Chapter 14: The Last Day
Just as Mama, Papa and I were about to leave to see Aunt Pepi there was knock at the door. It was Tad. Before Mama could get a word of greeting out he said “Mrs. Flossel, I look forward to visiting you in your new Polish home after the war. My heartfelt wishes will be with you at all times. And I hope you Mr. Flossel,” he turned to my father with a rakish smile, “will see to it that Hugi behaves himself and becomes a good citizen. He needs to stop wasting his time in fantasy land and apply himself to becoming a good locksmith.”
His tone was so transparently false that under other circumstances it would have been infuriating. But in that moment, I was shocked. Not because of what he had said but what I knew Mama was about to say.
“Tad, thank you so much for those beautiful words. But you must not have heard the news. We are not going to Poland anymore.” For a moment there was a flicker of happiness on Tad’s face and then Mama added “We leave tomorrow for the United States.”
I could see the different emotions pass over Tad’s face. First, confusion followed by shock and astonishment and then with full understanding, hurt and anger. Trying to recover, he replied “Mrs. Flossel, that is wonderful news. I am so happy for you and your family. But, I see you are just going out so I will let you go.” With that he turned on his his heel and headed down the stairs.
I said “Mama and Papa give me a second with Tad.” And raced out the door after Tad with Papa yelling after me “Be back in five minutes or you will regret it every time you sit down for a month.” I caught up with Tad at the bottom of the stairs, and pulled on his shoulder to make him turn around. I could tell that he was on the verge of tears both from hurt and frustration “What the hell, Hugi, you could have said something about this.”
“Tad, I am sorry. I only found out day before yesterday. And yesterday we were so busy with getting our visa and our tickets. I didn’t have time to find you to tell you. To talk to you about it.”
“You didn’t know about applying for the Visa. Come on Hugi I am not dumb enough to believe that.”
“You knew we had applied. I told you when my Uncle Max visited. Don’t you remember.” Tad got a look of bafflement on his face trying to recall a thread of a long ago conversation. Seizing the opportunity I said “Exactly. I didn’t remember either. The chances of us getting a visa to the United States seemed so impossible. So unlikely that it was better to forget it than be tormented by the possibility.”
And then I said “Listen. We cannot talk now. I have to visit my grandmother to say goodbye. We should be done by early afternoon. I will meet you at the Tomahawk then. This is not decided yet. Are old plan could still work. I I don’t want to leave you in the lurch…”
Just then Papa yelled down “Hugi, we are leaving. Saying good bye to Tad.”
I said “ at the Tomahawk…”
Tad said, regaining some of his natural bounce “Yes…Winnetou, great chief of the Sioux nation and ran out the door.
Our walk to my grandmother’s old age home in the 13th district was long almost 7 km. Back in the good old days of a year and half ago we could have taken the tram but today, with the restrictions in place, and with our future on the line, we walked. And mostly, in silence. We were all wrapped up in our private thoughts about leaving Vienna. I know Mama was thinking about her family. She was leaving behind 4 brothers, 5 sisters, aunts, uncles and countless cousins. They had been at the core of our life in Vienna. Between birthdays, holidays, and family events they made up the core of our social life. She was leaving them all behind. Knowing that she would likely never see them again. Knowing that they were as desperate as she to leave the city, Austria and the war far behind them and knowing that most of them would not make it. She, knew of the unspeakable hardships they would have to endure. The beatings, the humiliations, the emotional torture. Had not Cousin Robert committed suicide just a few weeks ago when the suffering became too much to bear. In Vienna, the suicides had become so frequent that the German authorities had ordered that they not be reported any longer. I am sure she was worried about them and wondering why luck had fallen on her shoulders.
I could never tell what Papa was thinking. Siberia had closed him off. But I also know he was a proud man. How many times had he told me that he had managed to keep food on the table by working hard doing whatever it might be when so many others with book learning and soft hands could not? I am sure that he was feeling pride at being able to get his family out of Vienna and extra satisfaction in that they were going to America. I didn’t think he would miss much here. While he had friends I am not sure that he would miss any of them much. Except Fraulein Elka, his special friend from the “beach club” we used to go to in the Summer on the Danube inundation plain but Mama had told me never to speak of her.
