Then came V E day, May 8 1945. A day that I would remember less for the celebrations, I never seen so many people so happy, but for the orders to report to Captain Pike’s, the Assistant Adjutant General, office. There, in the company of 1st Lt. Diamond who commanded the base CIC contingent, he informed me that my status at OCS was being placed on hold. I was now temporarily assigned to Army CIC.
That was just four days ago and my head was still spinning from the rapidity of how quickly my life and circumstance had changed. I should be in Southwestern Oklahoma figuring out trajectories and blowing things up. Instead I was 6,000 miles away in a wrecked city, chasing a ghost, in the hopes of finding keys to a box that contained a 1000 year old crown. All because I wanted to finish another Semester of college. Ridiculous. It made me laugh.
“What’s so funny, Sam.”
I jumped up, nearly knocking over the small cafe table I was sitting at in the Hotel Sacher’s lobby. Saluting, I said “Good morning, Captain.”
“Sam, no need to be so…military.” Then, sitting down added “Two months ago I was a Sergeant and had been for the better part of three years. Most of us in CIC were non coms. And the few officers we had we treated them just like the rest of …as if they worked for a living. No officer, bullshit. Unless “he added smiling “Its necessary to impress, dazzle or get the job done.”
This was all counter to my programming. For the last 9 months I had military protocol drummed into me. Now my commanding office was telling me to forget about it. It didn’t feel right but he was the CO. I said “Yes, six. George.”
Then laughing he said, “By the way that’s is an order.” Then added after scanning the crowded lobby of the hotel “Let’s go for a walk.”
We left the hotel and made a right onto to Kartnerstrasse and headed towards the burned-out blackened hulk of the State Opera House. It had not escaped the American bombs and it occurred to me as I passed this ikon of the city and the Hapsburg Empire it had represented splendiferously, it now represented in it ruin. Not just the destruction of the old order and the ascendency of the new but what happens when things begin to rot from the inside they need to be cauterized and removed. It served as a symbol a reminder of the fate that Austria had brought on itself. Lighting a cigarette, he said “I didn’t want to speak inside. There are too many ears. Do you understand?”
“For the time being this is a Soviet city. And while they may have been our allies a few weeks ago, but they are no longer. We know they are going to try to backdoor us on every agreement they made with us and test our resolve and patience as they try to extend their influence over Europe. Something they have been trying to do since Peter the Great. Vienna is the tip of their spear and they want to control this place. They suspect that we will use it for the same purpose. Which I have no doubt we will.”
He paused, taking a drag off his cigarette and then added “We are currently negotiating with them on when to turn the city into the “open” city as promised in our agreements. They are using every second they can to delay that happening. Not because they don’t believe it will happen. It has to. We have too much fire power in Europe to enforce our agreements. Jesus, you should hear Patton on the subject. But they are fighting a delaying action. They are taking every day they can to find and activate Communist’s in this city and turn them into spies and informants. You understand what that means?”
“That there are eyes and ears everywhere.”
“Exactly. It means that we have to assume that everywhere you go, everything you do will be reported back to the Soviets. They cannot find out what we are looking for not so much because they can stop us from getting the Crown. We have it. But because it will give them an excuse to throw us out of the city and by the time, we get back in who knows if we will ever find a trace of the keys. Or for that matter they could arrest us for spying and I, for one, have no desire, to spend any time in a Soviet jail.”
It made me think of Papa. The 8 long years he spent in the Siberian prisoner of war camp. Was that they fate of all Flossel men? It chilled me.”
“Fortunately,” Granville continued “Like we discussed last night. We have the perfect excuse for being here. Two in fact.”
“The first is that we are an advance team of the US Army looking forward to the partition of the city into Zones. One for each of the major allies and perhaps France. We need to look for possible locations for HQ’s, barracks, etc. As the zones have not been decided yet we need to find multiple locations and that should allow us to roam the city without too much suspicion.”
“That being said, I have been ordered to report to Soviet HQ this morning and let them know exactly what we will be doing and give them a roster of our team. They are no doubt suspicious of our motives being here, as we would be of them…”
“Which brings me to the 2nd excuse. You. If a Russian should stop you and we are not together and there is no good military reason for you to be where you are, then tell them you are looking for relatives who remained here when you immigrated in ’39. They may grumble. They maybe suspicious but it is a lie that has the benefit of being half the truth.”
