Vienna has two monuments to the Holocaust and unsurprisingly they are both controversial.
The memorial that was built first was erected in 1991 on a plaza behind the opera house. It is called
“The Memorial Against War and Fascism” and was created by Alfred Hrdlicka. It consist of four pieces spaced around the square. There are the split white pillars called “The Gates of Violence” which depicts contorted figures emerging from the rock who are supposed to represent all the victims of war especially those who were suffered during the Nazi’s regime. Directly in front of the pillars is a prostrate bearded jew who supposedly represents the degrading treatment that Jews suffered under the Nazis but when neo Nazi’s began vandalizing the statue an overlay of faux barbed wire was added. Behind it is a statue made from the stone from The Mauthausen concentration camps that depicts a man with his head the sand portraying the consequences of what happens when people fail to keep their government on track.
I first saw this statue on the day we left for Sopron. My father had been trying to sleep with the hope that the added rest would make the symptoms of his illness abate. I had decided to do a walk about while he slept. I had come across the memorial in the course of my wanderings and quite by accident. It was only after I had looked it up in my DK Guide that I knew it was supposed to be some type of Holocaust memorial. I knew nothing about the statue. I am not an art scholar. Butt I knew that I did not like this memorial at all. I found imagery both grotesque and offensive especially the image of the Jew on the ground wrapped in barbed wire. I thought of the dignified, and simple memorials I had seen in places like Yad Vashem, Boston, Budapest, Washington and even one I hated in Berlin were better memorials than this one. I thought this was insulting to my relatives who had lived and were murdered here.
In fact the statue had pissed me off.
When I returned to the hotel I found my father in the breakfast room sipping tea, eating some dry toast and reading the International Herald Tribune. I told him about my walkabout and my chance encounter with the memorial and how angry the imagery of the monument had made me.
He had, of course, known all about it. He explained that the Jews of Vienna under the leadership of his friend and my namesake Paul Grosz had pressed the Austrian government for a permanent memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The government had resisted for decades primarily because the Austrians were prime deniers that they had any responsibility for the rise of Nazism despite the fact that greeted the Anschluss with parades and cheering; despite the fact that Krystalnacht had been a neighborhood sport in Vienna; despite the fact that Hitler was Austrian. That is why, my father explained, that it had taken nearly 50 years to build a memorial at all and even then, refuse to call it a Holocaust Memorial but a monument against war and fascism. While there were references to the Holocaust the imagery of the Jew was degrading and for many including me offensive. Even the site, my father added, was controversial. Instead of placing the memorial at a site of a burned temple or incarceration they chose to place over a basement where 100s had died during an Allied bombing of the city.
He reminded me that the Germans were amateurs when it came to anti-Semitism and the real pros were Austrians.
He told me the Jewish community was so outraged over the non-memorial memorial to the Holocaust that they had decided to build their own and he would take me to see it when we returned to Vienna. Which is why we were here at the “Nameless Library” at the Judenplatz early in the afternoon of our last full day of our trip.
It is not surprising that this memorial is everything that the Memorial Against War and Fascism is not.
The monument is a concrete cube which is decorated a representation book shelves, their spines turned to the inside. The only access to the structure is permanently locked door. The imagery represents all the culture and learning that was lost forever due to the murder of the Jews of Austria. The empty space within the structure represents the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed and the names of the concentration camps where they were murdered is etched at the base of cube so we don’t forget those factories of death.
As my father is explaining this to me and why the site was chosen, it was an ancient Jewish ghetto where 300 jews committed suicide during a pogrom in 1421, I find myself focusing on my 81 year old pops. Not because I enjoy him when he is in full professorial mode, although I do. Not because, despite his age, he is still a very handsome man —the women I dated flirted with him to annoyance. Not because the information he is providing is new to me because it isn’t; I have read about the memorial the night before during a Google session. I am looking at him because I am wondering what it must be like to see this memorial and not have it be an abstract concept. To have voices, scents, hugs, kisses, laughter and clasps of friendships from some of the people this memorial is supposed to honor.
Someone once said that the death of millions is a statistic, the death of one is a tragedy. I am wondering how many tragedies my father is suffering today. I also wonder not for the first time what it must have been like to be a baby faced 21 year 2nd Lt returning to this city trying to find those you had loved only to discover that most were dead, murdered, and to suffer the knowledge of that loss by yourself, alone. It was a question that I didn’t have the courage to ask him as I was afraid of the emotional pain it would cause him to answer. It wasn’t until years that I would even get a glimpse of the depth of those emotions.
