This 18th-century Second Empire clock has been with me my entire life. My earliest memories include listening to its delicate chime. When it’s working (and it’s been broken for twenty years now. I really should have it adjusted again) it rings every fifteen minutes. The sound is a very pleasing high-pitched ping, utterly unlike any other sound I’ve ever heard. As a little girl, waking in the middle of the night, I could hear the clock chime in the dining room of our New York apartment, and it always reassured me that everything was all right.
The romantic fellow with the large hat and feather who is reclining on the hill that supports the face of the clock is Romeo, or at least, that is what my mother always told me. She said that there were originally two clocks—Romeo and Juliet—meant to sit on the two ends of the mantel above your fireplace. I think that Romeo must have sat on the left and Juliet on the right. Somewhere in the world there may still be a Juliet clock pining for her lover. I hope that she has survived the centuries, but my family never owned the Juliet clock.
The feather on Romeo’s hat wiggles. This is probably a defect, but I loved moving it around as a child. Even as a little girl, the clock seemed alive to me. I imagined it coming to life at night once I went to bed, and even got up a few times to visit it, hoping that Romeo had descended from his hill and would be ready to tell me of his travels.
Since that didn’t happen, the clocks’ first 80 years will always be a mystery. Made in France around 1850, Romeo was purchased by my grandfather, Maurice Rauchwerger, in the 1930s. He and my grandmother lived in Vienna, and he collected antiques as a hedge against the terrible inflation that afflicted Austria and Germany after World War I.
A blond, blue-eyed Jewish man who pretended to be a Christian during his constant business trips to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, Maurice watched the encroachment of the Nazi regime into his life with both disbelief and disdain. As a citizen of Vienna, he did not believe anything would happen to him or the family, despite the increasingly harsh restrictions placed on Jews as the 1930s wore on.
Luckily for my mother’s survival, her sister, Stella, married Englishman Tobias Springer in 1937 and moved to London. Reading the British press, she could see that life was getting very perilous for Jews in Vienna. Stella and Toby arranged visas for my mother and her parents to leave for England, and the Rauchwergers escaped in 1938, immediately following Hitler’s annexation of Austria,.
The Romeo clock and a small number of other valuables left with them. The Rauchwergers took only a tiny fraction of what they owned. It must have been terrible to leave so many cherished valuables behind. But certainly better than dying to save them.