When I was 73 years old, I revisited the Ferienhort (“vacation center”) on St. Wolfgangsee after an absence of nearly sixty years. The Hort was opened in 1868 under the sponsorship of Emperor Franz Joseph I and served as a summer camp for 560 boys from working—and middle-class families who attended Gymnasium during the school year. However, in recent years the Ferienhort has been used for other purposes; for example, in 1956, it housed and fed several hundred Hungarians who had fled their country during the uprising against the Communist regime. I spent four summers at the Ferienhort during the 1930s and would probably have returned again had there been no Hitler.
The Ferienhort stands on a hill directly overlooking one of the shores of the Wolfgangsee. The views of the, See or lake as we would say in English, and the surrounding mountains are of a beauty and charm that cannot be found anywhere except right there in Austria’s Salzkammergut—indeed, reminiscent of the locale of The Sound of Music. In the course of my visit there, now as an elderly gentleman, I walked around the grounds together with my New York-born wife, looking at all the places where I had spent so many happy summer weeks and months as a boy.
Not much had changed over the past six decades, I realized. The lake, the mountains, the meadows, and the foot paths were just as they had been before. The roofs of the buildings were red, as they had been back then, and the walls were still painted Schönbrunn-yellow, the shade that the Hapsberg emperors usually chose for their residences. The lawns, the flower beds, the flower pots, and even the old bowling games with their wooden balls on chains and wooden pins were still there and looked just as they had. Even the bulletin board was exactly in the same spot.
From the Ferienhort’s large main building, a broad staircase leads down to the shore of the lake, about forty steps in all. Down below, seven or eight wooden docks extend into the water. Here was where we used to dock our huge rowboats. These were actually lifeboats that had graced the ships of the k. und k. Kriegsmarine (“Royal Austrian Navy”) before 1919. After Austria was defeated in World War I, those lifeboats were brought from Austria’s former North Italian seaports to the lakes of the Salzkammergut. In these boats, we Gymnasium boys were taught how to row. Each boat was manned by sixteen or eighteen rowers and a counselor who called out the commands: “Ruder Hoch! Einlegen. Eins....zuuu....rück!” (“Lift oars! Engage oars! One...and...back!”)
On the day of my visit as a 73-year-old, it seemed to me as if I could still hear those calls of our counselors. Only now, the afternoon sun sparkled in the silent water; the docks were empty; there were no boats. Standing at the water’s edge with my wife, I explained how everything had looked there in my boyhood. Then we turned and began going back up the staircase toward the main building.
My progress was, of course, slower than it had been six decades before. Memories were crowding into my head as we climbed. Suddenly, on the tenth step, I began feeling numb, as if turned to stone, and came to a halt. My wife noted this and asked, “Arnold, is anything the matter?” The tenth step–I had come to a halt there once before. It was in the summer of 1934. We boys had just returned from a rowing exercise in our boat–the Viribus Unitis, named after its Imperial mothership–and moored it at its landing and stowed its oars away. Covered with sweat and famished, we had jumped ashore and begun running up the steps toward the dining hall. We were supposed to be served a special dish that day called Wüstensand mit Löwenblut (“desert sand with lion’s blood”)—i.e., fried grits with stewed prunes.
I was one of the first boys to get out of our boat and head up the stairs. But suddenly, when I was on the tenth step, there was one of our counselors blocking our way. “Halt!” he commanded with raised hand. His name was Hans. A nice fellow, always friendly, but today at that moment he had a very serious look on his face. Something was wrong, very wrong! What was it?
Not only I but all of us boys had come to a halt. Herr Hans waited a few seconds till he was sure he had everyone’s attention. Then he took a deep breath: “Unser Bundeskanzler Engelbert Dolfuss ist heute angeschossen worden und nachher verblutet” (“Our chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss has been shot and bled to death”).
Yes, that 1934 was a portentous year, and while we boys continued our vacation at the Ferienhort till summer’s end, we couldn’t help being mindful of the death of Dolfuss as a “defining” event, one that presaged more and worse to come....
It had already started off with a bang in February, when the leftist Social Democrats had declared a general strike. Austria’s authoritarian regime had prohibited it, whereupon the Social Democrat Schutzbündler (workers belonging to the “Defensive League”) and the government-supported Heimwehr (“Home Guard”) began to shoot at one another. Fighting raged in Vienna’s streets for four days, with the Social Democrats gradually being driven back into the large housing projects where workers lived. There they held out for a few more days, until the government brought in the army to quash the revolt, which unfortunately resulted in much bloodshed.
Meanwhile, Hitler had come to power in Germany, and the Austrian National Socialists or Nazis, as they were called, had captured Dollfuss. When the Austrian army tried to free him, the Nazis shot him and callously allowed him to bleed to death. The Nazi uprising in Austria nevertheless failed, and a number of their key people were subsequently tried and executed. Even so, Dollfuss’s death was a serious blow to Austria. People had learned to trust him. He had conducted a successful foreign policy, lining up Italy and the Allies on Austria’s side against Hitler. And there were signs that the country’s economic crisis was nearing an end. Now he was no more.
Dolfuss’s successor, Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg, was a very fine gentleman and also quite intelligent, but, sadly, he didn’t quite fit into Dolfuss’s shoes. Schuschnigg promised to continue on the same road and tried to do just that. However, the evil one with the mustache was not about to give up. The pressure from the Nazis became overwhelming throughout the country. Schuschnigg made many concessions to Hitler. We suddenly heard new names added to a list of Nazis already holding positions in high places in Austria: Arthur Seyss-Inquart (later Nazi commissioner for Occupied Holland), Odilo Globocnik (later to become a key figure in the Holocaust), Edmund Glaise-Horstenau, and Ernst Kaltenbrunner (later to head Himmler’s Gestapo). From Germany, Hitler began issuing demand after demand, each more unreasonable than the previous one, each accompanied by threats of punishment and invasion, and each with a shorter deadline.
In February 1938, Schuschnigg accepted a request from Hitler to meet him in Berchtesgaden, which is close to Germany’s border with Austria. The meeting turned into a debacle for Schuschnigg, who allowed himself to be intimidated by Hitler’s threats and by displays of his armed might. Added to this, England, France, and Italy, who should have come to Austria’s aid, refrained from making any incendiary statements and instead adopted wait-and-see policies. Within Austria, the pro-Hitler elements became louder and bolder. Some parts of the country, like the ultraconservative provinces of Styria and Carinthia, were already pretty much in the hands of the Austrian Nazis.
It wasn’t long before the tension between the Nazis and the government, which was dominated by the neo-Fascist Schwarze (“Blacks”), became well-nigh unbearable. The noisiest bunch were the Nazis, who behaved much more aggressively than the pro-government “patriots”; in fact, they acted as if they had already taken over. And woe to anyone who spoke out against the Nazis; an awful fate was likely to await them in the event of a Nazi take over. Yet the Nazis were respected, for fear produces respect in most people ...unfortunately.
In my hometown Mödling, many people were already wearing Hakenkreuze ("swastikas") in their lapels, as was happening everywhere else in Austria. This was more prevalent in the so-called better quarters of the Old Town than in the working-class neighborhood. Most of the wearers of those lapel buttons were well-dressed bourgeois types; their buttons were gold-rimmed and showed a black Hakenkreuz in a white circle on a red background. At the same time, this hateful symbol had begun to appear on walls and kiosks, in public toilets—everywhere in ever-bolder strokes.
All of this reinforced the impression of a ruthless enemy, of a superior power, of a carefully organized, irresistible campaign against Austria and its independence, of an attack coming from within as well as outside its borders. No one was shooting with lead or steel; there was no need. The Nazis knew how to campaign just as effectively with printer’s ink. Furthermore, it was apparent that the police throughout the country, and in Vienna too, had been infiltrated by officials sympathetic to the National Socialist cause. The police usually showed the Nazis every courtesy and seldom interfered with their demonstrations.
The German Luftwaffe flew over Austrian cities again and again, releasing hundreds of thousands of leaflets and millions of green, red, yellow, and blue paper swastikas. I remember seeing the streets of Mödling literally carpeted with those things, and I remember what a powerful effect this form of propaganda had on its population. For that great feat of technology, the airplane, was still a relatively new invention in those days, so its use as a political tool created the impression of an all-powerful organization armed to the teeth and fully at the beck and call of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. Not only were those descending leaflets with their swastikas a depressing spectacle to everyone loyal to the Austrian government, but people could not help realizing that if the man with the mustache so desired, those harmless pieces of paper could turn into a veritable storm of deadly explosives and fire bombs.
Even so, we Austrians were nursing one great hope. After his humiliation at Berchtesgaden, Schuschnigg had realized that Hitler was not to be trusted and it was useless to try to enter into any agreements with him or to give in to his demands. And so, our chancellor made what was thought to be a magnificent “chess move.” He announced an election for Sunday, March 13th, in which a very simple question would be put to a vote: “Do you or do you not want Austria to remain an independent country?” Immediately everyone’s mood changed, and an enormous wave of enthusiasm swept the country. All of the peace-loving folks who had been sitting quietly next to their radios suddenly took to the streets in a show of support for Schuschnigg. And while there were many Nazis in Austria, especially among the middle class and office workers, the so-called underclass consisting of workers and Roman Catholics, which constituted the greater part of the population, showed they were ready to come out and vote in favor of independence.
Everywhere patriotic posters went up, and everywhere former enemies united: the “Reds” (Social Democrats and Communists), the “Blacks” (quasi-fascists) from the “Patriotic Front,” the monarchists, the clergy, the Home Guard, the Freethinkers. Come what may, everyone’s thinking ran, “Let it be anything so long as it’s not the Beast from the North.” And suddenly, believe it or not, the swastikas disappeared from the buttonholes they had adorned; their Nazi wearers put them underneath their lapels just to be “on the safe side.”
In Mödling, I remember seeing that ultraconservative symbol the Krukenkreuz (“crossbar cross”) suddenly appearing everywhere. Yes, what had but a while ago stood for the dictatorship of the Patriotic Front had now become Austria’s standard for protection against the Brown Terror; now it stood for nothing less than freedom, independence, hope. Also prominently displayed was three downwardly pointing parallel arrows, symbol of the Social Democrats, which was still the most popular party in Austria, though it had been banned by the regime since the 1934 workers’ uprising. Suddenly, the Patriots and the Sozis, arch enemies but a few weeks before, were the greatest of friends. Not only that, here and there one could also see the hammer and sickle, meaning that the Communist Party, small but very active despite being banned, was now also on the side of the government. As in Mödling, so matters went everywhere else. Rallies were held to show support for Schuschnigg, and thousands volunteered to distribute flyers, put up posters, and help with the election. It is estimated today that if the Schuschnigg plebiscite had taken place, at least 75% of the Austrian people would have gone with him.
But, alas, Hitler and Göring were aware of this, and they made a decision to march into Austria before Sunday, March 13th, when the plebiscite was scheduled to take place. Accordingly, on March 11 they issued an ultimatum to Schuschnigg that if he wanted to avoid bloodshed and retain an Austrian state, he was to cancel the plebiscite immediately and order the Austrian army not to oppose the German Wehrmacht in any way. And so it happened: Schuschnigg gave way, bowing to pressure from the Austrian National Socialists, many of whom already held high government posts. Speaking over Radio Wien (“Radio Vienna”) on the evening of Friday, March 11, 1938, he gave a brief address in which he announced his resignation. His final words still ring in my ears, as they do in those of everyone of my generation, words taken from the old imperial anthem: “Gott beschütze Österreich!” (“May God protect Austria!).
All over Austria, in what seemed like but a few minutes, torchlight processions were being held, with hundreds of swastika flags suddenly appearing as if from out of nowhere, and visible everywhere were SA men (“storm troopers”) in their uniforms. Everywhere too, crowds gathered—spontaneously, according to Nazi broadcasts—to welcome the “new times.” Choruses marched through the streets shouting out identical Nazi slogans all over the country, while from the windows of beerhalls came the rhythmic sound of Nazi fighting songs. Within the hour, Jews were being stopped in the streets and insulted and beaten, and the Gestapo was indulging in a frenzy of break-ins and arrests. Hitler’s enemies—prominent socialists, communists, and officers of the Patriotic Front, as well as writers, teachers, and artists, were being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night and hauled off to unknown destinations to meet unknown fates. Many committed suicide. Others tried to run they knew not where. A few lucky ones were able to get out of the country. But within a day or two strict controls were established at all the train stations and aboard all the trains and on the main highways leading out of the country. The borders were shut tight, and everyone was locked in; one could only go abroad with special permission from those in power. Our homeland Austria had been turned into a gigantic prison. It had disappeared from the face of the earth.
THE RADIO SIGNAL
Every day since that fateful year 1938, the number of people who can say “I was a witness to those events” grows smaller. A few decades from the writing of this account, there will be no one left who remembers it at all.
Nearly two-thirds of a century have gone by. There was a time when we thought that time itself would erase the trauma, but that did not happen. Of course, we continued to live and were relieved that we could, and somehow the world went on. A chance to emigrate came; then there was school in the New World, followed by army service, and then came work, marriage, children, and grandchildren. And yet, the pain never left us.
Yes, even today the memory remains as vivid—and as gross—as ever. The yelling has in no way become faint: Wir danken unserm Führer! (“We thank our Fuhrer!”). The flags, the music, the speeches, the slogans shouted in the streets, the tanks, the SA, the SS, the political subjugation of our homeland, and, finally, our move to America. It was all a nightmare, as if all those things had nothing to do with reality.
Many people were quickly and rudely awakened from their stupor, some from pain or hunger or else because they suddenly had somebody’s fist in their face or a rope around their neck. Often, such unfortunates had only a few minutes to wake up. I was one of the lucky ones. I was able to dream on for a while. But for me, too, there came a day of reckoning, that moment when I fully comprehended the reality of those events, unbelievable though they might still seem today.