In 2011 I was on my way to Poland for a business meeting in conference. Yad Vashem had just “Googled” the data base of Shoah victims and my father had sent us all a note telling us where many of our relatives had been murdered. The number one factory of death for my family had been Auschwitz with eight family members murdered there and I had told my father of my intent to go to the camp to say Kaddish. His response, was not what I expected. He said “Why would you want to do that?” Eventually, he wrote me an email:
You are a beautiful person and I am proud to have you as a son. I am very touched by your gesture because I understand you are doing this to pay tribute to the memory of Tante Pepi, and Tante Minna, and all the others of the family who were murdered there as well as the thousands of others. It is a kind of symbolic Kaddish. It will break your heart.
In my thinking, however, I would advise against going. It does not seem to have the same air as a consecrated place (such as Yad Vashem) despite its material monuments. Its function is more to remind Jews and the rest of the world about what happened there. Neither you nor I need such a reminder. We carry it in our heart and we carry the grim material details of the holocaust in our heads. Thats the tribute we are obliged to pay (and thats why I wont go to the Holocaust museum in DC although I’ve donated to them from the beginning.) We can testify to our sorrow and grief by doing the best we can with our lives.
Of couse, as the old saw has it, you are the captain of your soul, and you will do as you will. You could spend the $1000 it will cost you on something that would please you and bring a little giggle into your day.
He could have just let me go. He could have said nothing. But he thought the trip would be painful, not only because he knew how it would affect me, but because he knew how it would affect him. And in those words, he told me how he suffered looking at that memorial back in Vienna 5 years before.
We spent a few minutes in silence circling the cube, neither one of us talking, both of us content to leave each other to our thoughts. Eventually, my father says to me “Have you had enough,” which I interpret to mean that he has finished with his remembrances and to say much longer will hurt more than it will heal and say “Yeah, I am done.”
As we walk away from the Nameless Library my father asks me what I want to do next. He reminds me this is our last day of our trip I requested so the decisions on what to do next are up to me. I reply “Why don’t we walk around a little bit, take me on the Ernst Z. Rothkopf tour of central Vienna.”
“Yep, as long as I can ask you questions along the way.”
He groans a little bit in a way that while he doesn’t particularly like to answer question he is pleased that I am asking them. He is after all a professor who never wants to stop teaching. When we get to the end of Judenplatz we make a left and I ask him “When you were in the states, after you left here, did you know what was going on here. Did you know that they were murdering people?”
“We had pretty good idea.” He smiles and wry smile and says “We were here. We knew what they were capable of….and for a while we got letters” and he paused a few seconds and says “And there were rumors and some newspaper reports but we didn’t have any idea on the scope of the Holocaust.”
I think for a few seconds if I should ask the next question but eventually my curiosity out wills my reluctance and I say “Didn’t it make you want to join the Army when you graduated High School. To avenge what was being done.”
He smiles at me in the way a professor might smile at a favored student who has asked a profoundly stupid question and says. “You have been watching to many movies…. You have to remember Paul that when I graduated High School I was only 17 years old and I couldn’t have joined the Army even if I wanted to. And when I turned 18 and was going to be drafted I didn’t ask for a student deferment I just ask to finish the year.”
I reflect on this for a few moments thinking about my Dad’s improbable journey. At almost 14 years of age arriving in this country speaking very little English, if any, and 3 years later being accepted at University. My father’s boyhood friend who had been Kindertransported to England once described my father’s musings about America as Fairyland. And it indeed it had been for my father and why should he have been in hurry to scurry off to the army perhaps to get his ass shot off.”
By this point we had reached a place called Judengasse. It is an old part of the city, where the Jews of Vienna had shopped from the 17th century until the beginning of 2nd World War. My father has walked me here to share some of the history of Vienesse Jewry but as he is describing the area something catches my eye and I can’t contain my laughter. Confused, and likely a little annoyed, he asks “What so funny.”
Instead of saying anything I point to a pub behind him and when he sees the object of my humor he laughs too. It is a pub called the Vulcania, the same name as the ship that transported him to the United States. I ask him if wants to get a beer but he declines and we continue our walk.
