Editor’s note: My story “The Journey” will return in a few days. In the meantime, I am sharing with you a story that was written by my father that I am currently adding to. Some may consider this presumptuous but as the story was originally told to my brother and I to get us to sleep I am just adding my imaginations that he inspired.”
We learned in school that millions of years ago, the Vienna Woods, now stand was the shore of a vast ocean. The scene must have been fantastic, with monster waves crashing into the hills, and huge fish cruising the depths where I am standing now. On the shore, dinosaurs, hunting and grazing in jungles of gigantic conifers, ferns and palms. But a new ice age made the Ocean levels drop and the shores moved towards the East, leaving only fossils from all the weird animals that had been swimming in it. The Danube, a byproduct of the glacial age, ate a hole in the hills that used to be the shore and started flowing eastward, as if searching for the ancient mother sea that had given it life . Eventually came the time of the great wanderings and the place where the river spilled out into the great plain became a crossroads of cultures and civilization. Celtic salt traders stopped here. The Tenth Roman Legion and the Gemini, marched through. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in Vindobona of Malaria. The Amber Road passed through the plain with long blonde haired Germanic Theones peddling the fossilized remnant of the ancient jungle to the Romans. The hight cheek boned, fur clad, Asiatic warriors came next. Bow legged and reeking from a diet rich in mare’s milk the Alans, Penchenegs, and Hun camped in the delta their ponies drinking from the Danube. s. Dr. Braunschweiger said they were bow-legged and constantly stank of fermented mare’s milk. Norman knights came through here on the way to the Holy Land, pillaging, and killing, and maybe raping. My history teacher in the Realgymnasium didn’t say much about that, but he was a very devout Catholic. You probably know about all this anyway, and of course you know about the centuries when Christian and Turkish armies were chasing each other around here, killing and bleeding.
It must have been terrific, the silk tents, the horse hair standards, the battle trumpets. Then I guess the Habsburgs must have run out of steam. They started building a lot of palaces. The Viennese got fat, and although they listened to operas a lot ,and told jokes, and were crazy for waltzing, they were also getting nastier to each other. They built those long concrete walls below here to tame the old river. But the river doesn’t care. It keeps right on going past those filthy stone tenements, leaves them far behind. and rushes out, free and happy, into the great, open plain. Mrs. Leitameck, the coal woman, said that the Danube hums at night about the fate of all the people who ever lived along the river, and that the waves carry the songs of all those lives with them to the dark waters of the Black Sea.
I tell you this because now that the war has started, there is very little music in Vienna. A new Army has come to ravage the Danube although this one came by invitation and since then there is little Music left in this city of music. Really! On the first of December, less than a week ago, they closed up all the ball rooms. They said it was mainly to conserve coal and promised to reopen them in the spring. I could not care less. First , because dancing doesn’t interest me very much. Second even if I were old enough to dance they don’t let Jews into ball rooms. Most importantly, with any luck at all, I will be leaving Vienna before very long.
And, anyhow, who cares about ballrooms when your toes are freezing. My friend Tad Saegerer and I were standing at the end of the bridge that crossed the Danube in trolley stand waiting for the next tram. It was not doing a great job protecting us from the wind and to keep warm we kept stamping our feet and burying our hands under our arms. But the cold was the least of my worries at that moment. I was worrying about how to explain being so late. What am I going to say to Papa? I wished desperately that the trolley would come.
The blackout was still on but a big, pale moon was racing through the sludgy clouds. It revealed a deserted bridge. Not another human figure was in sight from where Tad and I were standing, This was not unusual for this time of year. The inundation plain behind us was a very popular bathing place in the summer but the wintry cold had emptied it of all 1ife. Outlined in the moonlight, way in the distance across the bridge, were the bulky dark masses of crowded workers’ tenements. But, except for Tad and me, no one was crazy enough to be on this side of the river at night at this season of the year. Nothing moved, except maybe the icy gray waters of the river way below the gray steel of the bridge. The water was moving. It was flowing to Slovakia, to the new Tiso Slovak state.
