What happened to my grandfather in the infamous monastery?

English translation of article by Sofia Nyblom, originally published in Svenska Dagbladet on January 19, 2019: 

Above the outer gate of the Benedictine monastery in Kremsmünster large letters announce:

“This gate should be open to everyone who is willing to walk honorably through it. ”

Although it is a starry night when I get picked up at the station by a Benedictine monk dressed in the customary black cloak, it is almost pitch black when I step out of the car on the innermost part of the monastery courtyards. Every detail of architect Carlo Antonio Carlone’s baroque monastery bespeaks its former significance as educational center and religious hub. I can’t help but wonder how impressive, and frightening, the view must have been for two Swedish boys who arrived here just before the outbreak of the First World War.

In one of the monastery hallways is a memorial plaque that honors the former boarding student Franz Xavier Süssmayer, the composer who completed Mozart’s ”Requiem”, and another dedicated to poet Adalbert Stifter. Right next them is a plaque with a quote from Saint Benedictus of Nursia: ”No one shall be grieved in the house of God. Dedicated to the students who were subjected to physical, mental and sexual violence in the boarding school and at the school. ”

I really only have a couple of clear memories of my grandfather, the architect Peder Nyblom. I am eight years old when he shows off his new herb garden and a waterlily pond with goldfish, which he made in memory of Kremsmünster outside his house on the island. I sit on my grandfather’s lap as he puts his pipe aside and picks a lieutenant’s heart (flower) to tell the story of the lieutenant – the upside-down lieutenant hat – who courts his girlfriend. Right-hand side, the flower becomes a pink crinoline perched on a slender bodice. With rough fingers, grandfather gently separates the petals and exposes the green pistil.

– Do you see? Here is the champagne bottle that the lieutenant gives his girlfriend.

My second memory is from a cold, blistering midsummer day a few years later. Grandfather harasses my little brother, scolds my father, and forces the whole family to leave the party and sail off without a goal.

The name Kremsmünster holds a fairytale shimmer in the family history. And a curse. My grandfather and his older brother must have been around ten when they received a scholarship for the prestigious Catholic boarding school in Austria. Their parents were Catholic converts and artists in the circle around Prince Eugen at Tyresö Castle. Being a Catholic in Sweden was not easy. One was easily considered with suspicion, and Catholicism was considered to threaten Nordic values. The Nyblom family was poor and the scholarship more than welcome, even though they had no connection with Austria.

In the monastery, the boys could develop their artistic talents. Grandfather was a skilled artist and played the lute. The boys must have traveled down in 1911 or 1912, and stayed until the end of the war. When the Habsburg Empire broke down in 1918, they left for Stockholm. Grandfather dragged his deadly ill brother through a Europe on fire. Everywhere revolutions, food riots, returning soldiers and refugees. The boys had to beg to survive, and smuggled their way home hidden inside freight wagons. When they reached Sweden spring winter 1919, Grandfather’s brother was so ill that he was hospitalized. The death certificate describes bleeding ulcers and pulmonary sac inflammation.

The story of the monastery and the brothers’ journey has persecuted me since I was a child. But the descriptions are scant, and over the years I have wanted to know more. When the Benedictine monastery was drawn into revelations of abuse, my questions became acute.

The Catholic Church # metoo moment occurred in 2002, when the Anglo-Saxon world was shaken by the information in a study by the Boston Globe newspaper. In the spring of 2010, the wave of revelations reached the heart of the Catholic world, the German-speaking countries of Europe. The whistleblower was a Jesuit pater in Berlin who urged the German-born Pope Benedict XIV to deal with the abuse history of the Catholic Church.

My suspicions were confirmed when I visited the Kremsmünster website in March 2010. It was completely dominated by the news of

abuse in the monastery. An anonymous blog was filled with testimonies of sadistic abuse. Kremsmünster proved to have the nicknamed ”Kremsmonster.” Pupils who studied there during the post-war period described it as an extermination camp for children’s souls.

How long had this been going on? How did my grandfather actually end up in Kremsmünster, and what was he and his brother subjected to?

Mist surrounds the tall star observatory when I pull up the blinds in my monastery cell. But soon the autumn sun spreads gold over the linden planted in the 1880s to Crown Prince Rudolf of Habsburg’s glory. Although the monastic life is dominated by prayer and asceticism, monks do not suffer from lack of beauty.

