The conference room was not that impressive.
At Syracuse I once was a waiter at one of Chancellor Tolley’s receptions in the University Board room and it had been magnificent. Long and wide, with exposed beams and impressive stained-glass windows lining the wall its centerpiece was a 25-foot-long oak table that had been hewn from a single tree. The floors were made of slate tiles and covered with oriental rugs. Paintings from the Hudson Valley School added a sense of romance and mysticism.
This conference had none of that opulence. It was small. Only about 20 x 15. Its ceilings were low, only about 10 ft high. While the walls were made of beautiful, burnished wood paneling they lacked sheen, as if they had not been cared for recently with “shadows” where paintings had once hung. The Persian rugs on the floor were filthy and torn.
But it did have an element that the Chancellor’s conference at Syracuse did not have. A cast iron trunk trussed with bands of metal connected by pad locks and adorned with a metal bas relief of the Hungarian National Seal surrounded by angels. This conference room at the Seventh Army Interrogation center had been its home since Colonel Granville had brought them here along with Pajtas and his troops two months ago. With no keys to open it, the trunk had been under twenty for hour guard since then. such time as they could be opened.
That time had come. In the six days since Colonel’s Skoda murder Granville Cookie, Paul and myself had doggedly pursued the three keys required to open the trunks. It had taken us all over the British and American sectors of Austria, to a hotel in Luxembourg and finally back here to where the trunks were in “protective custody.” I would love to be able to say that it had been a team effort but that would be shading the truth. Granville, Cookie, and Paul all had specific skills that they had developed over time that helped us in our investigation. I on the other hand was a brevet Lieutenant on loan from OCS whose main contribution had been as a sounding board and giving advice on subjects of which I knew little. More than once during the last month I had wondered why they bothered to keep me around at all.
But we were all here now at the invitation of Major Kubala, the commander of SAIC and the man who had given us the mission to find the keys. He felt that because of our hard work we had earned the right to be there. Along with Kubala and our rag tag crew the only other person in the room was a tall Texan, Lt. Worth Andrews. According to Cookie he was Kubala’s right hand man who took care of the Major’s dirty work and had a well-earned reputation as a serious drinker. We were waiting on the arrival of General Alexander Patch, the commanding general of the 7th Army. Kubala had personally invited him to be there. In part to recover from the embarrassment of having told Eisenhower and consequently Truman that the Crown was in American hands only to discover he could not open the trunks. Cookie had also let it be known that Kubala was a real piece of work. The type of commanding officer who looks for every possible way at aggrandizement and to suck up to the brass. Cookie had described him as a “pissant.” I was not exactly sure of the exact definition of that word, but I had spent enough time in Oklahoma and Texas to know it was not a vote of confidence.
Patch, it appeared, was running late. Instead of dismissing us until the General arrived, the Major, in his wisdom, kept us in the small conference room. The silence was pretty deafening with no one making any attempt to break the awkward silence. I was dead on my feet. The last few weeks had been that of constant stress and movement and as much as I wanted to see the object of our quest, The Crown, I wanted to find a bed and sleep for 24 hours more. It was a classic case of the old infantryman’s creed: “When you do not have to run, walk. When you do not have to walk, sit. And when you do not have to sit, sleep.”
The trip to Camp to Marcus W. Orr from Pörtschach am Wörthersee was not far, only 120 miles or so but it was made more arduous but a couple of factors. First, with the end of the war troops and armies were redeploying based on the needs of an occupying army as opposed to a fighting force. We were continuously forced to pull over to allow convoys to pass we and to stop often to show our credentials when entering different areas of occupation. A trip that should have taken only three or four hours took almost 9 hours. But if felt longer. The events of the day before, both the assassination of Colonel Skoda and Dr. Pichler’s accident had made us all retreat into our own thoughts. Mine were particularly dark.
Pichler had gotten to me the day before. Not so much because of what he had done in creating such a despicable weapon or even the murder to which he had gleefully admitted. But, because of my government’s seeming embrace of this man and the weapons he represented. How could the country that had embraced me, given me a new home and supposedly stood for all that was good, right and decent also embrace such evil? While I understood the need logically, you do what you must to win a war, emotionally I could not accept it.
Uncle Anton’s murder also weighed heavily on me. Of course, there was my feeling of guilt for having led him to his destruction, but it was also the coldness of the murder. A man who had served his country well and honorably assassinated by his “brothers’ did not sit well with me. I grew up in the 13th district of Vienna as a Jew during the Nazi regime. I was not an innocent, but murdering a comrade seemed unspeakably cold.
Camp Marcus W. Orr did not look like a place I would want to spend much time. A large compound consisting of a series of quickly constructed wooden barracks with metal roofs within a dirt compound surrounded by barbed wire fences. It had been constructed to house Nazi officials and sympathizers and others with whom the US Army had decided posed a threat but whose ultimate fate had not yet been determined. From the outside, which is far as I got, it looked like rough living. But Pichler looked happy enough to be there. He practically bounded out of the car to be processed. No doubt happy to be out of our command. However, his mood changed considerably when the Officer of the Watch, after consulting a clip board, informed him that he was being placed under arrest for possible crimes against humanity. When “Heinz” appealed first to the officer and then to Granville that he had been promised a job with the US Army he was met with stony glares. He was told that “the situation hadchanged.” Accusations had been placed against him by former inmates at the Gross Rosen Concentration Camp and until those complaints were settled, any arrangements he had with the Army had been suspended. Much to my schadenfreude, two MPs appeared and led him out of the administration hut.
On the walk back to the car, I could not help but express my joy to Granville saying “I hope that the son of a bitch get what he deserves.”
