Late that night, I was awakened to the sounds of my father being ill in the bathroom. I walked to the door and asked him if there was anything that I could do to help. He told me no, and then asked that I leave him be. There are few things that make you feel more inadequate than hearing someone you love being sick and not being able to help them. Listening to your elderly father be sick is even worse. In addition to feeling helpless, you feel the world has gone bottom up. You are now the caretaker when the reverse has always been true. I retreated to my bed and slunk under my goose down comforter. When he returned to his bed quite a while later I asked him if there was anything that I could do for him. A disembodied voice from the dark replied “ no.” Thankfully it was not too long before the sounds of his snores vibrated through the room.
Once awakened from a sleep I find it difficult to find my way back to the land of nod. Add to that the worry of sick father and sleep was out of the question. The memories Pops had shared with me, our visit with Paul, being in Vienna, the scene of the crime if you will, and all t that had been shared with me that day became a whirlpool of thoughts and emotions that kept pulling me down to the dark place of what ifs and how comes.
Staring into the dark I was particularly struck by the story of my father and the confrontation he had with his former land lady. After being terrorized and frightened by her for years had terrified her. My father had not sought revenge but karma had prevailed and the joy he felt from it was a feeling that anyone who has ever watched a movie or read a story where the hero prevails can understand. The fact that he was embarrassed by those feeling was an insight into my father as a person. Like all of us he was capable of moments of joy for moments of personal triumph and schadenfreude. However, my father’s embarrassment over his emotion reminded me of the depth of his heart and his true kindness. It reminded me of the values he tried to teach me and how he was the model of the man I always will aspire to me but so often fail at.
Even at the grand old age 50 my father continued to be my hero
As happens when you are searching for sleep my mind drifted. Why had my father chosen not to be a spy? It seemed so romantic to me. Would I have made the same choice he had? Put University on hold and become a spy? I likely would have lived in the moment, not thought of the long term ramifications. Pops and I not only look like but what ever DNA that makes people think in similar ways we share and I was trained, by the master, to think like him. It made his reasoning, or at least what he claimed to be his reasoning to simple for me to believe. It was similar to the explanation he provided me when I had asked him why he had chosen Psychology as a major at Syracuse and his response was “The line was shorter than Zoology.” While there may have been an element of truth in his statements there was something he was not saying and probably something he did not want to or was incapable of sharing. His explanation lacked the depth of the truth. It made me wonder what parts he was leaving out What was he not telling me? What was I missing? It would take another 6 years and a death bed confession before I would begin to understand what he had left out.
As moments of our day continued to swirl into my awareness the image of Paul Grosz’s standing at attention to greet my father paused. It remained there much the way colors drifted across your vision after an old-time camera flash. As much as I had heard of my father’s childhood, as much as I thought I had known about it, I knew not nearly enough. Had he been reluctant to tell those stories or had I not been listening? Had I taken his childhood for granted and been satisfied with the stories I had heard. For example, I had had no idea until that afternoon what an operative my father had been. How running the streets in Vienna after Anschluss had been no game for my father and his friends. It had been a battle of survival with a timer constantly ticking in the background not knowing when it would go off and your piece cleared off the board. It provided Dad with an instinct to survive and belief that he could out think and survive any situation presented. itself there was no doubt. It had infused him with a sense of optimism that never ceased to amaze me.
My last thoughts before drifting off were of the feelings of gratefulness I felt on having been able to spend the day with Pops and learning things about him that I had always wanted to know but never knew I needed to know. I wondered what questions I had failed to ask because the biggest learning I had that day was that my father, whether by training or life experience, my father did not give up the secrets of his past easily. I had to learn to ask better questions.
Three days later I found myself in Baden, Austria sitting outdoors at Café in the Hotel Herzoghof. It was a beautiful sunny late spring afternoon with the park directly adjacent to where I was sitting vibrant with color, sound, and life. The color came from an amazing array of plantings in the park. Yellow, red, and white tulips surrounded flourished in flower beds surrounding the central fountains and paths. Carpets of purple white, yellow and red pansies lay in many of the lawns as if placed there by Persephone preparing for a nap. Hydrangea’s and Lilacs abounded and filled the air with the scent of spring.
The sounds come from children at play enjoying the warm afternoon and sudden freedom from their parent’s hands. The soundtrack of their fun was provided by an Oompah Band playing in a bandstand. 100 meters from where I sat.
I was alone. My father had arranged a massage. It was after all a spa town and after his illness for last several days well needed. For me, it was a good time in a peaceful place to reflect on the last few days.