If you have grown up in just one country, in just a single town, if indeed you’ve lived in one and the same house from the time you were born, you become a product, a function of your surroundings. In the course of daily living, a composite evolves as the sum of customs, habits, duties, and rights, all of which seem innate and are firmly embedded in your subconscious mind. One day follows another—sunrise, sunset. You get up in the morning, have breakfast, go to work or school, return home, do homework, talk with the family, and eventually you sleep. And then it starts all over again. You learn how to read, write, count, and how to work. There are the family and the “others,” friends. There is the Church and School and Country, and the language. These things are part of a person, you possess them just as you do a liver, a heart, and two hands. But if one day one of those hands is gone, you become conscious of what you once had. If your heart begins to malfunction, you become aware that you’ve always had something called a heart. Well, there is a similar sense of loss when your way of living is suddenly turned topsy-turvy.
Many Austrians did not become fully conscious of the upheavals that began in March 1938 until much later. Some noticed them when they were suddenly called upon to prove their Aryan ancestry, or when they had to join an organization whether they wanted to or not. Some learned only when they received the notice “Für Führer und Vaterland gefallen” (“Fallen for Führer and Fatherland”), or when an urn came from Dachau with the ashes of a political prisoner who was supposed to have died of natural causes or from an old age home or sanitarium with those of a “useless eater” who had unfortunately passed away. And there were some Austrians who never learned.
A few very prominent ones initially supported the Hitler regime, until one fine day they suddenly realized that they simply couldn’t collaborate with such a pack of scoundrels anymore. Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, head of the Catholic Church in Austria, was such a one. In March 1938, he publicly welcomed Hitler to Vienna in a ceremony that was broadcast live and reported in considerable detail by the Nazi media. Of course, he was probably given little choice in the matter, but the effect of his approval on the country was devastating, to the point of being catastrophic. Later that same year, Innitzer began having serious difficulties with the Nazi regime, and in October 1938, his offices were raided and vandalized. Karl Renner, first chancellor of the First Austrian Republic after the downfall of the monarchy, also came to regret his early support of Hitler; Renner became an active anti-Nazi and went on to serve as first chancellor of the second Austrian Republic after World War II.
In the first days after the Anschluss, my friends and I, all schoolboys, lived in a sort of dream-like state. On the one hand, we realized that drastic changes had taken place in our homeland. On the other, we hoped, at least initially, that we could continue to do the things we’d always done—ride our bikes, read, swim, ski, see our friends, go on vacation. The shock that brought home the extent of the debacle to me, personally, was actually no world-shaking event but something relatively innocuous. Nevertheless, it was accompanied by a sudden recognition of how irrevocably everything had changed and how an entire way of life had ceased to exist.
One morning about two weeks after German troops had taken over, I turned on the radio to listen to the news on Radio Wien. This station, which had recently become a part of the Deutsche Rundfunk (“German Broadcasting System”), was still on the same spot on the dial. However, everything else had changed in one fell swoop. The old Austrian Gemütlichkeit had disappeared. In its place we heard only the rough and tough voices of Nazi newscasters. National Socialist harangues were interspersed with praises of the Führer and snappy march music. And looming large in the background was always the voice—His Voice.
It should be borne in mind that because the radio was still a novelty at that time between the two world wars, broadcasts were not planned out as precisely to the last second as they are today. So, often there was a gap between the end of one program and the beginning of the next. These gaps, which could last as long as three or four minutes, were filled in with a sound that was called a Pausenzeichen (“pause signal”), and each radio station had its own individual one, including our Radio Wien, which used an ordinary alarm clock going“tick-tock, tick-tock.” Anyone tuning in during that time would know from this that a new program would be beginning in a few minutes.
On that particular morning I thought for a moment that I had tuned in to the wrong station, for what did I hear but a different Pausenzeichen coming over the air waves, as it happens, the lovely melody to Papageno’s aria in Die Zauberflöte rendered on chimes! But then an announcer came on to explain that this was the signal for the Deutsche Rundfunk. Not only that, the new tune had new words–“Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit / Bis an dein kühles Grab” (“Always use trust and loyalty / Right up to your cool grave”), which certainly didn’t sound very appetizing in those stormy days. With this–this jolly, innocuous melody and its new lyrics—I realized all at once, I personally realized, that we were all witnessing the end of everything that we had always regarded as having neither a beginning nor an end, everything that was just there, everything that would never, could never, come back. Yes, it had become clear to me in that one moment that here was the beginning of a catastrophic wave that had begun with us, our country, our lives, and would soon engulf the whole world, to change it finally, irretrievably forever.
Yes, that Nazi conversion of Mozart’s innocuous air had released within me a recognition that all that surrounded us would be totally absorbed into Adolf Hitler’s insane world. Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit. We had already been forced to convert our familiar schillings and groschen into marks and pfennings, our “Grüss Gott!” into “Heil Hitler!” our Wandervögel (“Boy Scouts”) into Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) or Ha Jott, as it was called for short. Our gendarmes had disappeared, and in their place we now had the SA and SS. The police no longer protected us but instead had turned into the worst enemy. Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit.
At school, our teachers had begun disappearing or else had turned out to be Nazi stalwarts. My piano teacher, a Jew, had disappeared off the face of the earth. Other people we knew were being arrested, beaten, and tortured. Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit. The automobile became a Kraftwagen (“power vehicle”), the telephone a Fernsprecher (“far-speaker”). The Austrian word for “potatoes,” Erdäpfel, was dropped for Kartoffel; “cauliflower” was no longer to be called, charmingly, Karfiol but Blumenkohl (“flower-cabbage”). The Trottoir, a French loan word for “sidewalk,” became Gehsteig, the exotic “Orange” an Apfelsine (“apple-like”). Each and every editorial in all of the newspapers without exception expressed one and the same opinion, always, always, always. Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit.
Österreich, our beloved Austria, was now referred to as the Ostmark (“eastern province”), and Vienna, unser goldenes Wien, became a provincial capital. The province of Oberösterreich (Upper Austria) was renamed Oberdonau (“Upper Danube”) and Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) became Niederdonau. Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit. Our familiar red, white, and red Austrian flag was replaced by the ominous-looking swastika, which was to be displayed from all windows on festive occasions. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be long before the Gestapo appeared to “inquire” what the problem was. Our imperial Austrian double eagle became the German eagle menacingly holding Hitler’s crooked cross in its claws. Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit. If a person had said, “Dolfuss ist ein Schwein!” (“Dolfuss is a pig”) a few years earlier, he might have been subjected to a severe glance and a few words of admonition with a shaking index finger: “Sowas dürfen Sie aber nicht sagen!” (“Now, now, you mustn’t say things like that!”) If that individual were now to say the same thing about Hitler, he could well end up being decapitated or else, with a little luck, finding himself being confined to a Kazett (“concentration camp”) for such a Führerbeleidigung (“führer insult”), as the Nazis, with their typical lack of good German grammar, referred to this most heinous of crimes.
Even though you had no choice as to who brought you into this world, if you were a Jew or even so much as had a Jewish grandmother, you couldn’t do this or that anymore. You were not permitted to sit down in such and such a place or enter this or that type of building. You would be expelled from this club and refused acceptance into that; you could be ridiculed, beaten, or even killed for no apparent reason. Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit. Austria, my Austria, was no more. The earth had swallowed it up, and in its place was something alien and hostile and German. I had lost my homeland–for at least a thousand years.
FINALLY THE DAY HAS COME
As I’ve said before, my father Felix Greissle met Arnold Schönberg shortly after World War I. He became one of the Master’s most enthusiastic pupils and supporters and married his daughter Trudi two years later. Where their outlook on music was concerned, the two men could not have been closer. Day in and day out in Schönberg’s house in the Bernhardgasse, they played music, taught, composed, and shared ideas, often far into the night.
Happily, their conversations were confined to music, for had they discussed politics or Austria’s social problems, they would most assuredly have bitterly disagreed. For strangely, considering Schönberg’s cultural progressiveness, he had monarchist sympathies, at times with German-Nationalist leanings, and was a bitter enemy of communism, whereas Felix sincerely believed in the teachings of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin and would have put his head in a noose for his political beliefs, in fact almost did, as I have described elsewhere. Perhaps the only political opinion that the two of them shared was their unqualified repugnance for Adolf Hitler....
In his youth, Felix had had a school chum named Hugo, and the two of them went on to the university together. Inseparable friends, they studied together, walked and hiked together, and together dated their first girls. Both of them loved to play chess, were intensely interested in philosophy and mathematics,were avid readers, and had developed into handy draftsmen as well as painters in oils. Thus there was never a lack of subjects for conversation between them.
The friendship continued after their respective marriages. My father’s political opinions, in the meanwhile, had moved further and further to the left, while Hugo’s had gone to the right, so that by around 1930, Felix had become a full-fledged communist and Hugo a German Nationalist, indeed a highly conservative one. Inevitably the two began to have heated arguments and tried to reconcile their differences of opinion by appealing to logic and good sense, but to no avail. Again and again their conversations returned to the harsh realities of our nation’s political situation, with each vehemently trying to convert the other. Finally, they came to blows one day and, with that, decided to end their friendship.
Several years later, in March 1938, came the Anschluss and the giddy, mind-boggling weeks that followed during which the tanks of the German Reich had ripped up our streets, Jews had been humiliated and beaten up, and thousands of people dragged from their homes and thrown into Kazette (“concentration camps”). One day not long after, Felix received a postcard from Hugo, who had meanwhile moved from Vienna to Graz. The text consisted of only eight words: “Lieber Felix, endlich ist der Tag gekommen! Hugo” (“Dear Felix, At last the day has come! Hugo).
Felix did not reply, of course. An appropriate response would have been pointless and dangerous–possibly to both of them. Even after we emigrated to the States, my father never wrote to Hugo, nor did Hugo try to contact him, and once America entered the war, communication between the two of them would have been impossible had either one wanted to write the other.
At long last, in the spring of 1945, came the end: Hitler shot himself and Germany, bombed to bits and exhausted, capitulated. Several weeks later, Felix, in New York, sent a postcard to his old friend via the Red Cross. Its text consisted of eight words: “Lieber Hugo, endlich ist der Tag gekommen! Felix” (“Dear Hugo, At last the day has come! Felix”)
But the story did not end here. More years went by, many more, without Hugo and Felix communicating with one another—except for one instance when Hugo tried, in vain, to reestablish contact with Felix via some relatives in Austria. Then in 1974, Schönberg’s centennial year, my father was invited to give a memorial address on Austrian television and flew to Vienna. After it was over, as Felix was leaving the studio, he was handed a piece of paper. A certain Herbert Müller had called from Graz during the show and asked for a call back; it was urgent that Felix do so.
With no idea who this individual might be, Felix did indeed return the call, and lo, who should that Müller turn out to be but Hugo. He had recognized Felix on television, but fearing that his old friend wouldn’t return the call if he gave his correct name, he’d invented the pseudonym. Hugo then asked if the two of them could meet the next day, and quite taken by surprise, Felix agreed. Appearing in Felix’s hotel lobby at the appointed time, Hugo threw his arms around him and burst out crying. What a fool he’d been back in 1938, he sobbed, and he swore up and down that his eyes had been opened not long after the take-over by Hitler and his henchmen, though, of course, it was too late to do anything about it by then.
Felix heard him out, and then the two elderly gentlemen–for that is what they had since become–agreed to be friends again. That day too had finally come.
In the spring of 1938, our family consisted of five individuals: my father, who was 44 years old; my mother, 36; myself, 14; my brother Hermann, 12; and Peter, who was 10.
Peter (pronounced pay-ter) had joined the family in 1929, when he was 1. Like my uncle Görgi, my father was working as a music copyist at the time, and this was largely for Universal Edition, Vienna’s largest music publisher. As I said earlier with respect to Görgi, copyists free-lanced in those days, and because there was no dearth of them, there was seldom enough work to go around and they fought like famished lions over the least little job. So whenever Felix landed an assignment, he would stay at home slaving away with exactness day and night until it was done. For the key to earning a decent living as a copyist in such a competitive market was the ability to work both quickly and accurately.
With the completion of a job, my father would take the train to Vienna and go and sit on a bench at Universal Edition to wait for another job to come up, a routine he would follow every day until one materialized. When he arrived back home in Mödling of an evening, we always knew whether or not he had gotten something. If he had, there he’d be, panting at the door with his briefcase stuffed to capacity with music paper and a shopping bag brimming full of fruit, vegetables, and sausage, and staples like sugar and flour–all purchased with the UE’s advance-payment at Vienna’s open-air market, the Naschmarkt, where things were less expensive than in Mödling.
Now to return to Peter. One evening Papa returned home panting from Vienna, and in one hand there was the briefcase stuffed with work. However, in the other hand, there was no bag of food but instead a small wooden crate measuring about fifteen inches long by thirteen inches high, the kind they used to pack tropical fruits and canned fruit in those days back then. He ceremoniously placed this crate on the living room table. We boys noted that three holes had been drilled into the wood on one of the sides, each about the diameter of a meatball or small apricot, and that a thick piece of string held the box together and served as a carrying cord. We looked on, fascinated, as Father took a pocket knife from his pants pocket and cut the string with a flourish, then lifted the lid. There it was, or rather he was, this yellow-reddish thing lying on some scraps of paper. It was alive, obviously, for two horizontal slits on a fluffy yellow head slowly opened to the blinding light, and two amber balls with black dots surveyed us. And we noted hairs, like fishbones, sticking out on either side of a pink nose. It could only be! Yes, Papa had brought us a cat from Vienna, “Schau an, eine Katze! Eine Katze!” we boys yelled, and right away we wanted to pet it.
“Vorsicht!” (“Take it easy!”) our father warned. One had to be careful. A young animal like that had very sharp claws. “Besides,” he said, “it isn’t a Katze but a Kater” (isn’t a “girl” but a “boy”). And rather than go into an explanation about the differences to us, he suggested that we give “him” an appropriate name. It happened that I had recently gotten a picture book about Struwwel-Peter, a boy with hair that stood up like a cat’s beard. So we decided that our new pet should be called Peter.
