I like the smell of locksmith shops. That is how I picked my course at the Jewish Apprentice Institute. That may seem crazy to most people. But that’s another story. Now at seven in the morning, I wasn’t so excited about locksmith school myself. It was dark and freezing cold at the tram stop. I seem to spend a lot of time suffering at tram stops. But today is Wednesday, I had to get across town to go to school. I’m supposed to be learning how to make keys and how to open locks.
You see I’m not at the Realgymnasium any more. Us Jews are not allowed to go school beyond the compulsory age. Instead I am in the Jewish Relief Agencies’ vocational school, at the old Riegelhaupt warehouse in Simmering, three days of the week. Tad is jealous as can be. Because he is a gentile, a pure Aryan, he still has to struggle with Latin declensions under the pure Aryan gaze of Professor Braunschweig, the arch Nazi. Brown Braunschweig Not me! I am learning to make keys and to open locks. Papa thinks this is a skill that will get me a job once we emigrate but with father, the chance of that ever leaving this place is pretty damn small. So perhaps I can make my fortune being a world class cat burglar.
What I can’t tell Tad, because he would tease me too much, and won’t tell Papa because he thinks education is worthless and the only work worth doing is with your hands, is I wish I was back in school. To me, the world is a great puzzle and school helped me unlock that puzzle. Which may be the other reason I picked locksmith school. At least with the skills I learn here I can unlock things.
Takin the Tram to school is always a little dicey. You see Jews are not supposed to ride the trolley. The secret is to get on the rear platform of the last car. That way if someone you know gets on the trolley, you can get off right away. Jews aren’t supposed to ride the trolleys either and I could get into a lot of trouble if somebody reported me. They thought all this up in Nuremberg or maybe it was Berlin. I mean the trolley stuff is shit. The same as how they decided that Jewish children were not fit to learn in the same schools as gentile children.
The car was crowded. laborers and store clerks with gray pinched faces. They look crabby and mean. Are they all looking at me for my handsome Jewish features or at me because the elegant brown briefcase my cousin Walter lent to me that is clearly out of place in my hands? They carry their lunches mostly in rumpled paper packages. My cheese sandwich lay in the huge leather bag secured by buckled straps. I am carrying the briefcase because I need it for the caper Tad and I have planned. We need a blow torch to solder the tube connections on the Tomahawk. Walter’s briefcase was the place to stash the blow torch. We had drawn the plan up yesterday. No one would ever look for a stolen blow torch in a briefcase, Tad had said. In Vienna, only Students and “wheels” carry a briefcase. That is how Tad convinced me to borrow Walter’s briefcase. A student carrying a briefcase would not be noticed and it was big enough to hold the blow torch. Now I just needed the courage to execute the plan.
I wish that Mama had given me more for breakfast. My stomach feels decidedly funny. The same worms were in my stomach the day they reopened school the German took over Austria. That day, it felt like every worm that ever lived in the Vienna Woods had taken up residence in my gut. In the weeks leading up to the reopening of the school I became convinced that as the only Jewish kid in my class someone was sure to mock, or spit on me, or may be try to beat me up. But nothing much happened! I mean the Latin teacher did give a sleazy speech. Dr. Braunschweig showed up that day with the Nazi party button in his lapel and proudly revealed that he had been an underground Nazi all along. Illegal though it may have been but he had been loyal to the German ideal. He gave a long pompous lecture about the coming glories of the national socialist state, dedication, duty, German hearts, and the strength of the brown battalions. Soon the school would cleanse itself of those “who wander through the world engaged in sleazy trade.” Who? Me? I felt every eye in the classroom focused on me. I had wanted to shrink into a crack in the floor but I had managed to sit straight and keep my head pointed straight ahead. But, I had a better breakfast on that day. I remember it clearly now. Mama had given me hot cocoa and a fresh, crunchy roll.
The tram rumbled down a hill and screeched to a halt. The little church square. School stop! The clock hands in the tower stood at ten minutes before eight. Only a short walk. Narrow, cobbled streets. Overcrowded apartment houses with mouse-gray facades and peeling window frames. Just like the streets around my old school, the Realgymnasium on the Kalvarienberggasse.
I remember the street in which it finally happened. The moment I worried about during that whole first week before schools reopened. Walking home from school on that first Nazi school day, two guys blocked the sidewalk. I did not know who they were. Probably from the secondary school down the block. They both had pieces of black rubber hose in their fists. One waved it under my nose and asked for my money. Which was pretty funny considering that I never had any. Which is how I tried to fast talk my way out of t. It embarrasses me to remember how I turned my pockets inside out so that they could see how empty they were, all the while calculating my chance for breaking away to the park across the street where they could not hem me in.
