I turned to the door where the voice had come from. It was Tad.
I had long ago come to accept Tad’s death as fact. His disappearance after the discovery of Tomahawk combined with the rumors Eduard Stein and others had shared along with no letters or any other type of communication made me assume his demise. It was It had become my burden. Had I been able to speak with him that morning about my emigration plans and not sent him to the Tomahawk, Tad would be alive and I would have no guilt for living my “fairyland” existence in America.
I love epic poetry. When I was learning to speak English one of my teachers had used poems such as “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Tennyson and others to practice my English pronunciation. My assignment was first to memorize the poem and then in front of the class recite them aloud. After my performance, the teacher and the rest of the class would break down my pronunciation. It worked. It helped rid me of a strong Austrian accent although a girlfriend had once mentioned that it made me sound British. In one of these sessions, Mrs. Meskin had assigned me the “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner and while I was working through the language I remember being particularly struck by the lines
Ah! Well-a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung
It hit me then, that Tad’s death, and my part in it, had become my Albatross. No matter the innocence of my intentions in meeting him at Tomahawk, the result had been his undoing, and it was a burden that would never leave me.
It is strange how the mind works. Now, seeing him, my friend, alive, after thinking him dead for six years, another line from “Rime” popped into my consciousness.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
I stood up and faced Tad. While my emotions were roiling, I tried to appear nonplussed. I did not want to show none of my inner elation of fireworks and cheers I felt. Doing so would be a violation of an unspoken code of our friendship. Nothing needed to be said, because each was confident of the others friendship. Making a display of those emotions would somehow cheapen them. Like the game where you stare at each other until one person blinks, the person who showed overt emotions first lost.
The person standing in front of me was clearly Tad but there are only traces of the boy I once knew. I should not have been surprised by this but I am. In my minds eye he was always 14. But his was no boy standing at attention in front of me. The person who had always conveyed a sense of lightness by telling a joke or make up a fantastic tale was not present. The man standing in front of me projected gravitas. The amusement with the world was still present in his eyes but it was darker humor, the man plans god laughs type of comedy.
I would have recognized Tad walking down the street as physically he was much the same. His smile still wry and the eyes still had the hint of mischief about them. However, the mouth was now surrounded by a Van Dyck beard that accentuated his long face and provided a puckish nuance. The eyes were deep in their sockets and bracketed by deep furrows that belonged on a much older man. His hair, which used to be thick, dark and seemingly having a mind had been shorn almost to the scalp and revealed a thinning that foretold of an early baldness.
The biggest surprise was how tall he was or better said was not. Throughout our boyhood there had been a competition on who was the tallest. Tad usually won and teased me about it without mercy calling me shorty or shrimp even though the difference between us was often millimeters. Now I was almost a full head taller than him. And while this pleased me, in the way that competing and winning against Tad always pleased me, it also embarrassed me a little. While I had been indulging myself with fresh fruit and vegetables from Uncle Max’s store, I suspected he had suffered deprivations despite his mother’s grocery store.
Taking this all in and trying not to let the changes in Tad effect my expression I said “Winnetou, your silent tracking skills have improved.”
“By necessity Shatterhand. When the Comanche are everywhere your skills must improve” he replied with a wink “And you, Hugi it looks as if you mother kept feeding you despite the fact I told her it was a waste of good food.”
I guess the nature of friendship is that even after a long absence, conversations begin and end in the middle. It was as if no time, and a war, had interceded in our lives we were back to kidding and insulting each other as if we were still boys plotting to build a submarine on the flood plain. We had all lost so much during the war and realizing that Tad and our friendship managed miraculously to survive helped blunt the sorrow that I had felt since entering the wrecked city of my childhood. In fact, it made me feel downright giddy.
My elation at seeing Tad and the joy of reclaiming of what I thought was lost was about to produce a stinging witticism to throw back at Tad, when Mrs. Saegerer said “Stop it boys. Enough witzelsucht. Give each other hug and come having coffee and cake.” And, like the good boys we once were, we did exactly as she suggested, and gave each other an awkward hug, pounding each other on the back and suppressing the tears that would have embarrassed us both.
