The jail cell looked pretty much what I imagined a cell would look like even though I never imagined myself to be in one. It was about 6’ x 8’ with rough concrete floors and with walls painted industrial green, no window and a black steel door with a heavy mesh window and a small door to pass food in and out. There was no mattress just a tattered woolen blanket that may have once been green but now was a deep brown bordering on black and lousy with lice. A rancid galvanized steel bucket in the corner was the toilet and the jail cell smelled as if Vienna’s famous sewar system shared its fetid air. It was a far cry from my room at the Hotel Sacher let alone the barracks at Ft. Sill. The worst part was that I had absolutely no idea why I was here or for that matter how long I would be staying. Nothing in my previous 19 years had prepared me for this and frankly I was scared shitless of what was going to happen next
The nature of great friendships is the lack of pretense and the ability to begin a conversation in the middle even after many years of being apart. Tad’s, now Paul, and I were quite different people than we were when we had last seen each other six and a half years ago. Beyond the fact that neither of us identified with our names from back then, our paths could not have been more different. I had gone to America. Sheltered from the war and the Nazi’s I had embraced a life in a country where you could be yourself, manufacture your own dreams, that success was only limited by hard work and desire. A place war had not touched and where the day to days of food, shelter and friends were not an ongoing struggle. I had embraced learning and was halfway to a degree and could envision a life on a college campus teaching and discovering the secrets that the universe had cleverly hidden away.
Perhaps that was the biggest difference between Paul’s life and mine. I could still dream while he needed to embrace the “what is” as opposed to the “what ifs.”
From the day I left Vienna, in late November 1939 Paul’s life had been the opposite of mine. He was forced into a new life. He had to endure life on the streets where dreams were a liability and where if you did not embrace reality it would often come calling for you in the most vicious ways imaginable. A life that saw his family, friends and acquaintances disappear into the night and never return. An actuality that often had him sleeping in a box or hiding from the SS, Allied Bombing or the Red Army’s assault. An existence where the smallest of mistakes could mean the end of his.
Paul’s world had grown small and day to day. Mine had enlarged beyond my imagination and the future beckoned daily.
We had taken “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” Despite this, our friendship which had been forged on the tough streets of Vienna’s 16th district and hardened by countless adventures and boyish laughter, remained unbroken and strong. I should not have been surprised by Paul’s recognition that I was not in Vienna merely to reunite with an old friend. He knew me after all, and he knew the world. They do not send 2nd Lieutenants to Russian occupied territory for no reason and I have no doubt he sensed the pensiveness that rippled just below the surface produced by my mission. But I was.
Perhaps that is why, when he asked me “what mission I was on.” I replied, with a smile, that I did not know what he was talking about. He, in return provided me with an incredulous look, and said “Hugi, we have known each other too long. If you need my help, I will try but do not pretend that this is purely social. It is not necessary.” And, then with a wry and somewhat bemused grin said “Not for blood brothers.”
I sighed. “You have always known me to well.” And smiling, added “And you’re right. We are blood brother so let me tell you my story. 18 months ago, I had just finished my freshman year at University when I became eligible for military service. I wanted to serve but I also wanted to finish my sophomore year at college. It wouldn’t delay my entry into the service much longer that 6 months and who knows we might have won the war by then. I had to make my case to delay entry into the army to something called a draft board. A bunch of old men who decide your status for military service. But I did not think my desire to finish another year of college would hold much weight with them. So, I told them about the Crown.”
I shot him a glance, to see if he was playing with me. He looked guileless. I continued “Don’t you remember. Just before we left, we had dropped off some ties for my mother at Winters and your Uncle Anton had given us a lift home and told us this strange story about the Holy Crown of Hungary. How he had been charged with protecting the crown should it ever flee Hungary to Austria. Something that he made clear had happened many times in the past. A situation he felt sure would happen should Hitler ever fall from power.”
“Oh, that Crown.” Paul said with a smirk making me realize that he had been putting me on. He continued “You mean the story that Uncle Anton made us swear a blood oath that we should never mention to anyone.”
