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October 04, 2003

Schwarzenegger's Mentor 

Translation of this story intended to save Mickey Kaus's mother some work. Corrections and criticisms encouraged; mail them to Dell at Sonic.net. New viewers (that would be all of you), sorry for the lack of amenities. I'll have a blogroll, etc., up as soon as I can. Meanwhile check out my uncle Bill's very entertaining (and recall-rich) blog, Idler Yet, although despite the title I think I've out-idled him until now.

Dell Adams

[blurb on index page]

Schwarzenegger’s Mentor: Alfred Gerstl, grandson of one of New York’s first cantors, former ÖVP [Austrian People's Party] president of the Bundesrat and "foster-father" to the young Schwarzenegger, turns 80 years old. A portrait


"I’m a Maccabee"

In the study of his Graz apartment hang the portraits of very different people: Regional premiers Josef Krainer Jr. and Waltraud Klasnic. A poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger, his foster-son, as the newspapers like to say. And a framed photograph of Josip Broz Tito. "You wouldn’t believe how people’s eyes widen when they see Tito here," says Alfred Gerstl. Under Schwarzenegger and Tito stands a menorah.

By Helene Maimann

It is very hot on this Friday afternoon in August. We sit down at the other side of his desk, with a bottle of whisky, two glasses, some cigarettes and an already quite full ashtray between us, and talk about Gerstl’s life. About the years as a resistance fighter with Tito’s Partisans. About his rise from apprentice gunsmith, light-opera comedian, milk-stand owner and tobacconist to President of the Bundesrat [the Austrian Senate]. About the very Austrian mélange of his origins. About Jews, and his experience as a “half-Jew”. About war and sports. And, of course, about Arnold. “I got to know Arnold in 1961. He was 14 then. In those days the weightlifters from Graz used to get together on Lake Thal near Graz every summer. I would have a cookout there for our boys. Arnold is from Thal, you know, and sought us out. And he made friends with my son.” His son, Karl Gerstl, practiced karate, and with his team later became world champions. Alfred Gerstl and his first wife cleared a room in their apartment for the two boys and installed a small bench with weights for them so that they could train undisturbed, “because at the Graz Athletic Union the old hands didn’t always let the boys use the equipment. Arnold was always in and out of our house. He was a remarkable boy, even in those days. Friendly, eager to learn, purposeful.” After their workouts the two boys were made to listen to records of Joseph Schmidt and Richard Tauber [famous pre-war tenors], so that their brains would grow as well as their muscles.

“What did Schwarzenegger’s parents say about all that?”

“They didn’t object – they knew Arnold was in good hands with us.”

“Arnold’s father, Gustav, was a former National Socialist.”

“He only became a Nazi the way tens of thousands of other people did. I think he did it under economic pressure. Anyway, I only heard about it later. I knew him well. He was a very strict father, who wasn’t too happy at first about his son’s bodybuilding, but he supported his friendship with Karl.”

Gerstl took a great liking to young Arnold. “Naturally, I helped him along and wanted to influence him, and not only where sports were concerned. Cultivation and political maturity are just as important. And with time he came to understand quite a bit. Through us he came in contact with many former victims of persecution, Jews included, of course. One of them was Albert Kaufmann, whose father had been in the British army and who is now the head of the Otto Moebius Academy in Graz. He is my best friend today, and he became friends with Arnold back then.”

That was 1964. At that time, neo-Nazis were mobilizing against the director of the Teacher Training Institute, Göpphard. “He was an ÖVP man and an anti-fascist, and someone noticed opposition to the Nazis in his lectures. Then, when the neo-Nazis held a march against Göpphard into the main square of Graz, we got in their way. There was a ruckus, and Arnold and the bodybuilders chased the Nazis down the Herrengasse.” He laughs. “I’m a Maccabee. I don’t stay away from the fight. Even when I was a kid I was a scrapper when it mattered. I have the ability to meet toughness with toughness. It was lucky that I had the chance to defend myself as a fighter in the Resistance. It meant that later on, after the war, I was protected against self-destructive hatred and feelings of revenge.”

He opens a drawer and pulls out a folder of documents. The doctoral diploma of his grandfather, Dr. Ignaz Gerstl of Mattersburg, who went to America in the 1870s, studied medicine there, later became a singer and guitarist at the New York Conservatory of Music—and then bass-baritone at the Met, and one of the first cantors in New York. This grandfather, who later came back home and died in Graz in 1916, was a restless spirit: he traveled throughout the world, was rumored to have started families in Austria, America and Russia, and bequeathed to his grandson Alfred not only his musical ability and his voice but also the love of travel and a vital interest in vastly different things.

