When we had finished laughing, I said “Okay. I understand that sitting in a closet all day without moving would produce wild thoughts, but you didn’t have the same problems as Jakob. You are not a Jew. They weren’t going to send you to the camps or to be “resettled.” The Gestapo would have stopped looking for you eventually. All you needed to do is bide your time and eventually you would have been able to go back to a normal life.”
“Living in America has made you forget what it was like back then. I had no identity papers. I had no ration books. And if I applied for them, I would be arrested on the spot. These were all the things that were going through my mind when I was sitting in the cabinet, waiting for dark. But I hoped that it wouldn’t come to all that. I held out hope that maybe this would all pass by. But I also knew something else by the end of the second day. That I could not live this way. Spending all day in a little box and then sneaking around at night was not a life. It was purgatory at best. I certainly couldn’t continue to do it at Hertha’s. What little food I had was running out. There was nothing left to read. It was prison without the physical torture.”
“On the morning of the third day, I decided that this would be my last night here. That I would make my escape somehow. Whether that was life on a coal barge or faking my own death I did not care. I just knew that one more day locked in a closet with only my thoughts to keep me company was not possible. Besides shitting in a bucket had lost all fascination for me. I began planning my escape from Hertha’s cottage at nightfall and was eagerly anticipating sundown when the cabin door opened and Uncle Anton walked in.”
At the moment I was tempted to blurt out my purpose in being here but I kept silent. Tad needed to tell his story and I wanted to hear it. Delaying the mission by a few moments would not foul things up. More importantly, in the general scheme of things, Tad’s story..his life..was more important than finding the crown . And perhaps rationalizing a little, I knew that my Army assignment, finding Skoda and the keys for the Crown were far better served listening to my friend than forcing a conversation about his Uncle. So I said “That must have been a surprise.”
“I’d say. And it was not a joyful reunion. He told me that I had really shit the bed and he dressed me down like I was the lowliest, most incompetent, private under his command. How could I have been so stupid? Building a submarine under the Nazi’s nose. What did I think would happen? That I would magically float down the Danube and escape the war? Didn’t I know that the Germans had all sorts of devices to stop submarines and other underwater machines from passing through the river. Let alone being spotted from the shore or the very real possibility we would have sunk because two 13 year old boys could not possibly have built a workable submarine.”
Tad shot me look as if to say Now was not the time to have a lengthy conversation about the seaworthiness of a vessel that never saw the water.
“But he was only getting started. He wanted to know if I understood what I had done to my mother, his sister. That her shop had been searched, roughly, every day for the last three days with shelves being tossed. Customers had been harassed and now many were frightened to come into the store. Our apartment had literally been ripped apart in their efforts to see if I was hiding there. And worst, Mother had been taken to Gestapo Headquarters and interrogated for hours. He let me know that we were very fortunate that she had not been kept in custody. The only reason she was released is that they thought that eventually I would reach out to her. They were making her the cheese in the mouse trap in the hopes of catching me.”
“I got very defensive with Uncle Anton. This is so silly. Two boys building a little ship on the shed on the Danube. How could that possibly threaten the Reich? Why were they making a mountain out of a mole hill? Perhaps I should turn myself in and explain that it was just a childish fantasy. Anton told me I was just adding stupid on stupid. That the Gestapo would never accept my explanation especially considering that it was a Jew that was helping me. That the only outcome we could expect from turning myself in was me being arrested and sent to one of the camps with the possible added bonus of Mama’s shop being seized.”
“I don’t know whether it was the almost three days I had spent locked in a closet, the lack of sleep, or the verbal dressing down I had just received from my Uncle but I broke down and cried. I mean really cried. Sobbed and wept. And Uncle Anton didn’t do a thing to stop me. With a frosty, almost haughty expression on his face he watched as I was wracked with tears and regrets. When I stopped sobbing, he handed me a handkerchief and told me to blow my nose and compose myself. Then he said in far more gentle tones “Listen to me. When you and Hugi built that boat you were little boys finding children’s solutions to a problem far bigger than you. Children cannot be expected to understand the consequences of their behavior. But you can no longer afford to be a little boy. From now on, fair or not, you need to be… have to be… an adult. You have to consider consequences when you do things. Not just what is going to happen to you but to others. Children make decisions based on their little worlds. Adults make decisions based on what happens to them and their community. Do you understand.”
