Life Before the Nazis


Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century was at a giant crossroads: Technologically advanced, bustling cities in some parts, and in others, peasant villages that were still finding their way out of the Middle Ages. The novel Until the Dawn’s Light, which Jewniverse featured a few weeks ago, told the story of a Jewish woman in a small Austrian town that was still basically the latter. The new history book Good Living Street: Portrait of a Patron Family, Vienna 1900 takes place just two years earlier, and in the same country–yet it feels like a different world.

The Gallia family was an upwardly-mobile part of Vienna’s nouveau riche. After Emperor Franz Joseph permitted Jews to live in the city, the Gallias established themselves in Vienna as art connoisseurs and members of the upper class. Hermine Gallia, the matriarch of the family, was the subject of a portrait by Gustav Klimt–one of the only portraits of a middle-aged woman ever painted by the notorious seducer of young women.

The Gallias’ tale–their rise and fall from high society, their forced relocation, and their massive art collection–plays out shadowed by Hitler’s ascension to power. The author, Tim Bonyhady, besides being an art historian, is the grandson of one of the main characters. He provides riveting details and chilling asides, slipping between a distanced, scholarly voice and a more personal voice, reminding the reader that the book’s subjects are more than just a random family who were saved from the Nazis–they are the reason the author is alive.

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