My Parents

My father, Lavoslav Steiner was born in Osijek, on 21 August 1889. Osijek was a provincial town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, the end of the First World War, when it became part of SHS, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Kraljevina Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca), later Yugoslavia. He came from a wealthy family in Budapest but earlier they had lived in Alsace Lorraine. My father never told me when and why they moved from there - I doubt that he knew. His citizenship was of Sudetenland, as the documents show. My grandfather had died before I was born, but I know that he was a landowner and lived near Osjek. My
grandmother had been a teacher in Budapest but when I knew her she was very old. She was born in 1848 and all the time I remember her she looked exactly the same. She was a tiny woman, very, very thin, always in long black skirts, with very long, thick white hair, beautiful blue eyes, and she was so deaf that we had to scream in her ear if we wanted to be understood and often we were not. As a young person she must have been very energetic and, as I was told, in sympathy with Max Nordau. He wanted to marry her but was considered by her family of too low status, a simple unknown journalist! Had the family accepted him later, when he became famous as a writer and one of the founders of Zionism, together with Tbeodor Herzel, who knows? My grandmother knew many quotations and poems, she repeated some to me and I still remember them. For example the story of a girl who pleased the king so much that he sent her three gold pieces but she proudly returned them with the answer
Drei Taler sind sehr wenig Drei Taler giebt kein Koenig Drei Taler bringt kein Glück, Drum send ich sie zurück.
(Three gold pieces are of little worth. Three gold pieces are not given by a king. Three gold pieces bring no luck, therefore I send them back.) From her I learned the first lines of Gretchen's episode and recited them before I could read:
Mein schones Fraulein, darf ich wagen Meinen Arm und Geleit ihr anzutragen? Bin weder Fraulein weder schon, Kann ungeleitet nach Hause gehen.
(Fair lady may I be so free/To offer my arm and company?/I'm neither a lady nor am I fair/And I can go home without your care.) My love for poetry and literature I certainly inherited from my grandmother. My grandmother was forty when my father was born. He was the third and youngest son of three; one died at the age of eighteen; the second, Leopold-Lajos had typhoid in his childhood and was mentally affected by his illness, unable to earn money. My father's name was Lavoslav but everyone called him Pali or Palika. He most cherished, most beloved son, an excellent student and an outstanding mathematician. My father told us that during his final examination in math (he graduated at the Academy for Commercial Sciences-Trgovacka Akademija) the supervisor said to the professor: 'Gledajte, Steiner zonglira', by which he meant that my father played around with numbers like a magician because he did all the calculations in his head. He retained this habit, I remember, when we went to a restaurant, coffee-house or hotel and the waiter prepared the bill, before he started writing, my father had the final sum ready in his head and he never made a mistake! My father knew several languages; he loved music - in his youth he played the drum in Osijek's orchestra: he had a good sense of rhythm and aural capability needed for a drummer. His wish was to study law, but my grandmother objected; she thought that a young man has to earn his money first and so my father started first as a clerk in a bank in Osijek, then in Zagreb's Wiener Bankverein. Very early my father developed commercial abilities and advised my grandmother not to sell their property, a house in Osijek. Obviously, she was obstinate and sold it, losing a great fortune. She lived with my uncle Lajos and a daughter couldn't have cared better for her; my father supported them. I remember very well my grandmother's home in Osijek, Zrinjevac 3. It was near the railway station and part of a block of little houses, very simple and primitive, typical of the East-European countryside village; a large, wooden gate opened into a courtyard with apartments on three sides and a fountain in the middle, for the tenants to fetch water, drawing it from the well with a bucket attached to a chain that was pulled up and down; they had no water pipes for running water. Behind the fountain were little wooden huts serving as toilets; each tenant had his own key. The ground was paved with big irregular stones and grass grew between with chicken and geese walking around, waddling and gobbling. There was no electricity, only petroleum lamps were used. The town had street cars drawn by horses. My father met my mother in Zagreb where she had lived since her childhood. She was born on 9 May 1894 in Jasenovac, then a slavonian village, later the doomed concentration camp where my father was fated to die during the Second World War. My grandfather, Joseph Haas, was a merchant in Jasenovac, but when he suddenly died of