Peter C. Appelbaum

The War and Beyond

Bernhard Bardach’s Diaries

The Galitzianer
March 2019
by Peter C. Appelbaum and Helmut Konrad

Bernhard Bardach (1866–1947) at his desk with accumulated paperwork and reading material.
Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.

BERNHARD BARDACH WAS born in Lemberg (Lwów, Lviv) on August 3, 1866, the son of a wholesale merchant. After attending Jewish elementary school and Lemberg gymnasium, he entered medical school, first in Vienna, and then in Graz, where he graduated in 1893. He immediately entered the military and had already been promoted to senior surgeon by the time World War I broke out.

Bardach kept detailed diaries that provide a blow- by-blow commentary of the entire war, either from personal experience or from war news. He was present during the 1914 to 1915 Austro-Hungarian retreat into the Carpathians and the 1916 Gorlice- Tarnów Offensive. He also had a front-row seat for the Brusilov Offensive, which he reported about in his diaries in great detail, from hour to hour and day to day. During the first weeks of this offensive, and until German command and reinforcements were brought up, a note of panic creeps into his diaries, as he describes the seemingly leaderless army in chaos, streaming to the rear and blocking roads. Bardach’s diaries must be taken together with his priceless collection of over 900 photographs. His photographs cover every aspect of military and civilian life on the Eastern Front, but they don’t always follow the contents of his diaries.

Through Bardach’s Eyes

Throughout his diaries, Bardach comments scathingly on the ineptitude of the Austro-Hungarian leadership: disorder, mixed signals, supplies and provisions arriving either late or not at all, and officers more interested in throwing their weight around, going on leave, or spending a few weeks at the front just to obtain a medal. The Germans are presented in a much better light. The Russians are presented as brave fighters but with inept leadership, except for Brusilov. The Italians (referred to consistently as “wops”) and the Romanians are regarded with contempt because both countries joined the Entente over a year after the start of the war to pounce on potential spoils. Italy was a special object of his ire because when the war began, they were, at least nominally, part of the Central powers.

Bernhard Bardach with easel and paintbrush during a rest period.
Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.

Religion was of secondary importance to Bardach. Apart from the High Holidays, he mentions no other Jewish festival or Sabbath evening service, and his synagogue attendance on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is perfunctory, even given the exigencies of war. When he fasted on Yom Kippur, it was at his convenience, not for the prescribed 25- hour period. He did not adhere to the dietary laws and did not mention relationships with other Jewish comrades. Only two brief comments on anti-Semitism appear in his entire diary.

Jews experienced less discrimination and more opportunities for advancement in the Austro- Hungarian army than in the other two armies fighting on the Eastern Front. Bardach showed respect and reverence to Kaiser Franz Joseph and the newly crowned Kaiser Karl; his allegiance to the monarchy was absolute. In this, Jews in Austro-Hungary were like those in Germany, with the exception that Germany was one nation, not a supranational empire made up of many different nationalities.

Bardach’s medical duties surprisingly do not comprise the major part of his war diaries. He worked in field hospitals and inspected surrounding medical facilities. He saw to it that bath houses were properly built and maintained and that men were adequately inoculated against cholera and typhoid, and were provided with a continuous supply of safe, clean water. Apart from emergency procedures, such as trepanation of the skull (a procedure that involves drilling a hole into the skull), he did not perform surgical procedures on his own; they were performed by specialists from command.

Bardach worked in collaboration with a bacteriologist on hand to culture specimens and water and look for transmissible pathogens. In Austro-Hungary before the war, there was a high level of understanding of microbiology and the epidemiology of infectious diseases. Bardach coped well with outbreaks of cholera and bacterial dysentery (with a bacteriologist, where available), but not so well with malaria, despite being alert to its danger and prevention in Italy.

Bardach’s inspections and other travels took place in every kind of weather: heat and humidity, rain and mud, ice and snow. His diaries are replete with descriptions of endless mud, which sometimes made roads impassable so that he could not leave his quarters. He also wrote of bitterly cold winds whipping up deep snowdrifts. Cars were not the rule, and he often had to march short distances or use a horse and cart.

Although Bardach’s duties took place in the rear of the fighting, this does not mean that he was not in the firing line. Indeed, he was lucky to survive the entire war unwounded. However, the long war took a toll on his health, with constant colds, sciatica, and swollen feet, apart from psychological problems and constant worry about his family.

Painting by Bardach of a card game in which he kibitzes (gives unrequested advice).
Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.

Bardach’s descriptions place great emphasis on the comfort of his quarters and the quality of the food and drink, as well as on companionship.
As befit a physician in Kaiser Franz Joseph’s army, he was a bit of a snob. All senior officers were referred to by full name and titles, and he was fixated on the acquisition of decorations. He also set great store on seating arrangements in the mess, for example, how near he was seated to senior officers and aristocracy.

