Tomahawk: Part 2: Chapter 7: If The Shoe Fits

I knew, generally speaking where Mitisgasse was…. between Penzing and Neu-Penzing…but I wasn’t exactly sure so we consulted a map that Cookie had somehow manage to liberate. Turned out that it was not far, about 5 km but between missteps, closed streets and cleanup crew clearing roads  it took us the better part of an hour to get there. Luckily, for our search it was  not a very large street, only about 4 blocks from LinzerStrasse to Huteldorferstrasse. Cookie suggested that the best way to canvas the street was starting from Linzerstrasse that he take the east side and I the west to see what we could find out about Frau Saegerer.

I said “That works Cookie.” And then after a pause “Do you speak any German?” I may have sounded a little condescending because his reply was “Denken Sie nicht, dass Leute aus Tennessee Deutsch sprechen?” His accent, although not Viennese, was perfect. He asked  “Don’t you think that people from Tennessee speak German?” In other words, he was calling me out. That folks from the south were a bunch of dumb hicks.

Embarrassed I said “ I am sorry Cookie. I guess I sort of assumed…”

“Don’t worry about it Ugi. I set you up. I always pile on the Tennessee accent when I meet someone. For some reason, it always makes people underestimate me.” Smiling he continued “Which I usually use to my advantage. And before you ask the next question, I was German Studies major at Vanderbilt before the War….Do you think I got here on my good looks?” and then let loose a belly chuckle that it made me forget my embarrassment.

About 45 minutes later we met back up at a café at Mitisgasse 14. Or at least that is what the sign said it was. It seemed to me that it was nothing more than a hausfrau who had set up a couple of tables outside her building in the hopes that she could earn some money. But the beer was cold which was welcome and the sausage decent. It helped soften the reality that either Cookie or I had any luck find Tad’s mother. Part of it was the reluctance of anyone people in the neighborhood to cooperate with anyone wearing a uniform of the Allies. It occurred to me while there will always be “toadies” who would do what they could to ingratiate themselves with their conquerors but perhaps it would be more difficult here. The Russian had really screwed the pooch when they had allowed their troops free range in the city, looting and raping. It was made worse by their lurking in the background. Like a predator stalking its prey they were just out of site waiting to jump. It spooked people and had spooked the folks on Mitisgasse because they had spotted as had Cookie the two Russians who were shadowing us.   

After our beers and sausages had arrived Cookie said quietly and mid bite “Did you see them?”

“Who?

“The two Russians following us.”

I was embarrassed. I had seen nobody. I wanted to look around and see who Cookie was referring to but I managed to keep my focus on the plate of sausage and fried potatoes in front of me and resisted the temptation to look around. With a mouth full of food I said “Where?”

“They were tailing you. Which is why I spotted them. Did you see the man with the black beret who was reading the newspaper at the Tabac Shop when you passed by?”

“I guess.”

“Well he and his pal, who is wearing a brown leather jacket and a flat cap tag teamed you all the way up the block. When you would go into one of the shops to talk to someone, one would keep an eye on you and the other would question whomever you had just talked to.”

“Well, what do you think we should do?” I said with perhaps a little bit more of nerves in my voice than I had hoped.

Cookie shot me a smile and said “Eat lunch.” Which is what we did with me doing everything I could to keep my head from being on a swivel. Cookie made conversation by discussing the 1939 Yankees and how they were the greatest baseball team of all time. I spent most of my time nodding. While I had adopted much of what my new country had to offer, I had not learned to appreciate baseball. I had never been to a game and barely knew how it was played. But I knew enough that midway through his diatribe on Lou Gehrig to ask “How is it that a southern boy like you, roots for a team called the Yankee’s.” He shot me a look and continued his monologue on the “Iron Horse” and why he was the greatest player ever to put on a uniform.”

Of course, I knew what he was doing. He did not want any conversation we had at the table to be of any use to the Soviets who were following us. They would no doubt check with the proprietress of the restaurant about our conversation and baseball is something that would no doubt confuse them as it did me.

When we got back to the Jeep, Cookie made quite a show of grinding the gears  and proceeding slowly down Linzerstrasse. Now we could talk without being overheard. I said “No doubt that they will have someone following us.” Cookie nodded. I paused thinking and then leaned over and said “ When you get to the next major cross street make a right. Let’s go visit my grandmother.”  Cookie didn’t say anything. He understood that part of our cover was me looking for lost relatives.

