Illustration Ragni Svensson.

Features Inventing Galicia The province that became a project

Even though, with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, Galicia ceased to exist, the idea of Galicia has a kind of ghostly presence in contemporary politics. The area was incorporated in 1919—1923 in the resurrected Polish state, only to be divided twenty years later between Germany and the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. This cleaving in two endured through the “shift” of Poland westwards after the Second World War. East Galicia became part of Soviet Ukraine and thereafter of independent Ukraine.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3 2011, p 4-8
Published on on October 3, 2011

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August 1914. Europe is at war. Josef Redlich, politician, historian, and professor of public law in Vienna, wants to follow events close at hand in what is expected to be a swift operation against intransigent Russia. He takes the train east to the village of Dukla at the foot of the Carpathians. In a pocket-sized notebook, which by chance ends up being preserved for posterity, he records his impressions of Galicia.

The beautiful but somewhat dilapidated palace of Polish Count Męciński in Dukla now serves as a press office and officer’s mess. Eight days before the outbreak of war, the Count ignored warnings and traveled to inspect his estates on the other side of the Russian border and was unable to return.

Now he sits in Stockholm, penniless.

Dukla must rely on more or less reliable telegrams about the progress of the war. Redlich wants to get closer to the still relatively fluid front and accepts at once when invited on August 22 to accompany one Colonel Hoen to supreme command headquarters in Przemyśl:

I immediately went and packed a bag, took the loaded revolver and dashed over to the commander: in a few minutes we are ready for departure. I ride with the colonel in Director Belletz’s car, who drives brilliantly.

[. . .] Our trip through the slowly falling summer night was glorious. The road, a true mountain road after Jassenin, crosses the heights between Jasło and Przemyśl to the San valley, then to Przemyśl through mainly poor villages. At once we see the many lights of the large fortress city in the distance, but progress necessarily becomes slower as one guard post after another calls us over; a guard officer stands at the entrance to the fortress; we smell all the timber felled in the forests alongside the road — clearings to create fields of fire for the advanced artillery — and then another outpost, we drive down a suburban street, then across a beautiful bridge to the other side of the San, where we hear at the city gendarmerie that the supreme command has been set up in the barracks of the 45th infantry regiment. [. . .] Broad-shouldered and dignified royal footmen take our coats, I open the door, see the huge, pure white and simple mess, the horseshoe-shaped table with all the officers surrounding General Conrad von Hötzendorf, who sits in the middle. I go to the right, Hoen to the left, Conrad sees me, jumps up, takes my arm and says: “Well now, this is a surprise, I am truly delighted to see you here.” He then turns to [German] General von Freytag-Loringhoven sitting next to him and introduces me, saying, “This is Professor Redlich, one of our most important parliamentarians and scholars, now a volunteer military aide at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”. Now I must take my seat to the right of the chief of staff and Baron Conrad went so far as to wave down one of the doughty royal footmen — throughout the headquarters, the Court Treasury is providing for the sustenance of high-ranking officers — to serve me the evening meal. Three dishes, an excellent pilsner on tap, white and red wine are laid out before me.

Redlich sounds out the Austrian chief of staff Hötzendorf. There was then still the shimmer of heroism about the war; the officers were gentlemen in resplendent uniforms, strategy a theoretical game. In a few efficient operations, the well-organized Imperial army would naturally be able to vanquish the Russian army, which while numerically superior consisted mainly of illiterate peasants! But how exactly was this to be accomplished? One can imagine this as the topic of discussion among the war correspondents seated at the picnic tables in Count Męciński’s overgrown park. Now Redlich is sitting at the table with the supreme commander, but his statements are
disturbingly vague and hardly inspiring of confidence:

Conrad repeatedly talks to me about the importance of luck to a field commander: he praises Auffenburg, whom I had imagined was a skilled unit commander, about which he replied: “Oh no, he is a good general staff officer, but, and this is more important, he is always lucky in everything he takes on.” “You understand”, he said, “my dear friend, the next four to six weeks will determine my life: you may see me again in some peaceful alpine valley, in a loden jacket, a man who has retired. Oh, everything depends on luck. It is a horribly difficult task. You must now almost cross your fingers.” As soon as I touched upon the conditions for a victory, he said deprecatingly, “Just don’t shout it out, don’t talk about it.” About the actual operations, he told me in so many words that the truly decisive events would take place in the next week or two.

