“We learned in school that millions of years ago, the Vienna Woods, now stand was the shore of a vast ocean. The scene must have been fantastic, with monster waves crashing into the hills, and huge fish cruising the depths where I am standing now. On the shore, dinosaurs, hunting and grazing in jungles of gigantic conifers, ferns and palms. But a new ice age made the Ocean levels drop and the shores moved towards the East, leaving only fossils from all the weird animals that had been swimming in it. The Danube, a byproduct of the glacial age, ate a hole in the hills that used to be the shore and started flowing eastward, as if searching for the ancient mother sea that had given it life . Eventually came the time of the great wanderings and the place where the river spilled out into the great plain became a crossroads of cultures and civilization. Celtic salt traders stopped here. The Tenth Roman Legion and the Gemini, marched through. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in Vindobona of Malaria. The Amber Road passed through the plain with long blonde haired Germanic Theones peddling the fossilized remnant of the ancient jungle to the Romans. The hight cheek boned, fur clad, Asiatic warriors came next. Bow legged and reeking from a diet rich in mare’s milk the Alans, Penchenegs, and Hun camped in the delta their ponies drinking from the Danube. s. Dr. Braunschweiger said they were bow-legged and constantly stank of fermented mare’s milk. Norman knights came through here on the way to the Holy Land, pillaging, and killing, and maybe raping. My history teacher in the Realgymnasium didn’t say much about that, but he was a very devout Catholic. You probably know about all this anyway, and of course you know about the centuries when Christian and Turkish armies were chasing each other around here, killing and bleeding”
“Hey Cookie. You are you catching this. I am giving you an education.”
Sargent Fred E. Cook or Cookie was my driver. He was sitting in a mud-covered Jeep with its windshield folded down and a large wire cutter sticking out of its hood as it were a mechanical rhinoceros. His olive drab balaclava was pulled down, its bill covered his eyes. His very large mud cake boots with leather puttees rested on the dash and he gave every impression of taking a nap, but he replied laconically with a rich Tennessee accent “Taking in every word, Lieutenant.” The last word said with a touch of irony as we both knew who was in charge of this mission. I was barely an officer. He was a combat veteran, who had managed to survive campaigns (and 2nd Lieutenants) in North Africa, Italy and France. I was not going to get a lot of crisp salutes and “Yes, sirs!” from him. But I knew that I was getting a soldier who would always have my back and who to use the words of Major Kubala who, in Salzburg, had assigned him to me. “has forgotten more about this man’s army than you will ever know. Your first instinct should be to listen to him. And your second should be to listen to your first…Understood?”
Frankly, I would have deferred to “Cookie” regardless of what Kubala had said. I am seriously over my head. And I know it. After all, less than a week ago I a cadet at class 136-45 at Officer Candidate School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Hell, its only been five and half years that I stood on this very spot watching the Gestapo search for my best friend and me and our “dream” vessel the Tomahawk. The world, my life, has changed so much in that time but when it comes right down to it, I am still a teenager. And that while I might be an officer because I have a gold bar on my shoulders, I was not yet a soldier.
That had been made abundantly clear to me on our journey from Salzburg. But that is getting ahead of myself. I had left Vienna in November 1939 with the absolute certainty I was never to return here. But what is it that Mama says “Der Mentsh trakht un got lakht,” man plans and god laughs. That is certainly, my story. If I had not told that story to my draft board I might not be here at all. Again, I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps, it is best if I start at the beginning.
When Mama, Papa and I left Vienna on that cold, grey November morning it was bittersweet for me. I had abandoned my best friend whom I was convinced was being pursued by the Nazis because I had placed him the wrong place at the wrong time. Our project, our dream or fantasy or whatever you want to call it, Tomahawk, our home-built submarine and had been captured and probably burned by the Nazi’s. With its destruction and with Tad’s disappearance, the life I knew vanished. I did not know it then, but I have come to realize since whenever you say goodbye to something, even if it is a bit shitty, there is sadness for its passing.