Peter was a little over a year old, in other words, a fully grown “man-cat,” though young, and he had reddish-yellow fur like a tiger’s. At first, he was, of course, afraid of us and greeted us with his tail whipping to and fro and his ears pointed back. It would have been quite risky to try to touch him while he was in this mood. But after we spoke to him quietly and in friendly tones for a while, he finally calmed down and allowed himself to be petted. He got a saucer of milk, and then a half hour later he was lying on the couch purring. We could see that he was content because now and then he briefly closed his eyes. Needless to say, Hermann and I were absolutely tickled pink to have this new addition to the family.
We got up very early the next morning and right away went looking for Peter to play with him. After some scouting around, we found him rolled into a yellow ball on a chair and fast asleep. Waking him up, we gave him some milk and then thought to offer him something to eat. We put a roll in front of him, but he showed no interest whatsoever. Then we put a slice of cheese on his saucer; he sniffed at it, that was all. Next we tried a slice of ham; eureka, that was gobbled up in an instant. However, before we could give him another slice, there was our mother shaking a finger at us: “Nein, Schinken kriegt er keinen. Untersteht Euch” (“No way, ham he doesn’t get. Not on your life.”)
From then on, we boys went to the butcher shop every morning and bought Peter a half pound of horse meat. Both cheap and good, it was ground in the store right in front of our eyes and tidily wrapped in a piece of paper. This became Peter’s main meal each day. He quickly became familiar with the rustle of the paper when we opened the packet, to say nothing of the unmistakable scent of freshly ground meat. Growing to adore it, he aways devoured it voraciously.
My brother and I were sometimes a little naughty and treated Peter shabbily. Knowing how anxiously he awaited the meat, especially on the days when we couldn’t fetch it until later in the morning, we sometimes didn’t put it directly in front of him but rather dangled it above his head so the poor thing, absolutely screaming with frustration, had to stand on his hind legs and stretch his neck way up to get it. Yes, our Peter sometimes had to do some really fancy dancing before being able to sink his jaws into the delicious morsel of his desire. And it really served us boys right when, on occasion, we ended up with some nasty scratches.
But aside from that teasing, our Peter couldn’t have had a better life. We loved him, and he loved us. To this day, many decades later, I clearly remember how he would return to us each morning from his nightly escapades, jumping from the yard onto a ledge on the wall and then onto the window sill with a second leap. In doing so, he had to lift the window latch with his head, which always created some noise and woke me up. He was my own portable alarm clock. Quite often he would be covered with wounds and his ears would be tattered, for like any respectable man-cat out on the town, he had done battle, God knows where and with whom. The first thing he would do on coming home was to lick his battle scars and brush his crumpled fur with tongue and paw, which took a good fifteen minutes. Then he would leap onto my bed and settle down on my chest, and within a few minutes, he would be purring loudly. If I then stroked him, he became so happy that, in true feline fashion, he would sink his claws through my pajamas into my skin, causing me to cry out in pain. This, however, was neither here nor there to our dear Herr Peter. I soon learned that if one gently lifted up his paws on such occasions, he would automatically withdraw his claws....
Then one day the Germans came—with song and sound and Heil Hitler. And nothing was the same anymore. We were an occupied country; Austria was kaput, finished. And people changed, too. Those who couldn’t go along with the changes trembled with fear–quite often, those who could also trembled. The persecution of the Jews began, and everyone felt the pressure, the Gleichschaltung (“forcible imposition of conformity”). The Nazis proclaimed “Wer nicht für uns ist, ist gegen uns” (“Whoever is not for us is against us”), and “gegen uns” usually meant Kazett (“concentration camp”) or execution.
Within a few days, the whole country was transformed, as if under a hex or an evil spell. The world around us had become hostile, dangerous, suspicious, malicious, apprehensive. All that had been familiar and heimisch had been perverted. A culture, a whole way of life, had disappeared as if the earth had swallowed it up. Everywhere, radios and loudspeakers were blaring forth warlike music, bombastic announcements, and bursts of enthusiastic approval: Heil, Sieg Heil, ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer! And in between there was the voice of Hitler himself. Thousands cheered their Führer, not necessarily because of what he said but rather for his intonation and his might.
Units of SA marched through the streets to “Mit ruhig festem Schritt” (“in firm and tranquil step”), the refrain of the Horst Wessel Song. Swastika flags fluttered from each and every window. Huge tanks were churning dust in the streets, and troops of soldiers in field-grey sang marching songs as if from a single throat. Common everyday people had changed. Many were enraptured, others afraid, and quite a few didn’t dare venture into the street. There were rumors of arrests and people being tortured and executed. Books were torn from their shelves in libraries, and people got fired from their jobs without warning. Jewish shopkeepers were dragged from their stores, forced onto their knees, and made to wash the streets. Houses were forcibly entered and searched, and people dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night to be beaten and jailed. All those in favor were engulfed in a frenzy of power. Those not in favor were reduced to fear and trepidation, or else made believe they were in favor. Everyone became an actor.
Everyone except one. One remained exactly as he had been. And that was our Peter. He purred exactly as he had done before. He impatiently waited for his food and meowed when he was hungry. He went out on his nightly ventures and returned home the same as always. He licked his wounds and cleaned his fur, and caressed us with his claws–never for once with the slightest inclination to ask us whether we were for or against. Nor was he the least bit interested in seeing proof of our Aryan ancestry, nor did he ever raise his paw in salute when someone entered the room. He went on pressing his yellow head with its amber eyes lovingly against our foreheads. And for us boys, as long as he was there, everything might yet end well.
But then came the inevitable time of parting. A day or two before we left for America, my father brought a box up from the cellar. For one last time we boys could stroke our Peter; then he had to go into the box. My father took him to Anton von Webern, who lived about a twenty-minute walk from our house.
We were very sad at having to leave our Peter behind. But since we were departing from the country with visitors’ visas for America, my parents chose not to take him along so as to conceal the finality of our trip from the Gestapo.
Many years later, I learned from Gerti N., daughter of the concierge of our building, that Peter had returned a few days later, somehow having made his way back from Webern’s house. Our concierge recognized him, though he was in terrible shape, and put out some food for him, which he ate. She continued feeding him for about a week, until the Gestapo came looking for my father, at which time Peter disappeared. I only hope that some other kind person took pity on the poor thing and gave him a home.
THE GERMAN SALUTE
In February 1934, after the government put down the Social Democrats' revolt, Dolfuss issued a series of decrees in which he made it absolutely clear to the Austrian people that henceforth nothing could be done or said against the state, and that one and all were to abide by the regulations of his Vaterländische Front (Patriotic Front). No one was permitted to ask any questions or utter any negative comments or criticisms regarding the government; dissent of any kind was no longer permitted–verboten!
Everywhere, posters went up bearing patriotic slogans and propaganda of the Austro-Fascist variety. Everything Austrian was considered good and desirable, that is, except for the Reds, meaning the socialists, social democrats, and, of course, the communists. Life in Soviet Russia was depicted as the arch example of terror, suppression, and poverty. It became the duty of every Austrian to support the Vaterländische Front to the utmost of his or her ability and to defend the country against evil communism with all possible means.
This was true not only for the general public but also for us students. At the Gymnasium, we now had to attend frequent assemblies, all of them with patriotic themes. After school, we were pressed into all kinds of state-sponsored activities, such as special courses, concerts, sports competitions, cultural evenings, and excursions.
Despite all of the restrictions, Dolfuss’s dictatorship was a mild one, that is, while everyone was encouraged to become a member of the Vaterländische Front and particpate in its activities, no one was actually forced to do so. The worst that could happen to an unsympathetic person was to be passed over for promotion or rejected by a school; one might even have been reprimanded and warned to keep his mouth shut. But if someone opted to remain on the sidelines, that person could go on living quietly and unmolested without fearing for his life and could both work and travel while enjoying the same rights and privileges as always, such as police protection. Trouble came only if one took to saying unpatriotic things (meckern) and criticizing our country’s goals. Even so, the most outspoken opponents of the Dolfuss regime seem to have been humanely dealt with; one never heard of anyone being subjected to torture, and those who got into trouble for political reasons were usually kept in jail for a short period of time and then released as Bekehrte (“reformed citizens”). Compared to what was to come, this was a period of relative calm replete with concerts and films, wonderful theater and opera, and spectator sports galore, in short, a cultural paradise.
In 1938, with the Anschluss—the brown invasion—Austria became the Ostmark, literally “Eastern frontier country,” and everything, but most especially constitutional guarantees, went out the window. Also, almost overnight there appeared a whole host of National Socialist Party organizations: the brown-shirted Sturm-Abteilungen, or SA (“storm troopers”); the black-uniformed Schutz-Staffeln, or SS (“protective guard”); the Hitler Jugend, the Bund Deutscher Mädchen (“League of German Girls”); the Kraft Durch Freude,or KDF (“Strength Through Joy”); a whole host of Nazi organizations for the various professions. the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (“German Labor Front”); and, of course, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei, or NSDAP (“National Socialist German Worker’s Party). And now, it was not only prohibited to do or say anything against the State but it also became unacceptable for anyone to simply live a quiet life and forego participation in its various activities. Whoever did not manifest genuine enthusiasm for the Neue Ordnung (“New Order”) and did not “spontaneously” join one of the official National Socialist organizations thereby left him- or herself open to ruthless persecution.
Beginning with the first days after the Anschluss, it was expected that anyone entering a store or office would greet those present with “Heil Hitler!” If one simply said, “Guten Tag” (“Good Day”) or the traditional Austrian equivalent, “Grüss Gott” (“May God be with you”), one immediately made oneself suspect. To leave no doubt as to one’s allegiance to the new regime, it was expected that the entering person would raise his or her right hand in the Nazi salute as he or she vociferously delivered “Heil Hitler!” The more loudly and decisively this was done, the more respect and consideration one had to accord the saluter.
As a result, many people began vying with one another as to how energetically they performed this greeting. But of course it soon became impossible to tell who was yelling “Heil Hitler!” out of honest conviction and who out of political ambition or fear. In fact, it soon didn’t take much Fingerspitzengefühl (“common sense”) to realize that more often than not those who had the most to lose barked out the salute the loudest. On the other end of the scale, SA and SS members usually uttered their greeting matter-of-factly, often without raising their hand, since they did not have to prove what good Nazis they were and had no undiscovered Jewish blood flowing through their veins. There was yet another group, some truly brave souls who expressed their disapproval by continuing to greet people with “Grüss Gott,” as if to say thereby, “Ich mache bei diesem Theater nicht mit! (“I refuse to participate in this charade!”) and even “Ihr Nazis, ihr könnt mich....” (“You Nazis can go kiss my butt”).
It wasn’t long before one began hearing variations of the new Nazi greeting. For instance, there were those who took to uttering “Heil Hitler!” just above a whisper while weakly raising a hand, others who combined the old with the new, “Grüss Gott, Heil Hitler!” and still others who curiously converted “Heil Hitler!” into “Heitler!”
The salute also came to be given in a number of different ways. There was no mistaking a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi party official or old-guard National Socialist; with red, white, and black swastika in his lapel or prominently displayed on an armband, he would generally stop in the doorway of a place and stiffly raise his right arm while practically shrieking his greeting. (And heaven help you, by the way, if you even so much as looked at such an individual cross-eyed, for in the new Ostmark such individuals wielded almost unlimited power.) As time went on, some people took to bending their right elbow to form a 30 degree angle, which truly was not a particularly enthusiastic greeting, but then how could anyone find fault since the Führer himself did this while rolling along in his Horch, tired after hours of greeting his endearing admirers. Some people managed to avoid raising their arms altogether, supposedly being encumbered by a large package or suddenly having to tie a broken shoelace.
When Hitler or Göring traveled through a city amidst masses of onlookers, those who were bewitched by the madness, primarily youngsters with ecstatic faces, Sieg-Heiled in the front rows with hands held high. In the back rows were faces that were not quite as happy, ranging from benign smiles and curiosity to serious contemplation and even disgust. Needless to say, those of the latter persuasion soon learned that it was better to stay at home on such occasions. I remember this from right after the Anschluss when Göring and some minor officials of the new regime came rolling through Mödling.
As it happens, the most likable people were members of the Wehrmacht (“army”). Those chaps never greeted one another in the National Socialist fashion but rather as was, and still is, customary in armies the world over, putting fingers to cap, and often this would be accompanied by a small smile. When civilians passed by those men in field-grey in the street, they never sensed any kind of danger. Rather, soldiers would often give civilians a friendly nod, and if someone greeted them back, they would put a hand to their cap as well. Nor did they ever seem to be much concerned as to who was and who wasn’t a Jew. Clearly, the army was still being directed by people who had retained a certain degree of sanity. But of course all that was to change after the July 1944 attempt on the Führer’s life, when the Wehrmacht, too, would be required to make the Hitler salute.
In striking contrast to the soldiers was the behavior of the SA and SS. I remember the latter in particular because I was able to observe them on more than one occasion from the windows of our apartment. One time in particular stands out in my mind. It was right after the Anschluss, and four of them came striding along Jakob Thomastrasse in front our house. Big and strong they were, seeming even more so in their impeccable black uniforms with the two silver lightning bolts on their lapels and their black caps, each one adorned with a silver skull-and-crossbones. On they went, the four of them abreast and perfectly in step, the narrow sidewalk just wide enough to hold them.
Now from the opposite direction came a man and a woman with two children. But that made no impression on the arrogant ones in black; they just kept on moving forward, their boots echoing noisily on the sidewalk.What happened next was unavoidable and predictable. The mama and papa each grabbed a child and jumped out of the way into the street—and greeted the supermen humbly as they passed. The goons strode on without paying
the riffraff any mind.
Angst over the Nazi terror came in a variety of shapes and forms. If you were a Jew, you knew, of course, that your life was in danger. However, matters were less clear for those who were not subject to racial or religious persecution but simply did not wish to collaborate. After all, no one had come into the world as a Nazi; he or she first had to be turned into one. And most folks learned very quickly that everyone had to go along with them whether or not they wanted to, or risk being exposed to the wrath of the new masters.
And so, even those who were not in favor of the Nazis had to pretend that they were, if they wanted to be left in peace. That meant not attracting the wrong kind of attention to themselves and raising one’s hand in the salute and yelling out “Heil Hitler!” or “Sieg Heil!” whenever everyone else did—and above all, not incurring the wrath of any of those Braunen (“brown men”).