During the service, the church choir sings a mass composed by Joseph Haydn’s teacher, while the incense is diffused in the church. Afterwards, I join Mrs Ingrid Grabner, a retired folk school teacher.

When she hears my story she runs home to collect a book about the school’s history.

– Is this your grandfather?

I stare at the picture, where a blonde boy stands in the back of a school photo from 1913. Mrs Grabner says:

– You’ve heard about the abuse of course? There were many who left the church then. But it is not right to hide such things, it was good that it came out.

She is the first and only person during my visit who brings up the subject without my asking. 

The abbot of the monastery since 2007 is Ambros Erhart. He welcomes me into his residence, and smiles when I tell him about grandfather’s little herb garden. As the head of the monastery, he is responsible for many hundred hectares of fields, forests and vineyards. The school has tennis courts and a football field. The beautiful library holds original manuscripts by Goethe and Anton Bruckner, and one of the world’s oldest bibles, Codex Millenarius from the 8th century.

– Everything is incredibly impressive, I say.

But Father Ambro’s smile fades away when I explain that my impetus is not the story, but the darkness it conceals. The complicated role played by Catholicism when my grandfather made two women pregnant outside of marriage and abandoned them for a third family. How, at the moment of death, he refused to accept the last anointment that is so important to Catholics.

I ask Abt Ambros how he, who himself started attending school in 1962, experienced his youth here.

– It was very strict. We only had to go home for Christmas, Easter and All Saints Day. Now, the boarding school is no longer needed, the communications are so good that the students can get here and home on their own themselves.

How did you react when the sexual abuse information came out?

Abt Ambros collapses, the friendly gaze turns void and the color disappears from the face.

– I thought it was awkward then, with all the excitement … but I think differently about it today. It is, of course, terrible.

The plaque in the monastery was erected in 2015, shortly after the director of the boarding school for 40 years and choir conductor, Father Alfons, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sexual and physical abuse, possession of weapons and use of the position of trust against minors. Two years earlier, the monastery had closed for good.

Another day I get access to the monastery archives. From dusty boxes, the archivist Father Petrus brings out the monastery school regulations from the turn of the century 1900. The school’s goal is to raise noble and honest men. The day starts with the morning prayer at half seven and is strictly scheduled until bedtime. It is forbidden to swim in the Krems River, visit cafes or private homes. House arrest and fasting are part of the disciplinary measures.

I find myself captivated by a photograph from the dormitory, with thirty beds lined up around a tiled stove. Grandfather was allowed to live in a boarding house but spent the days in school. His brother, who was to become a priest, lived in the dormitory during his last two years of life. 

In a huge leather-bound tome, my grandfather’s fine grades have been registered in beautiful handwriting. The chaotic fall of 1918, when the Spanish flu demanded several lives in the monastery and the Austrian republic was proclaimed shortly after the end of the war, the boys received no grades. There is just one single comment in the margin: departed before Christmas for the home in Sweden.

Martin Kaltenbrunner meets me on a bicycle in the monastery courtyard. He was a student here in the 1990s, and one of those who put pressure on the monastery to organize an external

criminal investigation into the abuse. He also participated in the 400-page study published in 2016. Today, he is a professor of sound design at the art university in Linz, but has become an involuntary expert on the abuses culture in the Catholic Church.

-The violence was encouraged by the management. The goal was to break down children.

Martin Kaltenbrunner gives example of horrifying abuse. Boxes on the ear that sent the pupil flying across the room, caused the blood to flow and cracked eardrums. The whip of oxleather. In the dining room, a teacher could proclaim ”vogel-frei”, free to fight. The weakest were the most vulnerable. When Martin came home and complained mother, she meant that he deserved the abuse. She was proud over her son, a boy from the working class, who had access to a fine school, and she did not want to see the truth.

We walk along the moat when Martin Kaltenbrunner points to a window on the gable.

– Father Alfons lived there. Beside his apartment he had set up his own sleeping area where his favorites were installed. It was called ”Hades.”

Did the students know about this?

-There were rumors that Alfons had a red couch where he was abusing boys. It was a open secret. But we hardly knew what that meant, says Martin Kaltenbrunner, who himself managed to escape sexual abuse.