Fatalism.   Hötzendorf confides in Redlich that he is distraught, even paralyzed with dread in the face of his mission. The army is under-financed and far too poorly armed. He is being forced to put the lives of hundreds of thousands of conscripts at stake in some kind of poker game. To start with, one can bluff one’s way forward with bold thrusts:

Monday the 24th [. . .] A telegram arrives in the afternoon, notifying us that we have occupied Łysa Góra east of Weichsel and pushed back two Russian army corps at Kraśnik. The local Jews immediately gather and pay resounding homage to the colonel, who was fetched from the taroc game in the park. The Jews sing a ringing, utterly Oriental Imperial hymn, the children sing folk hymns, old men in kaftans dance a sort of victory kolo.

The Hasidic Jews rightfully fear a Russian occupation, which would bring pogroms and lawlessness down upon them. A victory for the armies of Franz Josef is the only option. But the situation in Galicia shifts rapidly. Only a few days later, it becomes difficult for reporters to get any reliable information about the situation at the Russian border. On August 27, Redlich writes:

A day of incredible tension! Yesterday evening, Colonel Hoen was notified by telephone from Przemyśl that the Russians were on full offensive and that battles are being fought along the entire line from Złoczow to Zołkiew. Today, all journalistic work has been put aside: the correspondents and all of us, officers included, are on edge. Most can hardly conceal the worry they feel deep inside. The Jews, who have heard about the great battle, have been praying for victory all day long in the synagogue. The few members of the local Polish intelligentsia are remaining very passive.

History and fantasy

As I read the introductory chapter of American historian Larry Wolff’s book The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture (Stanford 2010), I am reminded of Josef Redlich’s vivid depiction of the late summer days of 1914. What Redlich describes is the beginning of the end of a political project — Galicia — that began in 1772 and soon became an important element in the effort to legitimize the seemingly anachronistic existence of the Habsburg monarchy in modern Europe.

It was precisely the history and possible survival of the Habsburg monarchy that was the liberal Josef Redlich’s central preoccupation as a scholar and politician. In 1911—1913, he was one of the driving forces in the Imperial commission for administrative reform appointed to study how the administrative structure of the realm could be modernized, in part to better meet the demands of an ethnically diverse population. As a rationalist cultural scholar and advocate of modernization, Redlich was to a certain extent a steward of the Austrian tradition known as Josephinism (Josephinismus), after the reformist Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, although Redlich’s pragmatic and decentralist approach also implied criticism of the excessive bureaucratism of the Austrian system. He wanted to study realities, which was why he had gone off to the Galician theater. But it is often clear in his notes from 1914 how ingrained Viennese notions and clichés about this special part of the country, despite everything, permeate his objective account.

Larry Wolff’s book is about these notions, about how an arbitrarily defined region was incorporated into a larger political narrative that was about reason and progress on the surface but encompassed strongly irrational and regressive elements. It is also about how these in truth hardly realistic notions and ideas actually produce political and cultural realities and acts. The book is based on a deep understanding of the political history of the area, but also a staggeringly broad reading of fiction, in several languages, in which the ideas of Galicia were produced, shaped, and reproduced over 150 years.

Since it will   soon be a hundred years since this Galicia ceased to exist as a political and administrative unit, let us orient ourselves in time and space. The apocalypse of the old Poland began in 1772 with the first partition. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had been the dominant power in Eastern Europe since the Late Middle Ages but had been declining since the 17th century, was dissolved by the neighboring states of Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Austria was apportioned the southeastern part, an area that extended along the northern side of the Carpathians, where it bordered on the Hungarian part of the monarchy (now Slovakia). In the northwest, the border was partially along the Vistula, but the annexed area otherwise had no distinct historical or geographical borders. It was thus the product of negotiations, a purely geopolitical and cartographical invention.