Then Tad appeared. He was in top form that day. He stood toe to toe with him but that was not a big deal. In a tough workers’ district in Vienna, like where I live, we do that all the time or get run off the street. But he was very cool. Growled at them that he was a Christian like they were. Funny! We didn’t know the word Aryan in those early days. “Go,” he said. “Go pick on one of the rich kids in one of the fancy districts ! If you want to pick on him, you’11 have to take me too!”.
The two thugs with their rubber hoses backed off, real quick. That surprised me. Tad isn’t that big or that tough looking. But they went with just a few goddamns. I was lucky most bully’s those days, especially around Jews didn’t back down so quickly. Further down the street, one of them had turned, and hollered that they’d get us later. Tad did his victorious turkey war dance and then walked home with me. It made me smile even now when I remember Tad, raising his right hand like a wooden Indian chief, saying, “I am Christian. You are Jewish. The color of our mother’s wigwams does not matter. You and me, we are war trail companions.” Then he did another thing with his hand as if he were giving a midget a hair cut. I dont know what book he got that wigwmam speech from but he and I were both big fans of Karl May a German who wrote wonderful stories about the old West in the United States featuring two unlikely friends a cowboy, Old Shatterhand, and an Indian named Winnetou.
So even though the speech was a little annoying his act of bravery and kindness in stepping up to those bullies cemented our friendship. .We were friends before but that afternoon made it more special.
Not a soul in sight when I walked through the old warehouse gate. The class bell must have rung already. I hurried to the locker room and put the briefcase away. I don’t want to drag that monster into class and draw attention to it.
Herr Birnbaum had already taken attendance and was lecturing on the properties of soft iron as a key-making material when I got to my seat. Poor stodgy Birnbaum! He had been a physics professorat a fancy garden suburb Realgymnasium. Now he teaching apprentice plumbers and locksmiths like me.
Birnbaum was droning on about measures of hardness. I mean I’m supposed to be learning to open locks, not to be a physicist. As usual , I flashed him my “Everyone of your words is like a pearl to me” devotional stare. The trick is to try to bore a hole in the middle of their forehead with your eyes. That keeps them happy and that usually brought on with Birnbaum’s lectures a nice drowsiness that covered you like a tent. It didn’t come today, no matter how hard I tried. Hansl Lichtblau whispered something about hardness and his neighbors began to titter. Somewhere out on the street a car horn honked and a dog began to yelp. The church bell rang twice. And I kept worrying about whether that blow torch would make a big bulge in that stupid brown briefcase when I carried it down the hall. That probably didn’t matter anyhow. This adventure — Tad called it Operation Blowtorch, — could go wrong in so many ways. I touched the Turkish coin that Mr. Novotny had given me before the Latin test a couple of years ago for luck. Maybe it still worked if I rubbed it real hard. This caper was important. Tomahawk was beginning to assume the shape that we had wanted it to be. For three months it had grown, hidden under the skirts of the fisherman’s hut in the inundation area. Now we needed a blowtorch to get on with our work down there.
Birnbaum was fading out. The oil-smeared benches of the warehouse were receding a little. I could afford the luxury of thinking about warmer, happier days: about the day when we first found the hut. Tad and I had been roaming through the Ueberschwemmungsgebiet, the inundation area. In case you don’t know what that is, it is a largish flat field where the Danube water is supposed to go when there is to much water in the Danube. Any encyclopedia will tell you that its a broad flood plain, on the left bank of the Danube that had been established in the 19th century to regulate the river. This is the place where Viennese who don’t have much money go during the summer to enjoy themselves. They go down there by the thousands on weekends — workers and small shopkeepers, packed in the street cars like Norwegian sardines. The smell of garlic sausage and cucumber salad is heavenly. My stomach ached as I think back about it. What a scene it was down there. By the side of the broad glistening river, everyone peeled off their clothes and stretched every which way on the sparse summer grass or on the gravelly stream bank, to expose their pale bodies to the sun. I think that this is the way they tried to forget the stale air of their small, overcrowded apartments. Some had wooden club houses that were built on stilts and those pitched small tents in clusters around them. On a July or August evening, the laughter and the singing in the flood plain carried all the way across the broad whispering river to the hot cobblestoned streets of the city. They say that in the good old days before Austria lost the war and turned from a big empire into a puny little country- before the Central Bank crashed and everybody lost their job- that the inundation area wasn’t so popular then. But now it was the paradise of the Viennese poor. Smelling the river on a summer night filled everyone’s heart with yearnings.