Those who were pretending support often found it convenient to rationalize and ferret out good points to National Socialism. It was not surprising to hear otherwise sensible people saying things like “Da hat der Hitler ja eigentlich recht” (“You know, actually Hitler is right about that”) or “Ich bin zwar kein Nazi, aber eines muß man ihnen lassen...” (“I’m not a Nazi, but you have to give them credit for...”) or “Also, ganz ehrlich, dieses Problem haben wir jetzt nicht mehr” (“Well, in all fairness, that’s one problem we don’t have anymore”). Some people realized that it was their fear speaking, but most were more likely to hoodwink themselves into actually believing that their change of heart was due to honest conviction, that they had behaved spontaneously and been carried away by the greatness of the cause. It was simpler that way, to say nothing of safer. To be sure, Nazi higher-ups were fully aware of these quasi-conversions; nevertheless, for their own diabolical reasons they went to considerable lengths to make it easy for the half-hearted to jump on the band wagon. One of their more insidious tactics was to coerce prominent figures like Cardinal Innitzer, head of the Catholic Church in Austria, to welcome Hitler and the Anschlus publicly.
No example more exactly underlines the effects of the terror that the Nazis inspired than the national elections that took place in Austria in April 1938, a month after the takeover. Every eligible voter was required to cast a yea or a nay to the country’s incorporation into the German Reich. Informed by mail that their names were on a list of voters, people were expected to come out and make use of their right. This meant that anyone who failed to do so would come to the attention of the authorities as possibly harboring an “unfavorable attitude.” The Nazis spelled it out very simply: it would be considered “undeutsch” for anyone to shirk their duty as a voter. Further, it would be best to declare one’s allegiance to Adolf Hitler openly and honestly by voting “Ja” without closing the curtain in the voting booth.
My parents received their “invitation” in the mail like everyone else. Apparently it was expected that my mother—a Christian by religion but predominantly Jewish by descent—would also participate in the “charade.” After carefully considering the matter, they decided that it would be best to go to the appointed polling place and do whatever was required; possibly if they had lived in Vienna rather than in Mödling, where everyone knew one another, it would have been less dangerous to stay at home.
And so, on April 10th, dressed appropriately, they walked together to their polling place on Klostergasse. In front of the building stood a group of Hitler Jugend with their swastika pennants, banging on chimes and drums. Inside, armbands with more swastikas, badges on lapels, Nazi flags, and “Ja” posters were everywhere, and a huge portrait of the Führer hung on the wall. SA men were standing around here and there to “keep order.” Overseeing it all were two Gestapo agents, recognizable by their leather coats.
A Nazi party functionary checked off Trudi’s and Felix’s names from a list and told them to get in line. In front of them was someone from our building who knew my parents by sight and was probably of a similar political persuasion. “Be careful, they’ll know who doesn’t vote yes,” he whispered. But of course Felix and Trudi were well aware of that, and so, to make a long story short, they, too, both voted yes on that day—yes, to the annexation of Austria by the Greater German Reich and yes, to National Socialism. Imagine it, my mother, daughter of the decadent Jewish composer who had long since fled to America, and my father, arch-communist and that composer’s son-in-law, both voted YES-S-S!
There were, however, some who voted no, quite a few in fact, especially in some of Vienna’s election districts, so one heard on the sly. For at the end of the day, the official tally showed that those districts had voted 100% for Hitler, which was obviously incorrect. Indeed, that 99.7% of the whole country had voted yes was a statistical impossibility. So, at least among the more intelligent people, the Nazis probably did themselves more harm than good with those “tallies.”
Crazily, the election that had been announced by Austria’s chancellor Schuschnigg for Sunday, March 13, was actually held in one locality, in Innervillgraten, a remote mountain community that had not yet learned of the occupation. And, “strangely,” 95% of that population voted in favor of Schushnigg and an independent Austria.
THE LATIN LESSON
The Gymnasium was Austria’s secondary school for young people going on to the university. Before the First World War, those in attendance at a Gymnasium had to study two ancient languages and at least one living language. So both of my parents took Latin and Ancient Greek, and while my mother opted for French, my father chose Italian. Gymnasium classes had to be attended daily, with at least one hour devoted to each of the foreign languages. Initial emphasis was on grammar, then on reading and writing, and finally, where the modern languages were concerned, on conversation. Considerable emphasis was placed on literary works, especially when it came to Latin and Greek, and my parents had to read Aeschylus, Aristotle, and Plato, as well as Virgil, Cicero, Caesar, and Plautus—all in the originals, of course.
When I started at the Mödling Gymnasium in the 1930s, Greek was no longer on the curriculum, but Latin was still compulsory and considered as important as math, history, and German. As early as the tender age of ten, I remember myself having to rattle off “amo, amas, amat,” conjugate other Latin verbs with their numerous variations, and decline the singular and plural of the three genders of nouns in all their cases. No, hardly a picnic was that Latin grammar with its tons of rules and seemingly even more exceptions to them, to say nothing of the alien sequence of words within the Latin sentence. In short, I went through hell and high water for the sake of mastering that dead language, and while I did rather well in my other subjects, the best I could pull for all of my hard work in Latin was a “genügend,” the equivalent of a low C. Once I remember bringing home a “gut” (a B), but I was sure, and remain so today, that it was undeserved.
By 1938, I was in over my head with that Latin—how I hated those classes!—and for the first time the phrase “nicht genügend”—failed!—appeared on my report card. Needless to say, this was the year of Austria’s greatest crisis, what with the Nazi occupation and Hitler’s forcing his policy of Gleichschaltung (“conformity”) on little Ostmark, which carried terror, violence, Kazett (“concentration camp”), militarism, and persecution in its wake. Resultantly, our Mödling Gymnasium, like every other school in the country, underwent a series of convulsions. Many professors were summarily discharged, and our principal, a distinguished scholar and well-known historian with many years of service, was replaced by a physical education teacher. This new “Herr Direktor” had belonged to the Nazi party before the Anschluss, when it was still illegal, and I guess the appointment was his reward.
While my father surely had more pressing worries at the time, he nevertheless mentioned my problems with Latin to a few friends, and Anton von Webern had a suggestion ready to hand. “Felix,” he said, “der Verlobte meiner Tochter gibt Privatstunden in Latein” (“My daughter’s fiancé gives private lessons in Latin”), and he was sure that the young man would be only too happy to do his future father-in-law a favor, namely, to provide his services as Latin tutor to me, the failing student, without a fee.
I wasn’t too enthusiastic about these private lessons, which would take me away from more desirable activities with my friends, but my parents insisted. I simply had to pass Latin, and I was to go over and meet with this young Latin instructor at Herr Webern’s the very next day.
So there was nothing for it, and I headed over there after school the next day. The Weberns lived in a pretty one-family house at the edge of the city, and it took me about twenty minutes to get there. Frau von Webern as at home, and she was very nice to me, giving me a glass of milk and a piece of cake before taking me to the room on the top floor, where I was to wait for the man. While doing so, I formed a plan in my mind. As soon as he arrived, I would introduce myself and explain what my problems were with my Latin studies. Maybe he could somehow help me. While it was true that I found Latin less than exciting–to put it mildly–I couldn’t after all hurt my parents by having to repeat it. In short, I was willing to give it my best shot for their sake.
A half hour passed, and the fellow had yet to show up. Frau von Webern stuck her head in the room and said that the gentleman would be arriving in a few minutes; meanwhile would I like some more cake. So I ate another piece of cake and washed it down with more milk and settled down to wait again.
Suddenly, just as I was about to give up, there was a loud knock at the door, which, mind you, was wide open. And all at once the door frame darkened, and into the room strode this giant of a young man, who was indeed so tall that he had to duck to get through the doorway without bumping his head. I guessed him to be about 6 foot 5 or 6.
A cap that he had been wearing had been pulled off as he entered, and I noticed that he had blond hair and blue eyes, broad shoulders, and seemingly humongous hands. Also, he was dressed completely in black, which at first glance I took to be mourning and wondered if he might not have just come from a funeral, which could have explained his lateness. In that case, perhaps he was in no mood and the Latin lesson should be postponed to another day, I speculated.
But no, this was not to be. Without further ado, this huge person all in black introduced himself, and we shook hands and sat down beside one another at a desk there. It was then that I realized that his suit was not a suit at all but a uniform. Also, on the sleeves and shoulders of the jacket were two metallic-looking stripes, and on either side of the collar, a pair of parallel bars of silver that looked like miniature lightening bolts. Worse, far worse, somewhere on the jacket or cap–I don’t remember anymore–my eyes came to rest on a silver skull and crossbones, emblem of the dreaded SS!
I was quite shaken up. The so-called Schutz-Staffeln (“protective guard”)—the very word was enough to send chills down one’s spine. Members of the SS I had seen before, of course—who hadn’t seen them—but never at such close quarters. They were the enforcers of Hitler’s might, his personal body guard wherever he went. The Gestapo, his secret police, consisted entirely of them, and even in those early days, stories were making the rounds about the atrocities committed by them, their cruelty in the Kazette (“concentration camps”), and mercilessness in the police dungeons. Who had not heard of the Röhm Putsch in 1934, when Ernst Röhm, head of the rival SA, was arrested and executed by an SS unit along with scores of his followers, who were yanked out of their beds, herded into a courtyard, and mowed down with machine guns!
It was best to stay as far away from such individuals as possible, was everyone’s way of thinking. And now such a one was about to give me a lesson in Latin, me a grandson of the decadent Jewish composer Arnold Schönberg and his namesake. So many thoughts were racing through my head that I could hardly understand what the dreaded giant in black, my tutor, was saying. Whom might he have “interrogated” but an hour ago, I wondered. Whom might those beefy hands of his have beaten to a pulp? Whom strangled? Maybe he was late because he couldn’t loosen some poor devil’s tongue fast enough. And what do I answer if this Superman should ask if I belong to the Hitlerjugend or how my parents felt about the Führer and the Third Reich?
Happily, Herr SS Man asked me nothing more dangerous than to conjugate the verb conficere and to give a date by using the ablative case. And I on my part had already decided to ply him with as many questions as possible pertaining to Latin so as to avoid getting involved in anything personal. As`it turned out, this foreboding individual was rather cordial toward me, whose identity and Jewish ancestry he perhaps had no idea about. Even so, I learned absolutely nothing that day, at least no Latin. Instead, I sat there like a good boy, hardly hearing the answers to my questions, and when the lesson was over, went straight home. Of course, I never returned for a second lesson.
Once back at our apartment on Jakob Thomastrasse, I lost no time in telling the whole story to my father, and he in turn explained that Webern was aware that his daughter’s fiancé was a Nazi and an admirer of Hitler. But what he did not know, indeed what no one knew—that is, until that day—was that the man was a member of the SS. Apparently that was the first time Mr. Fiancé had appeared at the Webern house in his dreaded black uniform with the silver lightening bolts and death’s head.
It is possible that this individual was none other than the Benno Mattl whose apartment my uncle Georg Schönberg occupied toward the end of the war. See the section titled “Bombed Out” in chapter four.
FRIENDS, ENEMIES, AND NEITHER-NOR
Before the Anschluss, I spent much of my spare time with my school friends. At the top of my list was Heinz, who was in the same class as I at the Mödling Gymnasium. Heinz lived with his family in a house on Josefsgasse a short distance from our apartment on Jakob Thomastrasse. Their house, which was for a single family, was indeed lovely, with a pretty garden and several big trees in it. Heinz had a bicycle and quite a number of other things boys enjoy, and we spent many hours each week playing together.
He was always well dressed, and the family took frequent trips and vacations; in short, they were rather well-off. Heinz’s mother was ravishingly beautiful, or so it seemed, and always well groomed and dressed. And while her manners were beyond reproach, she was not arrogant or haughty, as such women tend to be. Heinz’s father, a bank official, was a distinguished-looking man in his late fifties and considerably older than his wife.
Heinz was their only child, rather spoiled, and a bit on the chubby side. He was “technically inclined,” as the saying goes, excelling in math and the sciences, especially physics, and was far ahead of the rest of his class in the latter; his ambition was to become an engineer. He always brought home good grades on his report cards, which was not always the case with me.
Heinz’s family led a very orderly life. He himself had to be home, study, eat, and sleep at specific times. The house was a picture of tidiness, with the furniture polished to a high shine and the gravel evenly spread on the footpath outside. He and I were permitted to talk, play, and take a walk only after he had fulfilled his duties–meaning homework and chores—in a timely fashion.
If I remember correctly, his father had been a social democrat at one time, and then in 1934, when the party was outlawed, he became apolitical, at least to the outside world. But then one day came the Anschluss and the Nazis, and it seemed to me that they welcomed the changes, though they kept it to themselves because they knew that I, their son’s best friend, was Schönberg’s grandson and that my parents leaned toward the Left. I for my part studiously avoided any political discussions with them for the sake of my friendship with Heinz. After the Anschluss, both of us continued going to school every day much as we had before, Heinz without wearing an armband or indicating his family’s political bent in any other way.
When my parents and I left Austria in May 1938, they said goodbye only to a few relatives and very close friends, but I was forbidden to say anything to Heinz; I wrote him only after our arrival in New York. Heinz never answered, and later I learned from a mutual friend—also an emigré—that Heinz’s mother was half Jewish, which Heinz had been unaware of until the time when everyone had to produce proof of their Aryan ancestry. I also learned that, like everyone else, Heinz had been drafted into the army and, in fact, had served as an officer in the Panzer-Korps, until 1943, when he was killed in action in Russia during the course of the German retreats. But what happened to his parents is anybody’s guess. On one of my trips back home in the 1960s, I went to the house on Josefsgasse and found it still standing, though both it and the garden looked rather neglected, but no one seemed to know anything about the fate of Heinz’s folks.
