When you think of the city of Klagenfurt, illustrious names of German language literary and popular culture come to mind. Robert Musil, Ingeborg Bachmann or Udo Jürgens. You will find the house where Musil was born right in front of the train station, while a sculpture of Bachmann is in one of the many parks which form a green belt around the history-laden old city centre. What brought me here, though, was a more notorious side of the city’s past or, to be more precise, that of a number of its former residents. The late Austrian writer Werner Kofler is alleged to have said: “Many stories that begin in Carinthia end in Lublin.” (cf. www.kaernoel.at/cgi-bin/kaernoel/comax.pl?page=page.std;job=CENTER:articles.single_article;ID=1822) This sentence is enough to alert the mind of any historian of the Nazi era to German-occupied Lublin’s role as the organizational and logistic hub of “Operation Reinhard,” the murder of the Jews of Poland in 1942 and 1943.
The main driving force behind “Operation Reinhard” was Odilo Globocnik. He himself was not born in Klagenfurt, he came from Trieste, when he was born back in 1904 still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Today it is located in Italy, just across the border from Austria. When Trieste changed hands after World War I, Globocnik’s family moved to Klagenfurt where he would spend his formative adolescent and early adult years, getting involved in ethnic strife with Slovenians in 1920 during the build-up to the plebiscite to decide whether Southeastern Carinthia should remain with Austria or change to what would become the kingdom of Yugoslavia. His ethno-nationalist engagement would lead Globocnik into the NSDAP and later the SS. Within the SS, he started to build up a regional branch of its security service.
One of his fellow activists who was particular good at intelligence gathering, eventually becoming its head, was Ernst Lerch who hailed from Klagenfurt. Lerch would later on again team up with Globocnik when the latter was looking for staff as new SS and Police Leader of Lublin in late 1939. Lerch initially became his new adjutant in Lublin in summer 1940. He went on to become the kingpin in Globocnik’s office, later taking over as chief of staff (although an internal SS order prevented him from being referred to as such), as well as becoming head of the divisions for the Ethnic German Liaison Office and for Jewish Affairs and as Liaison Officer with Himmler’s SS staff in Berlin. And Lerch still found time to actively participate in what the Germans (and Austrians) in the General Government euphemistically referred to as the “resettlement” of the Jewish population. After the summer of 1943, both men continued their deadly collaboration in the “Operation Zone of the Adriatic Littoral,” a German-occupied area around Globocnik’s native Trieste. This lasted until April 1945. Then, under growing pressure from the British army and local partisans, they tried to escape to Carinthia where both men were arrested by the British.
My journey to Klagenfurt included a scenic ride across the Alps and through the valley of the river Drau (in German) or Drava (in Slovenian), passing by a small hillside hamlet called Paternion. Although the place has actually two train stations to its name (my train – being an Intercity – didn’t offer me the opportunity to get off at either of them), at first sight it doesn’t look particularly noteworthy. Its claim to fame is a sinister one, though. When Globocnik was arrested he didn’t wait to find out what the British might have in store for him, but rather immediately poisoned himself. Rumour has it that the local priest refused to have him buried on the cemetery. Instead, the British army sent out a couple of soldiers to dispose of his body in a small plot of the local common land called “Sautratte”.
Lerch was luckier. After initial arrest in the Wolfsberg camp, he managed to escape and disappeared to Italy for a couple of years until returning to Klagenfurt where he was sentenced for his illegal activity for the NSDAP and SS in Austria before 1938. Otherwise, there was no immediate pressure from any law enforcement authorities. Thus, instead of spending extended periods of his life in Austrian, German, Polish or Italian prisons, he took over his father’s coffee house, the locally renowned “Café Lerch”. This was the immediate focus of my attention before coming here, apart from the files of Lerch’s eventually abandoned court case which I could investigate in the record storage department of Klagenfurt’s Regional Court.
Café Lerch ceased operations in 1972 which a plaque on the façade of the premises tells us. “Coincidentally”, this was the year when Lerch briefly went on trial in his hometown. However, the trial was adjourned after three days because crucial witnesses were sick or refused to appear in front of an Austrian court. It was never continued. The building was then taken over by the formerly popular restaurant chain “Wiener Wald” (fittingly, the location of the building is in Wiener Gasse).
