In the evening, Cousin Walter came to our apartment pick up his briefcase. He is Aunt Tina’s youngest so twenty-two years old and fat. His mother, Mama’s sister, is held in high regard in our family because she married a court clerk. Being the wife of a government official is pretty important as you can imagine. Of course, Uncle Sigi doesn’t have his job now because they dismissed all Jews from government service right after the Anschluss.
Walter had been a university student until the Nazis came along and banned all Jews from University and because he was “educated” he was sort of stuck-up in a harmless way. He was not very fond of visiting his poor relations,- of tramping up the smelly stairs of our proletarian apartment house. Aunt Tina made him do it. He probably thought of it as one of the miseries brought on by Hitler. Walter sat upright and awkwardly amidst the clutter of our room, primly holding a large parcel on his lap as if he were trying to avoid touching it and himself against our furniture. He probably was afraid of catching the disease of poverty hanging around us or maybe he was just embarrassed by the family argument that was now brewing.
Papa scowled at me, and then said apologetically to Walter, “How could someone in his right mind forget an expensive item like a good briefcase in a school locker room? Something borrowed, that didn’t even belong to him! ” I began fingering a small hexagonal washer that I just discovered in my trouser pocket. It was time to maneuver myself into a safe sofa corner that would protect my rear. Too bad that washer in my pocket wasn’t my lucky Turkish coin.
Fortunately, Mama saw that the first thunderclap was only a few heartbeats away. She put down the socks she was darning and left her chair to put a restraining hand on Papa’s elbow.
“Please, Uncle Benno, there is no harm done,” said Walter. His German was deliberately free of every trace of Viennese dialect. I bet he was pained by Papa’s outburst, so very lower-class Jewish accent.
“Uncle Benno, he can get the bag tomorrow. I don’t want anything to spoil my good mood. I’ve got fine news that you should know about. My mother asked me to tell you” Walter paused. He liked to be dramatic and be center of attention and then went on. “Basically the news is that there are now possibilities for Jewish resettlement in Poland. They need us to build the country up again. I was fortunate to be among the first to be selected for the Polish reconstruction project. Mother thought that you would like to know about it because you might find it advantageous to apply. They surely will need workers of all kind as well as administrators…like me.”
“That brat has to learn to take care of other peoples’ property. I can’t afford to buy you another briefcase if it got lost through his sloppiness.”
“Benno, please!” pleaded Mama. “Let’s sit down. Let’s have peace so that Walter can tell us about the reconstruction project. With his education he will undoubtedly have an important job in one of the offices. Let him tell us about his good fortune!
Papa was searching through his pocket for the small can in which he kept half-smoked cigarettes. That was usually a sign that he was calming down. I thought I better make the most of it and move the conversation along. So I asked Walter about the parcel the was carrying.
Walter was obviously glad I asked. With a conspiratorial smile, he reached into the large paper bag and pulled out a pair of high black rubber boots. They were brand new.
“What do you think of these, Hugi?” he asked. “You have no idea how muddy it gets in Poland in the spring.” He handed me the boots. They smelled of new rubber. Shiny as black Japanese armor! Magnificent! All the way to the knees. I stroked their smooth sides and I held them to my cheek.
Then Walter told us about the Polish reconstruction projects. The Germans had at last shown some good will toward the Jews and arranged for their participation in the reconstruction of Poland. There was even talk of a possible Jewish autonomous region. Several transports were scheduled to leave Vienna in the near future. Walter had managed to get himself assigned as transport secretary for the first train to the Polish project. He expected to leave in two or three weeks. Someone that he knew in the Jewish Community Organization had managed to place him in the first group.
The boots were beautiful! Walter was a lucky dog. I wanted the boots so badly that I was afraid to say anything for fear of showing my envy. The boots had a thin red stripe around the tops. Marvelous!
Boots of any kind were hard to get. Shoes were rationed. Hitlter had traded his grandfather’s gold watch for the boots. He thought it a fine bargain and I agreed completely. Even Papa seemed impressed, although it was not clear whether it was by the boots or because of Walter’s luck in getting on a transport to Poland.
“Of course you are an educated person, and those are needed to get a project started. But I wish they would give me a break. Querbaum, my neighbor had told me about Poland. These fine gentlemen at the Jewish Center don’t care that I know Poland from the Galician campaigns during the last war. To them a working man always comes last” said Papa through clenched teeth. “It makes me terribly angry. But what can one do?”
Everyone agreed, but I said nothing.
Before falling asleep that night, I imagined myself going to Poland, warm in an immense turtleneck sweater and wearing a pair of new, black boots with a red stripe on top. It was great to be so well equipped when embarking on an adventure.
When I opened my eyes in the morning, I felt like a traitor. How could I have been tempted by Poland! Tad and I had other plans. Tomahawk was down in the fisherman’s hut waiting for me. No school this morning. I’d be able to get down there today. There was a lot of work to do, a lot of work before Tomahawk was ready to carry us down the river to the delta.
Still half-sleep, I thought of the delta. Gulls screamed and I heard the wind rustle in a sea of reeds. Tad always talks about the delta as if it were a warm, tropical place. Wouldn’t a shaggy turtleneck sweater be completely useless there? Or should I take one along just in case? If I only had one!
Papa was in the kitchen dressed in his good suit. “Where are you going, Papa?”
