“The Exiles Return” is a story about Austria, more specifically, Vienna, that begins in the spring of 1954 and ends in the spring of 1955. As its title suggests, it’s a story of individuals who fled Austria before or during World War II and, for a variety of reasons, returned when Hitler was vanquished. Many of the exiles, not surprisingly, were Jewish.
One of these was Kuno Adler, a research scientist and a not particularly devout Jew who had moved his family to New York City to escape the Nazis. He didn’t enjoy the same success in America that he had in Vienna, although his wife, Melanie, struck prosperity as a corsetiere to increasingly wealthy women who were willing to go to considerable expense and humiliation to look good in their clothes.
Kuno wasn’t happy at work, he wasn’t happy at home, and when his wife said she wouldn’t go back to that “little country” that had run them off, he decided to return by himself.
He was in his 50s when he got off the train and took in his city. War damage was still quite evident and diminished its grandeur. Taking in the Ringstrasse, he marveled that the buildings looked much as he remembered them, but he was taken aback by the fact that the wonderful trees that lined the footpaths had been reduced to “naked stumps,” a realization that caused him “incommensurate grief.”
He is able to return to work, but not at the same level he previously enjoyed, and his supervisor is a less qualified man who holds his position largely because he stayed in Austria during the war and was able to beat charges that he tortured Jews and other minorities.
Kuno, who’s not especially sociable, stumbles into a relationship with Nina Grein, a homely woman in her 30s from a once-noble family who is an assistant at Kuno’s office. Her pastor, a strict Jesuit, warns her about seeing a married man, but she stands up to him, saying she has nothing to confess.
A parallel story involves Marie-Theres Larson, an American whose mother is Austrian. A beautiful and bright teenager, Marie-Theres goes by the nickname Resi. She is bored with her life in the states, isn’t interested in working or college and doesn’t want her reverie disturbed. Her parents wonder if sending her to Austria to live with her mother’s family, would be good for her.
It is, for a while. Resi, who speaks German well, lives at the relatives’ modest estate in the mountains and becomes attached to an aunt and a cousin.
She gets along well enough, but ends up fending off a likeable young man whose family had served Resi’s relatives. When the seasons change, Resi moves to Vienna. She is enrolled in classes for the children of the occupation forces and ex-pats, but again becomes bored. Her life changes when she meets Theophil Kanakis, a Greek who also is a U.S. citizen, has vast wealth and is at least twice her age. His ambitions include being part of Vienna’s resurrection and getting some credit – and some more wealth – from it.
Through Kanakis, Resi meets “Bimbo” Grein, a young prince who is Nina’s brother but got all of the family’s looks and charm. Bimbo is unlike any man Resi has met, at least in part because he’s neither nice nor fawns over her. And before she is aware of it, Bimbo and Kanakis change her life in ways she comes to bitterly regret.
“The Exiles Return” is a compelling drama set in an amazing city at a fascinating time. About the time the story ends, Austria, which is occupied by the four victorious powers of World War II - the United States, England, France and Russia - regains its independence.
The author, Elizabeth de Waal, was an Austrian exile. She was from a prosperous Jewish family and was one of the fortunate members who was able to get out before trains filled with her family and friends headed east to the concentration camps.
Her affection for Vienna is readily apparent, and the detail with which she describes parks, blocks and even certain buildings takes the reader to the spots she describes. It is a wonderful gift, as is her ability to draw multidimensional characters, not all of whom are sympathetic.
She wrote books in both German and English. “The Exiles Return,” one of the English novels, was not published until well after her death in 1991.