Bardach’s weather descriptions are accurate and precise, hour by hour. He even reports on solar and lunar eclipses. His accounts of the Russian Revolution are insightful and accurate, given that he did not witness it firsthand. Battles of the Isonzo and the Romanian campaigns are also reported in detail.

Bardach’s descriptions and photographs of Eastern European Jews caught in between two great armies are arresting. Devastated towns and impoverished, hungry, desperate civilians greeted him at every turn. As soon as the Russian army moved into Galicia and Bukowina in August 1914, mass deportations began, with a total of about 600,000 Jews displaced from their homes and about 200,000 killed as a result of the war. When the war ended, Jews in Galicia and Bukowina, newly severed from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had to contend with pogroms for several years. Then, a scant two decades after the political situation had calmed down, the Holocaust destroyed their entire world.

Eastern European synagogue: a small part of a world destroyed by the Holocaust.
Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.

Bardach describes an Austro-Hungarian medical corps that reflected weaknesses like those of the leadership itself. It was not the standard of medicine that was inferior, but the organization of the corps and its choice of leaders. When necessary, Bardach worked well with his German counterparts. He held Czech, Ruthenian, and Bosnian soldiers in low esteem.

The War’s End

From 1917 on, and with increasing desperation, Bardach’s emphasis turned to food. His wife and four daughters in Vienna had come under increasing pressure because of the blockade and worsening food shortages. Bardach tried to procure as much food for them as possible, irrespective of whether it contained pork. His diary entries are replete with lists of food and other commodities that he sent home from the front to help his family. Toward the end of the war, he had to obtain thread, shoes, canvas, and even toilet paper; practically nothing was available at home, except at exorbitant prices on the black market. He was so concerned about his family, especially his wife, Olga, who bore the brunt of keeping the family fed, that he brought them out to live on what was—before 1918—the Eastern Front to obtain better provisions. The children fell prey to whooping cough and came down with the 1918 Spanish flu in Vienna, which luckily, in their case, was not severe.

In contrast to his joy over victories on the Eastern Front, Bardach expresses less enthusiasm for successes on the Italian Front, where he was transferred in the summer of 1918. By that time, hunger, shortages, and exhaustion had changed the tenor of his narrative. One of his last entries, just before the armistice, is powerfully ironic in view of subsequent events. After the empire broke up, he rejected the opportunity to join the Polish Army and instead, remained with the Germans, saying that “despite their known anti-Semitism,” he felt “more comfortable with them.”

The Interwar Period

When Bardach finally retired from the army in 1920 as Oberstabsarzt I Class (colonel), after 33 years, two months, and 29 days of active service, he was entitled, starting in 1921, to draw a pension. Additionally, he obtained a salary from the Clinic Finger, where he was trained as a specialist in skin and venereal diseases. After his training, he opened a private practice in Vienna.

Vienna became the center of life for Bardach and his family. Until August 1, 1920, he worked in the demobilization center for returning soldiers of the German-Austrian army, where he was promoted to the next pay level.

On December 21, 1918, Bardach handed in his declaration of citizenship to the district magistrate in the seventh district of Vienna, stating that he wished to belong to, and be a loyal citizen of, the German-Austrian Republic. Many Viennese mistrusted Jews from Eastern Europe who now wished to remain. Other biographies indicate that bribery was often necessary for these Jews to obtain Austrian citizenship. There is no indication that this was the case for Bardach. However, perhaps it explains why it took until June 7, 1920, until he and his family obtained permission from the provincial government of Lower Austria for the right of residence and Austrian citizenship. On June 30, 1930, his provisional pension payments were changed to regular retirement benefits by the Ministry of Defense.

Meanwhile, his children grew up and moved away. The eldest immigrated to the US in 1922, and when his daughter Miki did the same in 1939, she became the third Bardach daughter who chose to live in America. Miki had studied at the Reimann School of Art and Design in Berlin, with a notable career as an editor and designer ahead of her. It is thanks to her that the Bardach Collection was gifted to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. Another daughter went to Italy, married in Florence, and survived the Second World War hiding in Italy’s mountainous Abruzzi region.

Olga and Bernhard Bardach experienced the end of the Austrian Republic alone; by that time, he was already 62. They attempted to live in Vienna through early 1939, so as not to give up all they owned. But by then, the situation had become intolerable, and emigration was the only option— in their case, it was tantamount to expulsion from their homeland. Bardach’s life-long medical service, including his service in uniform and in the field on the side of the Central powers during the war, counted for absolutely nothing after the Anschluss. The incorporation of Austria into the German Reich meant that they, together with the other 200,000 Jews of Vienna, were excluded from the Volk (German nation). The lengths to which this ostracism would go were not yet clear, but living in Austria had become practically impossible.


