Goodnight, Vienna

Written by Marius Gabriel
Review by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

Katya, daughter of Russian nobles who fled the Bolsheviks, dreams of practicing medicine, but her impecunious parents, now living in Paris, arrange for her to work as a governess for a widowed Austrian businessman. Her childhood friendship with the frail son of doomed Tsar Nicholas has, in their minds, qualified her to care for Thor Bachmann’s troubled 12-year-old daughter, Gretchen, who is a gifted pianist. Katya arrives in Vienna months before the 1938 Anschluss. She brings Gretchen to Dr. Hans Asperger, the Nazi sympathizer who diagnosed children on the autism spectrum. As the Nazis tighten their grip, Thor disappears as a result of a critical remark against Hitler. Asperger recommends that Gretchen be sent to Germany as part of the genocidal Aktion T4 program, and Katya, who has managed to connect with the child and allay her anxieties, must now find a safe harbor for both of them. Her journey takes her high into the Austrian Alps and to the home of a Jewish surgeon with a disabled sister who he wants to smuggle out of the country.

What begins as an unlikely romance between a reluctant governess and her gruff employer turns more complex and gripping as escape routes open up, only to be closed off again. As the Nazis swiftly move to incorporate Austria into the Reich, Gabriel ramps up the tension with realistic and harrowing details. His portrayals of real historical figures, including Asperger, rely on his imagination but contain truth. Asperger did collaborate with the Nazis and carry out their murderous policies, though his reputation, like many other Nazis and collaborators, was rehabilitated after the war. At the same time, Gretchen emerges as a compelling secondary character as her relationship with Katya deepens, and she becomes an active participant in her own salvation.