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The Nazi Séance
The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler's Circle
By Arthur J. Magida
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2011 Arthur J. Magida
All rights reserved.
One of the Finest Liars in Europe
In 1930, at the age of 41, Hanussen published his autobiography, Meine Lebenslinie (My Lifeline), the only account of his early years. Meine Lebenslinie reads like a Horatio Alger novel grafted onto amateur metaphysics and stale legends from show business. As our only source for Hanussen's life before he became famous, it should be approached with a jaundiced eye. If you can consider it an album of Hanussen's whims and imagination, it's a fun read. Otherwise, it's simply the jottings of an already puffed-up showman puffing himself up some more.
Throughout Meine Lebenslinie, Hanussen tells us that he was a genius at manipulating people, even as a baby. "I made my parents marry," Hanussen proudly declares, looking back on his parents' elopement in 1889. His mother, 20-year-old Julie Kohn, was pregnant by Siegfried Steinschneider, who was 11 years her senior. Outraged, Julie's father, a wealthy furrier, tracked the couple down and had them arrested, Hanussen says without explanation, for vagrancy. Hanussen narrowly missed being born in a prison cell in Vienna: his mother was released 15 minutes before his birth.
Next in Hanussen's infantile manipulations was "bringing my parents back together." His father escaped from prison, climbed over the garden wall surrounding his in-laws' house, and searched their villa for his wife and child. When young Hermann began crying wildly, Siegfried used the wailing to locate Julie and the baby. Her family was so busy quieting Hermann that they didn't realize their son-in-law was in the house. Using the baby's crying as a distraction, Hermann's father grabbed "my mother's hand and disappeared with her." A few hours later, Siegfried returned, "took me by my diaper and kidnapped me. Smart little boy that I was, I didn't make any noise."
This baby was wise beyond his years. He united his parents, then helped his father save his mother from her cold, mean family. From conception on, he was a savant—even in soiled diapers.
Hanussen's parents traveled constantly: His father was an actor, his mother, a singer. Roaming through Austria and Italy with low-budget troupes, they never made much money but always took baby Hermann with them. When he was three, his parents worked at a theater in Hermannstadt, a city in central Romania. The Steinschneiders lived in the rear of a house that faced "Corpse Alley," a narrow lane leading to a cemetery. Every day, funeral corteges passed by, filling the air with dirges, grief, and gloom. One night young Hermann woke up with a start and ran "as if led by an invisible hand" to the nearby apartment of his favorite playmate, Erna. Leading her to the cemetery, he told her to crouch behind a tombstone. Seconds later, Hanussen wrote in Meine Lebenslinie, "there was a terrible explosion" in Erna's parents' apartment. Luckily, no one was hurt. This, Hanussen said, "was my first experience of clairvoyance."
Hermann's second experience with clairvoyance came soon after that. Every day he rode out to the countryside with a man named Martin, who hauled dung from the town's stables in his wagon to the fields of the local farmers. One day a storm approached while Martin was heaving dung onto a field. Grabbing the reins, Hermann yelled, "Go!" Seconds later, lightning struck the tree the wagon had been standing under.
Looking back at these incidents with Erna and Martin, Hanussen said in Meine Lebenslinie that "the gift of clairvoyance is recognized early in someone's life." Maybe so, but more revealing is that, from an early age, Hanussen did not trust females. Not long after he saved Erna, she "let me down. A glazier moved into our building with his two sons. From that moment, she never looked at me again. Women are evil!" To Hanussen—as a boy and as a man—women were fickle and unreliable. It was better to leave them before they left you. In Hanussen's account, little Erna was the first of many females who would give him a lifetime of headaches.
After a few months in Hermannstadt, Hanussen's family returned to Vienna, always one step away from poverty and crammed into an apartment so tiny that Hanussen called it a "cabinet." They were not the only Jews in Vienna who were poor, but it may have seemed that way. The Rothschilds lived there, most of the city's doctors and lawyers were Jewish, and Jewish professionals were so well integrated into Viennese society—top to bottom—that even women in the royal family consulted a Jewish obstetrician. To a considerable degree, a frantic compulsion to assimilate accounted for the success of these Jews. The city had the highest conversion rate of any Jewish community in the world. It also had some of the worst self-hatred: Vienna's second-richest Jew—the banker and railroad builder Baron Maurice de Hirsch—vowed "to prevent Jews from pushing ahead too much," and an influential critic, Karl Kraus, himself a Jew, urged Jews to abandon their beliefs, their rituals, their mannerisms—anything that made them distinct and separate.