“Holy Crap” Tad exclaimed and pointed towards the sky. I had heard a faint drone in the distance, but now, outlined by the moon we could see a bomber formation cutting across the moonlit sky. “Luftwaffe” he said, bending his tall, skinny frame backward for a better look, “Heinkels! Must be coming home from Poland. Come home to get their laurels. Make the Austrian girls happy!” Tad followed the planes with his eyes as the dark wedge floated away from us toward the south.”Setzen sie sich and fich it.” whispered Tad. He knew the expression amused me ever since he first used it in a Latin class last year when he was having trouble with conjugations.. “Suppose those had been British planes. That would wake this town up. Can you just imagine it? Sirens wailing, big lights searching the sky, flak, everything! What a circus? Agreed? Hugi? Agreed? ”
Tad had a way of being persistent when he got enthusiastic about something which was pretty often. This me thinking about the British bombers and perhaps they could help us out of this mess and that cheered me up a bit but it didn’t last long. My immediate problem was not how to end the war it was what to say to Papa when I got home. It was nearly 8:30 p.m. now. By the time the tram got us across Vienna, and I got home it would be nearly 10 o’clock. What could I say about being so late? I obviously could not tell him about Tomahawk. That would only make more trouble. It would be dangerous to my hide specifically my back hide and it would surely wreck Tad’s and my fabulous plan.
I could imagine my old man pacing through the small apartment.. Like a tiger pacing in a cage., Not like one of those well cared for and fancy circus cats but a pale worn out local carnival beast in a small cage worn out by too many shows. He’d mutter something about a worthless son, then he’d say, “My God, thirteen years old and a bum already”. Then the questions will come at me hurled like spears. “Where have you been?” “What trouble have you stirred up now?” And after every third sentence we will say, just to twist the blade a little, , he will add sting to the burning wounds by adding: “And in times likes these !”
He would not understand about the Tomahawk. . Papa does not have the stomach for real adventure. He’d panic. That’s what he would do. , For sure, he would panic and do something stupid that would wreck all of our work. I needed an exceptionally good story! The ones I had thought of so far were much too complicated, Papa would never believe them. If only Tad Saegerer would stop sounding off about those damn airplanes and think up something for me to say. Tad when he would focuse, had an outrageous imagination. Better than anyones He had a reputation for the best source for lies, fabrications and excuses in the third form of Realgymnasium XVII, but he gets very wild sometimes. Most of the time! I must be more desperate about this than I thought.
“Leave it to me,” said Tad, as we were settling back on the wooden seats in the dimly lit,blacked-out trolley. He ran his hands, one after the other , through his lanky black hair. He always did this to let people know he was about to think very hard. Before he could say a word, I said .”No lame fairy stories, Tad”
He replied, primly, as a professor would an ill prepared student ” We must recognize that Tomahawk is at stake. Only my best will do.” He looked confidently down at me. I am nearly a head shorter than him but I’m catching up. ” I know! You were grabbed by some Nazi storm troopers. They made you polish their boots, That’s why your hands are so dirty.”
Then before I had time to even consider the storm trooper story he said “No. No. We were walking to Klosterneuburg to visit my mother’s cousin, you know, the baker at the monastery. That’s a long, long hike! Crazy in December! Why? To get some extra flour. What did we do with it? “I took it home. No that won’t do….I have it.. We were force to use it to bribe a policeman who recognized you were Jewish and hassled you. Agreed, Hugi?”
“Are you crazy! No never! My parents will go beserk. They will never let me out of the apartment again for fear that I will do some crazy stunt and not even end with the flour. Come on. Think we have to have a good story before I get home or that is the end of the Tomahawk. Tad was not in go
The soft ping of the dripping communal faucet was the only sound in the hall. I stood in the narrow landing outside the apartment and stared at the cracked tile floor, trying to build up my courage to open the door. How this place had begun to depress me lately. Age and neglect gaped at me from every tile. The dim yellow light of the hallway made me feel sick and poor. And the constant fear that the caretaker’s wife would emerge from her apartment and yell things like “Jewish swine. I can’t wait until they come and take you all away…filthy beasts.” Standing outside the door I take a deep breath and finally make up my mind. . I’ll tell them that I had heard they were giving out visa numbers at the Liberian consulate. Waiting numbers for visa applications that they were issuing next week. And that just before they got to me they gave out the last one and I had to walk home as I didn’t have any money for the tram.