We had left Sopron, my grandmothers, this morning. It was a perfect day for a drive with soft sunlight, a feint breeze and mild temperatures. I knew the Austrian countryside would be beautiful alive with the beauty of late spring. But it was more than that. My father has been very sick in Sopron. Whatever the gastrointestinal illness that first manifested itself in Vienna really took root here. He spent most of his time there asleep or in the bathroom. Our room despites its open windows has taken on the smell of a sick room and the bathroom lacking any ventilation whatsoever has a fetid evil smell somewhere between third world slit trench and an unclean litter box. I am convinced that the nausea and uncomfortable feeling that I had are from these conditions. For that reason I was happy to have this place in my rear view mirror.
After I loaded our Opel Astra with our luggage I go in search of my father. I find him in the most unlikely of places doing the most unlikely of things. He is in the dining room of our hotel eating breakfast. I am not eager to eat this morning and for some reason I decide to watch him, as opposed to joining him. He makes his way through the breakfast buffet. He is wearing his typical uniform wearing of a light blue shirt of which he has so many and that he has worn for so many years that I secretly call it Ernie blue, twill pants that he has in a variety of khaki colors including the brown that he is wearing today, and dark brown half boots that he has had in some variety for as long as I can remember. It is an outfit that is neither in style nor out of style, practical and I decide that is as good a metaphor for my father as I can think of.
He is not moving well this morning. His shoulders are stooped and he is bending forward at the hips. Instead of lifting his feet he is shuffling them a little bit more than normal. He is walking old today and I don’t like it. My pops shouldn’t be walking old. He should be standing straight up and walking tall like he is in my memories. These are things that we can fix through better exercise and stretching that he finds boring. I vow silently when we get back to the states that I will work with him on core exercises that should help him to regain his posture. I know that the likelihood of my father doing these exercises is slim. I also know that I have to try. I don’t want my Pops looking or feeling old. It implies too many things that I would prefer not to think about.
When I finally make it to the table I find my father fully engaged in breakfast. Not only has he picked up some picked some yogurt, cheese and breads from the buffet but he has ordered some scrambled eggs from the waiter. I am impressed but not surprised. Impressed that my father’s recovery from this bug that had laid him low just a couple of days ago had progressed to the point where he would eat a substantial breakfast before getting into a car. Surprised because my father has always been a big eater. In fact, the thing that made him seek out medical help when he developed lymphoma was that he could not eat an entire sausage so I am happy that he is eating.
The waiter comes and asks Hungarian what I would like for breakfast. At least that is what I think that he said as I don’t understand a word he is saying. I reply in the only words in Hungarian that I can speak with any sort of confidence “Coca Cola.” My father looks at me and asks “Don’t you feel well?” knowing that drinking soda, let alone Coke, is not something that I regularly engage in.
“No, no I am fine. I am just not that hungry and my stomach is a little queasy so I don’t want to push it. I don’t want to tell him that this morning that I was forced to take two Immodium and had nearly thrown up for the first time in nearly 20 years. I don’t want to tell him, given my druthers, I would be in bed asleep. I don’t want our trip together to be about me being sick. I don’t want my father to feel like he has to take care of me. This is our chance to explore together and I don’t want to be the one who, excuse the expression, shits the bed.
We leave Sopron on a route that takes us directly past the house in which my grandmother was born. As we pass it I am filled with memories of her. She always made me feel loved and complete. Her hugs a comfort and provided safe haven. I think about how she smelled. I picture her smiling at me and shaking her head in the way that she did sometimes. This is where it began for her and as a consequence for both my Dad and me. So as I drive by I wave and say “Good-bye Grandma.” I looked over and see my father staring at the red house as we drive by and I wonder what he is thinking. My memories of her are and when she was older and life had taken its toll. When she was a stranger in a strange land. His memories of her are from this place and from a time where life had not extracted so much. And even though my grandmother has been dead almost 30 years I miss her and I wonder what it must be like for him to be without his mother for so long. Her funeral is the only time in my life I have ever heard him sob.
Our mission before we leave town is to find the cemetery where my father’s Uncle Ede is buried. Until this trip I was not aware of my father having an Uncle who survived the war. My understanding had been of the 13 children by three wives of my great grandfather, only my grandmother and her sister, Sidi in Brazil, had survived the war. But that is how this trip had been so far. Uncovering the veil of the past. Part of that process had been visits to many graveyards in the “five town” region in Hungary looking for my father’s long-lost relatives, the Hacklers, Hess’s and Tischlers. In many cases, these graveyards are locked and I needed to jump the fences to see if there is anything worth seeing. At some point I ask my father what he hopes to accomplish by visiting these places and after a pause, and in moment of transparent emotions replies “So they are not forgotten.”
