Renata Stowasser

Transcription of Renata Stowasser
Interviewee: Renata Stowasser
Interviewer: Mark Lecker
Date: March 15, 2014
Place: Edgewater Public Library, Chicago, Illinois
Transcriber: Mark Lecker
Total Time: 46:10 minutes

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

ML: This is Mark Lecker. I am interviewing Renata Stowasser, from Austria. It is March 15th, and it is 10:05 in the morning. And we are at the Edgewater Public Library.

RS: Of Chicago.

ML: Of Chicago. So you’re from Austria, correct? Did you grow up in a small town, a village, a big city…?

RS: Yes, I grew up in a small town, fortunately. In the Alps. I’m saying fortunately in the Alps because…it was my experience and that if you…if war happens, anywhere, it appears that mountains shelter people. And if bombing raids happened, as they did during the time that I grew up, war began when I was four years old through age nine. If you are in a mountainous area, and if bombing raids occur, it is less likely that bomb squadrons will target mountain areas. So we always, I remember…bomber squadrons flying, over flying my town. Large bombers, and several at a time. So that in fact the air was trembling.


ML: That must have been pretty scary.

RS: And…but they all flew over us. And my town is Bad Ischl near Salzburg. So that they…some probably would have originated in Italy. Or others came from England, and we were centrally located, so they came from every direction. Again, I thought that it was very fortunate, where I grew up. It used to be…Bad Ischl used to be the summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph. So through this day, it had a…it was known, first of all, for his…for its natural charm, or beauty located where it was. And where the Emperor made holiday, and Emperor Franz Joseph spent 80…I think 83 summers, in Bad Ischl. And wherever the Emperor went, court followed. Including artists to entertain him. So that contemporary artists of the time, there was Johann Strauss, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner. Bruckner played the organ for Mass, in church every Sunday. Johann Strauss entertained…was the entertainer for court. And Johannes Brahms, of course…in fact Johannes Brahms wrote the lullaby in Bad Ischl. If somebody remembers it. And there’s an area, it is hilly, and there’s an area which is designated today where it was known, in a grove of trees overlooking the town, where he wrote the lullaby, because a little boy of friends, family passed away, and he wrote it for that little boy.


ML: Did you ever visit that area?

RS: I grew up there.

ML: Oh, in this specific area?

RS: I grew up there. I grew up and directly across the… Strauss and Brahms were friends. And if somebody wants to take a look at any musical book of Johann Strauss or Johannes Brahms, there is a photograph of Strauss and Brahms on a balcony. That’s the balcony in Bad Ischl. I have a book at home where it says it’s in a balcony in Vienna, that’s not true because I know the balcony, and it was across the street from where I grew up, with a big beautiful park around it. And Ville Johannes Brahms was immediately next door, so they visited each other on a daily basis. And Strauss was known to…liked to play tarot, and there are pictures where Brahms, Strauss, and some other friends played tarot in the park of Johann Strauss, and I grew up there, I was so fortunate.


ML: Do you feel a special connection to their music and their…

RS: Yes, yes. I think that also it…Bad Ischl is also the home of Franz Lehár, and Ville Franz Lehár is a museum, and Lehár bestowed, or inherited the Ville to the town, and the town uses it as a museum…


ML: You were talking earlier about the war. What was it like growing up in that…not only that time period, but in a central location to where all the war was going around?

RS: Of course, when you are small, and war happens all around you, you think that that is normal, because a child has no reference points. So all I knew was war. And…but I remember distinctly the family speaking, “oh, when the war ends.” And when you know you’re four or five or six years old, you have no idea what two years is, or what ten years is, you have no idea. But…because Bad Ischl was, what it was…my grandmother came from a large family, in Bohemia, now Czechoslovakia. Her family, her father, had owned a porcelain factory from Karlsbad, now known as Karlovy Vary. And as war happened, and Ischl was known many…her brothers with families, and sisters with families, and my mother and my father was in the war. And my mother with my brother all came to Bad Ischl, because they felt safe. So it was a beautiful city, but…the locale that were living, the living spaces were crowded, because there were four or five people living in one room, because of the safety, because of the war.


