Christmas in Austria by Sarah Einstein
We walk as quickly as we can across the farmers’ fields toward the fire. I get tripped up on the frozen hillocks that rise above the muddy furrows, the hem of my skirt first wet then frozen. My husband and his nimble friend run ahead of us, his mother and aunt hang back with me. Husband and friend are young and light; we are older and don’t see so well in the dark. We take one another’s arms over the rough spots, lead each other toward paths where they’re available. Everywhere around us men and women with children riding on their backs rush toward the sound of drums.
As we get closer, we see the grotesque shadows leaping against the wall of the farmhouse, hear not just the pulse of the drum, but the strains of the flute. Wildly costumed characters dance around a fire built near the wall of a barn. The crowd gathers and cheers; the hunt has begun.
We run from field to field, chasing the hunt. I get hit by the Witch. The Frog. Death. It’s good luck! my mother-in-law says, pushing me forward a little. Fertility! says my husband’s nimble friend. I pale a little at this. My husband is young enough to have children, but I am not, and I don’t yet know that my mother-in-law is glad not to have grandchildren, thinks the world too awful a place for them. Later, we will love one another, but this is my first night of my first trip to Austria, and at the moment, we are strangers.
This is not a tourist festival. In fact, the exact location of the Wild Hunt in Grödig is a carefully guarded secret, and my mother-in-law has had to pull in a favor to find it for us, for me. I’m having a hard time imagining a place for myself here, as the Jewish daughter-in-law in an Austrian family with a difficult past, and I think maybe I’ll find it in remembering we’re all mountain folk.
The spirits in my mountains are newer—Mothman, the Greenbrier Ghost, the Phantom of Flatwoods, Snarly Yow—but my mountains themselves are older. Worn down by age so much that my husband, who grew up here in Salzburg in the shadows of the Alps, teases me by insisting that they are only hills. Says proper mountains have tree lines and snow caps. But mountains are mountains, and all of them have their ghosts.
Most of the ghosts that haunt me on this trip are newer even than the haints that prowl the West Virginia hills. They are the ones you expect them to be, Nazis and their victims. Sad ghosts and hostile ones. On Christmas eve, we visit the graveyard and I put rocks on their headstones: the grandfather who fought was in the Luftwaffe and wasn’t a Nazi, the one who fought in the Wehrmacht and was. The grandmother who wears a swastika brooch in her photo doesn’t have a grave; my husband’s stepmother has refused to pay the upkeep, part of a larger family scandal. I do not put a stone on the grave of a family friend when I’m told she was a big fan of you-know-who, always wanted to go to the Eagle’s Nest on her birthday. I may have to come to terms with kin, but I feel no such obligation for kith.
We go to Berchtesgaden, where the Eagle’s Nest is, for the Christkindlmarkt, which is held in a town square that also serves as a memorial for all the soldiers from town who fought in both World Wars. The insignia is erased from the uniforms, but still, I am standing in a public plaza under a mural of larger-than-life Nazi soldiers being commemorated as heroes. My husband points to the mountaintop where the Eagle’s Nest still stands, open to tourists in the warmer months. His mother calls my attention to a second redoubt on a mountaintop on the other side of the town.
There, men in lederhosen and Gamsbart have gathered. Watch, my mother-in-law says, clearly delighted. It’s about to start. The plaza is crowded enough that we are jostled as everyone gathers in to get a good view of whatever is about to happen. I feel claustrophobic. I want to walk to the edge of the plaza, to get out of the crowd, but she holds my arm in a gesture of affection.
. . . I’m just a Jew standing in a crowded plaza under a Nazi war memorial being fired at by German men with guns. I break out into a cold sweat and my vision dims at the sides. I think I might faint or vomit. I have to will myself not to cry.
The men begin firing black powder guns into the sky. The sound of it is terrible, and because it is unexpected, my first instinct is to flee, but of course I can’t, because I’m held by the crowd and the love of my mother-in-law. She joins in as the crowd cheers the men. They are frightening winter away! she tells me, delighted to have found yet another folk custom to share with me.
Only, unlike the Wild Hunt, I do not find this charming or fun. I’m terrified. My intellect has shut off, and now I’m just a Jew standing in a crowded plaza under a Nazi war memorial being fired at by German men with guns. I break out into a cold sweat and my vision dims at the sides. I think I might faint or vomit. I have to will myself not to cry.
And yet, at the same time, I’m aware that my reaction is outsized and out of place, that I’m not only not in any danger, but that my mother-in-law has gone to great trouble to bring us here from Salzburg at just the right moment to share this part of her culture with me; that this is an act of inclusion, an act of love. I put my hand over hers where it rests on my arm, and try to make my terror look like delight. Isn’t it marvelous? she asks, and I say that it is. She squeezes my arm approvingly.
When the guns have stopped firing, she walks me around the Christkindlmarkt. We buy Glühwein in cheesy tourists mugs with a drawing of the town on them that I still use to drink my morning coffee. She pushes me to the front of the crowd standing before children caroling. This is my daughter-in-law from America, she says to the people in my way. Let her in to see. I smile sheepishly at the people she pushes me past. I am too exhausted from the effort of pretending to enjoy myself to fight, to say I’m fine watching from back here.
On Christmas Eve, gathered around a tree covered in straw ornaments my mother-in-law has made herself and real candles—a combination that scares me only a little bit, and only in a very American way—we exchange gifts. I give my mother-in-law and her sister poorly knitted scarves made from lovely wool grown and carded and dyed on a farm near where my husband and I live in Ohio. She hands me two bracelets, gold, and says For you. Family jewelry. They were Dominik’s grandmother’s. I am not someone who wears much jewelry, but I can tell they are well-made and valuable. One is a thin strand of white, rose, and yellow gold; the other a heavy chain. I thank her as sincerely and as enthusiastically as I can, and then put the bracelets in a box by the side of our bed.
For three days, I beg my husband to help me return these bracelets to his mother. I say that it’s because I don’t wear gold, which is mostly true, I rarely do. I say that his sister Margot should have them, that they are rightfully hers. I say that they are too much, too generous, and I feel uncomfortable accepting them. I say that, really, I simply can’t keep them.
My husband starts out baffled and quickly becomes grumpy. This kind of ungraciousness isn’t like you at all, he says. Why are you behaving like this?
It will be months, and we’ll be back home in Ohio, before I finally reveal why the bracelets horrify me. They will sit, during those months, in my jewelry box like some grim token, and I find myself unwilling to touch them. Finally, I can’t take not knowing any longer, and so I ask him Please, isn’t there some way we could still give them back? What if they were made from teeth?
He will look at me at first as if I’ve just said something obscene, but he is a patient man, and so then he’ll explain to me patiently, They didn’t make jewelry out of the gold teeth they pulled from the corpses of Jews, he’ll say. They melted it down into gold bars to fund the war. And besides, he reminds me, his grandparents had been refugees after the war, and had nothing. Any jewelry that his grandmother had to pass down would have come from after the war.
It will take a while before I believe him, before I can wear the bracelets, but eventually I can. I think of them now as a metaphor, although I’m not certain exactly for what. Some days, I think they represent the possibility of reconciliation even after a great atrocity, for putting aside the past without forgetting it. Other days, just the simpler miracle of my mother-in-law’s love for me, and my love for her, in spite of history. But mostly, I think they are a metaphor for my own dread, my metastasized fear of what happened there, and of what might be happening here.
Sarah Einstein teaches Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is the author of Mot: A Memoir ((University of Georgia Press, 2015), and Remnants of Passion (Shebooks, 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK, and other journals. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction.