Salinger in Vienna

A Family I Knew

by Stefan Kraft


J.D. Salinger spent several months in Vienna in 1937, living with a Jewish family, going ice skating and wearing a green Tyrolean hat. Details about the family, with whom he remained in contact for the rest of his life, have recently been unearthed.


If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is why J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye , went to Vienna in 1937, what he did there, where he lived and all that. I'll try to tell you about it, as it's an interesting tale with a happy end, if you like that sort of thing.

But first you'll need to know about another story: Wien, Wien, written by Salinger in 1947 and published by Good Housekeeping under a different title: A Girl I Knew. Keep that story in mind, as in some respects it resembles mine.


A Girl I Knew

The story begins in 1936, the year when the 18-year-old narrator of A Girl I Knew has just been thrown out of college. In freshman year, he writes, he failed all his classes. "The particular college I had been attending apparently does not simply mail people's grades home, but prefers to shoot them out of some kind of gun. When I got home to New York, even the butler looked tipped off and hostile. It was a bad night altogether. My father informed me quietly that my formal education was formally over."

Hardly a serious threat for the narrator, who throughout the story accepts what life throws at him with all the serenity an 18-year-old can muster. He even seems unperturbed when his father sends him all the way to Vienna rather than to work in the family owned office.

He boards the S.S. Rex to Naples and takes the train up to the Austrian capital, where he loyally keeps all the promises made to his father: he takes German lessons "from a rather exceptional young lady I had met in the lounge of the Grand Hotel" and dresses warm to avoid pneumonia ("I had bought myself three pure-wool Tyrolean hats"). He rents an apartment in one of the far-outlying districts to which the trolleys don't run after ten at night but the taxis do. In all he spends five months in Vienna, going ice skating and skiing, and "for strenuous exercise" arguing with an Englishman. "I seemed to move, with all the luck of the undeserving, from gemutlichkeit to gemutlichkeit." The altogether bad evening in New York is soon forgotten.

"For every man there is at least one city that sooner or later turns into a girl", and the story soon heads in the direction of the title A Girl I Knew . The girl the narrator gets to know is Leah. She is "the daughter in the Viennese-Jewish family who lived in the apartment below mine - that is, below the family I was boarding with," sixteen years old, with long dark hair and "the most exquisite pair of ears" he has ever seen.

One day he sees Leah on the balcony below his apartment, singing the words to songs he has been playing day and night on his gramophone whenever he hears the landlady outside his door (the gramophone and two American records are a gift from the landlady). Listening to Leah singing, he is overcome with love: "She wasn't doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together."

He and Leah start meeting three times a week in his room for conversation.

"Uh. Waren Sie heute in der Kino?” (Did you go to the movies today?)

“No. I was today working by my fahzzer.”

“Uh. Wollen Sie haben ein Tasse von Kaffee mit mir haben?” (Will you have a cup of coffee with me?)

“I was already eating.”

“Uh. Ist die Fenster - uh - Sind Sie sehr kalt dort?” (Is the window - uh - Are you very cold there?)

“No! I feel very warmly, sank you.”

They love each other terribly, sit opposite each other with their hands in their laps, and are constantly getting up to make coffee. They don't, however, speak much of each other's language. Four months go by in this fashion, until the narrator discovers Leah is engaged to someone else. By chance, he encounters her with her fiancé at the Schwedenkino movie house. The following evening, over coffee in his room, she confesses that her "fahzzer" wants to marry her off.

Soon after, the narrator moves to Paris to learn another foreign language, leaving Leah a letter with the following lines in broken German: " Hoffentlich wird die Ehe gehen gut. Ich werde Sie schicken das Buch ich habe gesprochen uber, ‚Gegangen mit der Wind‘. Mit beste Grussen. Ihre Freund John . " ( I hope the marriage goes all right. I will send you that book I was talking about, Gone with the Wind . With best greetings. Your friend, John.)

Having returned to the States, John goes back to college. He is searching for limestone deposits in New Jersey for his geology class when the Nazis march into Vienna. The US enters the war, he joins up and is given a job in military intelligence. He comes to Germany, where he conducts interviews with civilians and Wehrmacht prisoners. "Among the latter, sometimes there were Austrians."

He makes inquiries about Leah and the whereabouts of Vienna's Jews. He learns that terrible things have happened, but no one has any information about his former beloved.

After the end of the war, John is transporting papers from Nuremberg to Vienna and drives into the American Zone, in which Stiefelstrasse nr. 18, his old street, is located.

At dusk he enters the building, now in use as living quarters for American officers. In the entrance hall he is stopped by the duty sergeant.

“I just want to go up to the second floor and take a look at the balcony. I used to know a girl who lived in the balcony apartment.”

“Yeah? Where's she at now?”

“She's dead.”

“Yeah? How come?”

“She and her family were burned to death in an incinerator, I'm told.”

“Yeah? What was she, a Jew or something?”

“Yes. Can I go up a minute?”

John runs up the stairs and goes into his old room. He opens the window and looks down onto the balcony below. Then he goes back downstairs and thanks the duty officer. "He asked me, as I was going out the door, what the devil you were supposed to do with champagne—lay it on its side or stand it up. I said I didn't know, and left the building."


Keep that story in mind, as there's another story to tell, a story researched in archives, old phone books, universities and databases. There were, I can tell you, a lot of Johns and a lot of Leahs, there were landladies with gramophone records, and there were Jews who lived in Vienna in 1937 and not long after were burned to death in incinerators. There was also a young writer who came to Vienna from the US, who was there during the rise of the Nazis and wrote about it.

Don't, however, make the mistake of confusing A Girl I Knew with the experiences of the young J.D. Salinger. This was the mistake made by many of his biographers, who admittedly were dealing with a man who let slip virtually no information about his private life, who went to court to prevent others quoting from his letters, and whose wish was to speak through his stories and characters rather than in his own voice. In deference to those wishes, the story so far has been told just as it was in A Girl I Knew . Now to the other story.


"I wish I'd met her"

In 1937, J.D. Salinger, aged 18, boarded a ship in New York and sailed to Europe. Exactly when he arrived in Vienna is not known, but a register of residents document from that time, recently unearthed in the Municipal and Provincial Archives of Vienna, states: "Jerome David Salinger, student, born in New York, citizenship: USA, born first of January 1919, catholic, single, registered as a resident of Vienna from September 2 nd 1937 to December 21 st 1937 (...)." The document also shows Salinger's address in Vienna: Gregor-Mendel-Strasse 10, in the 18 th District.

A quick glance at a map reminds one that Salinger has tended to lead his biographers astray. The most conscientious of them, British literary critic Ian Hamilton, stated in his 1988 book In Search of J.D. Salinger that the author stayed in Vienna's "Jewish Quarter". Hamilton was in this respect just as inaccurate as later biographers, though admittedly less outspoken. Gregor-Mendel-Strasse, named Hochschulstrasse until 1935, is actually in the Cottage, which then, as now, was one of Vienna's wealthiest and most desirable residential areas. The "Jewish Quarter" was in fact miles away, near the Danube Canal in the center of the city.

At any rate, in Salinger's short story the details concerning the location of his apartment do match the sketchy description of the building: Salinger's young hero lived in a "far-outlying district", and there was a No. 41 trolley stop nearby.

Misinformation about Salinger's Vienna stay has become firmly entrenched partly because another biographer, his own daughter Margaret Salinger ( Dream Catcher (2000)), manages to squeeze significant inaccuracies into the few lines she writes about her father's stay in Vienna: she too states that he "stayed in the "Jewish Quarter"", and has the following to say about his host family in Vienna: "I wished I'd met them, but they were all killed in concentration camps before I was born."


At the ice rink

Gregor-Mendel-Strasse 10 (formerly Hochschulstrasse 2c) was built in 1932. Three parties moved into the building in 1933, according to the Vienna register of addresses. Among them was the Safir family, listed in the phone book under "Hermann Safir, businessman and authorized officer" as tenant. Hermann Safir had come to Vienna from Eastern Europe, along with his wife Pauline. She was from Odessa, he from the Galician town of Zbarazh (in today's Ukraine); they had married in Russia in 1914. In Vienna, Pauline gave birth to two sons, Leo and Silvian, who in 1937 were 19 and 14. The Safir family occupied the top apartment in the building, and it was with them that Salinger stayed in 1937.

Two wonderful friendships flourished at that time, shortly before the Anschluss . Salinger, whose registered address was Gregor-Mendel-Strasse 10, became close with the Safir family, particularly their son Leo. He also became friendly with a young Englishman named Donald Hartog. It's possible that "for strenuous exercise" the two young men argued, but it seems they actually preferred going skating at one of Vienna's ice rinks. In 2011, the Hartog family donated the correspondence between Hartog and Salinger to the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Hartog and Salinger had lost touch in 1938, but about fifty years later, in October 1986, began to correspond via letter, writing about their time in Vienna, the ice rink, and how Salinger had remained close with the Safir family ever since.


Bromberg, Poland

According to documents in the Municipal and Provincial Archives of Vienna, Hermann Safir worked for Schenker & Co., a freight forwarding company on Hoher Markt in central Vienna. Passenger ship archives indicate that Safir went to New York at least twice in 1937, which is probably how the connection with Salinger's father Sol Salinger arose. Sol was a New York Jew who worked in the imported foods business, married to a Catholic woman who had adopted the Jewish faith.

Salinger biographer Kenneth Slawenski has come up with a further Vienna link. Some of Sol Salinger's business documents indicate ties with Oskar Robinson, a Polish Jew in the meat business. Robinson, a seasoned gambler, died an enviable death: on October 24, 1937 he suffered a heart attack at the roulette wheel at the Casino Baden near Vienna and was buried two days later in the city's central cemetery. To his wife Franzi and son Herbert, Robinson bequeathed Export Bacon Robinson in Bromberg, Poland. It is there that one of the few autobiographical sketches left by J.D. Salinger begins.

In 1944, Story magazine asked Salinger for a brief pen portrait of himself to accompany one of his stories. In familiar laconic mode, Salinger wrote: " Spent a year in Europe when I was eighteen and nineteen, most of the time in Vienna . . . . I was supposed to apprentice myself to the Polish ham business. . . . They finally dragged me off to Bydgoszcz [Bromberg] for a couple of months, where I slaughtered pigs, wagoned through the snow with the big slaughter-master, who was determined to entertain me by firing his shotgun at sparrows, light bulbs, fellow employees."

Salinger's departure to Bromberg to slaughter pigs, as indicated in the Vienna register of residents document, reflects a further connection with Hermann Safir. The ties between Robinson, Salinger and Safir are actually shown in a Nazi document. Like all Austrian Jews, the Safirs were forced to list their belongings in a so-called assets declaration, used by the Nazis for expropriation purposes; Hermann and Pauline Safir's declarations are in the Austrian State Archives. In 1938, Hermann Safir, writing to the Nazi bureaucrats handling the assets declarations, showed his address as 'Ksiedz Markwarta 9, Bromberg, Poland.'


Flight from the Nazis

What should one make of Margaret Salinger's assertion that her father's host family in Vienna were killed in a concentration camp? It is clear that Hermann Safir and his wife fled from Nazi Vienna to Poland and sent their assets declarations from there. According to the website Virtual Shtetl (, which documents the histories of Poland's Jews, Robinson's company continued to operate under managing director "Henry Safir" from Bromberg. Henry was probably in fact Hermann Safir from Gregor-Mendel-Strasse, so what happened to him when the Nazis invaded Poland?

Thanks to assistance from the University of East Anglia, the rest of the tale can be told. The university was recently contacted by a British woman whose father, known to close friends only as "Bibi", had in 1938 been sent by his mother to boarding school in England at the age of 15. His name was Silvian Safir.

Regarding the rest of the family, the Hermann Safir granddaughter's only information was what her father had told her, which is corroborated in archival documents. Shortly after the Nazis' arrival, Leo Safir had fallen into the hands of the Gestapo, but Hermann Safir had used all his contacts to secure his release. According to the descendant, family legend told of how the Safirs, after moving to Poland, bribed an employee at the meat plant to transport them across country in a freight car. The journey took three weeks and the locomotive driver was drunk, but they successfully reached the coast and escaped from Europe.

According to passenger ship archives, Hermann, Pauline and Leo Safir departed from Cannes on January 5, 1939, arriving in New York on January 12. And a 1943 letter from Sol Salinger to his son's friend Donald Hartog mentions that Leo Safir was visiting the Salinger family in New York at the time and had invited them to visit his parents in Tel Aviv.

Silvian "Bibi" Safir, who in Britain used the name Sidney, lived on until 1994; his brother and parents died not long after the war. Hermann Safir died in New York in 1958, his wife two years earlier in New York; Leo had a heart attack in the Netherlands in 1961. Salinger remained in contact with his childhood friend Bibi until the latter's death.


Letter to Hemingway

As he wrote decades later in a letter to his rediscovered friend Donald Hartog, three days before the Anschluss (March 12, 1938), Salinger took the train from Vienna to Paris via Bern. He then boarded the New York-bound Ile de France in Le Havre. Around the time Vienna's Jews were being rounded up and deported, he was back in college.

During the war, and here the fictional tale and reality coincide, Salinger worked in military intelligence and went with his regiment to Germany, where he was involved in interviewing Nazis. In Nuremberg in 1946 he wrote to Ernest Hemingway, whom he had met during the war: "I've asked CIC [military intelligence] to send me to Vienna. (...) I was there for nearly a year in 1937 and I want to put some ice-skates on some Viennese girl's feet again again." He never did. Contrary to the assertions of various biographers, Salinger did not return to Vienna until the 1980s. In a letter to Donald Hartog he writes of taking a long trolley ride to the 18 th District to see the Safirs' house, which was still standing.


A time of flight and freedom

If you really want to know about an actual Leah, you'll be disappointed. Some cities sooner or later turn into a girl; some stories become tales where not every detail matches the author's actual experiences. There was no Leah among the other occupants of Gregor-Mendel-Strasse 10, at any rate no such girl whose family died in the Holocaust. That is, in a sense, a happy end. In September 1938 the tenant Carl Adler, his daughter Hedwig Neumann and her daughter Renate Marie fled to Switzerland and thence to other countries. Hedwig Neumann died in London in 1940 during the Blitz, Carl Adler in Havana, Cuba. Renate Marie Neumann, having survived the war, today uses the name Marie Leighton. The building's owner, the lawyer Richard Popper, also emigrated to Switzerland, along with his wife Gerda and son Felix. Their second son, Rudolf Popper, was murdered in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1942 at the age of 27; the third son, Georg Popper, fled to the US.

In 1942, the Gregor-Mendel-Strasse 10 building was aryanized; Theodora (Doris) Renner, a Prague resident, was thereupon considered the new owner. All the Jewish families were driven out, and new tenants with non-suspicious names moved in. After the war, following restitution proceedings, ownership of the building was returned to the heirs of the original Jewish owners, who sold it.

The Wikipedia entry for Schenker & Co., the company for which Hermann Safir worked in Vienna, states: "Between 1939 and 1945, as part of Reich railroad operations, the company was involved in transporting expropriated belongings of Jewish Holocaust victims."

Among the items listed in the Safirs' assets declaration is a gramophone.

On March 9, 1991, J.D. Salinger wrote to his friend Donald Hartog that during his Vienna stay he had felt freer than at any other time in his life. He took walks in the streets near the Ringstrasse, left his coat unbuttoned, and wore a green Tyrolean hat.


The author wishes to thank the following people, without whose help this article could not have been written:

David Forster (historian, Vienna ); Andreas Weigl (Municipal and Provincial Archives of Vienna ); Bridget Gillies ( University of East Anglia ); Kenneth Slawenski.


© Stefan Kraft, Vienna

Translated by Adrian Feuchtwanger