Tomahawk: Chapter 12: Man Plans

The next day we began sawing the autoclave into two pieces. The diameter of the autoclave drum was about 10 centimetres smaller than the conning tower. I figured we could set it inside the tower, upside down, with the door towards the bottom. By flaring the top of the autoclave cylinder, it could be brought to fit tightly against the inside of the wall of the oil drum and sealed with rope and tar to make it watertight.

“The door of the autoclave will open inward into the boat,” I said. “We can operate it by turning the locking right from the inside.”

“Wont we get a snootful of water every time we open the door after a dive?” asked Tad. He was shaking his arms because they were smarting from pulling the hacksaw through the tough metal. “No problem,” mimicking Tad. “Word of honour. We will drill big holes in the tower above the autoclave door. The water will run out of the holes when we surface.”

It took all day to saw the autoclave cylinder down to size. When we finished, my palms were covered with ugly looking blood blisters. I spent the entirety of the Tram ride home figuring out what lie to tell Mama and Papa about my hands. I could tell them that I had a run in with some boys in the street who thought a Jewish boy like me was an easy target but Papa would have yell at me for getting into a fight so close to our departure. Maybe I could tell him that I had been forced to clean the sidewalk with a toothbrush by a squad of soldiers looking to have some fun but I rejected that idea because my knees were not scraped enough. Finally, I decided that I would tell them that I was playing football and I had fallen which is why my hands were so bloody. And, if they yelled at me for being late, I would try to guilt them into calm by saying it was my last game with my friends before we left of Poland.

Regardless of what I thought was an excellent story and plan to mitigate Mama and Papa’s anger I paused and took a deep breath before entering our apartment. I knew there was a storm coming and needed a moment to steady myself for its fury.

But when I opened the door to the apartment, there was no fury.  Instead, I was surprised to see a dozen or so people gathered around Mama and Papa who sat like monarchs on their couch throne.  They had a dazed expression on their faces as if something had happened to them that was beyond their ability to fully comprehend. In my experience, this could only be something extremely bad as we had never been blessed with good fortune. I was sure a disaster had occurred, and these people had gathered around them to comfort and console them.

I closed the door to the apartment with an unintentional thud and everyone turned to look at me. I ignored them. Walking to my parents I asked “What has happened Mama. Why are all these people in our apartment. My mother could see the look of fear on my face and hear the concern in my voice. She pulled me in for one of her soft but totally enveloping hugs that are normally reserved for terrible news like on the night of broken glass when the brown shirts came and took Papa away. She held me for a long time, no doubt composing herself to tell me the news then held me out at arm’s length and looking into my eyes said “Hugi, we have had wonderful news. We are going to America.”

The world seemed to hold stop for a minute. Nothing moved. There was no sound. Just a million questions banging through my head like popcorn popping. What? I do not understand. How did this happen? What happened to the quota. When do we leave? Do I want to go with them? What about the Tomahawk.? What about Tad? If go will he understand? Uncle Max makes sound so wonderful why wouldn’t I go? But you made a promise to Tad…you gave your word.” But I could find no voice for any of these questions. Instead, I asked the only one they could answer. “How did this happen?”

Papa began “After you left this morning, a messenger arrived from the United State Embassy asking me to report to the counsel in charge of immigration. I almost did not go. We were going to Poland but your Mama said “it couldn’t hurt” to go and see what they want. So, I put on my best suit and walked down there. and because of the rain and the cold regretting each step. When I get there they direct me to the immigration section and after showing my ID to one of the clerks she checks through some files and says to me like it is not big news “Ah-so Mr. Flossel here you are. You have a wife Rachel and one son, Hugi.” I nodded and she went on “Well congratulations you have all been granted entry visas into the United States.” I must have had a shocked look on my face because she says “Yes, I know it is all of sudden but that is how it happens. You wait for months even years and you hear nothing and then out of the blue it happens. But we must not spend any time on that. You have a lot to do in the next 3 days.

“3 days?”

