When my father died 8 years ago today, he left behind a legacy that could have been written by Horatio Alger.
He had survived a brutal boyhood of poverty and prejudice in Vienna. Along with his family, he managed to escape war torn Europe 3 months after hostilities were declared. Upon arriving in this country at age 14 he was placed in the third grade because of his poor English skills. Just three and half years later in June of 1943, after digesting a dictionary and endless movie matinees, his English had so improved that he matriculated at Syracuse University. By September of 1944, when he was inducted into the US Army, he had completed his sophomore year in college. He became the youngest 2nd Lieutenant in his division and along with his comrades in the 88th Infantry Division, 913th Field Artillery fought his way up the boot of Italy until wars end. Remarkably, after 2.5 years of active duty and rising to the rank of 1st Lieutenant, he managed to graduate on time with his class. Within a few years he managed to get a PhD in experimental psychology and meet and marry my mother. He built a storied career in his field first at Bell Telephone Laboratories running Learning and Instructional Research Department and then at Columbia University Teachers College where he was the Cleveland E. Dodge professor of Education and Technology.
Along the way, he managed to raise three children, David, Marissa and myself, all of whom adored and respected him and with whom he managed to forge unique relationships.
His mythos was so strong and our love for him so deep that his story of survival and success became our own. It was a mantle we gladly wore. One that always made us stand up a little taller and puff our chests out a little more. I, a lover of stories, loved his personal saga so much, that I badgered him into taking trips to Israel, Alaska, and Vienna with me so I could get to know him and his story better. When he got sick and was hospitalized, I would spend hours with him talking about his life and unlocking stories that I never heard. By the time, he decided that he had enough, and chose to leave this world I felt as if I knew the man as well as any son can know a father. I felt like he had told me all the stories from his life worth telling and that if I chose to write a biography of him, I could.
Then, I found out, he left a chapter out of his story. Not only from me, but from everyone in his life including his wife. His army records did not match the stories he had shared with us. He was forced to confess that the reason for the discrepancy had been because of his involvement with the recovery of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen. Maddingly, he would tell us almost nothing else about his involvement except to say he had heard something about the Crown during his final days in Vienna, shared it with his draft board so he could finish his sophomore year of college. Eventually he had been coopted into going to Europe, via the Southern Route, to help with the Crown.
And then he died leaving a gap in our lives that could never be fully filled and a story unfinished.
In part, to fill the hole in my life that Pops’s absence created, and in part to finish a story that had been started and not finished I began researching the Crown’s recovery and Dad’s involvement. At the time I began this quest, I thought it would be easy. After all, who really cares about an old European crown enough to keep information classified and Army records should be fairly easy to access. Needless to say, I was wrong on both counts.
The Crown turned out to be the single most important crown in Europe. An item that was highly coveted and sought after by the US, German and Russian forces in the closing hours of the 2nd World War. The Hungarians were hell bent on secreting it away to maintain possession of this, religious and symbol of their country. The Germans wanted as a negotiating chip. The Americans and Russians sought it because of its symbolism and how it could be used to shape Europe in the post war years. All of the parties wanted to keep secret their involvement to avoid embarrassment, missteps, and to protect the reputations of those involved.
The Army was not an easy resource to crack. Not because of government bureaucracy, although that didn’t help. But because of design choice made by the Army in the late ‘60s. Back then the Army had a problem. Nearly 12 million men had served during the 2nd World War. Each one of them had an army record that was inches thick. These files were located all over the US and needed to be consolidated. To that end, the Army commissioned the building of a new National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. In due course, all files were transferred to the state-of-the-art building. Then, shortly after midnight, on July 12, 1973 the building caught fire. It burned for 22 hours and took firefighters two days to enter the building. 85% of all the records in the building were damaged or destroyed. All of which could have been prevented if a fire suppression system had been included in the design of the building but at the time it was considered too risky as water is a destroyer of paper.
Even though there has been a 47 year effort to recover these files, Pop’s “burn file” is irretrievable which meant to find out his record we have had to trace his path through “morning reports” and other available document from induction in Hartford Connecticut to his discharge at Fort Dix in January of 1947. This required the efforts of two certified NARA researchers, countless letters to archives and involved persons, FOIA requests to CIA, Department of State, and Carter and Eisenhauer Archives and the purchase and review of a library wing of books and other documents. The end result of eight years of research has been less than satisfying.
We have managed to track my father through most of his journey. However, maddeningly, there is a six week gap where we have not managed to account for his whereabouts. This directly coincides with the period of time where the US was actively looking for the crown. While I believe I know the role Dad played in this minor melodrama at the end of WW2 and beginning of the cold war, I can prove none of it.
Without giving away any of the story what I can say, is that I believe in early May of 1945 Dad was transported via the Southern Route https://military.wikia.org/wiki/South_Atlantic_air_ferry_route_in_World_War_II to Central Europe. Once in Europe he made his way to Vienna, where along with Army CIC and OSS agents they began looking for specific people who could help unlock the Crown mystery.
My research focus is here. Trying to a find a record of my father’s trip through existing American and Russian records which is complicated further by Coivd’s closing of most archive facilities.
That being said, I have begun writing the second half of The Crown with what information I do have available and will publish when it is polished enough for readers.
Also, if you have any suggestions on research that I have not done on the crown and my father’s involvement I would love to hear your suggestions.