Tomahawk: Part 2: Chapter 7a: Cousin Walter

{ Please note: This is a rewrite of part of previous chapter which were necessitated by new information}

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 Army.  His uniform, which looked new, gave no clues. There were no shoulder patches or insignias. . The American way would have been to barrage him with a series of very personal questions, but I decided to approach the question in a far more subtle Austrian manner. I asked with a wry smile, “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 in the spring of 1939, he had been sent to Dachau where he and the other prisoner had been stripped of everything. Issued striped prisoner pajamas and hustled into barracks that were extremely overcrowded, four or five people sleeping on bunk that would have been too small for two. Vermin were everywhere and Walter and his fellow inmates  would spend their “leisure”  hours picking each other clear of lice. The camp was also a training facility for the SS and the treatment of the guards towards them was brutal. Inmates beat to death prisoners for no other reason than sadistic amusement. Some were doused with water and forced to stand outside in freezing temperatures until they collapsed. Others were forced to have their balls kicked by a conga line of guards.

He described how many of the new inmates would arrive scared but with the resolve to endure. In others, the light would slowly fade from their eyes as their hope ebbed. These were the ones who would die from disease or even just drift away while they slept as if a wish had been granted in their dreams.  

For reasons only known by his captors they transferred him to Weimar-Buchenwald. Things were no better; it too was an SS camp but he was not there long. One morning, he was rousted out of line and told he would be freed. The condition of his release was to exit the Reich within one week. During that time he needed to make arrangements for his passage out of the country, pay all the taxes Jews were forced to pay in order to exit, and acquire any travel documents required.

He made his way back to Vienna. There he hoped he would find his mother and together they would flee the country. However, when he returned home, he found his mother had left. She had fled to Palestine. His other relatives, including Mama, Papa and me, had left, moved with no forward address, or disappeared. He was completely alone.  

He had no money. His family was gone. He had no choice but to go to the IKG and ask them for money. He hoped they would help him with the funds needed so he could join his mother in the Holy Land. They told him that their funds were limited. They could not help him get that far but could provide the paperwork and money that would get him as far as Trieste.

Trieste was teaming with refugees. They were all looking for the same thing. A way out of Europe. Anywhere that would take them. Argentina, Brazil, Shanghai, Palestine, even the United States. However, getting passage was nearly impossible. No country, with the exception of Shanghai were giving nearly enough Visas to meet the demand. All required money or connections. Walter had neither. Eventually, he managed to get day work as a stevedore and began putting away money so he could pay for passage for Palestine. He little and worked hard and he was close to achieving his goal  when his dream was crushed when the British cut of immigration to Palestine. Despondent, he kept working hard hoping that he could raise the funds needed to get to Shanghai when luck intervened. Through his work he had become friendly with one of the crews of the ships he was loading, the Adriactica. When several of the ships compliment failed to report he was invited to join the crew. He jumped at it. Maybe this ship would get him to Palestine.

After a few weeks, he decided life at sea was not for him. Not only was he constantly seasick but it turned out there was a reason that those crew members had jumped ship. The Captain was a drunk and brutal to the crew treating them more like slaves than employees. When the ship docked at Alexandria, he figured he was close enough to Palestine that he could find land transportation and jumped ship.

Instead of going to Palestine, he decided to join the British Army. AWhether this was out of desire to get back at the Nazi’s for the destruction of his life and his home or some other reason he did not say. Eventually, he became a member of the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders’s 2nd Division. With them  he fought in both Egypt and Libya and as proudly said, “I only got wounded twice.”. (I thought twice was more than enough, but I suspected he had learned the art of British understatement.) The Highlanders were placed in charge of defending the newly captured Tobruk.  Then Rommel had successfully recaptured the city. Walter and what remained of his division were captured and sent to an Italian prisoner of war camp in, Passo Corese. There they lived in tents and had to bribe the Italian guards to get enough food to live on.

Walter paused his story and said with characteristic humor. “And to think, I used to like Italian food.”

Then things got even rougher. When Italy, declared an armistice with the allies the Germans took over the camp. There was even less food that before not only because rations got cut but the guards became harder to bribe. As the Allies advanced, the Germans became nervous and decided to transfer the camp. The prisoners were placed in box cars and the train slowly made its way through Italy.

At this point in the story he paused to collect himself. When he resumed his story his eyes had a faraway look in them. As if he were reliving an event in his minds eye and could see nothing of his current surroundings. They had been on the train for a couple of days when as they traveled over a bridge near Allerona in Umbria the unthinkable happened. The Allies, unaware their POW’s were on the train bombed it. The Germans, who were guarding them fled, without unlocking their cars. Bombs fell everywhere. Some cars simply vanished in the flash and thunder of high explosive, while others rolled off the track and fell into the river below.  They could do nothing but scream in fear, pray and accept their fate.

