The Man Who Was Hawelka

Small, unpretentious, and loveable: Leopold and his café had much in common. After 75 years together, the man is gone. The institution remains.

Some names sound destined for legend. Like Leopold Hawelka. And Josefine Hawelka. But no, they weren’t characters in a play by Arthur Schnitzler. They were two of Vienna’s most admired Kaffeesieder, coffee house proprietors.

Café Hawelka is not the city’s oldest, nor its most typical Kaffeehaus. Tucked away just off the Graben in the 1st District, Hawelka’s tiny interior often forces strangers to share tables,  disrupting the original purpose of any Viennese café – to read, work, or talk in peace. And waiters are equally inhibited in their traditional craft – of swirling around marble tables, balancing silver trays in the air.

Nor can Hawelka claim particular elegance. Its burgundy and brown upholstery and few windows make for a sombre atmosphere. Before the 2010 smoking ban, the air was thick with blue-grey fumes, rendering a longer stay a sore experience. Sagging sofas are pockmarked with cigarette burns. Walls are covered with the scribblings of former guests – dates, names, and hearts.

Hawelka also doesn’t have the most prominent guest list: Heimito von Doderer, whose byzantine prose attracts only fanatics in university German departments; the vernacular poet H.C. Artmann; the artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser is perhaps the best-known among them.

But Hawelka had Leopold and Josefine, and the couple managed their little café like their own living room. They created a warm atmosphere, filled with the smell of Josefine’s famous Buchteln, Bohemian sugared dumplings best had with a mug of hot chocolate and rum.

Paintings by some of the regulars adorn the walls, bartered by Leopold for a couple of großer Brauner, as large macchiatos are called in Vienna. The Hawelkas always greeted their guests, an etiquette continued by their son Günther and, for some years now, their grandsons Amir and Michael.

It was that feeling of being in somebody’s home that made Hawelka into what it is today: a Viennese café topping the list in pretty much every guide book.

Born in 1911 as a cobbler’s son in the Weinviertel, north of Vienna, Leopold moved to the capital aged 14 to start his apprenticeship as a waiter where he met Josefine. They married in 1936, and the day after their wedding rented Café Alt Wien to launch their own business. In 1939, they took over what used to be the infamous Chatham Bar, known to the Viennese as the “Je t’aime Bar” because of its private booths. This became Café Hawelka.

When the war started, Leopold was sent to the Russian front, not to return for five years. The café miraculously survived the bombs that destroyed many of the surrounding buildings.

Another stroke of luck followed: Its proximity to government offices meant the café had working electricity right after the war. Leopold kept the place warm by fetching firewood from the Vienna Woods, while Josefine brewed the coffee on the fireplace.

As the Hawelkas hoped, the comfortable café soon became the living room for the city’s displaced intellectuals. It was then that Leopold invented the Plakatwand – plastering one of the walls with posters of exhibitions and concerts – that has since become a mainstay of Viennese cafés.

Through the decades, the Hawelkas maintained their place untouched, allowing it to grow a patina all of its own. The only sign of modernisation was an espresso machine they bought in the 50s.

The couple, too, never modernised: Leopold wore his bow tie and vest to the end; Josefine kept her silver brooch and short hair with its neat, 1940s side parting. They were always polite, quiet people. One of them always welcomed the guests and seated them at a table. As they became older, that short walk from door to table became slower, affording the visitor the time to take in the room and nod to any acquaintances.

When Josefine died in 2005, at the age of 91, Leopold Hawelka had lost his life partner.

“I wouldn’t have become the Hawelka without my wife.”

Which brings me to the reason for this article: On 29 Dec, 2011, at the age of 101, Leopold Hawelka died in his sleep, surrounded by his family.

But for the Viennese, Hawelka lives on.

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