I collapsed onto the seat, breathed a sigh of relief and pride, and said, “We’re off to Vienna.” The train started out of the Bonn station with a slight jerk and a quick acceleration. Soon we were out of the city; the countryside scrolled passed our window. My sister Marlena, my brother Ricky, my grandmother Gamma, and I had the compartment for six all to ourselves. We call my grandmother Gamma because when I was young, I couldn’t pronounce my R’s so grandma came out “Gamma” and the name stuck. Sometimes I wonder how I kept my name.
I was born Eric Randol Schoenberg September 12, 1966. Eric was my maternal grandfather’s name—he died in 1959—and my mom felt awkward calling me by it so she called me Randy, short for Randol. Randol, on the other hand, is an anagram of Arnold, my paternal grandfather’s name—he died in 1951. I could have been named Arnold but my mother thought that Eric Arnold sounded bad—too many vowel sounds. But my chances of getting his name probably would have been better if I was born one day later, on his birthday. So fate made me a Randy who couldn’t pronounce his R’s.
The naming of my family is probably one of the most interesting things my parents have done for us. After me came my sister Marlena Lorand Schoenberg. Marlena comes from an opera composed by maternal grandfather, Eric Zeisl, Called “Leonce and Lena.” Lorand is another anagram of Arnold. My brother’s name is Frederic Roland Schoenberg. Frederic contains Eric in it but we call him Ricky. I can’t explain his nickname except that it comes from the “ric” in Frederic. Roland is also an anagram of Arnold. My little sister’s name is Melanie Raldon Schoenberg. Melanie was the name of a great-aunt of mine on my mother’s sister’s side who had died just one year before Melanie was born. My parents were running out of anagrams and Randon was the most reasonable choice beating out my uncle’s suggestion of Dranol or Nardol. The anagram idea is not that original, though. My father’s name is Ronald.
So, here we were, three anagrams and a Gamma, on our way to Vienna, the birthplace of all four of my grandparents. My parents stayed home with Melanie, who was four years old, so that my mother could work on her dissertation and my father could save up some vacation days for a longer trip. So I was in charge—in charge of the luggage, the tickets, the maps, the schedules, the passports, and anything else my grandmother couldn’t take care of because of her bad leg and her habit of misplacing things. She was charged, however, with the impossible task of keeping the three of us from fighting each other. In our family, we have a “pecking order”: I fight with Marlena, Marlena fights with Ricky, and Ricky fights with Melanie. Melanie picks on the cats who take their beating better than any of us.
I don’t know why I can’t get along with Marlena. It is probably because we are so close in age, only 18 months apart. We were the best of friends until Ricky was born. Then we started competing with each other. First, we fought for Ricky’s attention. Then it spread to games, sports, and school. People have been telling me for as long as I can remember that when we get older we’ll love each other and be glad to have each other. But it doesn’t seem likely. We both know each other’s sore spots and it takes a good deal of restraint sometimes not to tease or make fun. More often than not, one of us will lose our self-control and the melee begins. It’s only a matter of time before it comes to blows and someone gets hurt—usually her—and someone gets in trouble—usually me. So during our trip, I tried not to look at her or talk to her unless I was perfectly sure that I could control myself.
That day, on the train, I felt in control. I had gotten everybody to the station on time and had loaded all the luggage onto the train. I had found our compartment and had led them to it. I had taken responsibility for the success of our trip and I succeeded. I was proud of myself—perhaps too proud. The biggest problem I have with people is my oft-swelling head. Sometimes I just feel I should be getting more credit than I do.
When I was in sixth grade, I was one of two people from our class who were chosen to compete in a city-wide Math Contest. Because I was sick the day before the contest, the teacher chose an alternate. I came to school that day to find the boy who was the alternate bragging to everybody and telling the other everybody how wonderful he must be to be picked. And all the other kids in the class were listening to him about it while the other contestant and I sat alone. Nobody congratulated us or said anything to us. They just kept flattering the alternate kid. I was mad, not because he was getting attention, but because he was getting attention that I deserved.
That sort of thing seems to happen to me all the time now. But I’ve learned to handle it in two ways: First, I realize that it’s also happening to other people: second, I’ve resigned myself to doing things for my own satisfaction, not for praise. Sometimes, I get the praise, other times I don’t. But I can always have the satisfaction of knowing that I did something well.
I’ve always been very self-motivated. My parents have never had to push me to get good grades and they don’t make too much of a fuss when I get a low grade. They know that I’m always trying to do my best. I’m also very self-disciplined. Except for fighting with my sister, I have a very good moral sense of what is right and wrong. And I have enough self-control to maintain that morality. Sometimes, being a teenager, it’s hard not to succumb to peer pressure. But I justify my morality to myself by establishing two things: I have convinced myself not to do anything I might be sorry for later; I have a moral pride that I’ve built up though years of self-restraint. If I remember those two principles I’ll never succumb to peer pressure.
