Footsteps across Continents: Hedi Simon and the Stadlens of Austria and Britain

Matthew Stadlen, in The Telegraph, 11 November 2013, where the title is “Family history: retracing the steps of a romance disrupted by war”

In 1938 my grandfather, the pianist Peter Stadlen, was returning to his native Austria from a concert tour of Ireland when he happened to meet a girl on the ferry home. As a result he caught a cold from chatting to her on deck, and had to stop over in Amsterdam. The fates were with him, because the following day – 75 years ago – the Nazis marched into Austria; Peter was a secular Jew. He was able to communicate with his mother and sister, who were still in Vienna, and urge them to leave by the next train to Holland. From there, all three made it to London as refugees, and that is where my family has been based ever since. They were lucky.

 Hedi Simon … also known as Heidi Keuneman before her second marriage to Peter Stadlen

My great-great-uncle, known as Onkl Friedl, did not escape. He was one of the very first to die at the hands of the Gestapo when they moved into Vienna. He had been chief economic adviser to pre-Nazi Chancellors of Austria, and was immediately put under house arrest. A paraplegic, he always kept cyanide in his ring in case he should ever be caught in a fire, unable to escape. He tricked the Nazi guards into leaving his room and took the poison. I have red hair but neither of my parents do: Onkl Friedl was a redhead and I’ve always believed it comes from him.

As an English boy growing up in London, I was told about the momentous events of my family history and often thought about my grandparents’ life before the war in Austria. So when, this summer, the Telegraph sent me to Salzburg to interview the world-famous tenor-turned-baritone Placido Domingo, I seized the opportunity to go in search of my Austrian Jewish roots, and I asked my British-born father, recently retired as a High Court judge, to join me. In particular, we wanted to find – if indeed it still existed – the balcony where my grandparents – his parents – met for the first time in 1924.

My grandmother Hedi was also a secular Jew. Her great uncle – and my claim to fame – was Johann Strauss II, he of the “Blue Danube” waltz. He even dedicated a waltz to Hedi’s father, Hans von Simon. The original, handwritten score would many years later hang on the wall of my grandparents’ music room in north London.

The story goes that, as a girl growing up in Vienna, Hedi attended an avant-garde school run by a pioneer of female education, who also ran a summer school by the lake in a town called Grundlsee. For reasons that history does not relate, my grandfather, aged 14, was playing chess with his best friend on a balcony there in the summer of 1924. Hedi, aged eight, appeared in front of them and announced herself with the words, “I am the daughter of Dr Hans von Simon.” Peter looked up briefly before returning to his game.

My grandparents met again 10 years later in Vienna where they started a romance before their paths diverged once more. Peter moved to Berlin to pursue his career as a pianist. Hedi took up a place at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she became a Communist, studied under Wittgenstein and gained a First in philosophy. Historian Eric Hobsbawm was an admirer of hers – but she fell in love with her first husband, a Ceylonese Communist and president of the Cambridge Union Society, Pieter Keuneman. During the war they lived in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

When the war ended, Hedi returned to England to visit her mother. While in London she met, again, her old Viennese boyfriend, Peter Stadlen. Even after his arrival in England back in 1938, things had not been straightforward for Peter. During the war the British government took no risks with émigrés from Austria and Germany – even Jews – for fear they might be enemy aliens in disguise. He was duly shipped to Australia, where he was interned for a year. He had given the world premiere of Webern’s Variations for Piano in Vienna; as recently as 1937 he had conducted a fiendishly difficult Schoenberg work from the piano at the Venice Biennale. Now, in camp, his jobs ranged from running the choir to cleaning the lavatories.

Following internment, he had returned to London by boat. He became a British citizen in 1946 and continued to play the piano professionally. He was part of a formidable generation of Viennese Jewish immigrants who made their mark on the British classical music scene. There is still a photograph of him at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Hedi and Peter fell in love and, after her amicable divorce from Keuneman, they married – and Hedi renounced communism. As émigrés in Britain, their two lives finally became one, and a story that began on that lakeside balcony turned in to 50 years of happy marriage.

But disaster struck for Peter in the mid-Fifties. Something went wrong with the fourth finger of his left hand. Nothing that would stop him holding a knife and fork, but serious enough to compromise his means of putting food on the table. He tried desperately to find a cure, and attempted different fingerings for the pieces in his repertoire. To no avail. Suddenly he found himself stripped of his livelihood in a foreign country.

Supported by Hedi, he changed career. On the back of ground-breaking talks for the Third Programme (now Radio 3) about serialism – a rigorously modern method of musical composition – he was offered a job as music critic for The Daily Telegraph in 1959. He spent 26 years there, initially answering to Martin Cooper, father of the well-known pianist and family friend Imogen Cooper. Eventually he became chief music critic himself. Hedi worked as Peter’s amanuensis and would transcribe his reviews in the car outside the concert hall. He would then call the Telegraph’s night sub-editor and read out the article from a red telephone box.

Hedi never forgave Austria for its part in the horrors of Nazism. None the less, my grandparents would each year attend the Salzburg Festival. Peter reviewed the concerts and operas for this paper. Family history came full circle, therefore, when I heard Domingo sing Giacomo in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco at Salzburg, before interviewing him for the Telegraph. He was making his return less than a month after being admitted to hospital with a pulmonary embolism, and was both inspired and inspiring.

After the interview with Domingo, my father and I headed to the mountain lakes south-east of Salzburg where he had gone for boyhood holidays with his parents. We found the waterfront hotel in the village of Altaussee where the old owner had once threatened to lock my father and his brother in the cellar for running along the corridors and tipping up the breakfast trays outside the bedrooms. Among our cherished family documents, we have a black-and-white photograph of my grandfather standing in the shallows of the lake near the hotel, my father in his arms.

At 16 stone, I was a little heavy to re-enact this filial scene; but we did take out an electric boat and make our way silently through the dark waters. Above us loomed the Loser, an 1,838-metre-high mountain my father had climbed as a child. Today, a road leads up to within a still-hefty walk of the summit.

Grundlsee itself was a short journey away, just over the Trisselwand mountain to the south-west of the Altausseer See. But would we be able to find the auspicious balcony? At the Grundlsee Information Office, a middle-aged woman, clothed in Tyrolean dress, pointed us to the very place – now the Restaurant Seeblick.

And so it was that my father and I found ourselves standing where his mother had stood for the first time in front of his father 89 years before. Stretched out before us in the early evening sun was the lake, encircled by mountains. Peter and Hedi found love and made a life in Britain; but Austria was the land of their birth, and here was the spot where it had all started. Just as they were both immigrants in the country of my birth, so, in search of their story, I had come to the country of theirs.

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