After many wrong turns, several stops to ask passerby’s for directions, a few false sitings and almost having given up hope we finally find the cemetery we are seeking. It is clear that the Jewish Community in Sopron has diminished to the point that they no longer take good care of their burial places. It is overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. Trees are not trimmed, tombstones akimbo and walkways between graves have become barely discernable paths. We are trying to figure out how to find my father’s Uncle’s grave when a man with a purple wife beater t shirt, shaved head and bad teeth along with a woman dressed in goth sheik approach us. Somehow, they were able to communicate they were squatters in the cemetery’s only building and that they are also took care of the place. When we told them whom we were looking for, they helped us search and within a short period of time the young man shouts out that he has found Ede’s grave..
His grave was one of the few that have the appearance of being well maintained. We stand there for a few minutes and silence and then I ask “What do you remember about Ede?”
He smiled and in a bit of a far away voice said “He was your grandmother’s baby brother and the ultimate survivor….He escaped from Russian POW camp in World War 1. I am not sure how he survived the Nazis…perhaps he had protected job or was hidden by the Communist underground. His wife Helene, I remember as being very kind to me and a very good cook, was not as lucky. She was caught and transported to Poland where she was murdered by the Nazi’s.” His voice trailed off and he was quiet for a few seconds.
“Did they have any kids?”
“My father smiled at the thought. “Yes, two boys. Karl and Bela. When I would visit Sopron we sometimes would go off into the woods with the local Zionist organization who were trying to teach us how to avoid being captured and escaping.”
“What happened to them?”
“I am not really sure. I know at some time, (my guess is that was during the early days of the war when Hungary was not yet full of German troops), in some unknown manner, made their way to Israel. They may still live there. Bela wrote to my parents during the fifties. He was married then and had one daughter. We lost track of them.”
“Those are the ones you ask me to look up every time I go to Israel business?”
“So what happened to Ede after the War.”
“He came back to Sopron. Got a job as a bus driver. Remarried and was eventually pensioned and died of natural causes.”
Mission accomplished, we place stones on Ede’s tombstone and make our way through the overgrowth, weeds, and akimbo gravestones to our car. I know better than to ask him about his thoughts. He will only crack wise or make a joke. Instead I concentrate on driving and leave him to his thoughts. For a long while we drive in silence.
We cross the Hungarian/Austrian border with barely an acknowledgement from the Guards of either country. Apparently, we do not look worthy of them wasting their time on and just like I do when I clear customs or enter a country anywhere, I feel like I have gotten away with something. It is a nice feeling and soon the car is speeding down A2 at 140km hours.
As on the trip to Sopron, my father is the navigator. He is blessed with a great sense of direction and the map reading skills the army teaches its officers. He has also been to this part of the world many times. So I have faith that he will get us to our destination of Fahrafeld. I believe that our passage on B and C roads has more to do with happenstance than design
It is sunny and warm and our windows are open and the smell of flowers and freshly cultivated fields fill the compartment of the car. Whether it is because of our stomach problems or the fact that my father and I have spoken more in the last three days than we have in years we are not talking very much. We pass the time looking beyond our windows. We pass through vineyards with their meticulously kept vines greening and in bloom. . There are small farms that look dainty by American standards, with freshly cultivated tracks and farmers atop green tractors often wearing brightly covered overalls. There are fields densely packed with yellow bright yellow flowers. We pass through small towns that look like they belong more in n gauge train set than in real life.
At one point I comment to my father that everything looks familiar enough to be comforting but just different enough that we could be in an episode of the Outer Limits. But he is lost in some thoughts beyond the reaches of the car and does not respond. I drive on.
We are in the hills now and the scenery has changed from farms and fields to meadows and trees. Not to far from Pottenstein which is the nearest town of any size close to Fahrafeld my father yells at me “Turn right, turn right here” in the same tone he used to use when he was teaching me to drive. I do my best not to let his tone of voice get the better of me but for a few minutes I am one pissed off 17 year old whose father is doing him no favor by teaching him how to drive. I slam on the breaks and still manage to make the turn a little faster than I probably should have.
Dad realizes that the tone of voice that he used is not appropriate and as he has done so often in the past when this is the case, changes the subject. He says “ I know where we are now. You see that building up there on the hill, that is horticultural research station for the University of Vienna. I remember it from the last time we were here.”
He says this with satisfaction and there is also an element of excitement that I have not heard in his voice on this trip. So I ask him “Are you excited about going to Fahrafeld and he replies in a manner that is typical of him “I don’t know if you would exactly call it excited….”
I can tell that what is to follow is a discourse on the appropriate word for how he feels and I turn down the volume. I realize that this discussion is just a way for my father to mask his feelings. For whatever reason traveling to this place has brought more emotion to the surface than all of the other things we have done on this trip. More than seeing his best friend in the hospital; more than visiting the graveyards of his relatives; more than visiting the house his mother was born in. As he talks in the background I wonder why he feels so emotionally connected to this place. All I can remember him telling me about Fahrafeld is that he used to go there to visit his Aunt in summer and it is the place he learned to love buttermilk a beverage that to this day he claims is the best drink in the world to relieve the heat of a summer day.