The students had nick names for the teachers:

Father Alfons was called ”Fig” or Figaro, after the barber in Mozart’s and Rossini’s operas boasting that he is ”everywhere”. But ”ficken” is also German for ”fuck”. Father Alfons also owned a rifle with which he threatened the children when they failed with a task, or sang falsely. I ask Martin Kaltenbrunner if he has any bright memories of school time.

– You know Michael Haneke’s films? That’s how it was. 98 percent of the time was endurable. The remaining 2 percent was terrible.

-The author Thomas Bernhard has written that the problems in the Catholic Church have been passed on since the Nazi era. There are indications that they have been passed down for several generations. It is a culture of pedophilia, says Martin Kaltenbrunner.

Thomas Bernhard himself attended a Nazi-led boarding school in Salzburg during World War II. After the war, the image of Hitler was exchanged for the crucifix, and the school again became Catholic. His authorship was driven by rage against his native Austria. In the self-biography ”Die Ursache” he calls Salzburg ”The Museum of Death”: a place that is transformed by two ideologies, the Nazi and the Catholic, into a prison where the self is obliterated.

The monastery in Kremsmünster proves to have gone through the same scenario. The Nazis occupied it in 1938, most of the monks moved out, and the Catholic drill was replaced by Hitler-Jugend and Nazi exercise. Among the children in the school was the young Augustus Mandorfer – Father Alfons. Three years after the German army’s tanks rolled into the square, the monastery was set up as a secret  storage space for Nazi stolen art treasures, conveniently located close to Hitler’s planned ”Führer Museum” in Linz.

After the war, the monks who had been in the army returned to work at the monastery. Augustus Mandorfer trained to become a choral conductor at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and came back to be a monk. A monk who committed sadistic abuse and rape on his students, sometimes in connection with trips where the best friend and confession father was an apron.

The headmaster of the school today is Wolfgang Leberbauer.

-We Austrians could never be Protestants. We are far too baroque, we enjoy life, he says while he offers me a glass of Italian grappa that has come out of the cupboard.

Wolfgang Leberbauer never became a monk, and he talks about the breath of fresh air when female teachers and students got access to the school in 1990. He himself began his studies in Kremsmünster in 1968, and recalls a climate characterized by a certain male hardness.

-Father Alfons was an exquisite musician and art connoisseur. But he wasn’t the only perpetrator, even though he was the only one convicted in court.

Several designated criminals live and work today in the monastery. The limitation period for their abuse has in many cases expired.

Wolfgang Leberbauer invites me to read the school’s annual chronicles from World War I in his office. The discipline during the war years draws attention to a military academy. Courage is held up with the Nibelungen story, German folk songs and marching exercises. But the children are starving. Cabbage is the only food served. The boys are studying war poetry and reports from the front, and write essays on the theme ”How do we best honor the fallen warrior?”. From 1915, the elderly are instructed on the Ministry of Defense’s mission in shooting with sharp and loose bullets. Those who return from the battlefield often are transferred directly to the cemetary. When Emperor Franz Josef dies in 1916, the children are crying openly, while the school orchestra plays Wagner and Sibelius’s ”Valse triste”.

Franz Staudinger studied for nine years in Kremsmünster, starting in 1972, and is currently working as a lawyer in Linz. His mother wanted him to become a priest.

-Tremendum et fascinosum, the horrible is majestic, he answers with a quotation in Latin from his school years when I describe my impressions.

-You enter through the gate, and your life changes forever. Pretty soon after I started school as a nine-year-old, I began to doubt my own experiences.

Initially, Franz received great marks, and sang in the choir under Father Alfons. But violence quickly turned out to be part of everyday life. The gymnastics teacher had a past in Hitler’s army, and announced ”shot command” on the lessons. One team would shoot the other with leather-covered balls. If you threw too softly you became the target yourself. Father Alfons handed out a special penalty. He pressed the victim’s head to his own abdomen, and urged classmates to hit the culprit hard at the end. Also Franz Staudinger had to participate in the penalism.

”So victims are turned into perpetrators,” he notes.

One day, Father Alfons called up Franz in his room. He put him over his knee, pulled down his pants and touched his genitals.

– I don’t remember when it started, how many times it happened or how it ended.

Franz Staudinger hesitates before every new sentence.