Alfred Gerstl came into the world in 1923, the third of four children. Parents Alfred and Maria had married in 1920 in the synagogue of Graz; his mother was a Catholic who converted to Judaism. Two years later his mother reconverted—because the elder Gerstl became a Catholic too. It was the prerequisite for a post with the Austrian Federal Railways, and that was a necessity for survival. Alfred was baptized; he was a Catholic; but not very Catholic. “Religion didn’t play much of a role in our house. But I do remember the stories from the Kabbalah that my father would read to us. He had also been involved in Hasidism. He didn’t conceal his Jewishness, even as a baptized Catholic. And he accepted every religion. He himself later became a very religious Catholic, as so often happens with converts; his credo was the Sermon on the Mount. But at the same time he continued to keep in contact with the Jewish community, and after the war he even went to read in the synagogue, because his Hebrew was faultless. Of course, it’s not difficult to discern my origins. To the Jews I’m a Christian, and to the Christians, a Jew.”

“And what are you really?”

“An Austrian patriot, bound to the German language and Austrian culture, that symbiosis of so many mentalities, in whose creation the Jews have played an outstanding role. It’s something to be truly proud of as an Austrian.”

“But what are your roots?”

“My roots are Jewish.”

Alfred Gerstl leans back, puffs thoughtfully at his cigarette. “I feel most deeply united to the Jews. That’s always been the case. Getting acquainted with Jews has always been very easy for me, no matter where I was. We were regarded, even though my father had converted, not as a Catholic family but as a Jewish one. My father never broke off contact with the Jewish community, and the Jews also supported us in the bad times, when things went downhill economically. The connection was always there.”

“What values did your father live by?”

“Although we didn’t have much money, there was always reverence for education. My father was highly educated. He had two diplomas, from high school and trade school, and spoke several languages. He felt himself to be German in culture and especially admired Frederick the Great.”

“The ‘philosopher king’?”

“Yes, Frederick II. He gave the Jews in Prussia a chance, and he said that in his kingdom everyone could become holy after his own fashion. That was a great influence on my father.”

“Did the military aspect also influence him?”

“It already had. He’d been a soldier for a long time before joining the Federal Railways: the whole [First] World War, from which he returned an invalid, and then until 1922 he was in the Austrian Federal Army. And he taught us boys to fight.”

“So he was partial to the military.”

“Yes, and he was convinced of this: Hitler is a transitional figure. He won’t last. Antisemitism can’t spread in Germany, and in any case not among the officers. It’ll level off on its own, he said. But it didn’t level off—unfortunately.”

[The Nazi takeover in] March 1938, which was carried through with particular abandon in Graz, the “City of the People’s Revolt” [as the Nazis styled it afterward], was a nightmare. “Our neighbors – there were 28 tenants in our building, most of them unemployed – often ate with us, because we had my father’s disability payments and pension. We were practically a soup kitchen for the other tenants. And then they stormed into our apartment along with the SA and threw our furniture and radio out the window onto the street.”

Alfred Gerstl had to give up first music school and then his apprenticeship as a gunsmith, because a “half-breed” was not allowed to handle weapons. He then became an apprentice toolmaker in the Pengg-Walenta chain factory, the later PEWAG. “Pengg-Walenta took me on, even though it was a risky thing to do.” He was 17 then and already had one serious brawl with the Hitler Youth and several days in jail behind him. Gerstl became a resister because he was discriminated against, because he was enraged at Hitler – “that arrogant loudmouth” – and because at the Catholic Reichsbund [Imperial League], where he did gymnastics, there had been a coach, a priest, who was an anti-Nazi. While in custody he [Gerstl] had made his first contact with a small resistance group centered at the Graz opera house, and when he was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1942 and a year later was supposed to be sent to a labor camp, he went underground. “That I could do that at all was thanks to certain officers who prevented my being sent to a labor camp as a ‘half-breed’. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. A labor camp! I had no idea of what could have happened to me there. These officers kept sending me from one post to another, so my discharge date kept getting postponed. Finally someone got me discharged to the labor service at Mauthausen. I reported to a first lieutenant in Vienna and he said to me, “Disappear!”

“Why did the officers do that, do you think?”

“Because they were simply decent. There was some of that too. This experience made a deep impression on me.”

Concealed by the woman who later became his first wife, Gerstl spent the next two years underground between Graz and Slovenia. As a courier for his Graz resistance group, he carried supplies, medicines and information across to Tito’s Partisans; along this route he also smuggled soldiers deserting from the Wehrmacht and Yugoslav emigrant workers into Slovenia. Since then, Gerstl has kept in close touch with former Partisans, especially the Serbs among them. In 1996 he received the highest award of the Yugoslav Resistance Movement.

“And then, after the war was over? Did you feel like a victor?

“No, there wasn’t time for that. I didn’t triumph, but I did feel rather tough.”

The family put the past behind them, for they had all survived somehow, and that was enough.

