The following afternoon found us in another cab. We had spent the morning doing errands among them going to the National Bank of Austria where my father banked a small pension given to those who had been forced to flee the Nazi’s and a quick stop for espresso and cake at Demels. Our destination on this sun drenched but alpine cool afternoon was to visit my father’s boyhood friend Paul Grosz. For the last several years he had been suffering with Parkinson’s disease. Recently, his symptoms of body tremors and stiffness, confusion, and an inability to communicate clearly had forced a hospitalization. As a consequence our first stop was to pick up Paul’s wife Henni at their home.
Despite being named for him, and being my father’s oldest if not best friend, I had only Paul twice in my life. The first time was on my only previous trip to Vienna when I was 7. My memories of that trip are few but I have a vivid memory of visiting the Furrier shop Paul owned. He gave me a mouse that was made out of mink that I adored. That is until I lost him. The other memory I had of him was when he had visited the United States shortly after I had become a Bar Mitzvah. In honor of becoming a man, he had given me a beautiful Seiko chronograph with an orange face that I wore for years and still cherish. Other than those two meetings, that he had been the leader of the Jewish Community in Vienna for decades, and the rare stories from my father’s childhood, I knew very little.
As the cab maneuvered in traffic I asked “When you returned to Vienna did you look for Paul?”
“How did you find him.”
“I went to the furrier shop his father owned. But he wasn’t there so I went to the apartment they used to live in and was told they had moved but the folks there had a forwarding address. I made my way over there and I found his mother. Paul was not there but she, in the best Viennese tradition and despite the shortages the war, invited me in for coffee and cake. While we were having coffee with her Paul arrived. ”
“That must have been one hell of a reunion? I mean you had done it. Survived. And then to just show up on his doorstep wearing the uniform of an officer in the American Army? That is a whole new definition of the term shock in awe!”
He paused and replied. “He just acted, as did I, like we had just seen other the week before. Hi Paul. Hi Ernst” He grinned, a self-satisfied smile and said “We didn’t need to anything more. We knew what it meant.”
“What did it mean?”
I nodded, knowing that while I understood the words, I had no idea what it really meant. I don’t think anyone who is not a survivor can understand the jumbled emotions that go along with that status. I asked “Why didn’t they leave?”
“It wasn’t that easy. You had to get permission to leave. You had to get permission to go somewhere else. We had your Uncle Max who managed to get us a visa to the US and I had gotten permission to immigrate to Palestine. There were limited spots and many were not that lucky. Some thought they could wait it out…survive the Nazi’s. I suspect because Paul’s Mom was a Christian and I Paul’s mother they thought they could wait it out. ”
“How did they manage to make it through? ”
“Paul’s mother’s family hid them and I think they spent some time living in the sewers. U-boaters.”
We fell into silence. I knew from a life of living with my father and how he told stories of those years during and surrounding the war that what happened was lmore complicated than the responses my father was giving me . I knew, for example, that at the beginning of the war nearly 200,000 jews were living in Vienna and that many, up to 130,000 had managed to find other places to live including places like Singapore. But those who left, left almost all their wealth and belongings. Where ever they went they had to begin their new life with little but the sentimental items like photographs and other family ephemera they managed to carry with them.
Of the 60,000 Jews left in Vienna when they closed the border only 2,000 survived the war. Paul had managed to win one of the most horrific lotteries of all time.
When we pull up in front of Paul’s home I am hit with another wave of Déjà vu. I had been here before when I was six. I remembered they had a back yard where my brother and I were delighted to be able to play after weeks of travel. I seemed to recall an airplane with a rubber band motor. As we walk up the front steps, we are met by Henni. She greets my father with hugs and kisses and then me with the same. She then steps back and taking us both in while commenting on how much we looked alike. We were ushered into her parlor because in proper Viennese fashion as she has prepared us a little cake and coffee so we would not go to the hospital with any hunger.
Over the coffee and cake she explains that Paul had been admitted to the hospital because his Parkinson’s had progressed to the point where he was no longer able to take care of himself, that his ability to speak had become limited and that the Dr’s had thought that a change in medication would help him with his tremors and communication. This had been going on for the past two weeks. She was, in the gentlest of ways, trying to prepare my father to see his oldest friend now altered by this horrible disease.
