I talk a lot about people but not much about the places in which they lived unless it is somehow incidental to the particular story at hand. Doing this, however, ignores some of the subtle context of the lives under discussion — maybe their home has no overt role to play in the story told about them, but it is nonetheless an essential piece of who they were.
The picture below is one I have always had, one that belonged to my grandfather. The photograph above is one that was sent to me last week by my cousin in Israel, whose mother Rosa was raised in this house as was her sister, my great-grandmother Helene. This house tells an essential story about Helene, Rosa, their brothers and sisters, and their parents.
Nathan and Amalia Bass raised their 11 children in this house in a small town called Rybky in western Slovakia. When they lived there, it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire – part of the Hungarian part specifically. My cousin Egon told me that “the whole village were two rows of such buildings along the road” and it today has a population of only about 441. The house held three units – one occupied by the Basses, the other two by other families. From this house in Rybky, the brothers and sisters moved to Vienna, the capital and the biggest city within the monarchy, something that must have been quite a large transition to navigate. As Egon’s wife Marianne told me, “No wonder and good for them that they all clung together” in this big, different place. Apart from the simple size and scope of the city itself, there were also the challenges of language and high culture. In Rybky, they had all been well educated in Hungarian schools and spoke German at home. Upon moving to Vienna, the older brothers made sure to take care of their sisters, escorting them to the Burgtheater to see sophisticated language in action. The brothers and sisters spent their weekends together, phoned each other every day, traveled together, and sent each other copious letters and postcards when they were apart.
Rosa took Egon to visit Rybky once when he was young, which I presume is when the first picture was taken. My grandmother may have taken her son, my grandfather, to visit once as well – or else my grandfather or another relation visited some time much later. I say later because in my picture, the picket fence from Egon’s picture is missing, the plants hanging over it are gone, the window shutters taken down, the boys are no longer playing in the street. Maybe it just looks that way because one picture is of the front of the house, the other of the back (if you look closely, the doors and windows are in completely different places, hinting that perhaps this is the case). But I can’t help imagining that it is simply because the life the Basses brought to this house had dissipated by the time the second picture was taken. That is a sad way to think of it, I know. But I also know from Egon and Marianne that Rosa, the only sister to survive the war, was quite lost without her siblings once they were all gone. And it is somewhat comforting in a way to think that maybe the house where they were born and learned to stick together missed them terribly, too.