We stopped in front of the severely bomb damaged Kunsthistorisches Museum and sat down on a remarkably undamaged bench. Amazing how some things can miraculously escape the vagaries of war while others are completely destroyed. Granville continued “Because I have to go to Russian HQ today and who know how long they are going to keep me there you and Cookie will be on your own. Have you given any thought on how you are going to start your search for Col. Skoda.
Had I given it any thought? I had spent half the night before when I should have been luxuriating and sleeping on the world class mattress under the eiderdown duvet trying to figure out how to track down Tad’s Uncle. “I think the place to start if it still exists is Winter’s department store. Not only could he still be working there but even if he is not, they must have some record of where he lived when he did. In case, we should be able to get a start there. Of course, if it looks like the rest of the city, we won’t find anything. But It is not far from the hotel so we will know quickly.”
I looked over at Granville to see if he agreed with me and he nodded which I took to mean to continue. “If that is a bust, then I think the next thing to do is try to try to track down Frau Saegerer, the Colonel’s sister. And I think the place to start there is her store…I mean if it is still there…shit…if she is still alive and if the store is a bust I can try her apartment. If its still there.” pausing I added “There are just too many goddamn variables….but that is how I thought I’d start.
“Sam, let me give you a piece of advice from someone who has been doing this for a while. Well actually two. This business is just like pulling a piece of thread on a sweater. It may take a while but eventually it will all unravel. And second, expect the unexpected. You never know what is behind whatever door you choose to open. It could be a prize. It could be box of dynamite with the fuse lit. Either way it pays to be on your toes.”
45 minutes later I found myself standing in front of the building that used to contain Winters department store. Our bombing command must have thought that the store served some vital war interest, and who knows it could have, because there was almost nothing left of the building. And what was left was piled up in the middle of several deep craters. Cookie, who was sitting in the driver’s seat of our Jeep looked at the rubble and laconically said “I don’t think you are going to do a lot of shopping today.”
I replied, “Not unless you are interested in turning them to oversized foxholes.”
“No sir “he said “I had enough of them in Sicily.” I looked over and smiled at him. Cookie had changed uniforms for the day. Instead of wearing his Army greens he had changed into a Class A uniform and had shaved.
“You actually looked like a respectable soldier today, Cookie. I am impressed. What inspired this sartorial change.”
“Orders, sir. Captain Granville told me that he wanted me, us, to, look like we were sent from HQ. Not going to bivouac in some muddy field. Well, he did not use that language exactly, but he made his point clear.” Smiling he added in his Tennessee drawl “ He also said he didn’t want me to be a bad influence on you.”
I laughed. I too was dressed to fit my role wearing my Eisenhower Jacket, khakis with a razor-sharp crease courtesy of the hotel, freshly pressed shirt and tie along with an envelope cap at the proper angel. “You know” I said “He said the same thing to me.”
“Cookie, we are not going to get a lot done here. We need to head over the 16th district, my old neighborhood, to see if we can find our target’s sister.”
Cookie put the jeep in gear, and we rolled through the now shattered city of my childhood. The grandeur of an Imperial City, the heart of an Empire for 500 years smashed to bits, because of the Austrian’s desire to rule the world once again, fueled by the hate of one citizen upon another. I had no sympathy for those who led Austria down this path. Nor the destruction that was caused to the city because of them. But I could also still see, in my minds eye, the city of my childhood. It had been a majestic place of gilt and domes, of palaces and cathedrals, of grand boulevards and thriving life. This war was necessary. This destruction was necessary to end the war. I was glad it was over, but at the moment that I was sad for the destruction of the city of my childhood.
As we drove down Alser Strasse, avoiding bomb craters, and rubble that had yet to be cleared from the street I said almost to myself “You know, it used to be a glorious city.”
“Yeah, I can see that” replied Cookie and then added “Must be hard to see it this way…growing up here and all.”
“Nah.” I replied trying to sound like hard ass “Sons of bitches deserved it.”