“Yes…that one.” I replied with as much sarcasm as I could muster, quietly grateful that the banter we had enjoyed as schoolboys, was still present. I continued “ I figured that circumstances had changed enough by that point to make my promise subject to my discretion. After all, the battle of Dneiper had made all but certain that Russians were in command of the battlefront and Hungary was their next target. It was all but inevitable and with it only a matter of time before the Hungarians would lose control of their government as their position in the defense of the “fatherland” had become tactical. The Crown was going to “fly” and I knew who the “pilot” was going to be. And I thought I owed it to my new country to let them know how they might find it…if they thought it important.”
“And if you could trade that secret for a little extra time at University why not.”
“Yes. Why not” I said a little self-righteously.
“Hold on. Hold on. Do not get your knickers twisted. The smart move was to stay out of the war as long as possible. I would have done the same thing. What I don’t understand is how you got a bunch of Americans to understand what the importance of the Crown.”
“Oh. I didn’t.”
“What do you mean you didn’t. You are here.”
“Yeah, well not because of the draft board. They got glassy eyed when I started talking about the Crown. I thought I had totally blown my deferment, but they granted it on the spot. And I went back to Syracuse and forgot all about the Crown. Until two Army counterintelligence officers came to visit me a few months later. Politely, they made me go through the whole story several times. I was never sure if they thought that I was making the whole thing up or whether they were making sure I didn’t leave anything out. When they left, I forgot all about it again. I was too busy. First, with school and then with the Army.”
“Then two weeks ago, I am at Officer Candidate School at Ft. Sill Oklahoma, two weeks from graduating worrying I am going to be sent to the Pacific, when my commanding officer calls me in. Tells me these two Sgts wanted to speak with me. When I meet with them they tell me they have read the report submitted by the Counterintelligence guys have written, that the US is actively looking for the Crown. That effective immediately, I am commissioned a 2nd Lt. Their orders are to find me the fastest transport available to Vienna where I will be given further orders. 48 hours later, after three planes and a long jeep ride I arrived here.”
“Sounds like one of those books we used to read when were boys.”
“It was a lot less comfortable than that.”
Smiling, Paul said “But I don’t understand why they needed you. Surely, they didn’t need little Hugi Flossel, sorry Sam, to help them find the Holy Crown of Hungary. The American Army must have divisions of people more knowledgeable and capable than you.”
“It turns out that they did. From what I was told the US Army has been negotiating with the Hungarians since the Crown left Budapest months ago. Everything was going fine. The Crown Guard managed to smuggle the Crown into Austria and past retreating German troops to American occupied Austria where they surrendered. Everyone was happy but the Hungarians had pulled a fast one. They surrendered the Crown and its retinue, but they were locked up in steel cases with multiple locks. When the Americans asked the Guard for the keys so they could inspect what was in the cases they told them they didn’t have them. That while they had been instructed to deliver the trunks to the American’s they had been ordered to surrender the keys to a former officer of the Guard. This even had happened two weeks earlier just after they entered Austria near the Semmering Pass. Initially they could provide no clues to the identity of the former guard officer, but later under interrogation one of the guardsmen recalled that a member of his party had called him Anton.”
I paused for a second, hoping that Paul would connect the dots. But he did not take the bait. Instead, he asked “Why didn’t they just cut the locks off the trunks. Seems a lot easier than searching for a single man who has disappeared into the ether.”
“I asked the same question. Apparently, they wanted to but they were held back by a couple of experts who inspected the cases. Two of the locks were recent additions. Really nothing more than padlocks and they could have been cut away easily. However, three of the locks were integrated into the case. They too could be picked or drilled out, but the process could cause damage to the contents of the case. Worst, according to these specialists, the cases themselves were considered a part of the Crown’s retinue and as such damaging them would be an “afront to the Crown and the Hungarian people.”
“So, because Sam Floessel had mentioned Anton Skoda in a meeting years before they pulled you out of Indian Territory to come and save the day. Come on, that sounds too far-fetched. “
“I thought so too. I mean how did they even connect the dots? According to my commander, the guy who told me this story, its because they had painted themselves into a corner. Apparently, the minute they got word of the Crown’s recovery an over anxious General sent a telegram to Eisenhower and Truman letting them know that the “Holy Crown of Hungary” was now in the hands of the allies. Ike was thrilled with the news and called the commander personally to congratulate him only to find out that they didn’t know if they had the Crown or just a few metal cases. He went a little batshit. He told them to use whatever resources they needed to find the keys.”
