When I got out of bed the next morning it was as if I had not slept at all. Perhaps I had not.
My sleep had been punctuated by nightmares populated by wolves hunting me. In most of them, I was in a strange ancient forest with tall trees with wide branches that kept the sunlight from penetrating to the ground with only intermittent beams breaking through the canopy. I would be running, sweat running down my face, clothes in tatters and I could hear the baying of the pack in the distance. When I could run no longer I’d hide behind trees until I caught my breath and then run some more with the howling growing ever nearer. Finally, I would make it to my destination. A wide dark river, that miraculously had a small punt on its shore. I would run to the boat and push into the black water and only notice after jumping in the boat the large wolf, teeth bared and growling, standing in the stern of the little boat.
Mama knew when I did not sleep well and was always gentle with on those mornings. Today was not difference, she told me to go down the hall to the communal bathrooms to clean up and when I came back, she would have a special breakfast for me this morning. When I returned, she had set up our little table several pieces of rough brown bread, a cup of black tea and the miracle, a small container of honey. How she managed to get this precious thing I did not think to ask as just looking at it made my mouth drool. I must have looked like a baby shark with its first kill attacking that food because Mama chuckled with joy and kissed me on my head.
When I had finished and was licking the last of the golden syrupy off my finger tips Mama said. “Hugi, today you must do an errand for me. You must take the ties to Winters.”
Perhaps I should explain. Mama was trained to be a seamstress at the Orphans Home in Vienna. No, she was not an orphan. Exactly. It is complicated. She was born in Sopron, Hungary and her father had died when she was three. Her mother, Lilly, was my grandfather Mordecai’s third wife and in addition to the three children she had with him there were ten other children. It was decided, I don’t know how, to send Mama to live with Lilly’s sister, Pepi and her husband Sigmund.in Fahrafeld in Lower Austria. It is was a wonderful place for a little girl to grow up. I know because during the summer Mama would send me to live with Pepi and it was there amongst the streams, meadows and hills that I learned the skills of a Kiowa warrior. (Or at least I imagined I did especially after reading one of Karl May’s books.). Sigmund, was a master tailor. All the local gentry, including Duke Leopold, came to him to have their clothing made. Mama used to help him and showed an aptitude for needlework. When he died when Mama was 13, it was decided that it would be best if she were placed in a Jewish Orphanage that specialized in teaching children tailoring.
When I small child I could sit and watch Mama sew for hours. Whether it was on the small pedal driven sewing machine that occupied a small corner of our apartment or doing hand stitching. It all seemed so effortless for her. The most amazing part of it all is that she could do all these things with a needle and thread while having complete conversations with other people and never missed a stitch. Perhaps that is how she and her friends got into the business of making ties. A friend would come to our apartment to kibbitz and Mama would be sewing away and they would join in. Or perhaps it happened some other way. No matter how it began, every morning, after their husbands left for work these ladies would gather in our apartment and make ties. One of them, I do not know who, arranged to have these ties sold to Winter’s Department store. Once a week or so, one of the ladies would take the ties to the stores, and collect the money owed to them.
Then, shortly after Kristallnacht, one of the ladies was beaten and robbed by a group of brown shirts on hew way home from Winter’s. Since then one of the husbands was given the job of delivering the ties to Winters. And when that was not possible I became the chosen one. It was not a difficult job and usually Mama would give me a few Krone for my troubles. But it was not safe either. There had been more than once when some local tuffs had decided that my young jewish body was not tender enough and it needed a beating and I had been forced to run for it.
I must have groaned a little because she said “Hugi, we need the money for our journey. It won’t be so bad. Why don’t you ask Tad to come with you. Maybe he would enjoy visiting with his Uncle.” Tad’s Uncle Anton was an impressive man. A decorated officer in the Great War, he had commanded the Crown Guard of Hungary before retiring in Vienna. A former colleague had offered him the General Manager’s job at Winters. Bored with a life leisure he had accepted. Tad adored his Uncle, and the stories he would tell of the War and the intrigue that went on within the Hungarian court.( I have to admit that his stories were fantastic but sometimes I thought them so fantastic that I thought there was a chance that he was just making up stories for our ears.) Regardless, whenever Mama tasked me with going to Winter’s to deliver her ties Tad was happy to tag along in the hopes that we get a chance to see his Uncle.
That afternoon, I was waiting for Tad in the Park by his school. I had drawn the wolfs paw mark symbol in chalk on sidewalk outside the school knowing he would see it and come to our meeting place on the playground. But not before I was spotted by Fritz Bauer, the son of the superintendent of our building. The Bauers, father, mother and son had been amongst the cheering crowd at Anschluss. They taunted, insulted and spat at the Jewish families in the building at every opportunity. On Krystallnacht, as the storm troopers wrestled Papa out of the building Mr. Bauer brutally punched my father in the face, spat on him and called him a Jewish cur.
