Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Austria 1945: Interrogating the Composer

The investigator on the rough roads of Austria.
The Military Government investigator on the snowy roads of Austria.

In Eric Leiseroff’s last years, I worked with the White Plains, NY, resident on his memoirs. Titled “This Country Gave Me Life!” this historic document covers his early years in Dresden, leaving Germany in June 1941 with his mother by train through France and Spain to Lisbon and then to New York on the SS Excaliber, then returning to Germany as a GI with the U.S. Army’s 89th Infantry Division in 1945.

Eric Leiseroff, four years after leaving Dresden, April 27, 1945. (courtesy of author)

My trip this spring to Budapest and Vienna with his daughter Naomi sparked a renewed interest in Leiseroff’s time in Austria immediately after the war. His native German fluency ability proved invaluable when Leiseroff transferred to the military government based in Salzburg. He wrote:

I was promoted to investigator, which gave me the freedom to make decisions. The position gave me the freedom to ask or do anything I felt was necessary, instead of just being an interpreter. I talked to anyone, asked questions and interrogated civilians and military prisoners to get information on their past history, political beliefs and loyalty. It was felt at that time the Germans would make it difficult for the occupation forces so we hoped to identify our future enemies.

Leiseroff enjoyed living in Salzburg, which survived the war with little damage. His experiences echo the last episode of the 2001 series Band of Brothers, about U.S. soldiers in Germany. One voiceover said, “Nobody wanted to leave Berchtesgaden until they saw Austria.”

His memories exactly fit the details of the series:

While serving in Salzburg I was sent to Tamsweg, which gave me a chance to see some of the most beautiful country. Four of us lived in a beautiful house that had services galore plus plenty to eat. The attachment was supposed to have 12 GIs but everyone was going home as soon as they met the specifications. . . While in Austria I met several young ladies that helped make these places more livable.

Assigned a jeep he called “The Cavalier,” he roamed Austria and relentlessly pursued leads from displaced persons, civilians and former government officials. He wanted to get a feel for the mood of the Austrians. Attached to the CIC, or Counter Intelligence Corps, he had a security clearance and took on sensitive assignments. He was so well regarded he attended meetings in Vienna with representatives of the U.S., British, French and Soviet forces.

Admiring the Cavalier in Austria. (courtesy of author)

The encounter that he especially remembered: talking with Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár, best known for his operetta The Merry Widow.

Leiseroff died on February 25, 2022, the day after the Russians invaded Ukraine. If I had one more day of time with him, I would ask for more details on his encounter with Lehár. I missed the historical import of what he wrote 50 years after the fact:

I went to Bad Ischl where I had a chance to meet the composer Franz Lehár at his home. The US thought he was a Nazi collaborator, as Hitler liked his music. The short conversation I had was only about the daily life. I reported back that I don’t think he is a threat. He liked Bad Ischl since no one bothered him. He died in 1948.

That sounded straightforward enough. Scraps of the historical record back it up, albeit with few details. A December 30, 2014 article in the online Tablet magazine, “The Merry Widow’s Fling With Hitler,” by Raphael Mostel, explores Hitler’s attachment to “The Merry Widow” and how Lehár benefited from that. Mostel wrote,

Was Lehár anti-Semitic? Not really. His wife Sophie was Jewish, as were virtually all of his collaborators. Still, that didn’t prevent him from defending himself in 1938 lawsuit by denouncing the plaintiffs to the authorities as Jews. . .

After the war, Lehár went to great lengths to deny his connections to Hitler and the Nazis, feigning innocence. “No politics, please…We don’t want to talk about politics. Politics is dirty, and I don’t want to talk about dirty things…. My conscience is clear. My Merry Widow was Hitler’s favorite operetta. That’s not my fault, right?” And all too often his fame and charm got him off the hook. Even the American soldiers charged with de-Nazification were more interested in getting autographs from and having photos taken with the famous composer than in finding out the truth.

Listening to Lehár. (courtesy of author)

Seeking details beyond Mostel’s description, I found a Lehár biography, Silver and Gold: The Life and Times of Franz Lehár, written by Bernard Grun, an Austrian composer, conductor and author who relocated to London in 1935. Published in 1970. the book glides over the war years in a few pages and treats Lehár’s experiences with denazification in two desultory paragraphs:

The entry of the United States troops into Ischl was carried out in good order and without resistance in the week of Lehár’s seventy-fifth birthday. “As in every other place” (a soldier in the Rainbow Division recalled on American radio in December 1947) “our men went from house to house, questioning, checking, securing. When they came to the villa on the other side of the river, the door was opened to them by an old gentleman, short in height, with a deathly white face which showed no signs of bitterness but a smile of welcome. When the men began putting their questions, he took them into the drawing-room and asked them politely to take a seat. Then he walked to the piano without saying anything; his eyes stared into the distance, his hands trembled . . “

Directly the news got around the GIs that the man who wrote The Merry Widow was living in the town his house was besieged, and the doorbell rang repeatedly, and the troops invited themselves in. They photographed the famous composer, approached him for pictures and autographs, and honored him in the most naïve manner. The Lehárs enjoyed the young people, the freedom regained, and the bloom of spring.

Was Eric Leiseroff one of those soldiers? He was a natural choice to conduct a denazification interview with Lehár. The process included using a 131-question “personnel questionnaire” or “fragebogen” in German. I found the first page of the fragebogen, printed in both German and English, on the website of the Bildarchive Preussischer Kulturbesitz (the Visual Archive of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), which opens with

WARNING: In the interests of clarity this questionnaire has been written in both German and English. If discrepancies exist, the English will prevail. Every question must be answered as indicated. Omissions or false or incomplete statements will result in prosecution as violations of military ordinances. Add supplementary sheets if there is not enough space in the questionnaire.

The form starts with personal questions, such as “position before 1933,” then moves on to Nazi Party affiliations followed by Nazi “Auxiliary” Organization activities. If Lehár completed a fragebogen, it may be in the National Archives but I haven’t located it; if in German, I couldn’t read it anyway.

Leiseroff’s language skills and work as an investigator gave him, I like to think, a toughness and skepticism to withstand any charm offensive by a famous personality. As a Jew who barely escaped Germany in 1941 and had relatives murdered in the Holocaust, he had personal and professional interests in uncovering Nazis and sympathizers. Perhaps he met Lehár separately from the other soldiers? In any case, the military government left Lehár alone.

I couldn’t locate a complete list of the form’s questions, but they should be contained in a book being published this August, Everyday Denazification in Postwar Germany: The Fragebogen and Political Screening during the Allied Occupation, by Mikkel Dack, an assistant professor of history at Rowan University and Director of Research at the Rowan Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights.

Ultimately, what transpired between the young German-born Jewish investigator and the slippery Austrian composer with tangled connections to Jews and the Nazis remains unknown. If Lehár did complete a fragebogen and an English translation ever turns up, I’ll be the first to read it. I want to see which investigator conducted it and what Lehár had to say for himself.

The investigator on the road in Austria. (Courtesy of author)
About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.
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