Not far from there, past Ruprechtskirche we come to come to a broad plaza that overlooks the Ringstrasse and the Danube Canal. My father points off to the left and says “That is where the Hotel Metropole used to be…Gestapo Hq. “ I look and don’t see anything but some relatively modern buildings and ask “Did it get flattened by the Allied Bombing Raids?” He just nod’s his head no doubt lost in thoughts viewing a feared place, now destroyed, must bring.
There are so many questions I could ask him now about the Gestapo and how he must have feared them or what it was like having to dodge storm troopers but I decide to go another way and ask “What was this place like when you returned after the war?”
“What was this place like when you returned after the war?”
He paused before answering, searching for the correct description and asked me “Have you ever seen a movie called “The Third Man” with Orson Wells.”
“Well it was like that.”
“You mean it was in black and white?”
“You think your are being a smart ass but the truth is it kind of was in black and white. The city was in ruins and there wasn’t a lot of color. Civilians had no food and had to scramble to just get by…people would do anything for a few cigarettes and a Hershey bar. And then of course there was the fact that Vienna was on the front lines of the cold war. The Russians and US constantly playing games with each other.”
And then he stopped talking, almost as if he had said too much and is silent for a while. I sense that I have pressed into unpleasant memories a little too hard and say “Is that the Danube down there.”
“No, that is the Danube canal. The Danube is some way beyond that.”
“Didn’t your family go to some sort of club down there.”
“It wasn’t really a club. It was just a place where poor people would gather on the mud flats and swim and enjoy whatever leisure time they had. The club name was really more an irony….but your Grandfather liked it.”
“She went sometimes but your grandfather had a girlfriend there.”
Finding out that my Grandfather had girlfriends was not exactly a surprise to me. He was a complicated man and I had realized how complicated until I was much older because as I child I was actually frightened of him. My earliest recollection of him was walking around a parking lot in Danbury CT with a stick with nail stuck in its end picking up the trash people had left behind. He spoke very little English and always talked to us kids in German which was a bit terrifying and he had furtive nature to him that made you feel unsafe. My last memory of him was in a hospital tied to the bed because of his many attempts to leave the hospital on his own. He was a scary childhood memory only compounded when I found out that he used to terrify my father and rail at him for studying and trying to make a better life for himself.
This had all changed just a few years before. I had been reading John Keegan’s “The First World War.” The book had horrified me. I knew the basic story of the war; I knew about the carnage but until I had read that book I had not known the extent of the horror. One day at the battle of the Somme had caused nearly 60,000 British casualties. It wiped out nearly 25% all men in France. One afternoon had found me discussing the book with my father, and repeating an old saw about my Grandfather that he had been bayonetted in the ass early and then I asked “Did he get captured.”
“Yes. By the Russian’s and then he was sent to Siberia and was in a camp there for nearly 7 years until the Austrian Government could negotiate a release from the new Soviet government.”
“What year was Grandpa born?
“So he was 26 when the war broke out and 33 when he was released….Did he ever talk about the camps to you?”
“No not really. The only thing is that he ever mentioned was his hatred of onions. He couldn’t stand them in anything that he ate because that was they lived on mostly. “
That one conversation changed my perception of my Grandfather completely. Instead of the strange old man cleaning up garbage in the parking lot he became the ultimate survivor. He had after all survived the war to end all wars, 7 years in a Siberian Gulag, Krystalnacht and the Nazi’s, worked shit jobs all his life to put food on the table only to have to start it all over again coming to America at the age of 51.”
So, there overlooking the Danube Canal I say to my father “He was a survivor.”
He looked at me with a faraway look in his eye and a quarter smile and said “Yes, he was.”
We go silent again. Him no doubt thinking about his complicated father and me thinking of mine. Us both thinking about survivors.
A little while later we find ourselves seated at L. Heiner Wollzeile, not as famous as Café Sacher of Demels, it is nonetheless a Viennese Patisserie of particular deliciousness with the added convenience of being just around the corner of our hotel. I am staring at 5 perfectly created petite fors, (white, pink, mocha, chocolate and yellow) that seem a shame to eat because they are so pretty. My father is about to dig into palatschinken, a crepe stuffed with warm apricot jam sprinkled with sugar and a dab of whipped cream. We are both drinking espressos.
I say “So you leave Ft. Sill and you get on a boat in Hoboken. What happens next.”
“You don’t give up.”
I shoot him a look that suggests he should no better, I am the nudgigator after all and say “And…”
Sighing he replies “ I get off the ship at Leghorn and go to the repo depot.”
