The next morning was another beautiful mild spring day and after a hearty breakfast at the hotel we went for another stroll. This time we headed out towards the Opraring and the Ringstrasse as our initial destination was the Kunsthistoriches Museum which contains the amazing art collection of the Hapsburg’s. I remember being struck by the beautiful gardens we passed with lilacs in full bloom and gardens full of newly bloomed and brightly colored tulips.
When we arrived at the museum Pops chose to sit on a bench opposite the statue of Empress Marie Theresa while I gave the museum the once over. It was not that he did not like the museum but the standing and the stairs would be a challenge for him. And moreover, despite the sophisticate he was, he had a low tolerance for museums. 30 minutes to an hour and he was done. Add to that the fact he had been there before, sitting in a garden, soaking in the Viennese spring seemed ideal choice for Dad..
The collection of paintings and antiques were amazing in their depth and scope. But what struck me most of all was the realization that this had been an Empire, for five centuries a leading power in Europe and Vienna its capital. And for a time, it was the center of the Universe. And then, after World War 1 they were suddenly an insignificant capital, in an insignificant country. It helped me understand the Anschluss and why most Austrians accepted annexation by Germany and becoming part of the Reich. They wanted their empire back.
Gaining an understanding of Austria’s vainglory did not diminish my contempt and anger at what they had done in their misguided attempt to reclaim empire. It was said while Germans were successful anti Semites, Austrian’s were pro’s. Worse, the Austrians had never fully accepted their role in the Holocaust.
My tour did not take long as, like my old man, I have a imited tolerance for museums. I love the art. I love the history but if I take any longer than an hour in a museum I get cranky. I found my father sitting on his bench, enjoying the spring sunshine and it looked as if he might have even managed to slip a quick nap in while he waited for me. I asked him if he was tired and told him if he wanted we go back to the hotel we could. He needed to be up for what was next and did not want to push him too hard. What was to come next would require a huge reservoir of emotional energy that would be a challenge even for me. He told me he was ready in a way that suggested that he thought I was coddling him. To prove himself ready, he set off at a brisk pace to the Karlsplatz, a light rail station, a few blocks away. When we arrived my father without seeking guidance from anyone picked the #44 trolley and jumped on board.
I asked my father “We’re Jews allowed to take the trolley after Krystalnacht?”
He pursed his lips into a pucker, as if he was sucking on a sour memory, and said “No.” I wanted to ask him how he got around but I could tell he was far away and no doubt my questions would annoy him so I got lost in my own thoughts instead.
Our destination that morning was #48 Ottakringer Strasse, the apartment where my father was born and lived his entire life until he left Vienna in 1939. It was a central part of our family mythology about my father’s childhood. My grandparents were very poor. My grandfather worked in abattoir, cleaning hides and getting them ready to be tanned. A job that was brutal on the body and crushed the soul for very little money. My grandmother worked as a seamstress making handmade ties at home. All they could afford was a two-room apartment that had a kitchen, where my father slept, and a living room where my grandparents slept. The bathrooms were shared privy’s at the end of the hallway and the refrigerator was, weather permitting, the ledge outside their window. It is this apartment that the Nazi’s invaded on Krystalnacht and arrested my grandfather and terrified my father.
My father, who never talked to us about that night, wrote to us what he called a “minor memorandum” on the 50th Anniversary of that awful night.
A MINOR MEMORANDUM TO MY CHILDREN
ON THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF KRYSTALLNACHT,
NOVEMBER 9 AND 10, 1938
I don’t intend to make this a big deal literary effort or a weepy emotional debauch. I simply want to tell you what I remember about Krystallnacht. So you should remember as well. And if there are to be others like us, so you can tell them. Nothing big! Just a small and portable lesson about the planet we live on and the hazards of being a little different.
Krystallnacht did not start for me until November 10, 1938. I knew that von Rath had been shot by Gruenspan but I knew nothing about what was happening all over Germany during the night of the ninth. I was 12 years (12 10/12 ths )old and I was asleep.
I was still lying in my bed, at about seven on the morning of November 10, when there was loud knocking on our door. I heard my father and mother (your grandparents ) talking to some people. Several stormtroopers (SA) had come to arrest Jewish men. The entrance to our apartment was through the kitchen and all this was taking place in the kitchen. After a few minutes I heard one of the Brownshirts ask whether there were any other male Jews in the apartment. Grandma said only my little boy. I dont think they believed her because they came into our mainroom, where my bed was. I closed my eyes and pretended I was asleep. They came to my bed and they looked at me and they must have decided either that I was too young, or that I looked too fierce to mess around with since there were only six of them. So they took just grandpa with them and they left.
