Like most people, I followed the war news very carefully. Unlike, most I used reading the newspapers, especially early on, as English lessons. It made learning easier when you had a personal interest in the subject being discussed. A guy I knew once accused me “of reading the ink” off the newspaper. He got annoyed when I asked him what that meant but when he, reluctantly, explained, I agreed with him whole heartily.
I was having one of those intimate sessions with a newspaper in late June of 1944 sitting on a bench outside Max’s grocery store on White St in Danbury when I read that the allies had begun bombing Vienna in earnest from their new airfields in Italy. My first instinct was to rush into the store and tell Max about the bombing but as I got up off the bench I realized that the bombing meant something other than taking it to the Nazi’s. I knew people in Vienna. I had relatives in Vienna. It was not just the Nazi’s getting bombed it was folks that I knew. I never did tell Max about the bombing. He would have been too joyful. He would not understand the suffering of the people like me. I didn’t tell Mama or Papa either. They knew all that it meant but for them, especially Mama with her large family, it would just have added needless worry. No doubt someone else would tell her but it would not be me adding to her burden. Or at least not that way.
The bombings went on virtually every day from June until April. Imagine a city like Washington or Boston being bombed every day. And then despite Vienna being declared an “open city” the Russian’s began their assault in early April. For two weeks some of the fiercest urban combat of the war occurred. Block by block, a city that was already in ruins became a city in rubble. Not even The Cathedral of St. Stephen was spared. A bomb penetrated its roof and caused a massive fire and damage to what had been the heart of Vienna for a thousand years
Despite knowing all of this, I was not prepared for what I saw on our ride from the Danube to the Hotel Sacher. Photographs can only show you images of the destruction. Massive piles of debris where buildings once stood. Craters where there used to be streets. Wrecked armored vehicles and tanks in parks where I used to play. But photos won’t let you know what it smells like. What was it that Kipling said “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” Here, the odor of decaying bodies still buried beneath the rubble, mixed with the dust of the thousands of destroyed buildings, the human waste from broken sewers and lack of sanitary facilities. It was overpowering even a month after Vienna’s surrender. It was the smell of defeat and was so overwhelming that Cookie and I had to stop and jury rig face coverings out of handkerchiefs.
We were making our way down Rotemsturmstrasse when we came across Stehpansdom. St. Stepehens Cathedral, the symbol of the city and the Austrian Empire lay in shambles. I told Cookie to stop. I wanted to look around even if it made us a few minutes late with Granville. Not only had this building been the center of Viennese life (technically by law it was the center) but tangentially, it was the reason that I was here. I walked over to the front wall. I wanted to see if a memory of childhood still existed. When I was small enough to still want to hold Papa’s hand we had walked past the Cathedral on our way to buy me new shoes. He had pointed to two iron bars embedded in the stone wall of the church. He told me that these were the official measurements in Austria put here so there was a standard and no one would cheat each other. I thought it a very strange concept at the time. But now I wanted to see if they remained. That at least one part of my childhood stayed intact. It did. They were still there. That wall, despite being black from the soot of the fire, the interior gutted, remained standing. I walked back to the jeep and told Cookie “ See that street over just to the left. That is Kartnerstrasse. Hotel Sacher will be on the right in a few blocks.”
We had been told by Major Kubala that the Hotel Sacher had been commandeered by the British shortly after VE day. The Russians who controlled the city, were none to pleased to see the “Tommies.” They wanted the city for their own despite their agreement to the Moscow accords. However, in typical, they pretended not to hear the Russian’s complaints and in classic British fashion, they had found the nicest place to stay and made themselves completely at home. As we American’s did not have an official HQ in Vienna as of yet, we were to stay with the Brits while our team looked for a permanent location.
The Hotel Sacher had somehow remained untouched by time and bombs. It looked like no war had taken place outside its doors. We called Captain Granville on the house phone Cookie and I made ourselves at home in the lush lobby of tiled floors, with seating areas defined by Oriental rugs. The couches are chairs were either of chintz or red velvet and the walls of brown wood dotted by pictures and mirrors in gilded frame. “No wonder the British commandeered this place” I thought “It looks exactly like a British Men’s Club.” Not that I had ever been in one of those clubs but what I imagined they looked like from the movies and books.