“Gut. Now come and sit on the couch and have some coffee and cake. Hugi can tell us all about his life in America.” Where to begin. When I had told Eduard Stein of my life in America, he had called it “Fairyland.” I knew that my story could produce envy and had the ability to make people lament their own circumstances so I began with “Tad, you would have enjoyed this. When I first got to America that so highly of my intellect they placed me in the 2nd grade.”
Two hours later, after giving them a highly edited version of my life in the United States where I emphasized the challenges and downplayed the positives, Tad and I were walking along Alszeile, When we had left Frau Saegerer’s apartment I had excused myself for a second and gone over to where Cookie looked like he was napping in the jeep. He had raised his service cap just enough to let me know that he was awake while I explained who Tad was and how he might be able to help us find Colonel Skoda. I said we were going for a walk so we could talk things over. Cookie argued that his job was to keep me out of trouble, and he could hardly do that unless he came along. I replied by suggesting that it would appear very suspicious to anyone whom might be watching us that a reunion of two old friends were being accompanied by an armed guard. This produced a short lively conversation in which I brilliantly explained my thesis and Cookie argued his priorities. In the end, we compromised and did it Cookies’ way, which is why 50 yards behind us walked Cookie. This arrangement had produced a raised eyebrow but no comment from Tad. It also inhibited conversation. We had not said ten words to each other in the several blocks we had walked.
As we were walking past the Dornbacher Cemetery, Tad broke the silence saying “That is where I am buried” and then laughing added “I am sure you didn’t know that you were walking with a dead man.”
I laughed and said “Well you don’t look well. But I did know you were dead. When I wrote you and got no response, I wrote to Eduard Stein to see if he had hard heard anything. He told me that he had heard from Erwin Riegelhaupt that you had committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.”
Tad looked down and shared a sad smile. “Poor Erwin. He got a job working for the IKG and thought he was immune to the transports. But his name was on one of the early lists. We heard they took him to Theresienstadt but almost all of them got sent to Auschwitz and you know what happened there.” I nodded and he added “What happened to Eduard.”
“The last I heard he was okay. Joined the RAF so he would not have to be put in some sort of enemy alien camp. Which he thought was ridiculous. Why would you put a Jewish boy in a camp when the reason he came to England was to avoid the camps. Anyway, he liked living in England except they system kept him separated from his little sister and the people who were caring for her were not very keen on the two spending time together. They said they thought it would bring up bad memories but Eduard thought they were trying to have her forget her real family so she could become their daughter. He kept writing letters to the authorities about it but he said they were not willing to help him. All this was made a little harder by his family being in Palestine and his father’s inability to find work. He couldn’t ask for them to all be together as he had no way of paying for it. You know Eduard. He was determined to make money. Be someone so he was taking a lot of courses in business lot short hand and typing so he could always have a job. And when I told him I was going to University he claimed he was going to go as well. But I have not heard from him in a while. Not since February… but I have been on the move. Maybe his letters have not caught up with me.”
Then I added with a smile “So was being in Vienna so difficult without me that you had to commit suicide.”
“You think much too much of yourself” and then added “But you are right it was because of you that I had to.”
“Tomahawk. Before I tell you, what happened with you.”
I proceeded to tell Tad of how when I arrived at the flood plain, there were SS troops everywhere. That seeing all the activity around the area I had hid myself in the crowd trying to find out what all the activity was about. While in the crowd I had overheard that some fisherman had snooped into the hut and discovered the Tomahawk and reported it to the authorities including the fact that two “boys” were the builders. The SS was searching the area and hoping to find them and arrest them. That a man in the crowd had recognized me as one of the builders and advised me to leave the area but before I had I had scrawled the Wolfpack symbol for danger on a pole near the tram stop just before the stop we got off for the Tomahawk. How I had hoped to warn him of the danger if he already was not in the thick of it. How I had run home scared silly but had stopped at his mother’s grocery store looking for him and when he wasn’t there I had left word to contact me. That when I had not seen heard from that night or before we had left the next morning, I had felt terribly responsible but had not given up hope. That I had cried when I heard from Eduard of your suicide.
I finished by saying “There was always a part of me that didn’t believe that you had committed suicide. It did not sound like you. But…”
By the time I had finished telling my version of that day’s events and were well into the middle of the Dornbacher cemetery. Tad was leading us somewhere and I was happy to follow even though as a Cohanim, non-bar mitzvahed, I was supposed to be in a graveyard. Tad stopped walking. And said put his hand on my shoulder and said “Hugi, you were not responsible for anything. I would have been there regardless if you had told me to meet you there or not. I wanted to finish Tomahawk and whether it was with you or someone else I was determined to escape this mess. and there was work to do.”
