Paul, Cookie and I were sitting around the kitchen table of Aunt Hertha’s cabin in the Lobau. It had not changed much since I had seen last six years before. The windows were still covered with curtains that had a bright floral pattern albeit a little faded; the bedroom still had an ancient iron four poster bed that Hertha had no doubt inherited from one of her more well too do relatives, a fluffy faded yellow goose down duvet covering a sagging mattress; the table we were sitting at was covered with the identical lace tablecloth that had graced it the last time I was here.
The cabin also showed the tell-tale sign of neglect. It smelled musty. There was a thin layer of dust that blanketed everything. A rusted bucket sat in the corner of the kitchen in order to catch water dripping from the ceiling when it rained. One window was boarded shut, no doubt shattered when an artillery shell or bomb had missed its mark and landed on one of the neighboring cabins. The front door’s frame was cracked and askew. Whether it was from someone looking for shelter or food or the police I could not tell and did not ask.
There was a knock at the door. Paul said “Kommen Sie.” The door creaked open and a man wearing a black beret and a dirty grey suit that was two size too large for him entered. He looked at Cookie and me apprehensively and said to Paul “Was ist das?”
Paul replied “Ignoriere sie. Sie sind Freunde. Was hast Du für mich.” Pay no attention to them. They are friends. What do you have for me.”
The man, still nervous, replied. “I did what was asked of me. I went to the open-air market in Karlsplatz right by the Opera. I tried to make myself as conspicuous as I could I even spoke with a number of people we know are helping the Russians. Then I found Tobias Hoffer and after we talked a little bit he gave me this to give to you. “The man then pulled a single sheet of paper that was folded in three and looked as if it had spent the war in his pocket and handed it to Paul.
Paul asked “Did you read this.”
The man seemed slightly offended and said “No. Of course not.”
I took a packs of Lucky Strikes out of my pocket and slid them across to the man. He quickly picked them up and quickly hid them somewhere in the folds of his clothes. Paul said “Danke Schon” and the man quickly left the way he had come.
When he was gone Paul walked over to the fireplace and put a match to the paper the rumpled man had just given on him. He didn’t bother to look at it because we all knew what was on it. This was the fifth messenger we had received that afternoon. All the notes handed us had exactly the same thing on them. Nothing. They were blank sheets of paper. It was all part of the plan we had developed with Major Granville that morning.
I met Paul in the Lobby of the Hotel Sacher that morning. He was wearing a tweed suit that looked second hand as it was both a threadbare and too big for him. It gave him the appearance of a 2nd son wearing his older brothers discarded clothes. Normally, I would have teased him over it but the importance of his meeting with Colonel Granville that morning silenced me. He must have seen something in my eyes and said with a smile and a wink “A woman whose husband was killed on the eastern front gave it to me. It is a little big but it has nice memories”
“Very nice. I am sure that there is a bigger story to tell but we don’t have time for that this morning. I need to give you a heads up about our meeting this morning. The mission has changed.” Pausing I added “Did you find Uncle Anton?”
“Not exactly. I think we know where he is but I won’t be sure until later today or at worst tomorrow.”
“That is disappointing but We can talk about that later. Colonel Granville is going to ask you to help us out on something else. You need to be straight with him. If this is going to put you in a bad spot or break your ass in any way you need to be up front about it. Don’t do this because of our friendship. Only do it if you think you can help and your okay with it.”
Paul smiled “Don’t worry about it. Its cracked already.”
“What is cracked already.”
“Always with the Witzelsucht. You need to be serious. This is important.”
“Okay, okay. Relax. What is going on.”
I would have loved to give him a full briefing on what the Colonel wanted us to do. However, I had been ordered not to. Granville wanted to check out Paul for himself. The job was too important to him to let alone a shave tail like me evaluate whether or not a person we would be trusting with a crucial element was worthy of that trust.”
“Granville will be here in a second. He wants to brief you in person but just do me a favor and go with the flow. Things may seem a little strange to you but trust me there is a plan of action we work on and it will all make sense later.”
Paul gave me the same look he used to give me when I had proposed some hair brained scheme when we were kids. A combination of “I think you are crazy” and “okay, if you are in so I am I.” And said “Okay.”