“I am going down to the Jewish Community Center in the First District. Your mother thought it was a good thing to do!” The First District was the inner city of Vienna, the remnant of the wailed medieval town that stood by the side of the Danube but now touches only the Danube canal. I had to go in the same direction to reach the inundation area but I didn’t want to say anything. I had to think of a believable excuse that did not involve Tomahawk.
“Papa, I’ll ride along with you. We’ll take the same tram! I’m going to Dita’s house. She lives in the Leopoldstadt. She promised me some of the books that they have to leave behind. The one they are not taking to Shanghai with them.” I could not resist repeating, “Did you hear they are going to Shanghai!” Papa would take it as an accusation. And I was right. The expected frown passed over Papa’s face.
” It would be nice to have you come along, Hugi. But we cannot take a street car. It is not allowed. We will have a nice walk together. In forty minutes, we’ll be down there.”
Naturally I tried to argue with him about the streetcar. Told him that I rode the tram a lot and that no one has ever bothered me. But I knew it was hopeless. He had no sense of adventure at all. No doubt beaten out of him as a prisoner of War in Siberia. “They’d recognize me as a Jew right away!” he said, and that was that.
We walked the first few minutes in silence. I remember it was just in front of the General Hopsital that Papa turned to me and said, “I’m going to the Community Center to check on my application.”
Papa was always clumsy at explaining details whether they were about things or whether they were about how he felt. His tongue worked best for him when he was angry. But I knew this, and I listened as patiently as I was able. And you can imagine that this is not very easy for me. It came down to this. Papa wanted me to know that he, Benno Flossel, father of Hugi Flossel, was capable of gaining some control over our fate, that he saw some possibility of tranquility and comfort for us, and that he was capable of pursuing it. Papa thought he recognized a small hope for improvement and he was going for it. I mean he· didn’t exactly say that but that’s what he meant. As we talked on the way to the inner city, I could tell that Papa hated his slow, awkward tongue and I felt sorry for him.
We stopped outside a park to rest. There was a large black and yellow sign that announced that the use of the benches by Jews and by whores was forbidden. I said that it didn’t say “strictly” forbidden but he brushed away my little joke as if were a pesky fly.
In his tired, smoke-hoarse voice, he told me that he and Ignaz Querbaum had also applied at the Community Center for work in Poland. What Walter had told us last night had not been new to him. But he did not want to say anything about it before because he was not certain that there was much chance for success. This morning, a postcard had arrived in the mail, saying that his application was classified IK. He was not sure what that meant but it seemed a hopeful sign. Papa fished out of his overcoat pocket a creased postcard and handed it to me. The small piece of cardboard stirred up a confusing nest of conflicting feelings in me.
“If they accept you when would you . when would you have to go?” I finally asked.
“Perhaps in three weeks. Perhaps in three months. Who knows? I am hoping to see Herr Dr. Lowenstein today. He may be able to tell me. He is a bigwig in the organization. Ignaz Querbaum’s brother-in-law knows him. Maybe he will tell me about dates for the transport.”
Papa paused for a long time. “Perhaps he is also able to tell me when I would be able to send for you and your mother.”
We crossed the broad tree-lined roadway of theRingstrasse where the walls of the fortified old city once stood. From the right stared the long row of windows of a former Austrian ministry building. A dead stone chameleon. First Habsburg yellow and black, then Republican red, white and red, now the black, white and red swastika flags snapped in the morning breeze over the building. A small column of armored cars in camouflage paint stood in front of the ministry building. German soldiers leaned idly against their machines,smoking.
The sight of the soldier-minded me of my first contact with them during the week after the Anschluss. One of these armored scout cars and a motorcycle with a side car had passed me on the street and then stopped suddenly with a screech of brakes. A young lieutenant had leaned out of the side car and had asked me in clipped Berliner speech where the Ottakringer police station was.
Surprised, I told him. I think I even clicked my heels before I gave them the directions. As soon as the vehicles had rolled on, I regretted it. Why did I give the German officer the right direction? What a schmuck I was. Why didn’t I send them the other way? Send them to the city dump or the Wagner-Jauregg Institute, the psychiatric clinic. Even now as I was walking with Papa through the inner city, the memory made me twinge and brought a warm flush to my face. Damn!
I looked at Papa. A sweet small man in a shabby overcoat! Graying at the temples with an unkempt toothbrush moustache. What would living in Poland be like ? Probably alright. It was far away and strange and smelled of adventure. The thought of Papa working for the German soldiers bothered me. I felt strangely confused about those steel helmets and gray uniforms. Revulsion and fear mixed with fascination! The kind of fascination that I knew standing at the windows of a gunsmith’s shop, looking at the efficient hardness of automatic pistols and revolvers behind the glass. The soldiers had such fine boots and I was their enemy. I wonder whether in Poland, the German soldiers would think me as one of theirs. After all I spoke their language and I speak it in the dialect of common working folks. Looking over my shoulder, back up the Ringstrasse, towards the columns of armored turrets, I felt strongly attracted to the sleek steel and the guns and then was immediately ashamed of my feelings.
I touched my father’s arm softly to draw his attention. On the right was the street Papa had to take to go to the Jewish Community Center. As soon as he was out of sight, I would hop a tram. My destination was much further–beyond the Inner City, beyond the canal, and beyond the bridge. It was on the other bank of the great river and it cheered me immensely to think about it. I was going to work on Tomahawk today. To work on what Tad likes to call the swift and silent scourge of the Danube.