Central & Eastern Europe / Satellite Review / Popular Culture / History / Travel

Opatija Noir

It wouldn’t be a seaside town if it didn’t have a dark side

The suspect claimed to be writing a guidebook to Italian hotels, an occupation that made him seem even more suspicious in the eyes of the press.

On November 7 1928 the Viennese daily Illustrierte Kronen Zeitung devoted its front cover to the case of Countess Feodora Sternowska, a Polish noblewomen who had reputedly died in mysterious circumstances in Opatija (or Abbazia as it was then known) earlier the same year. A single, wealthy, 34-year-old woman who was (according to the papers) surrounded by male suitors, Sternowska had died after inhaling the scent of a beautiful bunch of golden-yellow roses. The bouquet had been delivered by a young man she had met by chance while strolling on the seaside promenade. The man had charmed his way into her confidence by claiming to have been a wartime comrade of Sternowska’s fiancé, who had died on the Eastern Front during World War I. The pair had tea together; and the man had a bouquet of Maréchal Niel roses sent to the place where Sternowska was staying. When her maid went to check on her later that evening, she was dead. Several weeks later in Warsaw, the countess’s sister Leonie received a similar bouquet of roses from a similarly mysterious stranger. She didn’t particularly like roses, however, and passed them on to her maid instead. It was the maid who was found dead the next morning.

The story of the mystery man and his poison-bearing roses was carried by newspapers throughout Central Europe. It was covered by Paris crime magazine Le Detective, and even made it as far as the Brazilian illustrated weekly Revista da Semana. However none of these initial reports were ever followed up. Neither Illustrierte Kronen Zeitung nor any of the other papers ever got round to telling its readers whether the rose murderer got caught, or indeed whether a Countess Sternowska had ever actually existed. Like many news-wire reports, the case was eagerly seized upon by newspaper editors with pages to fill, then abruptly dropped due to the lack of any subsequent information. Countess Sternowska went viral and then disappeared, an early premonition of the world of hype, rumour, and fake news.

Opatija had been the leading seaside destination for the inhabitants of Central Europe ever since its transformation from fishing village to vacation paradise in the 1880s. Even after the fall of the Dual Monarchy in 1918 and Opatija’s occupation by Italy, it remained the resort of choice for the middle class inhabitants of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Given such prominent status, it was not surprising that it played a prominent role in the popular imagination. However it was the Opatija of aristocratic glamour and romantic comedy that made its way into popular culture, rather than the more ambiguous world of shifting populations and shifting morals. Although the crime pages of Central Europe’s newspapers provide some insight into the town’s darker side, Opatija noir remains a literary genre that has been woefully underexploited.

Arrested in pyjamas

Opatija was to feature in the crime pages again in July 1929, when Austrian businessman Andreas Fellner was arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife Katharina in Vienna’s Lainzer Tiergarten park the previous summer. Andreas Fellner had in the meantime been travelling around northern Italy with his new partner Frau Gertrude von Koch, the separated wife of a Berlin businessman. The fact that Fellner and companion were staying in Opatija, a town of changing seasonal populations and pension owners who never asked questions, only made him more guilty in the eyes of the Austrian press. Constantly filled with people taking a break from their real lives, the town was the natural habitat of the charlatan and the dissembler. 

“Arrested in his pyjamas” was the subhead of the Illustrierte Kronen Zeitung’s report of July 14, as if to draw maximum drama from the seaside-pension setting. Then as now, crime reporting was a specific genre of popular literature, a genre in which specific (and often completely circumstantial) details were drawn out to accentuate the depravity of the suspect. The fact that Fellner and Frau Koch had arrived in Opatija with ten suitcases was offered as proof that they must be running away from something.

Fellner had a colourful past; a post-war black-marketeer who already had a conviction for fraud in Salzburg. The fact that he currently led the life a dandy, moving from one hotel to another without any evidence of a settled profession, made him an ideal murderer in the eyes of the Austrian press. Fellner claimed to be writing a guidebook to Italian hotels (for which the hotels themselves paid to be included), an occupation that made him seem even more suspicious.

