Long-ago people seem at their most old-fashioned dressed in their bathing suits. corsets and celluloid collars and other accoutrements of proper dress are foreign to us, yes – but they retain their dignity. Bathing costumes, however, never fail to look anything but slightly goofy and generally unflattering. There is something that is reassuring, really, about the fact that bathing suits have been slightly goofy and generally unflattering since the beginning of time, but I digress.
I did not know my great-great Uncle Wilhelm, nor do i know very much about him. The fifth person from the left, in the striped bathing costume and smugly amused expression, he was one of my great-grandmother Helene‘s older brothers (there were 11 children altogether). He smirks a bit like this in several of the photographs I have of him, and I’m not sure if this is a sign of potential fun or potential obnoxiousness. Either way, he’s a good looking fellow, on vacation with members of the Taussig family (I don’t know who they are) in Grado, an island near Trieste that is now in Italy but then in Austria – one of those strange tricks of World War I’s moving borders. This photograph is the front of a postcard that he sent to my great-grandparents at their summer apartment on the Demelgasse in Mödling, Austria – the week before my grandfather Franz was born in that very place in August 1909.
Wilhelm had a beautiful wife named Theresa (or Resi, as everyone called her) and a brilliant daughter named Grete. They lived in Vienna, probably in the same fashionable district as my great-grandparents, and did things like travel in the Alps with various family members. And send postcards. The postcards are the only way I know either Wilhelm or Resi, and since my German is not exactly existent, it is a very sketchy way of knowing someone. Resi’s postcards always seem warm and friendly, slightly gushing; Wilhelm’s seem more reserved, but nonetheless affectionate. Of course, maybe part of why I feel that way is the fact that these postcards – and all the other postcards I have from this branch of my family – begin with the typical greeting “Meine lieben!” (my dears!), something that always touches my heart, even though I know it’s the same as my beginning a letter “Dear so and so.” But. The fact that I know the end that was waiting for these extended family members who loved each other so much and sent each other such postcards, makes it all the more tragic and all the more touching (Meine lieben!).
When World War II came, Grete was living abroad (either in London or the United States – I can’t remember) and her parents were stuck in Vienna. As laws against them became stricter and stricter, Jews were relocated into smaller, crowded apartments in the city, their belongings liquidated. Wilhelm and Resi were finally deported to the Riga Ghetto in December 1941, where they presumably died. There is no record of their deaths, and in fact, their daughter Grete had to petition the Austrian courts to declare them dead in the 1950s.
I don’t really know anything else about them other than that: that they died, perhaps during a freezing winter in a Latvian ghetto, that they were very attractive and that they sent postcards. But I’m going to hold onto the idea that Resi was sweet and pretty and thoughtful; that Wilhelm was a fun time, a person who made sarcastic, dry jokes under his breath if you were lucky enough to sit next to him at dinner, and who always remembered to send a postcard to his sister.
Wilhelm Bass (1872-1941?) and Therese Feuer Bass (1888-1941?)