We walked through the lobby to the Café in the rear of the hotel. Colonel Granville had chosen a table in the center of the restaurant. When we arrived at the table he rose and boomed “Herr Gross, it is a real pleasure to meet you! Floessel here has told me a lot about you. We are really hoping you will be able to help us out.” Not the greeting one would expect when your meeting is on the edge of the clandestine. But that was part of the plan. We wanted the Russians and those who spied for them to pay attention.
They shook hands and as they sat down Granville said quietly to Paul “Did Sam fill you in?”
“Not exactly.” And then shooting me a glance “But I am sure he will fill me in later.”
Laughing the colonel replied “Good. That is grand.” Raising his hand like he was hailing a cab in New York he said “ Waiter would you please bring us some coffee. Have you eaten Paul? Would you like some breakfast? They don’t have eggs at the moment, but they have some delicious Krapfen and Mohnzelten. Waiter bring us a basket of pastries with the coffee. Danke.”
As the waiter walked away Granville leaned forward and said quietly “Have we resolved the issue with your Uncle?”
Paul replied, “Not exactly but I believe by this evening I should have resolved that issue to everyone’s satisfaction.”
“Good. Good.” He signaled that we should all lean in to hear him and said “For the rest of breakfast I want us to speak very quietly. I want those who are listening in to think we are trying to hide something from them. If anyone comes close to the table stop talking and lean back in your chair. Make it obvious that we are stopping because of them. Got it? Good now laugh.”
Paul, Granville and I all chuckled. Then Granville said “Sam, you should probably bring Paul here up to date on what happened to you after your meeting yesterday.” As I began to recount my adventure with Major Kudarinsky the waiter approached the table with a silver tray laden with coffee cups and a basket of pastries. Paul gave the high sign and we all stopped talking and were silent as the waiter fussed over us. When he left the table, I resumed quietly telling my story about how I had been picked up and interrogated by the Soviet NKVD and most importantly the warning Kudarinsky had given me about Paul.”
He laughed mirthlessly “Yes. No doubt they are not thrilled with me.” Pausing, to gather his thoughts he added “Us U-boaters learned a lot avoiding the Nazi’s and their collaborators. Those of us who learned our lessons well managed to survive for six years. Those who didn’t well..In any case we have managed to put together our own ways of getting things done. Food for people who could not shop for fear of being recognized. New papers for those who had none or needed new identities. Places for the disposed to sleep without fear. And when necessary ways for people to escape into the countryside and beyond. By the time the Soviets came, we had it down to a science. The NKVD knew all this. They had spies among us the whole time and when they go here they thought they could use us to help them find people they wanted to talk to like government officials and Nazi’s who they thought were in hiding.”
Paul paused to sip of coffee and claim a Krapfen for himself and then added “Of course, we saw the Russians for who they were. Nazi’s in other uniforms. But we decided that we would help them selectively. Where our interests coincided. If we knew where someone on their list was hiding and we agreed that he was someone who had earned the right to their hospitality, we helped the Russians find them. However, their were people on their list that had done nothing wrong. Fellow U-boaters who had done nothing wrong but had somehow managed to make their list of enemies. Those people we hid and told the Soviets we could not find whom they were looking for. They, of course, knew we were not being entirely honest with them.”
Paul took another large bite from his pastry and added with a smile “Of course, this has added a little tension to our relationship. They don’t know when to believe us and that makes them distrust us and I am sure they would lock us up but for the time being we are far too useful to them.”
I could see the wheels turning behind Col. Granville’s eyes. He was wondering whether or not we could trust Paul. Clearly, he was not fully cooperating with the Russians and that was good but it was clear from our conversation that he belonged to a group of some kind who while they could potentially make our tasks a little simpler could also jeopardize our mission with Pichler as well.
Granville gave Paul a look similar to the one Kudarinsky had given me the day before. The type that is designed to intimidate by implying that you knew what was going on inside the other persons head. If it effected Paul in any way I could not tell. He just smiled and reached for another pastry and refilled his coffee cup. When he realized that his intimidating look was not doing him any good the Colonel tried a different tact, being direct. He said, “I don’t know if I can trust you or not. Floessel here seems to think you are worthy of our trust, but I don’t know.”