The train we were on was packed. Since, the Anschluss, and especially since the war had begun in September everyone who could go, got. Our train was full as it made stops at the two main ports for us refugees. Trieste, for those heading to Palestine and the Far East and Genoa for those, like us, who were heading to the Americas and points west. We struggled to find seats but eventually managed to muscle an empty row that we crowded into, Papa on the aisle, Mama in the middle and me by the window. The train lurched into motion and as we began to pull out of the station I thought I saw Tad standing behind a roll of fire hoses on the platform but just as I thought I saw him we rolled past a stanchion and my view was blocked for second. When I looked again there was no one there. No doubt the apparition of a wishful heart or perhaps a guilty conscience.
Three things of significance happened on that train journey.
First, I had the best ham sandwich I have ever had in my life. We had just passed over the border into Italy and the train had stopped to allow Italian custom officials to come aboard when a group of women carrying large wicker basket began walking outside the train on the platform yelling up to the passengers in Italian “Mangiare…Mangiare…” We really do not know what that meant but Mama negotiated with one of the women and managed to buy us three sandwiches and a large bottle of mineral water pulling the money to pay for it from under her blouse. We were all very hungry. Our last meal had been 8 hours previous, a breakfast of cold coffee and stale rolls before we left of our apartment. But hunger was not something new to us. Since the Anschluss and especially since Kristallnacht we had not had enough to eat. Jew’s had limited ration books and we were forced to buy foods from “Jewish stores” which invariably had the worst quality of food. Combine that with our struggling for every Deutchmark because of Papa losing his job, meant that I was hungry most of the time. If it were not the kindness of Mrs. Saegerer and the bounty of her little grocery, I am sure we would have really gone hungry.
Hunger might have had added to the favor of the sandwich, but I will never forget that first bite into it. The crusty bread with its soft doughy interior mixing with a thick cut ham, smokey and tender combined with a farmer’s cheese and butter…butter. I wanted to savor every bite but instead wolfed it down like the hungry cub I was. It was my first meal in my new world and if this is what it tasted like then I was going to savor every moment.
The second surprise occurred just after dawn the next morning. We had spent an uncomfortable night sleeping up right in seats. I had managed a few hours sleep because I could rest my body against the side of the railway car as it rocked back and forth but I know that Mama and Papa did not. Their eyes were dewy and had dark circles under them. The train had slowed, and you could feel the train slipping from one set of rails to another when a conductor walked through the train announcing that we would be arriving in Milan in 20 minutes. A few minutes after his departure a series of bedraggled and rough looking men began walking through the cars staring at us as if we were cattle being inspected. It was unsettling especially when one of those men paused by our bench and stared at us. I was frightened. Who was this man? Why was he staring at us? Then he said “Benno, Sara and is it that little Hugi.” We looked at this apparition and for a moment we were very confused. Then Mama gasped “Markus, is that you?” Then we all saw it. This rough, unshaven, dirty and odiferous man was her first Cousin Markus Hacker.
Before the Anschuss, Makus Hacker had been a pillar of our little community. He had a good job as a printer and was a union steward at his shop. He and his wife Litzi, lived a few blocks away with their daughter Stella. Litzi, was a part of Mama’s tie making group and she and Stella were frequent visitors to our apartment. Which, if I am being honest, drove me a little crazy because when she came over Mama put me in charge of her as she was a year younger than me. As a consequence, instead of being out playing football with Tad and our friends, I was baby sitting for a little girl who wanted to be a part of all I did and would not stop asking me questions about everything. As if I were the fountain of all knowledge! It was nice being looked up to that way and she was good company but when my friends would see me with her they tease me unmercifully for being a “nanny.”
Six or seven weeks after the Anschluss Markus had been arrested and taken to the local police station. Litzi had repeatedly gone there to find out why her husband, who had never done a wrong thing in his life, was arrested. No one would tell her anything. Instead, they would call her names and mock her “If he has never done anything wrong then why is he here” and then throw her out of the police station. She and Stella would come to our apartment and she would pour her heart out to Mama while I would do my best to distract Stella by telling her silly stories. We found out later that Markus was not the only person arrested that day. The Nazi’s were employing a new tactic. Anyone they felt might be subversive or was suspicious in any way was arrested and then questioned for hours about their supposed crimes. Then they were thrown into dirty, vermin infested and overcrowded cells where there was barely enough room to sleep on the floor and where a single bucket served as a toilet. Eventually, the vast majority of those arrested, including Markus, were sent to Dachau. A few months later he was released because the Nazi’s were “appreciative”of his service during the World War. When he returned to Vienna, he was told by the authorities that he had 48 hours to leave the country or he would be arrested again.