Tad and I roamed around the flood plain even during the school year. That’s how we discovered the fisherman’s hut two years ago. We were playing Wild West. Tad has always been very strong on Indians. Usually his inspiration came from Karl May. Roaming around in our riverside prairie, we could imagine we were anything we wanted and that we could do anything. If you live in a musty room without even a corner that was really all yours, if you had to climb four stories of sooty tenement brick to get to it, it was great to feel the prairie wind in your face. When you were kind of hungry, playing that you were roasting bear paws over a campfire filled our mouths with saliva.
I think the day we found the hut, I was Winnetou, the noble and cunning Indian chief. Tad was Old Shatterhand, his clean- cut, invincible Teutonic friend. At least that’s how I remember it now. We would always argue who was going to be Winnetou. It was two years ago on a late October Sunday. I Winnetou, was tracking a rogue party of Sioux along the sloping stone bank of the river. Old Shatterhand spotted a half-submerged log and instantly recognized it as a skillfully hidden war canoe of the Sioux. There were no German soldiers then. In the fall of 1937 we thought up enemies out of the debris the summer had left behind.
Stalking the raiders who had hidden the canoe, we found the hut. It stood on stilts almost completely hidden between a weedy knoll and a clump of barren willows. Rush mats had been hung around the stilts, completely enclosing the space beneath the hut and forming a kind of room. This dark space, which you could enter by pushing a mat aside, was a perfect hiding place from which to spy on the fierce Sioux. It protected us from the brisk October winds, and we could watch the river through the narrow slits between the mats.
Birnbaum was talking about clogged files or may be it was about filing soft metal. I was thinking about how during our first visit to the hut, we discovered the trapdoor that opened into the hut from the space underneath. Tad stood on a wooden soda box and boosted me through the hinged door. I got a snootful of dust. The shack had not been used for a long time. Dead flies littered the floor. Thick dust and cobwebs everywhere. The small room had a window on all four sides and a door towards the river. Outside the door was a narrow porch. An A-frame, rigged to hold a net pole, was mounted on the railing. The pole was gone and the ladder that once led from the steep river bank to the porch had lost most of its rungs. The only furnishings were a tiny cast iron stove with a broken leg and a kitchen table covered with a peeling piece of blue oil cloth. Tad said to me that it was perfect!
It took us a while before I really began to think of the shack as our own. True, we played at the shack often and Tad had said that a gypsy woman who visited his mother at the shop had told him that a secret place would be given to him — a nexus to stength, she had called it. Each time we rode the trolley to the inundation area, I sweated that someone had come during our absence and had reclaimed our secret hidaway. After a while I began to believe Tad. I mean not really but I was encouraged. Each time we went down we found the hidden hut just as we had left it.
Tad said that the nexus to strength was going to be our Danube outpost. That meant we had to clean the hut. We also dragged in an old mattress and a chair that we found along the river. Tad stole some candles from his mother’s grocery store
and we stocked some bottles of drinking water. Our outpost was useful in our battles with the unruly Sioux and with other sworn enemies and a fine place to play.
Just a few weeks ago, I had argued with Tad about how things had changed during the two years since we had found our hut. We were still doing Old Shatterhand and Winnetou roaming the Sioux-infested plains. But there seemed to be new enemies now. The policemen changed their uniforms from Austrian pine green to the pale green of the German Schutzpolizei. Wehrmacht troops were practicing infantry tactics on the Danube bank. I told Tad that the posters on the city walls, the newspapers, the crowds laughing at Jews scrubbing the sidewalks were telling me that I was not of the same tribe as he was. For me, fantasies about enemies were getting fleshed out. Dangers were getting pretty close to real. Tad, stubborn as ever, kept pretending that nothing had really changed at all. He never seemed to pay attention when I talked to him about stormtroopers or about some of the trouble my father had with them. It was all another big Wild West show to him and it kindled his imagination as a wild west scene. The Indians or, depending on what we were doing that day, the cowboys, had just changed into brown uniforms. What really got our argument going that day was when he said: “Me Old Shatterhand, You Winnetou, Me Aryan and you Jew. We make many coups! ” Idiot!
