A Small Misunderstanding

In 1979, when I was working on my library degree at Columbia University, I came to know a librarian who had recently retired. She was a very small, bird-like woman who was unfailingly cheerful and was very kind about working with poor, clueless graduate students such as myself. One day, during lunch, she told me the following story:

“I was born in Vienna during the days of the old Emperor. My father was a doctor and my mother, although she didn’t work, had a university education. We lived in a very nice part of the city and, in those days, used to take walks to the shops or to visit the gardens.

One day, on my fourth birthday, I remember that my mother was taking me to where my birthday party was going to be held. We were walking along — I was holding my mother’s hand — when we came to a large square. There were thousands and thousands of people there, and all of them were cheering and shouting! There was a big band playing and even a parade of soldiers on horses! It was so very exciting. I remember being very pleased that so many people had come out to wish me a happy birthday.

Of course, it wasn’t until many years later that I realized that they weren’t cheering me on my birthday. You see, I was born in 1910, and my fourth birthday coincided with the day that Austria-Hungary declared war. It was the beginning of the First World War.”

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