A trip that would have taken me less than hour walking before the war took nearly twice that amount of time driving today. The rubble, craters, and blocked streets made for slow going. When we finally did pull onto Yppenplatz in search of Frau Saegerer store, I was, despite all that I had seen, stunned at what was there. The park, in which I had played endless games of soccer and where Tad had saved from being beaten by the neighborhood Hitler youth, was now a smashed battlefield. From what I could tell from the blackened field and debris the Nazi’s must have placed an anti-aircraft artillery battery in the park. Either American Aircraft or Russian shelling had laid waste to the place. Where once there was the sound of children playing nothing only burnt earth, craters and twisted metal remained. The surrounding buildings had not been spared collateral damage. Most were just heaps of bricks and the detritus of habitation. I saw clothes, pieces of furniture, and plumbing fixtures scattered among the rubble. At the bottom of this obliteration there must have been a few unclaimed bodies as the scent of death perfumed the air.
The only building on the block that was spared obliteration was the one in which Tad’s mother had her store. While it remained intact, it was clear the store which had once done such a lively business, had ceased to exist. The window that fronted the store was shattered. Thee charred framing made it clear that a fire had destroyed the interior. Seeing this, I felt my insides buckle, as if everything inside was about to let loose. What if Frau Saegerer, the woman who treated me so nicely and whose hugs were almost as nice as my mothers, who had fed me when I was hungry was dead? While I had known this had been a possibility up until this point it had been no more that a stray thought at a negative moment. Now, it was real, and I struggled to keep the emotion off my face. It would not serve me well to have Cookie see me cry.
I climbed out of the Jeep and walked up to the store front as much to mask my emotions as to inspect the damage. If Cookie saw what I was feeling how could I explain them to him. I am not sure that I could explain them myself. It was like with Papa and me. He was always angry at me for one reason or another. It did not matter whether I was did anything wrong or not he would yell and sometimes hit me. Sometimes he would hit me so hard that it would leave bruises, or my ears would ring for days afterward. But even though in the moment I hated him, I never stopped loving him.
It was like that with Vienna. She had cursed me. She had beaten me. And as much as I despised her for that, I could not stop loving her and the memories she stirred within me.
After I composed myself, I attempted to stop passerby’s to ask them what had happened to Frau Saegerer. It was difficult. It seemed that they wanted nothing to do with a very handsome American officer. My guess is that did not want to get involved. The Russians and their brutality had no doubt convinced that cooperating with the allies was not in their best interest. Or, if I wanted to be more generous, perhaps they were embarrassed at all the trouble they had caused. Regardless, they were not stopping at polite requests. As a consequence, I did what Army officers are supposed to do when the current strategy is not working. I changed tactics.
I saw a gentleman scurrying down the street. His head was down, and it was clear he was trying to avoid eye contact. I moved so I was directly in his path. When he attempted to move out of my way, I changed course so that if he wanted to move on it would have to be through me. I said “Herr, entschuldigen Sie, aber ich möchte wissen, was mit Mrs. Sagererers Lebensmittelgeschäft passiert ist.” Roughly translated, what happened to the store that was here?
The man looked startled. No doubt surprised that a baby face Lieutenant spoke such good German and with a proper Viennese accent. He replied “Ich weiß nichts.” I know nothing.
Based more on instinct than knowledge I knew he was lying so I demanded in my best command voice in German “Where do you live?”
He pointed across the park and replied “Schellhammergasse 24.”
I replied “Ah so, and how long have you lived there.”
“Herr Lieutenant I have only just moved in. My apartment in the 2nd District was destroyed during the bombing. I really don’t know anything.”
He would not meet my eye. More on instinct that knowledge I knew he was lying. I called out to Cookie in German “This son of a bitch is lying to us. Lets take him back to his apartment and see how long he has really lived there.” And then adding to my bluff “Who knows maybe we can find a reason to arrest him.”
The Austrian looked back at me with the eyes of a man whose bluff has been called successfully and said “Okay, Okay. What do you want to know.”
“When did this happen to Frau Saegerer’s store?”