The suspect was locked up in Volosko police station by the Italian authorities. A chief inspector arrived from Vienna to lead the interrogation. The fact that the case involved the police of three countries (Austria, Italy and Hungary – both suspect and victim had spent several years in Budapest) lent it a strangely post-Habsburg significance, as if it was a metaphor for a woozy Central Europe in which the people and the scenery were the same but so much else had changed.

Fellner, however, had an alibi. He had been in Trieste having his car fixed on the day of the murder, and can’t possibly have been in Vienna at the same time. Attention shifted to the victim’s friend Gustav Bauer, who had been seen with her shortly before her death. Bauer went on trial twice for the Lainzer Tiergarten murder and was acquitted both times. Fellner, despite his alibi, never quite shook off the suspicion that he might have been the murderer all along.

Central Europe in the years after World War I was an uncertain, economically diminished place; a place in which con-men and grifters had become a natural part of the landscape. Take for example Richard Glasel, arrested in Opatija in September 1926, and described by the Innsbrücker Nachrichten as an “international confidence trickster.., well-known in gambling circles”. Glasel had travelled around the world borrowing money under assumed names. Opatija seemed like an appropriate final stop.

In the inverted logic of the crime reporter, the seaside resort was a place of moral decay rather than wholesome family fun. When Austrian newspapers reported the attempted murder of Vienna theatre girl Lotte Höllriegel by her older boyfriend Rudolf Nowak in February 1928, the fact that that the couple had recently holidayed in Lovran was offered up by journalists as a particularly juicy piece of evidence, even though it didn’t have any bearing whatsoever on the actual crime. Unmarried couples who stayed in seaside pensions, the papers seemed to be saying, were bound to end up in the crime pages sooner or later.

Ever since its earliest days as a popular resort, Opatija had featured prominently as a location in the romantic novels published in installments in popular newspapers. Opatija inspired numerous dance tunes and songs, and occasionally became the subject of an operetta  - Leo Ascher’s romantic comedy Der Lockvogel (1912) being just one example.

Medallion man

Many of the Opatija-related crime stories that appeared in the Austrian press prior to World War I nowadays seem to have jumped straight out of a cheap novel. Take for example the Opatija postal order scam of 1897, when two fake postal orders worth 500 Gulden were smuggled into the post coach from Matulji to Opatija Post Office. They were addressed to the Nagel und Wortmann Bank (a small Rijeka-based bank that had a branch in Opatija), accompanied by a letter instructing the bank to cash the orders and hand over the money to a certain Ladislas Kostko. Postal officials realized there was something fishy about the orders. Although they bore the stamp of the post office in Milovka in Galicia, the orders themselves were bilingual German-Italian forms of the type issued by post offices in Istria – no Galician post office would have stocked orders like these. When Kostko turned up at Nagel and Wortmann on January 27, he was asked to wait while staff checked the papers. Growing nervous, he fled, checking out of his Opatija pension in such haste that he left behind the stolen rubber stamp he’d used to frank the orders.

“Kostko” turned out to be Vinzenz Lukowski, a 19-year-old postal worker from Chyrow in Galicia who had worked in post offices in Rozdil (where his mum was the post-mistress). He was picked up in Rozdil on February 6 and taken to provincial capital L’viv, where it was established that he had left a trail of forged postal orders totaling 3000 gulden across the Dual Monarchy. At his trial Lukowski blamed his crime spree on his love for a cabaret girl he’d met in Kraków; a girl who he just had to take out to fancy restaurants and treat to the most expensive things on the menu. The court displayed little sympathy, sentencing Lukowski to two and a half years hard labour.

In October 1903 Archduke Ludwig Viktor (the flamboyant younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef I who was subsequently “exiled” from the imperial court due to his open homosexuality) left his valuables in a bathing cabin, only to find them missing on returning from his swim. Two men were arrested a few days later after attempting, with comic naivety, to sell the stolen items to a jeweler in Pula. What seems most mind-boggling today is the list of things that the over-accessorized Ludwig Viktor took with him to the beach: a sapphire ring, a gold-plated watch with chain, a medallion containing a hair of the Emperor, a golden pencil, a Jerusalem cross, a long golden necklace, a bracelet bearing an engraving of Empress Maria-Theresa…  The list goes on.

