I led an empty life of visiting, riding, attending soirees – it was more a matter of scheduling my time than filling my life.
Within four years she managed to bankrupt her husband.
“Oh Paul,” I exclaimed. “Why have you never maintained your better judgment against mine?”
“Because I am weak in your presence,” he said.
“Unfortunately,” I whispered to myself.
(Source: Ida Hahn-Hahn, Sybille. Eine Selbstbiographie. New edition 2013 by Holzinger)

Sunday 26 October 2014


Ida Hahn (1806-1880) was a successful novelist and travel writer. Her Sibylle.An autobiography, published in 1846, was no autobiography although it may well have reflected facets of her own personality and captured elements of her own thoughts and feelings as a child and teenager. Here is an extract:

Sibylle was never entirely happy: I longed for an absolute happiness, that is, to be assured that it would never change or perish. Relative happiness didn’t satisfy me…I dreamed of being a goddess and thus missed becoming a human being.
She was a bundle of nerves: One word, one look, one smile was enough to elicit tears of discomfort.
She loved the company of her older brother, with whom she spun fantasies and engaged in make-belief: I was Andromache to his Hector, queen to his knight, lady to his troubadour. But she also took on tougher roles, such as Arria who stabs and kills herself. The moment of death moved my innermost soul, she tells us.
After a fever kills her father, brother, and sister, she is deeply saddened and resolved to accept pain as [her] permanent companion. She seeks fulfilment in knowledge, a terrible desire to know and get to the bottom of things. She tries to learn about agriculture from farmers, gardening from the family gardener, and accounting from the administrator of the estate.
Children’s games hold no attraction for her: Dolls bored me. At Christmas she receives a play kitchen with dishes made of expensive Meissen porcelain, but she prefers helping the cook in the real kitchen and likes best to be left alone with her fantasies: I spent the happiest hours day-dreaming.
Respect for my parents and superiors, which sometimes cause children fear and anxiety, were absent in myself…I dominated the house. I never learned to obey.
She falls in love with a visiting cousin, who treats her like a child: Flattery and shows of affection, which one generously bestows on children without thinking sparked love in her. Well, what is love? You can say good and bad things about it. It is heavenly but also earthly, the irrational instinct which drives a person to fulfil its determination as an animal. 
Returning after a year, Sibylle’s cousin realizes that she is no longer a child and falls in love with her in turn. He is fourteen years her senior. She is obliged by her mother to delay the marriage for seven months until her fifteenth birthday.

In real life too, Ida married her cousin (Friedrich Count of Hahn), but that is where the similarities end.  She was twenty-one. He was twenty-two. The marriage ended in divorce.

(Source: Ida Hahn-Hahn. Eine Selbstbiographie, 1846)

Thursday 23 October 2014


More from my translation of Victor Karben’s The Life and Customs of the Jews (1511):

After converting to the Christian faith, Karben found that he was treated with suspicion.
But I foresaw all the difficulties Christians were going to make for Jews who undergo baptism … but I have decided under no circumstances to go back on my resolve, and to bear everything with equanimity for the sake of Christ.  But another thing pierced my heart sharply: the knowledge that the Jews themselves often said a recently baptized Jew was very similar to a new white piece of fabric. Shallow people are glad and pleased with a piece of cloth while it is new and white, but after it has been made into a dress and worn on their backs for eight or nine days, it becomes less treasured with every passing day. The same thing happens to a newly baptized Jew.  Christians are keen on him at first. They are eager to talk and invite him for dinner. If they go anywhere, for the sake of comforting him, they ask him to accompany them and walk by their side. But after eight days they keep out of his way. He is neglected, avoided, excluded, and left to himself. Even worse, he is often derided and teased by the same people.
            After these autobiographical remarks, Karben turns to his task proper: a study of Jewish customs. He explains, for example, that they do not eat meat together with milk or cheese and any other milk products… Furthermore the Jews are obliged by the law of the Talmud to keep their knives separate. If they have two, one is for the use of eating meat, the other for use with other foods.  But that precept didn’t seem to go far enough. In addition they must store the knives in separate drawers, to keep one from touching the other. And they must be stored in such a manner that they may be able to tell them apart and know which knives to use for what purpose. To make it easier to tell them apart, the Talmud advises to put a mark on each single knife. Those meant for eating milk products are marked with a small triple notch… If it happens, by some chance or on purpose, that the use of the knives is mixed up and someone uses a knife to cut meat which until then was used to cut milk products or vice versa, it cannot be used for food from there on, and the matter does not go unpunished.
            If this happens to a poor man who cannot afford to discard a wrongly used knife, he must place his knife into a burning fire for three hours until it is white hot, then he must bury it in the ground for up to three days. Afterwards he must take it out and dip it three times into a well or other flowing water…

