ALLEN & UNWIN: From Viennese high society to a small flat in Sydney, Tim Bonyhady’s memoir details the lives of three generations of his family.
Tim Bonyhady writes the remarkable story of his Jewish family’s unlikely rise to wealth in Vienna over three generations, and their eventual escape from Nazi Austria to Australia in Good Living Street
. Along the way he paints a rare picture of the changing societies his family inhabited over a period of 100 years, and of the family’s shifting experiences of social status and acceptance over the same period.
The first half of the book explores his wealthy Jewish family’s sometimes absurd social climbing, and their desperation to be accepted in a Viennese society still cursed with anti-Semitism:
“The family’s favourite was almost everyone else’s favourite, Richard Wagner ... The passion required Moritz and Hermine to ignore Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism… Wagner identified them [the Jews] as the antithesis of what was German, describing them as an ‘alien element’ that had ‘invaded’ the ‘German essence’.”
These are the slowest and perhaps less interesting parts of the book, but help set the scene for what happens next. Exposed to the horrific violence that the Nazis encouraged and led across Europe, the family must escape and adapt to the insular insecurity – and generosity – of 1950’s Australia.
Bonyhady, an art historian, pays particular attention to the prominent artists of the times, and the complicated relationships they had with their wealthy patrons, whom he claims “turned to culture as a substitute for politics”.
The book comes to life with well researched and occasionally delicious detail, as well as photographs that record the fashion and art of the time and the emotional state of the participants. His skill lies in leaving the reader to make their own moral judgements based on the historical facts he has been able to assemble.
Bonyhady’s gentle style of storytelling allows us to laugh with his family and their imperfections, and leaves us empathising with their plight. Most importantly, it gives the reader an insight into the trauma of being a refugee – even those as privileged and wealthy as his family, who escaped from Europe with first class tickets.
The reader gains a glimpse into the personal tragedies of two World Wars, and of the horrors that sit behind the mind-numbing statistics of the Holocaust. We are also reminded of both the frailty and strength of the human spirit. Some family members were forever crushed by their trauma; others braved incredible hardships and found a way to discover meaning and happiness again.
This is not ‘just another Holocaust book’. Bonyhady writes a story of a family who discover that wealth and social status are no match for the love and loyalty of family and close friends. It reminds us that even though human beings can be disgracefully and ruthlessly selfish, the majority want to contribute to a society that is full of beauty, joy, and self-fulfilment.
Good Living Street: The Fortunes of my Viennese Family
By Tim Bonyhady
Allen & Unwin
Trade paperback, 464 pages
ISBN / Catalogue Number: 9781742371467