Within a couple of minutes, we were approached by a surprisingly tall, skinny Captain in a Class A uniform in which he didn’t at all comfortable. This fit Kubala’s description of Granville. I had been told that up until March Granville was a sergeant in Army Counterintelligence. Held at that rank because US regulations at the time required officers be native born citizens. Granville had been born in Budapest and as a consequence was not eligible. When the demand for officers, especially those with native language skills, had become too great, regulations had been re-written. Since January all that was required to become an officer was citizenship. This change how allowed me to become commissioned. Granville, who had served with distinction in North Africa, Italy, and France had been promoted from Sgt. to Captain in one leap due to his service and depth of expertise in counterintelligence and eastern Europe.
I stood and saluted. He gave me a half hearted, war weary salute back. He looked over at Cookie who was still slouched in a chair, reading a wekk old issue of “Union Jack” , the British military newspaper, and had not bothered to stand or for that matter salute Granville. The Captain said “Hi Cookie. I see you have not changed very much. Still doing your Joe and Willie routine” referring to the two famous characters from Bill Mauldin’s cartoon. “
Still without getting up or saluting he said “Sir, yes sir.” Then he smiled and said “Just can’t get used to with those bars on your shoulders. You used to work for living.”
Granville smiled and replied, “Still do.” Then he tossed Cookie a key “Here is your billet. Why don’t you go and take advantage of the hot water and the bed and meet us back down here at 1600.”
With that Cookie got to his feet, gave us both a very lazy salute, more akin you would see in Brooklyn when they said “see ya” than in the Army and drawled “Don’t have to be asked twice for that.”
Granville gestured to a small table with two burgundy velvet chairs up against the wall and we sat down. He signaled the waiter and asked him in perfect German, albeit with a slight Hungarian accent, to bring us two coffees. Then, he pulled a file from his briefcase and said to me “May I call you Hugi.”
“I prefer Sam these days.”
He looked at me inquisitively so I added “When I got to High School in the states the name Hugi was, lets just say, not very familiar and some folks thought it particularly easy to have fun at my expense. So, when I tried out for the football team, I told everyone to call me Sam.”
“Because Max was taken….No reason, really. It sounded American to me and it stuck.”
“I understand that. When my family immigrated to the United States my name was Gerbo Szabo. My father decided to change the last name to Granville and told us kids we needed to pick an American first name. I liked George Washington so…” He smiled and held out his hand “George.”
The coffee arrived on a silver tray with a sugar bowl, two small glass of water and small bowl of “schlag”, whipped cream. It was a little thing but for a moment I was overtaken by the “Vienneseness” of the moment. Less than a week ago, I was in the middle of Oklahoma, at a Fort built for the Indian Wars and now here I was back where it all began, being Viennese.
I smiled. Captain Granville had been a member of Army Counterintelligence for over 3 years. He had, no doubt interrogated many people and managed to drain them of the information they had to offer. Picking up on body language and other tells no doubt had helped in many situations. He noticed my amusement and said “Why the smile Sam?”
“Sir, just the improbability of the moment. 5 years ago I was a kid in short pants running away from this place. One year ago I was on a college campus in upstate NY bussing tables to pay for my tuition. One week ago I was in Oklahoma trying to figure out the trajectories of artillery shells. To be here, having Kafe mit Schlag because of something I heard as a kid…well its its just so absurd its funny.”
Granville nodded and said “Welcome to this mans, Army. Where the absurd is often the order of the day. But I am glad you brought up your story. I want to hear it. From the beginning. As much or little detail as you want. If we are going to be successful I need to know a little about who you are.”
Max met us at the dock with his wife Sara. The car, I learned later, was a 1939 Buick Roadmaster and looked as if it had been designed for mobsters to drive in all those James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart movies. I was overwhelmed by it size. Sitting in the back seat on the way to our new home in Danbury Ct, I thought the interior of the car was bigger than our cabin had been on Vulcania. It made me think Uncle Max was very rich. It was something that my new Aunt Sara was happy to talk about. In halting German with a terrible American accent she proceeded to tell us how Max had come here with nothing and now he owned two stores and how luck we were to have him as a relative. That he had saved our lives and how grateful she knew we felt for being saved. I did not realize at the time but what she was doing was putting us in our place. We were the poor relatives who been saved by her and Max and we needed to show our appreciation to them in everything we did like a serf to a feudal lord.
I could tell from the way Uncle Max’s shoulder hunched that this was an uncomfortable conversation for him. I do not think he wanted us to feel any obligation at all. I thought that he was simply happy to have helped his family. But it was also patently obvious whatever Sara said went and he would not disagree with her.