Vienna’s General Hospital is different than any hospital I had ever visited. It is a high rise. 22 stories tall with a motor lobby for cabs and cars drop offs and a mini mall that contains everything from flower shops to McDonalds. It was more like visiting an apartment complex in Miami Beach than a hospital that had originally been established in 17th century.
A high-speed elevator takes us to the 21st floor where Paul’s room is located. Hennie leads the way to Paul’s room with my father and me in her wake. He is not there. She suggests that my father go to the nurse’s station and see if they have seen Paul. Apparently, despite his currently being confined to a wheelchair and troubles speaking, he liked to socialize. While Henny and I remained guard outside Paul’s room my father made his way down the hall. There, in wheelchair, sat his old friend. My father walked up to him and when Paul recognized him, he pushed himself up slowly out of his wheelchair and despite tremors stood at attention for my father who returned the gesture. No words were spoken. Two old soldiers who had fought many battles together saluting each other without a word. 70 years of friendship encapsulated without a word. The silence a part of their code. Why speak of things that are not capable of being understood or where words are inadequate.
Their silent tribute to seven decades of friendship continues to be one of the most moving moments I have ever witnessed. The thought of it still brings me to tears.
It was decided that all of us trying to sit in Paul’s hospital room would be uncomfortable and an inconvenience to his roommate. Instead, after straightening Paul up a little bit and gathering up his caregiver, we all head downstairs to the Hospitals coffee house. I expected a little cafeteria space such as we have in our hospitals at home with too much Formica decorated in colors out some industrial design handbook with bad food that would increase a cardiologist’s bank account.
I should have known that in this city that invented the coffee house, where patisseries and pastries were part of their birthright, a hospital coffee shop would be far superior to what is found in the US. It was decorated in browns and brasses, the tables of real wood, with no Formica. The menu had everything from Schnitzel to Sachertorte. And apparently smoking was on the menu as well because everyone in the restaurant seemed to be smoking and a blue haze hung just below the ceiling.
We arranged ourselves around a square table. My father and Henny on side. Paul and I on the other with the caretaker sitting on the end closest to Paul. My father was an innately polite person. He had the ability to take awkward social situations and somehow ease them into the normal. For example, once when my brother and I were quite young, perhaps 6 and 7, we were having dinner one summer’s evening at mother’s mother home. She decided to serve as a starter cantaloupe soup. Not the normal cuisine for us kids who thought tomato soup and grilled American Cheese sandwiches were high billafare. We declined to eat the soup with ewws and grosses that might have made our grandmother feel badly. My father, in an effort to disguise the bad behavior of his children, told her how much he loved the cantaloupe soup and proceeded to eat both my brother’s and my portion. Family myth is that he was sick for days afterward.
Dad could tell that this was a very difficult situation for Paul. His verbal skills had deteriorated to the point where getting a word out was painfully labored. This was made even more tortuous by the fact he wanted to speak English so that I would feel a part of the conversation. As a consequence a pattern emerged pretty quickly at our table. I would ask a question and Paul would try to answer. If he got hung up or frustrated in finding the words my father would help him complete his thoughts. Paul would react and try to expand a little a to me.
After we had ordered coffee and some Austrian pastries my father told Paul that the reason we had come to visit was because I was interested in writing a story about what it must have been like for him, to return to the Vienna at the end of the War… a jewish boy forced to flee his homeland only to return a few later, a man and an officer in the conquering army.
This embarrassed me a bit. I am not a professional writer and I didn’t know if I could even write something worth reading. As I tried to conceal my discomfiture I asked Paul “What was your reaction, when you saw your old friend in your mother’s living room, wearing an US Army officer’s uniform?”
Paul glanced over at my father, and then back at me, his large eyes gleaming with a sense mischief and said in his halting tone. “It was good to see him.”
“Were you surprised?”
“No. I was pretty sure that he would turn up sometime.”
I could tell that he was going to be every bit as difficult to get information out as my father so I decided to change tack a bit. I had heard stories for years of how my father had a group of friends who roamed the streets of Vienna after the I said to Paul “Who was the leader of the gang you two were in.” I knew that as close as my father and Paul were that part of what defined their relationship was a fierce competitiveness and I was not above tossing a grenade to see if I could some details beyond single sentences from them.
They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds and then my father replied “He was.” but in such a way to make sure the listener knew he was just being gracious. And Paul smiled back and said in a halting way but with the same inflection as my father, “He was.” And then they both laughed knowing that had both outsmarted me.
