Shortly after my wife and I moved to Berlin last January, we came upon FeinBäckerie, an old bakery that had been turned into a restaurant, an unassuming local joint with regulars tippling at the bar. Along the dining room wall was a large, black iron door with an elaborate system of latches and hinges—the oven from FeinBäckerie's days in the bread trade. I glanced at the menu and ordered a Wiener schnitzel. As we waited, someone beyond the wall began pounding a countertop. The sound, rapid, loud and regular, transported me—to the Wiener schnitzels my grandmother used to make every Christmas.
My grandmother, Erica Matschnigg, was born in 1904 and brought up in Vienna by Socialist parents with forward-thinking notions about much more than politics. They didn't encourage her to learn the skills that bourgeois Austrian girls typically busied themselves acquiring: housekeeping, sewing, drawing, piano playing and, especially, cooking. To the Matschniggs, food was nothing more than human fuel and elevating its importance marked the sort of philistinism that discouraged young women from higher pursuits. So it was that my grandmother became the rare girl to attend a Gymnasium, an Austrian high school; she compensated for being the only girl in her class by becoming the best student.
The worst student was the new boy. Alexander Gerschenkron had fled the Russian Revolution in 1920; he arrived in Vienna speaking not a word of German. Even after he began to learn the language, school remained a challenge, but he drew inspiration from his desk mate, a certain Latin whiz with ash blond tresses braided in the style of Goethe's Gretchen. She was not as taken with him; for two years she showed "the Russian" only contempt. Yet by 1924, when my grandparents entered the University of Vienna, they were a couple. Four years later, when the civil registry official came to the portion of the marriage ceremony where it was customary to offer hopes "for a fruitful union," he cast his eyes on the bride's bulging midriff, and tactfully refrained.