“I told him I did. And I thought I did. But the truth of his words are something that I am constantly relearning. Anyway, when I told him I understood he said “Good. Now your mother and I have discussed this problem. The Gestapo will not stop looking for you so soon. And, we know staying here is not safe. There are too many people here to whom we have to explain your presence. We think the best thing to do is to send you to Sopron to live with my brother Ede. And then after a while when things become a little calmer perhaps you can come back but in the meantime, you will not be so far that your mother can not visit. The only problem is getting you there. The best way is that we drive you there in my car…”
“ I interrupted him “Uncle Anton, that won’t work. I have had a lot of time to think about this over the last few days and just going away for awhile won’t help. You know the Nazi’s they keep records of everything. I would be living in fear of getting caught for the rest of my life. Every time I see a soldier asking for papers I would need to turn away. Every person I meet I would have to worry that they would turn me in. And even worse it would not help Mama. She would still be subject to harassment from the Gestapo. If she visited me, she would be in danger of getting caught. Every note shared would be a danger to her safety. We can’t do that to her.”
“Then I told him about my idea. About how I could commit suicide but not commit suicide. How my death would liberate Mama and me especially if we could find new identity papers for me. I even told him where I thought we should stage the suicide, The Zollamtsbrücke Bridge. During my time in the cabinet I had wondered how I could get the Nazi’s to believe in my death because I was sure they would want proof beyond Mama telling them I died. Someplace where a body need not be found but gave them reasonable assurance that I was gone. So it had to be somewhere over the water, but not one where it was likely that I would be seen and one where there had to be some sort of official inquiry. Without that kind of certification, it would be a wasted effort. The Zollamtsbrucke Bridge was perfect because it was a pedestrian bridge over a railway bridge over the Danube Canal. I said I thought we could throw a heavy object covered in blood off the pedestrian bridge just as a train was passing underneath. The train would have to stop to investigate and they would find a suicide note and a bundle of clothes on the pedestrian bridge. They wouldn’t need to find a body because it would be reasonable to assume that it fell into the canal. A funeral would be held, and I could assume a new identity.”
“Uncle Anton was silent after I explained my scheme. He paced about the small cabin for a bit and finally stood by a window staring out, clearly reviewing what I said with the mind of a military officer. It seemed like a long time before he said anything but eventually he said “Tad, perhaps your greatest attribute is your ability to get yourself out of trouble after you have made trouble for yourself. That is not a compliment but a fact. In this case, you are right. If we don’t devise and end for you there will be no end to the trouble for you. And, making the Germans think you are dead is a good solution but I think you make it far too complicated. Too many things could go wrong. What if the object you throw onto the train misses or worse hurts someone, or the Nazi’s investigate too much and something makes them suspicious. No we can’t risk staging a suicide.”
“I started to object, but he held up a hand to stop me from speaking. He continued “But I think faking your death is a good idea. Your mother can place a death announcement in the paper. She can hold a funeral and invite your schoolmates and family and tell them that you have committed suicide on the Zollamsbrucke Bridge. She can even show them your suicide note. The only real challenge is getting you new identity papers. I know who to talk to but it might take a little while….Can you manage here for a few more days.”
“Before waiting for my answer he said “Good. I must go. I have left you enough food for three more days. I will be back before they run out. In the meantime, be a good soldier and don’t get caught.” Then, after a quick hug he was gone.”