Fritz, who was a year younger than me, had picked up his parents habits. Whenever he saw me on the street, and I was alone, he would do what I could do to ignore him. What could I do? If I punched him or roughed him about like he deserve, he would no doubt go running to his parents and they to the police and my parents would be arrested. So, I took it. Or did most of the time. And today I was in no mood for him. I had too many things on my mind between Mama and Papa’s plan to move to Poland, the Tomahawk, and my planned escape down the Danube and the conflict between the two of them. Consequently, when he said to me “Hey there Jew boy. What you have hidden in that bag…your horns.” I lost it. I walked up to him and as I was a few centimetres taller than him, bent over and said in my most menacing voice “Don’t leave your apartment after dark. We are everywhere. If we see you, we will take you to our secret temple and perform the ancient ritual of circumcision, implant horns onto your heads, and make you a Jew just like us.” His face turned white and a look of sheer terror overtook him and he ran away. How stupid of me. I should not be making trouble but sometimes you can’t help it.
Just then Tad showed up. Pointing at the fleeing Fritz he said “What is that all about?”
“Nothing. Just a Kiowa warrior letting pale face know what happens when you venture to far from your tribe.”
Tad laughed “ So good. It is good to know that you still have something dangling between your legs…” Then noticing the bag said “Winters?”
“Yes. We need to deliver ties for Mama. She thought you would like to come along and see your Uncle.”
“Why not. I don’t have anything else to do if we are not working on Tomahawk. Do you want to try the Tram.”
Normally, I would have said “yes” even though we were not allowed but the Fritz confrontation has shaken me. I did not want to risk another.” No lets walk. We can spend the time making a list of the things we need to complete on Tomahawk.
We arrived at Winter’s just before 16:00 and made our way around to the merchants entrance in the back of the store. Milling around the entrance were a half dozen stubble face, roughly dressed young men hoping that Winter’s might need an extra hand or two unloading trucks and failing that finding a little trouble that would allow them to feel a little better about themselves. They gave Tad and me a hard time as we walked by shoving us along and warning us what they would do to us if we took their opportunity away. One of them, I guess the leader, kept flicking open and then closing a gravity knife to intimidate us. It worked.
We hurried into the store and made our way past the loading docks and the racks of suits and dresses on trolley’s waited to be moved to storerooms to a small booth just inside the service entrance. There, a stern looking man with a toothbrush moustache, just like Herr Hitlers, demanded to know why we were here despite the fact he asked me the same question many times before. I told him that I had a delivery for Herr Gruber, the tie buyer at Winters. He scowled at us but reluctantly called upstairs and within fairly short order Herr Gruber arrived and escorted us into a small room directly adjacent to the guard’s booth.
Herr Gruber was a tall, very slim, and elegantly dressed man. I had never seen him with anything about his person out of place, not even a hair. He was also very formal with a ramrod posture and a pair of Pince Nez glasses that seemed perfectly at home on his nose. He never engaged in niceties such as asking after our health or for that matter even speculating about weather and always got right down to business. Today, though, something was different. He would not meet my eye and seemed furtive as if he was about to give me an unpleasant surprise.
He said “How many ties have you brought me today, Hugi.”
I put the paper satchel I had been carrying and placed on the table and replied “I have a 100 ties.”
He turned the bag on it side and began to pull each tie of the bag individually and inspecting carefully to make sure the stitching was immaculate and up to his standards. This took some time and Tad and impatiently squirmed in our chairs.”
He gave us his version of a smile, a minor upturn of the corner of the mouth, as if anything beyond that would be painful and said “As usual, the workmanship is beautiful. How much have we agreed to pay for the ties?”
This was an odd question and immediately put me on alert as the price had been the same for as long as I had been delivering ties for Mama. “Herr Gruber, respectfully sir but you know the price has always been the same two deutschmarks per tie.”
He bowed his slightly and removing his glasses from his nose looked at me as what he was about to say to me was personally painful to him. “I am sorry Hugi but we can no longer pay you that amount. We have been told that we need to reduce what we are paying our Jewish merchants. I am only authorized to pay one point five deutschmarks per tie.”
I protested “But that is unfair. Mama and her friends made these ties under the promise that you pay two.” And making it up added “ 1.5 is barely enough to cover the cost of the cost of the fabric.”
“Hugi, I wish I could pay you more, but I cannot. You can either accept our offer or you are free to go and sell the ties to someone else. What do you want to do? “
What do I do? It was so unfair. Mama and her friends were counting on the money that the ties made them. They needed this money for food, for rent. They were barely getting by as it is. We needed the money too. Mama and Pappa were going off to Poland to start a new life. They needed every deutschmark they could find. Everyone would yell at me for not getting more money and call me a lazy ignorant boy who should have been able to negotiate more.