Gerstl became an apartment manager, then a singer, then a foodstuffs merchant, then a tobacconist, and finally took a job as a salesman. He began to engage in politics: in the ÖVP’s Club for the Politically Persecuted, among the tobacco retailers, in the Wirtschaftsbund (Business League). He became a Kommerzialrat [honorary business councilor], a Kammerrat [board member of an association], a Gemeinderat [local councilman], a Bundesrat [senator], and finally, twice, President of the Bundesrat. He sees himself as a bridge-builder, a communicator, a reconciler. His politics were influenced by Franz Javornik, for many years President of the Kriegsopferverband, and the then President of the Bundesrat, Eduard Pumpernig. He owes a lot, as well, to the two Krainers, Josef senior and junior; they promoted him and defended him when the antisemitic winds blew.

“What led you to the ÖVP?”

“Oh, well, even before the war I was a member of the Catholic Reichsbund, and I had friends in the ÖVP, among them a number of resisters. I have always found my place in the broad spectrum of the party, and people that supported me and my interests. But it wasn’t easy, given my family history, to make a political career. In those days there was no Cardinal König. The climate was not always comfortable, on into the seventies.”

“And how is the climate now?”

“Jews don’t get any normality. Jews live against the wind, which forces them to be better and more efficient than other people. If I’d attained normality, I’d have become a lazy person.”

This, however, is hard to believe. Because this subversive managed to appropriate still another great field of activity: power sports. Gerstl, the Maccabee, is enthusiastic about the hand-to-hand fighting techniques of karate and kickboxing. And about bodybuilding. He became a sports official, made bodybuilding and karate respectable in Austria, in the early sixties founded the Styrian region teams in both sports, traveled to international meetings and congresses, organized European and world championships, and made contacts worldwide.

“Why karate?”

“It’s an excellent self-defense technique.”

“And bodybuilding?”

“That was a new kind of sport from the USA. It systematically trains the entire body and fosters self-awareness and a feeling of self-worth. My son Karl did bodybuilding as well as karate. Through him and Arnold, my first wife and I developed a very familiar relationship with bodybuilding. I wanted to free the sport from its non-serious image. That succeeded. And I wanted to establish the aesthetic, artistic statement made by freestyle posing accompanied by appropriate music. This idea has been accepted worldwide.”

The models for Karl and Arnold were the U.S. muscle men in the various bodybuilder magazines. These periodicals came from America with blue jeans and decorated the display windows of the Modehaus Brühl in Graz, owned by Kurt Brühl, later president of the Jewish Community of Graz. “To this day, Arnold still buys his pants there when he’s in Graz.” Schwarzenegger attained his first title in 1964, becoming Austrian youth champion. To make it possible for him to graduate high school, Gerstl came up with the idea of providing him with a job as a swimming-pool attendant at the Augartenbad in Graz. “That’s a story he loves to tell his American friends: What would he have become if he had stayed in Austria? A pool boy in Graz.” Schwarzenegger, however, wanted to become Mr. Universe and a superstar. Gerstl smoothed his way to the international contests. He was Mr. Universe for the first time in 1967. Then came the successful leap to the USA – Joe and Ben Weider, the two cult figures of American bodybuilding, took the “Styrian Oak” to themselves. And from there on it’s been uphill, with no interruptions.

His connection to his mentor remains constant and heartfelt. Schwarzenegger promotes sports for the disabled and for many years has supported the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Alfred Gerstl still travels to the USA, married his present wife there – with Arnold as best man, naturally – and has become acquainted through Schwarzenegger with the Kennedy family, Muhammad Ali, and prominent people in Hollywood, and when Gerstl was to deliver the inaugural address for his second presidency of the Bundesrat, Schwarzenegger flew to Vienna. Gerstl gave a programmatic speech – “Every society is as free as it is pluralistic and tolerant.” That was 1998, and never before had Parliament seen such a turnout of the international press. As ever, the Terminator writes letters with the regularity of a dutiful son, calling Gerstl in the middle of the night to tell him about his candidacy for Governor of California.

If he makes good on his run, Alfred Gerstl will be even prouder of his former protégé than he is already, but he will have to bury a lifelong dream: to see Schwarzenegger play the Golem in a grand Hollywood production. The concept, a modern variant on the old legend of Rabbi Loew and the Golem that he creates, was developed by Gerstl himself and confided to Arnold years ago. Schwarzenegger made no promises; he preferred to shoot another Terminator movie. But Alfred Gerstl, eighty years old this summer and full of energy, doesn’t give up that easily. After all, without “Fredl”, Big Arnie would be nowhere – anyone in Graz will tell you that. Just between Maccabees.

September 29, 2003

Help is on the way 

Don't despair, impossibly loyal Stone Knives fans! I'll be posting regularly starting very soon indeed. How can I tell? Because I'm once again spending all my computer time reading blogs like this one rather than getting to work.


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