The life of Svitavy native Valentin Oswald Ottendorfer (*1826) was by no means a bed of roses. He was born into a drapery family, and as the drapery industry was at the height of its glory, the Ottendorfer family was financially secure. He had a great number of siblings, eleven to be exact, though six of them lived to an adult age. Oswald must have been a sharp child; he was predestined for studies. He studied first at the Piarist gymnasium in Litomyšl [o_01], and then at the universities in Vienna and Prague. The fields of philosophy and law shaped his world view and he was also formed by the newly budding civil society. He got a taste of democracy and the general values of freedom and Ottendorfer clung to these principles for the rest of his life. In 1848 he fought under the flag of the student legion [o_02] at the Prague barricades and experienced revolution on the streets of many German cities and in Vienna. The Austrian police mercilessly went after such “democratic elements” and the warrant issued for his arrest forced Ottendorfer to emigrate to the USA.
Without saying goodbye to his family the young man soon found himself in the New York port with no knowledge of English [o_03]. He began to work as a day labourer, an assistant labourer, and at night studied the new language and imbibed the American atmosphere. With the help of a friend he soon became a typesetter at the influential German daily New Yorker Staats-Zeitung [o_04], which belonged to German emigrants, the Uhlovi family. Ottendorfer moved up to the editorial staff, wrote commentary on the political life in America, and it seemed as if he had caught on in his new home. What’s more, he was lucky. At the end of the 1850s Anna Uhlová, the widow of the paper owner, fell in love with him [o_05]. While she was a few years older than him, she was also full of energy, experience, and definite charm. Ottendorfer even accepted the six children from Anna’s marriage into his care. However, Oswald became seriously ill at this time; he was treated often at European spas, but was not permitted to visit his native Svitavy. Only amnesty opened the borders and the Austro-Hungarian reconciliation brought new impulses.
By the end of the 1870s the Ottendorfers had become respected American citizens. As a member of the Democratic Party Oswald nearly became mayor of New York (he refused to run) and his wife was involved in the creation of many charitable institutions [o_06] – orphanages, poor houses, and hospitals. They coined the still popular phrase that whoever has healthy hands and can work, must work! It is necessary to help the others. He knew what he was talking about.
Beginning in the 1850s Svitavy wrestled with problems of health care, education, and schools. There was no hospital and the poor, due to an economic crisis, found themselves in dire situations. Therefore the town was delighted to accept Ottendorfer’s offer to help with the creation of a new hospital [o_07], orphanage, and poor house [o_08]. In 1886 both institutions were opened with great fanfare in Ottendorfer’s presence. The orphanage and poor house stood on Ottendorfer Street and a bronze bust honouring the donor was installed in front of the building. But Svitavy residents still could not sense that in 1892 an institute that would become a model for Moravian towns would be established. Within two years the site of Ottendorfer’s childhood home [o_09] was developed into a library [o_10] and a reading room [o_11] with a lecture hall [o_12]. The patron financed the entire construction and even helped purchase the library collections. On a warm August day in 1892 Oswald arrived in Svitavy accompanied by his step-daughter. It would be his second and final visit. The heritage he left the city lives on today. The library housed [o_13] 23,000 volumes and thus became the largest German public library in Moravia. The concerts and lectures held in the library must have been eye-opening experiences for local citizens. And when President Masaryk [o_14] arrived in town for a visit, it was the library town representatives took him to see.
Ottendorfer died in his New York apartment in December 1900 and was buried in New York’s Greenwood Cemetery [o_15]. He left behind in America a great number of working institutions and public schools. He also loved his native Svitavy and his mother – the Mother’s Love sculpture [o_16] in Svitavy is proof of this. The name of Ottendorfer remains popular in Svitavy to this day.