Gambling Debts

Duels (or at least those that made the papers) had a comic aspect too. In 1907 Captain Ferdinand Kirschner and engineer Fritz Stück planned to start a business running passenger motorboats between Opatija and Lovran. They fell out badly when Stück tried to leave the partnership. Kirschner challenged Stück to a duel, Stück refused. Kirschner went round to Stück’s hotel in the morning and tried to get him out of bed by hitting him over the head with a scabbard.

One genuinely criminal aspect of pre-World War I Opatija was the world of illegal gambling. Despite a brief period between 1911 and 1913, when gamers gathered in the shore-side Casino des Étrangers to play the Rösslspiel (a simplified version of roulette with less numbers and lower winnings), gambling was strictly prohibited – although the authorities frequently tolerated an activity that was clearly popular with many of the town’s visitors. When a woman’s body was washed ashore in September 1906 (a presumed suicide attributed to gambling debts), local police used the scandal as a pretext to raid one of the town’s basement gambling dens, arresting one of its organizers, an Englishman named Brown.

The November 20 1913 issue of local Croatian-language newspaper Naša Sloga complained of a “Hungarian-Jewish” gaming hall in Opatija to which the authorities had turned a blind eye. (The piously Catholic Naša Sloga was notoriously anti-Semitic). For Naša Sloga the problem of gambling was not just that it was immoral, but also that it was yet another business conducted by outsiders, “a foreign operation in our Opatija”, an affront to a local population who – despite an influx of tourism workers and entrepreneurs from all over the Empire - were still predominantly Croatian.   

Hollow Honeymoon

Commenting on the gambling scene in November 1911, the Czernowitzer Tagblatt had joked somewhat grimly that Opatija was offering its guests a harmful new addiction that would rid them of their money and ultimately their lives: what had once been a health resort was turning into a suicide resort.

Indeed stories of suicides and unexplained disappearances serve as a sobering parallel text to the sunny visions of Opatija that made up the bulk of newspaper coverage in the first half of the twentieth century. These cases were reported in small paragraphs in the rear pages, in short matter-of-fact sentences that frequently left the full story untold. Deprived of their human detail, they make extremely sad and poignant reading. The December 25 1911 edition of Naša Sloga wrote of a local peasant taking milk from Kastav to Opatija and coming across two bodies beside the road. Ljudevit Kaiser from Vienna and Martha Liepe from Berlin, both aged 24, were assumed to have shot themselves. An August 1914 issue of the Czernowitzer Allgemeiner Zeitung (curiously, it was the provincial newspapers in far-flung corners of the Empire that seemed to offer the most revealing Opatija stories) told of Ladislaus Roth, a baker from Budapest, who married the daughter of another prominent baking family and set off to Opatija for the honeymoon. The groom got up one morning, complained of feeling unwell and set off in search of a pharmacy. He never came back.

Another news item that reads like the opening paragraph of a potential novel concerns the 17-year-old Klara R, who (according to Zagreb’s German-language daily Agramer Zeitung) disappeared in Rijeka while staying with her parents at Opatjia’s Hotel Stephanie in August 1911. It was suspected that the Viennese teenager had been lured away by a man she had met while strolling along Rijeka’s corso. Subsequent editions of the newspaper made no further mention of Klara, leaving us to speculate on what her fate might have been.

In Opatija as in all other big tourist resorts, there was a thin boundary dividing holiday dream and private nightmare. It was perhaps the contemporary Croatian writer Zoran Ferić came closest to exploring the full potential of Opatija Noir in his 1996 short story Žena u ogledalu (“The Woman in The Mirror”), a tightly-composed 21-page exercise in eroticism, melancholy and paranoia – but with a humorous twist at the end of the story. As in the case of Countess Sternowska in 1928, the air is thick with the scent of intrigue, but there is, after all, probably no dead body.

© Jonathan Bousfield

Illustrierte Kronen Zeitung’s impression of the arrest of Andreas Fellner.