Erwin was another good friend; he was the only son of a couple who lived in the next house over from ours on Jakob Thomastrasse. Like Heinz, Erwin came from a “better family,” that is, they belonged to the middle class and were conservative Catholics and unequivocally pro-government during the 1930s. In short, they were what was then and still is referred to as die Schwarzen, or “the Blacks,” and though nice people, tended to be a bit reserved toward us Greissles because my father was not a very good Catholic, my mother a Protestant with Jewish “roots,” and we were politically far to the left, in other words, with die Roten or “the Reds.” While Erwin’s parents acted only with cool politeness toward us, Erwin dearly loved us Greissle boys.
I remember him well, a tall, handsome chap with blond hair and blue eyes. He was not a happy child; he hated school, and at home his mother was forever reminding him of his duties and threatening punishment if he didn’t do his homework. Also, he was not allowed to play with other children, his parents just wouldn’t have it, and to make matters worse, he had no brothers or sisters. Often of an afternoon he would stand all alone on the balcony of their apartment and longingly watch my brother and me cavorting about the yard downstairs. How he would have loved to come down and play hide-and-seek with us or take his turn on the swing—or just throw stones.
One summer day, Erwin broke a leg while the family was vacationing in the mountains. He was put in a cast and had to remain at home in bed. During his convalescence, his parents made an exception and allowed Hermann and me to visit him once in a while, on which occasions we would drink milk and eat cookies or apple strudel with him. Erwin would entertain us then with stories of his adventures while in the country, the words bubbling out of his mouth like a waterfall, along with his cheerful laughter.
I cannot remember what happened to Erwin’s family after the Anschluss. I only heard that they were too Catholic to become real Nazis. Like everyone else, handsome Erwin was drafted in 1941—and like many of my other school colleagues, somewhere on the front he fell.
Another close friend, Peter, was a Protestant like myself. This meant that I had frequent contact with him: at church on Sundays and at religious instruction as well as at the Gymnasium, where he was in my class. Peter was tall and had black hair and a nose that was too large. While rather ugly in appearance, he was an unusually intelligent fellow. His last name, together with the nose, dark hair, and somewhat of a swarthy complexion, would have led people to suspect that he was of “non-Aryan origin.” However, he seems to have been able to document his “racial purity” successfully. Peter and I always got on well together, and even after the Anschluss, we never directed any hostility toward one another. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I learned after the war that he had become active in various Nazi organizations and even joined the SS.
It seems that he survived the war in good health and without injury, only to be executed by a Russian firing squad for dealing in the black market. No one knows what happened to the rest of his family.
Walter was another friend and classmate at the Gymnasium. Short and fat, he possessed a face that was both childlike and handsome. His father was a Jew, his mother a Lutheran, and like me he’d been baptized and brought up as a Lutheran. Walter’s father, who bore the unfortunate name of Adolf, was a physician, and they lived on Bernhardgasse near my grandfather’s house. Chubby little Walter and I became good friends, and even though it meant going a goodly distance out of my way, I often accompanied him home from school. Behind their house was a large garden with a charming bower built into one of the trees, and there we often sat doing our homework together and passing the time of day. We were quite close politically, since his folks were Social Democrats or “Sozis.” Even so, Walter’s father devoted a good deal of time to the Occult, and Walter, also inclined that way, tried to convince me of some dubious stuff like the sunken continent of Atlantis and its space-traveling inhabitants. Be that as it may, Walter was a near-genius, especially when it came to math and natural science, and always at or near the top of our class in those subjects.
With the Anschluss, Walter began coming to school only sporadically, and then in the fall of 1938, he and his folks emigrated to Argentina. From there, he wrote to me in New York about what had happened in Mödling after we, the Greissles, left–who among the Protestant boys turned out to be Nazis, who did not, and so on. He and I continued corresponding until Pearl Harbor, when the correspondence was broken off. After the war, I wrote to him again in Argentina, but the letters came back as undeliverable, and I was never able to find out what happened to him. My older son is named for him.
I should also mention Hans R., who was several years older than I and not a fellow student at the Gymnasium, but rather a Hauptschule boy. At the height of the Depression in the mid1930s, his mother used to come to our apartment three or four times a week to wash dishes and do odd jobs around the house. The two of them lived together in a small, poorly furnished apartment near the railroad tracks, and prior to the Anschluss, Hans and I were accustomed to greeting one another in passing.
One day in May 1938, perhaps a week before our departure for America, I was sitting on a bench in Jakob Thomastrasse, when I noticed Hans coming toward me, as it happens without the badge or armband that people in those days used to wear to advertise a Hitler-friendly attitude. Today, for the first time, Hans came to a halt before me, asked me how I was doing, and indeed exchanged a few words with me, which happily had nothing to do with the new political situation. While he was thus engaged in uttering generalities, his eyes and demeanor indicated that he had something else on his mind, something that required a bit of thinking to formulate, and the next thing I knew he was sitting beside me.
Oh my God, I thought, he’s probably going to begin complaining about us, how we didn’t pay his mother enough money when she used to work for us or how we dismissed her one day. Maybe he’ll start off by saying that in today’s Ostmark, people like us would be dealt with more severely than they had been under Schuschnigg’s “System.” This was the word that the Nazis liked to use when referring to Austria’s government prior to its annexation by the Third Reich.
Things such as this were happening more and more often these days, and I’d already been subjected to several hostile conversations like that, with threats implied or real. I therefore warned myself to be on my guard and in no case to react impolitely or in anger to what this Hans-fellow was about to utter. Our departure was only a short time away, and even now, at the last monent, something could go wrong. A well-known proverb came to mind: “Vorsicht ist die Mutter der Porzellankiste” (“Caution is the mother of the China closet”). Imagine it, I had only just turned fifteen, and there I was suddenly thinking like an adult–I who but a few weeks before would have had thoughts only of finishing my homework as quickly as possible so I could go riding my bike with Hermann or my friends or read the latest adventure novel. I was suddenly no longer a child.
Hans, for his part, looked me straight in the eye and took a deep breath. “Look, Arnold,” he began, “do you remember when my mother used to work for your parents almost every day as a servant? Well, a different time has come, and some people are for it, and some are against it, and many are acting as if they’re for it because they have to or because they’re scared. Well, we got to know you very well–we even know about your grandfather, the musician, who is now over there in America--and I want you to know that me and my mother are still the same as before, and are your friends because you were always friendly and kind toward us. And remember, sooner or later everything comes to an end, even what’s been happening lately.” Then he got up, shook my hand, and went on his way.
Needless to say, I looked for Hans, too, after the war, but could find nothing. Not even their poor, shabby apartment house was there anymore.
I can’t believe how many of my fellow-students at the Gymnasium and friends like Hans died during the war, perhaps as many as half. For it was our age group that provided Hitler with the canon fodder for his Kampf. The Germans, it happens, liked nothing better than to send us Austrians eastward to Russia, the never-never-land from which few were ever to return. Go into any small town in Austria nowadays and seek out its World War II memorial with its long list of the fallen, and you’ll see what I mean.
Boys had very little contact with girls in those days because the sexes were kept strictly apart at school. In Mödling, we boys had our Gymnasium in the Franz-Keim Gasse, and the girls had theirs in the Bach-Gasse in the Old Town. Nevertheless, I count one girl among my friends in those days. Her name was Gerti, and she was either nine days older or nine days younger than I was, I don’t remember anymore. We grew up in the same building; our mothers often met in the laundry room in the basement and chatted there while washing the family clothes and diapers. Gerti’s mother was the janitor’s wife and, for us boys, like a second mother.
When we were all very young, Gerti often played with us, but then, when we turned nine or ten, the age when boys prefer to be with boys and girls with girls, our friendship came to an end, and we passed one another indifferently in the street or on the stairs, exchanging a few words at the most. But then one day, after I had turned thirteen or fourteen, Gerti suddenly looked like an angel from heaven. Her hips had rounded, and so had her chest; her mouth and eyes exuded a mysterious attraction, and she had the voice of a real woman. I longed for her touch, a kiss, an embrace, and became aware that I had fallen in love. I would have liked to stop and engage her in a conversation, but she always passed me by without as much as a hello or even a glance my way-as if she were angry with me, although I had done her no harm. And so, I never got up the courage to speak to her—and really suffered.
Many years later, on a visit to Austria in the 1970s, I found Gerti again. She had married, of course, and had children, who had meanwhile grown up and left the nest. Her husband had died, and she now lived in nearby Brunn. I confessed to her then that she had been my great love those many years ago, which, now looking back, I’m inclined to think she’d been conscious of. Our janitor’s lovely daughter had turned into a sweet, intelligent lady who’d read a good deal, one of those people with whom you can discuss just about anything, and we spent a lot of time talking together, especially about our lives over the years.
One of the things that Gerti confided to me was that the year after the Anschluss she had become a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädchen, compelled to join like everyone else or face the “consequences.” One of her duties was to eavesdrop on people, even members of her own family, to ascertain whether they were “good Germans,” meaning, of course, pro-Nazi. As it happened, both of her parents had no use for Hitler, especially her father, a Social Democrat, who hated the Nazis and what they stood for with a fine passion. Feeling safe in the privacy of his home, he would return from work in the evening and repeat the latest jokes about Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, referring to them all as tyrants and warmongers, the braune Pest (“Nazi plague”) who would bring about the ruin of Germany and the rest of Europe in the end. Every time he did so, Gerti would get upset and consider informing on him even though she loved him and had heard rumors about the Kazette (“concentration camps”) and how badly those who opposed the regime fared in them.
Finally, driven by desperation one day, Gerti gave her parents an ultimatum: either they stopped criticizing and making fun, or she would have to take an action they would all regret. Needless to say, her parents became more circumspect, especially around her. But now Gerti wound up with a bad conscience on two accounts: she had threatened her parents with what could have turned out to be a terrible fate, and she had betrayed her solemn oath to uphold the Fatherland by not turning them in.
Now having covered friends and my first true love, I come to “bad eggs,” and there are three names on my list, names that I am just as unlikely to forget as the others. All three were Protestants like myself, and were in the same class as I at the Gymnasium for five years.
Gerhart, called Gert for short, was the most unpleasant of them. Big, brutal, strong as an ox, and quite fat, Gert was a brawler. He liked to bully our classmates, most of whom were afraid of him, though many no doubt admired him. He was always eager to appear both cocky and invincible, and would prove his superiority by coming out of scuffles victorious. In reality, however, he was a coward, for he always picked on boys who were not as strong as he—the weaker the better—so there was no problem when it came to beating them into submission. This Gert never tired of playing his tricks, yanking away his victims’ books and pushing them out of his way whenever he passed them, insulting and ridiculing them at every turn, or else giving them a “shot in the head.” Once or twice, however, he was challenged by chaps who were as big and strong as he, and this would lead to bruises, bloody noses, and sometimes even broken teeth.
A second “bad egg” was Harald, who with blond hair, blue eyes, and a slim figure presented a more attractive figure than Gert. Harald, though not as strong as Gert, was also a bully; however, the two of them never tangled with one another. Had they done so, everybody would have been overjoyed because they would have neutralized or at least weakened one another. But that was not to be: Gert and Harald were like two peas in a pod and saved confrontations for the likes of us weaklings.
The third member of the “bad egg” triumvirate was a guy named Kurt, who was much smarter than Gert and Harald, and while not a bully, knew how to use their brutality for his own purposes. In reality, he was the brains of the outfit, the one who decided which of the weaklings would get beaten up, which would only be ridiculed, and whose skates or school bag would be “mislaid.”
It shouldn’t be too hard to guess what I experienced at the hands of this threesome. One day, it must have been in the spring of 1936, the three of them invited me to a Kameradschaftsabend (“evening of comradeship”). This was to take place in an apartment somewhere in Neumödling. When I arrived, it turned out that the leader of the event was none other than the pastor of our church. He greeted us—especially me, the newcomer—in the name of the fraternity. We boys—there might have been eight or nine of us—sat down around a table with the pastor, who was around thirty years old at the time, in the middle. And then the comradeship, such as it was, began.
Each of us was given some sausage, cheese, and bread. And then I expected that our pastor would fold his hands and thank the Lord for the food we were about to receive and whatever else was in store for us there. But no, to my utter surprise, the pastor began to eat without so much as directing a single word to the Almighty, and everyone else followed suit. Then, as soon as we all were done eating, our pastor picked up a book, sat down on a couch, and we boys gathered around him on the floor in a semicircle. As soon as he began to read, it became obvious that it was not from the Bible or some other religious book but a story about a disgusting old miser who could think of nothing but ways of cheating people out of their hard-earned money. The fellow was pop-eyed, had a nose like a cucumber, frizzy black hair, thick protruding lips, and spoke with a funny accent—in short, he was a “repulsive” Jew. This was the same kind of fare as that being served up in Germany at the time by Julius Streicher in his hate-sheet Der Stürmer—except that I didn’t know anything about that at the time. My fellow listeners responded to the description of the “Yid” with peals of laughter.
After the pastor finished the story, everyone sang a marching song with the three “bad eggs” beating time with their shoes on the floor. Then the pastor made a speech about loyalty and enthusiasm for the German people, to say nothing of the Fatherland, a discourse in which there was not a single mention of Austria or God or even of our beloved Jewish Savior. I didn’t fully understand the pastor’s drift at the time except to feel that what with its fanaticism and intolerance, there was something downright unpleasant about this evening of so-called comradeship, and I was only too happy when it came to an end and I could go home. And the upshot? The pastor and the other boys must have realized that their views had left me cold, and I was never invited to another such “evening” again.
But that was not all: from then on, Gert, Harald, and Kurt began to pick on me in earnest, harassing me at every turn they could, until finally things came to a head. One day at the Mödling Municipal Pool the three of them grabbed hold of me, dragged me to water’s edge, and shoved me in, fully dressed. I got so angry at this that I went after one of them—Kurt, as it happens—and managing to corner him, gave him a solid punch to the face, indeed with such force that it surprised even myself. The guy went down, bleeding like a stuck pig, as one says in English, and for the next several weeks there was a lump as big as an egg on his forehead. After that, the three bad characters pretty much left me alone, nursing my hurt hand, whose pain was sweet.