According to Granville, my boss, one element of the all hands alert was sending a telegram to Army Counterintelligence HQ and asking them what information they had collected on the Crown. Apparently, they found my story in some filing cabinet and said what the hell, lets try Floessel.”
“You may have a new name but it is the same old Hugi.”Paul said smiling.
“What do you mean.”
“I have been bailing your ass out of trouble since kindergarten.”
“I don’t know if I can help.”
“Because I have not seen my Uncle Anton in over a year. Shortly after Hitler ordered German Troops to take over Hungary in March of 1944, I went to visit Uncle Anton although I had long since stopped living there. I wanted to know what he thought of the situation because while the official radio was extolling the Reich’s supremacy, the underground was reporting that Hitler had ordered the troops in because he could no longer count on the Hungarian government’s support. Apparently, they had made a separate peace offer to the United States and he could not afford a new “Italy.” I had also heard that Germany was nervous, despite their claims of success, because the Red Army was on the border of Hungary and it was the last line of defense for the homeland.”
“When I got to his apartment it was a mess. It seemed as if every closet, cabinet drawer and shelf had been taken apart and their contents thrown on the floor. The entire life he had struggled to make for himself in Vienna lay in a heap. He was seated in a chair and had a large rectangular bruise on his forehead. He seemed completely non plussed despite the destruction and his injuries. When I asked him what had happened he told me that in the middle of the night the Gestapo had broken down the door to the apartment and began systematically tearing the place apart. When he asked what this was all about one of the soldiers had answered his question with the butt of his rifle. They never told him what they were looking for. When they finished tearing apart the apartment they just left. But he said the message was clear. They knew or suspected of his loyalty to Admiral Horthy and the Crown and wanted to make sure he understood the consequences of that continued loyalty He was being watched and they were looking for an excuse to pull him..”
“He then tried to hustle me out the door telling me that if the Gestapo was watching his place they would have seen me enter. And I could not afford to be stopped by them. Not only because my papers were forgeries but because not everything, I had been doing in the past few years would have been welcomed by the Reich.”
I held my hand and said “Like what.”
“That is a different story, and I will tell you someday but for now lets just say when you live underground you make choices and I had made mine. But Anton was right. I needed to get out of there. But I knew I had a few minutes. Long ago I had figured out how to exit his apartment building without being noticed. He had been like a father to me for as long as I could remember. Whenever I had been in trouble or worried Mama, he was the one who smoothed things over. When the Tomahawk went up in flames, it was he who figured out how to create a new identity and gave me a place to hide. So, I pressed him “Where are you going to go. What are you going to do.”
“He understood what I was feeling without being told. “Listen don’t you worry about me I will be fine. I have some things to do and it would be best if you or your mother do not know where I am. Safer for me. Safer for you. But I will be fine. Old dogs like me get to be old dogs like me because we know how to survive. Tell your mother I love her and that I will be in touch with you just as soon as it is safe for me. Now you need to get out of here.”
“When I protested, he gave me a hug and said “Tad, I love you like a son but if you don’t get the fuck out of here right now, I am going to kill you myself.” I left. And you know, thinking back on it, that is the only time I ever heard Anton swear.”
Tad looked at his feet seemingly lost in the moment so I asked gently “Did you ever hear from him?”
Looking up, he said “Nope. Every time I would visit Mama I would ask if she had heard from him only to be told she had not. It got to the point that it became to painful for me to ask anymore especially as it hurt Mama to keep telling me no. I stopped asking.”
“Shit. Well, that is that. Anton was the key. Granville will not be pleased but what can we do? He is going to have to find another lead.”
“But I do know where he is or might be.”
“But you said you didn’t hear from him.”
“No, I said I stopped asking. It is different. A couple of weeks ago Mama got a knock on the door and a man she described as “rough looking” handed her a letter, doffed his hat and left. It was from Anton. He didn’t say where he had been or what he had been doing but he wanted us to know that he was safe and when he could he would visit us in Vienna.”
“Did he tell you where he was?”
Paul smiled. “Yes, he said he was living in Carinthia, a place called Portschach am Worthersee. He said, we could write him there. Mama has the address.”
“You enjoyed torturing me over this.”
“Yes” he said with a Cheshire cat sized grin on his face. “Very much.”
