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Schwarzenegger Is Still Their Hometown Hero

Times Staff Writer

The contradictory history of Arnold Schwarzenegger begins here, near the leafy shores of the green lake called Thalersee.

Up the hillside stands the two-story house where Schwarzenegger was born to a local police chief and former Nazi, Gustav, and his wife, Aurelia. It was 1947, two years after the end of World War II, and Austrians had not recovered from the horrors of the era. They also had not reconciled themselves to their nation’s own dark role -- nor would they for decades to come.

A young Arnold swam in the lake and, with other boys, did chin-ups on a masterful oak tree whose branches hung over the water.

Among the scrawny boys -- Arnold towered over most of them -- was Karl Gerstl, from the adjacent town of Graz, whose friendship would prove crucial. Karl’s father, Alfred, a Jew, took Arnold under his wing and, by many accounts, was an important force in molding his life, thoughts and early career.

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That Gustav Schwarzenegger had served a regime dedicated to killing Jews, while his son’s mentor was a Jew who had fled that regime and battled it from the underground, is typical of the contradictions that ricochet through the lush, gentle hills of southern Austria.

In the Austria where Arnold Schwarzenegger grew up, a culture of denial thrived for many years after the war. Austrians lagged well behind the Germans in acknowledging their role in the war and in the persecution of Jews; the country of Hitler’s birth preferred to think of itself as the Nazi leader’s first victim, not his enthusiastic accomplice.

The province of Styria, where Graz and Thal sit side by side, was known for a deep strain of centuries-old anti-Semitism. Jews were evicted from the area in 1497 and banned for the next 350 years. The lone synagogue in Graz was destroyed in 1938; it wasn’t rebuilt until 2000.

Alfred Gerstl, the man who would mentor Schwarzenegger, was born between the two world wars, the son of a Jewish father, with a grandfather who was a cantor in Brooklyn, and an Austrian Catholic mother who converted to Judaism for her wedding.

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Gerstl would eventually become president of the upper house of the Austrian parliament, but in the late 1950s and throughout the ‘60s, he ran a club for student athletes in Graz.

Gerstl said he took it upon himself to teach the young men, Schwarzenegger among them, about a history his country was denying and about the dangers of anti-Semitism and fascism.

“I gathered the young people together for sports, but the condition was they had to listen,” Gerstl, 80, said in an interview at his apartment in Graz. “Arnold was very inquisitive. He always wanted to know why we were against the Nazis. He always understood the need to protect the weak.”

In after-school sessions at his home, Gerstl would play records of operatic music and tell Schwarzenegger that the beautiful voices he heard were those of persecuted Jews. Gerstl, his son Karl, Schwarzenegger and others would have long talks about sports and life and, occasionally, politics.

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“A whole generation in Austria grew up without any historical background,” said Albert Kaufmann, 51, the son of a Jewish resistance fighter from Graz and another of the boys who showed up for training with the Gerstls. Schwarzenegger’s time at the Gerstl house “influenced Arnold and provided him with a historical perspective.”

It is unclear how much of that early indoctrination stuck. Schwarzenegger, who left Austria for good in 1968, has said he “hated” the arts as a child and retained youthful prejudices until spending time in a more open, progressive United States.

Gerstl is fond of remembering a brave schoolmaster in Graz in the early 1960s who arranged a field trip to Mauthausen, the main Nazi-era concentration camp in Austria that was preserved as a museum. Reactionary groups attacked the man for airing Austria’s dirty laundry, especially before students. Schwarzenegger, although he did not go on the field trip, was among the youths who staged a counter-demonstration in defense of the headmaster and against the right-wingers, according to Gerstl.

Schwarzenegger’s many admiring friends in Thal and Graz hold up these anecdotes as evidence that he could not possibly be anti-Semitic.

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Rumors that he harbored anti-Jewish or pro-Nazi beliefs have dogged the actor for years, in large part because of his father’s membership in the Nazi party and his own friendship with Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian president who lied about his service in a Nazi army intelligence unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans.