And now with friends and enemies out of the way, let me turn to a few people who were neither one nor the other. First off, there was Hans P., the “new boy.” One day in my second year at the Gymnasium, that is, in 1934-35, a new student turned up in my class: tall, blond, and neatly dressed. Respectfully following the teacher into the classroom, this new chap took the seat assigned to him and looked shyly around. Then when the teacher asked him to introduce himself, he rose right up, blushingly cleared his throat, and gave forth loudly and clearly in a Prussian accent you could have cut with a knife: Ich heisse Hans Popper und bin aus Berlin (“My name is Hans Popper, and I come from Berlin”). Few, if any of us, had ever heard such a Prussian “acccent,” so it must have sounded like a caricature. But happily no one burst out laughing, so the poor guy, who was nervous enough, was spared further discomfort.
From then on, Hans P. gave forth with this same announcement whenever a new situation presented itself, even when asked where he lived or if he was hungry. Apparently his folks had drilled it into him to make this announcement whenever he was required to give particulars about his life. Only some years later, after the Anschluss, did it become clear, to me and a few others at least, that here were some of the first Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. When the Poppers had to pick up and leave a second time, they went all the way to America, I believe.
A second neither-friend-nor-enemy was Hans E. The son of peasants from the Austrian province of Burgenland, this Hans was as big and strong as an ox. But despite his robust exterior, he was quiet and friendly, I would almost say meek and shy, speaking very little and excusing himself at every turn. In the exercise hall, he was polite almost to a fault, always allowing the other boys to go ahead of him. What I remember most about him is that he didn’t like my enemies, and, as the old saying goes, the “enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
One day Gert, the worst of the three bullies, was annoying one of the smaller boys in our class, who was rather sickly. Shoving the poor guy up against a wall, Gert warned him not to make in his pants but rather to fight back like a man. A group of spectators gathered round, and many voices could be heard urging the poor kid to fight back. All of a sudden, out from amongst their midst stepped Herculean Hans. “Why don’t you fight with someone your own size, like me!” he demanded. Gert let go of the little guy and turned to Hans with a sheepish grin on his face. The Burgenlander was just taking off his jacket. Everyone in the crowd was staring now at Hans’s massive peasant hands and thick arms. Gert’s grin became even more pronounced. He looked benignly at his little victim. “We’re not fighting, Heinzi, are we? We’re just horsing around.”
“So horse around with me,” Hans challenged him, only too well aware of Gert’s cowardice. Gert looked at the crowd around him. All eyes were fixed expectantly on him. He really had no choice. “Well, if you insist,” he said, and the next moment his fist shot out and landed on Hans’s face—a terrible blow.
The peasant shook his head, much like a dog that has just climbed out of a brook. Rubbing his nose, he realized that it was bleeding profusely. Noting that his adversary was still dazed from that monstrous first punch, Gert shuffled around, and then all at once his fist shot out straight at Hans’s nose.
But this time the peasant beat him to the punch, parrying the blow with his right arm. Then taking hold of Gert’s hair with his left, he sent his right fist straight into the bully’s kisser with a loud smack.
Gert dragged his adversary to the ground, and there they thrashed, scratched, and bit each other for several minutes, until suddenly Hans lifted his arm high in the air and slammed his gargantuan fist at Gert’s head with all of his might.
Gert collapsed, unconscious. Whereupon Hans stood up, calmly put on his jacket, and strolled away as if he’d paused there momentarily to look at his watch or button his shirt.
That was Gert’s first real defeat, and I’m sure that he never forgave Hans for it.
The last neither-nor is a girl named Berta, who was already fourteen when I turned twelve, almost a mature woman. Of medium height, she had fiery red hair and big, dark eyes. One day, I was walking along the Hauptstrasse when Berta, who was coming toward me, stopped and began to speak to me. She knew me through my brother and asked how he was. We chatted about this and that for a while, and then she told me that her parents would be out till evening and wouldn’t I like to accompany her home, where we could play cards or something. There was also a Sachertorte in the house; I could sample it with her and wash it down with something. The cake was the clincher, and I had enough time, so I went with her.
Berta’s family lived on the third floor of an apartment building. When we arrived, she unlocked the front door and led me into the kitchen, where we sat down and partook of the cake with some apple juice. Then Berta suggested that we play a game: “How about house?” Fine, how about it. She began puttering around the kitchen as if she were a housewife. I was supposed to be her husband who was just coming home from work, so I picked up a cane of her father’s and began walking back and forth with it.
“Now we’re going to play man and wife,” Berta said after a while. After painting her mouth with lipstick, rouging her cheeks, and penciling her eyebrows in black, she took me by the hand and led me to her parents’ bedroom. It was dark in there, the windows shut tight and the curtains drawn. Berta snapped on a floor lamp to reveal a large double bed in the middle of the room. Lying down, she took off her shoes and said that I should do the same. Next came her stockings and dress, and finally her underwear. And now stark naked in the middle of the bed, she held out her arms to me. I should lie on top of her, she said, as every man was supposed to when his wife and he went to bed.
Never in my life had I seen a woman who was totally undressed, and I wasn’t quite sure what Berta now expected of me. Little by little she became impatient, probably because of the uncomprehending expression on my face, and she tried to give me more precise instructions.
The poor girl did her best, but when she continued to meet with no success, her patience finally gave way to fury. “What kind of a man are you!” she finally yelled. And when nothing happened even then, her face became almost as red as her hair. She jumped off the bed, put her clothes back on, and dragged me into the kitchen, opened the front door, and threw me out. My school books came flying after me.
Needless to say, a year or two later matters would have taken a different course. But Berta never forgave me, and when on occasion we passed one another in the street, she didn’t even so much as look my way.
One more person is deserving of mention here, our pastor M, whom I spoke of above. This person pretended to be good but was really very bad—at least at first.
A few weeks after the Anschluss, the school children of Mödling were asked to become members of the Hitler Jugend or Bund Deutscher Mädchen, or, in the case of the very young ones, the Jungvolk. Our teachers had to keep a record of whether or not each student had joined up and if not, why not. And so, for those who had not done so, life became indeed difficult, with all sorts of pressure brought to bear on them. There were suggestions, invitations, reminders, and consultations, but in the end there were still some kids who preferred not to join anything–and that was dangerous, both for themselves and their parents.
By the end of April 1938, just about the only reason why a student was allowed to remain outside the Nazi establishment was his racial descent, that is, if he or she were a Jew or a Mischling (“half-breed”). Citizens of foreign countries were exempt, and, typical of Nazi attitudes, youngsters with physical or mental disabilities were also kept out. In April 1938, Jews and Mischlings were still allowed to attend school, although even there Jews were being harassed and discriminated against with the support and connivance of school administrations. My Gymnasium had a new director; the old one and with him a number of other professors had been dismissed immediately after the Anschluss. A few days later, the Nazi leaders among the boys began to ridicule and pick on their Jewish classmates.
In the streets of Mödling and the other cities of the Ostmark, Hitler’s stormtroopers began to persecute Jews. As I’ve already mentioned, there were many Mischlings among us Protestants, and there were also many Nazis, including our pastor and religious instructor Pfarrer M. Right after the Anschluss, this person told us that he had joined the Austrian Nazi party when it was illegal and that on several occasions he had traveled to Germany to get to know the New Order on its home turf. Among his illegal Nazi activities in Austria had been the organization and direction of those Kameradschaftsabende (“evenings of comradeship”). Now with the Nazis in power, in place of the religious instruction we were supposed to receive, he lost no time in expressing his firm belief in Adolf Hitler and the great destiny of the German people, to say nothing of the historical significance of the National Socialist movement. Needless to say, the Nazis in our class agreed, while the others, meaning a good half of the class including myself, listened in silence.
I should note here that this individual had never been a very good instructor of religion. In fact, I always had the feeling that the Evangelical Church meant very little to him; his instruction to us boys seemed much too mechanical and uninspired, and lacked respect and philosophical direction. He simply went through our textbook chapter by chapter without bringing anything to the subject matter.
Further, in other respects, Pastor M. behaved more like another boy in the class than like a Gymnasium professor. For instance, in those days it was customary for students to rise from their seats when an instructor entered a classroom and to remain standing until he gave permission for everyone to sit down. But Pastor M. did nothing of the kind; rather, he would motion for everyone to remain seated and usually started the hour by telling a funny story, sometimes even one that was a bit off-color. Following this, there was chit-chat back and forth, and often heated debates erupted; in fact, on a few occasions a regular brawl erupted between him and one or another of the more robust students, right there on the podium in front of the rest of the class!
But then came a day—perhaps six weeks after the Anschluss—when something so totally surprising occurred that I would call it almost a miracle. The pastor was late coming to class that day, and clearly something was wrong. Looking dead serious and perhaps a little pale, he entered the classroom without greeting us, sat down at the table on the rostrum, and remained there stock-still for quite a while. Finally, instead of telling us the funny story, he opened the textbook, chose a page seemingly at random, and began reading something or other to us from the New Testament. But then he suddenly stopped, slammed the book shut, and after staring at us all for a good long while, began to speak.
He told us that he’d taken the train to Vienna the day before, intending to do some shopping, and found himself walking along Mariahilferstrasse, one of the better-known business streets. A crowd was gathered in front of a shop, and on coming up, what did he see but three Jews, all of them elderly people, washing down the sidewalk on their hands and knees with several rags and a pail between them while some SA men stood by, taunting them and laughing. One of the SA’s kicked one of the three old folks flat—a woman—because she wasn’t doing her job quickly enough, and the other two had to help her get upright again. “Mind you, I don’t care for Jews more than anyone else,” the Pastor went on. But one simply cannot do something like that; it was un-Christian and just going too far. And the upshot? He was going to the Party to complain.
Everyone was silent. But then all eyes turned to Kurt, with the swastika on his arm, expecting that he would make some sort of a response, which sure enough he lost no time in doing: “Well, it’s all the Jews’ own fault.” For centuries they’d been exploiting the people, sucking them dry, cheating them, and now at last the people were beginning to resist, to defend themselves. Kurt’s voice rang out, arrogant, threatening: “You are in agreement with that point of view, aren’t you, Herr Pfarrer?”
The pastor stuck to his guns, accusing the SA of cowardice. Indeed, their behavior violated all of the tenets of religion, to say nothing of plain decency.
Arch-Nazi Kurt countered with the usual rubbish about racial purity and the need to protect the German people against those destructive aliens and once and for all rid the land of those foreign bodies that had invaded the German Ostmark. “Both our honor and our blood must be cleansed!” he thundered.
“But don’t you know that even in our own evangelical community there are those who have Jewish parents or grandparents?” the Pastor argued.
Kurt answered that for racial Jews, even those who had been baptized Christians but were Jewish by descent, there was no longer any room.
“But what about those who are a quarter or an eighth Jewish? What happens to them?” someone else in the class, with real or feigned innocence, piped up.
It was indeed a problem, but Kurt had a ready response: “I guess they’ll have to be accepted into the ranks.” Their tainted blood would eventually be cleansed by the nation’s healthy body.
The pastor was not about to give up. One cannot mistreat people, even if one doesn’t care for them, he reasoned, especially if they’re weak and defenseless. It simply wasn’t worthy of a man—a Christian—to behave like that.
On and on the argument went. Yes, indeed, a rift had appeared, a real clash of opinion between Nazi and Nazi. A miracle had indeed occurred.
JEWS, DON’T EVER COME BACK!
After Kurt von Schuschnigg’s farewell address on the evening of March 11, 1938, my family stayed up listening to the radio far into the night. When he had finished, there had been some music, and then a new announcer had come on, already a Nazi, if I recall correctly. We were told about torchlight parades and enthusiastic demonstrations to welcome Austria’s “German brothers,” as well as flags and ceremonial speeches. My parents were very depressed, of course, and we children too, sensing that the future would bring with it unlooked-for and unpleasant changes. Our old world was coming to an end, and the new one beginning there and then was sure to be worse. Our country’s new masters would act differently from the old ones. They would be belligerent, fanatical, intolerant, devoid of any sense of humor, arrogant, domineering, and inflexible—all those things and worse. It was already morning when we fell asleep.
Saturday, March 12, began with a loud barking; rhythmically and persistently the sound penetrated into our apartment. Must be a really big dog, I thought, while still lying in bed, probably a Doberman pinscher, a loud, nasty one. The noise came from Mödling’s Haupstrasse, about three hundred feet from our house.
I got up, went to the window, and looked out, but at first I couldn’t see anything unusual out there. The barking was becoming louder and more invasive by the minute, and as I listened some more, I became aware that it wasn’t a dog at all. It was coming from the throats of about twenty men who were just appearing at the corner of our street, Jakob Thomastrasse. Some of them were dressed in funny brown uniforms, others in civilian clothes. They were slowly marching in columns, repeating the same words over and over again. Gradually I was able to make them out, and I will never forget them:
Z’ruck nach Palestina Back to Palestine you go.
Ös Juden kummts mir nimmer Don’t you Jews come back no mo’
Juda verrecke, Judea perish, get stuck
Im eigenen Drecke In your own filthy muck.
Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer One people, one country, one leader
Wir danken unserm Führer We’re thanking our leader.
Of course, we knew what antisemitism was. It had always existed in Austria, but even in the neo-fascist period between 1934 and 1938, the government had protected people against racial persecution. As long as a person didn’t openly protest against the government, lived quietly, and worked at his job, he was left alone. Now, however, seemingly overnight, a whole section of the population–people of Jewish origins--was being singled out for persecution. They’d lost the protection of the law, and worse than that, they were now living in a country that made persecution one of its primary goals. In actuality this meant that any SA man could arrest a Jew, beat him up, even kill him, and the law would not only protect him but turn against the Jew only because he was a Jew. Even the police, who normally protected, had turned into ruthless persecutors.
No one was any longer exempt from mortal danger. Anyone who didn’t wear the right expression on his face or used the wrong phrase in a conversation or told a joke or just had an enemy in the wrong place could be arrested without fuss or ceremony, their offenses ranging from “insulting the Führer” to “pessimism” to “poisoning the people’s mind.” Any of these could land you in a Kazett (“concentration camp”), meaning a slow death by hunger and torture, or result in your execution—hanging and beheading being the favorite Nazi methods. Soldiers and officials who refused to swear allegiance to the Führer fared no better.