(Source: Victor Karben, De vita et moribus Iudeorum, Paris 1511)

Sunday 19 October 2014


Victor Karben (1422-1515), a German Jew, converted to Christianity and was ordained priest in 1486.  In 1504 he wrote a treatise on The Life and Customs of the Jews (De vita et moribus Iudeorum -- an enlarged version was published under the title Opus Aureum). His introduction manifests the fanaticism typical of a convert:

There is no more stubborn and wrong-headed race than the Jews. Nothing in the world can turn them from their traditional faith. If you were to offer someone of the Jewish faith a thousand gulden if he was willing to renounce his faith, you would find it easier to hollow out the hardest rock than convincing him to adopt your views. And it would be a greater miracle! Likewise, if you put a thousand gulden at the foot of a cross and said to one of them, even the poorest man: Look, I will give you these thousand gulden if you fall on your knees when you pick them up from the ground, the man [would rather stay poor] than accept the condition and bow down before the image of the cross. Indeed, even if you threatened a Jew with capital punishment unless he was willing to become a Christian, he would rather be burned at the stake a thousand times than willingly profess the name of Christ once. [And if you suggest to Jews that they might convert in future] they will grow hot and angry beyond belief. All day long they will not be able to show a calm face. Indeed they will remember what you said all their life. Whenever they meet the Christian who proposed such things to them, they will roundly curse him, if not openly, then tacitly….In brief: The Jews are a people more wrong-headed than any other and more inclined to utter curses, indeed a people that tends to be furious and (as I said) vexed and irritated by the very name “Christian”. I speak from experience. For it happened to me too [when I was a Jew and someone] exhorted me to abandon the Jewish error and become a Christian.

But Karben had to admit that Jews who converted were not received with open arms by their Christian brethren. They met with a great deal of prejudice:
Many are of the opinion that it is next to impossible for an ex-Jew to become a good and faithful Christian. And I don’t deny that this is sometimes the case, but conversely it often happens that Jews become very good Christians and remain so to the end of their lives. …A Jew who has recently become a Christian deserves compassion. Getting used to things is always hard, and it is also difficult to forget your past – friends and comrades with whom you spent much time and who were your school fellows, not to speak of the possessions you left behind. …Thus many converted Jews are obliged to beg for their bread…and no one feels sorry for them. On the contrary, people mock them, laugh and point a finger at them, saying: “Look, there goes that baptized Jew!” …Is that not adding insult to injury?

Thursday 16 October 2014


Do you like crisp, clean prose? Read Sulzer’s novel The Perfect Waiter. Do you like sharp opinion pieces? Read Sulzer’s book about his native city, Basel. Here are a few excerpts:

Eating out. There used to be a teashop in a 14th century house – an institution beloved to tea drinkers and named after its owner, Teehaus Manger. It has been turned into a restaurant. Of the name only manger remains, but something about drinking has been added. The restaurant is now called manger & boire. On the lower level the last of the smokers congregate – in Basel there are actually still a few places for smokers, although one has to be a club member to be admitted. Best vantage point to see Basel? The Münsterplatz, where one may dine at the agreeable restaurant Isaak Iselin. It is named after the man who under the influence of Rousseau became a passionate defender of natural human rights, and in 1771 founded the Society For Encouraging and Furthering Goodness and Service to the Community. The Society still exists today and is known to (almost) everyone in the abbreviated form “GGG”.
Isaak Iselin

Money. Visitors from neighbouring countries may be startled or paralyzed by shock if they have neglected to study the menu and are confronted with the bill -- served up, we hope, by a friendly waiter and after a satisfying meal. It may be hard to understand why a pizza which is neither larger nor tastier than its equivalent on the other side of the border has to be so much more expensive. You will soon come to realize that in Switzerland quite a few things are different from the rest of Europe, but nothing is more advantageous. Well, almost nothing. Apple electronics are cheaper than elsewhere on the continent. And one more attraction for European visitors: Here is their chance to have something else in their wallet than euros and cents. In Switzerland you pay with Franks and Rappen.

Philanthropy. The new threatre in Basel, which opened in 1975, offers some seats with obstructed view, cruelly hard seating, and a stage with an angled back wall, which follows the contours of the street. But here as elsewhere we must remember the adage “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” The theatre has been financed by several ladies who remain anonymous to the present day. We know only: They are more than three and fewer than ten in number!

 (Source: A. C. Sulzer, Basel, 2014)