My thoughts were split in two. Part of the time I was having rich storybook fantasy’s about our journey and what it would be like living in America. I had never been on a long train ride before let alone a ship. They always look so glamorous in the news reels I had seen. Lots of smiling people waving at the camera waving from decks and port holes. Dining rooms where you sat at a table and people brought you scrumptious food. Food, like we had not seen in a very long. Food that would fill by almost always empty and demanding stomach. Would our ship be like that. Did they feed you in third class or did you have to pay for it? I thought to ask Papa but he looked so lost in his thoughts I didn’t think he would appreciate my questions.
But as much time as I spent thinking about the future the reality of the present always brought me back to right now. What was I going to say to Tad.? How could justify abandoning him at the Tomahawk. We were so close to completing her. We were so close to setting sail. How could I explain that for him, The Tomahawk, had been a fantasy. An adventure. He was an Aryan. He was safe. He had nothing to hide from. But for me, it was not adventure or fantasy, the Tomahawk was about safety. It was about saving my precious Jewish ass before Herr Hitler decided to whip it a little more. Tad, knew the danger I was in. How many times had intervened when some group of Hitler youth had thought I was easy prey for their brutality and punishment details?
I could remind of the time shortly after the Anschluss where we had seen the rabbi from my shul forced to clean the sidewalk on his hands and knees with a tooth brush. I am sure he would not forget the crowd surrounding him kicking and spitting on him and taking scissors to his beard. How could he forget the woman with tight blonde curls offering him a hand up only to pull his face to her groin so she could urinate on his face. And afterwards, covered with urine and spit, beard reduced to stubble, and no doubt peppered with bruises, the rabbi muttering “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad: and then adding even Hashem’s sidewalks need to be clean.”
Or the time we were playing Shatterhand and Winnetou at the Prater when we came across of SA brownshirts who were forcing every Jew they came across to participate in a form of sadistic calisthenics. The forced participants were of all ages and sexes and if they could not keep up or fell, they were beaten. Or they would demand that they assume awkward positions and then at random shove them so hard that they could not recover their balance and fall hard. One man fell so hard that we could hear his head hit the cobblestones 200 meters away. After that he did not move, even with the SA thugs kicked him.
But with each justification for my leaving it came back to the same thing. I was leaving and Tad was staying. This was more than just leaving a friend behind. You see Tad and were both only children and since we had become friends in 1st grade we had treated each other’s like brothers. Time, age, and even becoming blood brothers like Winnetou and Shatterhand, had strengthened that into an inseparable bond. He was my brother. I was leaving him behind and I felt ashamed.
The “Philantrhopia”, the old age home run by the Jewish Community was at Lainzerstrass 172 and used to be a private home for one of the lesser Rothchilds. When he died, he willed to the community and they had turned it into a place where care could be provided to the elderly who had no children. On the outside, resembled many of the others in the neighborhood with yellow stucco walls, Dutch gabled roofs. Inside, to me, was a bit of a nightmare. The first thing that hits you as you entered is the smell. It was a combination of decay, sick, and shit and it was overwhelming. The second thing you noticed were the old people dressed in cotton pajamas and the occasional dressing gown sitting on chairs, couches or at tables staring off into space. It was as if they were in the waiting room of death awaiting their name to be called. I hated the place. It made me think too much about what happens when you get older. My grandmother had lived an independent life in her own home in the country surrounded by meadows, forests, mountains and streams. Now all she had was a little room, decorated only with a large framed photographs of her husband and several smaller frames that featured Mama and me.
She stood up from the chair in which she was seating to greet us and I ran to her and gave her a hug. Like always, I was instantly surrounded by arms and her scent that reminded me of kindness, humor, love and every good summer memory I have and provided an overwhelming sense of safety. As long as I was in Pepi’s arms nothing bad could ever happen to me. Then it hit me. I had been so wrapped up in my thoughts about Tad that I had not spent anytime thinking about what would happen to grandmother. Surely, her sisters would come and visit with her and they would bring their children but it wouldn’t be Mama. It wouldn’t be me. And then the bigger truth hit me. After I left here today, I would never see Pepi again. This would be my last hug. So I held her tight as much from never wanting to let go as not to let her see the tears that were suddenly pouring down my cheeks.