As I unlocked the hall door, I had just about convinced myself that they might believe that story. But I knew enough from past experiences to enter cautiously. I was entering the tigers cage. Slowly I turned the knob and entered our apartment. A miserable worker’s district, stained greasy flat. And, there was Papa’s hobbled feline face staring at me from the circle of light around the table. The sight was enough to make my empty stomach twist and turn. I have had a lot of experience with old Papa. I realized in an instant that I ought to hold onto my Liberia story until the last possible moment. It wasn’t that good a story and Papa’s face was dark red. I walked into the room carefully, keeping my back towards the wall. Then I stopped, my behind close against the wardrobe door, and looked down at the floor, waiting for the inevitable. My knees stuck out from under my short pants. They were blue with the cold of the street.
Sound precautions. There was a moment of silence and then Papa’s chair clattered over backward, and he charged across the room at me. In a second, he stood speechless with rage over me. His face was now chalky white. When Papa worried about me or about anyone else he loved, he grew angry easily. Knowing the loving didn’t help much now as I knew that his anger often meant that violence was not far bar and I tensed myself for his callused hand whizzing down at me.
Mama rose to my rescue just in time.
“Look how tired the boy looks,” she said quickly and pushed herself between Papa and me.
“Please Benno!” she pleaded, “it’s ten o’clock and he hasn’t eaten.” She waited for Papa to retreat a little, and then pulled me to the table, keeping herself in front of me like
shield until I was able to sit down.
Saved for the moment! Mama brought a small pot of stew from the stove and ladled it unto my plate. She fluttered around me nervously like a hen, cutting a thin slice from the small remnant of a loaf of bread, bringing me salt, discovering that my hands were dirty and wiping them with a washrag. It was reassuring to have her large shapeless warmth near me. I kept my face over the magically secure bright disk of the plate. Papa paced in the shadows beyond the table and waited. I think Mama had intimidated him a little. He did not speak until I had finished chewing on my last bite and had swallowed my last drop of water. You can bet I took my time about it. Finally it came.
“I suppose that you have been chasing around the streets with your unclean crony. Hugi, you are thirteen years old. Thirteen years old, and you play Indians until ten o’clock at night in a blacked-out city. Your mother and I are dying of worry. A Jewish boy, running around the streets, playing stupid games and in times like these. You you idiot, you bum! ” Papa was not good with words. When he ran out of things the frustration of not being able to say what he want brought on the only way he knew how to be articulate. With his muscles. I managed to duck just in time. . His hard, work-worn hand swept over the top of my head.
“Benno Flossel” said Mama, “I beg of you. please calm yourself. What are the Roelichs going to think about you shouting again at this time of night?”The Roelichs occupied the apartment on one side of us. The walls were thin. Bad news. Frau Roelich was a crabby woman who was an anti-Semite to ·boot. Gentiles of the right! Herr Roelich had been one of the few workers at the Municpal Gasworks who was not a Social Democrat. He had never been very cordial, even before Hitler’s arrival. Mama did not worry about the Querbaum’s who live in the adjacent apartment on the other side because Rosa Querbaum knew all about Mama’s troubles. They often talked to each other about them. As a matter of fact, I don’t think they talked about anything else. Papa lost his temper easily with his only child, me. Fortunately, he calmed down quickly. I once heard Hrs. Querbaum say to Mama, “You will have your hands full, Hannah, the worse things will get, the less patience Benno will have with his son.” She had been right. The worse the Nazi troubles got for the Jews, the more often Papa would lose his temper with me. The afternoon the storm troopers forced Papa to scrub the sidewalk in front of a tavern with lye, he beat me so hard with a carpet beater that my thighs and arms were covered with deep blue welts. And just because I had left my shoes on the floor in the middle of the room
When I had entered the apartment I had been ravenous. After all we had been down in the inundation area all day with no chance to eat. Now that I had some food in my stomach I felt a little more secure. My father’s swing at me had also riled me up. “Listen Papa, I try my best to do something that will get us out of this rotten country. My words rose like hot phlegm in my throat. “And what do I get? You slap me around.”I was beginning to feel very self-righteous and I noted with some satisfaction that tears were welling up in my eyes. Just indignation! “I spent the whole day standing in line at the Liberian consulate ”
“What the hell did you do that for?”
“They were passing out waiting numbers,” I said almost as primly as if it had been true. ” Next week they are going to hand out 200 visa applications. With a visa to Liberia we could get out of here.”Although it suddenly occurred to me that I had nothing to show for my visit to the consulate, I stared at my father without blinking.