When we finally got to Max’s home about 2 hours later, we were all very tired. But Sara’s housekeeper had prepared a light meal for us. We sat down at a table with dishes of food that looked quite different from what we ate in Vienna or even the meals that had been served on board ship. I was too embarrassed to ask about what each item was, so I decided to focus on the familiar cutting off slices of cheese and placing them on freshly baked white bread. The cheese tasted a little different than home but I thought it was delicious, so I kept eating more until Max said to me “Du musst Butter lieben?” You must love butter. What I thought was cheese was butter and I must have eaten a ½ lb. I felt my face turn red but replied sheepishly. “Ja.”
The next morning, Max drove us to our new home at 10 Delay St. A two-family home just a block off Main St and a few blocks from Max’s stores on White Street. Even though the building showed some wear and tear, to us it was a palace. We had the entire first floor and not only was there a kitchen large enough to eat in but it had two bedrooms (I know longer had to listen to Papa’s snoring) and its own bathroom with a shower and a tub! There was even a porch and a backyard.
Max had done more than find us a place to live. He had also found Papa a job. We learned that Danbury was called the hat capital of the world because since the mid 1800’s it’s primary industry was hat making and Papa’s experience in the abattoir and being a brush maker made him a perfect candidate for a job in the hat industry. Max had a connection at the Bieber-Goodman Felt Body Corporation and a job had been arranged for him there. Mama, was offered a job as a seamstress at the same company. For me, it was off to school but before I could go, I would needed to be tested so the proper grade level could be determined.
The next day Max took me to the high school where they gave me a series of tests. I did not understand them very well as they were all in English. When the testing was completed the woman, who administered the test told Max the results. As they were speaking in English I did not understand them but It was clear that he did not like her remarks and a brief argument ensued before we left. When we got to the car Max told me what the lady had said. That because of my English skills I was to be placed in the 2nd grade until I progressed.
When I started school the next week, I was nearly 14 years old and surrounded by kids half my age. It was humiliating. Especially as many of the teachers and adults treated me as I was mentally retarded. It made me angry but determined. I would show them. I will learn English faster than they could imagine. It took months. Endless practice and even reading a dictionary but by the end of the school year in June, I was ready to join the Sophomore class in the fall.
I also had a new name. The kids at school had never heard the name Ugi before. And it was the butt end of endless jokes. So after talking to Max, and thinking it over, I told people to call me Sam.
I wrote to Tad. I wanted him to know about my new life. I wanted to hear how he was doing. I hoped I would hear back that everything was fine and that my worries about him and the Tomahawk was just my overactive imaginations. But I never received an answer from him. Part of me wanted to rationalize his lack of response away. He had moved. He was angry at me for leaving. The Nazi’s sensors had destroyed my letter. But I knew I was only kidding myself. I knew that if he could have, he would have written. Something very bad had happened to Tad and as much as I wanted to rationalize his lack of writing I knew something was wrong and it was confirmed by a letter I received from Eduard Stein, my friend who had by sent to England as a part of Kindertransport.
Dear Ugi…Or should I say Sam.
Forgive me typing this letter. But I am doing my stenography homework by typing this letter.
My parents and Paula sent another letter not too long ago. Paula still attends school in Petach Tikwa. She likes it. My parents are also there. They like it less as they are without work. My father says he wants to go to Amerika.
The town I live in, Colne, is a small town in the north eastern Lancashire. It is not far from Manchester. I live with a good family and go to a commercial business school where I am learning stenography, accounting, typing and commercial mathematics along with English and French. I am hoping that all these skills and languages I can find a good job.
By the way, I have taken some nice car trips lately. The northern part of England is really quite beautiful. The British are lucky to have such a beautiful country.
What we think about the war is easily explained. It will be won. (With or without Americans) You can hardly see any signs of war in Colne and the surroundings. Anyway, Adolf will get beaten up some day.
It fill me with joy to hear that you are in America now and a brighter future is ahead of you. You are lucky to be with your parents.
Unfortunately, our friends back in Vienna are not so lucky. I got a letter from Erwin Riegelhaupt. He left Vienna shortly after you did and is not living in Thirsk, a town in North Yorkshire. He told me that Tad had disappeared, and that the Gestapo and the police had been looking for him. I am sorry to be the bearing of such bad tidings.
You could really answer soon and tell me all news from America. I will tell you more about Great Britain.
Now best regards to your parents and your Uncle. I hope you all the best.
There was nothing I could do. Tad was gone.
