Mama noticed my muddy shoes right away when I came home but she didn’t say anything. She probably thought that I had been in a park somewhere with Dita Roseman. After all I would be fourteen before long. It probably amused Mama a little to think I was growing into a man.
Maybe she just wanted to avoid stirring up trouble by asking, because Papa had just come home with some news. Whatever he said must have worried her or perhaps she was both confused and worried. Mama was preparing our supper in such an uncertain, nervous way,- rattling the pot, burning her finger, dropping a spoon on the floor . Usually she was so calm. The routine with which Mama brought the evening meal to the table was usually she same each day. She must be really worried. Mama worried was easily because she had led a hard life. Worry constantly gnawed at her bones but sometime were worse than others.
We sat down quietly at the table. Mama had been able to get a little chopped meat that morning at Mr. Wimmer’s butcher shop at the corner. Mixed with some stale rolls , it was enough to make three small patties. Mama and Papa ate their meal slowly while I wolfed mine down in a few bites. Now I wished I had more. It must have shown on my face because Mama, claimed she could not eat, and gave me what remained of her portion.
I could barely stay awake after we finished eating, crouching over Tomahawk’s plumbing all day had cramped my joints because I had been staring into the flame of the blow torch for so long I saw a pale halo of flickering blue flame around everything. But I forced myself to stay awake since I was curious about the news that Papa had brought home .
“So Papa,” I said through a broad yawn, “what did Dr. Lowestein have to say?” Papa was obviously pleased that I had asked because he lit a cigarette. The brief silence irritated me.
“What else did Lowenstein say?”
“Well,” said Papa “the Germans are setting up Jewish communities in Poland. We are supposed to be left in peace there and will be given work so we can live decently. The work cleaning up the rubble that has been left by the fighting. It’s all out in the country and some of these former city gentlemen are going to find the going rough. But it won’t bother me . Didn’t I spend seven years of my life in a Siberian prisoner of war camp. Every day of my life I have bent my back and used my hands to make money.”
He sucked one final wisp of smoke out of the last of the cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray. “Listen, I know Poland. I was born in Galicia…I couldn’t wait to leave but maybe it is a good place for us now…what with the war.” I knew what he meant. He didn’t really mean the war. He meant the Nazi’s and the daily indignities he had been forced to endure. He never talked about them. But Cousin Walter had told me of the time he had turned the corner on his street and saw Papa cleaning the sidewalk with a toothbrush with a couple of brown shirts standing over him while passerby’s spit on him. Walter had turned around and walked in the other direction because, as he told me, he didn’t want to embarrass his Uncle Benno but I think he walked away because he did not want to suffer the same fate.
Papa did not say any more about the war there although I know he could have. His regiment advanced and retreated in the battle of Galicia. He was finally wounded in a bayonet charge, captured and sent to Siberia. He never said much about the camp except that it was cold and often all he had to eat was onions. It must have been very difficult for him, he claimed his rheumatism came from him time there and he would leave a room where onions were being prepared. But he was mostly silent on those long seven years spent in the gulag except in odd moments, often when he had a little to drink, where he would tell me about the typhus epidemics and the lice crawling up the seams of his clothes.
Once, when he was particularly soused he told me, about the cattle cars he and the other prisoners of war had to endure for the three week trip to Siberia. No toilets except for a single pot in the corner for 100 men. No food except for what you could buy with what ever you could trade or pay for through the slats of the car. I still have nightmares about cattle cars.
Somehow he had survived. What I don’t think I could ever understand is what it felt like to be free again after so long in prison. Of that he never spoke. But one day, when Mama and Papa were out and I was exploring their drawers for secrets I came across some postcards he had bought of the Suez Canal when returning home by ship from Siberia. I always thought those color washed cards represented his freedom to him which is why he kept buried deep in his things because he knew no matter how hard he explained things we would never fully understand.
“They are putting the final list for the first transport together now,” papa continued “Lowenstein told me we should settle our affairs quickly and be ready to leave in about four weeks.”
I looked up, startled.
“We are we all going?”
Papa looked at me a little puzzled, and then smiled.