What he did not know was I had been trying to figure out a way to find my grandmother since I had been told I was heading to Vienna. Saying goodbye to her had been one of the hardest moments of my life. For Mama too. In the years that followed our departure, I had found her more than once in tears worrying about her “adopted” mother. She felt guilty about abandoning her. A “daughter” should take care of her mother. I could not come to Vienna and not try to find her or at least find out what happened to her. If not for my sake but for Mama.

The fact, that we needed a diversion right now and were in the general vicinity of the “Philanthropia” was providence.

But I was under no illusion that I would find her. The discoveries of the death camps first the Russian and then by us, had confirmed the whispers we had been hearing for years. The resettlements in the east that the Nazi’s had promised us were nothing more than an elaborate cover for a way to murder Jews. Transportees had been told, like Papa had been told, that they were going to a place where they could live freely and find work only to be placed in cattle cars and shipped to these concentration camps. There, they would be categorized based on their ability to help the Reich. The weak, sick and old were sent directly to the gas chambers.

She had said, that day we said goodbye, that America was just the place for me. And she had been right. I had taken to the United States like a fish to water. It was my “fairyland” as Eduard had said. She had said that as long as we could write we would never be apart. I had written. Mama had not even had to hetz at me. I told her all about my new life in America. How well I was doing in school. The new friends I was making and tried to leave out the parts that might make her feel badly, like the wonderful food we were eating, or the bad like when I was placed in the 4th grade. And we received a few letters back. But they were rare and stopped completely after we declared on the Germans. With the war going on and the rumors of what was going on in Vienna to the Jews running rampant, Pepi became a subject that we thought about often but rarely discussed. We had left her and no one wanted to be reminded of her fate or our culpability in it.  

The good news when we pulled up in front of the Philanthropia was neither the American bombing or the Soviet shelling had touched the place. The bad news was that it was clear that the former Rothchild palace had fallen our hard times. Outside the building there was garbage strewn everywhere. Paint was peeling from its walls and the front door looked as if it had been bashed in and then partially reattached.

On the drive from Mitisgasse I had explained to Cookie why we were coming here. He had not said much. Just nodded in understanding. Now that we were here, I half expected that he would sit in the Jeep while I went inside however he surprised me by following me to the front door of the building. When I looked at him enquiringly, he just said “You never know what is behind the door” and smiled.

Not bothering to knock, I opened the broken door and walked into the building. The formerly pristine palace for pensioners had become a squatters den. As we walked through, I could see that families and some individuals had claimed rooms and areas for their room. There were nests for sleeping, surrounded by odd bits of clothing and possessions. Occupied by dirty hallow eyed people who looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and fear on their faces. A short man with broad shoulders, high cheekbones and several days of beard on his face strode up to us and asked belligerently “What do you want here” and then added “Haven’t you done enough to us already.”

I understood him. He looked and sounded like Papa. Using my most soothing voice I responded “We don’t want anything from you. Just some information” and then reaching into my jacket pocket pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and asked “Would you like a cigarette?”

He looked at the open pack as if it were gold but then with suspicion. “What kind of information are you looking for?”

“Nothing serious, oldtimer. Before the war, my grandmother was a resident of the old age home here. I was hoping you would tell me what happened to the residents.”

He took a cigarette from the pack and placed it in his shirt pocket and then asked “My take one for my wife, too?” pointing to a woman who was huddled with a small child in the corner of the room.

“Naturlich.”

After he placed another cigarette in his pocket he said “I don’t know. By the time we found this place they had been gone for a long time. I heard that they were all taken away…. But old Otto should know.”

“Who is old Otto?”

“He used to be one of the caretakers here. He says that he has been living here since the place was abandoned. Come on I will take you to him.”

We followed the man back through what used to be the reception area, through the lounge and dining room and into the kitchen. It was remarkably clean all things considered but I could see roaches scurry for the corners, and it was not hard to imagine rats coming out at night. Our guide knocked on a door at the back of the kitchen and said “Otto, there are some American soldiers who want to speak with you. “

After a few seconds the door opened and a clean-shaven man, wearing clean clothes stood with the ramrod stance of a former military man. He looked me with an unblinking stare and said “How can I help you.”

“My name is Lieutenant Floessel. I understand you used to be one of the caretakers at Philanthropia. Is that correct?”

“Ja. I was in charge of the maintenance of the building.”

“What happened to all the residents?

A flicker of fear passed over his face. No doubt he was worried if we were here on some sort of official investigation. In an effort to calm his fears I said “My name is Lieutenant Flossel and this is Sgt. Cook. We are here because my grandmother, Pepi Tichler, was a resident here and I am trying to find out where she is. Can you help me?”

