Franz and Virginia Bader—they were an unexpected but perfect match. He, outgoing, intuitive, a dumpling of a man past middle age; she, perhaps not shy but not outgoing either, tall and willowy, and not yet in her middle years. But they were matched in intellectual curiosity, in social conscience, and in some odd way, they were perfectly complementary.
Let’s talk first about Franz
Franz saw beauty in the rust on an old piece of iron. He saw it in ice frozen on his windowpane, in fallen leaves washed along a gutter, for he was, among many things, a photographer with a natural eye.
Franz also saw beauty in the imagination of a forty-year-old painter, or perhaps a sculptor, someone waiting for the encouragement, like a camera’s lens, to bring it forth. All this is why Franz was, above all, an art dealer, one who brought the artist to the patron.
Franz, the man, was, in an odd way, beautiful: homely as flaking paint on an old, upturned rowboat, fat, short, but beautiful, with his egg-bald head gestating above a tangled nest of white hair anchored by his rabbinical beard, that concealed his necktie-or the lack of it. I was never quite sure.
Franz was born in Vienna in 1903, when that wonderful city was the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and one of the best places in the world to be. The First World War had not yet led to the breakup of the empire into small countries that would include a separate, and greatly troubled, twentieth-century Austria.
For more than a century the empire was hospitable to Jews, and the Emperor knighted Franz’s great-uncle for his work on the Suez Canal. Franz’s father had a large flour enterprise, and it was expected that, in time, Franz would join him in the business. But Franz’s grandfather recognized something else in the young man, and gave him for his bar mitzvah fifty volumes of the classics of literature. This changed his life. In his old age Franz said to me, “I could not see why I should spend my life making bread more expensive for people.”
So it was that Franz studied and apprenticed and became a bookseller in Vienna. But books were not his only interest, for his mother was a painter, and he went each Sunday to see the great art museums with which Vienna was, and is, so richly endowed. Later, he would marry an artist, as well.
In the mid-thirties, Franz became proprietor of the oldest bookstore in Vienna, the Wallishausser’sche Buchhandlung, established in 1789. It specialized in books on the arts and theater, and published books, as well. But Franz was not to have the store for very long. Hitler and his Nazi troops occupied Austria in March of 1938, and Franz, like many Jews, was forced to give up his business.
Franz readily understood that there was no future for him in Austria, so he and his wife Antonia, known as Tony, applied to immigrate to America. It seemed hopeless. Many of Vienna’s 220,000 Jews were trying to do the same thing, and many were ahead of the Baders. Even the replies to his requests for sponsorship were discouraging. One New York man wrote, “I have sent your letter to my cousin in Australia, as they do not already have too many German Jews there.” Franz was jailed for a time, as were many of his friends, but then he was set free, he didn’t know why.
However, one of Franz’s customers was an American, a friend of the noted Scottish biographer, Edwin Muir, and Muir knew someone in the American Booksellers’ Association who knew James Whyte, who had an interest in modern art and was about to open a bookstore in Washington. So it was that Franz got the necessary sponsorship, although he and Tony still lacked their immigration quota numbers.
Franz and Tony had gone often to see the American Consul. He could give them little hope of getting two of the few immigration quota numbers. Quotas were established for the demands of normal times, and made no allowance for saving a whole people. Now the waiting list for America was filled with the names of Austrians seeking refuge.