Just as I was about to throw in the towel Tad, who had been sitting silently next to me, said “Herr Gruber, would you mind if we spoke to my Uncle, Herr Steyr. Perhaps he can help explain better why the price you are paying for ties has changed.”
I could of kissed Tad. It got me out of my predicament. No matter what happened I could tell Papa and the others that we had called the store manager. Herr Gruber was less pleased with Tad’s utterance. His normally pinched face got more so, like he just sucked a whole lemon. He replied primly “Your Uncle is Herr Steyr? Very good. I will call him, but I doubt that he can change things. Our order are coming directly from the government.”
Herr Gruber excused himself and went in search of Tad’s Uncle. I leaned over to him and whispered “That was a smart move Shatterhand. Call in Calvary.” Tad looked smug, as he often did when I praised him and replied “It was nothing, Winnetou. You will see. My Uncle will make sure you are treated well.”
Fifteen minutes later, and just as I was beginning to squirm, Herr Gruber returned looking, chastened, and if possible, even more pinched than before. Behind him strode Tad’s Uncle. Tall, with a long narrow face accented with a Ronald Colman moustache he had an erect bearing and command presence that befit his military background. His gaze fell on me and then switched over to Tad and said “Well, nephew what do you have to say for yourself. Herr Gruber, tells me that you are making all sorts of trouble….as usual.”
“Uncle, I was not trying to be troublesome. But didn’t you always tell me that we are supposed to try to do the right thing. That is what I was trying to do. The store promised Hugi’s Mom two deutschemarks per tie and Herr Gruber told us that he can only pay them one and half because of some new regulation. That is not fair. Isn’t Winter’s promises good anymore.”
Tad surprised me. A lawyer could not have argued our case any better. As silly and fanciful as he could be when it was needed he knew how to rise to the occasion.
Herr Steyr nodded and turned his gaze on Herr Gruber who responded without being asked “Herren, you know the new regulations about dealing with Jewish businesses. I was only trying to follow my instructions.”
“ Ah so. I understand. You were trying to accomplish but isn’t Winter’s Department store’s reputation important too. Aren’t we supposed to live up to our word. What if became known that we tried to cheat our vendors? We would not have a business anymore. Yes. What is the difference between what we promised and what you know want to pay them.”
“Well don’t you think that is a small price to pay for our reputation?” Obsequiously, Herr Gruber nodded. “So go and get Herr Floessel his money. I will sign the chit so you if there are any problems, I will be responsible.”
When Gruber had left the room, Tad’s Uncle demeanour completely changed. His erect bearing became a little less stiff and the stern look on his face morphed into the happy smile of a benevolent and loving Uncle. He waggled his finger at Tad and said “One day young man, you are going to get us both into a pickle that I won’t be able to get us out of.” For years afterward, I wondered whether this was mere conversation or prophecy.
He added “If you boys can wait here for another 30 minutes. I will be happy to drive you home. Probably, safer for you Hugi with all those Deutschemarks in your pocket.”
45 minutes were driving down Kartner Strasse in Uncle Anton’s pale yellow 1938 Skoda Rapid Saloon. I knew the car instantly because even though I had rarely driven in a private car I was totally besotted with them. How wonderful it would be to own a car and not have to wait for a tram or go wherever you wanted to go whenever you want to go there. I particularly like the Rapid. It had such a modern look with with a large chrome front grill that swept back into a long hood. Its large black fenders were streamlined and gave the car a sense of speed even when it was standing at the curve. And this car could go fast. I read somewhere it could reach 100 km/hr. How must that feel? The interior was just as modern as the exterior with large dials, impressive looking toggle switches. It even had a radio.
Both Tad and I were sitting in the front seat. I was closer to the door and Tad sitting next to his Uncle. Tad seemed as interested in the Skoda as I was but for different reasons for me it was the novelty of driving in a car but for Tad it was because the car was new to him. He asked “Uncle is this a new car? Didn’t you used to have and have a BMW?”
Anton paused for a second before answering as if he was weighing how to answer this simple question. He looked at me before he answered and said “A friend of mine was immigrating to Shanghai and he needed to sell his car and gave me a very good price.” I, of course, knew what he meant although I am not sure Tad did. A lot of Jews were leaving in Vienna and going to Shanghai. Not only did it seem far away from the war but the only real restriction to going was the money for the steamer. And, of course, how to get your money out of Austria. It meant that those leaving had to sell everything they owned almost always for much less than their value. Then they would take the money and convert to items that could be hidden in their luggage on their person. This was dangerous. If you were caught trying to smuggle items out of Austria your exit visa would be revoked and you would be arrested and sent to a concentration camp. But what choice did they have. Getting to Shanghai with no money meant starvation or worse.