Paul put down the Mohnzelten he had been enjoying and letting his face go blank said “Colonel, I am sure I cannot trust you. You are a military intelligence officer on a mission. No, Sam here did not tell me that. But looking for the Crown is an intelligence matter. Now, you want to get me wrapped up into something else. I know you will sacrifice anything for your mission because you have nothing to lose so why should I trust you.” Pausing long enough for Granville to digest what it is his message he added “But Sam here. I trust. He will not bullshit me because we know each other to well. He won’t sell me down the river for a bigger cause because we have been brothers since we are five years old and brothers don’t do that to each other.”
Turning his gaze on me he continued. “Sam, why don’t you tell me what this is all about.” I glanced at Granville who gave me a small nod. I told Paul that our original mission as he knew was to find the keys to the cases that held the Crown. However, we had received additional orders when our Counterintelligence group had uncovered that one of the Nazi scientists they had been looking for, Dr. Heinz Pichler, a virologist, was in Vienna. Apparently, he had some vital information that could help us win the war with the Japanese. The type of knowledge that the Russians wanted desperately as well because they saw a war coming against the west. But now, since my fun adventure our hosts were spending too much looking at our team making it difficult to recruit Pichler with the Soviets finding out. If we were going to be successful we needed to distract them. That we had a plan. If we could get the Soviets to pay attention to Paul and I doing something benign, Granville could sneak off and meet with Pichler below the radar. At the end, I said “Would you mind helping us distract the Russians for a while?”
Paul looked at me with the gaze of older, wiser brother who has been down this path before and feels the need to let his sibling know what lies ahead.. He said “Of course, I will help. We have done this type of dodge many times with the Soviets. They are like a dog with the ball. You can pretend to throw one way and they will go chasing after it while the ball has never left your hand.”
“I sense a but…”
“But do you know who this Pichler is? Why your people want to get ahold of him so badly?”
I looked at Granville. He gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head.”
“I have no idea.”
“I will help you, but I don’t think you have any idea of what you are getting yourself into… There are people trickling into Vienna from all the camps these days. And the stories they are telling of the atrocities at the Concentration Camps are beyond imagination.”
We had been hearing stories for months now. But while I knew the cruelty of Nazi’s first hand some of the stories we had heard seemed so nightmarish that it strained your ability to believe them. Then I saw the photos. While I was waiting for my flight at Homestead Air Base someone had left an issue of Life Magazine laying around. On its cover, was a picture of prisoners from Buchenwald. The article was called “Atrocities: Capture of the German Concentration Camps Piles Up Evidence of Barbarism That Reaches The Low Point of Human Degradation.” There had been pictures of the survivors who resemble more skeleton than human. Corpses half burned in crematoria. Bodies of dead inmates lined up like cordwood. And perhaps the most horrifying picture, a photo of little German Boy in shorts and a sweater blithely walking by a line of dead inmates outside of Belsen concentration camp.
I said simply “I have seen the pictures.” Knowing that Paul would appreciate the understatement behind the words.
Paul nodded “Good. So you know. But what you may not know is what we have heard from some who escaped from Auschwitz and Dachau. The Germans were not content in just murdering us. They were using us as human guinea pigs in experiments that were to help glorify the Reich. They are telling us stories of having to carry away bodies with their bodies twisted into pretzels where the German scientist were wearing protective gear and they were not and how sick some of them got afterward with many dying. A group from Dachau talk about removing bodies that looked if they had been exploded from the inside. Every day as more manage to find their way back to Vienna we hear more and more about what these Nazi scientists were up to and what they did to us. Are you really sure you want to be a part of this?”
I did not know what to say. Why would I want to be a part of any program that helped those who tortured and experimented and brutally murdered people who could have been my family or friends. But what could I do? A superior officer was giving me an order. How could I possibly turn him down but justifying something by saying “I just followed orders” did not sit well with me. Luckily, Granville interjected before I could say anything.