“Three very long days and nights later, Uncle Anton returned with a copy of the Neue Wiener Tagblatt in which my obituary was printed. It was simple stating that I had died suddenly and because of the circumstances of my death there would be no church services, just a burial. That was perfect as that was the standard phrasing for suicides back then. Uncle Anton explained that I would be buried here the following day and that our schoolmates had been notified. He then told me that it was time for me to move. That after dark, he and I would go to his apartment where, he said with a wink he had made “special” accommodations for me. “
“When we reached his apartment late that night those accommodations turned out to be a hiding place that he had built in the dormer beneath his window. It was built with a mechanism that allowed it to open only if you moved certain pieces properly and in the right order. That way a random search would not uncover it. For the time being, it is where I would sleep in case the Gestapo pounded on the door in the middle of the night. During the day, when Anton was at work, I was free to move about the apartment but I needed to be careful not to make any noise and never be too far away from my “coffin” should there ever be a knock at the door.
“It was not ideal but at least I did not have to shit in a bucket anymore as Uncle Anton’s apartment had its own toilet.
“The first order of business was to change my appearance. It wouldn’t do for a suicide to be seen walking the streets of Vienna. It might make people believe in ghosts. And, tomorrow he was going to take me to a friend of his from the Army who was a photographer so I could have pictures for my new Kennkarte. He had decided that since I couldn’t grow a beard that the fastest way to change my look was to cut my hair as if I had a case of lice; so short that you could see my scalp. When that was done, and the hair folded into some old newspapers that would be disposed in garbage bins away from the house, he presented me with dark brown tortoiseshell glasses that had small round lenses that had no prescription. He also gave me a pair of worn overalls and a workers flat cap that I could pull down over my face when I was walking on the street. When I looked in the mirror I could still see myself but Anton assured me that even if someone I knew saw me, my disguise would allow me to pass them by.
“That night was my first in the box. It was very much like being in a casket only less comfortable and without the finality. This amused me and made me wish I could speak with you.”
“How is that.”
“Here I am supposed to be dead and I am living in a casket in my Uncle’s apartment. I thought if you knew you would think it hilarious. But it also made me think of the sharp turn our lives had taken. You on your way to America and a new life and me stuck in a box and on the run. I was happy for you but angry too. It seemed unfair that you were in America enjoying a grand adventure while I was stuck here in Vienna holding the bag for Tomahawk.”
I did not know what to say to that. I could easily imagine how he felt. I had lived in “fairyland” and he had joined the cast of a Kafka novel. .Since the day I left Vienna I had been plagued with the convoluted feeling of the joy of my new life and the knowledge that so many others, including my best friend Tad, did not have the same opportunity that I had. How could I feel good about the course my life had taken when I knew that almost everyone I knew as a child had suffered a far harsher reality. It is what had pushed me at school, and virtually everything that I did. I had been given a golden ticket and I was not going to miss the opportunities that it provided.
However, understanding that life has dealt you a good hand and making the most of it only takes you so far. You are still left with the feelings of not being worthy of the break you have been given. That your luck somehow prevented the good fortune of another. It made it easy to place yourself in the shoes of friends and family left behind. It made it easy to understand why Tad would have been angry with me. I was about to tell him so when he held up a hand to stop me from speaking and said “If this war has taught me anything it is how unfair, random, and unforgiving life can be. It is a cruel lesson at any age but especially nasty at age 13” He paused, and chuckling said, “I don’t think Winnetou or Old Shatterhand ever spent any time at all bemoaning the situation in which they happened to find themselves. They just got on with it. Devoting their energy to solving the problems at hand and never cursing the good fortune of others. I long ago stopped being angry with you for your good luck. In fact, a lot of how I kept myself going over the years was imagining the good life you were living. Happy that at least one of us was…. if it couldn’t be me then I was glad it was you.”
The next morning Uncle Anton’s army buddy came by the apartment with his Leica and took several photographs of me with my new “lice” hair cut and glasses against a white sheet background for my new Kennkarte. I don’t know how he arranged it but Anton told me that I was going to assume the identity of one of his cousins , a child who had died shortly after birth so while he had a birth certificate no one had ever bothered to get a death certificate.”
