Asyl für Obdachlose (Asylum for the Homeless) Vienna, Untere Meidlinger Strasse 3, built 1908
Asylum for the Homeless, Vienna, Untere Meidlinger Strasse 3, built 1908

Back to Part I

The asylum, “which in consideration for the decent citizens was built behind the Meidlinger cemetery, far from the residents”, but near the southern railway station, had only been opened in 1908. Together with a similar institution in the 3rd District, it was operated by the “Shelter Association for the Homeless“, a charity which financed itself by private donations and received an annual subsidy from the city. Yet the association had to fight windmills in their constant struggle against the three related issues that plagued the poor: poverty resulted in homelessness, homelessness resulted in disease, and disease resulted in loss of employment. Imperial Vienna, we mentioned it, was at that time a metropolis of over two million inhabitants, the sixth-biggest town on earth, and certainly more than a quarter million of its denizens was relegated to perpetual poverty. Many of the losers had come from the outer provinces of the empire, the East or the South, and lacked a suitable command of the German language, which in turn decreased their chances of employment. For worse, they lacked the kind of survival instincts that apply to a city, as opposed to those applicable at their rural origins.

The Meidlinger shelter was a sturdy affair, offering refuge for around one thousand souls. Unlike other charities it allowed occupants to stay for a week only (a stipulation that could be circumvented), but it offered an advantage most other places lacked: it would take in whole families and their children, not only single men. It promoted self-help as well: everybody, health permitting, was called upon to aid in the cleaning and maintenance of the building, to keep operating costs at a minimum. The building was not too dreary, thanks to its recent pedigree; there were washing facilities, showers and numerous toilets, all of them kept spotlessly clean. Two meals a day were supplied, soup and sandwich, for breakfast and supper; the dormitories featured the usual military-style cots, lined up with the precision of a battalion on parade. During daylight hours the occupants were expected to leave the shelter, preferably in search of employment; loitering was frowned upon and could easily lead to eviction.

One of Hitler's better efforts - a scene on a lake
One of Hitler’s better efforts – a scene on a lake

Much as he disliked it, Hitler had to pass through the ritual of admission; to establish membership in the community of misery. The shiverlings began to line up outside of the main gate when darkness fell, around 5 pm, and when the doors of the institution opened, two rows of bodies filed in quietly: men to the right, woman and children to the left. Hitler received, as everybody else did, a ticket that entitled him to the statutory one-week lodging and was assigned a brass cot in one of the dormitories. It must have been exceedingly onerous for a man who was used to his privacy as much as Hitler was to face one’s first experience with public shower and delousation procedures. His proud sense of individuality must have vanished at the latest when he joined the herd of occupants heading to the mess hall for dinner. As John Toland observed, “it would be difficult for anyone but another recipient of institutionalized charity to understand the shame suffered by a proud young man on his first day within the gates of such an establishment.”

For a man so much accustomed to his freedom, the asylum certainly felt like a prison. One can imagine how he sat, completely lost, on a cot in a large hall with hundreds of strangers, each of whom was more familiar with the situation than he was. It was perhaps his impersonation of a lost kitten that convinced his cot neighbour, an on-and-off servant and waiter named Reinhold Hanisch, to take care of him, to show him the ropes. Although Hanisch by himself is a problem as a witness – when he met Hitler he had already been to jail more than once, lived habitually under false names, used doctored birth certificates and in later years counterfeited Hitler paintings – some parts of his memoir that the American magazine The New Republic printed in 1939 – ­posthumously – under the title “Reinhold Hanisch: I was Hitler’s Buddy”, ring true, among much that has been proven false or at least misleading. Unlike Hitler, Hanisch was a professional utilizer of charity-assisted lifestyles, was familiar with the inner workings of the asylum and every other such house in Vienna and also an expert in the general survival strategies of vagrants. He proved his value instantly: one of the first tricks he taught Hitler was how to circumvent the lodging limitation; all one had to do was buy, for a few pennies, the unused portions of the admittance cards of those occupants who, for a variety of reasons, left without having used up their allotments. Thus the first danger of having to return into the cold was banned and Hitler began to appreciate his new acquaintance.

Reinhold Hanisch came from the Sudetenland, the northern, German part of Bohemia -­ at least some believe so, for he often listed himself as being born in Grünwald near Gablenz – but had travelled extensively and thus was able to tell his new friend many stories about Germany, Adolf’s promised land. Hanisch also hedged a few dreams of becoming an artist and immediately recognized a related soul in Hitler. Hanisch had seen and could relate the tales of towns and castles, cathedrals and monasteries, mountains and rivers.

To make things more entertaining for Adolf, it turned out that Hanisch had worked in Braunau for some time, and they began to exchange reminiscences of the town. As it frequently happens, common knowledge and common interests breed trust, and soon they talked incessantly. That is, until Hanisch found a new job and moved, on December 21, 1909, to Hermanngasse 16 in the IInd District, and, on February 11, 1910, on to Herzgasse 3/4, in the Xth District.