I looked at my watch. A Wyler Incaflex given to me by my Uncle Max when I graduated from High School. It was just past 1600 hours. “I want you to meet my Col Granville. Share with him what you know about Anton. Can you meet me at the Hotel Sacher at 0900 tomorrow.?”
“The Hotel Sacher? You are living well, Sam. I think I can find the time.” And with that we began to walk out of the cemetery. As we said our good byes, I signaled to Cookie who had rematerialized from wherever he had been hiding to go and get our jeep.
With Cookie gone I turned back to Paul and said “For six years, I have thought you were dead. I can’t tell you how happy I am you are alive…even though you are still an asshole. “
Paul shook my hand and replied “I could say the same about you…” and, laughing, began making his way down Alszelle. I watched him until he turned left onto Berlingasse thinking about the enormity of things that had happened to both of us, to the world, since we had last seen each other. Yet despite all of that, it was as if, at least in some ways, nothing had changed. Some friendships are transactional. Where every action is placed in a column and when and if the books are reconciled the relationship ends. Others are situational. Like the boys I palled with while I was on the Vulcania. They were useful and beneficial in whatever the situation you happen to find yourself in but like spring flowers, when their time had passed they were gone. But my friendship with Paul seemed to be transcendent. Time, distance, and war could interrupt it but in the end we would always have each other’s back.
One of the biggest lessons of basic training and for that matter Officer Candidate School was situational awareness. My OCS instructor defined it as “the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status.” Or, as he paraphrased “Keep your fucking head on a swivel.” The training on this was constant. There were games. For example, we would be in the field and told to examine the surroundings for various objects that were in plain sight and then we would go through a set of rigorous exercises like squat thrusts and then asked to recall the items we saw. The person who remembered the most would win. I am pretty competitive and did very well at these games, winning more times than not. The other form of training was more dynamic. Especially in OCS. You would be in the middle of a field exercise such as setting up your team for a barrage on an enemy location when one of the instructors would appear and tell you that you and your squad were dead because you failed to locate the enemy mortar team hidden on the ridge above you. This is, of course, highly embarrassing. Made more so when you are 19 years old, gangly, and speak with an accent. I learned fast and soon became proficient at sussing out threats in field operations. Situational awareness was in fact something that I prided myself on.
Which was why what happened next was so mortifying. While I was basking in the warm glow of having found my old friend, I did not notice two Russian NKVD officers approaching me from my six o’clock position. In fact, I did not notice them until they had grabbed my arms and twisted them behind my back and began frog marching down the block to a converted Nazi G4Staff Car. I struggled, digging my feet as much as I could into the pavement and protested “I am an American Army officer you have no right to detain me” I was met with silence and increased pressure on my arms. Needless to say, my protests proved less than effective. When we arrived at the car, I was relieved of my .45 pistol and thrown into the back of the car where two other NKVD soldiers were waiting for me.
As the car pulled away from the curb, I began to protest again when I saw Cookie looking out from a doorway on Berlingasse. Clearly, he had taken to heart his training in situational awareness more than I had. Knowing that he knew what had happened to me was a relief. Not that I wasn’t scared shitless. I was. After all, the NKVD was not well known for their kindness and hospitality. Before the war they had been the hammer in the Hammer and Sycle of the Soviet Union arresting and assassinating those who dared to question Stalin. During the war, they had been incorporated into the Red Army, first to keep soldiers from deserting then as the front moved west the mass assassination of prisoners whom they deemed a threat to the motherland. At least now, someone knew what had happened to me. I would not just “disappear.” And, with any luck at all Granville would call out the Calvary before these guys decided to play rough.
I had only been in my cell for an hour when two guards escorted me up two flights of stairs to an interrogation room. It was windowless and had a small rectangular metal table that was bolted to the floor with a chair on either side. I was shoved inside without a word from the guards. Before I even had a chance to sit down a tall man wearing the light blue uniform of a NKVD officer walked in accompanied by an armed guard. The private stood at ease at the door and the officer sat down at the table opposite me and in perfect accent less English said “My name is Major Mihail Kudarinsky and I am the officer in charge of this area. Who may I ask are you?”