“Yes, Mr. Flossel. The current government requirement is that you leave the country immediately upon receiving your visa. Here is a list of documents that you will need to bring with you to the United States and here is another list of documents you will need to be able to leave the country. Tomorrow you must return with photographs and then we will issue you the official visa. “And then I left. I don’t even remember walking home. “

Everyone, I could tell was immensely entertained by Papa’s story. Mama had huge grin on her face and was holding her chin up high. But I could also tell that everyone was also very jealous. Most of them, had no where to go. They had no money to go to one of the places accepting Jews like Shang Hai or Palestine and no hope of getting a Visa to any place else. Many, like the Steins, with no hope of escape for themselves had sent their children on one of the Kindertrnsports to England so they would be safe but being raised by strangers. The Steins son, Eduard, was a friend of mine. Mama, Papa and I went to the Banhof to see him off to his new home. I will never forget the tears of Mrs Stein on the way home wailing that she would ever see her only son again.

Eventually, everyone left and we were left alone. I had a thousand questions that I wanted to ask Papa. But with my first “Papa” He said “Hugi, we have many things to do tomorrow and now is the time for sleep.” Pausing, he looked me over as he had not seen before then and said “What happened to your hands.”

So much had happened since I had made up my story about the hands that I almost forgot and told him the truth. Luckily, I remembered in time and told him that I had fallen while playing soccer. Mama tsk tsks and proceeded to take me to the kitchen table where she washed my hands with her special tea, insisting on bandaging my mauled hands. As she wrapped the gauze around my hands Papa scowled and told us what we must do tomorrow. “Tomorrow we will have a busy day. We must go to the offices of the Italia Line and pick up our tickets for our ship to New York. No, Hugi I do not know the name of the ship. Once we have booked our ship we must go to the Rail office and get our tickets to travel by rail. Then we must go and present ourselves at the Jewish Commission offices and pay our exit tax and present our inventory of what we are taking with us. And, when we get home we must try to sell all that we cannot take with us.”

When father had finally paused, I asked “Papa do I really need to come with you. I would like some time to say goodbye to my friends” while thinking, do I go with Mama and Papa or stick with Tad and the Tomahawk. And if I go with Mama and Papa what do I tell Tad. How can I possibly let him down like this?

Papa’s reply was instantaneous. “No, we stick together from now on. We can’t allow ourselves to be separate with such s short period of time left.” And then added
““Be sure to wear your gloves when you go out of the house tomorrow,” it will not be a good idea to have everyone gape at your bandages and wonder what kind of terrible skin disease you have caught roaming in the filthy places in which you go all the time .And you better not forget about it or you won’t be able to said down for a week.”

That night, I lay in bed, exhausted from the work on the Tomahawk, but unable to sleep because my brain refused to shut off. America! The fairyland that Uncle Max had described. So far away from the war. Where we could live in an apartment with a real kitchen and its own bathroom. I could go back to school. Where I would not have to worry about brown shirts and bullies beating up on me all the time. Even getting there would be an adventure. A real train that sped between countries as opposed to the local ones we took to Farafheld or Sopron. Then an ocean liner. The Mediterranean. The Atlantic Ocean. Now that Britain and France were in the war anything could happen on a ship. Perhaps even a Uboat… Which made me think of Tomahawk and Tad. What was the right thing to do? Even Tad would have to see that going to America was far different than going to work at a work camp in Poland. Even he would have to see that this was better for me. But he was my friend. I had made a promise to him. What would he do now? How would he get out? What about Tomahawk. We had worked so hard on her and she would be done in a few months. On Tomahawk both of our dreams of escaping the war could be had but it would mean leaving Mama and I could picture her crying like Edouard Steins mother. And, the statue of Liberty. How grand it would be to see the statue of Liberty.

It was many hours before my mind slowed down enough for me to fall asleep and even then, my rest was interrupted by a nightmare. I was on the mud flats of the Danube outside the hut where we were constructing Tomahawk. But when I looked in the hut our submarine was no where to be found. I ran back down to the river and there I saw her floating with the current with Tad standing on deck. I called out his name, but he did not turn around. I ran down the flats calling and calling but Tad just climbed into the conning tower, slammed the hatch shut and as the Tomahawk moved to a bend in the river, it slowly sank below the waves.

The next day proved difficult. Not only was I exhausted from a sleepless night but moving around Vienna without getting on the tram, Papa did not want to tempt fate just as it seemed to be smiling at us for the first time. Our first stop was a photographic studio in the 1st district that had been recommended by the woman at the American consulate as we needed photo for our visas. This meant I had to wear a tie and jacket with long pants that were made of wool and itched. In some way, this was good because the photographer wanted us to look serious for our photos and I had no trouble letting my discomfort show.