Looking out of the train car window, I couldn’t help thinking how much it reminded me of the Sierras, especially Yosemite Valley. Our family used to go to Yosemite every Memorial Day weekend but we had not gone for about three years. Yosemite is probably the most beautiful place in the world. The awesome waterfalls and majestic peaks that surround the valley are all so easily accessible. Our family hikes a lot. Even my grandmother, with her bad leg, still hikes whenever she gets the chance. I’ll never forget our first hike up to the top of Yosemite Falls. We went with a group led by a Ranger up the 3 and 1/2 mile trail. I went at the front of the group and got to the top about half an hour before the last people, my mom, Ricky, and Gamma reached the top. It was an historic event. Gamma was 70 years old and Ricky was only 4. It was the largest difference in age of any two people ever to hike up to the top together according to the Ranger. At the top I remember going out to the fence at the edge of the falls and looking down 1000 feet to the bottom. It was scary and thrilling at the same time. I’ve been up to the top twice since then but the first time is the one that I remember best.
Gamma said, “When we get to Vienna, I’ll show you St. Peter’s Cathedral, Schonbrunn (The King’s Summer Palace), the Prater—they have the ferris wheel there—and we can ride the ‘elektriche’. You know, the subway.”
“Gamma, were you born in Vienna?” Ricky asked.
“I answered for her, “All of our grandparents were born there.” Then Gamma told us one of her stories that fascinate me.
“In Vienna, it rains quite a bit. And when it rains, people run into the little cafes that line the street to keep from getting wet. Well it rained like this once and that is how my grandparents met. They all sat down at the same table in the café. They started talking and my father’s father mentioned that he had a son. And, of course, my mother’s parents told them about their daughter. And that is how my parents were matched. That was in the old days when the parents arranged the weddings.”
I knew this story already but it still interested me. In fourth grade, my class was assigned to make a family tree. I asked my mom to help me with it by giving me some information. On her side of the family, she gave me a little but told me to ask Gamma for more. And then she helped me translate form a German biography on my grandfather Arnold Schonberg for information on my dad’s side of the family. So I talked to Gamma. What I learned I will never forget. She told me the names of my ancestors all the way back to my great-great-great-great-grandmother Barbara Katcher after whom my mother was named. She told me the story bout her grandparents and so many more. I will retell a few of them here because they made such an impression on me.
My great-great-great-grandfather was Ernst Katcher. The story of his death is interesting because of its historic importance. He raised cattle for a living. One day he went into the city to sell some of his cattle. He received a large amount of money from a butcher and went back home on a train. At the time, trains were rarely used—people feared dying at speeds above 40 mph. So Ernst had a compartment all to himself. When the train stopped, he was found dead, his throat slit with a butcher’s knife. The knife was traced to the apprentice of the butcher Ernst had sold his cattle to. The apprentice was caught and, despite protestations from Ernst’s family, executed. The murderer was Sigmund Freud’s uncle. Freud later wrote a book on the relationship between genius and criminality.
Another great-great-great-grandfather of mine, Lazar Schwartz, wanted to go to America where he could make his fortune and then send for his family. But before getting to the boat he was robbed. All his money was stolen so he returned home. He became sick and died before he could try again.
Finally, a great-great-great-grandfather, Immaneul Zeisl, walked from his home in Prague to Vienna when he was eleven years old. In Vienna he grew up and had six children.
All of these stories seemed to have such a grand importance to me. For the first time, when I was nine years old, I felt the effect the lives of my ancestors have had on me. And none were as important as the life of my grandfather, Arnold Schoenberg.
It is difficult to describe the effect that being Arnold Schoenberg’s grandson has had on me. There are the obvious things like my house in Brentwood that he bought when he arrived in Los Angeles, in 1934, and having enough money from royalties to afford going to Harvard. But there is so much that is not readily apparent. I take violin lessons and sometimes I feel guilty for not practicing. I see his name in books and wonder whether I am going to be famous or have a life as meaningful as his. I have to be modest when people ask, “Are you related to Arnold Schoenberg?” Sometimes that is the hardest. One day last year, I was waiting in a lift line at Mammoth Mountain. When I got to the end of the line, the person who punches the tickets looked at my pass, which had my name on it, and said, “Do you know there was a famous composer named Schoenberg?” I answered quickly, “Yes, that’s my grandfather.” Immediately I felt sorry for saying that. He asked me if I played an instrument, told me that he directed Mammoth High School’s orchestra, and that they needed violins. I had to hold up the line to answer his questions. I was very embarrassed. Now, I was getting attention I didn’t deserve.
Gamma said something that shocked me back into reality. She said, “I’ll never forgive them for not letting me live here.” Then I realized what really motivates me to succeed, what motivated all of my ancestors. I am Jewish, and as a Jew, will always live with the fear of persecution. To overcome this I drive myself in my work and hope to someday establish myself in a world that seems stacked against me. How can I forget that by a stroke of luck my grandparents were not four of the six million Jews executed by the Nazis, that many of my relatives were killed, and that the ones who escaped had to start from scratch without any help. Everything I have today I owe to my grandparents. I owe it to their hard work and determination that I am here now. And so, I will never forget the past, even if it is not my past. I owe it all to all of them to lead the best life I possibly can.