What Does It Mean for Me to Be Austrian?

So I come round to the question, What does it mean for me to be of 1/4 Austrian heritage? All of my ancestor research has been linked to my quest to understand the colonization process, and how my family fits into that long history. How might I be connected to my Austrian ancestors, and how were they connected to the land where they lived?  What might I learn from them? I have had very mixed and often troubled feelings during this particular search.

John Hochreiter Baby in Linz

Johann Hochreiter as a baby, in Linz

Linz, the city where my grandfather Hochreiter was born in 1884 and lived until 1910, was also the home of Adolf Hitler for several years, from 1898 to 1907. It is not a connection I feel good about. Wikipedia noted, “Like many Austrian Germans, Hitler began to develop German nationalist ideas from a young age.[34] He expressed loyalty only to Germany, despising the declining Habsburg Monarchy and its rule over an ethnically variegated empire.[35][36]”  Learning the history of Austria’s connection and disconnection from other Germanic states, (see my last post) helps me to understand this somewhat, but the outcome was terrifying.

I was glad to read that in 1996, Linz became the first city in Austria to deal intensively with its own Nazi past.  There was widespread research by the municipal archives, and the culture of remembrance extended to the construction of monuments for the victims of National Socialism. But of course all of these events, including both World Wars, were after my own ancestor had emigrated to North America.

In my family, we didn’t really learn anything about Austria when we were growing up. As far as I can tell, there were no cultural aspects that were carried forward to us, except that, ironically and randomly, the only classical music album in our house was Johann Strauss’s Vienna Waltzes, including “The Blue Danube.”

In fact, it is the Danube River (German Donau) which has called most strongly to my heart, of all that I have learned about Austria.  (Not insignificantly, the Danube also flows through the city of Ulm where the Swabian line of my ancestors is located.) The Danube begins in the Black Forest and flows through southern Germany and through Austria, and then on to the Black Sea. The Danube valley in Austria is north of the Alps, and one of the most fertile and populous regions of Austria. This river is at the center of all its history and culture, and was the major East-West transport on the continent of Europe.

Linked to its location on the Danube, the Linz area was settled continuously, from the late Stone Age Neolithic period, in 4000 BCE. They have also found early Bronze Age urn sites and burial sites from the Hallstatt-period. In the first century AD, the Romans constructed a wood-and-earth fort to secure the important Danube river crossing to control traffic and for military reasons. They named it Lentia. In the second century it was expanded into a stone fort. It was part of the Roman frontier called the limes.

The official history site for the city of Linz notes there were many Goth invasions during the second century and that by the end of the 4th century A.D., the indigenous population is thought to have withdrawn to the easily defensible district of Martinsfeld in reaction to the advance of peoples from the East and West.

Upper Austria on the Danube seems to have been a crossroads of many peoples–who knows whether our ancient ancestors were part of the Roman colonizer settlements, or were the “Barbarian” hordes on the other side of the river? Or some combination of the peoples from “the East and the West”? In my personal DNA analysis, there seem to be fragments (less than 2%) of Italian and Eastern European ancestry–maybe they met along the Danube river in Austria.

So much is up to conjecture and imagination, except that it is clear they were of the so-called “lower” classes. Maybe my very ancient ancestors lived along the river, and then later migrated north to clear the forests and farm. Maybe they were a part of the Peasant Uprisings in 1626, or one of the 62 known uprisings in Upper Austria between 1356 and 1849. Maybe they were not. Day laborers. Weavers. Farmers. But in any case, around 1884, they left their rural connection to land and became urban city dwellers, and thus also came my grandfather to the cities of Ottawa, Ontario, and then to Detroit, Michigan. So much is lost in the translation. But I am glad to make the acquaintance of the great river Danube.

LINSVM_AVSTRIAE_Anno_1594.jpeg

Linz in the year 1594.

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Linz on the Danube, date ?1889

Johann Hochreiter

John Hochreiter at 31

John Hochreiter at 31

My most recent ancestor immigrant to this continent was my grandfather, John Hochreiter. He was born “Johann” on June 1, 1884 in Linz, Austria, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Johann Hochreiter (senior), born 1857, was a day-laborer originally from the village of Waldschlag, (now part of the town of Oberneukirchen), in the northern part of Upper Austria, an area called Mühlviertel. From the information I can gather, the next few generations of ancestors were from that area as well. His mother was born Anna Bartl, about 1851, daughter of the weaver Michael Bartl and his wife Katharina.

I turned to etymology for some clues this time. The name “Hochreiter” originally meant those persons who made higher-lying surfaces arable, who cleared forested areas for farms. “Wald schlag might mean “Forest Strike”, and “Ober neu kirchen” is “Upper New Churches.” According to Wikipedia, settlement and then village life probably started in the area of ​​the municipality Oberneukirchen in the 12th century. The spread and colonization of the forest clearing areas and the religious care of the settlers soon made a chapel or church building required.  One last etymology: “Mühlviertel” translates “Mill Quarter.” The Oberneukirchen economy was centered around agriculture and weaving for several centuries.

However, Johann and Anna did not stay in this rural area, the place of their families. For some reason, I would guess related to work, they moved about 25 kilometers south to the city of Linz where Johann was a day-laborer. It was in the city that their children were born—they had at least five sons, Johann (junior) in 1884, Georg in 1885, Franz in 1888, Franz Joseph in 1892, and Julius in 1895. (I seem to remember hearing stories that my grandfather was the oldest of several brothers—even eight, but that number might be a error.) They later also died in the city of Linz, in 1933 and 1930.

My mom told of a story that my grandfather as a young man had carried bread on his back to deliver it, or another story was that he delivered beer by horse-drawn cart. But in any case, at some point he became a waiter, and remained so until his retirement many years later. He left Linz in his twenties, somewhere about 1910 or 11, with a group of buddies, working as waiters in hotels as they traveled, going first to France, and then England. Finally they took the ship called “Lake Manitoba” and landed in Quebec, Canada on June 16, 1912. Then, he worked as a waiter at the new, and very grand, Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. It was there he met my grandmother, Yvonne Tremblay, who worked as a chamber maid.

In late 1915, John emigrated once again, traveling via Windsor to Detroit, Michigan. By this point, Canada had entered the first World War, and he was registered as an “enemy alien.” I wonder if that contributed to his decision to come to the United States, which was still a neutral country. (According to that registration, in 1915 at 31 he was 5’3”, weighed 125 pounds, and had dark hair, and wore glasses.) He soon sent for Yvonne, and they were married in Detroit on January 14, 1916. She was just 18.

John & Yvonne Hochreiter 1916

John and Yvonne in Detroit 1916

They stayed in Detroit, and he worked as a room service waiter at the Hotel Statler (which had been completed earlier in 1915), until he retired (at 70) after my grandmother died in l954.

When I have wondered about why he left Austria, I haven’t found clear answers. It was a few years before war would break out there, so I don’t think it was about that. It seems perhaps he and his friends were looking for adventure, and they’d found a way to do it even without many financial resources.  As waiters, they could work wherever they could find hotel jobs.  I was impressed that these men continued to be friends years later in Detroit. My grandfather was a quiet man, and he died when I was only 13, so I never felt that I knew him very well.

Ironically, even though my siblings and I are of 25% Austrian ancestry, and our grandfather was the most recent immigrant of our heritage, I found it difficult to find a sense of connection to that culture and place. It has bewildered me as I have continued to explore the region in Austria from which he came. I’ll write more in a future post.