The Steinschneiders rarely had time to think about how they fit into the broader world. Their life was a constant struggle, partly because Siegfried had no trade from which he could earn a reliable living. About all he could peddle was his gift of gab. That was how he had wooed Julie and how he was now trying to survive as a salesman. But the Steinschneiders never forgot they were Jewish, and they didn't let little Hermann forget either. Yet there is no indication that the local community remembered them, that any shuls or Jewish welfare organizations reached out to them. Or, indeed, that Siegfried or Julie sought their help. If anything, they were alone and drifting into an oblivion that was made worse when Julie died in 1899. She was 30 and had been sick for months. Hermann was nine.
To attempt to escape their poverty and their grief, Siegfried and his son moved to Boskovice, a small Czech town about 160 miles away. They were happy to be out of Vienna. And there, it seems, young Hanussen learned how to excel at the kind of pranks that would be the basis for his more sophisticated tricks in later decades.
After reading about the Roman emperor Nero, Hermann got the idea of doing to Boskovice what Nero had done to Rome: burn it down. Early one morning, he and some friends stole some paint and brushes, smeared "Rome Is Here" on most of the houses in town, and set fire to an old mill. As the villagers gathered to watch the fire, Grasel, a notorious thief, ran out of the mill. The police had been searching for him for months. The daughter of a local tailor also ran out of the mill: Grasel had a gift for seducing women. Hermann was immensely pleased with himself. "Boskovice of all cities," he wrote in Meine Lebenslinie, "had the honor of catching Grasel. I was the hero of the day and, normally, I would have qualified for the reward."
But the circumstances are not normal when you're an arsonist. Hermann received five ducats—not the hundred-ducat reward the government had offered for Grasel's capture. The boy also received a beating from one of his teachers—25 strokes with a cane. As an adult, Hanussen tried to be stoical about this. "God knows," he wrote, "there are always two sides in life. On one side, there was the friendly community with the ducats; on the other, the strict teacher with the cane." As the mill went up in smoke, so did Hermann's faith in fairness. Grasel had terrorized towns and villages. Hermann had caught him. Those hundred ducats were his, he figured, even if he had started a fire that threatened the town. Instead, he was caned. If any lesson stayed with him, it was that justice has its limits. Meeting the law halfway, at best, was preferable to observing it strictly. After his mother died and his father could barely provide for them, after receiving only five ducats of the promised hundred, and after his teacher caned him, Hermann concluded that the only person he could rely on was himself.
Or so it would seem—if Hanussen was telling the truth. There had been a bandit named Grasel. Unfortunately, he was hanged in 1818—eight decades before Hanussen said the man ran out of a burning mill in Boskovice. The real Grasel came from a family of thieves: His grandfather, his parents, and at least one cousin all had been jailed for stealing. Grasel first went to prison when he was nine years old. When the police caught up with him a few decades later, they charged him with 205 crimes, including a few murders. Sixty thousand people watched his hanging. Few of them heard his last words: "So many people." Hanussen also had a vocation that attracted people, though he never attracted a crowd as large as the one that watched Grasel's hanging. Fueling Hanussen's career was a deep and unshakable conviction that he could outsmart everyone—little Erna in Hermannstadt, the rubes in Boskovice, and, eventually, the audiences that filled the theaters where he performed and the Nazis who were conspiring to seize Germany. Like Grasel, Hanussen was not humble. Unlike Grasel, he would not hang. His enemies would find another way to deal with him.
Hermann and his father returned to Vienna three or four years later. Around this time, Hanussen had a bar mitzvah, although he does not use that term in his autobiography. Rather, he says, he had a confirmation. Confirmations for Jewish girls had begun in the mid-nineteenth century in Vienna, but they still were rare by the time Hanussen was of bar mitzvah age, which would have been about 1903. And anyway, boys were not eligible for them. Yet in those years some Viennese Jews referred to bar mitzvahs as confirmations, perhaps to draw less attention to their religion. Hanussen may have used the term in his autobiography for that exact reason. Nowhere in Meine Lebenslinie does he state that he was Jewish. That would have been bad for business.
Hanussen does state in Meine Lebenslinie that his father soon remarried—and that Hermann despised his new stepmother. Desperate to get away, Hermann thought he found his escape with a singer who performed in the garden of the Red Pretzel, a tavern just below the Steinschneiders' apartment. She performed every night, and Hermann had a great view of her show. She was pretty. She was talented. And she was 45 years old. That didn't stop 14-year-old Hermann. The lovers decided to run away, but they needed money. Ever resourceful, one afternoon Hermann lowered most of his family's possessions—vases, pictures, bookcases, clothes—by rope into the tavern's courtyard, where his lover was waiting. Then he shimmied down the rope. Hermann was almost to the ground when his father came home.