We found a small bench opposite adjacent to a large mausoleum and sat down. I briefly thought of poor Cookie following us and wondered if the setting would make him feel a little uncomfortable and then forgot about it. I was sure Cookie could handle a cemetery. He might even find a place to nap. Tad said, “You know the funny thing is all this time you have been blaming yourself for my death, I have been thanking you for my life.”
“Do you remember, after we had the near miss with the fisherman. The one who almost caught us working on Tomahawk. You insisted that we line the paths with cans tied together with string that would alert us to people walking on the trails near the hut?”
“Of course. You gave me shit about it for days afterward. You said I was being ridiculous and overly cautious.”
“Well, your caution saved me. That afternoon we were supposed to meet I was in the hut working on the conning tower. One of the seals didn’t look right to me and I decided that it needed to be replaced. I had just about removed it when I heard the rattle of the cans near the hut. When I looked out through one of the slats in the hat I could see a man approaching the shack. It was clear that something must have caught his attention, perhaps the clanging of the chisel and hammer I was using, because he was walking purposely towards me. I decided that caution was the better part of valor and quickly grabbing my coat, which I had taken off to work, I scampered down the hatch to the hiding place we had created underneath our workshop.”
“The man circled the hut. When he didn’t hear anything. He called out “Hallo” a few times and then seeing the door he walked up to and banged a few times. Meanwhile, I am underneath, half buried in the sand, saying every prayer I could think of for him to just go away but it didn’t do any good because when he didn’t hear a response he walked right in. I could hear the floorboards squeak as he walked around Tomahawk muttering “Gutten Himmel, Gutten Himmel.”
“The next thing I know he is running down the stairs and practically tripping in the sand in his haste to get out of there. I knew where he was going. He was going to find someone in authority and report the Tomahawk. You remember the type. The person who was always tor report some anti-Nazi behavior just to earn a little favor and make themselves feel important. Anyway, I did not have time to think about that I needed to figure out a way to get out of there and not be seen. First, I push out one of the panels on the opposite side of the direction the man had run and then belly crawled to the cover of the nearest dune. Then I made my way to the waters edge carefully leaving as few tracks as possible and went upriver until I found a well-traveled path that led back to the road. When I had almost reached the road, I found a dune covered in tall grass that would give me a good view of Tomahawk’s hut. “
“It had only been about 15 minutes but there was already a policeman at the hut and a couple of SA men. I watched for a little while longer but when the SS men showed up and began to search the dunes, I knew it was time to leave. I walked up Handelskai in the hopes that I could cut you off. But when I got to the tram stop and saw that you had left the Wolfpack symbol with a danger sign I decided it was time to get out of there and go home. At first, I did what you did. I took back streets and alleys until I was well away from the inundation zone. When I felt like I was safe I jumped on a tram and it was there that I was screwed. When I sat down and felt like I could relax. I gave myself one of those pat downs you do to make sure you have everything with you and I realized that I did not have my Kennkarte identity papers. They must have fallen out of my jacket pocket when I took it off to work on Tomahawk or while I hid in the dunes. Either way, the Gestapo were sure to find it. Either way I could not go home. I could not put Mama in danger nor did have any desire to personally experience any of the hospitality that the Nazi’s would likely offer me.”
“I got off the tram at the next stop. I did not know what to do. I had almost no money so I couldn’t go to a hotel or pension even if that would rent me a room. I thought about going to Aunt Hertha’s cabin in the Lobau but to get there I would have to pass through the inundation zone and I certainly did not want to go back there now. Eventually, I decided that I would go to Yppenplatz and hide in the park until there was no one around and then sneak into Mama’s store as I knew where she kept the spare key. It would be dangerous not only because the SS may want to search the store and someone might call the police if they saw me entering the store after it had closed but I figured it would be worth the risk. Not only was it better than sleeping on the street but there was food, money in the till, and I could leave Mama a note and let her know that I was alright.”