ML: Did you feel safe when you were little? Even though…

RS: I personally felt safe. But there were…particularly toward the last year and a half or so of the war, there were the daily flights of bomb squadrons, above us. And of course when bombers are known to come, radar had been already invented. By the way it was invented by a man from Salzburg…and we always had bomb alarm. But school took place, we had to be in school at eight o’clock, but by the time it was ten or a quarter to eleven or twelve o’clock, sure enough the bomb alarm was, the sirens were howling, and we were…children were…we had to go to the bomb shelters.


ML: What was that experience like?

RS: Bomb shelters were designated, the houses they are strong and…have been there for a long time, so they had a good foundation, and larger buildings or hotels were designated as bomb shelters…or movie theaters or so forth. So children had to go to the bomb shelters, or big stores, and so. But as we were, we would go to the bomb shelter, and there were guards, make sure that everybody’s there, and they were regulated. But even as such, we kids knew how to get out. I remember that we would be sitting in trees, giggling at the guards below us, and sometimes they would catch us, and snatch us out of the trees and chase us back to the bomb shelter.


ML: [Laughing] You were talking earlier about your family. What kind of family did you come from? Was it big, or small…?

RS: I grew up with my grandparents, and I was very fortunate. My father was one of the first to be called into the war. He was exactly the age group. And my mother was living in Eger, Czechoslovakia. Now it’s Czechoslovakia, which was a larger town, they had a store, and…so it was safer, with the father gone and my grandfather loved children, and I adored my grandparents, so I just grew up, was fortunate to grow up with my grandparents in the mountains.


ML: So you were an only child?

RS: Then my brother was five years younger, and he stayed with my mother. But as bombing began, they also came and then joined us, so that’s how it was.

ML: When did you leave Austria?

RS: I left Austria in…I finished school in 1954, and but my grandfather was manager of a hotel on top of a mountain. Before the war, as a young man, he had been to England and Ireland, and to Italy, and to France, to learn the languages. We like to learn languages, in Europe, because Europe, if you can imagine, is like the United States - except if you are in Illinois and you go to Indiana, they would speak French or Italian, so you would want to know…and they visit each other. So we know each other’s languages, at least enough to communicate. Not like in this country, where all everybody’s expected to know English, but I think that has to do… because of the Brits. Because the English think that another language is difficult, it’s not easy. But if you make an effort, your brain starts to become more mobile, because the sentence structure varies, and what is confirmed in one set of ideology, let’s say somebody says that, “Oh the Chicago winters are really hard,” somebody else might not think so, or consider that well you know it’s winter and so what? So that’s only one small example. So you become mobile, with different languages. Or the Italians, they are easygoing, and they sing…or compared to Germany, or French, or Swedes, but the language is inherent of a character. And it becomes very interesting, and it’s a never-ending study, you always learn something new.


ML: You said that your grandfather owned a hotel?

RS: Yeah. No, he managed a hotel.

ML: Did he ever have any famous, celebrities or major people stay?

RS: Probably all the time, but it was something that the…and it was a large hotel, overlooking…there was a cable car that led to the top, and there was a beautiful view, and I remember that he…there were people from everywhere, from inside Grossdeutschland, Greater Germany. Under Hitler, all the territories were connected. And I remember that he said that “Today we serve 1,200 lunches.”


ML: To who? To the…?

RS: People that came, there were lines at the cable car, in the valley. And each cable car held eighteen people. They came from everywhere, it was a grandiose form of entertainment. And there was…the hotel, the cable car, and the shipping, there’s a lake called Traunsee, and Traunsee shipping were like, uh what you call that…like a corporation, that owned it. And it was known, and it was safe. And if you wanted to go somewhere you took your family, and that’s where you went. And then you have the beautiful mountains, and Salzkammergut, it’s the Salzkammergut region. Here this is my home town, and this is looking south, in this direction north, fifteen kilometers was the mountain, where my grandfather…


ML: I’m just going to hold this up real quick, get a good shot of it…

RS: Unfortunately I don’t have a photograph of the mountain. And directly south…

ML: Was this mountain here part of the range that continued out, and then you said back in this direction would be where the hotel was, right?

RS: Yes.

ML: So would this just be part of the same line of mountains?

RS: Oh yes, absolutely.

ML: Ok.