There are so many wonderful things going on in Tad’s mind. But he never listens when his imagination gets into high gear.His headis full of ringing bells.
It woke me up. Real bellswere ringing outside the classroom window. The tower clock at the little church down the street chimed eleven times. One more hour. “We will strike at noon” Tad had said, “Exactly at noon! Agreed?”
Most of the students at the Jewish Relief Agency school ate lunch in the downstairs hall. It served as a commons room where we could talk, play chess, or swap rumors about emigration. The caretaker’s wife sold rolls and soup and, if available, cheap candy. The muffled chatter of the lunch eaters drifted up the corridor that led to the plumbing shop. Not a sound from the other side of the closed door. No shadows moving behind the flashed glass windows. The shop must be empty. Just as we calculated. Cool and swift, Tad had said. Four quick steps to the first long shop table and the shiniest, most effective looking blow torch was out of sight under my smock. Stop! Listen! Still no one! Big coup for Winnetou in the greasy apprentice’s coat. Two rolls of soldering wire and a can of flux followed the blow torch swiftly and then I was back on my way to the door. Count steps, Tad had said. It will keep you calm. It was 86 steps downstairs to the locker room. All clear! At my locker, I quickly wrapped the loot in a dirty towel and stuck it in the briefcase. At the last moment I remembered the cheese sandwich and fumbled to get it out. Now came the critical part. Another 61 steps down the hall to the landing where the window was, the bulging briefcase in my left hand. The Turkish coin.
must have worked. No one was in the hall. I reached up to open the window and, without looking, dropped the briefcase to the ground two flights below. A soft thud! I hope Tad is there, waiting and ready.
My heart was beating fast when I entered the common room clutching my cheese sandwich. I mean stealing wasn’t exactly new for me. I had been slipping small tools in my pockets for weeks. But this was important. We needed that blowtorch badly. I hope Tad was on the way to the hut with it right now.
The cheese sandwich tasted dry. I leaned back against the cold wall and chewed very slowly. It was a good thing it had not snowed this morning. The danger of leaving tracks behind on the path to the hut was clear to any old Indian fighter. Snow would have killed our plan for getting the blow torch today. The work on Tomahawk had to proceed at full speed. Then it hit me like a small locomotive. It wouldn’t work for me to skip out right after lunch. I couldn’t get down to the hut today. I was stuck. Swiping those other tools must surely have been noticed. Tools for Jews in war time were in short supply. A serious matter. No doubt they were alert and in wait, ready to pounce if there was another theft. There could be personal searches if the blow torch were missed right away. Trapped! I had to listen to Birnbaum the rest of the day.
The school closed at three and I left with the quickly dispersing crowd. Students did not hang around the gates of the Jew school. It tempted fate to linger too long. Knobby-kneed would-be plumbers, locksmiths, and carpenters disappeared into the gray city streets like water cast on hot stones.
It was annoying. If I had used my head, I would not be in this stampede but down at the Danube working on Tomahawk. Stupid! The most obvious blunder. I should have seen it right away. Tad had arranged the blowtorch caper along the lines of a Cagney-Raft prison plot. Bust out of the big house. Smuggle the shiv out of the prison shop! And I listened like a damn fool and that left me high and dry. A Viennese worker’s child should have figured this out right away. Tad said, skip out of school at one o’clock. Meet me at our nexus to strength. But they had noticed right after lunch that a blow torch was missing
The plumbing teacher and the principal, with serious expressions, on their faces had gone from room to room. It was obvious that they were looking for the torch. I had been right. This was no afternoon for leaving school early. They would have become suspicious of me right away. So, I had to stay until the bitter end of the school day, first listening some more to Birnbaum and then filing keys. Of course, this never would have occurred to Tad. His father may have been a socialist but then his father had been gone for a long time. His mother owned a grocery store, he was a shopkeeper’s child, and lived in the more genteel world where shopkeepers lived. Tad just didn’t have the instincts that one developed in a workers’ district like Hernals. And so, like an ass, I was stuck at school till the last bell. Now, it was too late to join Tad at the fisherman’s hut. Soon it would be dark.
I wondered if Tad really got the torch?
I bet young Dita Rosenman is still puzzled why I told her to get lost. I was walking away from the school and in no mood to hear about her forthcoming trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Shanghai. I mean she just wanted to walk with me. And I always sort of liked her because she was growing a cute and had quite the figure for a 14 year old.