I decided since I did not know who this person was, and I had been warned by Granville about letting the Russian’s know too much about what it was that we were doing here that I would give him only the information that I was required to give under the Geneva convention. “Lt. Sam Floessel, US Army, Serial Number 01-186-434”
“Lieutenant, there is no need to be so formal. We are allies after all. Would you like a cup of coffee? I can have the private here fetch you one.”
“No thank you Major. Perhaps we have a difference in customs in our countries. Where I come from, friends don’t have friends manhandled into a car and thrown into a cell for no apparent reason.”
“And where is it that you do come from Lt. Floessel?” I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. No doubt the Major had noticed that my English was not as flawless as his. While learning English I had tried desperately to lose my Viennese accent, but my efforts had only taken me so far and traces still remained. I decided to play coy with him and responded “My parents and I live in Danbury, CT.”
Kudriavsky smiled “No doubt they do. But I can tell from your accent that you were not born there. So let me ask you again. Where are you from.”
I could see no benefit in continuing in playing this game with him, so I responded “Oh you mean originally? I was born here in Vienna. The 16th District.”
“Good, now we are getting somewhere. Perhaps now you can tell me what you were doing in Dornbacher cemetery.”
“May I ask who you are?”
The major frowned as if I had asked an impolite question but he replied “Come now Lieutenant. This is a Russian controlled city, and I am the local commissar. As such I am responsible for the safety and wellbeing of our guests. When one of my men sees an American Army officer, who is here only as a guest, in an area that is out of the ordinary, we become quite concerned. So, the question remains what were you doing in the cemetery.”
One of my foibles is being a smart ass. I can’t help myself so as opposed to giving him a straight answer I responded, “I was visiting the grave of a childhood friend.”
The Major raised an eyebrow, so I added “Please feel free to check. His name was Tad Saegerer. He died in 1939.” Kudriavsky signaled the private at the door and he, in turn left the room no doubt to verify what it was that I had told him was true.
He then turned his attention back to me. “I understand. It is important to remember old friends and comrades but perhaps now you can tell me who it is that you were talking to in the cemetery.”
I was ready for this question. If they knew that I was in the cemetery they could not help to notice that “Paul” and I spent a long time there in conversation. But if I could help it, I did not want to give up Paul’s name. So, I responded casually “Just another old friend from school.”
“And his name?”
I hesitated. And he must have sensed my reluctance to share the name, so he added. “No let me tell you. His name is Paul Gross. He is a former Uboater. Those people who lived “underground” during the Nazi occupation. And from what I understand was not only a member of the resistance but is highly involved in the black market. What interest does an American Army officer have in him.”
It was news that Paul had been a member of the underground. But it was not surprising considering all that the Nazi’s had taken from him and his nature. He was never one to sit in a corner and hope the trouble passed by. He would have wanted to be a part of a change. It made me proud of him and at the same time a little guilty as well. While I had been a carefree student, he had been fighting the Nazi’s. Would I have had the courage to do the same. The black-market information surprised me less. He had always been a “handler.” It is how we had gotten most of our supplies for the Tomahawk. And from what Cookie had told me, most Viennese were struggling to find food these days as a consequence to survive you needed to be involved in the black market.
To me these facts, did not suggest anything nefarious but no doubt they were viewed a little differently by the Russians. Colonel Granville had warned me that they were trying to exert control over this city despite the fact that it was slated to be “open city” run by the allies. Before that happened, they wanted to make sure that anything that might interfere with their domination of the city needed to be stopped. To the Russians an American Army officer who was supposed to be scouting locations for a Headquarters building socializing with a man who had access to and could exert influence on the hidden parts of this city would be viewed with suspicion. I needed to be careful with my response, not only to protect our ultimate mission but also to protect my friend.
“As I said, he was just a friend from my school days. I had not seen or communicated with him since 1939. Running into him was an accident.”
“What do you mean an accident?” His friendly nature suddenly becoming aggressive.
“My commanding officer had given me the morning off, and I decided it was good time to pay a condolence call on my friends mother. I was at her apartment, having cake and coffee when Paul arrived. He volunteered to take me to Tad’s grave”
I hoped that saying what I said, which was a version of the truth, would provide a sense of confidence that would translate to Kudriavsky as veracity. But he looked at me with very cold blue eyes and I could tell there was something about my story he was just not buying.
“That is an interesting story, but I am a little confused. How did you know where your friend’s mother lived. Was she in the same apartment as before the war?”