As we later found out, they took grandpa to the local police station. From there they marched him and others to the Rossauer Kaserne, a military barracks. He was lucky because he had a roof over his head. Many other Jewish men were taken to a large soccer stadium and did not have a roof over their head.
Grandpa had been fired from his regular job as a bristle processor a couple months before. He was earning some money by helping a carter hauling the furniture of Jews that had been kicked out of their apartments. The cart was pulled by one brown horse. Grandpa had a job scheduled for that morning.
Grandma sent me to help the carter in grandpa’s place. May- be grandma was a tough Hungarian cookie who did not want the Rothkopf’s reputation as men of their word sullied, or maybe we needed the money, or perhaps she wanted me out of her hair so that she and Aunt Mitzi ( who lived in the next apartment and whose son Walter and friend Albert were already on the way to Dachau) could weep in peace.
I don’t remember exactly where I met the carter but it was at his client’s apartment near the Jewish section of Vienna. We loaded the wagon with furniture. I sat next to the driver on the high bench behind the horse. Then the brown horse slowly pulled us through the streets towards the place where we had to make our delivery.
Groups of people were standing in front of the broken windows of Jewish stores, gawking while Brownshirts were putting their owners through their paces — handing over business papers, washing the sidewalk with lye, licking Aryan employees shoes clean. Anything that would keep the cultured Viennese crowds amused. We passed a narrow street that led to one of Vienna’s larger synagogue. The alley was jammed with jeering onlookers. Stormtroopers were throwing furniture and Torah scrolls through the big main door into the street. One side of the roof (I couldnt see the other and you know what a sceptic I am ) was afire. I remember very vividly the twists of whitish-yellow smoke that were curling up the slope of blue tiles.
Farther on we passed another synagogue that was fully ablaze. The police had made people stand back from it. I suppose they feared for their safety. A fire truck was parked down the street. The firemen were leaning against their equipment, talking and smoking cigarettes. Everywhere there were clusters of people, in a holiday mood, gathering around smashed Jewish stores. Little groups of Jews, both men and women, were being led along the sidewalk flanked by squads of SA men. The Jews were made to do all sorts of menial chores. Someone told me later, that one elderly Jew asked to go to the toilet. They made him go in a bucket and then forced him to eat his feces.
By now I was beginning to figure out what was going on. I sat high on my horsey throne (just like the Duke of Edinburgh when he drives his high-stepping pair, except that I didn’t wear an apron ). Whenever we passed a sidewalk event or other happening, I pulled down the wings of my nostrils (I thought I looked more Christian that way), staring straight ahead, but watching the Nazi street theatre out of the corners of my eyes. The driver, who was also Jewish, was a hard old soul. I dont remember him saying a single word to me, all day, about what was going on. Maybe he thought I was too young to hear about such things.
I dont remember much more detail. I got paid. The trolley I went home on was crowded. I kept staring out the window so that people wouldn’t notice the handsome Jewishness of my face. Beyond the rattling trolley panes, the peculiar happenings of November 10, 1938 were still in progress here and there, even as the day’s light was fading.
When I got home, grandma and Mitzi were still weeping. They had just come back from the police station but grandpa and the other Jews were no longer there.
Grandpa came home ten days later. He had spent that time in a room with 500 other people and one water faucet. They did a lot of military drill ( was this the beginning of the Hagganah ?) and exercises — push-ups, deep kneebends, and the like. Some who didn’t do so well got beaten up. He never told me whether they did anything to him. But then I wouldn’t tell you either. Grandpa was lucky. A lot of the Jewish men who were arrested on the 9th and 10th of November were sent to the concentration camp at Dachau.
Not one single synagogue was left intact in all of Vienna. That really screwed me up because I was nearly thirteen. You need to have a Torah to become a Bar Mitzwah and you need to have a table on which to lay the scroll while you read. And how was I to get a fountain pen now?
The dead, of course, are dead. They are mourned by those who remember. Tears dry. Bruises heal. Razed synagogues become parking lots. Injured dignity heals although slowly. What hurts most to this day is impotent compassion for those who were swept away.
In order to have faith in our quality as human beings, we need to remember! And thats why I am writing you this note.
As the trolley made its way I recalled the words my father had written nearly 20 years before and I tried to imagine what it must have been like as a 12 year old boy to have to have your house broken into the middle of the night, have your father taken from you, perhaps never to return and then being forced to go and do your fathers job, while atrocities were happening all around you, because you needed the money so badly that you didn’t have a choice. What must have it been like to see your neighbors making your co-religionists lick their boots and clean their sidewalks with toothbrushes. To see your synagogue burn to the ground just days before you were to become a bar mitzvah after studying for years to achieve this milestone right of passage.
I couldn’t imagine what he had gone through.