“A sort of clearing house for incoming personnel. You reported in and depending on what the in theatre needs were they assign you to a unit and you report to it.”
“So that is where the assigned you to the 913th Field Artillery.”
“Do you remember when that was. What time of year?”
“I don’t really remember. I think it was cold.”
“So you likely arrived late winter early spring of 1945.”
“I guess so.”
“And eventually you ended up in Gorizia on the Yugoslav/Italian border?”
“What was going on there.”
“The Italians wanted Trieste and the surrounding areas and so did the Yugoslavs. The allies came in and separated the two parties and occasionally had to split the two up. It was a real horror show not only because the region was split between Italians, Slovenes and Croats but because it was the beginning of the cold war. The Yugoslavs were communists and lines were being drawn across Europe.”
“Okay. There you are a few hundred miles from Vienna in a port that used to be part of the empire yet it takes you more than a year to get there. Why the fuck did it take so long. I mean I know I have asked the question before but I just don’t get the why?”
“It was not as simple as just in a car and going. I had to get leave to do it and my commander was a real pain the ass. I am not sure that he liked Jews too much and maybe he couldn’t understand why I wanted to go back there. In any case I was not getting anywhere with him and one day I was HQ and ran into the general and I made my case to him. And he approved on the spot.”
“I am sure that didn’t make your commander too happy.”
“No it didn’t but he couldn’t do anything about it. But even with the general’s endorsement it took time to get all the approvals. I was passing to the European theatre from the Mediterranean. From one Armys’ command to another. This took time. No emails back then.”
“And how long did you spend in Vienna?”
“Two weeks I think?”
“And were you tempted to stay? To become an intelligence agent?”
“At the time, I was flattered but I wanted to get back and finish my education. I had no desire to stay in the Army. I wanted a normal life. I guess I had too much excitement in my life so far and was looking forward to quieter times.”
“Okay. What happened next?”
“When I earned enough points to come home, I was sent back to Leghorn and to the Repot Depot and got roped into taking some prisoner home.”
“Why did they choose you.”
“Couldn’t tell you but perhaps it was because I had little experience with these things.”
“What does that mean.”
“I had done some of this before.”
I stared at my father wordlessly asking for more information. He just shrugged is shoulders communicating it was all the information he was willing to provide and to move on so I asked. “When was this….”
“Probably December ’46.”
“7 years after arriving in America you were arriving back home a citizen and officer in her Army. Pretty wild.”
My father said nothing and Isaid “And then what did you do?”
“I went to Fort Dix. They put me on terminal leave and I went back to Syracuse.”
“You didn’t even take time to visit your parents?”
“Maybe for a day or two…but not long. I wanted to go back to school.”
“Are you finished?”
I begin to think about the other questions I have for my Dad and realize that he doesn’t mean whether have more questions for him, he is referring to whether or not I have finished my pastries. When I look down I amazed to find that they have disappeared and I have no recollection of eating them. I tempted to order more but say instead “Lets go.”
The next morning finds us at the Airport. There are no lounges here so my father and I are sitting in a bar drinking coffee and munching on Paprika flavored Pringles that we both found too amusing to pass up. We are both lost in our own thoughts having managed to temporarily talked ourselves out.
I am thinking about the original mission of this adventure. I wanted to understand what if had been like for a young second lieutenant to return to the city he was born and lived until he and his family had been chased out at age 14 as a member of the conquering army. I had wanted to connect to the powerful emotions that story held. I wanted to understand how that story helped create the Pops that I loved. And if I was only evaluating the trip on the basis of those goals I would have to say the trip was not a huge success. I learned that he had been recruited to be a spy and turned it down. I learned about his experience with his land lady. But I learned very little about the soldier as my father seemed to hide that part of his life behind a veil.
But one of my favorite expressions is “Man plans and god laughs.” My brother likes to call it the law of unintended consequences. I had set out to find out my father the soldier but had instead found out about my father, the man. From our experience with Paul Grosz and the salute of old comrades to his illness to the remarkable transformation in the fields of Frarahfeld to our last walk in Vienna I saw glimpses of the man I called Pops I had never seen before. I knew him better now and that knowledge added, like salt on a steak, a different dimension to the love I felt for him.
I think about sharing these thoughts with my father, but no doubt sensing my imminent fade to goo, he asks “Pringle?” and shakes the can for me to make understand he has not eaten them all.
I smile at him and say “Sure” and I leave it at that because I know I don’t have to tell him a thing. He knows.