One of the finest traits of the Empress was certainly her untiring charity, and her methods were always notable for the extreme delicacy of feeling which she showed in all things. It was she who caused the Viennese to realize the very decided difference which exists between men reduced to poverty through no fault of their own, and men whose destitution is the result of lazy or extravagant habits, and it was she who showed them how to treat the former as fellow-citizens who stand in need of help, and the latter as criminals deserving severe reproof if not punishment. Through her influence numberless families are now redeemed from misery, many youths are saved from sin, many men aided to begin new and prosperous lives.
In the year 1872 an association of 400 ladies and noblemen, belonging to the loftiest ranks of society and presided over by Elizabeth herself, was formed for the purpose of supplying wholesome dinners to the poor at the lowest possible price. Each member gave a sum of 700 florins towards the initial outlay, and with this money the first volksküchen (people’s kitchen) was opened. Today there are fifteen of these in Vienna, and in the course of the year food is sold in them to the value of more than 1,200,000 florins.
The volksküchen are large rooms, with great windows letting in both sun and air, and provided with oak tables and benches, which are kept scrupulously clean. The floor is paved with marble, and at the lower end of the hall a wooden counter serves as a division from the actual kitchen, where many cooks are at work preparing food. All classes, from poor university students to ragged-looking tramps, receive a kindly welcome.
Every day over ten thousand persons dine in the volksküchen, and the marvelously low price at which the food is sold can only be accounted for by the huge quantities in which it is bought and prepared. The complete dinner, excellently cooked, costs two groschen, and a breakfast of coffee, bread and butter, and some kind of stew can be obtained in the early morning for one groschen. From six to nine in the evening supper is served at the cost of one groschen, and is generally composed of soup, cold meat, and pudding. The ladies and gentlemen who manage this superb association have done wonders. Eight or ten ladies belonging to the court circle make a point of being in each kitchen while the dinners are being served.
It is, one must confess, a rather touching sight to watch the lovely and aristocratic court beauties of Vienna, wearing snowy aprons over their elegant walking dresses, as they distribute the food to the poor, ill-fed wretches who crown the room. A kind smile or word of sympathy always accompanies the action. It often happens that one of these charming ministering angels grows deeply interested in the case of one or another of her guests, and thus becomes the means of doing a great deal of practical good.
It is not by a lavish and unreasonable expenditure that the Viennese secure comfort their deserving poor, but by infinite attention to details, endless care, and hearty sympathy with suffering, for in spite of their long kept up animosity against the Empress, her influence has been great even at Vienna in all matters pertaining to kindness and generosity; and this good which she has worked is certainly one of the finest monuments she has left behind her.
Marguerite Cunliffe-Owen, The Martyrdom of an Empress (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1902), pp. 89-91.
Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 201
Nobility.org Editorial comment: —
Showing affection to the lower classes, especially those in great need, is an important duty of the nobility and analogous traditional elites. This affection is the social fabric’s strongest bonding agent. While never easy, those members of the upper classes who display this affection to their social inferiors imitate the divine example of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The strengthening of the social fabric is just a first reward the nobility receives in this life. This strengthening is nothing compared to the eternal reward, for as God promised Abraham, He will be Himself their “exceedingly great reward” in Heaven (Gen. 15:1).