So after he has finished talking I say in my best smart ass way “You know I didn’t listen a lot to you as a kid, tell me about you and this place.”
He reminds me that when my grandmother was very young her father died. Her mother had to figure out a way to manage a household with 13 children with no husband. Some of the younger kids who could not contribute to the livelihood of the family were parceled out to other relatives. Little Jeni, age 4, was sent to Fahrafeld to live with her Aunt Pepi her mother’s sister. She lived there until she was 14 when she sent away to a technical school to be a seamstress. My grandmother always thought of her Aunt as her mother. It was natural for her to farm her only son to her during the summer season. Dad tell me that he would arrive by train in the early summer and not leave again until school was about to begin. He tells me that his Aunt Pepi was the only grandmother he ever knew and says so in such a wistful voice and I know that I cannot press further.
We come to a T-intersection and my father tells me to take a right. I look at the sign and it says Rt 212. When I suggest the irony of the Rt, 212 being the NYC area code, to my father and he just nods his full attention on the road ahead and trying to find Pepi’s house. The road is of the type that German performance cars were made for. It is narrow, winding, and well maintained. It is also quite picturesque. Along the driver’s side of the road is a fast-moving stream about 5 meters wide that you can see the occasional fly fisherman and fields full of wildflowers and what appear to be Dandelions. On the right side are small cottages, the Austrian version of a cape, in brightly colored hues and a mountain dense with trees.
After about 5 minutes we pass a white rectangular sign with the word Fahrafeld written on it. Almost immediately upon passing into the town the road becomes canopied by trees on either side. The houses become more frequent and my father, who is normally calm to the point of stoic, is visibly agitated and keeps telling me to slow down. I look in my rear-view mirror and see that a long line of traffic has built up behind us and tell my father that I really can’t slow down much more. This news is greeted with a harrumph and visible annoyance. The town itself is beautiful with small cottages and what can only be described as chalet’s in various bright colors densely populating the right hand side of the road. On the stream side, it appears that they have created a small park with paved paths and flower beds. The town does not last long. A couple of minutes at most and before too long we see the same white rectangular sign with Fahrafeld written on it only this time there is a red slash going through it.
My father who was agitated before is now quite upset and I can tell by the way he tells me to “turn the car around” that he is royally pissed off. I see a picnic area on the right-hand side of the road and I pull into it hoping to use it as a jug handle to turn around. I don’t want to drive with my father this annoyed. I don’t want to have an argument with him and I know that in his current state the 17 year old in me could come out at any moment so I pull the car over and park. He barks “What are you doing?” and I respond that the scene in front of us…. a grassy meadow dotted with dandelions, a farmhouse with a red roof surrounded by trees, framed by a mountain in the background…is lovely and I want to take a photograph. I take my time and probably more photographs than I should but the result is what I had hoped for as my father is visibly calmer when I re-enter the car.
I try to go slower as we go back through town but the road is a very busy one and before too long there is once again a long line of traffic behind us. When I see in the middle of this village a place to pull over I seize the opportunity. My father is looking around and tells me in a very disappointed tone that he thinks that we may have come all this way for nothing as he can’t spot his Grandmother/Great Aunt’s house and that he is afraid that it might have been torn down. I can tell that he’s upset and wish that I could find the words to comfort him but I can’t so I remain silent.
He says you see that over there. I nod. He says that is a war memorial and lists the names of the dead from this town. One of the kids I use to play with as a kids name is listed there. As I pull back onto the road, I think about how bizarre a world we live in. How two childhood friends could end up on either side of a war and one makes it and the other does not. It reminds me of how random life is and as always I am disturbed by this.
I am broken out of my thoughts by my father yelling at me to pull over. Luckily, just beyond a small bridge passing over the stream, I spot a place to pull the car off the road and park.. My father points at a light blue house with a red tile roof and only windows facing the street and says “That is your Aunt Pepi’s house….they have clearly renovated it but that is clearly her house.” His tone of voice which just minutes earlier had been harsh and upset is now that of relief and delight and I can tell that seeing this house has transformed him in a way that I can’t imagine.
We both get out of the car and study the house from the distance. My father is wearing his signature Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses so it is hard to figure out what is going on inside of him but there is a whisper of a smile on his face so whatever is going on I suspect is a good thing. As I pull my camera from the backseat so that I can take photographs of the house my father turns and walks towards the bridge. My fathers steps are small and deliberate, probably the result of the long drive, and it upsets me to realize that he is walking just like the octogenarian he is. I snap a few photos and when I finish my father is turning the corner onto the bridge and disappears from sight.
I hurry to catch up with him but when I turn the corner my father is nowhere to be found. Instead I see a 10 year old boy standing in the middle of the bridge, surveying the scenery, as if he were a Prince and this was his own private kingdom.