Papa raised his huge calloused paw again. Then he changed his mind, and turned to Mama. “Hannah, have we raised a complete idiot?” he asked bitterly. “I am a poor worker. I tear my fingers to shreds to make brushes that are too expensive for me to buy. He stared at his hand as if it were suddenly turning gangrenous. That hard hand, much to large for Papa’s slight body, stared back at Papa. “They want 10,000 in American dollars for a visa to Liberia. I don’t know how we are going to eat next week, and my demented son is already packing his bags. Hannah, what have we done to deserve this?”
My father walked over to the small coal stove and lit a cigarette, while I followed his movements wearily with my eyes. For some reason, his little speech about the money made me angry enough to shout. “Every time I give you an idea about how to get
out of this place, you call me an idiot. I’m only thirteen years old but I know better. I am not so dumb that I can’t see we have to leave. You just don’t have the gumption it takes to get us out of here.”
As soon as I said it, I wish I hadn’t. Now I wouldn’t be able to keep from crying.
Papa looked at me silently for a long moment. He never was one that would try to impress us with stories about how clever he had been and how he had neatly done this or that. Instead he was proud of being honest, of being a man of his word. Tad had once said contemptuously that the poor think that clean conscience and dignity is the same thing. The silence worried me, and I drew closer to Mama for protection, just in case he came at me again • Bu t looking up , I was surprise to see a glimmer of moisture in my father’s eyes.
Papa spoke softly, turning to mother and me.”You know I tried every way I could think of but I had no luck. We have Uncle Max in the United States but with so few slots we cannot count him….One hardly knows where to turn next. Other people have many close relatives who live abroad.We have no one else. I always made my living with my hands. Who wants a simple worker? One needs money or relatives to get out. Shanghai wants money. Liberia wants money. Bolivia wants money. All I’ve got is these!”
He lowered his hands to his knees and stared at them as if he were ashamed of their nakedness.
A small brightness suddenly passed over Papa’s face”Listen, there may be something for us yet. I talked to Ignaz Querbaum today. He says they are making jobs for Jews so they can support themselves with honest work”.
Mother looked up quickly. “What kind of work is this, Benno?”
“Reconstruction! Poland is all in ruins, as you can imagine, and they need to clean up the mess. From what Querbaum says, they are giving the work to Jews because the Germans are all in the army. They need the help. The pay is fair and people will be allowed to send for their families just as soon as living accommodations become available. They owe me for the years I suffered for them in Siberia”
Mama’s face softened. She got up from the sagging sofa, walked to Papa and put her hand on his shoulder.” You take good care of us. We know how hard you are trying. Perhaps Poland will work out…I hope this is good news at last, Benno” she whispered. My father slowly looked up at her. It moved me. Mama’s worn face glowed with gentle love.
“Hannah, I would not be honest if I told you it was clean, easy work. But from what Ignaz has heard, the pay will be decent, they will leave us alone, and we will be able to get along. take
Some of those coffee house cavaliers may not be able to it. But I have been used to hard work all my life. .Cleaning up rubble in Poland isn’t going to bother me.”
As I lay in bed, waiting to fall asleep, I began to have visions of Poland. Endless steppes, dark forest, the tall reeds of marshes combed by a silver wind. Packs of wolves howling in the night. Horses. I always felt powerfully attracted to strange and new places. May be that was because we had alwaysbeen so poor and we could never go any place. Stuck in these bedbug-infested, crowded apartment houses that always smelled of stale cooking. I have hardly been out of Vienna, except for a few excursions into the Vienna woods and, once, four and one half weeks at that sissy place that the Jewish Childcare Agency ran in lower Austria. Oh yes, there was also the ten days visiting Uncle Heinrich in the Burgenland near the Hungarian border. But that was five years ago and I had been pretty young then.
Poland is not a place where tropical winds are whispering in the Banyan trees. Equatorial winds would be very nice. But even Poland whispered of romance. Poland! Horses’ hoofs pounding over vast steppes that stretched from Poland to Samarkand and the high Himalayas. I definitely felt a small tug of temptation.Then I saw Tomahawk before me. I was half-asleep but the thought woke me completely. Tomahawk was the real door to adventure, to the world that my friend Tad and I were dreaming about. Tomahawk would take Tad and me away from the Nazis, and out of this grubby grayness. It would carry us, the boy adventurer, Hugi Flossel, and his faithful friend, Tad Saegerer, down the green waters of the Danube to the high reed jungles of the delta, and beyond it, to the glistening waves of the Black Sea. I fell asleep dreaming of glistening waves.