What was Austria supposed to do with this territory? People were asking that question in Austrian government circles. Empress Maria Theresa was unenthusiastic about the acquisition, saying: “Ce mot de partage me répugne” (“the word partition is repugnant to me”). Participating in the “division” of booty like one more political robber baron seemed to her unworthy of an apostolic monarch, but the matter had to be accepted to maintain the balance of power; Prussia and Russia would otherwise become uncomfortably large and obtrusive. And when obsequious historians were able to show that the Hungarian crown had actually laid claim to parts of the area as far back as the 12th century, the morsel became a little tastier to Maria Theresa, whose titles included Queen of Hungary. But what would the new province be called? “Austrian Poland” was one possibility, but such a name was politically unthinkable, since the aim was to erase Poland from European history. Austria instead made a connection to the medieval principality of Halych, an heir of the state of Kiev that had encompassed part of the area before the eastern expansion of the Polish state. Galicia, Galizien in German, was bruited to be the Latinized form of Halych. (The old word stems of hal and gal, referring to the salt deposits in the region, echo in the name, which are also seen in the classical ethnic designation Gaul. Those with long memories will recall that Spain also has its Galicia. After the
Habsburgs’ abandoned claims to the Spanish crown, the name was available, so to speak, in the Imperial list of useable provincial names.)

Now that the name was settled, it had to be filled with meaning. Galicia became a project. There were two ambitions: to tie the new province more closely to the old Habsburg realm and distance it from the Polish tradition, and to demonstrate Austria’s modernity and reformist spirit. Galicia was seen as a sort of adoptive child from the underdeveloped backyard of Europe that would, in a paternalistic fostering project, be offered upward class mobility from muddy village street to enlightened salon. Joseph II himself traveled to Galicia in 1773 to survey the situation. What was the best way to deal with the foundling?

And what was the situation, actually? In this southeastern part of the old Poland, there were three main ethnic groups — Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews. The largest group was the Orthodox Christian Ukrainians (or Ruthenians, as the Austrians preferred to call them). Somewhat fewer in number were the Roman Catholic Poles, followed by the Jews, who made up almost ten percent of the population there. There were several other small ethnic groups, such as the Carpathian mountain peoples (the Lemke, the Hutsuls, and the Vlach) as well as a German element in the cities. Roma and Armenians were also in the picture. Political and economic power in this agrarian society was held by the Polish or Polonicized aristocracy, the Szlachta, who were the tip of a feudal pyramid whose broad but socially oppressed base was made up of the serfs and illiterate peasant masses. Religion was the central factor in identity; national awareness was mainly a current within the aristocratic Polish intelligentsia.

Enlightened protection

Thus, the situation was one of marked social heterogeneity and inequality. How should order and dynamism be brought to this diverse yet stagnant region? To the Austrians, the Polish aristocracy seemed a bastion of reactionary irrationality; as a result, the dismantling of the Szlachta’s feudal privileges and traditions became an important goal. The Austrians divided the country into new administrative areas, Kreise, and Austrian civil servants were appointed to leading positions. German immigration was encouraged. Galician calendars, reference works, floras, and history books were published, all to cement the idea of the province — whose borders had been drawn arbitrarily — as an accepted historical and cultural unit that had finally come under enlightened protection.

One of Wolff’s central ideas is that the treatment of Galicia reflects the new east-west dichotomy in the view of European history that took shape during the Enlightenment. A traditional north-south polarity based on the classical notion of the barbaric north was exchanged for an evolutionary idea of a static, backward, and uncivilized Eastern Europe and a dynamic and progressive Western Europe. These ideas are related, of course, to the phenomenon now often termed Orientalism: the notion of the essential incompatibility of “Eastern” cultures with Western individualism and the idea of progress.

Even though they entailed significant interventions in traditional life patterns in the province, Austrian reforms to the education system, legal system, and public administration were met with relative enthusiasm, especially among the groups that had formerly been disadvantaged. For the Ukrainians, the growth of a modern written language was made possible, and for reform-minded Jews the Toleration Patent issued by Joseph II was to be of great significance. Factions of the Polish intelligentsia also considered Austrian public administration more tolerant and acceptable than that of Russia and Prussia, which had taken over in the other parts of the divided Poland. A kind of Polish-Galician culture emerged, a process Wolff illustrates through the life and works of playwright Aleksander Fredro (1793—1876). To Fredro and his liberal circle, warding off Russian imperialism, which was considered a greater evil than the Viennese paternalism, was more important than anti-Austrian agitation. Under the increasingly liberalized conditions of the late 19th century, Galicia and Krakow also became a center of Polish art and culture.