But is Lerch’s and other Klagenfurters’ dark past anyhow publicly remembered? After all, Café Lerch was not just another small family business. In the 1930s, it became the meeting point for a number of leading Austrian Nazis, among them Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who would later become Reinhard Heydrich’s successor as chief of the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin. It was not long after the millennium, that the Wiener Wald closed down again, only for the building to be taken over by Mc Donald’s, the current proprietor.
As stated above, the memorial plaque does mention “Café Lerch’s” existence as such. However, the spotlight of remembrance firmly rests on the previous (architectural) history of the building. It used to be owned by a local monastery with more than a thousand years of recorded history. During the counter-reformation in 17th century, the monastery underwent a revival which saw numbers of members and funds increase. Part of these funds were used to acquire a villa in Klagenfurt which would later be named after the monastery as “Ossiacher Hof”. Café Lerch occupied part of the left side of the ground floor.
Ossiacher Hof is also a fixture on the local heritage trail due to its good state of preservation and architectural characteristics. The accompanying info leaflet that I found in my hotel also mentions Café Lerch (the leaflet can be downloaded from the local tourism website visitklagenfurt.at, but there the description of the building of Ossiacher Hof does not include Café Lerch!). However, the paper leaflet only tells us that the singer Udo Jürgens (1934-2014) had his first live gigs at Café Lerch.
That was it in terms of official public references to Café Lerch – not to speak of remembering its last owner – in Klagenfurt nowadays. Then what about references to Udo Jürgens? It is generally said that Udo Jürgens did not have much time for the Nazis, allegedly he was even severely injured by one of his Hitler Youth superiors in 1944. Otherwise he is said to have had a largely cosmopolitan outlook on life and to have been focused on his musical career pretty much more than anything else. Accordingly, his connection to Klagenfurt is publicly documented at the place where he learned his trade, i.e. with a commemorative plaque in Klagenfurt’s Conservatoire which even contains a signed dedication by the artist himself.
However, this commemorative plaque did not come into existence without controversy. Shortly after Jürgens’ death in 2014, the city council had the idea to put up a commemorative plaque on the wall of the building that formerly housed Café Lerch due to the close connection between his early career and the venue. But then the musician’s brother intervened as he didn’t want Jürgens’ legacy to be associated with the former meeting point of notorious Nazis. To justify this distancing from the place, he emphasized that Jürgens had not known anything about the café’s history or about Lerch’s past, an argument that was swiftly endorsed by contemporary witnesses. (https://kurier.at/chronik/oesterreich/groteske-um-udo-juergens-ehrung/170.226.958)
However, it was this last aspect which called a few dissenting Carinthians into action to dig deeper into the substance of the relationship between Jürgens and Café Lerch and his owner, respectively. Among those dissenters was the physician and author Berndt Rieger who was born in Wolfsberg/Carinthia which happened to be the town where Lerch had been briefly interned by the British.
He essentially tells us that Jürgens’ father was friends with Reinhold (von) Mohrenschildt, who was Globocnik’s first adjutant in Lublin – effectively Lerch’s predecessor in that position – and, at the same time, local representative of the Reich Commissioner for the Strengthening of Germandom. The Jürgens and Mohrenschildt families allegedly had close contacts as both were members of the German Nationalist propertied bourgeoisie in Carinthia. Udo Jürgens is said to have addressed Mohrenschildt as “Uncle Reinhold” and to have known about his membership in the SS. And, together with his family, he regularly attended festivities at Mohrenschildt’s home, Freudenberg Castle. Another regular guest at these festivities was a certain café owner from Klagenfurt. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Jürgens later would have known anything about Lerch’s wartime activities in and around Lublin and Trieste. But it also makes it less of an “innocent coincidence” that Café Lerch would become the springboard for his career. And it shows the lure of compromises with local Nazis before and after 1945 and the convenience of silence.
Christoph Thonfeld, 2 June 2019