He’s lived in Springfield for nearly 70 years – most of it with his wife, Midge, and their 13 children in a rambling white clapboard house at the corner of Whittier and Laurel Ave.
But at age 85, Ossie Langfelder says he still longs to go home.
“Home was Vienna, Austria,” he says. “My relatives, my stamp collection, my life was there. But everything changed when I was 12, and I guess you could say I have been homesick my whole life. Hitler invaded Austria and because my father was a Jew, we had to flee. That was the beginning of my incredible journey to my life here in Springfield, and the beginning of what would become my little book.”
The ‘little book’ is Langfelder’s life story – a slim, 125-page volume he self-published earlier this year and titled My Incredible Journey. In it he details his serene, privileged childhood in an upper middle class home in one of the world’s most cultured cities. And the harrowing events that led his family to flee Vienna, eventually making their way to Springfield in 1940.
The book has already sold more than 1,000 copies. On Aug. 27, Langfelder will be featured with other area authors at a book signing at Springfield’s Barnes and Noble.
Wheelchair-bound for the past three years since diabetes and circulatory complications necessitated the removal of his right leg, Langfelder says the book project brought him back to being interested in life after he lost much of his mobility. He credits his daughter, Jamie Cour, a speech pathologist, with suggesting it was high time he wrote his memoir, and then tackling the job of getting his writings into a word processor format. She also helped him select and interface with a publisher.
“Dad’s a pretty emotional person,” says Cour. “He’s very feeling, and it took almost two and a half years to do the book. He did a lot of thinking to get his memories on the page. My job was to help him pull it all together.”
The book begins with an elegantly written prologue Langfelder composed when he was barely 15 years old. In it he sets out to “give a little impression of what it means for people to leave all behind, to lose all, and to go out in a strange world.”
During the succeeding years, he says, he occasionally wrote about his life, thinking it might someday become an autobiography to enlighten his children, his 30 grandchildren, and his great-grandchild about who he was and what he came from. “But,” he says, “without Jamie’s constant effort to help me, the book would never have become a reality.”
Langfelder was born in 1926 to a Lutheran mother and a Jewish father in predominately Catholic Austria. His father managed a manufacturing company and his mother had been a private secretary in a law firm until the birth of his only sibling, his sister Edith. The Langfelders lived in the same comfortable, four-story apartment building as other relatives, and Ossie says his memories of his youth are vivid because of the extraordinary circumstances of wartime Europe.
“I remember my father’s drawn face when he spoke of the Germans or used the word ‘Nazi.’ Not until April, 1938, did I realize what fear really meant. That was the fateful day on which Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna.”
Langfelder relates the cruelty he witnessed. Looking out his family’s apartment window he saw well-dressed Jewish women, wearing fur coats and jewels, forced to scrub the sidewalks while soldiers and the Jewish-hating public sprayed them with lime and other harsh chemicals.
“Although our mother tried to shield us from seeing these cruel events, it was unavoidable. I never realized that shortly thereafter, the women would all be sent to concentration camps to be annihilated.”
In the book, Langfelder relates how he clutched his father’s hand and the two walked for hours in a circuitous route to avoid detection, making their way to the Argentine Embassy in hopes of securing visas to leave Vienna. By luck, someone whispered a warning to his father and they fled. Later they found out that everyone in the line had been arrested.
Shortly after Langfelder’s father went into hiding at a relative’s house, Ossie and his sister were sent to a school for children of Jewish parents. “Little did we realize that most of those children would be sent to concentration camps.”
Langfelder credits his mother’s German ancestry and her elegant blond, blue-eyed good looks with helping the family obtain visas that eventually got them out of Austria and on to Switzerland and then to London. He still doesn’t know how she accomplished it. Once visas were issued, the family had just three days to leave Austria, or be sent to Dachau prison camp. The Langfelders packed very little and said nothing to friends, pretending instead they were merely going on a weekend holiday.
“As I reminisce,” says Langfelder, “I stand in awe of my mother for accomplishing the almost impossible.”
Entering the U.S. through Canada and then on to New York City, he recalls his family being dazzled by what they saw.
“There was a store near Times Square that had a four-foot-by-four-foot cube of butter in a huge glass case. My eyes must have bulged out because I had only had bread spread with goose fat once a week. We were so used to everything being rationed, we hardly had any opportunity to even see butter.”
