The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography
At Christmas in Romania some of the students marching toward the guns of the Securitate were heard to chant, “Europe is with us! Europe is with us!” They gazed imploringly into the cameras of Western television, unaware of the irony that, until that moment, our amnesia had been colluding with their tyrants. It took the revolution of these brave students for us to recall that Romania had been a part of Europe all along.
As the glacier of the Eastern tyrannies recedes, it leaves behind the moraines of ruined economies, but it also lays bare the common European roots which the glacier sought to destroy in the eastern soil. These roots are the subject of Claudio Magris’s essay on the civilization of the Danube and Gregor von Rezzori’s Snows of Yesteryear, an autobiography of a childhood in the Bukovina, once an Austro-Hungarian province, then a Romanian region, and since 1940 absorbed into the Ukraine. Rezzori chronicles a family’s destiny during Hitler and Stalin’s “great shovelling under” of the cultural world of Mitteleuropa, while Magris finds the tenacious survival of Middle European culture even in the rubble of Ceausescu’s Romania.
Magris helps us to see the Danube as the great German, Magyar, Slavic, Romanic, Jewish artery linking Europe and Asia. Along it traveled the Romans of Mitteleuropa—the German-speaking merchants, colonists, and administrators of Austria-Hungary who spread their theaters and schools, their post offices and printing presses through the Slavic lands. German culture was once a key link connecting Romania to Western Europe. The town of Brasov, for example, where Securitate and the army fought for control of the streets over Christmas, was called Kronstadt until 1945, and there were twelve German-language papers published in the town, and only one Romanian. Rezzori attended the German Gymnasium there in the 1930s. The heroic town of Timisoara was once the capital of the Swabian German colonists of Danubian Romania.
Magris’s book meanders like the river itself, searching out the sites where the alluvial deposits of old Danubian culture are to be found: the old railway stations, barracks, post offices, and museums painted in Austro-Hungarian yellows and ochres. It is a bibliophile’s travelogue, by a scholar who knows both the Bulgarian peasant epics and Slovene mountain poetry, and who offers us this erudition in a light, strolling style, free of guidebook dreariness. What we get is a writer’s tour of south-eastern Europe; the musicians, sculptors, painters, and architects, will have to wait their turn. Georg Lukacs rather than Bela Bartok, Paul Celan rather than Brancusi, are the shades Magris takes us to meet.
Some of these encounters with the traces of vanished genius are memorable. Magris takes us to Haupstrasse 187 in the Austrian town of Kierling, to a little two-story house that was once Dr. Hoffmann’s sanitarium. It was here that Franz Kafka came to die. Magris goes out onto the little balcony at the back:
From here Kafka, stretched in his deck-chair, looked …