A significant event discussed from several different angles in Wolff’s book is the failed Polish revolution of 1846. The uprising had been planned by exiled politicians in Paris and met with initial success in Krakow, which was annexed to Austria in 1795 but was made a nominally independent city-state. The idea was that rebellion would spread across Galicia and from there to Russian-occupied Poland. But when certain aristocratic nationalists raised the banner of uprising, they were met with unexpected opposition among the Ukrainian peasants, who considered the Austrian administration their guardians against the feudal oppression of the Polish aristocracy. In some towns, the peasants took matters into their own hands and massacred their nationalist conspirator estate owners. Here, the Austrians had thus managed to foment a sort of Galician Landespatriotismus that was not built on national lines but instead (sometimes far too violently) emphasized socioeconomic and regional affiliations and interests. Krakow was punished for its role in the revolt with the loss of its autonomous status and was annexed to Galicia.

Lower East Side — Galicia In Manhattan

Galitzianer tantzerl was an often-seen song title on old 78 records played in New York in the early 1900s. The musicians were immigrant Eastern European klezmorim who brought their repertoire to a growing audience of galitzianer — Jews from Galicia — who usually settled in the working class districts of the Lower East Side on Manhattan. According to Wolff, the establishment of the term “galitzianer” in Yiddish, and Galician Jews’ perceptions of themselves as culturally distinct from their Lithuanian and Russian co-religionists, was due to the special significance of the Josephinist reformers to Jewish living conditions.

With its Counter-Reformation, strongly anti-Jewish tradition (clearly visible in Maria Theresa, among others), the Habsburg state hardly welcomed the large Jewish population that happened to come along with the territorial acquisition of 1772. Jews were the majority population in many villages and communities, especially in the eastern part of the province, where there was a complete Jewish community with a multifaceted religious and cultural tradition. But the enlightened despot Joseph II saw the Jewish presence as a challenge more than anything else. In being so magnanimously tolerant that one wanted to include the Jews in the enlightened, reasonable society, one could, almost to the point of excess, clearly demonstrate one’s lack of prejudice. But there was also another, more pragmatic and calculating aspect of the emancipation project. The Jews could become allies of the Habsburgs in their struggle against the Polish aristocracy, and their mercantile tradition was also seen as an asset in terms of business policy.

Liberation from   feudal absolute power and religious shackles engendered widespread enthusiasm and sympathy among the Jews, and many proponents of the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) and the various Jewish reform movements of the 19th century identified strongly with Josephine ideas and the Austrian state. Joseph Roth, the congenial delineator of the Habsburgian Imperial state’s contradictory but culturally productive agonies in novels like Radetzky March, The Emperor’s Tomb, and Hotel Savoy, grew up in the Jewish town of Brody and the town sets the tone for many of his narratives.

At the same time, demands for secularization and Germanification engendered resistance among the large Hasidic population in eastern Galicia. In reality, Habsburg policies also led to the impoverishment and proletarianization of large segments of the Jewish population, whose traditional livelihoods were taken away and not replaced by new structures as a consequence of the industrialization that essentially never came. To be a Luftmensch, to live on nothing, became a far too common occupation in small Jewish towns like Kolomea, Horodenka, and Tysmienica. Out of this came the strong migration flows into Vienna, where many prominent Jewish intellectuals, including Sigmund Freud, had Galician family roots. It was also the impetus for proletarian emigration to New York.

Whipped into subjection

One of the most written-about works of Austrian literature, Venus in Furs, was published in 1870. With this literary depiction of the life and times of fictional Galician aristocrat Severin von Kusiemski, the author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, was to supply material for the definition of the sexual deviations described by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his 1890 classic Psychopathia Sexualis: “I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly ‘Masochism’ because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion — which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such — the substratum of his writings.”