RS: Yes, it’s the Neunkirchen [unintelligible], made of calcium, ancient calcium deposits of ancient seas.


ML: Wow!

RS: And this is south, if you continue. This river is called Traun, and it flows out of this lake, Hallstatt. Hall is a Celtic word, means “salt.” And this place was found to be seven, now seven thousand years old. I think this is the roof of my girlfriend’s house, and she publishes this calendar. And it’s probably maybe ten or twelve years ago they wanted to install a heating system in their house, located directly at the lake. And they were excavating the basement, and they came on tools, that were carbon dated seven thousand years ago. And this is the oldest documentation found in her basement, of human habitation north of the Alps.


ML: Wow!

RS: I don’t know if there’s a picture of her, probably not. But…here’s Salzburg.

ML: It’s beautiful.

RS: This is also the same lake where she grew up. And her son took this photograph.

ML: Wow!

RS: Then Ischl, Bad Ischl used to be the summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph, and this is the imperial villa, and today it is a museum and these are the views, of the museum…


RS: I mention Franz Lehár, this is a view from a building also down the same river. And this is the Villa Lehár, located here, see there’s a bridge and this is the other side, and this is continuation…

ML: With how beautiful this area is, why did you leave? If you don’t mind me asking.

RS: One of the problems of a war is the goal of your enemies to destroy you. And to destroy…to bring a collapse of the whole system. And it had succeeded. So I’m…in 1954, which is nine years after the complete destruction and after the total collapse, particularly a pretty area had not recovered sufficiently, for employment of people. And I went… I finished school in ’54. Immediately after that I went to England for a year to learn the language, to try to know something beyond the average. But it was also difficult to continue studies because there was nobody to support me. And there were housing was impossible, student housing was impossible in university cities. So I had to make it somehow. So first I went to England. Then I worked two years in Germany, but again, the housing problem was crushing at that time. And then I met an American family, in Germany, and the lady’s father was president of Churchtown College in Kentucky, and they enabled that I could…. They said, “Why don’t you come live in United States?” And it appeared that I enjoyed the world. They teach us geography, so that means that you become aware of the world, great world at large, and it instills a curiosity. And I think that that’s crucial to young people. Compared to here, when I talk to people, they don’t know where anything is. So apparently geography is not taught. All they hear unfortunately is, “This is the greatest country and the freest of the free.” But you’re…it’s a form of isolation. You’re talking to a population who lives on a great island, surrounded by two seas, two oceans, and they don’t know where the rest of the world is. Unfortunately. So that takes away curiosity. And when young people are not curious, they start experimenting with other things, unfortunately. They think that they look, find something that they cannot find any other way, so they try drugs. None of us would have dreamed that, because there were the fabulous mountains, there was the great world, and for all of that, you needed your head to think.


ML: So you came into the U.S., did you follow the family?

RS: Yes, I went to Kentucky, and went to school, unfortunately did not finish. It was…Kentucky at the time was time of segregation, and I could not understand that people, slavery, and that people were had to live on the other side of the railroad track. And could not ride on the bus. And it was something…this was family who had helped me come here on the way [unintelligible] in Lexington. And to them this was their lifestyle. I had met, when I was in Germany, a young man that was, thought that I was his dream come true, and then we met again and got married. And this is my husband, but again there was…I think that it makes a big difference in backgrounds. He came from a big family, I come from a beautiful area, there in North Carolina was not good enough for me [laughs].


ML: I just spent seventeen years in Charlotte, so I know Durham, I know the area, and I kind of agree [laughs]. What brought you to Chicago?

RS: My husband was transferred to Chicago, and came here with a truck company, and came here and hated Chicago. It was not at all like what he had been used to. But I found people from a larger city, was easier for me to talk to than somebody that said that, thought that I should fry chicken every day.

ML: When you moved to Chicago, did you move immediately to Edgewater or did you live in other places first?

RS: No, we…the children were small at that time, That was in 1967, and we moved to Park Forest, into the outskirts because the children did not know a big city. And I thought that it was safer. I always went to work and I went to work at the University of Chicago, and I would ride the IC train, at seven o’clock in the morning. This was before the children had to go to work, so the poor children… First I had a babysitter, and then half of the time the babysitter didn’t show up. So the children had to learn to go to school, but it was close enough and walking distance. So that they could do that. But soon after that my husband just decided that this was not for him, but I also did not want to go back South. So he went his way and I went mine, and…that’s how it was.


