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What ‘Mahlzeit’ means and how to use it in Austria

Anyone familiar with Austria will tell you that the only German word you need to know between 11am and 1pm is “Mahlzeit” – especially in the workplace.

What 'Mahlzeit' means and how to use it in Austria
What is Mahlzeit and what does it mean? Photo by Jens Mahnke from Pexels

But what does it mean and how can international residents make sure they use the word correctly?

Here’s what you need to know. 

What does “Mahlzeit” mean?

In a nutshell, “Mahlzeit” simply means “meal-time”.

If you’re reading this and thinking it sounds strange to say “meal-time” to people, then you’re not alone.

Many international residents and non-German speakers in Austria have been equally as confused at first, but the trick is to think of it as like the French phrase, “Bon Appetit”, or a polite way to say, “enjoy your meal”.

However, as with most things in German, it goes a little deeper than that.

“Mahlzeit” is also a greeting

In most workplaces and households in Austria, lunch is at midday, so if anyone is spotted eating between 11am and 1pm then it’s presumed they are eating lunch. 

And if they are not already eating then it’s expected that they will be soon.

This means the standard greeting during this time of the day is “Mahlzeit”, often said in a cheery, sing-song tone of voice, and regardless of whether the person saying it is eating or not.

For example, a delivery person that turns up during lunchtime will say “Mahlzeit” – and they will expect the greeting in return.

Or colleagues passing each other in the corridor around midday will greet each other with “Mahlzeit” without saying anything else.

It can be surreal, but it’s actually very polite in Austrian culture and is similar to saying “Guten Morgen” (good morning) or “Guten Abend” (good evening).

The only difference is “Mahlzeit” is related to food and signifies taking a break from the working day to enjoy a meal.

Is “Mahlzeit” used differently in Austria than in Germany?

Not surprisingly, “Mahlzeit” is also used in Germany, especially in Western Germany, but not as often as in Austria.

In Germany, the term is typically only used in the workplace and sometimes in an ironic way by young people trying to distance themselves from the conservative culture of their parents’ generation.

But in Austria, people also say “Mahlzeit” when settling down to a meal at home, including the evening meal and at the weekend.

So, when joining Austrian friends and colleagues for lunch or dinner, don’t forget to say “Mahlzeit” – it’s an important part of the culture.

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‘Love in midst of horror’: Austria hosts The Wedding of Auschwitz exhibition

The two newlyweds have dressed up for the picture, but they are not smiling. And for good reason: their union was sealed at Auschwitz -- the only wedding known to have taken place in the death camp.

'Love in midst of horror': Austria hosts The Wedding of Auschwitz exhibition

The yellowed photo of Rudolf Friemel, an Austrian communist who resisted the Nazis, and his Spanish wife Margarita Ferrer Rey, is now on show in his home town Vienna.

It is the centrepiece of an exhibition, “The Wedding of Auschwitz”, which uses papers donated by their family to tell the couple’s heart-breaking story.

Friemel met Ferrer Rey in Spain after going there to fight with the International Brigades in 1936 against General Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

He was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 after returning home.

In the camp he was set to work repairing SS vehicles, and was held in “better conditions than other prisoners”, according to Vienna’s Social Democratic mayor, Michael Ludwig, who wrote the introduction to the catalogue.

But why the Nazis granted the Friemels — their bitter enemies — “such an unique privilege to be able to marry remains a mystery to this day,” Ludwig added.

Escape attempt

“What I find most interesting is that we see that there was love in the midst of horror,” the couple’s grandson, Rodolphe Friemel, told AFP from his home in southern France.

He wondered if “maybe my grandparents did all this just to see each other again,” with Margarita allowed to travel to Auschwitz from Vienna for the wedding with their son — who was born in 1941 — and Friemel’s father.

The marriage was registered at 11 a.m. on March 18th, 1944, as the slaughter at the camp reached its peak.

Some one million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as homosexuals, prisoners of war and others persecuted by Germany’s Nazi regime.

Photos of the Gestapo Vienna detection service, September 1941. (Rudolf Friemel Estate, Vienna Library in the City Hall)

Friemel, 48, gave the wedding documents, including congratulations messages from other prisoners, to the Vienna City Library early this year to ensure their preservation.

His grandfather was allowed to wear civilian clothes and let his hair grow for the occasion, and a cell was made available to the couple for their wedding night in the camp brothel.

But the respite was shortlived. Rudolf Friemel was hanged in December 1944 for helping to organise an escape attempt. The camp was liberated a month later.

All his wife and child — who moved to France after the war — were left with were his heartbreaking letters and poems.

Margarita died in 1987.

The show runs at Vienna City Library until the end of the month.