My father jostled my arm to get my attention and said “We’re here.”
There, astride the corner of OttakringerStrasse and Bergsteggasse was a 4 story, L shaped Belle Epoque building, the color of ripe hay, with a mansard roof. The main entrance to the building was a beveled corner at the intersection above which a blue and white sign with “48” printed on it. Embracing the outside of the building was a small café with a blue awning that looked as if it was the place where the neighborhood drank its coffee and beer.
Pops pointed at the building and said “See the third floor, 2nd window over, that was our apartment.” A feeling of déjà vu rippled through me as I realized my father and I had this very same conversation over 40 years previously on my first and only trip to Vienna. It was so long ago that fragments of the trip are all that remain in my consciousness. My parents cutting me off after my third hot chocolate. Seeing a Tom and Jerry cartoon in German.
I had, when I thought about this moment in preparation for the trip, realized that coming back to his childhood must evoke powerful memories and emotions for my father. More than just the Holocaust and all it wrought. But of motherly hugs, and family gatherings. Of fatherly love and the complicated man Marcus had been both loving and angry and the occasional beatings these unexorcised emotions would generate. A childhood of happiness and deprivation that would help create the man that would one day be the father that his children adored.
Now we were here at the site of those sweet and sour memories and for a moment was so overcome with the emotion of the moment I needed to turn my back on Dad so he would not see my tears. Eventually, the light changed, and I followed him across the street.
We walked up the front steps and into the dark foyer of the building. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the lighting and when they did I saw a set of broad stairs that led up into the building. I turned to my father and asked “What are you thinking about? ”
He paused, reluctant to share his thoughts and replied “ I was thinking about the wife of the superintendent of the building. She was a nasty piece of work. She hated having Jews in the building and would scream at us kids every chance she could get. She would say vile things and scared the shit out of us.”
“Didn’t your mother say anything to her.”
“What could she say without getting us thrown out of the building or worse.”
I decided to change the subject. “Really, no bathrooms in your apartments.”
He smiled and said “Yes. If you had to go the bathroom you had go down the hall. Except when I small and we kept a honey pot in the kitchen so I wouldn’t have to go outside…. The Super’s wife always yelled that we were fouling the bathrooms and making her life miserable.” He paused and said “You should go up and look.”
I replied “No. I have seen enough and I don’t want to have explain myself to the current tenants. Lets go outside and get a beer.”
Once seated, and beer ordered. I asked “When you got to Vienna at the end of the War how did you find a place to stay.”
“You have to remember that Vienna, at the time was an occupied city. I went to Army HQ and asked them to assign me visiting officer’s quarters. I can remember they had a hard time finding me space as the city had a lack of housing due to the war and eventually assigned me a room that I had to share with another officer.”
“Did you two get along.”
“Yeah he loved that I was a native and I knew where everything was and could of course speak the language.” There he hesitated as if contemplating whether he should share something with me and then said “He even tried to recruit me. “
“Recruit you how.”
“He wanted me to stay in Vienna and help them with intelligence work. He thought that I might be an asset.”
“Really!” I said honestly surprised. “What unit was he in?”
“I can’t remember.”
“I remember that his arm patch had a horse’s head, like a chess piece on it.” (Years later I would surmise from checking out arm patches on Wikipedia that this was the insignia of the 650th Military Intelligence Group.)
“Why didn’t you do it?”
He smiled at me, into a benevolent way that suggested that there was no way that I would understand what he would say, and replied “I wanted to get back to school.”
He was probably right to think that I wouldn’t understand because to me it sounded like he could have been James Bond if he wanted. Even at 50 I couldn’t understand giving that up. But thinking about this years later, knowing what I know now, I realize that my father had already lived too exciting a life. That what he craved was a less interesting, not more interesting, life. All things considered I could appreciate that.
I said “I didn’t mean to go down the side track. What I wanted to get to is what was required of visiting officers.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what did you wear. You didn’t wear fatigues or civilian clothes. You wore your class A’s right?”
“So did you come here when you came back looking for your relatives.”
“And did you see your landlady.”
“And did she recognize you despite the fact you were 4 years older and had grown a foot since last you seen her and were now an officer in the US Army?”
“How did she react?”
He looked away from me and I could see on his face that he was retrieving a very specific moment, likely in full 1040p resolution and Dolby sound and said “ She was scared.”
I smiled at his simple response and asked “How did that make you feel?”
He paused, as if a little ashamed of his emotion, and said “Great. ” I was not ashamed of the smile I had my face at the thought of a tormentor of my father scared of my father. The thought of it made my day.
We were quiet for a few moments and he said “Lets go for a walk. “
Crossing the street we headed down Weyprechtstrasse and after a block or so we paused and he said “This used to be a park where me and my friends would play football.”