After a few days of listening to Hanisch, Hitler had memorized the basic rules of street life and they made up a kind of daily routine. In the morning they set out on the rather long walk to St. Katherine’s Convent near Adolf’s old haunts at the Westbahnhof to queue up for the soup the nuns passed out at noon, then on to one of the warming rooms operated by the philanthropic societies or into the relative warmth of a railway station. In the afternoon, they would be trying to sneak up on some food at the Salvation Army before heading back to the asylum in time to be among the first in the waiting line. Occasionally men were sought for a day or two of work in ditch digging, snow shovelling or luggage handling at a train station, but Hanisch had quickly realized that Hitler was too weak for these incidental jobs. Neither did Adolf have any talent for begging, although he acquired from an asylum comrade the addresses of “soft touches”, prospective donors. He received “specific instructions for each customer; for example he was to greet an old lady on the Schottenring with a “Praised be Jesus Christ”, and then say he was an unemployed church painter or a woodcutter of holy figures. Usually she gave two Kronen for such a story, but Hitler only got religious platitudes for his trouble.” The nuns of St. Katherine’s were one of the few reliable addresses in town.

A la longue, Hanisch realized that, while practically all the outcasts of the capital did beg, very few did paint, and derived a plan how to profit from Adolf’s artistic abilities. We do not know exactly when the idea came up; either during the two months Hitler spent at the Asylum in Meidling or later at the Men’s Hostel in the Meldemannstrasse, but, at any rate, Hanisch convinced his friend that the best way to make some dire needed cash was to paint small scenes or postcards and sell them. When Hitler objected that he had no more painting utensils, was too shabbily dressed to sell anything and not a great salesman to boot, the plan was amended and the labour divided: Adolf would do the painting and Hanisch the selling, for a fifty per cent commission.

There was the tricky issue that the two prospective entrepreneurs did not have a license, but Hanisch assured his friend that such petty regulations could be outflanked by moving their point of sale into the dim and grey, smoke-filled taverns of the city, of which Hanisch, having worked in many, had an encyclopaedic knowledge. In regards to the painting materials, Hanisch proposed to apply to the generosity of Adolf’s family. The Cafe Arthaber, conveniently located near the Meidling train station, was known to provide pen and paper for the vagrants if they paid the universal entry fee – the price of a cup of coffee. Adolf wrote a letter, either to Aunt Johanna or to Angela, and a few days later a fifty crown note arrived poste restante. “The money probably saved his life, for it gave him renewed hope at a time when he had little to hope for.”

All the petty possessions he had accumulated in the preceding years had long since disappeared. It is quite possible that an irate landlady seized some in lieu of rent, but in his pitiful state of existence before the asylum, he may simply have lost most of them, out of sight, out of mind. All the books, manuscripts, paintings, sketches, maps and drawings were lost; gone were the dressy overcoat, top hat and walking stick. Has August met this destitute figure, he might not have recognized him. The young, almost elegant Bohemian had vanished; all that was left was a piece of human flotsam, the debris of the young boy that had urged his playmates to chase the redskins. Only fragments remained of the son Klara had so loved.

The crash of his dream world sent pulses, like ripples, to the outer rims of his consciousness; the remnants of his former self may have caught glimpses of unfamiliar surroundings, seeing but not realizing how he had arrived there. As if arising from hibernation, Adolf found himself in a place of perplexing strangeness and laboured to re-establish the mental cohesion of time and place. In a 1913 letter he wrote: “The autumn of 1909 was for me an interminably bitter time. I was a young man with no experience, without financial assistance, and too proud to accept it from just anyone, let alone beg for it.” The bitter feeling was real enough, but the last clause was a lie: his true problem with begging was that it did not work for him.

Yet in a sense the marks of this winter never vanished. In the description of their friendship, August had painted the portrait of a slightly strange, somewhat exotic, a little awkward and sometimes violent young man, who was nonetheless permanently active, if only in a self-centred way; writing, composing an opera, drawing, painting and rebuilding Linz. Now, less than twelve months later, his friend was destitute of mind and body. He had lost weight and his health was doubtful. It has been advocated and indeed seems likely that the innumerable ailments, big and small, that plagued him in later years were rooted in this cold winter, which exacerbated his earlier affliction of the lung and may have weakened his immune system as well.

But not only was he physically exhausted, his spirit had suffered as well. For long spells he retained the stare common to visionaries and beggars; concentration was sporadic, reason elusive, his passions dull, unless something bothered him. Then he could still erupt in flames, in fierce and biting crescendo arguing, ranting, raging; only to sink back quickly into the comforting anodyne of apathy. He was on the verge of defeat when Hanisch picked him up, but he eventually adapted to the outcast life and gradually things improved.

The Meidlinger asylum however, while having provided a safety net in the days of calamity and ire, was no place to start Hitler & Hanisch, Postcards Un-Incorporated. A location had to be found which not only allowed long-time tenure but also provided a space where Hitler could paint during the day. Hanisch identified such a place in the Männerheim, the Men’s Hostel, in Brigittenau, Vienna’s newest, the XXth District.

Continue to Part III

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

Hits: 73