Before I could answer there was a knock at the door. An agitated Sgt popped his head into the room and beckoned the major outside.
I was grateful for the interruption. Not only had I never been interrogated before but this was not a subject they spent a lot of time on in artillery school. The instruction we had received was should we be captured that we required to give nothing more than name, rank and serial number. But I was not sure that really applied here. The Russians were supposedly our Allies although their behavior often suggested that they acted in their self-interest more than that of the Allies. And of course, there was Granville’s warning. He was abundantly clear that the Russians were not to know of our activity. That the Crown was our prize and was not going to be shared. I had read a few articles in the New York Times about how a post war Europe was to be configured and one of the writers had suggested that after we had finished fighting the Nazi’s it was inevitable that we would have to begin fighting the Russians. Bolshevism and Capitalism were not compatible, and the two philosophies would clash over who was to dominate Europe. It is what made the Crown such a valuable prize. Whoever possessed it could lay claim to Hungary as its divine right, at least symbolically. It made me realize what I was doing was pretty important to the new war that was about to begin, and it meant I needed to do everything I could to keep my mouth shut.
The problem was that I was frightened that I had brought a gun to a knife fight. I was a 19-year-old 2nd Lieutenant that technically had not even graduated OCS yet up against a seasoned major in the Russian internal security apparatus. No doubt he knew how to pull information out of young men like me as easily as most men shave in the morning. For him pulling the information out of me would be easier than shooting fish in the barrel and sadly I was the fish.
I knew that if I were going to get through this the first thing, I needed to do was to calm myself. I remembered something that a drill Sergeant, who was trying to teach us city boys, how to fire a rifle. I was not doing well and was hitting everything but the center of the target. He told me to relax. Take a few breaths in through the nose and then out through the mouth slowly. That this calms the metabolism, so you shoot more accurately. I tried the exercise now and helped a bit. Realizing that I had been at it with Major Kudriavsky for nearly an hour and had managed to hold my own. Telling him the truth whenever I could while not giving away anything vital while sticking to the agreed upon cover story. Thinking about that almost made me feel cocky. That is, until I heard the door open and observed a very grimed faced major walked back into the room.
He sat down opposite me with an expression that I could only read as “no more bullshit” and said to me with formality “Lt. Floessel is there anything else you want me to know.” It was a very leading question. And to me it implied he knew far more than he was letting me know. At the moment I was absolutely sure that a failure to provide him with more information would result in a host of unpleasantness for me. But what choice did I have. I looked at him in the eye and said “I can’t think of anything.” He held my gaze for what seemed to be minutes, but no doubt was not more than a few seconds and said “Thank you very much for coming Lt. Floessel. I hope your stay here has not been too inconvenient. You are free to go. This soldier will take you out.”
I was very confused. I felt for sure that I was on the brink of a very unpleasant interrogation session and suddenly I was being released. I tried not to show my surprise. Instead, I stood up, gave him a crisp salute and said, “Thank you Major” and as a by product of my relief on being released allowed a little of my inner wise ass to be out and said “Thank you Major. I hope to return the courtesy someday.”
I had almost made it to the door before Kudriavsky replied. “Lieutenant, if I may offer you a piece of advice.” I paused and replied “Certainly” and without a bit of sarcasm added “I would appreciate any advice I can get from a superior officer.”
“Vienna is a vastly different city than the one you left 6 years ago. There was a malignancy that grew here, and it destroyed much of what was good and beautiful about the city. The music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven has gone. First replaced by Wagner and then utterly silenced by a percussive cannonade of Soviet artillery and Allied bombs. The café and pastry shops which were the lifeblood of the city are without sugar, coffee and people. The citizens who used to walk with their chins in the air, with the arrogance of those who lived in an imperial capital, now walk with downward cast eyes staring at their feet not the sky. Where there was hope and light now there is only desperation and fear. And while most cities can rest and rebuild, knowing that the war is over, Vienna cannot rest because for her, the war has just begun. All this makes for a strange alchemy, where friends become enemies, and enemies become friends where allegiances are often store bought and short lived. In other words, just because you knew this city as a boy doesn’t mean you know this city now. It has morphed into something far different.”
With that he gave a flick of the hand, almost as if he were shooing away a fly and my escort pushed me out the door.