Sacher-Masoch (1836—1895) and his literary oeuvre are given a central role in Larry Wolff’s study of the ideas of Galicia. His reading shows that the Galician setting can actually supply a key to the author’s distinct symbolism and worldview. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch belonged to an Austrian family of bureaucrats who had come to Galicia by the end of the 18th century. His father was the chief of police in the provincial capital of Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv in the 1830s and 1840s, whose duties included managing the repercussions of the failed aristocratic revolt of 1846. With a “Ruthenian” peasant girl as his wet-nurse and nanny, Ukrainian was the language Leopold absorbed with mother’s milk. The wet-nurse sacrificially left her own child among the fur-clad peasants in the village of Winniki to save the frail child of civil servants in Lemberg with her healthy natural product.  She also instilled into him a dose of the Ukrainian folk storytelling tradition, whose motifs recur in his works.

The boy more or less grew up at police headquarters in Lemberg, where his father devoted his free time to his herbarium and his mineral collection. A life-sized doll wearing the costume of a Carpathian robber stood in one corner of his office. The walls were decorated with bearskins and antique weapons. In his autobiographical Erinnerungen, Sacher-Masoch relates:

Here my father sat when his serious charge, the uninterrupted struggle against Polish conspirators, gave him a free hour, and untroubled by the death sentence that someone had posted on the gate, he organized his treasures, which he had collected in the woods, meadows, swamps, and quarries around Lemberg; he took the beetles out of the alcohol flasks to stick them on needles and exhibit them in the cork-lined cases, like soldiers in formation; he worked on the stones with a hammer, and pasted the dried and pressed plants on white paper.

Little Leopold played quietly in a corner of the room, anxious not to disturb his father as he meticulously arranged his collections. During the revolutionary year of 1848, the police directorate was moved to Prague and the Sacher-Masoch family left Galicia, but the twelve childhood years in Lemberg had shaped Leopold for life and the cultural atmosphere and traditions of the province became the source materials for the fantasies he not only put into print, but lived out in reality.

The masochistic hero of Venus in Furs, Severin von Kusiemski, meets Wanda von Dunajew, a widow from Lemberg, in a resort in the Carpathian Mountains. She invites him to become her slave and he is passionately taken with the idea. The pair write a contract whose clauses stipulate utter subjection. Mrs. von Dunajew has not only the right to punish her slave for the least infraction as she sees fit, she can also beat him for no reason at all, or simply to pass the time, according to her fancy; she can even kill him if she wishes. He is, quite simply, her property, over which she has unrestricted control.

The feudal patterns   are inverted. The Galician aristocrat is transformed into a Galician serf. The obsession with the permutations of slavery was imprinted on Leopold during his formative childhood years in Galicia, according to Wolff. The brutal conditions of Galician serfdom were a topic of lively discussion in the 1840s within the Austrian administration. The Josephine officials, who wanted to limit the rights of the Polish aristocracy to robot (the obligation to perform day work), depicted serfdom as a kind of slavery. The whip was emphasized as an attribute of the arbitrary will of the aristocracy and became a general symbol of the Eastern European barbarism from which it was the Habsburg’s mission to liberate its subjects. Wolff distills this when he writes: “The whip thus left its semiotic mark on Habsburg consciousness in Galicia and became for Sacher-Masoch the sexual obsession of his life and his literature.”

Sacher-Masoch later married a woman who took the name Wanda von Dunajew. She wrote a slave contract with her husband which stipulated that she would whip him while dressed in furs. “Not a day passed”, wrote Wanda in her memoirs, “without my whipping my husband, without proving to him that I was keeping my part of the contract.” For Sacher-Masoch, Galicia was the realm of urges and expression, a “Half-Asia”, to use the term coined by Karl Emil Franzos, the literary portrayer of Jewish folk life in the fictional town of Barnow, which was both seductive and frightening. This is also reflected in Sacher-Masoch’s almost romantic fascination with Hasidic Jews, whom he erroneously perceived as an Oriental sect that had repudiated asceticism to embrace sensualism. His description of a visit in 1857 to the famous Rebbe Lieb-mann in Sadhora gives the impression of a harem interior from A Thousand and One Nights, with fur-trimmed caftans and Turkish divans as paraphernalia.