“On the first day of my dad’s job, he walked five miles to the Illinois Soy Products company to sell them a single quart of oil. The owner was so impressed that my father, an immigrant, would do that to make a living. That night, my mother cooked us a full course meal to celebrate his success.”
The Langfelders received financial help from members of a local Jewish temple, and eventually they moved into a comfortable apartment near McClernand School. Ossie joined the Boy Scouts and worked hard at learning to speak English.
“I barely weighed a hundred pounds, so fitting in at Lanphier High School was difficult for me. I studied a lot and three teachers were especially helpful to me. Maybe I was what they call teacher’s pet. One of them, Mr. McGann, the mechanical drawing teacher, put me in charge of the class when he left the room. It was awful. The Saputo twins were big husky football players – how was I going to keep everyone quiet and in their seats? They ended up hanging me from a hook on the wall. When Mr. McGann came back, he wanted to know who did it but I didn’t squeal. The Saputo twins must have admired that I wasn’t a squealer because after that, they became my friends.”
By 1944, Langfelder was eager to join the Army and fight for the U.S., even though he knew he had at least one cousin who was fighting for Germany. After two years in the Pacific theater of the war, he came back to Springfield. He was 20 years old. Within a week he was working at a downtown men’s clothing shop and buying chocolate bars at a nearby movie theater. The pretty teenage girl running the candy counter was Mary Agnes “Midge” Dunham. They were married five years later.
“I was attracted to him because I knew he was good,” says Midge as they sit in their living room. “I guess you could say it was that thing they call love.”
“That’s the first time I ever heard her say that,” says Ossie. “I’ve been waiting 59 years to hear it.”
To celebrate the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary in 1977, their children gave them a trip to Vienna. Ossie struggles a bit with his emotions when he talks about going back to the apartment building where his family once lived.
“It was the first time I had been back,” he says. “It was as if I had only left a few days earlier.”
“We went to our old apartment building, and my aunt’s nameplate was still on her door. The grocery store where we bought our food was still there, and the grocer who ran it went into the back room yelling ‘Die Langfelders sind hier!’ Out came the same grocer who served my family 40 years before. We both cried. Then we had a glass of wine.”
The book focuses surprisingly little on Langfelder’s engineering career, or his two terms as city streets commissioner or as Springfield’s mayor from 1987 to 1995. He jokes that if he had two good legs, he’d run again, but he says politics is serious business and he worries about the inability of national leaders to work together for the good of the country.
Not that his 16 years on the Springfield City Council were uneventful. Landfelder’s tenure coincided with Springfield’s move to an aldermanic form of government.
“I’m very opinionated,” he says. “It’s hard for me to change my mind. But aldermen who wouldn’t talk to me then bring me presents now. I don’t have any regrets.”
Both Ossie and Midge say his mayoral years had advantages for their family. Home from New York City to take his mother on an Alaskan cruise to mark her 80th birthday, youngest son Jacob, 36, says going to the National Mayor’s Conference in New York City when his father was mayor was the turning point of his life.
“Dad took all of us to New York, and I got to see my first Broadway play. I decided that night that I was going to be an entertainer. When I got my first big break I called my dad to tell him I landed a role in a touring company of The Sound of Music. My dad, who was not convinced about my career choice, asked me what role I was singing. I had to tell him the truth – that I was playing a Nazi military officer. Dad took it pretty well.”
Earlier this month, Langfelder celebrated his 85th birthday, receiving a phone call from former Congressman Newt Gingrich and taking some of his grandchildren out to lunch. “I looked at all that food in the restaurant and remembered when my sister and I had a single potato each and thought that was a good meal. If we were very good, once a week we got a banana. I’m grateful for the life I’ve lived and for what we have that so much of the world can only dream of having. So many people would look at our life and say this is heaven.”
Is there another book he’d still like to write? Jamie shifts uneasily in her chair, but Ossie seems taken by the idea.
“I’d like to write about Springfield politics, but I’m not going to do that. I might write about raising children. I should tell you the story about when we took all of our kids to a Milwaukee brewery.”
“Oh no,” Midge cuts in, shooting him a warning look. “Save that for your second book!”
Julie Cellini is a Springfield freelance writer. She can be reached at Jcellini@ameritech.net.
Ossie Langfelder’s book, My Incredible Journey, retails for $9 at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and CreateSpace.com. Langfelder will sign copies at 10 a.m. Aug. 27 at Barnes and Noble Booksellers, 3111 S. Veterans Parkway.