“What you don’t know about me is that I was on the original counterintelligence team to enter Dachau. It was the day after they liberated the camps. The first thing you noticed was the smell. You noticed it miles away from the camp it was so putrid, so full of death it was hard to breathe. There were piles of bodies, maybe five of six feet tall, stacked like wood. The mind is funny. At first I didn’t even realize that they were bodies, I had been in fights from North Africa to Germany, I had seen more than my share of dead bodies and I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that they used to be human. It was not until I got closer and I could make out faces and hands that I realized what it was that I was seeing. As I walked through the camp you would see these barracks where the prisoners were kept crowded with men most of whom were so pale and emaciated that they more resembled the corpses that I had just seen than people. I felt like I was walking through the worst nightmare that I had ever had and I must just started to walk around aimlessly when a prisoner grabbed me by the sleeve and told me to follow him. He led me to the edge of the camp. There the Nazi’s had bult huge crematoria There were still bodies burning in them and their smell is something that I think will haunt me for the rest of the life.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but Granville continued with a look in his eye that made me believe he was reliving those moments all over again. “I spent most of the rest of that day and the morning of the next looking for some of the Nazi’s who were on our grab list. We knew who that some of these sons of bitches would try to hide pretending to be prisoners. But the inmates knew who they were and kept turning them in. We built a detention center for them right in the midst of the corpses. We wanted to make sure they knew we knew what they were.”
“On the afternoon of the 2nd day a convoy pulls into the camp. It is led with a deuce and a half’s and a squad of MP’s followed by a couple of jeeps with heavily armed MP’s and a staff car with a 5-star flag on it. Out walks Ike but he is not alone. He has brought along Patton and Omar Bradley. A colonel comes out to greet them and offers to give them a tour. Patton, fucking George S Patton, the fucking meanest sonofbitch in the army will not go in. He says it will make him sick. But Ike and Bradley go in. When they finish with their tour, they are both pale and look sick to their stomachs. Ike orders the colonel to go the nearest town and round up all of their citizens and force them to the come the camp. It turns out Ike had stopped in the village on his way in and the people went out of their way to tell him they knew nothing that was going on the camp. Now he knows they are lying, and he wants to rub their nose in it.
Granville paused long enough to pull a pack of Lucky Strike out of his jacket pack and offering one to Paul and I, he lit up and sends a plume of smoke over the table. Looking at Paul he says “Don’t for a fucking second think that I don’t know who and what these bastards are because I do. I have seen with my own eyes and the odor of those camps is something that I will never be able to wash away.” Taking another long drag he adds, a little more calmly, “But I have also seen a lot of our boys dead. 18- and 19-year-old boys like you. Brave kids who leaped into the lurch because we told them to and got their faces shot off for their trouble. or who died staring at their own guts pouring out of their bodies. Kids who died screaming for the Mamas because they were hurt and dying. Young men who will never see their families again let alone have families of their own. I can’t forget them either. But I can help those boys we are sending to the Pacific. I can make sure that we have done everything we can to make sure they come home from a fight that will be much uglier fight than we had here. The Japs thinking dying is honor and surrender is a disgrace. They are going to fight to the last man. And if I can do something to help keep a few more of our boys alive even if means making a deal with the devil then goddammit I will.”
Crushing the cigarette as if it had done him personal harm, he gave Paul an awfully hard stare “I am not asking you to deal with SOB. I know what they did. But you owe us. We lost a lot of men liberating your asses and perhaps by helping me you can pay us back by helping save a few lives down the road.”
Granville’s outburst was not a part of our original plan. Paul had hit a nerve. But it still served our purpose. While the colonel’s voice had never risen above a loud whisper his emotional response had generated looks from the wait staff and other diners. Which in the end what we were hoping to do. We wanted the Soviets to notice that we were engaging with a known member of the black market and get them curious enough about it to invest some of their energy in following us.
Paul leaned across the table and said “I understand Colonel. You are doing what you must to protect your country. And I must do what I must to protect mine. Far too many of my fellow Austrians decided to make a deal with a devil in the hopes that it would provide our country with a better, safer, future. But the problem in dealing with the devil is that he exacts a very heavy price in the long run. Our deal with him has left this city a pile of rubble and a country occupied by forces who hope to exert their will over ours.”
Paul went silent. His gaze firmly affixed on Granville and then unexpectedly burst into a laughter. Then looking at me he said “But, sometimes it is better to deal with the devil you know that the devil you don’t know. What do you have in mind?”