JARDINE: Beyer High graduate brings history to (his) life

jjardine@modbee.comMay 15, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

— If you attended Beyer High School in the mid- to late 1980s, you probably knew — or knew of — Brian Scott Pfeifle.

He reigned as the school's student body president in 1987-88. Right after graduating, he jetted off to Europe, where he became fascinated with its history, particularly Austria and the Habsburg Empire.

OK, so "fascinated" is an understatement. He studied the Austro-Hungarian Empire while earning his degree from the University of California at Berkeley and, in 1992, studied at the University of Vienna on a Fulbright Scholarship.

Austria — its history, culture and architecture — engulfed Pfeifle to the point where, in 1995, he changed his legal name to Felix Etienne-Edouard Pfeifle. Felix, because Austria historically has been called Felix (fortunate) Austria, and Etienne-Edouard — Steven Edward — in honor of his ailing father.

Pfeifle's story is unique for Modesto or anywhere else, and is the subject of a 76-minute film titled "Felix Austria!" It recently was featured among the documentaries at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, Ontario. It earned 4½ out of a possible five stars, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, and likely will be shown at festivals in the United States and Europe before it's released to the public.

In fact, the film begins in Beyer High's parking lot and ends in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood where Pfeifle grew up. At home and abroad, parallel universes and subplots abound.

It came about because Pfeifle's knowledge and research of Austria generated an unexpected dividend in December 1994, when a mysterious box arrived at the door of the family's Modesto home. It came from the Florida retirement estate of the late Herbert Hinkel, who once read a piece Pfeifle had written for a historical journal.

An otherwise obscure New Yorker, Hinkel somehow began corresponding with Archduke Otto von Habsburg, the last crown prince of Austria- Hungary and prominent member of a family that held various thrones from 1278 until 1918.

The box contained 60 years' worth of letters to Hinkel from the archduke.

"He (Hinkel) left an archive of letters to me in his will," Pfeifle said.

They ultimately provided an inroad to a man he most wanted to meet, 95-year-old Archduke von Habsburg.

"He was like my last Mohican," Pfeifle, 43, said. "The last of a whole epoch in European history about to vanish. I wanted to connect with him and to discover who Hinkel was, and learn about his life."

After numerous requests, the archduke agreed to meet with Pfeifle. They became friends.

"One of the crowning moments of my life was when he invited me to the very spot where his uncle, Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated."

This happened in Sarajevo, Bosnia- Herzegovina, a city that played host to the Winter Olympics in 1984, only to be torn apart by war and genocide in the early to mid-1990s.

Pfeifle and director Christine Beebe began shooting "Felix Austria!" in 2005 and finished it in 2011, the year the crown prince died, just four months' shy of his 99th birthday.

And while the movie depicts Pfeifle's urgency to meet and know the archduke, there's a parallel at home. Pfeifle's father, Steven, suffers from Huntington's disease, a genetic and degenerative brain ailment.

Pfeifle returned repeatedly to Modesto to help find a nursing facility where his father could get proper care. The family moved father Steven to a care home in Concord. Pfeifle knew his father's memory soon would be gone, and that time with the dad he knew — and who knew him — was every bit as precious as the time spent with the archduke.

"From the provincial area where you grow up to a (Habsburg) palace," he said, "the tug of home outweighs everything else."

Like- wise, a love of history — whether it be his family's, the Habsburgs' or Hinkel's — is alluring.

"One of the most unique things is to discover and continue to discover the humanity in people, whether it's an archduke or an ordinary person in Florida obsessed with an archduke," Pfeifle said. "By exploring history and beginning to ask questions, the presence of history begins to flourish around you. You could be talking to a crown prince or a grandmother, and either way, you're opening the doors to history."

And becoming part of it as well. Pfeifle has a friend whose grandfather was a Spanish diplomat in France during World War II. Eduardo Propper de Callejón, in fact, helped 30,000 Jews obtain the transit visas they needed to escape the Nazis.

Decades later, Callejón's family wanted Israel's Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority, to bestow its Righteous Among the Nations recognition upon him posthumously. Callejón also had gotten Otto von Habsburg and his family exit visas, Callejón's grandson told Pfeifle. Pfeifle mentioned it to the crown prince, who remembered Callejón.

"(Habsburg) was grateful that he'd escorted them out of France and away from the Nazis," Pfeifle said. "The archduke wrote a beautiful letter to Yad Vashem on their behalf."

In 2008, Callejón — grandfather of actress Helena Bonham Carter — received the recognition.

"It didn't make it into the movie, but it was the ultimate prize of my whole journey," Pfeifle said.

A story worth telling by Felix Pfeifle, a Modestan who considers himself to be most fortunate, indeed.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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