Even more than Hanussen's story about Grasel, this foiled elopement carries the whiff of fiction: A 14-year-old's fling with a 45-year-old is buffoonery, the furniture lowered to the garden is nonsensical, and the father's brilliantly timed return home is farcical. The whole scene is pure slapstick—a nod to what had not yet been viewed on the screen in 1903, which is when this incident allegedly occurred. Not viewed because, in 1903, no one was making films like this. But it is similar to films that Hanussen would have seen by the time he wrote Meine Lebenslinie— two-reelers with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or the Keystone Kops, extended skits that played fast and loose with logic and common sense, all of which the adult Hermann Steinschneider enjoyed twisting to his own benefit. For his elopement story, Hanussen lifted a trope from silent films and inserted it into his own life. It lends his teen years a certain glamour. Unfortunately, it was as real as the tricks that he later performed: riffs on a reality that he conjured up. Whatever Hanussen's inadequacies, he more than compensated for them by concocting a convincing land of make-believe.
If Hermann couldn't be with the lovely singer from the Red Pretzel, then he would follow her in another way: He would become an entertainer. So not long after his father stopped him from running away with a woman three times his age, Hermann asked the manager of a vaudeville show passing through Vienna for a job.
"Have you worked anywhere else?" the manager inquired.
"Of course," Hermann lied. "I've been performing for five years."
"Then you must have started very early."
"I'm a natural," Hermann blustered. "It runs in my blood."
The manager told Hermann he could try out that night. He ran home, pawned all his clothes, and bought a tuxedo with tails. At a hairdresser's, he traded the watch he had received for his bar mitzvah for a wig and a phony beard that he was sure would make him look funny that night. Fueled by coffee and strudel, he sat at a café jotting down jokes for his routine.
The show began at a tavern at five o'clock. Wearing his new tuxedo, wig, and beard, Hermann grew anxious as the night wore on, wondering if he would ever be called onstage. Around midnight, he asked the manager when he would have his turn.
"Oh, you still want to perform?" the manager said. "All right, go on stage and do your stuff."
Hermann climbed the few steps to the stage, looked around nervously, and blurted out a few jokes. They fell flat. He tried some more. No one laughed. Finally, a long hook came out from the side of the stage, ending Hermann Steinschneider's debut in show business. The only joke of the entire incident occurred the next day when his father couldn't figure out why his son was wearing a tuxedo to school.
Again: an improbable story in Hanussen's autobiography.
And again: Hanussen manufactures his own world—one part fantasy, one part moxie, one part making his father look like a jerk. Throughout Meine Lebenslinie, Hanussen accorded his father no respect. Calling him "My Old Man," Hanussen mocked and belittled him as having no trade and no skills, no place in the world and no place in his son's heart. There was a total lack of affection between the two, according to Hanussen's account of these years. Weak, frail, and gutless, Siegfried served only one function for young Hanussen: he provided a model of what Hermann would never be. And as he had with his father, Hanussen would repeatedly relish bringing down to size anyone who was stronger, older, or wiser than himself.
Hermann's debut as a comedian at that tavern was a flop, but after having his moment in the spotlight, he couldn't turn away from it. A few months later, he ran away from home, hoping to get by on writing songs and funny monologues, briefly joining a circus, then a theater company in Neustadt, a town about five hundred miles from Vienna. He hated the director. "There have been many times in my life when things didn't go well for me," Hanussen wrote in Meine Lebenslinie, "but it's never been worse than with director Bill." He also hated Bill's son, Ferdinand. One night, Hermann and Ferdinand began arguing while performing in a skit as army officers. Pulling out the sabers that were part of their costumes, they stabbed each other in front of the audience. Hermann was immediately fired.
For days, Hermann wandered around town. A prostitute, realizing that here was someone in even worse condition than she, gave him her last few coins. Desperate to buy a meal, Hermann drifted from tavern to tavern, telling jokes and hoping for handouts. He got schnapps, beer, and wine, but no one gave him a cent, and his pride stopped him from outright begging. "You must keep in mind," he assured the readers of his autobiography, "that I was no vagabond, but an intelligent guy from a good family."
He slept wherever he could—once in a kennel next to an oversized dog. He worked in the fields for a day or two and wasn't asked to return—he was no good at manual labor. He worked for another theater company. No one came to its shows. The actors weren't paid. They slept in the fields. They were all as hungry as Hermann. Finally, a circus took him in, almost as a charity case.
"Look, boy," Mr. Pilcher, the director, told him, "you're young and you need something to eat. Hungry bones only end up being living dirt. Real actors may look down on us as imposters, but we work hard so we can eat. And we always do."
Excerpted from The Nazi Séance by Arthur J. Magida. Copyright © 2011 Arthur J. Magida. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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