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Leopold Hawelka: Proprietor whose café played its part in the Cold War


Leopold Hawelka, owner of the legendary Viennese café that bore his name, was born the son of a Bohemian shoemaker in the village of Kautendorf in Austria's wine region. Moving with his family to Vienna in 1925, he was lucky to get an apprenticeship as a waiter, a respected profession, at one of the capital's best restaurants. In 1936 he married Josefine Danzberger, a butcher's daughter, who was also employed in the catering trade. Determined to succeed in business, they leased the modest Café Alt Wien.

Three years later they bought the small Café Hawelka in Dorotheergasse. They lived "over the shop". Their timing was not good: Austria had been taken over by Nazi Germany in 1938 and war was fast approaching. Leopold was called up for military service in the German army and the café had to be closed. In 1941 he took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union. There he stayed until the end of the war.

He returned to a devastated land divided into Soviet, US, British and French zones. Luckily, the property in the Dorotheergasse was largely intact and he and Josefine lost no time in opening its doors. He went himself to collect wood for the stove from the forest. Customers came and stayed to discuss the latest rumours and to keep warm. They bartered or sold items for food, smokes or medicines.

In 1955 the foreign troops left and Austria was declared neutral. It prospered but Vienna remained a centre of Cold War intrigue; the Café Hawelka played its part. Leopold welcomed and served his clients but he remained at a friendly distance from them. Agents from both sides came – they could discuss, argue, make deals, and he would remain discreet. Only a few metres from Am Graben, the most expensive and elegant shopping street in Central Europe, Café Hawelka became a meeting place for writers, painters and actors. Among its clients were the Austrian actors Oskar Werner, Helmut Qualtinger and Klaus Maria Brandhauer, the German writer Günter Grass and the American writer Henry Miller. Peter Ustinov and Andy Warhol were also seen there.

Local painters were encouraged to hang their work on the walls. Writers could use it as an office. Waiters did not hassle the clientele to buy another drink. For the price of a coffee, the customer could read the papers, wait for a friend, contemplate. The little man with the bow tie, Leopold Hawelka was ever present. The decades rolled by. Bill Clinton and Václav Havel dropped in.

Café Hawelka had become a major tourist attraction. Hawelka declined to renew and modernise; his only concession was the installation of an espresso machine. Leopold thought the world was coming to an end when smoking was banned in Vienna's cafés. The smoke from seven decades still lingers, it is said, in the red plush of the bench seats and in the faded wallpaper.

Josefine died in March 2005. She was 91 and still active. Hawelka slowed down but could still be seen sitting with his coffee in front of him almost every day. For some time the business had been led by his son, Günter, and grandsons Michael and Amir. Günther continued baking the café's speciality, Buchteln pastries, a type of Bohemian dumpling served with plum jam, using his mother's recipe.

Leopold Hawelka, café owner: born Kautendorf, Austria 11 April 1911; married (one son); died Vienna 29 December 2011.