But she knew. When I finally let her go and I had managed to wipe away my tears she said “Hugi, I think America is just the place for you. All that time you played cowboys and Indians in the fields above Farafheld will make you feel right at home there. And you will be able to go back to school. You love books so much it will be so nice to be in place that will allow you to study and maybe become a Dr. some day. You would like that, yes.”
I nodded my ascent and then added “Don’t you worry about your Grandmother. I will be fine. My sister will come and visit with me and you will write me won’t you. Tell me the stories of what you are doing? Letting me know if you meet any cowboys or Indians and what you are studying in school. You promise to write me?”
I nodded again.
“Good, then don’t you see. We will never be apart.” And then she gave an especially strong hug and I tried to ignore her tears as much as she had tried to ignore mine.
I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation. I was too wrapped up in my own miseries to pay attention to the conversation between Mama and Pepi. I know it was tough on both of them and both of them were doing their best not to show it. How do you say goodbye to a mother? Especially, when you know a pack of wolves is circling. How do you say goodbye to a daughter when all you want her to stay but know her leaving will make her safe from the wolves. Their pain must have been immeasurable and only exceeded by the love they had for each other.
What I do remember is our good bye. The unabashed tears and the long long hug that I wished could last forever. Walking out that door was by far the hardest thing I have ever done and a memory that I am sure will last with me until I have none left.
When we reached the outside and before we began our long trek home, I said “Mama and Papa I need to go say good by to Tad. We agreed to meet down by the Prater and it would be easier if I went from here than to go all the way home. I know you want us to stay together but Tad is my best friend. I need to say good bye.”
Papa grimaced. He didn’t want anything to go wrong. And me going down to the Prater all but invited things to go wrong. But, before he could say anything Mama said “ Benno, let the boy go. We all need to say good bye to our friends. What harm could it do?”
Papa considered this. I knew he wanted to say no but occasionally Mama was able to soften him and he said “Hugi, I don’t like this. But you can go but you have to promise me that you will be home before dark.”
“I promise Papa. I will be home and you don’t have to worry.” And with that I took off down Lainszerstrasse making a bee line of the inundation zone.
It took me the better part of an hour at a run/walk to get to the bridge by the inundation plain. I could have run the whole way, but I knew I had to be careful. There were too many people who would make a fuss over a Jewish boy running past them. I needed no trouble. As a precaution I tried to keep to back streets where I could run without fear of attracting attention. When I had no choice to take main streets like Tabor Strasse I walked, keeping my eyes down, but alert as not to inadvertently running into anyone.
But I came to a full stop when I reached the Trolley Stop by the Bridge where Tad and I had waited freezing all those months ago. Instead of being deserted like it normally was there was a line of Gestapo trucks and command vehicles. A squad of Black Uniform soldiers were lined up on the street at attention with their rifles slung over their shoulders, chins pointing towards the sky. Seeing them, stopped me in my tracks. Whatever reason the SS were here I didn’t want them to see me. If they saw me. They could detain me or worse. I needed to hide. But the street offered little cover and sneaking besides building or hiding behind cars was sure to draw the attention that I wanted to avoid. I was just about to turn heal and go back the way I came in the hopes of finding another way down to Tomahawk when I saw a small crowd gathered on a corner adjacent to the trolley stop. I slowly made my way over to them walking as nonchalantly as my rapidly beating heart would allow.
It was only when I was hidden at the back of the crowd that I allowed myself to shake. Why were the Gestapo here? I wanted to believe that it had nothing to do with Tad and me and the Tomahawk. I wanted to think that they were here to run exercise that were designed to keep their troops alert. Maybe some criminal had escaped and was using the dunes and the grass around the Danube to hide. . But I knew that I was just fooling myself.