He paused again and his eyes regained their sight of the present. “Men shit and pissed on themselves. And, afterward nobody said anything about it. Just helped them clean up and told jokes like nothing had happened. I will never understand the British stiff upper lip.”

“After the bombing, the train made its way to Stalag 18a, near Wolfsberg in Corinthia, which, before war, I would have thought a lovely place for a holiday. But 18a was not exactly a holiday camp. Bad food and bad conditions like before but instead of being confined in camp they made us work either in the fields or cutting down trees in the forest. This was good work because in either place you could easily pick up some extra food and occasionally pick up some war news.”

“Then in December, the unthinkable happened again. We got bombed by the alies. I guess they were trying to help us escape or kill a few Germans, but they killed more of us than them. Things got better after that. We knew all we had to do was grin and bear it for a little while longer. It turned out it was a little longer than we thought, we didn’t get liberated until three days after the war ended.”

“When they processed me out of the camp, they gave me orders to report to England. I told them I did not want to go back to England. I had never been in England. What was there for me? I wanted to go to Vienna and find out about my family. But you know the Limey’s. Protocol is everything. I was an anomaly. They did not know how to handle it. People needed to be consulted. Memorandums written. I tried pointing out to them that I was only 250 km from my home and that it was ridiculous for them 1500km back to London. But they sat on their hands.  Finally, after waiting around two days and the camp emptying out I decided to take things into my own hands and went to their HQ and waited for the commanding General to emerge and ambushed him. After listening to me, and my story, he ordered his aide de camp to straighten things out. Needless to say, I got VIP treatment after that. I still have to go back to England to be processed out of the Army, but they gave me seven days leave in Vienna. I have been here six.  I leave tomorrow.”

I had known Walter all my life and I had no idea what to say to him. While I had been back in the USA, “fairyland,” learning English, going to school, and working for my Uncle Max he had been living in hell.  Imprisoned in concentration camps.  Losing his family and practically anyone he had ever known. Then trapped in an Europe at war that wanted him dead only to escape an army at war. Thrown into battle. Shot up twice only to be imprisoned, again, by those he was fleeing. Then nearly blown up by people on his side, not once but twice. I was in awe of his fortitude, resilience and his good humor. It made me feel that the freshly issued uniform I was wearing was really a Halloween costume worn by a college sophomore.

I wanted to tell him how much I admired him. How proud the family would be of him. How impressed I was by him, the once roly-poly cousin, not a hard as nails veteran. He must have sensed what I was about to say by the look on my face because when I went to open my mouth, he shook his head and said “Ugi, my story is no different than thousands of other guys. All that is important is we made it…. we both did.” And then he joked. “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 after a pause I said, “You have been here six days.”

“Yes.”

“And.”

“Have I found anyone?”

I nodded. He gave me a forlorn glance, and staring down at his empty coffee cup said “No.”

“I went everywhere. Everywhere I could remember. Most of the places I went pretended like they had never heard of the people who used to live there. When I went to Uncle Julius leather goods store his former clerk claimed that he did not know what had happened to him. Just that he had sold him the store and left. But he was so nervous. I could tell he was lying. I want to beat it out of him. But what could I do? Cousin Marie’s apartment in the 2nd district was occupied by some fat hausfrau who said she never knew who lived there before her even though some of the furniture was definitely Marie’s.”

“Eventually, I went to the IKG offices. Which were closed. But I found this “Mischling”, Christian mother and Jewish father, who told me a little about the transports and deportations. He made it sound like there was not a Jew left in Austria. How can that be, Hugi? We were 200,000. I mean I have read about the death camps and all but surely even the Nazi’s could not have killed them all?”

I shook my head in shared disbelief and said, “Let me tell you about my day” and proceeded to give him a recap of what I had found out at the “Philanthropia.” When I had finished, we shared a look with each other. One that said, we knew the truth. We had lived it. The Nazi’s were more than capable of our destruction. All we need do is look around at this broken and destroyed city to see that. Or what we did not see. Our family, our friends, our community that just seven years before had been so vibrant was now only a whisper of an echo.

There did not seem much more to say. Walter made the excuse of having to return to his barracks to prepare for his trip to London in the morning. I told him that I had to leave too. I had a meeting with my “boss” at the Hotel Sacher. “Isn’t that where you “blokes” are staying. We can walk together.”

He gave me a raised eyebrow and said “Officers only, Ugi. Us Non-com’s are billeted at pension in Leopoldstadt. But I can walk with you to Stephansplatz.  As we strolled down Graben we exchanged addresses. I told him that Mama and Papa would love to hear from him but if he wrote them please do not let them know you saw me here. I gave him a knowing look and said, “I am not supposed to be here if you know what I mean.”

When we arrived at Kartnerstrasse. We embraced and I said “It’s good to see you Walter. I am glad you…you…”

He cut me off. “Me too. I am glad to see my little cousin is all grown up. And officer at that.” He gave me a mock salute, British Style with the palm facing outward, and turned to leave but before he got two steps he stopped and asked “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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