We had heard that he fled south to Italy in the hopes of getting to Palestine. Shortly, after Kryrstalnacht Litzi decided that Vienna was no longer safe for Little Leni and sent her to live with her Aunt in Belgium. And then Litzi disappeared. No one knew where she went but occasionally, when Mama and Papa had thought I had fallen asleep, I would hear them whispering about her living “underground” which I did not understand.
Mama and Papa embraced Markus and began peppering him questions about where he had been and what he was doing on the train. He held up a hand and told them “We don’t have time. If the train officials catch me on the train, they will arrest me. Since the war began, Jews are not allowed to stay in Italy. Give me your address where you are going, and I will try to write you.”
We had no paper. No pen. So, we told him Max’s address in the United States and he said that he would remember it. Then he said, “I hate to ask you this but you do have any money you can give me? It is hard to find any work here and we get on these trains in the hopes we will see someone know and help us out with a few pfennig?” You could see the desperation in his eyes, but I didn’t know what we could do for him. We were heading to America and the Nazi’s had searched us to make sure we carried no more the forty Reichsmarks with us.
Mama surprised me when she said “Hugi, give Markus your tie.” And when I looked confused, she said in an urgent tone “Do it now.” I took off my tie and handed it to him and Mama explained. “I have sewn 20 Marks into the lining of the tie. I hope it helps you a little.” Markus’s grey eyes filled with tears and he hugged Mama, shook hands solemnly with Papa, thanking them and ran out of the railcar.
I turned to Mama. She knew what I wanted to ask. When had she sewed the money in my tie. “Shhh Hugi. I will tell you later.” About six months later we received a postcard from Markus from a small town called Viareggio on the Mediterranean Coast , not far from Livorno. He thanked us for our “loan” and told us he was heading south because he heard that you could find ships in Naples that might get him close to Palestine. We never heard from him again.
When we left the station in Genoa we were immediately greeted by a statue of Christopher Columbus. I thought it a good omen and wanted to tell Mama and Papa about it but Papa would have made fun ot it and Mama wanted us to find a place for us to stay. We had been traveling for a day, without much sleep and little ability to practice good hygiene and she felt that we needed to take care of ourselves. As a consequence, I kept my feelings about Columbus to myself as I trudged behind my parents with my suitcase.
I thought the city planners of Genoa very smart. They had located their train station directly adjacent to the port so the area was literally brimming with tourist hotels. But Papa had a specific hotel in mind and after a number of stops where he pointed to a piece of paper and a few “Wo ist” in German and a one half kilometer walk we found the Hotel Crespi which, from the weathered stone exterior look very nice, but no different the dozen or so hotels we had passed on our trip. It made me wonder why he was so insistent we find this particular hotel. The answer to my question was in the small, sparsely furnished lobby of the hotel: Mama’s cousin Hans.
Family relationships confuse me. Especially considering that Mama was one of 13 children and the daughter of woman who had 8 brothers and sisters. I could never keep who was who straight. Hans, was apparently, Mama’s mother’s brothers David son who had told Mama where Hans was staying. Which was explained to me at dinner that night after we had time to have a bath, a little rest and for Mama to remove a surprisingly large number of Marks that she had carefully sewed into various pieces of our clothing. Never too much in any one piece so if one were lost it would not break us but all artfully disguised behind pieces of lining so they could not be felt.
At dinner Hans explained that he had been staying in the hotel for the past several weeks after he had made an unsuccessful attempt to cross the frontier into France. To save money, until he could plan a more successful penetration of the border, he had been eating one meal a day and combing the refuse of grocery store’s that had thrown away food that might have been unappealing but was still edible. Not surprisingly he wolfed down his food at dinner while telling us stories of what I thought were daring exploits avoiding the Nazi’s, Italian Fascistas, and the French Border Patrol.
The next morning, we boarded the SS Vulcania bound for New York via Gibraltar and Lisbon. Our third-class stateroom, if you could call it that, was on D deck, just above the water line and was very small, even for people who lived in a one room apartment. Only about six square meters., it had no porthole just two bunks stacked over each other, a sink, and a tiny closet. Up against a bulkhead was a collapsible cot on which I was to sleep. The toilets and baths, as at our apartment in Vienna, were down the hall.
