GRISCHKA VOSS, Salzburger Nachrichten, April 7th, 2018
‘Madness has always fascinated me’
A Viennese childhood.
An interview with Claudia Erdheim, daughter of a psychoanalyst.
‘I studied a psychiatry textbook at age 14 – madness has always fasciated me’, says 72-year-old Claudia Erdheim, smiling. Erdheim, the daughter of psychoanalyst and communist Tea Genner-Erdheim, spent an atypical childhood in post-war Vienna. A a child, Erdheim heard little about her father, the communist politician and resistance fighter Laurenz Genner, or any other wartime events. It was only after her mother’s death that Erdheim learnt her mother had saved her father from the Gestapo by administering a non-lethal dose of Luminal.
‘We are meant to call her Tea, not primitive mum (…) Later, we started calling her Grandy. I came up with that. She could’ve been my grandmother after all – people usually thought that anyways. She doesn’t like it, but now everyone calls her Grandy.’ This is the tone of Claudia Erdheim’s autobiographical novel Bist du wahnsinnig geworden? (Have you gone mad?), recently published by Czernin Verlag. The book was born of psychoanalysis and caused quite a stir in the field when it was released. The author’s perspective on her childhood is honest and equal parts tragic and comedic. She recounts life with her older sister and ever-judgemental mother in a large draughty apartment filled with her grandparent’s ‘Gründerzeit’ furnishings and locked doors in Vienna’s 18th district. Free indirect speech is Erdheim’s preferred writing style, which leaves readers feeling as though they are completely immersed in the mind of each character.
‘Breakfast is served in bed early Sunday morning. The children will have already eaten.’ This is how weekends with Tea unfolded. ‘The eldest makes the coffee. The youngest brings the spreads and jams. She loves having breakfast in bed. It’s cosy. Once she’s finished, we climb into bed with her – the youngest on the left, the eldest on the right. She puts her arms around our shoulders and says happily “A kiddy on my right, a kiddy on my left, both belong to me, me, me.”’
Erdheim labels her middle-class Jewish mother’s communist leanings as 'crazy ideas’, but she has also been influenced by them. ‘As a child, I went to the Young Guards camp where we sang battle songs, had five meals a day – it shaped me socially’, admits Erdheim. The author’s interest in Jewish history runs throughout her works. In Längst nicht mehr koscher (No Longer Kosher), she followed the trail of her family’s emigration from Galicia. It’s a story of her forefather Moses Hersch, his wife Esther and their Jewish family of five sons. They ran an oil refinery, mine and a brewery. Four of the five sons moved to Vienna at the end of the 19th century, including businessman Oskar Erdheim, Claudia Erdheim’s grandfather.
Oskar Erdheim was the original owner of the house where the author grew up and where she still resides. The family fell victim to National Socialism; it was miraculous that Claudia’s mother Tea survived in Vienna. Erdheim researched her family history for four years. She uncovered photographs from Galicia – which she turned into an illustrated book titled Das Stetl (The Shtetl) – and found school books from her grandfather and great uncle in the Austrian National Library. She also learnt Polish, studied old Hebraic newspapers and found her mother’s diaries. This research serves as the basis for Universum History, a feature on the Erdheim family that is scheduled to begin filming in June.
Claudia Erdheim loves travelling, especially alone. She gladly lingers abroad for lengths of time, getting to know the people and souls of different places. ‘I think my literary talent lies in transposing tragic situations into comic ones’, says Erdheim. ‘Oftentimes, I find things amusing when others don’t.’
As she speaks, Erdheim is sitting at the same table that she must have sat with her sister and mother late into the night. The so-called Bassena house has since been renovated – this process was also featured in a book, Die Realitätenbesitzerin (The Owner of Reality). She still has many pieces of her grandparent’s furniture; her favourite place to spend time is the conservatory featuring Art Nouveau windows.
When her sister suggested they sell the house following their mother’s death, she nearly went mad, says Erdheim with a smile. She had just finished an article about the absurdities that took place at Taborstrasse 21A, where Jewish residents were deported from 1938 onwards. Nazis moved into the vacated apartments, but were forced to return the properties to their original owners in 1945. However, once the relevant law expired in 1955, the victims had to move out once again and hand their apartments back to the former National Socialists.