“So whom am I talking to now?”
Tad held out his hand and said “Ich bin Paul Grosz. Wie heisst du?”
“Ich bin Sam. Es reut mich, Sie Kennenzulernen.”
Tad raised an eyebrow and said “Sam?
“Lets just say Hugi is not a common name in America and there was a lot of mispronouncing it that was not exactly kind. That along, with the feeling I had entered a different world, a different life, it made sense for me to change my name.”
“But why Sam.”
“Because Max was taken…” and then after seeing Tad didn’t understand or think my little joke amusing, I added. “Samuel was the name of Papa’s father. I never met him, and from the stories I heard Papa didn’t get along with him very well. But from what little I knew of him I understood him to be a man of integrity and of learning. And from what I remembered during my Bar Mitzvah instruction, Samuel was a great judge and is not only venerated by Jews but also by Christians and Muslims as well. So it seemed a good choice…especially since Sam is such an American name.”
“What do you want me to call you?”
“You can call me anything you like. You always have.” I replied smiling. “But since there are so few people left who know me as Hugi perhaps calling me that will remind me of who I was before the world changed.”
Tad smiled. I could see that he understood exactly what I meant. Childhoods are everyone’s secret garden. Where nothing bad can happen to you and where dreams and wishes come true. Children should be able to live in this sanctuary for as long as possible. Reality comes soon enough. Our reality, the reality of Herr Hitler and his mad quest for Aryan invincibility and the destruction of the “mud” people that had killed millions, and destroyed most of the known world had laid waste to our childhood. A reminder of that kinder time where dreams were not coated in fear and dusted in the ash of the crematoriums would be welcome.”
For a few moments there was silence between us. It was not uncomfortable. Despite years of separation and lives that could not have taken more different paths we were still like Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, blood brothers who could sense how each other thought and didn’t need conversation to communicate. After a few moments of contemplating the peace of the cemetery and staring at the tombstone that bore Tad’s name I said, almost as a joke “How was your funeral?”
He laughed. “It was great. Uncle Anton did not want me to go but he knew that it is not every day that you get a chance to attend your own funeral. You see that mausoleum over there. The one with the two angels on either side of the crypt. I hid there and watched the whole service. Mama was held up at the graveside by Uncle Anton. You would have never guessed they both knew that I was alive. Both of them look completely bereaved. Mama even managed a sob or two. But they were nothing to some of the girls in our class who were there. They had their arms around each others and were crying so loudly that I could hear them even all that way at my hiding place. You remember Debra Adelstein? The girl with the long neck and great tits. She practically through herself on my grave. But then that sneaky bastard Ohrenstein swooped in and began comforting her. No doubt he was using my funeral to get under her shirt. It really peeved me. It was my funeral, and the little bastard was going to score off it and I was going to go home alone. It seemed really unfair.”
Laughing, I said “Very unfair especially considering that Debra wouldn’t give you the time of day when you were “alive.””
There was silence again and then I asked the question I didn’t want to know the answer to but felt I had to ask, “Do you know what happened to them?”
“I heard Debra’s family managed to raise the money to get to Shanghai. I do not know about Ohrenstein. I ran into his cousin Aaron last week. He had been a prisoner at Mauthausen and looked like a walking corpse. He was looking for his family and had not been able to find a trace….”
This silenced me. I knew that at one point there were nearly 200,000 Jews living in Vienna. Now there were virtually none left. How many of them were dead? Sent, like my grandmother, to the death camps. Would we ever know there fate? What about those who had fled to the four corners of the world trying to escape the grip of Nazism, separated from friend and family. Would we ever find each other. And then what? How will we rebuild the world?.”
I must have gotten a far away look in my eye because Tad touched me on the shoulder and said, “You okay?”
“Yeah, just a lot to think about.”
“I understand. Perhaps it is best if we change the subject.”
Chuckling I said “Your probably right.”
“Good. Then perhaps we should talk about what really brings you here. I know it is not for some sentimental reason. You need something from me.”