“You would be surprised how many people walk on Yppenplaz at night. It seemed like there was an endless procession of people walking down the street. When at last the street was empty, I walked up to the front of the store and reached under one of the flowerpots that sit outside the stores entrance and pulled out the key. But just before I put it into the lock a couple, who had been clearly drinking came stumbling up the street. I quickly put the key in my pocket and decided to walk around the block. I walked right by your building and I thought about calling up but didn’t because it would have called to much attention to myself. When I got back to the store the coast was finally clear and managed to get into the store. After eating some fruit and cheese, taking a few Reichsmarks from Mama’s till, and leaving her a note, I made myself a bed in the storeroom on sacks of flour. It was comfortable enough and I wanted to sleep but I could only manage cat naps. I kept worrying that I would not wake up in time so I could leave without people noticing.”
“Just before dawn, I gave up on sleep and left the store and quickly realized that I had no idea of how I was going to spend the day. Tomahawk was history. I could not go to school for fear of the authorities finding me there. I ended up wandering the streets until I had the brilliant idea of seeing you off. I made my way to the Sudbanhof and was immediately confronted with my own stupidity. Of course the entrances were guarded. There was no way that I was going to be able to get into the building without the possibility of some guard stopping me and demanding to see me my papers. But I got lucky. Just as I was getting ready leave, I saw the guards, stop a young man with a suitcase. The man was very indignant about being stopped and was cursing out the guards. You know the type “I am a good German. Why are you stopping me? You should be stopping one of these Jews who are fleeing like rats from a sinking ship.” I saw the guards were paying so much attention to this guy they were letting people were just walking into the building without showing there Kennkarte. So while they were arguing with that poor bastard I snuck into the station.”
I didn’t know what train you were on. You never told me but you had something about leaving from Genoa. I went to the information booth to find out when the train was leaving and on what track it was too late. Your train was pulling out just as I reached the track.”
I started to laugh which perturbed Tad. He said “What so funny.”
I replied, “As the train was pulling out of the station, I was convinced I saw you, but I put it off to an overactive imagination.”
“Ha. You with an overactive imagination! You always let me do the imagining for both of us.”
I would have argued with him except I knew it was true. As boys, when we needed a fantastic, imaginative solution to our problems, I always turned to Tad. Tomahawk was his idea. At a time when getting out of Vienna was a necessity for me, the outrageous idea of building a submarine. It was beyond the pale, yet he managed to believe in it so much that we had always turned it into a reality. Mind it was always up to me to turn these flights of fantasy into reality. Tomahawk may have been his idea but it was my was my brain sweat at the library and ripped up knuckles in the fisherman’s hut that made it reality.
We had been a good team. Now I needed to ask him to team up with me again. But I was reluctant to ask. He may have been my best friend, my brother, six years ago but now, despite the closeness I felt towards him, we were really just two strangers who used to know each well. The war, and time, had changed us like heat and pressure change coal to diamonds. Who we were remained the same, but we had forever changed. And asking a stranger for a favor is far more difficult than asking a friend.
This reluctance made it far easier to ask him questions than asking him to me help me find the Crown of St. Stephen especially considering that I did not know if he could even help. Instead, I asked “So is it your imagination that got you here?” I said pointing to a gravestone that had written on it “Tad Saegerer. 1925-1940 Beloved Son.”
He chuckled mirthlessly “I guess so.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“After you left, I wandered around all day. Always looking for some place warm and where I would not be recognized. I didn’t know whether the police or the SS were actually looking for me but I thought it safer to assume they were. It was both tedious and nerve wracking. Boring because there was really little, I could do except kill time and nerve wracking because I had to look around every corner for the authorities or someone I might know.”
“That night I returned to Mama’s store. It was the only place I felt I could be safe and perhaps get a few hours relief from being on the streets. I could tell the minute I entered the store that something had happened. While everything looked the exactly the same, little things were slightly out of place. A note Mama left me in the till explained that morning when she was about to leave the apartment the SS had knocked on her door looking for me. When they could not find me in the apartment they had gone to the store and searched it roughly. The officer in charge threatened her. He had told her that I was suspected for crimes against the state and that aiding or abetting me in anyway was a crime. If she heard from me she must notify them or they would seize her store and send her to a concentration camp.”
“She must have been very frightened.”