ML: And at that point did you move to Edgewater?

RS: Not immediately. But soon, I stayed in Park Forest because the children were smaller, but then when they became old enough, we moved to… Actually we lived for a long time on Maplewood, just south of Lawrence. But it was a neighborhood where the children could go to school, and they were walking distance. But the dream was to come to the lake, because I grew up on top of a mountain and I want to see something. So I’m very lucky that I live in Shoreline Towers, where I can look out on the lake, so I’m happy.


ML: Does it remind you of home?

RS: It reminds me that I can look out on something, and not on a sea of houses. Not on a row of houses, just walls and across from me.

ML: One of the things that we focus on is something called social identity. And social identity can be tied to all sorts of different things. Do you identify as Austrian transplanted into the U.S.? Have you developed an identity as an American at this point? What country would you say you identify with primarily?

RS: I’m a mixture. It is necessary for me… it was necessary to analyze where in the world I was. How they think, and what they say, and why they say that, and why do they think that, and how I could relate to them, because I think that when you come to another place, you start changing from your viewpoint. And your viewpoint is determined by your background, and what you had been spoon-fed from the time that you were little, before you could discern. So it is, you have to dig very deep to find out what it is and where that comes from. And then I think I have learned to live parallel lives. On the other hand when I go home, and when I hear people say, “Oh, Americans do this and that,” I think you see they are in the same trap. They have not had the exposure. So nobody’s really right.


ML: What are some of the differences in culture, in values, between where you grew up in Austria and where you’re living now, in Chicago?

RS: Ok, so we spend almost eighty years, so a lot of things have changed. And I grew up where the hit songs were the compositions of Franz Lehár, and my family all sang. They all had beautiful voices, and when the medium of entertainment was the radio. So when they heard somebody sing, and they say, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful!” Then they would all chorus in and follow the arias of Franz Lehár, the merry little [sings a bit in Austrian], they thought it was beautiful. If you sing that now, it has no relationship. But I think that the music from that time, you had to know a lot. And you had to be quite intelligent to compose it. And compared to a rock star, who has a rock music, has a repetitious, maybe one sentence, and repeats constantly, in different levels. So that’s the difference [laughs].

ML: Music, no matter where you are, changes whenever you move to a new location.

RS: Yes. And I think that also the area, where you live, inspires you. And when you are in the mountains, you go to the top of the mountains, and people sing the folk music. And you know they yodel. Yodel is a sound that they… it’s very old, that they used to communicate with. Where they would say, “Where are you? I am here and there”, and from the echo, they would know where they were, in the Alps. It was an old form of communication. And of course now they, and then it got incorporated into folk music.


ML: You said that the lake, or being able to look on something other than a sea or row of houses, drew you into Edgewater. Is that what keeps you here?

RS: Yes. The lake means a lot to me, and the area of Chicago where I can feel reasonably safe. And I am so fortunate to live in a high-rise where I have a doorman, where I do not have to concern myself that somebody comes and knocks on my door without…and has a gun in their hands. It is inconceivable to me where a law is passed that people are able to carry guns in public places. What for? Guns do not belong in people’s hands.


ML: One of the things that I’ve noticed from people who grew up in smaller towns, villages, things like that is that you tend to be able to form closer bonds with more people, because it’s fewer people that you have to know. Have you been able to form close friendships, close bonds with neighbors in the high-rise, say?

RS: Probably more so when I was working. I’m retired now, and a lot of my close friends have passed away, or something has happened to them, they have entered nursing homes…so not so much, I’m very lucky. I live with my son, is here, and he manages an Anne Sather restaurant, and lives close by. Another son, Christopher, unfortunately became schizophrenic, but is well controlled on medication. He stays with me. And then I have a daughter, Theresa, she also lives in Chicago, so we have a close family relationship. And there are Austrian clubs that I used to attend, but…I think that in my view, a lot of the Austrians have passed away. And that particular club that I used to enjoy was worth going to, had cultural programs, where they invited docents from the University of Chicago to discuss this or that. And this one has no interest in that, she is the husband of an Austrian who passed away, she’s a Chicagoan who thinks she owns the American Friends of Austria, and I am not interested in that. People become possessive.