consumption, in an attack of hectic fever - he was only thirty-four or thirty-six - my grandmother Ida moved to Zagreb with her two little children, my mother Elisabeth, Elsa, six, and her brother Oscar, four. My grandmother never married again; being left alone and without means she had to earn her living with needlework and was also supported by the Jewish community in Zagreb. My grandmother came from a very distinguished family, Merkadi - when my father wanted to tease her he rose from his seat, made a slight bow before mentioning her maiden name - he called the Merkadis 'die spanischen Granden' (the Spanish nobility) and, judging from the way my mother was brought up they were indeed a noble family. My mother and Oscar finished the required minimum of schooling and at fourteen my mother had a job in an office: they were poor and she had no other choice. Poor and modest, but neat and clean', said Mama when she told us about her youth. She had only two blouses but she washed and ironed them every evening so that nobody could have guessed that she had no more. My mother was very beautiful, with a well-shaped body, black hair, dark-blue eyes, though of weak eyes - she had two eye operations in her childhood. Before she knew my father, my mother was engaged to a 'goi', Valtrovic, but when she learned that his family did not want him to marry a Jewish girl mother proudly broke off the engagement. It was then she met my father who was a good-looking, rather slim young fellow with a girl-like, smooth, rosy complexion, well dressed with a walking stick and gloves. When my grandmother saw him accompanying my mother she asked: 'Wer ist das jidische Jingl mit die roten Handschicher?' ('Who is the Jewish young fellow with the red gloves!') Later, when my father used to spend the evenings with my mother in her small flat and forgot to go home, my grandmother said with a sense of humour: 'Herr Steiner, bitte machen's die Tir von aussen zu!') ('Mr. Steiner, please close the door from the outside!') I was never too tired to listen to these sweet recollections. My father was mobilized at the beginning of the First World War, in 1914, and served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army until the end of the war in 1918, mostly in the front lines. He was decorated several times. At the time he was engaged to my mother and during one of his leaves my parents decided to marry. The wedding took place in 1917, on 27 September. Food was then scarce and my father provided the family with meat and other products. Immediately after the war my father went through difficult times; he was despondent and depressive, haunted by the nightmares of the war. He could not see people and was withdrawn, but he recovered gradually, sharing his general belief that a better world would rise. There was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world. When the storm and dust of the cannonade passed suddenly away, the nations despite their enmities could still recognize each other as historic racial personalities. The laws of war had on the whole been respected. There was a common professional meeting-ground between military men who had fought one another. Vanquished and victors alike still preserved the semblance of civilized states.1 Who could have predicted that in two decades a Second World War was to break out, a war that was to perish every bond between people. Crimes were committed by the Germans, under the Hitlerite domination to which they allowed themselves to be subjected, which find no equal in scale and wickedness with any that have darkened the human record. The wholesale massacre by systematized processes of six or seven millions of men, women, and children in the German execution camps exceeds in horror the rough-and-ready butcheries of Genghis Khan, and in scale reduces them to pigmy proportions..2 Who would have predicted that among these unfortunate millions my dearest, most beloved and unforgettable family would disappear! At that time things were different. A strong desire for good human relationship prevailed, optimistic views permitted one to look with more confidence into a better future, to shape new ideas and prospects. The atmos- phere was suitable for gifted young men to believe that prosperity was a reasonable goal. My father was to follow this common trend. Being talented in business affairs and ambitious, my father advanced rapidly in his career. He soon left the bank and started to work in the paper trade, in a firm owned by my mother's relatives, The Croatian Paper Industry (Hrvatska Industrija Papira), one of the biggest paper firms in the country. Not for long; after some disputes with the owners, he left the firm and started independently in the same trade, at first very modestly in a small office with one clerk, Miss Kurtovic, gradually developing into one of the biggest firms in Yugoslavia, Lavoslav Steiner, Veletrgovina Papirom i Ljepenkom (Paper Wholesale). My father chose the right moment to start business on his own. With little money but much courage and initiative he anticipated a successful future.
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