The speaking chorus that I heard and got a glimpse of on Mödling’s Haupstrasse that morning was directed at the owners of a number of shops there, mostly “mom-and-pop” businesses where one could buy clothes, thread, and kitchen utensils. But this was only the Nazis’ opening salvo; within a short time more Aktionen (“actions”) followed.
I recall one in particular about two weeks later. I was on my way home from the Gymnasium that afternoon by way of the Keimgasse. It was a beautiful day; we were having real “Hitler weather,” a term commonly used at that time to describe the warm, sunny days that seemed to accompany the Führer wherever he went. On reaching the Hauptstrasse, I came upon a crowd of onlookers in front of a clothing store. Several men in uniform with swastika armbands were standing there with guns in their holsters. The store’s window had shattered, and kneeling on the sidewalk in the midst of hundreds of splinters of glass were Mr. and Mrs. D, an elderly Jewish couple, picking up the pieces one by one with their bare hands and throwing it all into a bucket that stood between them.
During my childhood I had never seen a broken shop window; one with a scratch on it or that was cracked, yes, but never broken. Slowly I came to the realization that the window hadn’t broken by itself but that someone–the SA men, of course–had smashed it purposely so that they could drag out the Jews, Mr and Mrs. D., and force them to clean up the mess and thus publicly humiliate them. The SA men seemed to be having a good time, laughing and barking sarcastic instructions at the old couple while standing there with thumbs in webbing.
As for my Mödling fellow citizens viewing the spectacle, a few evidently found it all highly entertaining; I remember that one woman was ecstatically jumping up and down and clapping her hands. At the other end of the spectrum were those who took one look and continued on their way, having elsewhere witnessed similar scenes and not wanting to get involved. Most, however, were standing by with surprise and shock like myself, having never seen anything like this; on a few faces, but just a few, I saw horror and aversion.
As we older folks now know, all that was only the beginning, a prelude to the unspeakable crimes that National Socialism would perpetrate against Europe’s Jews and indeed all of Europe, including Germany, which would have to pay for it all with unprecedented death and destruction.
KURT AND ULRICH
In the 1930s in Mödling, which consisted of about twenty thousand souls, there were perhaps six or seven hundred Protestants, nearly all of them belonging to the so-called Ausgburg denomination; they were also called Lutherans or Evangelicals. Their church, which was quite small and humble compared with Mödling’s Catholic edifices, stood on a hill in a quiet middle-class neighborhood not far from the Old Town, and there my brother and I attended services every Sunday.
At the Gymnasium, we Protestant boys constituted about fifteen per cent of the student body; in normal times, it was impossible to discern any differences between students of the different faiths except when it came to religious instruction, which was required, regardless of whether one was a Catholic, Protestant, or Jew. While the Catholics were taught in their various classrooms by priests, we Protestant boys were all herded into a single room to receive religious instruction from a single pastor, and for Jewish boys it was much the same with a rabbi.
Among the Protestants were boys who hailed from old Lutheran families that had emigrated from Germany many generations back; to some students, such a descent was unclear or no longer recognizable. There were also a considerable number of Protestant boys of Jewish extraction, whose grandparents or parents had converted either out of conviction or to escape antisemitism. The latter had chosen Protestantism over Catholicism because the Protestants were quick to receive them with open arms and usually treated them more sympathetically. My grandfather, Arnold Schönberg, who had converted to Protestantism early on, was a good case in point; his children, my mother Trudi and my uncle Görgi were both baptized Protestants at birth. But then in 1933, when the Nazis took over in Germany, where Schönberg was then living, he returned to Judaism in protest against Hitler, and then later, in Los Angeles, he seemed to lean toward Catholicism, though he said that he regarded all monotheistic religions as different pathways to the same Deity and thus mutually compatible.
Protestant children of Jewish descent often knew nothing about their true heritage or else were so completely assimilated that they never gave the matter any thought, even if their father or mother at some point explained about the family’s change of religion. Protestants of non-Jewish descent were proud of their German ancestry and felt a strong bond with Protestant Germany; indeed, for that reason, a large percentage of those Protestants whose forbears were German became especially keen Nazis, even before the Anschluss, enthusiastically lining up behind Adolf Hitler way before their Catholic colleagues. The upshot was that with the Anschluss, the Protestant communities of the little Ostmark became split into two separate camps that would have nothing to do with one another and held one another in complete aversion—even though they practiced their religion within one and the same church.
In the Mödling Gymnasium, the most fanatical Nazis turned out to be a pair of brothers named Kurt and Ulrich, two such Aryan types. You have to imagine two very self-assured boys from a well-to-do family, both with dark brown hair and brown eyes, of average height, a bit chubby.
On the Monday after the Anschluss, my class was sitting at their desks, everyone very likely wondering who among us could be in favor of all the things that had been going on, who opposed. Certainly, there was very little enthusiasm in the air pro or con. Nobody wore a swastika in his lapel, and I don’t recall anyone saying “Heil Hitler!” or anything like that. We were all just waiting for our teacher to arrive.
Suddenly, all eyes focused on the door. Kurt and Ulrich had just come in, both in brand-new outfits that looked as if they’d been fitted by a high-class tailor: khaki shirts set off by a black necktie and short black pants with white knee socks. On each left arm there was no mistaking it: a red armband boasting a rotated black swastika set off by a white diamond.
All of this we perceived in just a moment, because the next thing we knew there were the two of them with arms stiffly raised, barking out, “Heil Hitler!” Then they, our first members of the Hitler Jugend, walked, or rather strutted, to their benches like a pair of roosters, and sat down.
On closer examination, each had on a wide black belt with a narrower cross-strap. More important yet, from the belt hung a leather sheath with the ornate handle of a dagger protruding from it. Imagine it, we all thought covetously, Hitler Jugend get to wear daggers–real daggers! And it wasn’t long before our two newly converted classmates were showing them off to one and all.
“Genuine German steel from the Solingen works,” said Kurt, the older.
“Oh, and by the way, there’s a terrific movie being shown that everyone must see,” said Ulrich, barely able to contain his enthusiasm. It was about a brave, young fellow named Quex who had decided to join the battle against the Commies and follow his Führer and had been martyred in the process. The name of this movie was Hitlerjunge Quex, and it was being shown in the Mödling movie theater, for free! Every boy from a good German family was allowed in, and once having seen it, he should decide if he wanted to join the Hitler Jugend. Of course, no one would be forced to join: it was quite up to each individual, but still—
Kurt added that children under the age of fourteen were not yet ready for membership, but there was an organization for them, too, called the Jungvolk ( “little people”), and they were appropriately nicknamed Pimpfe (“wolf cubs”). If you proved your worth in the Pimpfe, you’d later be admitted to the Hitler Jugend. From there, in time, you could join the SA, which was the Führer’s weapon against the Reds and other enemies of the people and was responsible for peace and order in the land. SA men wore a brown uniform, black boots, and a large red armband with a black swastika on a round white background. Another possibility was the SS, who were primarily responsible for the safety of the Führer and other National Socialist leaders and were ready to die a hero’s death for them. SS men wore two emblems and so on....
Yes, that Kurt, my fellow Protestant, had been attending illegal meetings for years and knew a thing or two about Die Deutsche Arbeitsfront (“German Labor Front”), Kraft Durch Freude (“Strength Through Joy”), the NS Frauenschaften (“Women’s Organization”) and the BDM for girls, the NS Deutscher Lehrerbund (“Teachers’ Association”), and, of course, the all- powerful NS Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party) itself.
From that day forward, Kurt and Ulrich became the unofficial—and who knows, perhaps official—liaison between the NSDAP and our class, and this was manifested by their continuing to talk even after our teacher had entered the room. Before this era, such behavior would have been considered intolerable. The rule of thumb was for everyone to fall silent and rise to their feet as soon as a teacher appeared and to remain standing until he called out “Setzt euch” (“sit down”). Now with Kurt and Ulrich holding sway, the only way our teacher could regain control was by putting on a benevolent smile while they spoke and then saying after a few minutes, “Also, meine Herren Kurt und Ulrich, sehr interresant und vielen Dank für Ihre Ausführungen, aber jetzt...” (“Well, well, my dear Kurt and dear Ulrich, all this is very interesting and we thank you for your explanations, and now I have some announcements to make, and then we should return to our studies”).
With the Anschluss, matters began going downhill elsewhere in the Mödling Gymnasium. Many teachers were transferred or quietly discharged; even Herr D., the principal, was forced to resign, his replacement a young gym instructor of National Socialist persuasion. D. was a small man, pale and old, but for us students, he seemed a giant, that is, though severe, he was decent, and while we feared him, we also respected and even loved him.
I will never forget the day when he had all of us gather in the courtyard to hear him deliver his farewell address from the balcony. His voice trembled as he declared his hope that our school would continue to serve the nation by working toward the betterment of society through science and to assure the preservation of peace. His words were not the salient part of his speech, though they were far more fraught with meaning than any of us suspected at the time. What struck us students the most was the sadness and bewilderment in the old man’s voice.
I can only describe the gym instructor’s speech, which followed, as idiotic, all about the new era that had just begun and the enormous service that we and our Gymnasium would be fortunate enough to render to the German nation from today on. We boys should consider ourselves lucky to have been born into this era so as to bear witness to the great changes that would result from this new chapter in German history. He wound up this harangue with a resounding “Sieg Heil!,” which he repeated three times. Then he and several other faculty members of the “new persuasion” sang “Deutschland Über Alles,” whose melody we boys knew only too well, since it was also that of the Austrian national anthem.
Actually, besides Kurt and Ulrich, there were only a handful of Hitler Jugend members at the Gymnasium, but now with the Anschluss, they began making a big noise. Their task was not all that difficult because no one was allowed to interfere with their efforts. Also, stories began to circulate that showed how inadvisable it was to say the least little negative thing about the Führer or Party. In fact, it was considered “unhealthy” even to have a neutral attitude, for as the Nazis were fond of saying, “He who is not for us is against us. And he who is against us will be eliminated.”
The next thing you knew, everyone at the Gymnasium felt that they were being watched and began worrying that their behavior was not “Deutsch” enough. Student and teacher alike were now expected to greet one another with “Heil Hitler!” instead of the traditional “Grüss Gott” or “Guten Tag.” Everyone had their eye on everyone else and took to wondering who was joining the Hitler Jugend and who wasn’t, why some students remained quiet and aloof during political talk, which of the teachers were bona fide Nazis and which were only trying to create the impression that they were, who among the enthusiasts for the New Order was really sincere and who was merely pretending.
It wasn’t long before the persecution of Jewish students began. To give an example, in my class there was a Jewish boy named Toch, who was very small for his age–a quiet, pale little fellow—and an orphan, if I remember correctly. The Nazis in the class took to picking on him, often shoving him around and even smacking him on the head. Other non-Jewish classmates, including myself, were not happy with this behavior, but no one dared to say anything.
One day matters took a turn for the worse. In our classroom next to the rostrum was a bookcase with glass doors where textbooks and school supplies were kept. Because Toch was so small, the Hitler Jungen got the idea of putting him in there and locking the door so the Jew was on display like an animal in a cage. I can still remember Toch silently looking out at us; somehow in his uncomplaining demeanor, there was an air of nobility and at the same time of contempt for his uniformed tormentors and their cowardice.
After a while, the teacher entered the classroom and was startled to see the little guy imprisoned and on display. Realizing at once whose work this was, he saw that he couldn’t condone the Nazis’ behavior but yet might be leaving himself open to suspicion if he came to the Jew’s rescue. So he did the only thing he could. Walking over to the bookcase, he opened the door and asked little Toch, “How did you get in here?”
The boy was also a wise owl. “Sir, they locked me in” he answered, pointing in the direction of the class without singling anyone out.
“Let’s have it now, who did this?” the teacher asked the class severely.
Immediately Kurt and Ulrich piped up: “It was us! We were only having some fun!”
“I see,” said the teacher, “So now you’ll lift him back out”—which they proceeded to do. “And I don’t want to see anything like this happening again!” he made it clear. “You’re just lucky the glass didn’t break!”
And there the matter ended, with the teacher making no report about it to the principal’s office, as would have been customary in normal times. Had he done so then, what with the new Nazi principal, things would very likely have ended badly for him. At the same time, it was clearly driven home to us that Jews were outlaws now, like game to a hunter, and at anyone’s mercy....
Yes, wherever one turned both within and without the Gymnasium, the familiar was fast disappearing, and the new and unfamiliar taking root. Everything was being reorganized and gleichgeschaltet–adapted to conform to the New Order–and teachers were beginning to urge students to join the Hitler Jugend. Also, the principal’s office was now requiring exact information about each student’s racial descent, especially about whether they had Jewish forebears.
Kurt and Ulrich were soon being regarded as authorities on the subject, and both of them had no compunction about interrupting our teacher to explain this or that National Socialist principle or to discuss an event in the history of the Movement. On one occasion they launched into a discussion that featured a definition of the concept of “Jew.” The sticky part came if a person had non-Jewish parents but two or more Jewish grandparents, in which case he was a Mischling (“half-breed”) and would therefore be excluded from membership in the Hitler Jugend and other Nazi Party organizations. One’s status became more complicated for those with only one Jewish grandparent or quarter-Jews, who could conceivably be accepted into the German Volksgemeinschaft (“folk community”), provided that they hadn’t inherited a hook nose, thick lips, or frizzy hair. It was assumed that such non-Aryan features would completely disappear in the future generations.
According to these definitions, my mother probably would have been considered a full Jew, as would her father, the “anti-folkish degenerate” composer Arnold Schönberg. My brother and I would thus have been classified as Mischlinge (“mixed breeds” or “mutts”). Added to this, my Aryan father, husband to Trudi and son-in-law of the notorious composer, was a communist and had written anti-Nazi articles. Clearly, with recent developments in Mödling, it was getting to be time for us all to go, and go we did at the end of May, as I have already indicated.