Our next step was the consulate at Boltzmanngasse 16. It was an impressive building in the Imperial style, and I had a mix of emotions as I passed through its front gate and our papers examined by the gaudily dressed, ramrod straight Marine guards. This is my new country. This will save Mama, Papa and me. We are leaving. We will finally be safe and if only half of what Uncle Max told us is true, we can be so happy. Perhaps Papa will not be so grumpy all the time and Mama won’t have to work so hard. But then the stomachache that had bothered me all night re-asserted itself. How can I leave and abandon my Sioux warrior blood brother? Tomahawk was almost done. We had worked so hard on her. How could I abandon my ship. I know we can make it to the delta and then to Palestine. But…

“Hugi, come along” we have much to do today. We cannot have you have you daydreaming.” Papa said in harsh whispered tones as he pushed me up the steps of the consulate. Two hours later we emerged from the consulate. We were treated very nicely but there we were in a group of about 50 who were receiving Visas and there was a lot of forms and paperwork to be completed. Then an official came to us and said “Herr Floessel here are your visa’s  and was handed three green paper cards with our photographs on them. We examined them like you might a piece of jewelry or a fine painting. Visas. # 2,887, 2,888, 2,889. Mama cried. Papa stood at attention like the soldier he once said and bowed his head a little when he said “Danke schon.”

  I could not read the English on the card but just looking at them made me feel glorious. Old Shatterhand and Wineatou would have a new countryman. Hugi Flossel I had decided.  I was going to America. But how was I going to break the news to Tad? Would he hate me for abandoning him and the Tomahawk or would he be happy for me?

I had a lot of time to think about it as we had many other chores to accomplish that day. Our next stop was in the  2nd District at the Italia Line offices. Uncle Max had paid our fares at the office in New York and now we needed to book passage on the ship that was leaving the soonest. The office was crowded with fellow refugees. Waiting for our turn was tedious especially as the office was overheated, noisy without chairs and made my pants itch. Then when we finally got to the front of the line the clerk was rude to Papa. It took him forever to find the confirmation that our tickets had been paid for in New York. He then seemed disappointed that he could not send us away. Finally when he handed us our ticket, 3rd Class on the MS Vulcania departing Genoa on November 29, he practically spat at us saying “the country would be better off without dirty Jewish scum like you.”

I thought about the clerk as we walked across town to the SudBahnhof to pick up our railway tickets. Tad did not understand what it was like to be a Jew in Vienna. He was pure Aryan. I know he hated all of this Nazi racial purity nonsense, but he could not possibly understand what it was like to live it with each day. The knowledge that at any moment anyone could spit on you, kick you, or even beat you to death and there would be no consequences. What it felt like to be an outcast in the only place you have every known. To never feel safe. Even when you are sleeping. How can I make him understand that I have to go.

The walk to the SudBahnhof took almost an hour even at the hectic pace Papa set for us. I had to scramble to keep up and Mama, who was not used to walking like Papa, who used to walk 3 miles to and from work every day, and was wearing heels, struggled to keep up. At one point of our journey, seeing the strain on Mama’s face I asked if we could please pause to get a small bite to eat or perhaps something to drink. But he said no with a dismissive “We can eat when we get to America.” It seemed to me that he thought that unless we acted quickly that this great blessing that we have been giving would drift away like dandelion dander in the wind.

The SudBahnhof looks like a palace as befitting a train station in Imperial capital.  It even has statues adorning its top. But the nostalgia of the Hapsburg is quickly erased by the Nazi Flag flying over the station and the cordon of Wehrmacht troops and vehicle surrounding the building.  It made it very intimidating to enter the building.  We had learned over time that with no provocation at all would strike us or force us to perform menial acts like cleaning the sidewalk or demeaning acts such as licking their boots. We needed know trouble today. Without being told we huddled together as a group and kept our heads down as we passed through the line of soldiers. Inside, there was a line for Jews only. It must have stretched 300 meters and moved along at a cm per hour. While we waited in line, we were patrolled by soldiers who from time to time would demand intimidatingly for peoples papers. No one was taken away and I can only remember one man being kicked when he was too slow responding. It made for a quiet line with no complaints about how long it took and only a few whispers about destinations. Many of our que-mates were making their way to Trieste where they were going to pick up ships to Palestine or Shanghai. We heard whispers from a few that they were headed to Brazil and Argentina and as much as I wanted to mention that we had relatives there I said nothing. I did not want us to be noticed. I just wanted to get our tickets and leave this place.