I asked “Was it grass?”
“No, gravel. It used to cut it us pretty good.”
“I can imagine.”
We resumed our walk after a very short walk my father paused and pointed to a plaque on the side of a building. It read “Hier stand eine um 1885/86 nach planen des archiiteten Ludwig Tischler Erbautes Synaggoge. Zerstort in der Reichskristallnacht am 10.November 1938” (Translation: Here was a synagogue building built around 1885/86 after the plan of the architect Ludwig Tischler. Destroyed in the Reichskristallnacht on 10 November 1938.)
My father says, in a voice that is supposed to convey nonchalance but sends the exact opposite message “This is where my synagogue was before the bastards burned it down.” He paused and said something to me that he had said many times before “I didn’t even get a fountain pen” referring to a once traditional present for a young Jewish boy when he became Bar Mitzvah. This time, though, it struck me full force how hard he must have studied to become a bar mitzvah, how heartbroken, horrified, disappointed and devastated to see his temple be burn to the ground by a mob just weeks before fulfilling that dream. How that night changed his life forever. That every time he mentioned not getting that fountain pen, it meant more than not getting a gift, it meant the death of a dream and the end of whole period in his life.
It broke me and I started to weep and noticed my father was doing the same. I swore to myself there and then that I would get him his fountain pen and kept that promise later that year as a present for his 81st birthday. It must have meant something to him because after his death I found the card and the pen in his top desk drawer. The card read: “To Zaki ben Mordecai: Abba…a little late, but better late than never…Love Daniel Ben Zaki.”
We turned the corner and after a few more blocks came across another belle epoque building but this one had a huge gold coat of arms, a shield boarded by angels on its sides and a bust of Hermes above, on its façade. He pointed and said “That is where Litzi, Aunt Leni and Uncle Benno lived.”
“Litzi emigrated (alone) to Belgium, how or why I don’t remember, where a family named Weening became her foster parents. When the Germans invaded she fled with them to unoccupied France. They then made their way (on foot) across the Pyrenees, and then somehow Mrs. Weening, Lizzi, and her foster sister got themselves to Jamaica, where they were interned. Mr. Weening was badly wounded while serving with Dutch Forces in the Normandy Invasion.
“Yes. In fact Litzi says the woman who was taking care of things walked over the Pyranees wearing high heels”
“What about Benno and Lenni?”
“He was arrested in 1938 and sent first to Dachau and then transferred to Weimar-Buchenwald. Sometime in mid-1939 he was released on the condition that he leave Germany within 72 hours. He got a visa to Italy (Milan) where we saw him as we passed through in November 1939. Because his visa was no longer valid, he managed our meeting by leaping on our train while it was in the switching yard and then rode into the Milan station with us, where he managed to disappear immediately on the platform. The Italians finally interned him in a camp in Southern Italy (Alberobello and Ferramonte in Bari) . The British liberated the camp and he attached himself to the Jewish Brigade, whom he served as a laundry worker and later worked for American troops in Naples.
“Wow. The guy always scared me a little but he must have been some tough son of a bitch to survive all that. And Linni?”
“She stayed in Vienna, living underground what they called a u-boater.” One of her life savers was her gentile sister’s baptismal certificate. She never left. She hid with people all over the city. I think a good part of it in the red light district. “
“Unbelievable story. I can’t even imagine what they must have gone through” I replied and then mentally chastised myself because for years I had remembered them as the horrible couple who had babysat my brother and I whom hadn’t allowed me to have potato chips when I wanted them.
We walked a little farther down the road until we came across a white multiple story building with Schule Der Stadt Wien or School of the City of Vienna in red letters across the front of the building. He said “this is where I went to primary school.”
Deciding that we had been too serious for too long, I tried a little humor on him. I said “Is there a plaque somewhere.”
He smiled and replied “Smart ass.” And we walked on until we reached a very imposing, very federal looking building that said “Bundesfaschule fur wirschatliche Frauberlufe” which I in my very bad German roughly translated as “Federal School for Women.” Pops said “This is where I would have gone to High School.”
“But it says that it’s a woman school.”
“It wasn’t then.”
Then something occurred to me. “What do you mean would have gone to high school. I thought you started high school here.”
“No. I was about to but after Krystalnacht Jews weren’t allowed to attend secondary school.”
“Krystalnacht was in November of 1938 and you didn’t immigrate until a year later….What did you do with your days.”
His reply, slow coming as if he didn’t want to open up a can of worms said “I hung out with my friends. Lets get a cab.” I could tell he was tired and even though I wanted to know about what he had done during his year out of school I was quiet. I figured we would get there eventually and for now I was content to let my father have the peace of his own memories and for me to process all that I had learned that day.