If you recall, Walter W., one of my best friends who was also a classmate, emigrated to Argentina five months after we left. In one of his letters to me, now safely in New York City, Walter wrote me to fill me in concerning the fate of Kurt and Ulrich.
One day they were both absent from school, and then they didn’t turn up the next day either. No one made very much of it; perhaps they were sick or had gone to a party meeting in Vienna or even on a jaunt to the Old Reich, as Germany proper was referred to.
On the third day, there they were back in their old places, but clearly something about them was different—very different! They were no longer in their Hitler Jugend outfits, that’s right, no khakis, no knotted black tie, no armband with the tilted swastika, no black belt—and no dagger! All they had on were just plain “civies,” like the rest of the class.
While they were waiting for the teacher to come in, one of the boys ventured the question: “Now you’re wearing regular clothes, right?”
Kurt only answered that their father had asked them to stop wearing their uniforms. After that, he and Ulrich avoided everyone as much as possible so as not to be maneuvered into being more explicit. Resultantly, all sorts of rumors began to circulate: that their father had resigned from the Party or perhaps had even been thrown out, that the boys had had a fight with their Hitler Jugend leader, even that the uniforms were at the cleaners.
From then on, both boys seemed to do a lot less talking in their classes; indeed, the Hitler Jugend seemed to have suddenly and inexplicably lost all of its glamor for them. At the same time, both of them quite suddenly and curiously developed a keen interest in “alien” subjects like chemistry and natural history and became extremely respectful toward their teachers.
One day the truth came out: as the old saying goes, all that glitters is not gold. Kurt and Ulrich had indeed joined the Nazi youth movement in 1936, when it was illegal, and participated in many rallies, all with their father’s blessing. Then came the Anschluss, and both boys were accepted into the Hitler Jugend with open arms, valued as “old fighters” for National Socialism. But then in 1938, after all the excitement had died down, things had to be done in a more systematic way and rules had to be followed. As a matter of course, just a formality, every member of the Hitler Jugend had to submit proof of his Aryan ancestry—and that’s when the awful truth came out. Their father was a pure Aryan, but their mother was not. In fact, all four of her grandparents had been Jews and, even in spite of their conversion, that’s what they were defined as and she nothing less than the same, a Rassenjüdin (“full Jewess”).
So it was all over for Kurt and Ulrich–no more swastika, no dagger, no Führer. They were half-Jews, Mischlings, like Walter and, indeed, like my brother and myself. They should consider themselves lucky if they were left in peace. And a parting piece of advice for them: the Mödling Gymnasium was now a German school for pure Germans, the sooner they left the better.
On the afternoon of the third Sunday in April 1938—and but three weeks before our departure for America—there was a loud, urgent rapping at our door and our father’s voice calling from outside, “Trudi, come quickly!”
My mother dropped whatever she was doing and rushed for the vestibule, and we boys ran after her, for obviously something was wrong, very wrong.
What greeted our eyes when she opened was indeed painful to behold. On my father’s chin there was a large bandage held fast by some strips of adhesive tape. The rest of his face was swollen, and the whites of his eyes all red. He looked terrible!
“For God’s sake, what happened?” Trudi yelled as she half-supported him inside.
Felix tried to answer, but his voice faltered. Then he tried again and spoke haltingly, almost in a whisper: “I had an accident.” It seems that on his way home he had narrowly missed colliding with another biker, gone into a skid, and landed on his face. He walked to the hospital, where they put some stitches in his chin and then sent him home.
Trudi gave a more precise version of what happened in a letter to Schönberg, my grandfather, dated April 30: “My husband was hurt in a street accident last week: concussion, dislocated jaw (maybe fractured), numerous abrasions, lacerations, and contusions. Five stitches, two broken teeth.” And Felix added: “I have to lie in bed for a few days. But fortunately Trudi is taking care of me like a sick child. I hope our visit materializes soon, I think the sea air would work wonders for me. At the moment I’m unable to chew and am living on scrambled eggs, milk, and Griesskoch (“semolina gruel”).
Trudi wrote again a month later, this time aboard the S.S. Königstein on the way to the New World, intending to mail the letter after they reached New York: “As you can well imagine, it has been impossible to write a straight sentence until now.” And then she gave Papa an account of what had really happened, keeping it brief and without invective because they were, after all, on a German ship flying the swastika flag, and one never knew who might get into what: Felix did not have a bicycle accident but was beaten up by SA men (“storm troopers”).
Felix and Trudi never told us boys what really happened, remaining silent on the subject until the end of their days. I guess they wanted to spare us the awful truth about how close we had come to never leaving and even dying there in Austria.
Now in my eighties, I have only recently learned about it, many years after the fact, at the Schoenberg Center in Vienna. Writing to Arnold Schönberg on June 11, 1938, from the safety of New York, Felix “told all”:
Auf das Affidavit haben wir solange es nur irgendwie gegangen ist gewartet. Ich bin überzeugt, dass es von der Zensur zerstört worden ist. Diese Zensur hat sicher noch ganz andere Bosheiten geleistet. Ich weiss positiv von Fällen wo man Leuten grundlos ihre Pässe abgenommen und zerissen hat. Du kannst das sicher alles nicht verstehen, weil Du es nicht mitgemacht hast und Dein persönliches Rechtsgefühl sich dagegen auflehnt, so etwas zu glauben, aber diese Dinge lassen sich mit einem Satz erklären: Deutschland ist kein Rechtsstaat mehr.
Ich will Dir nun über meine Verletzung schreiben, bitte Dich aber niemandem davon zu erzählen. Ich habe es hier noch niemandem gesagt, aus den gleichen Gründen, die Du in Deinem Brief selbst angibst. Einigemale hat es jetzt in Österreich, jedesmal ca. 3 Tage lang, einen sogenannten “Judenboykott”, lies “Pogrom”, gegeben. Die Juden wurden, zu dieser Volksbelustigung aus ihren Geschäften und Wohnungen geholt, und mussten z.B. mit Ölfarbe ihre Firmenschilder mit dem Wort “SAUJUDE” übermalen, oder man hat sie die, von der Schuschniggregierung noch überall vorhandenen Vaterländischen Frontzeichen mit Lauge abwaschen lassen. Bei dieser Gelegenheit hat man dem Geiger Feuermann heisse Lauge über die Hände geschüttet, so dass ihm die Haut in Fetzen heruntergegangen ist.
An einem solchen Tage habe ich nun mitansehen müssen, wie man eine alte Dame gezwungen hat, ein Schuschniggplakat wegzuwaschen. Weil sie nicht schnell genug war, hat man sie während der Arbeit mit einem Stock geschlagen. Und nur daraufhin, dass ich gesagt habe: “Das ist aber eine unnötige Roheit” (oder so ähnlich, ich weiss nicht mehr genau) habe ich von links hinten ( ! ) einen Hieb mit irgendeinem harten Gegenstand, vermutlich Schlagring—bekommen. Der Schlag muss mit grosser Kraft geführt worden sein, denn mein Kiefer war ausgerenkt, ist aber, weil ich instinktiv sofort Kaubewegungen gemacht habe, gleich wieder ins Gelenk zurückgesprungen. Ich war vollkommen benommen und habe zweimal einen fruchtlosen Versuch unternommen aufzustehen, was mir erst beim drittenmal gelungen ist. Während dieser Zeit hat jemand (daran kann ich mich nur dunkel erinnern) mit einem Stock auf mich losgeschlagen. Jedenfalls hatte ich nachher in den Beinen und auf der Brust, blaue Flecken und kleine Risswunden.
Nachdem ich aufgestanden war, hat sich—Gott sei Dank—niemand mehr um mich gekümmert. Leider war Sonntag und mein Hausarzt nicht zu Hause. Da ich aber eine lange offene Risswunde im Kinn hatte, die unbedingt genäht werden musste, bin ich ins Spital gegangen, wo ich versucht habe, das Ganze als einen Strassenunfall darzustellen. Man hat mir zwar offensichtlich nicht geglaubt (wie auch der Text der nachträglichen Rechnung bestätigt hat), aber der diensthabende Arzt war sehr anständig und hat mich, ohne viel zu fragen, genäht. 6 Nadeln, Preis RM 4.50. Einen Zahn ganz, einen teilweise habe ich eingebüsst. Gott sei Dank waren sie rechts. Beide nicht vorne. Mein Kiefer ist von der ganzen Geschichte heute noch geschwollen, da die ganze Muskulatur selbstverständlich stark gezerrt war. Die Narbe sieht jetzt wie ein Schmiss aus und ist, da sie am unteren Kinnrand sitzt, nur wenig sichtbar, Gott sei Dank.
Ich habe von diesem Vorfall niemandem den wahren Sachverhalt erzählt, selbst meinen nächsten Freunden nicht, weil ich grosse Angst hatte, dass die Sache herumerzählt und publik wird und man mir dann, unter der Ausrede die S.A. wird schon wissen, warum sie mich geschlagen hat, den Pass abnehmen könnte. Trotzdem hat mir mein verbundenes Gesicht bei den Ämtern vieles erschwert, da in diesen Tagen jeder sich sofort das Richtige gedacht hat. Zu allem dazu habe ich noch, (vermutlich als nervöse Reaktion), ein “fliegendes Ödem” bekommen. Das ist eine an sich ungefährliche Sache, die nur ein paar Tage dauert. Aber Gesicht und Hände schwellen dabei stellenweise stark an. Ich muss fürchterlich, geradezu grostesk, ausgesehen haben. Ich selbst habe gelacht, wie ich mich im Spiegel gesehen habe, aber ein gewinnendes Äusseres war das gerade nicht. Dabei konnte ich vor Zerrungsschmerzen kaum sprechen. Noch im Schiff konnte ich viele gute Sachen nicht essen, weil ich beim Kauen Schmerzen hatte. Jetzt ist das aber vorbei, wie überhaupt die Freude, aus dieser Hölle draussen zu sein, viel zur Heilung beigetragen hat.
Here is a translation for those who cannot read German:
We waited as long as possible for your affidavit. I am sure that it was destroyed by the censorship. These people were responsible for far worse dirty tricks than that. I positively know of cases where victims’ passports were taken away without cause and torn to pieces. You probably cannot understand any of this, because you have not experienced it, and your personal sense of justice rebels against any notion of believing such acts can take place. However, these things can be explained in one sentence: Germany is no longer a country under the rule of law.
Now let me describe to you the matter of my injury, but please tell no one about it. I haven’t told anyone here for the same reasons which you mention in your own letter. Several times there took place in Austria, for about 3 days each time, a so-called Jewish boycott, read “pogrom.” As a popular entertainment, Jews would be dragged out of their stores and apartments and, for example, had to paint with oil paint the word “SAUJUDE” (Jewish pig) on their firm’s name plate. Or, they were forced to use a caustic solution to wash off the Vaterländische Front signs of the Schuschnigg government, which were still to be found everywhere. It was on such an occasion that the violinist Feuermann had a hot solution poured over his hands so that his skin came off in strips.
It was on a day like this that I had to look on how an old lady was forced to wash off a Schuschnigg poster. Because she wasn’t fast enough, she was beaten with a stick while she was working. Whereupon I said “isn’t this an unnecessary cruelty?” (or something similar, I don’t remember exactly), following which I received a blow from the left side behind me, with some kind of hard object, probably brass knuckles. The blow must have been made with great force, because my jaw was dislocated. However, because I instinctively made immediate chewing motions, it snapped back into the joint right away. I was in a complete daze and twice tried to get up, unsuccessfully. Only the third time did I succeed. During this time someone (I can barely recall) kept beating me with a stick. In any case, afterwards I had blue marks and small lacerations on my legs and chest.
After I had gotten up, no one—thank God—paid any more attention to me. Unfortunately it was a Sunday and my regular doctor was not in. But, because I had a long open laceration on my chin, which had to sewed up without delay, I went to the hospital. There I tried to describe the whole incident as a street accident. While apparently no one believed me (as shown in the text of the pertinent bill,) the doctor on duty was a decent man and sewed me up without asking any more questions. 6 needles, price Reichsmark 4.50. I lost one tooth entirely and one in part. Thank God they were on the right side, neither one of them in front. My jaw is still swollen from all this, even today, since the entire muscle structure was severely pulled. The scar now looks like a duelling gash and is, because it sits at the bottom of my chin, hardly visible, thank God.
I have told no one about the true circumstances of this event, not even my closest friends, because I was very much afraid that if it was talked about and became public, they would take away my passport, under the pretext that “the storm troopers must have known why they beat him up.” Still, my bandaged face made things more difficult for me in the various offices, because in those days everyone immediately guessed correctly. In addition to all that, I came down (probably as a nervous reaction), with a “fliegendes Oedem” (flying edema). By itself this is not a dangerous affliction, and it lasts only a few days. But both face and hands swell up noticeably. I must have looked awful, downright grotesque. Even I had to laugh when I looked at myself in the mirror; this was not exactly a winning appearance. Moreover, because of the pulled muscles in my jaw, I could hardly speak. Even on the boat there were many good things I couldn’t eat because of my pains when chewing. However, now all this is in the past, not to mention the fact that the joy of being out of that hell, has contributed greatly to my recovery.
How eventful that year was, that 1938. It started out in a quite normal, even humdrum, fashion, with no thought on my part of more than a predictable life as a citizen of the tiny state of Austria. Then, in February the Nazi offensive began in earnest, with Schuschnigg’s humiliation at Berchtesgaden, followed by the Anschluss in March and the changes that came about with the Wehrmacht’s occupation of the Ostmark. The Gymnasium, friends and neighbors, even the language—nothing remained the same as Hitler and his underlings marched unstoppably toward war.
For me, life was all about the upheavals at school, the Latin lesson, the weeks of tension before our departure for the New World. Then came the ocean trip on a ship-to-nowhere and, finally, the promised land. There would be school again in a new, huge, exciting, multinational city, Fourth-of-July parades, and a multitude of other new, exciting experiences—all within the span of four months. Never before or ever since have I lived so intensely, gone through so many crises, grown up so quickly in such a short time. Nineteen thirty-eight was indeed a year to remember—and, yes, it was also a year to forget.