ML: Sometimes, yeah. Do you see yourself moving away from Edgewater at any point?

RS: Um, hardly. I don’t want to live anywhere else in a big city. I would have to… occasionally my daughter lives in Highland Park…no, Libertyville, I’m sorry. I don’t want to live in Libertyville. I enjoy the lake, I enjoy the closeness to the city, and to cultural activities. I like to go to the opera, when possible, or attend concerts in Grant Park. There’s one coming up that she just sent me a program. On the 18th of July, they’re playing Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the Pastoral. I know the history of the Pastoral Symphony. It was composed… ”Pastoral” means that he describes the pasture. It’s the pasture of Hellene Valley, in Lower Austria. And I know the area, there’s a castle, where the Austrian Crowned Prince Rudolf committed suicide. I can’t think of it, I always know it. And it ends, and the end is the world…Rudolf committed suicide and there’s this beautiful valley, and Beethoven describes the day, the sunrise and you can hear it in the music, and the day, and then there’s a wedding, taking place, and it’s all in the music. And then it ends with the sun rising…with the moon rising. And the stars are sparkling in the sky, and…


ML: You mentioned the cultural activities…Edgewater is one of the more diverse neighborhoods within Chicago. Do you feel more comfortable in Edgewater because of your stated curiosity, and wanting to learn about other cultures?

RS: Yes.

ML: Does that help…

RS: Yes.

ML: Form a close bond in the community?

RS: I also like to meet all kind of people. And there are people in the elevator that I don’t know, and it’s a large building, and I…you never…I’ve lived there for…

[Video Interrupted]

RS: And I start chatting with them. And you can find out a lot of things from everywhere.


ML: Do you feel that that diversity helps form a closer bond for the community at large? Because of…

RS: Hopefully it does. And I wish that it does. And I think that we all need to be friends, and we have to ask questions, and not pass judgment. We can find out a lot.

ML: If you were the same age that you left Austria now…so if you were that eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old now, would you still leave Austria to come here?

RS: That would be…that’s something that I cannot answer.

ML: Ok.

RS: I always envisioned that I wanted to travel the world. I’ve only made it halfway around.

ML: It’s a big world. Do you have any words of advice for anybody that’s looking or thinking about immigrating into the U.S.?

RS: I think that if you leave home, you have to leave with a very open mind. And it is not an easy task. It depends…of course it depends on your circumstances where you can go, and have sufficient funds to set up wherever you are. And support yourself, whether you have to go out and make a living, because the first thing that happens when you go somewhere else, you will tend to always be considered not from here. And you have to learn to deal with that. Because people…some, you know it depends. Some can because of the accent you speak, can raise up and [unintelligible] on the back of our heads. And you have to learn to know, to recognize it, and to deal with it. But stay friendly. And hopefully you learn to open somebody’s…somebody else’s eyes.


ML: How would you rate the overall immigration experience, first from Austria to England, and then England to Kentucky, and Kentucky finally to Chicago?

RS: I think it was an interesting life. It was an interesting life. I cannot imagine myself without it. I cannot imagine myself not having done it, or being one of those that have stayed at home. I’m very fortunate that…. Actually, my best friend is the great-grandson of Emperor Franz Joseph. He owns the Kaiser Villa. As an aristocrat of high standing, the locals put up barriers to such people also. And I have experienced the barriers here, he has experienced the barriers there. We have… I think that this is a friendship that has…I met him here in Chicago, he visited Chicago. And somebody says, “Dah dah dah, Bad Ischl’s [unintelligible]. So I contacted him and said, “You know I’m from Bad Ischl.” and it was a surprise meeting. And we are friends ever since. He sent me this calendar.


ML: So as big of a world as it is, it still remains a small world.

RS: Yes.

ML: Thank you very much for the story…it’s an incredibly…beautiful and interesting and connected story, with all the connections. Thank you very much for sharing it with me.

RS: I think I’m really fortunate that life…we cannot control everything. And look what happened to me. Life led me to Chicago.

ML: Thank you.

RS: Thank you.