Michael Bray

Author of A Time To Kill

Austria in Wilmington

Michael Bray
22 November 2006

Austria in Wilmington

Following the announcement in the Wilmington News Journal (22 September) of the coming of the Von Trapps to the Murphy Theater in April 2007, I determined to read the book written by the eldest daughter of Capt. Georg Von Trapp (whose image was portrayed in the countenance of Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music). Agathe, in her Memories Before and After “The Sound of Music,” sorts truth from myth. The first is a pleasure to discover; the second is more satisfying.

Yes, Capt. Von Trapp (Papà) was an heroic naval officer. He was a submariner who sank a French battleship, the Leon Gambetta, in the Mediterranean during WW I and received the highest military honor afforded by the Austrian Navy, the Maria Theresian Cross. A German Lutheran by heritage, he became a Roman Catholic in deference to his wife’s Faith for the sake of harmony in the family. At the death of his wife, he was left with seven children. At age 47 he married Maria, 22, with whom he had three more children.

Yes, Maria Augusta Kutschera had much musical experience. Before converting to the Christian faith and joining the Benedictine order, she traveled and sang with an idealistic youth group, Neuland (newland) which hoped to reform the social order along socialist tenets. They traveled in simple clothes including sandals that they made, and they despised what they called “sophisticated society.”

Yes, there was fear throughout Austria when the Germans invaded Austria on 11 March, 1938. The Anschluss was not resisted by Austria; the Chancellor announced by radio: “The German army is at our borders! I gave orders not to resist because Austria does not have enough capabilities to do so. Resisting would only create a terrible bloodbath!” And the church bells rang in celebration by the command of the invaders.

There were some acts of resistance rendered by the Captain. He did not tear down a Nazi flag, but he did decline to put one up when some zealous youths came by on motorcycles offering the flags for display. (In contrast, the Stiegler family, servants of the family living on a higher floor, did hang the flag from their windows albeit without interference from Papà.); the family applied the tradition of wearing black clothes following the death of a relative to show mourning over the death of their country; Captain Von Trapp refused to command a German submarine; Rupert, the eldest son and medical doctor, declined to take a position as a hospital administrator which the Germans needed to replace many Jewish doctors who had dismissed; the family declined a request to sing on Munich radio in honor of Hitler’s birthday.

Life in the occupied nation was not comfortable. Stories circulated in Salzburg about people vanishing, homes being visited in the middle of the night. School children were interrogated about family conversation and books that were read. Stories were heard of “concentration camps where Jews were tortured, starved to death, or gassed and burned in big ovens.”

When the Stieglers, who had become Nazi party members with access to information not available to the public, kindly warned the family six months after the invasion that the borders of Austria would soon be closed, the Von Trapps left. They did not go over the mountain. Rather, with each carrying a knapsack on his back and a suitcase in hand, “We just crossed the railroad tracks behind our property, proceeded to the station, Aigen bei Salzburg, and took the first train south to northern Italy.” After remaining there a few months, they took a train to France through Switzerland and then a ship across the English Channel. After some sight-seeing in London, they took another train to Southampton where they boarded the ship, American Farmer, to cross the Atlantic to New York.

More satisfying are the movie versions which display the cunning, lies, and deception on the part of the nuns, Uncle Franz, Papà, and the family. The nuns’ thievery of the spark plugs from the government vehicle; lying and deceiving the Nazi leaders in the audience during intermission while the daring escape was made; all these actions which are normally illegal and immoral became legitimized under the circumstances.

The sorting out of ethical issues in times of great trial and adversity and the uncertainty of victory for the righteous makes for great theater.

Although the particular dramatic events of the escape were fictional, we may still enjoy the story as one which could have happened. The family had been well catechized in certain truths: one in particular. Says Agathe: “We learned that in case anyone, even our parents, wanted us to commit a sin, we should refuse to obey.”

Indeed, and those who teach that there is no God inspire either anarchy or blind submission to whatever the powers decree.

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