He sighed and told me the story of what had happened to the residents of Philanthropia.

For awhile life had gone on as before the IKG continued to fund the home and life was relatively normal. Then in the spring of 1940 the director had been told that the Nazi’s had cut back rations to the Jewish Community and that the residents of the home would have to get by on less. They went from having three meals a day to two and eventually one. Along with the food shortages there was difficulty finding medications for the residents. The combination of bad nutrition and little medicine proved too much for some of the residents. Many died. Then one morning in early 1941 several Nazi trucks and troops had arrived with an order from the IKG and the German authorities closing the Philanthropia. The residents were being moved to a different facility in Leopoldstadt.  It was chaotic. Many of the patients refusing to go and being bludgeoned with the butt of a soldier rifles or a kick to keep them moving. Otto had heard there new “home” was very overcrowded. Where once they had private and semi private rooms now they were forced to live in dormitories with dozens of others. Sick residents received little care, and many died. Eventually, in June of 1941 the Nazi’s had ordered all the elderly to board trains, cattle cars, to go to their new home, Theresienstadt. Those who were left, went willingly. They figured it could not be worse than what than where they were living.

Otto said he did not know any more than that. Unfortunately, I did.  I had heard that most of the residents of Theresienstadt, especially those who did not fit the vision of an “ideal” inmate were sent out to other camps. Mainly Auschwitz.  There, those not fit to work, like the elderly, were marched directly to the gas chambers.

Pepi, my beloved grandmother, whose arms always made me feel safe, whose kindness and love had healed wounds and silenced tears, was dead. Murdered without any humanity by the Nazi’s. This was not surprising news. With all the news, with her age I did not expect to find her alive. But the realization she had suffered so much misery only to die alone and heinously nearly overcame me. I felt my face flush and tears form in my eyes. But I manage to control it. I had no desire to let Cookie see me cry let alone this popinjay who had just told me this story.

I gave Otto what remained of my pack of Lucky’s and thanked him for sharing with me what he knew. When we got back to the jeep, Cookie placed his hand on my shoulder and said “I am sorry, Sam.”

“Me too, Cookie. Me too.”  

We returned to the Hotel Sacher even though there was arguably time left in the day. But between, the dead ends looking for Frau Saegerer, the Russian surveillance and the unhappy news about my grandmother I felt like we needed some time to regroup and re-strategize.  I needed a little time to myself. I needed time to think and to process what had happened today. When we pulled up next to the hotel I told Cookie to meet me in the lobby at 18:30 and if he could track down Granville to join us all the better and I set off down Kartnerstrasse.

I had no destination in mind. I just wanted to walk. I think better when I walk. It is as if putting my legs in gears slips the clutch on my brain and allows to drift on tangents. Probably not the most efficient way to solve problems but it got me there. When I was kid we did not come down here very often. The stores were too expensive for us. The one exception Papa made was buying me shoes. He was obsessed with buying me good shoes. It was one of the few times that he would talk about his time in Siberia. He would recount how his feet had been cold all the time because his boots were not well made and how he had vowed never to skimp on shoes again. I thought I could remember where that store was, where Graben intersected Tauchlaben. I .suddenly had the notion that buying Papa a pair of shoes where he used to by mine would please him and perhaps smooth my soul from the ruffling it took today.

When I entered Stephansplatz I made a left on Graben and walked slowly up the street. When I was kid this street was packed with shoppers darting in and out of stores and strollers, who come just for the pleasure of walking along one of Vienna’s finest shopping streets. But today, there were very few people out and about. Partially, because only a few stores were still open and partially because people were spending what money they had on necessities not frivolities. Even those that were open did not have much to display in the window.

Eventually, I made it to the end of Graben.  Directly in front of me was Perkals. The shoe store of my youth and the place of some of my favorite memories with Papa. Somehow it had managed to survive the bombings and the siege.  As I approached the store, I saw a British soldier bending at the waste to get a better look at the lower part of the window display. It made me curious. Why would a British soldier spend any time at all looking at shoe store window in Vienna? I had always heard that the British made the best shoes in the world and besides soldiers like us get issued shoes we do not buy them. But something else made this soldier stand out. I am embarrassed to say it was his ass. Not like it sounds. It is just that it looked familiar. I walked over to what I now noticed was a Sergeant and tapped him on the shoulder “Walter?”

