Augustin Still Singing for the Street People’s Paper

Vienna’s newspaper by and about the homeless is named for the legendary patron saint of ... well, the Plague: St. Augustin

Legend has it St. Augustin is buried beneath this statue in the 7th Distict | Photo: Wikipedia

On the concourse of Neubaugasse underground station, a black man in his mid-twenties was selling the Augustin, Vienna’s biweekly newspaper by and about the homeless.

He was also singing. And smiling. In fact, beaming from ear to ear, he was delivering a lusty rendering of the famed folk song “Oh, du lieber Augustin” (Oh, you dear Augustin), the catchy little tune that bested the Black Plague, and after which the newspaper was named.

Selling the Augustin is a tough way of supporting yourself, but you wouldn’t know it from this young man. This is usually the first job the homeless can get as they begin to rebuild their lives when they leave the “Gruft” (crypt), the Caritas’ homeless shelter below Barnabitenkirche (Barnabiten Church), off Mariahilferstraße in the 6th District. And while poverty is not the Plague, there was poetry in the parallel.

Legend has it that one evening in 1679, a Viennese balladeer and bagpipe player named Marx Augustin, known as “der liebe Augustin”, fell asleep drunk on the street. Mistaken for a victim of the plague, he was buried along with his bagpipe in a mass grave. When he awoke and realized his plight, Augustin began blowing on his bagpipe until he was dug out again. He is said to have survived his ordeal unblemished and to have made a good living recounting it.

I stood nearby and listened to the Augustin street vendor. He too, was singing to survive. And he was determined; self-mockingly, and with a contagious laugh, he stuck to his lines: “Oh, du lieber Augustin, Augustin, Augustin, Oh, du lieber Augustin, alles ist hin” (“… all is lost”). Surely, I thought, this was as good a way as any of learning to be Viennese.

In his “Ballad of beloved Augustin”, published in 1955, author Franz Karl Ginzkey suggests that Augustin’s “grässlicher Wiener Hamur“ (the ghastly Viennese sense of humour) saved him and the Viennese. And certainly did not appeal to “Frau Pest” (Madame Plague), as legend credits it with causing her to leave the city. Augustin’s gallows humour even came under the loop of Sigmund Freud. In his 1927 essay “On Humour” he writes: “The ego refuses… to suffer. [Thus] it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world, [which] are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”

At Augustinplatz on the corner of Neustift- and Kellermanngasse in the 7th District, a pleasing sandstone statue commemorates the balladeer at the site where the mass grave is supposed to have been. On a square plinth on top of a fountain, Augustin sits, portrayed as a smiling young man with crossed legs, clutching a bagpipe. This statue is a copy; the original, in bronze, dedicated in 1908 under Mayor Karl Lueger, was removed by the Nazis. Rumour has it someone had carved into the plinth:

Der schwarzen Pest bin ich entronnen

die braune hat mich mitgenommen.”

(The Black Plague, I managed to escape, but the brown one has carried me off.)

True or false: Freud’s theory of a grim sense of humour does help surmount a harsh reality.

That day, though, the young man wasn’t doing all that well. Two hours later, he still had a big pile of papers to sell. Though his singing was putting a smile on the faces of the passers-by, few stopped to buy a copy. I didn’t either. I was tired and felt irritated by his strong voice. In retrospect, I regret it: How could I not honour his remarkable, resilient attitude, cheerful and determined, reminding us that no matter the situation, all is not lost.

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