From the Russian-Jewish perspective, on the other hand, Galicia could also be understood as an outpost of the progressive West. The Broder shul, a synagogue founded in Odessa by Haskala-oriented Jews from Brody, represented the German-speaking Jewish reform movement. Here, “di galitzianer” were men of the Enlightenment in the spirit of Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing, Kant, and the von Humboldt brothers.

Orange-colored phantom pains

Beliefs often become prescriptions, mental maps of a sort after which reality is adjusted and structured. Even though, with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, Galicia ceased to exist, the idea of Galicia has a kind of ghostly presence in contemporary politics. The area was incorporated in 1919—1923 in the resurrected Polish state, only to be divided twenty years later between Germany and the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. This cleaving in two endured through the “shift” of Poland westwards after the Second World War. East Galicia became part of Soviet Ukraine and thereafter of independent Ukraine.

The still meaningful distinction between a Galician West Ukraine and a Soviet-stamped East Ukraine was clearly expressed, according to Wolff, in the Orange Revolution of 2004. In the more liberal West Ukraine, the old connection to Vienna and Krakow became a marker of identity and a resource for mobilization, despite the radical break in cultural continuity that the mass deportations and genocides of the Second World War entailed. The idea of Galicia as a Josephine West also lives among those born after the breakup of the Soviet Union, even in families and settings where past generations had never lived under the paternalistic protection of Habsburgian officialdom.

Joseph II’s project   thus seems to have a rare endurance and potency, even though it was carried out half-heartedly and left unconcluded. I return to Josef Redlich’s Galician diary from the outbreak of war in 1914. The distinctive mix of order and incompetence, of pretense and reality, of realism and escapism often seen as characteristic of the Habsburgian spirit, permeates his hastily scribbled observations and descriptions. “Ce mot de partage me répugne.” An empire that could not bear the position to which fate had elevated it.

In early September of 1914, Redlich takes another car trip to the fortress city of Przemyśl. Facing the risk of being surrounded by the advancing Russian army, the Austrians have now been forced to evacuate the provincial capital of Lemberg. Fleeing people are choking the roads, villages are burning. Rumors begin to spread that command headquarters will be withdrawn from Przemyśl. One last time, Redlich sits down to dine with the worn out Conrad von Hötzendorf, who explains the difficult situation, but is inclined to turn to personal things and talks a great deal about his mistress, Gina von Reininghaus: “If I fail, I will also lose this woman, a dreadful prospect, for then I must retreat into loneliness for the rest of my life.”

Finally, Redlich paints a picture of the officer’s mess in Przemysl that could be the final scene in a fateful drama about the decline and fall of the Austrian Empire:

While this quiet conversation went on, most of the gentlemen had risen from the table and left the mess, at last even General Höfer, who sat across from us with his sad eyes. The two of us, Colonel Hoen, and two general staff majors in a corner, were finally alone in the room, which with its burned-down candelabras and cold white walls now looked very dismal. It was past ten o’clock when we rose and General Conrad once again bade me a cordial farewell. The fat royal footmen now looked at me with some hostility; they must have seen me as the reason for the long lingering in the room. We went home, shaken to the core, because I found my pessimistic opinion, which had been reinforced for several days, confirmed through the conversation with the chief of staff. Humanly, my heart went out to Conrad: he cannot bear the status to which fate has elevated him. ≈


Josef Redlich’s diaries are published in Schicksalsjahre Österreichs 1908—1919: Das politische Tagebuch Josef Redlichs; Bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Fritz Fellner. Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für neuere Geschichte Österreichs 39—40, Graz-Köln 1953—1954. The quotations are from vol. II, pp. 251—271.

Redlich’s activities are depicted in Anders Hammarlund’s Människor bortom lustprincipen: Mähriska öden [People beyond the pleasure principle: Some Moravian life stories] (Stockholm 2006), and in historian Fredrik Lindström’s doctoral dissertation Empire and Identity: Biographies of Austrian Identity in an Age of Imperial Dissolution (Lund 2002).

Most of the English-language editions of Venus in Furs seem to go back to a translation by Fernanda Savage (possibly a pseudonym?), originally from 1921.

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