It was Cousin Walter. The same cousin Walter whose brief case I had borrowed all those years ago to steal the blow torch of the school. The cousin Walter who had always looked like he had one too many pastries and was the poster boy for fat cheeked Austrian children was now a soldier for God and Country. I could hardly believe it what were the odds of running into your cousin on the streets of Vienna? But, while I recognized him, he did not instantly recognize me. I guess that is fair, since the last time he saw me I was about a foot shorter and barely a teenager.

When I saw that the confusion on his face would not transform into recognition anytime soon, I blurted out “Walter, it is your cousin Ugi.” Realization spread across his face like the dawn of a new day and we embraced. It must have been quite the seen for people passing by. Two Allied Soldiers embracing, pounding each other on their backs with tears pouring down their cheeks. To avoid further public spectacle, we decided to grab a cup of coffee at the Julius Meinl coffee house adjacent to the shoe store.

I had not seen Cousin Walter since shortly after the blow torch caper as he had been, like so many other Jewish college students, been arrested and sent to Dachau. I was dying with curiosity to know how he managed to get from a concentration camp to being a NCO in the British 76th Division. The American way would have been to barrage him with a series of very personal question but I decided to approach the question in a far more subtle Austrian manner and asked “So, what have you been up to?”

This started us both laughing and when we finally managed to contain ourselves, he told me his story. After his arrest, he had been sent to Dachau where he and the other prisoner had been stripped of all their possessions and forced to wear striped prisoner pajamas. The conditions were terrible. Barracks that were extremely overcrowded with four or five people sleeping on bunk that would have been too small for two. There were vermin everywhere and the detainees would spend their leisure hours picking each other clear of lice. And since the camp was also a training facility for the SS the treatment of the guards towards them was often brutal with inmates being beat to death for no other reason that for amusement.

He described how many of the new inmates would arrive scared but willing to endure but how for some, the light would slowly fade from their eyes as their hope ebbed. These were the ones who would die from disease or even just drifting away while they slept as if a wish had been granted while asleep.

For reasons only known by his captors they gad transferred him to Weimar-Buchenwald. Things were a little better, but he was not there long. One morning, he was rousted out of line and told he would be freed. The condition of his relief was to exit the Reich within one weeks’ time. He made his way back to Vienna in the hopes of seeing his mother, but she had fled to Palestine.

He had no money. His family were gone. He had no choice but to go to the IKG and ask them for money so he could join his mother in the Holy Land. They could not help him get that far but did help him with the paperwork and money that would get him as far as Trieste. But that was a dead end. The British had clamped down on immigrants to Palestine. He managed to get day work as a stevedore where he became friendly with some of the crews of the freighters he was loading. One of those crew offered him a crew job which he jumped at. But life at sea was not for him. He was seasick constantly. After a few weeks, he decided enough was enough and jumped ship in Egypt. He hoped to make it from there to Palestine but ended up joining the Army instead.

He did not share with me his Army experience, but I could tell from the ribbons on his chest that he had not been idle. But before I could ask him about that he asked me to bring him up to date about  my families journey which I gladly shared with him.

When I had finished, he said “Now look at you. Little Ugi has become Lieutenant Sam. It is too bad that you do not have any brothers or sisters so you could become “Uncle Sam.”

“Funny. And Cousin Walter has become Lord Tommy of Ottakringer.”

We both laughed and then I asked “So, what brings you to Vienna.”

He smiled and replied “I can’t say. What brings you here.”

“I can’t say.” And we both laughed.

There did not seem much more to say. We exchanged addresses, he giving me his and his mothers who had settled in Petach Tikvah, and me giving him mine and my parents in Danbury. I said “I am staying at the Hotel Sacher….isn’t that where you “blokes” are staying.”

“Aren’t you getting fancy. No, us working chaps are staying at a pension down in Leopoldstadt but I will walk with you down to Stephansplatz.” We strolled down Graben making small talk. Until we arrived at Kartnerstrasse. I said, looking Walter directly in the eye and said “I can’t not tell you what a sight you are for sore eyes. I am glad you made it.”

He responded in an equally grave tone. “You too, Ugi…I mean Sam. Whatever you are calling yourselves these days. “ Then he turned to go and before he gone two steps turned back he said  “What was the name of your friend you used to pal around with all the time.”

“You mean Tad.”

“Yes. What was his last name again.”

“Saegerer? Why?”

“I thought so. I ran into his mother the other day. I thought her name was familiar. She runs a shop on Dornbacher Strasse in the 17th district. No wonder she was looking at me like I should know her.

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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