A China Set That Held a Family's Memories

Widow Is Forced To Remember Without the Porcelain

Man in Uniform: David Mark Olds (right) served in America’s occupation of Vienna, where he bought the tea set.
Courtesy of Sally Wendkos Olds
Man in Uniform: David Mark Olds (right) served in America’s occupation of Vienna, where he bought the tea set.

By Sally Wendkos Olds

Published June 04, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
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It was our 53rd wedding anniversary, which we celebrated with a special dinner at home, as we often did, and I had just poured steaming espresso into the blue-and-white translucent cups that we saved for very special occasions.

As we sat down to sip our coffee, David looked at the demitasse cups and the pitcher and creamer, and that wonderful sugar bowl with the delicately sculptured rose on the lid, and reminisced once more about the way he had acquired this set of Meissen porcelain. I liked seeing the dreamy expression on his face as the memory came back to him. I would envision him as a young soldier, serving in America’s occupation of Vienna after World War II.

“I knew nothing about fine china,” he said. “So when this old man in the shabby clothes that were too big for him came up to me with a cardboard box and offered to sell me this set, I didn’t know what to do. He told me, ‘Sehr wertvoll — hergestellt in Deutschland’ [‘Worth a lot of money — made in Germany’].”

“I just stood there on the street corner, looking at the cup and saucer he held up to the light. And then when he said he would take a couple of cartons of cigarettes for the whole set, I thought, ‘What the hell?’ and I bought it. As ignorant as I was, I knew that it had to be worth a lot more than the Camels I had just bought at the PX [the post exchange, a military store].”

David stopped speaking for a moment, picked up his cup and said, “That old guy was probably selling the most valuable thing he owned.”

David had told me how conflicted he felt being a Jewish soldier in Vienna, which, he said, had been even more anti-Semitic than Germany, and how he would look at the Austrian civilians and wonder what they had done during the war.

Still, he felt sorry for the few local people he came to know. Now, just after the war, things were very tough. With the economy and the infrastructure all torn up, there were few jobs. The winter was cold, and heating material, mostly wood, was expensive. The best jobs were with the provisional Austrian government and the occupying forces, but there weren’t nearly enough of them.

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