That was confirmed a few moments later was when an officer emerged from one of the command vehicles and addressed his troops. When he had spoken for a few moments there was collective clicking of the heels and the troops began trotting across the bridge. The crowd in front of me muffled what he said so I asked the man in front of me what the officer had said. The man was very tall, with an angular face and a toothbrush mustache looked me at with curiosity. He replied “ He told his troops that a fisherman had reported that he had observed two young men over the last few months going to a hut by the Danube. He had wondered what they were up to so he had investigated and discovered they were making a vessel of some kind. He had reported it to the police who had informed the Gestapo. The troops job were ordered to go down to the plain, find the hut, destroy the vessel and if they could capture the young men.”
He must have seen the fear in my eyes. He placed his had on my shoulder and leaned down and whispered in my ear “I would get going if I were you.” And I did. First, casually at a normal walking pace and then when I was out of view of the troops and the crowd at a near trot. When I got far enough a way to feel safe, at least for the moment, I stopped. What about Tad? If he was at the hut working on Tomahawk there was nothing I could do for him. But if he weren’t there how could I warn him on time? I got an idea and made my way to the tram stop just before where we normally got off where we normally exited. There using a stone, and being careful that no one was around, I found along the road I scratched out a Wolf Paw with a line through the first digit on a metal station he could see as the trolley went by. Underneath it I put a large X our sign for danger.
I didn’t know if he would see it. He could be sitting on the wrong side of the tram. He could be daydreaming but I had to do something and it was the best I could do for now. When I finished I looked up at the afternoon sky. The Sioux had a trick about determining sunset. If you positioned you fingers on the horizon, each finger represents about 15 minutes. 4 fingers. I hour before I promised Papa, I would be home. But I had to find out what happened to Tad. What if the Gestapo caught him…and then it hit me hard. This was my fault. If Tad had been caught by the Gestapo it was my fault. I am the one who told him to meet there. We would not have had to meet there if it were not for me leaving for America.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another Gestapo troop truck barreling down the road heading for the inundation zone. I couldn’t stay here. The Gestapo didn’t need any excuses to pull in teenage boys and considering I was one of the ones they were looking for and how mad would Papa be if I got arrested now. If I didn’t come home would they leave without me My mind was a jumble of thoughts and I knew I was panicking, I couldn’t do that right now. I needed to get home.
I took a deep breath to calm myself …I began the long trek home taking the side streets and less used avenues as I had learned to do since the Anschluss. Moving, helped settle my nerves a little. I thought of all the precaution we had put in place around Tomahawk to let us know if someone was getting too close. Surely Tad would have heard people coming if was in the hut and used one of the emergency escape routes we had so carefully planned. Perhaps he had not even been in the hut. Maybe he got there just before or just after I did. Saw the commotion and left just like I did. He could be at home right now wondering where I was. Or even waiting for me outside my apartment. That must be it. I have been an idiot for worrying. Tad is far to clever to be caught.
Just before sunset, I found myself on Yppenplatz outside Tad’s mother’s grocery store. It was on my way home and I had convinced myself that this is where he would have come after leaving Tomahawk. The problem was I could not go into the store while people were shopping. Jews were not allowed to shop in Aryan stores. We had our own. And any “good” citizen could turn us in should they find us in the store. Instead, I hid in the shadows by the park which was mostly deserted because of the time of day and the late autumn cold. It was maddening., . It was that time of day when people shopped for the evening meal. Every time I thought the last customer walked out the door another two would walk in. I kept hoping when I heard the bell attached Frau Saegerer’s Grocery door ring that Tad would pop out and do something foolish and Tad like. But that did not happen. Just a steady stream of customers in and out as the dusk grew.
My time was running out. I had promised Mama and Papa I would be home by dark. I had to act. Putting on my best Aryan airs, I walked across the street and entered the Saegerer’s grocery. The store, luckily, was mostly empty. Just a single customer at the cash register paying for her groceries so I made myself inconspicuous by carefully examining the label on a can of corn. Tad’s mother seemed to know the customer, an elderly woman, who was more intent on gossiping than on paying for the few items she had selected. If this woman did not leave soon I would either have to leave the store without finding out about Tad or risk being harassed by some “good” Austrian citizen. Luckily, Frau Saegerer saw me lurking and brought her conversation with her customer to a close quickly.
When the door had rung and the customer left, Tad’s mama rushed over to me scolding “Hugi, why are you here? You know I love you, but you cannot be in here. They could close my store down for selling to Jews. I could be arrested.”
