A Family Saved


On August 7, 1922, I was very much in love with a certain Frau Elisabeth Tomaschek who lived in the Eighth District of Vienna. Since Herr Tomaschek was away at the time, he didn’t stand in the way of my expressing my feelings. I’m willing to admit now that from a moral standpoint what I did wasn’t what you would call nice, but on the other hand, from a less judgmental point of view, it wasn’t nasty or unnatural. After all, there’s no justice in Nature. Besides, I was rather lacking in inhibitions at the time, the war being scarcely over.

On November 12, 1928, Herr Tomaschek, whom in the intervening years I had learned to appreciate, unexpectedly paid me a visit. He was clearly in a state of great distress.

“I’ve just come from a frightful row,” he said.

He explained that it had begun with a sharp exchange of words between him and his esteemed wife about whether their dear little Bubi should be educated at a school for liberal arts or at the technical college. His wife was strongly in favor of the technical school because it was nearby, but Herr Tomaschek had a weakness for impractical things. He had vigorously defended the value of humanistic ideals and, in the course of doing so, unfortunately let slip a vulgar, insulting curse word. Not surprisingly, his wife had answered in kind. They had gone back and forth like that for a while until his wife (and for her the whole dispute may well have been just an excuse to open up a valve for resentments she had been storing up since 1920).

“And then came the real set-to,” Tomaschek bellowed. “Damned if the hussy didn’t say that something happened between you and her on August 7, 1922.”

“Good heavens,” I said. “I’m shocked.”

“Now I just want to know,” Tomaschek went on. “Whether it’s really true or not, because if it’s really true, then I want a divorce. No one can expect me to go on living with a woman who’s had anything to do with you! Come on now. We’ll still be friends. I’m not mad at you. I know it’s not your fault. In my opinion women are the root of all evil, sin personified, vice itself!”

While he was talking, I was thinking as hard as I could about what to do next. I didn’t want to destroy a family. That would have been against my principles. But at the same time I didn’t want to deceive the good Tomaschek either. It made me feel like a scoundrel to think I should betray his trust, he being so understanding. In the end, altruism won out: two human beings, I told myself, whom fate has brought together and joined in law should not be at loggerheads. Now less than ever, because then sweet little Bubi’s parents would be torn one from the other.

So I answered Tomaschek like this: “You know, I find your dear wife’s behavior rather cavalier, the way she’s trying to drag me into this drama just to upset you. It’s a lie, you know—nothing but a lie!”

My tone calmed him, and he held out a grubby hand.

“I have to go over to the Hotel Continental now,” he said.

“Do you believe me?” I asked.

“I believe everything,” he said, with more than a little resignation in his voice.

As soon as he had gone, I ran at once to his wife.

“Elizabeth!” I said, chiding her. “I just saw Viktor and he was asking all these questions—“

“Yes, yes, I know!” she interrupted.

“It’s all rubbish!” I shouted.

So far, everything was going according to plan.

“Of course I confessed that something happened between us,” I went on, “since he appealed to my honor. And now he wants a divorce no matter what!”

“So it’s come to that!” she said. And sat down.

This was a surprise, especially since I had hoped for exactly the opposite. I had thought my imaginary confession would intimidate her, but instead I saw it only gave her a feeling of relief.

“You can’t possibly know anything about it,” she said, gazing down enviously at my fashionable shoes.

“About how well he and I get along together,” she went on. “I would never have had anything to do with you if I hadn’t known he’d gone about with all kinds of people.”

She was standing at the window now, as if she wanted a way out of everything. Out of herself, too.

“And little Bubi?” I asked suddenly, as if in afterthought, for this was my last trump. “If Viktor divorces you, you’ll be the guilty party and Viktor will get the child.”

At once she completely pulled herself together.

“What kind of unnatural laws are those,” she cried with despair.

You always have to appeal to a mother through her child if you want to get anywhere.

Just at that moment, Tomaschek appeared.

“What are you doing here?” he said to me, mistrustful.

But she didn’t give me a chance to answer. Crying, she fell upon him, clutching and moaning fearfully. Without words she asked him again and again for forgiveness, even going so far as to kiss his hand.

Tomaschek gave me a quizzical look.

“I was just reproaching her,” I said, “for claiming that she and I had been together, which is absolutely untrue.”

Rarely in my entire life had my words had so great an effect. She staggered backwards away from Tomaschek and shuddered like a beaten animal. Then she stared at me in an ominously spiteful way that made my blood run cold.

But Tomaschek only made a dismissive gesture.

“She’s just so stupid, poor thing,” he said.

And that’s how I saved a family from destruction.


Ödön von Horváth

Ödön von Horváth was a prominent antifascist playwright and novelist of the early twentieth century. Born 1901 in Fiume, Hungary (now Rijeka, Croatia), he was the son of a career diplomat. He lived in Belgrade, Budapest, Munich, Vienna, and Berlin before being expelled from Germany in 1933. In plays such as Tales from the Vienna Woods (1931) he depicted how the gullibility and egotism of ordinary people led them to discount the reality of evil and thus the threat posed by fascism. His stated aim was to “unmask consciousness” to reveal the anti-social instincts beneath. Stefan Zweig thought him the most gifted writer of his generation, and in 1931 he received the Kleist Prize, the highest award for German drama. His best-known novels include A Child of Our Time (1938) and Youth Without God (1938, published in English translation by Melville House, 2012). He died 1938 in Paris when he was struck by a falling tree branch during a rainstorm. In his brief lifetime he produced twenty-one plays and four long prose works. A revival of his plays began in the late 1960s and 1970s, and his prose works were taught in German schools.

Linda Frazee Baker

Linda Frazee Baker’s translations of works by Ingeborg Bachmann, Max Frisch, and Ödön von Horváth have appeared in The Guardian, Web Conjunctions, Asymptote, and Metamorphoses. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Drunken Boat, and Sakura Review. She holds a master’s in writing from Johns Hopkins and a PhD in English from Berkeley. She is currently an Assistant Editor for No Man’s Land: New German Literature in English Translation.

English translation copyright (c) Linda Frazee Baker, 2017.