He said “There was a bombing raid in late March. And this place” pointing to the park where the anti-aircraft artillery had been placed “was targeted. As you can see most of the buildings around here were destroyed. Mrs. Saegerer was lucky. Her shop was saved from the bombing but caught fire in the aftermath. She was here right after the raid. We all commiserated with her over her bad luck.”
“So she survived…”
“Yes…well at least that raid. I have not seen her since but.”
“I don’t want to make trouble for her. She was always genuinely nice to me. No one needs more trouble now.”
I gave him my most serious look and said in slightly exaggerated Viennese German “No one wants to harm her. Least of all me. I used to live around the corner on Ottokringerstrasse and she was kind to me to. I just want to say hello. Believe me.”
You could see an expression pass over his face on whether or not to trust me. Perhaps my charm convinced him. Or my baby face but eventually he said. “I hear she moved to the 13 District and re opened her store on Mitisgasse. We all wondered why she moved there. There were plenty of vacant shops here at this point and she had loyal customers but she moved. What can I say.”
“Do you have an address.”
“No. I am sorry. Just that it is on Mitisgasse.”
I thanked the man and he continued on his way. I climbed back in the jeep and said “Apparently, Mrs Saegerer has moved to the 13th district and we should head over and see if we can if we can find her but I need to make a quick stop first. Go up to the corner and make a right. I’ll tell you when to stop after that.”
I asked Cookie to stop in front of Ottakringerstrasse 48. I looked up the building. It looked just the same as had when I had left less that 6 years ago. I turned to Cookie “This is where I was born. The place I grew up.” I pointed to a second floor apartment. “Up until five and half years ago…that was the only home I ever knew.”
I guess I sounded wistful or nostalgic because Cookie said smiling “I guess we can spare a few moments. Why don’t we go inside and see if they have rented your place yet?”
We got out the jeep, with Cookie slinging his M1 rifle over his shoulder, more to keep it from being stolen than for protection. We pushed open the double doors of the building and entered the darkened lobby I remember all to well. The white tile floors and the curling staircase that led to the next floor and our old apartment. It smelled the same, of cooked cabbage and fried sausage and the aroma let loose a flood of childhood memories.
I heard a frightened voice from the shadows of the corner of the lobby call out “What do you want?”
Stepping forward I saw an old woman dressed from head to toe in black. She had a broom in her hand, and she had obviously been cleaning the lobby when we entered and frightened her. No doubt our uniforms and Cookies rifle only enhanced her fear. I stepped forward to tell her I used to live here when I saw this old woman was Frau Bauer. The superintendent’s wife, whose husband was a Brown Shirt and whose son had terrorized me on the playground and at school. Mrs Bauer who had called my parents and I every evil name and thing she could think of whenever she had a chance. Mrs Bauer, who on my last night in Vienna had spit tobacco in my face.
I stepped closer so she could see me. It made her cringe as if I were about to hit her. As much anger and resentment that I felt for this woman, I did my best to allay her fears. I said “Mrs. Bauer, don’t you recognize me. Its Hugi Floessel from upstairs”
Perhaps it was the uniform. Or maybe the fact that I had grown nearly a foot when she last saw me. Or possibly my uniform and its lieutenant bars intimidated her. But she shook her head no and seem to fold in on herself.
I moved forward one more step so she could see my face. “No Mrs. Bauer, really it’s me, Hugi.”
She said. “We were nice to that boy. We treated all the Jews in this building well. We treated them like them better than most. Like they were our family. Yes. Like our family.”
I should not have let her words get to me. But they did. “That is right Mrs. Bauer you did treat us like family. I am sure that you called all the women in your family “whores” like you used to call my mother. Or I am sure that you called your brothers and father useless pieces of shit like you called my father. I know you spit on your husband and son like you did me.”
Before I totally lost my temper, I did an about face walked out the door with Cookie on my heels. When we were seated in the jeep, he looked at me and asked “How did that make you feel?” I thought about the years of abuse her and her family had inflicted on me. Of the degradation and the constant reminders, we were less than human to her. Of the pent-up rage from not being able to stand up to her abuse to me and my family. And then I thought of what she had become, a scared, shriveled old woman, who could not look the boy she used to abuse in the eyes. I looked at Cookie and said “Pretty good.”
Laughing I said “It’s a long story.”