“Oh yes, yes,” he said,” I should have told you the most important news first. We will all be going together.” There was a glow of satisfaction in his eyes.
“A tremendous load has been taken off my mind. It looks like we can go as a family. What a relief this is! We will know the when and the where and all other details soon. The Jewish agency is going to announce everything next week.”
You can imagine that this just shook me up. I was not prepared for this at all. Just two hours ago I was working on Tomahawk. Everything seemed settled. Tad and I were going to finish Tomahawk and then we were running away from home. The only uncertainty was where we could get all the equipment we needed. Then we would start down the Danube and go until we reached the delta and the Black Sea. From there I would send my parents a letter. Dear Mama and Papa, I would write. Don’t worry ! I am safe.
Perhaps I did not think about our situation carefully enough. Building our submarine ready, safely and secretly, had diverted my attention and had sheltered me. It had kept me from really thinking about what I was doing. Running away from home, running away from Vienna was easy to understand, I knew all about it. Everybody knows about running away from home. You read about and you joke about stuff like that. But running away when your parents were leaving home at the same time was new and it frightened me.
For the first time in my life, something that I had dreamt and thought about had come real. We built Tomahawk with our own hands. It was sitting down there tonight in the dark. We could actually touch the boat and it smelled of tat. Only the other day I told Tad that I felt cheerier now than at any other time since the Germans had marched to Austria. Perhaps cheerier even before. Now, my father’s words were buzzing in my head like a swarm of angry wasps.
Dr. Lowenstein had given only a short interview and Papa had not asked any questions because he felt very uncomfortable in that presence of the smoothly talking official. Lowenstein told Papa that he and his family were on the accepted list for the first transport. We would leave in about a month but we were allowed to bring only hand baggage. At the end of the interview , Lowenstein shook papa’s hand and congratulated him of having the opportunity to be a pioneer.
“Flossel, you are among those who have been given the honorable duty,” Dr. Lowenstein had said,” of creating a fresh opportunity for the Jewish people in a new order.” Papa got most of the other information from the other Jewish men who were milling out in the foyer of the Jewish community office. They spoke about the clean-up work that they believed were waiting for them .
Hectares of rubble-strewn fields – – the remnants of bombed cities. There was even a rumor that the Germans would create a Jewish state in Poland.
“The Germans believe that the Jews can learn to be good farmers in Poland,” one of the man had said. “There is always need for good farmers, particularly in wartime.” Papa seemed to be very encouraged by what he had heard but he was upset y one dark incident. The SS guard who always stood in the foyer had amused himself by making the older orthodox men take off their hats and then acting surprised when he found a yarmulke under the street hat.
“Another animal lover who is keeping his lice warm with a little cap,” the SS man had mocked. The SS man’s malicious playfulness cast an ice cold shadow over the hopeful, buzzing crowd in the foyer and it had worried Papa.
“Luckily” he said, ”the SS man was called away by one of his officers. He was getting very nasty and it could have gotten worse. Those devils are using this kind of shenanigan to drive us away from here.”
It was hard for me to fall asleep afterward. Part of that was the hushed argument Mama and Papa were having in bed. It was not rare for them to fight, Papa had a temper, but it was very odd for them to argue in bed. What was stranger still is that it was Mama that was angry. I wished I could hear what they were saying.
Beyond Mama and Papa’s argument I was confused as what I was going to do. If my parents remained in Vienna , the trip done the Danube would fall neatly into place, just as we had planned it. Tad and I taking fate into our own hands. I would be a boy running away from home with my best friend. Thatt was the right thing to do under the circumstances. But now it seemed all different and wrong. Am I deserting them? I felt terribly confused and uncertain. How I wished Tad was here so I could talk to him. Tad would know what to say. Lying in my bed in the dark bedroom, I heard my parents’ quite breathing. The argument silent for now. I felt alone and helpless, For the first time in a month, I pressed my cupped palm on the crown of my head as it were a yarmulke , and I said the Shema Ysrael, the prayer I had been taught in religion class. As always I ended it by saying , “Dear God, protect my parents and me , and bring us that which will make us happy and safe. Amen!”