After three long hours we finally made our way to the front of the line. Papa showed the clerk our steamer tickets who examined them closely. He said in bored and officious tones that the only train available for us to arrive in Genoa in time for our ship left the day after tomorrow at 7:00 AM.  It would take us south through Trieste then to Milan and finally Genoa. When he told us the price of the ticket Mama gasped. It was more than a month’s rent. Turning slightly, to block the view of those in line, Papa pulled a large roll of bills from inside his shirt and paid the fare whispering to me that my bar mitzvah suit had just helped pay for our trip. .

When we left the Bahnhof the central clock read 2:50 and after we gained enough distance from the station so not to be noticed by the Wehrmacht troops, Mama and Papa had an argument.  “Benno we have been at this all day long. We have not had a meal or even something to drink. The boy needs food. We need to take a little rest so we can carry on.”

Papa replied “It is nearly 3 O’clock. We need to get to the Jewish Community Headquarters  before it closes. We do not have time to stop, let alone rest. We must go.” This argument did not last long. Mama saw a nearby Wurstelstand and walked without hesitation to it and ordered three sausages on rolls. Out maneuverered, but not outflanked Papa insisted that we eat while we walked. I was always eating on the run so I was used to it but Mama complained that this was bad for the digestion but kept walking none the less.

We needed to go to the Jewish Community Center to have our identity cards stamped proving that we had met all the governments requirements for leaving the country. Most important of these was paying a departure “tax..” Most of the paperwork required Papa had completed when our destination was Poland. Consequently, our only object here was to show that we had a valid Visa for America and had booked and paid for passage and of course pay the Tax. This was easily accomplished despite further diminished our supply of cash.

When we arrived home that evening, we were exhausted. We wanted nothing more than to eat dinner and fall into our beds. But we could not. We needed to sell our furniture. Not only because we needed every Deutschemark we could lay our hands on but because our landlord could make trouble for us if we did not leave the apartment empty and clean. We were so close, and we didn’t need trouble so Mama went down the hall and asked Mrs Hacker if she would put the word out that we were selling all of our furniture. She knew that the informal “telegraph” system that existed in the building would spread the word quickly and soon one piece of furniture after the other disappeared from the apartment. Papa was pleased. We were doing better than what the second-hand dealer had led Papa to expect.

By 9pm , all that was left in the main room was the stove, Mama and Papa’s big bed , my bed and the table with there chairs. A small suitcase and two rucksacks stood in the corner by the door. Even the cheap glass lampshade had been sold . Only a bare bulb dangled from the ceiling to the room.

Papa looked over at Mama , who sat in the middle  of the nearly empty room , lost as shoe one a frozen lake. Her eyes were red from crying. Leaving Vienna was very difficult for her and she knew how difficult it was for me although she only knew some of the reasons. She turned to me “Sweet you, we will have to go see Pepi before we leave. Will you please come with me tomorrow?” Pepi, was Mama’s aunt who had raised her as own child. She was, in all but biology, my grandmother. In the summers, I would go and stay with her in Fahrafeld, a small town in the foothills of the alps, where she would pay the local animal herder to take me up into the mountains so I cold play Shatterhand and Winnetou while the animals grazed. And when I would return, she would always listen patiently to my stories and say “Yoy, Hugi you have such an imagination” and then give me the most wonderful hugs that made me feel safe and special. After the Anschluss she had been evicted from her home as the landlord thought a Jewess living in one of his property would cause him trouble with the Nazi’s. For a while she shuttled between her sisters but eventually, we found room for her at an old age home that was run by the Jewish Community.

I had to go. I needed to say goodbye to her. But all day long, I had been plotting in my head to go to the inundation to talk to Tad. Let him know how the world had changed. That I was leaving.  “Alright !”,I said ,”Of course I’ll go tomorrow then almost under my breath “but I have to have some time to say good bye to my friends.”

I retreated into the corner, away from them, my back against the stack of suitcases. Cupped my face in my bandaged hands. Closed my eyes ever so slightly. I tried to shut out everything. It was so confusing and painful. There was no easy way out. I had been racking my brain all day. How do I tell Tad.? It was my last thought as I fell asleep without even noticing it.

About 34orion

Winston Churchill once said that if you were not a liberal when you were young you had no heart, and if you were not a conservative when you were older then you had no brain. I know I have both so what does that make me?
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