Schwarzenegger has said that he never knew what his father did during the war and that he learned of the Nazi party membership only after asking the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to investigate in 1990.

“In those days you didn’t ask your father,” said Werner Kopacka, 53, Graz correspondent for the Kronen Zeitung newspaper who befriended Schwarzenegger in the 1980s. “None of us talked much about the war.”

Gerstl, who was forced into hiding during the war and said he later went underground to smuggle weapons to the resistance, said Gustav Schwarzenegger welcomed him and son Karl into his home after the war, “knowing I was a Jew.” Not many people in the area did that, he said.

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Gerstl today is a strong, gregarious man who drives his own car and retains a bellowing tenor voice. He enjoys showing visitors his picturesque city, which straddles the Mur River and is dotted with watchtowers, Gothic churches and Renaissance villas. His own walls and bookshelves tell a long, incongruous history. Amid numerous awards from the Austrian government are certificates from weightlifting and bodybuilding events; a picture of the late Yugoslav leader Tito and a partisan medal; several menorahs; and a veritable gallery of family photos with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Gerstl household is also graced with throw pillows decorated with the faces of the four Schwarzenegger children, sent as Valentines and Christmas gifts, and coffee mugs similarly adorned. On top of the piano is a wedding picture with Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, next to a music stand with Yiddish songbooks.

Four years ago, Schwarzenegger was best man and one of the actor’s daughters was the flower girl when Gerstl, after two decades as a widower, married a woman from Graz named Heidi. They wed at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas so it would be convenient for the movie star to attend. Pictures show Schwarzenegger presenting his wedding gift to the couple: a jewelry box emblazoned with an “End of Days” logo from the movie he was making.

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Schwarzenegger’s relationship with his father was, by all accounts, complicated. Gustav was authoritarian and quite demanding of his sons, Arnold and Meinhard. Friends recall that he would force the boys to compete against each other in athletic matches, then heap praise on the winner (usually Meinhard) and scorn on the loser (Arnold).

“He never wanted Arnold to be a bodybuilder,” Gerstl said. “He wanted him to be a curler.”

An Austrian form of curling, called eisstockschiessen, is a national pastime here; it was a sport that Gustav loved and excelled at, winning at least one regional championship.

“His father ... taught him discipline. He taught Arnold to fight and to bear pain. What made him Mr. Universe, that part he got from his dad,” said Kopacka. “But the political thinking was started by Freddy” -- Gerstl.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hometown friends are universally fond of him and fiercely loyal. His fame and fortune clearly awe them, and they cherish the actor’s occasional visits home.

Graz is the site, after all, of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium, which houses the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum -- actually more of a corner in the stadium’s fitness gym. The actor’s original weights and barbells, a bit rusted, are arranged along with photographs of a young, rising star.

“I never expected anything less from him,” declared Karl Kling, whose family owns and operates a restaurant that overlooks the Thalersee. Its dining room is festooned with pictures of Schwarzenegger, and family members will eagerly point out his former home, the site of the old oak tree where he played, the spot on the lake where, years later, he proposed to Maria.

“He always wanted to be the biggest and the strongest man in the world,” said Kling, who was one of the younger boys who tagged along and learned to swim with Arnold and the older kids. “Now he is going for it.”

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The buzz over California’s election has not gripped the people of this region as a whole. It was too hot this summer to get very excited about anything. But Dieter Hardt-Stremayr, head of the Graz tourism board, is considering reviving the Arnold Schwarzenegger tours that the organization staged in honor of the film star’s 50th birthday.

Schwarzenegger’s aides were very helpful in planning the tours, Hardt-Stremayr said.

“They sent a fax saying, do not just show the school but the church too,” he said. “They told us where we should go, what to say, and what not to say.... Mozart was born somewhere else; Johann Strauss too. We have Arnold.”

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Sonya Yee in The Times’ Vienna bureau contributed to this report.


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