I did not care about the size of the room or how difficult it was going to be living in such small ship. Not only were we leaving the challenges and suffering we had in Vienna but we were heading to America. To a fairyland, where people like us, like Uncle Max, could make something of ourselves. A place where dreams were things that actually could come true and not be beaten out of you by a father. Where I could go to school again.
I was up on deck, watching the land fall away as the ship pulled out of the harbor thinking about new life in American and how after reading ship building text books while building Tomahawk I was looking forward to exploring the ship when it struck me. In the last three days I had not thought about Tad at all. My friend. My best friend, who in all likelihood had been arrested because of me. I had been on this great adventure. I was heading to the land where dreams come true. While he could be in some dark basement being beaten and tortured. It made me feel ashamed and a little guilty for the joy I was now feeling. But then I could hear Tad’s jocular and exuberant voice in my head “Fear not brave Winnetou. Old Shatterhand has suffered far worse.” It made me smile despite the sadness I felt. I knew that if anyone could figure out a way out of this mess, it was Tad.
Shortly after we pulled out of Genoa harbor we were hit by a storm. Rain pelted the deck and the ship rose, fell and rocked through waves topped with white foam. It was amazing! I loved standing on the deck and watched as the ship made its way through these crazy seas. Most of the other passengers, including my parents, did not think that this was as much fun as I did. That was apparent when I went to dinner that night. Not only was I alone, my parents choosing to be close to the sink, and deciding dinner optional under the circumstances, but most of the tables were empty. There were just a few seats occupied and mostly by a few boys around my age. It seems we all were immune to sea sickness and blessed with an appetite fueled by youth and deprivation. We soon formed a club “Der Seekranke Bande.” The Seasick Gang.
There was Jakob. He was 13, like me. They had lived in Leopoldstadt, the most Jewish section of Vienna and his father had owned a leather goods store until the Nazi’s had offered him the option at selling out at a fraction of the stores worth or being arrested. He chose to sell and immigrate to America where his brother lived in a place called Cleveland. Heinrich was 11. He was a scrappy type of kid who was not afraid to mix it up even with kids twice his size. Or at least that is what he told us. But I thought it was him just showing off as he was a rich kid. His father was a physician who had a thriving practice until he was arrested as a communist sympathizer and spent nearly 6 months in Dachau before being released and told to exit the country. They were heading to St. Louis where his father was going to work at The Jewish Hospital.
Over the next 9 days we explored every inch of that ship. We convinced the assistant chief engineer to give us tour of the engine room. We could not believe the size of the size of the diesel engines that propelled its screws. We met the first officer when he was taking a tour of the third class lounge during a particular violent part of the storm and impressed him enough with our ability to hold down food that he invited us to visit the bridge of the ship. It was very impressive, especially to a student of a nautical vessels like me, to see how a great big machine such as the Vulcania could all be controlled from a single location.
But, unfortunately, it was not all fun and games. There were the English classes. We all had some English while we were in school. But we had not attended any classes since they closed the schools after Krystalnacht. We were all out of practice. I felt like I had forgotten everything that I had ever learned and was starting all over again. But I tried hard. How could I go to school if I could not speak English?
Late in the afternoon, on the 10th day of our journey, December 6, 1939, our ship pulled into New York Harbor. Mama, Papa and I were on deck as the Vulcania cruised passed the Statue of Liberty backlit by the orange, yellow and pink of a setting sun. During our voyage, I had found a pamphlet in German about her laying around the third class lounge and had read it first out of boredom and then with interest. She had been a gift of the French Government to people of the United States. To help raise money for the base of this colossal statue, that would sit directly adjacent to Ellis Island, where new immigrants were welcomed to the United States a poet had written a sonnet that our English teach had asked us to memorize.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
As we passed the statue, I hugged Mama and pointed to the woman with the torch and said in my best English “The Ladily.” We were home.
Cookie pointed at his watch. “We gotta get going. Granville is expecting us at a place called “Sacher” in 15 minutes and I don’t know shit from shinola around here.”
Climbing into the front seat I said “Don’t worry. I do.”