High School was not easy. While I could speak and read English it was still my second language. It meant that I had to spend long hours reading text books not only because it took me a little longer to read through the passages but because often I had to re read the sections that my teachers had covered in class as sometimes they spoke to quickly for me to fully understand what they had said. My favorite place to study was the kitchen table because there I could lay out the books I was studying from, notebooks and my dictionary. I tried to complete my homework and studying before Papa came home. Being in America had done little to curb his suspicion of education and this combined with his frustration with his extreme difficulty learning English and feeling less than and isolated at work , would often place him a volatile mood. Seeing me studying in the kitchen served as the detonator and he would explode with rage sweeping books off the table and telling me that education would get me no where and that I was a man now and had to contribute to the family. Sometimes, especially if he had stopped for a beer after work, I would feel the back of his hand.
So in addition to my school work, I got a job to help contribute to the family. I became a stock boy at Max’s grocery store. This was a great job for me. Not only was Max pretty accommodating as far as my schedule was concerned, and if I needed to use the back room to study in, but he would let me take home some of the fruit and vegetables that he could not sell to customers because they were bruised or damaged in some way. The money, the food, and the secret studying allowed our family to live in relative peace and it did something else. It allowed me to grow.
I am not talking physically. Although that happened as well. When I arrived in America I was only 5’4’inches tall and barely weighed 90lbs. By the time I reached my senior in High School I was 6’ and weight almost 160. Hugi, the boy in Vienna, had hoped to become a locksmith someday so he could eek out a living like his parents. No other dream was possible. But now I was Sam the American High School students who had American dreams. I wanted a life better than my parents. I wanted to follow my dreams of getting an education and perhaps even being a Dr. or a scientist.
My teachers and Uncle Max encouraged my dreams. One teacher, Mrs. Bujack took a special interest in me. She knew how expensive college was (nearly $1,000 per year) and how my family could never afford it. She it took on herself to find a way for me to get to college. She wrote to her alma mater, Syracuse University, and found out there was a special scholarship program for immigrants and helped me apply for the program. When I mentioned to college to Uncle Max he smiled and told me that his secret dream had been to get an education, but he never had the chance so if he would help when he could.
I graduated from High School on May 28, 1943. I had been in the United States 3.5 years and was 17 years old. Two weeks later I matriculated at Syracuse University. I was pretty proud of myself and wrote to Eduard about my exploits. Due to the war it took months for his reply but when it came it reminded me again of my good fortune.
The Grove, Colne Lancaster
18th October, 1943
My dear Hugi
You can well imagine how pleased I am to get your letter of 5th of July. It certainly has taken me a long time to get here. I had intended writing to you many times but I never got beyond the intending stage. I have some excuse. Some weeks ago I sat for the Matriculation examination and previous to then I have been swotting. It was pretty hard work considering that I have to work during the day time and could only swot at night. Anyhow, you can well see that I have not had much time for letter writing.
It makes me great pleasure to read that you are at University. I wish you the very best of luck. Fancy Dr. Flossel.
I am afraid I shall not be able to do more studying for the present. I am not liable for military service here, and can only be directed into war work on my attaining eighteen. I do not like the idea of working in munitions or down the mines, so I have volunteered for flying duties in the Royal Air Force. I am to have a medical examination this Thursday. They have only sent me a single ticket so perhaps they are to keep me. Personally, I think this is unlikely because usually recruits have to wait for some time after the medical before they are called up. But, one never knows.
We have not had any raids in this part of the country for ages. In Colne, we have never had any raids only alarms and we have only had practice alarms of late. We do not see much of war in this little town. Of course, we get a shock now and again. Two of my best pals have been shot down over the continent. Conveniences are getting less and less. Railway traveling is nearly as bad as walking your journey. I went to Northhampton not many months ago and I had to stand all the way. But of things like that there is nothing to complain of. I think of Tad and our other friends and realize that standing for a few hours is not too much to suffer.
You are quite right. The Nazis will be sorry before long. Especially when I get cracking in the RAF.
Please send my regards to your parents.
It also reminded me of a decision that I had to make about my upcoming appearance in front of the draft board in December when I would turn 18. I felt the obligation to serve not only because my family, my friends and I had directly suffered because of the Nazis but because now I was an American. And we were at war. I needed to do my part. At the same time, getting an education had been my dream and I was just about to complete my freshman year and I wanted to finish school.
I know I could ask for an educational deferment. But those were almost never granted long enough to get a degree. At best, I could convince them for semester, perhaps two so I could finish my sophomore year. But I knew from my friends who appeared before their boards that the best way to get approval of a temporary deferment was to give the Army something that might be useful to them. But what did Hugi/Sam Flossel, immigrant have to offer them that could possibly used as leverage for an educational deferment.
“Which is when you decided to share your story about The Holy Crown of Hungary?” inquired Captain Granville. “Yes, sir.”