Olga and Bernhard submitted a departure application to allow them to join their daughters in the United States—and so the chicanery began. Both were required to submit a list to the Vienna foreign currency office of the private articles they wanted to take with them. Obviously, no articles of value could be included. Even Bardach’s military service medals had to be stamped “not made of precious metals” by the authorities. With very few exceptions, the lists comprise only articles of clothing and nothing of value. They signed a letter confirming that they had neither property nor debts in Austria and no property outside the country. The lists were turned in on April 26, 1939, with a provisional departure date for the United States of May 2.

On May 2, Bardach informed the pension office in Vienna that he had requested his bank to open a special account to facilitate further pension deposits. The issue remained unresolved because the bank required disclosure of the exact deposit amount from the pension office. From Italy, Bardach tried unsuccessfully to control his financial affairs. The authorities in Vienna responded tersely:

The Jew has left Reich territory. The Vienna foreign currency office has approved payment into a special account until 31 March 1940. The authorized payee has not yet submitted official notification of the authorized opening of this account at Österreichischer Creditanstalt Wiener Bankverein. Therefore, no reason for the establishment of a special account exists, and pension payment will cease from 1 June.

This is followed, thickly underlined, by “until he reports in person.” Bardach would have had to return to Vienna to deal further with this issue. He sent two separate letters, one typed, one hand- written, from Viareggio, Italy, to the Senior Finance Presidium in Vienna on September 6, 1939, again requesting payment of the previously approved sums. The Gestapo had already informed the pension office on September 22 that they had “no objections to the Jew Dr. Bernhard Bardach changing his place of residence.” However, all forms of payment—no matter how small—were consistently refused, and Bernhard and Olga fled from Italy via Portugal to New York, finally arriving in 1941, without a penny in their pockets.

There was obviously no hope of financial compensation for the Bardach family from National Socialist Germany. But after Germany’s comprehensive defeat, the break-up of the Habsburg Empire, and the establishment of the Austrian Republic, one could hope that new life would be breathed into the old pension claims. However, this was to take time.

Eleven months after the war ended, Bardach addressed a clearly handwritten letter to the “War Ministry”:

I request retroactive renewal of my pension payments. These are needed all the more because as an 80-year-old man I am unable to practice my profession anymore, and am totally dependent on charitable support from my family.

A letter from the Ministry of Finance informed him that his pension had been canceled in 1939 because he had “left the country.” This elicited a clearer and even more emotional response from Bardach, who wrote that he had been forced to emigrate “with only RM 10 in [his] pocket.” All promises to pay his pension into a blocked account had been broken. He added, “despite my urgent requests, repeated so many times that they have worn me out.”

On March 31, 1946, Bernhard Bardach became a naturalized American citizen. But he didn’t have much longer to live; he died in 1947 of a myocardial infarct. Existing documents put the date of his death at June 6, 1947.

Finally, in 1955, attorney Dr. Odelga in Vienna successfully took up the financial interests of the Bardach family. Starting on October 1,1955, Olga received a monthly widow’s benefit of 1,355.70 schillings. Her widow’s pension claim from 1950 to 1955 was also paid into an Austrian blocked account. However, no retroactive reparation for Bardach’s service was ever paid. Austrian officials explained, “Because, at the time he acquired American citizenship, he did not possess pension authorization during his residence overseas, his pension benefits have lapsed.” The cynicism of Austrian officials about Jewish expulsion, even a decade after the war’s end, is obvious. Overseas residence forfeited pension claims. What “overseas residence” really meant for the Bardach family played no role in the argument whatsoever. Neither did the fact that had he remained in Vienna, Bardach would have been subject to deportation and extermination. “Overseas residence” meant staying alive, and that was the bureaucratic sticking point in providing him with the pension he so evidently deserved.

Olga Bardach died on August 25, 1968. The Central Pensions Office wrote laconically that the daughter, Miki Denhof, was entitled to a pension balance of 1,044.30 schillings (approximately $40 and change at that time), less court costs. A disgraceful chapter in the history of post-war Austria thus ended. Bardach’s patriotism and long military service in the end came to nothing.

[The Galitzianer ] Editor’s note: The above article is based on an excerpt from the introduction to the book Carnage and Care on the Eastern Front: The War Diaries of Bernhard Bardach 1914–1918, translated and edited by Peter C. Appelbaum and published by Berghahn Books, New York 2018; Published with permission of the authors and the publisher.


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