Frustrated, but somewhat undaunted I persisted. I asked Paul “What was the name of you “gang.” He smiled and responded stuttering a little bit “The Wolf…wolf pack”and smiled eyes gleaming as if the thought of this band of miscreants brought back every good childhood memories from schools.
“How many people were in this gang.”
Paul held up his hand and said “Four.”
“Who were the other two?”
Paul began “Walter…” and seemed to get hung up and my father added “Eduard…Eddie.”
There was a pause as if the thoughts of these childhood gang blocked out the present for these old friends. As if their friends were now seated at the table with us. Enjoying a smoke and a coffee with their old comrades. I knew how special this gang was to my father. He had been telling us about them since we were small children asking for bed time stories. He would tell of the adventures of Ted and Hugi and their desire to escape Vienna in a makeshift submarine they were creating in a fishing shack on the flood plain of the Danube and the adventures they had along the way.
Wondering whether these bedtime stories were based in fact I asked “What this gang of your do?”
Again, my father exchanged a look with Paul and said “Mostly, we tried to find a way to get out of Vienna. There was always some rumor of Singpore, Palestine or some other country opening up for visas’s or a kindertransport to England or anywhere safe. We tracked these down and let our friends know. Or when people needed someone for an odd job. We needed the money. It cost money to leave and we…..” Here my father paused I think because he was trying to determine whether or not to tell the story “or get protection. I bought a bb gun for protection but when my family found out they made me give it back.”
Paul nudged my elbow and signaled that he wanted to have something to write with him. My father obliged him by handing him the pen that was perennially in his pocket. Paul then took a napkin on it drew what appeared to be a stick with five branches growing out of its top. He said “The wolfs paw.” He then drew a line through the second branch sticking up from the stick and said “Me.”
My father jumped in and said “That is how we used to leave messages to each other. If we had been some place and wanted to tell the other we had been there we would draw the wolf’s paw and depending on what digit was crossed we could tell who it was. I was the first, Paul was the second and so on. “
“But what kind of messages would you leave each other.”
“Well when we found that abandoned row boat and had a scheme to get it to work again…we needed to leave each other messages on what was needed without giving away who was working on the boat because if the authorities found out we surely would have been arrested.”
“So the Hugi and Ted stories were true?”
“Well lets just say there was some fact in the fiction.”
“What happened to the boat.”
“It disappeared. We went to work on it one day and it was gone. Whether someone else saw it and stole it or the Nazi’s found it and towed it away we never knew. But it scared the shit out of us.”
I paused before asking the next question because I think I knew the answers but wanted to make sure that I had the facts straight.
“If we found something that we thought would be valuable a job or coffee or some such or if there was trouble we had symbols for them all.”
I asked, reluctantly “What happened to them…the other members of the Wolfpack?”
Paul replied “Walter I used to see around for a while and then he disappeared one day. One day he was there and the next gone and no record as to what happens I thought he had managed to escape. After the war I found out he died at Malthausen.”
My father replied “Eddie….” and sighed and then said “He got out before all of us. A kindertransport to England where he lived with in Lancastshire with two school teachers. When he turned 18 he enlisted in the RAF and on the very last day of the war his plane crashed and he was killed. Poor bastard.” A silence fell over the table. I didn’t realize it at the time but my Dad had been in touch with Eddie from the time he left Europe until shortly before he was drafted. After my father’s death we discovered he had saved the letters for over 70 years and had even written a short story about being in England and searching for some trace of his old friend and Wolfpack member.
There was a pause in the conversation. The memory of Edi and Walter of the memory of the adventures of the Wolfpack hovering over the table like the cigarette smoke at the tables adjacent to us. It made me realize that the salute Paul had given my father by getting out of his wheelchair and standing like a soldier at parade rest was more than courtesy afforded to any old friend. It was a salute to their old comrades and friends. Paul’s and my Dad’s survival and a tribute to Edi and Walter there fallen comrades.
The conversation proved exhausting to Paul. His nurse signaled that it was time to leave and our coffee klatch broke up. We said our goodbyes n the lobby. Hennie, the aide and Paul returned to his room. Pops and I to the motor lobby to catch a cab. As the taxi pulled away from the hospital my father said to me, “I need a drink.” I understood. I needed one as well.