I stammered “I am so sorry Frau Saegerer. I would not have done this normally, but I am leaving for America tomorrow and I wanted to say good bye to Tad. Do you know where he is.” With those words, the emotions of the day burst through and as much as I wanted to be a man the boy emerged, and tears rolled down my cheeks. Glancing at the door, making sure she would be seen she put her around me and said “That is wonderful news Hugi. Vienna is not Vienna anymore and America…well is the best place to go. Perhaps we can come and visit when this all over. Yes?”
Unable to speak due to an unwanted lump in my throat I just nodded. She added “I have not seen Tad since I left to open the store early this morning and I don’t know where he is. But when I see him at home tonight, I will tell him you were looking for him . Okay“
“Okay.” I responded and then added “When you see him will you tell him that it is okay to come to the apartment to say good-bye.” I wanted to add, no matter how late it is but I didn’t want to alarm her.
“Now run along Hugi.” She said giving me a final hug.”before I get arrested.” And as I reached the door she added “Don’t forget to write.”
It was after dark when I reach Ottakringerstrass 48 and I was lost in my thoughts Tad and leaving Vienna as I entered. Which is why I didn’t notice Mrs. Bauer, the superintendent’s wife, who was sweeping the entryway. I bumped into her scattering the small pile of trash she had collected. She swore at me “You dirty kike son of a whore. You are alike. I should make you clean that up with your tongue. Or better yet get the SA men in here and really make you pay.”
Just then Mama’s face appeared over the bannister. “Frau Bauer, I am sure whatever Hugi did it was a mistake and he is very sorry. Aren’t you Hugi.”
“Apologize to Mrs. Bauer, Hugi and come up stairs.”
“Frau Bauer, I am so sorry for bumping into you. It was my fault for not paying attention.” I was being sincere. I was embarrassed that I had been so careless.
Mrs. Bauer glowered at me for a second and then slapped me across the face so hard that it echoed through the tiled lobby. Then, while I was still shock from being struck, she spit into my face and while the garlic and tobacco scented spittle dripped down my face she said “Go on up to your cunt mother, before I call the police…if you weren’t leaving tomorrow I would…”
Mama waited for me at the door to the apartment. She was incredibly angry, her cheekbones flushed, and daggers hidden in her grey eyes. I think if it had been any other day, she would have become a battling Mama bear. But instead, she put her arms around my shoulders and guided me inside the apartment and taking a wash rag washed the spit from my face. I guess I should have told her that I was too old for her to fuss over me like this. I was not a child. But I was numb. My last day in Vienna and I had managed to get my best friend, my blood brother arrested by the Gestapo and have my face slapped and spat on inside my own apartment building. I was just about to feel sorry for myself when Papa yelled from across the room “Your late.”
Normally, I would have done battle with him. I wasn’t that late. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three small suitcases by the door, all we were allowed to leave Austria with, and decided today was not the day I wanted to fight with Papa. It was not worth it. Not today. Besides, you never know what might leak out in an argument and I certainly did not want him to know about Tad let alone Tomahawk. Instead, I hung my head and said “I am sorry Papa” and went and sat on the edge of my bed. Mama brought me some cold sausage and a couple of slices of slightly stale brown bread which I greedily.
When I had finished, and brushed the few errant crumbs off my sweater, I lay back on my bed and stared at the ceiling. While Mama and Papa unpacked and repacked our small valises, I listened to the sounds coming from the streets and the stairway. Hoping against hope to hear Tad calling my name from the streets, asking me to come to the window. Or the sound of foots ascending the stairs and a familiar rap at the door. But only the sounds of cars, trams and the murmurs of passing strangers came through the window. The clop clop of feet against the stairs was never followed by a knock at the door. Eventually, Papa turned off the light and the sounds of the street lessened and no footsteps were heard climbing the stairs. The silence and the dark made the questions circling my brain grow louder Where was Tad? What had become of my friend? Was he being interrogated by the Gestapo? Was he hurt or hiding? What could I have done differently…Eventually, the exertions of the day got the better of me and I fell into a listless sleep full of nightmares of wolves being chased by wolves.
The next morning, we left Vienna for good.
End Part 1