Uncle Anton changed the subject quickly. He asked Tad “Did you see that the car has a radio? Now I can drive and listen to music as I drive. Why don’t you turn it on and see if you can find us some nice music. Radio Salzburg usually has a concert at this hour.” Tad did not have to be asked twice. He turned on the radio and then after the glow of the tubes had steadied he adjusted the dial producing a lot of annoying static before finding the right frequency.” The car filled with dramatic music and the rich sounds of a choir in full exalted voice.
“Do you know this boys.” And as if sensing the shaking of our heads he answered his own question “It is the “Gloria” from Liszt’s Hungarian Coronation Mass.” The music seemed to take him to a different place and time and for a short while there was only sounds in the car were that of the music and that of the tires against the pavement.
The silence made me uncomfortable. Remembering that Herr Skoda had once been the commander of the Crown Guard, (how could I forget. Tad was immensely proud of his Uncle.and whenever he was given a chance would start a sentence with “My uncle was the commander of the Crown Guard and he says” Or, “My Uncle was the commander of the Crown Guard he thinks.” It was annoying. I decided that I would get my revenge. “Herr Skoda, Tad tells me you once the Commander of Crown Guard. I never quite understood what they did? Why does a crown need its own guard?”
Tad shot me a look but Uncle Anton took the bait and asked “What do you know about the crown of St. Stephen? “
“It is the crown for the Hungarian King?’” I replied tentatively.
“It is far more than that. For 1000 years, since the Pope bestowed it on King Stephen, it has crowned every Hungarian King. No King is legitimate without it. But it is even more than that. It is said, that Hungary must have a King who is worthy of the crown that is worthy of the crown. Not the other way around. It is the symbol of all tha is special about Hungary. Then looking at me he said “One of my predecessors said “the Holy Crown is to Hungary what the Holy Ark is for the Jewish people.”
“The Crown Guard is different than other units in the army. Most swear to uphold the orders of the superiors and of the government. We, of the Crown Guard, swear with our lives to protect the Crown from anyone who seeks to usurp it’s power. For example, should the Nazi’s decide to replace the regent, Admiral Horthy, like they did with Schuschnigg, then it is certain that the Crown Guard would act and spirit The Crown and the Holy retinue out of Hungary and somewhere for safekeeping. This has happened many times in the past. King Bela IV escaping from Ghengis Khan, King Wenceslaus escaped with her to prague and it lay under thousands of corpses after the battle of Mohacs.”
He pauses and says “Can I trust you boys with a secret.” Tad and I both nod and tell him “of course.” And he adds. “No I am serious. No matter what happens to you or what the circumstance you must swear never to reveal what I am about to tell you. Raise your hands swear.” We, of course, said we would. We felt grown up being taken into Uncle Anton’s confidence.
For the next ten minutes Uncle Anton explained, in some detail, the plan that was in place to protect the Crown should it be threatened. There was a group of three Wardens who were appointed by Crown Regent Horthy whose sole charge was to ensure the safety of St. Stephen’s Crown. Should they determine it in danger, they would order the Holy Crown to be taken from its crypt by the Crown Guard, placed in specially created trunks that were secured with three unique keys and taken west, most likely a destination in Austria where it was to be hidden.
Tad and I were spell bound. It was as if we were pot of one of the cheap spy novels we would find discarded on trams or buy from a news agent when he had few extra coins in our pockets.
I asked “But what happens if your plot is discovered. Or the men are captured and forced to talk.” I said, shivering a little, thinking of the stories I had heard of Gestapo interrogation techniques.
“Hubi, we Hungarians are very clever. The Crown is too precious to the fate of our homeland and to those who want to use it to wield power to damage it. No one would dare damage the trunks that are carrying it. And there is no way into them without the keys. So, the keys will be distributed to three trustworthy men. The plan is that none of the other men who has the other keys. And of course that is what they will be told but it won’t be true. It would be too dangerous. One man will know the location of all three keys. Someone trusted. Someone whose loyalty cannot be questioned but is no longer actively in charge of protecting The Holy Crown. Someone who would not be suspected. Hmmm. Who could that be….” And then he looked over at both of us and winked.
That night I lay in bed waiting for sleep to come I thought about that conversation. The story of the Crown was so fantastic. But it confused me. Why would Tad’s uncle tell both of us this story. It was pretty hot stuff for two thirteen year old boys to be trusted especially if one was Jewish and had no connection to the crown. It could be ego. Letting us know how important he was but I did not get the sense that he was the time of man who needed to brag to feel important. No, there was a reason he told us. I just couldn’t figure it out.
And, while over time it was a mystery that I would wonder about often right then it didn’t seem worth my while. I had much bigger problems that needed to be solved.