– Father Alfons loved little boys. But I do not think he was homosexual, it was a way for him to forcibly get sex and closeness. He had himself been the victim of abuse when he was a child, by the former choir leader and board member.

I ask Franz if it is possible that the monks did not know what was going on. He answers tersely:

-They were too weak.

How did you handle the abuse?

– I intellectualized and shut off my emotional life until I suffered a heart attack.

In collaboration with a psychologist, he started exploring possible causes of his heart attack. Memories from his school years started appearing in the form of nightmares, which changed character as he managed to process his trauma. Without treatment, he would not have been possible for him either to talk about the abuse or to help drive the process against the perpetrators.

During my meeting with Abt Ambros, I ask how he explains the stream of media reports of abuse in the Catholic Church. He gets dumb and turns away. It feels as though he’s leaving the room.

– What the problem is … well, it’s sexuality, which every man must work with, he says hesitantly when he finally meets my gaze.

Today, a dialogue is conducted in the monastery around the celibate. It was completely taboo during his time in school. However, confidentiality prevails.

-I can only suggest that you seek out a psychologist, he sighs, and suggests that abuse is not the only topic that comes up in the confession.

The day before my arrival, Pater Alfons confessional priest and best friend was buried.

In the autumn of 2016, the investigation of the abuse in the monastery was conducted under the leadership of clinical psychologist Heiner Keupp at the sociological research institute IPP, Institut für Praxisforschung und Beratung in Munich. He tells of the painful process that the investigation triggered by the victims. Memories that had been encapsulated for decades faced the daylight, the victims had to re-evaluate both the school time and their self-image.

– Some suffer from such severe personality disorders that all memories of the abuse is obstructed. Several of the monks who exposed students to abuse are themselves victims. Many former students still have problems with family and work, with abuse and with their own sexuality. The suicide rate is high, says Heiner Keupp.

At the end of February, Pope Francis has called hundreds of bishops from all over the world for a conference on the culture of abuse in Vatican. The purpose is to educate them on tracking and preventing abuse and listening to the victims. The question is whether the meeting can bring about change. 

Martin Kaltenbrunner is tough in his judgment. The resistance which the victims faced by the monastery in driving the legal process weigh heavily in his view.

-Jimmy Savile, Harvey Weinstein and Father Alfons were all confident, charismatic men who were protected by the system. As long as there are enclosed spaces, abuse will occur.

Former students in Kremsmünster have repeatedly reported abuse in both the police and the monastery, the first time in the 1990s. Until 2010, it only led to the boarding school being shut down and the accused teachers being repositioned.

Despite this, Heiner Keupp is positive. The membership of the Catholic Church in Austria has fallen to 55 percent, a loss of over 30 percent since the 1960s. The debate has led to constructive legislative changes. Just before the new government took office in 2017, a ceremony was held in Parliament in Vienna, where 300 victims from all over Austria were present. Two governments apologized to the victims.

– It was an important moment, says Heiner Keupp and kindly asks:

– Did your grandfather sing in the choir? In that case, he was certainly subjected to abuse.

My grandfather and his brother sang in the choir during their first year in Kremsmünster. But I will never know what happened to them. Individual details that I have been told afterwards tell their own story. Why did he box himself at the dining table as an adult? And why he did he so often return to the memory of the traditional Christmas gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day? Franz Staudinger tells of his horror before the ritual when the older boys dressed in devil masks as the ”Christmas demon”, Krampus, chased and beat the frightened little children, on the command of a monk dressed as St. Nicholas.

There are indications that my grandfather’s authoritarian education in the former Habsburg was turned into political commitment. When a German Nazi spoke in the Stockholm City Hall around 1930, Grandfather attended and took my grandmother with him. She left the meeting in disgust.

What pains me the most is the story of my grandfather’s return home in 1919. I can imagine him crying at his brother’s deathbed. He not only lost his idol, but also the only witness to the experiences in the monastery. On older days, he returned to Kremsmünster, perhaps to be reconciled with his Catholic upbringing. But the silence around his trauma is poisoned, a poison that seeps down through generations.

Before I leave the monastery I light a couple of candles in the church. For two Swedish boys who spent the First World War far away from home, for the victims in Kremsmünster, and for myself.

Sofia Nyblom is a journalist, music critic in SvD and a radio producer. sondag@svd.se

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