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Cover story

Stormy history of the Villa von Trapp

NCR Staff
Salzburg, Austria

“The Sound of Music” ends on a happy note, with the brave von Trapps scaling the Alps toward freedom. The outcome was not immediately quite so fortunate, however, for the famous house they left behind.

When Georg von Trapp -- a monarchist, or believer in the old Hapsburg empire, and therefore a staunch opponent of union with Germany -- decided to flee Austria in 1938 with his new wife, Maria, and seven children, he arranged for the Villa von Trapp to be sold to the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. This Catholic community for men was founded in Italy, then spread to Austria and Germany, and today has missions in the United States and Brazil as well.

The Nazis had other plans. In 1939 the Villa von Trapp became a headquarters for the infamous Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer and head of the SS storm troopers. Himmler, more than any single member of the Third Reich, was responsible for Hitler’s reign of terror inside Germany and its occupied territories, as well as being one of the architects of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi program for exterminating the Jews.

Himmler’s motives for choosing the Villa von Trapp are unclear. It was he, however, who built the white wall that now surrounds the property. A servant who worked in the villa before, during and after Himmler’s time lived to tell the tale to its present owners. Himmler conscripted slave labor to build the wall, and then -- perhaps fearing security breaches -- had all of the laborers shot.

After the war, the American military commanders who occupied the Salzburg region returned ownership of the property to the von Trapp family, who again transferred it in 1948 to the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. The community today uses the building for provincial offices and as quarters for the Kolleg St. Josef, a facility for seminarians. The chapel, upstairs where the von Trapp children would have practiced their singing, boasts an impressive series of stained-glass windows depicting Christ’s blood dissolving the cross.

How does all the history affect the people who live in the Villa von Trapp today? “What Himmler did here is a heavy weight on the house,” said Precious Blood Fr. Andreas Hasenburger, the rector of the Kolleg St. Josef. “But we are also proud to live in the von Trapp house, the house of the man who said no to the Führer.”

And how about the movie that made the house famous, at least in America? “I asked Maria von Trapp this question last summer when she was here,” Hasenburger said. “She said that the movie was a wonderful story, but it was not their story.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998