“She was. But her note was exceedingly kind considering the circumstances. She told me she could not believe that I could have gotten myself in this type of serious mischief. That the SS must have made some type of dreadful error. But she knew that trying to convince of that was impossible. She suggested that I take as much food as I could carry to Aunt Hertha’s cabin in the Lobau and wait there. That she would contact me there when it was safe and gave me 100 Reichsmarks to “tide me over.”
“After gathering up some food and other essentials and left immediately. I figured as long a walk as it was to the Lobau it would be better done at night when few would see me and no one would see me entering the cabin. It took me nearly 4 hours to get there but I managed to arrive in the dead of night when no one saw me enter. That night despite the cold I managed to sleep the sleep of the dead. That is, until the next morning when I heard noise coming from the outside. I went to the window and saw that several of Hertha’s neighbors, who normally occupied the cabins when it was warm had decided to live their full time. This was terrible news for me because it meant that while I had a roof over my head, I couldn’t do anything that would give the neighbors any indication that I was there. Anything could give me away. A shadow in front of the window. An errant sound. Anything that would raise their attention so they would call attention to the cabin and me that would make them investigate or worse call the authorities.”
“This was also an urgent problem. I had to take a piss. My teeth were floating. And you remember those cabins do not have indoor plumbing. There is only a privy out back. Solving the pressing problem turned out to be easy. Hertha kept a bucket near the door. She must have mopped the floor right before she left. When I had relieved myself of that burden, I began crawling around the cabin trying to find a spot that was not visible if someone decided to peep through the windows. There was not one. That is the problem with such a small cabin. The only place that offered me any sort of hiding was a small armoire. It was only about 60 cm deep by 150 cm wide but it was one time my small size really helped me out because if I pulled my legs up a little I could sit at the bottom and close the door to the cabinet. It seemed ideal. Except it really wasn’t. Sitting in that position all day caused all sorts of cramps. And if we had not left a few paperback books from when you were stay there the boredom would have made me tear my eyes out.
But I made it through the first day with only a stiff back and neck and legs that did not work right for hours later. It made me realize that could not live like this forever. That I needed a bigger plan. A plan that would allow me not to live at the bottom of a cabinet for the rest of my life. But every wild idea I came up had a fatal flaw. It was maddening. The minute I would think of an idea like signing on as a mate on a Danube coal barge or sneaking across the border into Italy required identity papers of which I had none and had no clue how to get plus it would keep Gestapo from harassing Mama.”
Tad paused for a second and asked “Do you remember Jakob Tuechler?”
“Sure, his father owned a leather goods store on Josefstaedterstrasse. He played football with us and was pretty good. Didn’t his mother die just before the Anschluss and then his father got arrested on Kristallnacht and sent to Dachau. When he committed suicide it was the talk of the neighborhood…I remember because Mama was overprotective for days afterward. “. …
“Well I am glad to see living in America did destroy your brain completely. Only he didn’t.”
“Yeah. The day before you left, on my way to the Tomahawk he and I bumped into each other crossing the street. I was about to blurt out something like “I thought you were dead” when he shot me a panicked look and took me by the arm and led me to coffee house. He told me that the situation for him had been hopeless. No father. No mother. He had been turned by Kindertransport. He did not have the money for a Visa or any relative to help him. The IKG could do nothing for him. He knew was only a matter of time before the Nazi’s came and put him a camp. He was at the end of his rope. Literally. He was literally ready to end it all when he heard about some other people in his situation…no family, no place to go, who did not want to be “resettled” who had decided to fake their own deaths and live “underground.”
“You mean literally.”
“No, well yes. I mean sometimes. There were people living in the sewers or in chambers adjacent to the sewers. And you know how many of the old buildings have hidden places underground. But mostly they lived a shadow life. If they could get an old birth certificate or marriage certificate, they would start a new life as an Aryan. If they couldn’t live in the shadows living in people’s attics and basements or living day to day hoping someone would take them in…Do you know what he told me they called these people?”
I shook my head.
I let out a chortle. Tad said “I thought you would find that funny. The creator of submarine vessel Tomahawk becoming a “U-boater.”
Still laughing I said “That is not the half of it….” And broke into serious guffaws.
Tad, a little indignant over my reaction blurted “Well what is the other half.”
“The army base I became an officer is called Ft. Still. It was built during the Indian Wars and where great Sioux chiefs were imprisoned, including Geronimo. So while you were becoming a Uboater. I became Winnatou!”
We both howled with laughter.