sometimes, i speculate about the nature of my great-grandparents’ marriage.
my great-grandfather emil was a young widower with a 3 year old child when he married helene 10 months after the tuberculosis death of his first wife, rosalia. helene was a somewhat of a spinster by 1908’s norms: at 34, this was her first marriage. the one tangible sort of fact i know about helene was that she liked to read (one of her nephews once wrote me that she would be delighted that i was going to library school because she loved to read so much) and i unfairly begin to typecast her as a bookish old maid, set up into a marriage of practicality. perhaps this was not the case – perhaps helene, the oldest daughter, was taking care of her dying mother and aging father before this or maybe she was jilted by an unfaithful lover. whatever the case, i still wonder because there is no one who can tell me otherwise. i wonder if they were set up by family members or mutual acquaintances, or if they already knew each other because their families issued from the same almost-neighboring villages in slovakia. transposed into the city of vienna, these familial and geographic connections might have been what threw them together – and i like to suspect it is, regardless of the nature of this marriage itself. i wonder if in fact i am wrong – that this was not a marriage of convenience and practicality – but i am hard-pressed to really believe it otherwise. whatever the case, helene and emil were married for thirty years, until emil’s death in 1938, and lived comfortably in vienna with their two sons – hans, the above mentioned 3 year old who did not know helene wasn’t his birth mother until he was an adult, and my grandfather, franz, who was born the year after their marriage.
emil, as i have mentioned before, was a man with rich tastes. he enjoyed good food and drink, but he also enjoyed women. i don’t know if there was more than one mistress – maybe there was just the one – but this also makes me wonder about the nature of his marriage to my great-grandmother, and the complexity of the relationships that bound them, his mistress, and his children.
the story goes that emil brought home a mistress from the russian front after world war i. he was able to get some kind of cushy commission because of his status in vienna (a clothier with a store on the ringstrasse, who allegedly made clothes for the emperor), and instead of fighting in the trenches, he lived in relative safety somewhere behind the front lines. the only story about this mistress is a painful one: one night, emil and helene went out to dinner somewhere emil apparently frequented, but helene did not. before they were seated, the maître d’ asked, “and where is mrs hoffer tonight?” not knowing that the lady he was accustomed to seeing in his establishment was the mistress, not the wife, a personage who was in fact right in front of him. i don’t know how the story ended, but i can speculate. i don’t know helene well enough to know how she would have reacted, but i can speculate about that, too. i can also speculate about the emotions telling this story might have stirred up for my grandfather as he passed it on to my mother and aunt.
the mistress, of course, had a name, but that is not in the stories. i would bet cash money that my grandfather was well aware of what it was, but he never spoke it to anyone alive who can repeat it to me now.
aloisia swoboda was from the city of breslau (now wroclaw), poland and twenty years emil’s (and helene’s) junior. i know this because she is mentioned in a codicil of emil’s will, which i sent to vienna for a copy of. this codicil was not the reason i sent for the will – in fact, i didn’t know it was going to be there at all because i did not know about the person whose existence was the reason for it being there. as such, it came as quite a shock to me to read this codicil and realize that i had a great-aunt named emilie.
it came as even a greater shock to me that my grandfather necessarily knew about emilie’s existence because he was the executor of this will and its codicil (which, by the way, provided for emilie’s education until she came of age), but never once mentioned the fact that he had an illegitimate half-sister thirteen years younger than himself. this truth, scrupulously held, would have been a secret forever, were i not a snoop.
were i not a snoop, my mother would never know the reason why her dad so vigorously rejected the idea that my younger sister be named “emily,” in honor of emil. and my heart wouldn’t break when i try to imagine the pain and the burden he felt, simultaneously despising and loving his father and loving and protecting his mother.
i don’t judge emil for his indiscretions. indeed, i would judge him a lot more if he hadn’t provided for emilie and her mother. but it makes me speculate and it makes me sad for my great-grandmother who loved to read.
emil hoffer (1874-1938)