Publication Date: Wednesday, November 26, 2003|
(November 26, 2003) Palo Alto natives unearth their true heritage
by Robyn Israel
C hris Andrews always knew there was something different about his upbringing. Even the food his family ate seemed unique. His mother, Elizabeth, would prepare dishes such as sweet and sour cabbage, goulash and spetzel . Hand-made toys -- more so than standard American playthings -- were a part of his boyhood. Even their dress stood out, with Andrews and his older brother, Rich, sometimes wearing lederhosen .
"We were brought up Austrian in America," Andrews said.
But the brothers knew very little about their European heritage while growing up in the College Terrace section of Palo Alto. Theirs was a hardscrabble existence, different from the lives of other kids in the neighborhood. Elizabeth was a single mother who divorced their father when the children were little. Life was not easy -- she struggled to support her family, subsisted on welfare and suffered from schizophrenia.
"We didn't grow up like the people around us in Palo Alto," Andrews recalled. "We had a very different life."
Though born in Vienna in 1925, Elizabeth left the country with her parents as a young girl and moved to the United States. With the exception of one early trip to Austria to visit their grandparents (who had subsequently moved back), the boys knew very little about the country of their ancestry or their maternal family tree.
The chain was tragically broken in 1971, when Elizabeth committed suicide, taking to her grave secrets about the family's past, their property and their identity. Andrews, who was then 14, found her.
But a lot of missing pieces have since been filled in for the Andrews brothers. The catalyst was a letter they received two years ago from the Hoerner Bank in Germany, informing them they were heirs to a building in Vienna, estimated at $430,000 U.S., which previously belonged to Dr. Lothar Fuerth, a first cousin to their grandmother.
Intrigued by this surprising revelation, the brothers traveled to Vienna in December 2001 to investigate their property at Schmidgasse 14 -- only to discover it is a six-story, 40,000 square-foot building that houses the U.S. Embassy.
"It's this huge building, with 120 offices, next to the Rathaus (City Hall) And it's as close as you can get to the central district of Vienna without being a parliamentary building," Andrews said.
The brothers, whose story was profiled on "60 Minutes II" on Nov. 12, have since learned much more -- that the building was a clinic in the 1930s where Dr. Sigmund Freud practiced, and where prominent people, such as the maharajah of India and Gustav Klimt, were treated. It was also, they learned, their mother's birthplace.
They also discovered that their family owned a brewery and a match factory, as well as two other buildings near Schmidgasse 14, which are now apartment buildings. The family, one of the wealthiest in Vienna, also owned one of the finest collections of Austrian porcelain.
An Austrian genealogist who worked on the case has also discovered there are five other heirs to the Fuerth estate -- all second cousins to the brothers. For Andrews, this has been one of the greatest joys, having recently reunited with a couple of his surviving cousins.
"It was an incredibly exciting thing to all of us, to find family," he said. "We thought there was no one surviving. It was extraordinary. The moment we heard about the family, something in us inherently changed."
But one of the biggest revelations to emerge from this incredible story is for the brothers to learn they are, in fact, Jewish. It was something they never knew, as their grandparents, Anton and Marie Redlich, were fully assimilated into Austrian society. Though Elizabeth was baptized, the boys were raised without religion. Today Rich is Catholic, while Andrews gravitates toward Eastern religions such as Buddhism.
But their Jewish ancestry truly sunk in when Andrews recently learned about the registration process that occurred following the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria to Germany in 1938). Jewish men who filled out Nazi forms were obligated to put Israel as their middle name, while Jewish women were instructed to use Sarah as their middle name. When Andrews went through his entire family tree, every member on it had either Israel or Sarah as a middle name.
"This evolved over six to 12 months, and it continues to evolve, how we feel about this," Andrews said. "I'm still processing it, as we speak."
Another shocking discovery: that their grandmother was the women's doubles champion of Austria -- a sweet revelation for the brothers, who found utter solace on local tennis courts after losing their mother.
"Without drawing a direct parallel, tennis to us was like basketball to the ghetto. It allowed us to thrive and survive," Andrews said.
Both brothers were state champions -- Rich in singles, Andrews in doubles -- and both earned tennis scholarships. Andrews attended the University of Utah, while Rich went to the University of Washington. Rich had a world ranking for five years and is today one of the top tennis coaches in the country. He runs a tennis academy in the Sacramento area.
Andrews is a Los Altos-based entrepreneur and consultant who has dabbled in various enterprises, from being a product manager at Hewlett Packard to licensing the Grammy logo. In the mid '80s, Andrews helped pioneer the CD-ROM business, producing the "Guinness Book of World Records" in that format. Eventually he decided to combine digital publishing with his love of music, producing a Grammy Web cast and creating CD-ROMs about the Grammys. He was also head of business development for the music awards. His most recent business was VentureMakers, an intellectual property company.
"I am a product of Palo Alto, when you could be a scientist and a protester at the same time -- that was what made Palo Alto beautiful," he said. "I am cut from that Palo Alto cloth, (which believes) that diversity, opinion, strong feelings, freedom of expression and leadership in social issues sits right alongside forming companies, equity and technology. We are suffering at this moment in those two schools of thought. And Palo Alto used to lead the country in this integration."
Today, the brothers are preoccupied with reclaiming their family's lost property, including Schmidgasse 14. They have filed 25 claims and expect to hear a response within the next six months. But the money is truly secondary to their pursuit of truth and justice, Andrews said.
What is deeply troubling, Andrews said, is the fact that in January 2001, the U.S. government signed an agreement supporting a restitution program in Austria, whereby buildings taken over by the Austrian government after World War II be returned to their rightful heirs. For the U.S. Embassy to remain at Schmidgasse 14 is a clear conflict of interest, he said.
"With the Austrian government, it's been lies on top of lies," Andrews said. "I think the U.S. government has no credibility there right now."
Andrews, who has made six trips to Austria over the last two years, is now embroiled in the complicated issue of restitution. He would like to see Schmidgasse 14 transformed into a symbol of progress, healing and moving forward.
"Perhaps (it could house) a nonprofit organization that involves both Austria and the United States, which works toward documenting and publicizing the truth about Austria, so it's not up to the next generation to clean it up.
"I really think there is a lesson in Austria, about how if the truth is suppressed to such a large extent, eventually it inhibits the growth of the country, and just makes the next generation pay with guilt and shame. I think it is time that our generation did something, instead of just passing it along," said Andrews, the father of James, 10, and Michelle, 2.
Thrust into the limelight, Andrews would also like to use his current "celebrity" to bring attention to issues he truly cares about, especially mental illness.
"For me, it feels like a calling. I've been given this amazing opportunity and people are listening to me. I really feel there's a lot of people struggling today," he said. "Depression and suicide are complex, but they need to be talked about.
Today, when people question why Andrews has invested so much time and energy "righting wrongs that are impossible to right," he responds with conviction, tinged with the humility born of his recent life-altering circumstances.
"What better thing is there to do with your life than shine a light on a dark part of civilization. I can't think of anything better for me. It's not a choice. I wish people would join me in doing this."
Robyn Israel can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org