“What do you mean. He has been arrested and charged for Crimes against humanity. He as much as admitted his guilt to me. Why won’t he get his own?”
“Face facts. We need him too much. From everything I was told he has unique knowledge in how to make this gas and we need it. We are way behind in that area and the Russians are scooping up every scientist they can. We can’t let them get ahead. But we also could not just let him walk on what he did. There were too many accusations. So we will let him cool his heels here for a little while. Maybe we will put him on trials with other scientists. If he is found guilty, he will serve time in our prison and when he is released, we will put him under contract to help us to develop our nerve gas program. If he is not convicted or doesn’t go to trial, he will be given a contract sooner. No matter what he is likely to be living on easy street long before you and I.”
“But it doesn’t seem fair? Well, it isn’t. Life isn’t. Sometimes the SOB wins and there is nothing we can do about it except press on and try to savor the victories we can.”
The next morning found us back at Camp Marcus W. Orr. We were here to have a chat with Enroe Gombas, the former Guard Captain and aide to the now deposed Fascist Prime Minister of Hungary Ferenc Szálasi. We would have seen him the day before when we had dropped off Pichler but the Colonel who was in charge of the Hungarian prisoners, Martin Himler, was not present and no one could interview his charges without his permission. Even though I imagined Himler as a bit of popinjay there was a reason behind his requirement. Orr is where Hungarian War criminals were kept and the allies were actively constructing “crimes against humanity” cases against them. Colonel Himler was inserting himself into any interviews to make sure those prosecutions went as planned.
There was a lot at stake. According to Granville the Allies now had verified reports that over 700,000 Hungarian Jews had been slaughtered in death camps under the Arrow Cross regime. The number of deaths had staggered me. Not because I had underestimated the anti-Semitism of the Hungarians. From what Mama, who was Hungarian by birth, it had always been there. But because of the sheer numbers. It was hard to comprehend a number that large. That was more people who lived in Pittsburgh. Hell, we had states that had less people living in it than that. But that number was also extremely personal. Mama had thirteen brothers and sisters many of whom were still living in Sopron when we had left for the United States. I was especially fond of my Uncle Ede, Mama’s baby brother, whose sons and I used to play together when we would visit with them. What had happened to them? Were they still alive? How would we find each other?
The revelations of the mass murders and the likely deaths of my relatives with the murder of Anton had me as tense as a virgin on her wedding night. Granville picked up on this. On the drive from our hotel in Salzburg to the camp he schooled me on interrogation techniques. How successful interrogation did not mean leaving your emotions at the door but to use them tactically to obtain your objective. He asked, “What is our objective this morning.”
“To find the keys for the trunk.”
“Not to solve Anton Skoda’s murder?”
“No. But if we can find out…”
Cutting me off he said “It is not our job. This guy won’t give a shit about Skoda. He is already facing a death sentence. Pushing him on it will just make him shut up and won’t get us any closer to finding the keys.”
I pressed him and said “Then who speaks for Anton. He signed his own death sentence when he spoke with us. Don’t we have an obligation to find out who murdered him?”
“Are you talking about the person who pulled the trigger? Or the person who ordered him shot? Two different things. We know who ordered him shot. Gombos or one his cohorts. As far as who pulled the trigger, we need to leave that to the Brits. Their town. Their responsibility. Their bailiwick not ours. We can only be responsible for what has been asked of us. Do you understand?”
I did. But I did not. It seemed so unfair to Anton but at the same time I knew Granville was right. We could not right all wrong. But it left me feeling empty. As if they act of moving on from Colonel Skoda’s murder had removed a small part of me. I said “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Because you are going to take the lead in this interrogation.”
“I have a history with this guy. He lied to my face once and if I am on the one interrogating him, emotions are going to come into play on both sides. It would not prevent us from getting where we need to go with him, but it would slow us down some. I am hoping that if you take the lead on the questioning, he may open up a little bit more and perhaps even let his guard down and then I can sneak in a sucker punch. And besides” he added with a chuckle “You gotta get your cherry popped one day.” I am not sure what he meant by the last comment, but we spent the remainder of the trip with him briefing me about Colonel Himler.
Himler had immigrated to the United States as a teenager in the early part of the century. He worked as a miner in the coal fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia until he decided life underground did not suit him and he began peddling in and around the mines. Eventually this led him to create a daily newspaper for the Hungarian miners who made up a large population of these towns. It was a huge success and allowed him to eventually buy his own coal mine and build a town he called Himlerville. When War broke out in Europe, he tried to enlist but was repeatedly turned down because of his age, he was in his 50’s, but eventually the OSS accepted him due to his extensive contacts in Hungary.
When I asked Granville how he knew so much about Himler he chuckled and replied “Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes with him knows that story. He is enormously proud of it and happy to let you know how successful and important he is.”
Colonel Himler met us in his office. Mustachioed and shorter than I expected he had the chin tilt that characterized those who wished they were taller. It was clear from the outset of our conversation that everything that Granville had told me about him was true. Before we had even sat down in our chairs he began telling me his biography. Thankfully, Granville cut him off saying “Cut it out Martin. I already filled in the kid on you.”
Himler seemed a little miffed at not being able to share his story with me but gave a little nod and asked “So what brings here today?”
Granville responded, “We need to have a conversation with Captain Gombos.”
“Do I need to give you a reason?”
“If you want to speak to him you do.”
“Even if I told you it was on a need-to-know basis.”
That Granville and Himler were well acquainted with each other I knew from our conversation in the car. What I learned from this exchange was that had butted heads in the past and neither one of them much cared for the other. There were a few seconds of silence before Granville answered the question.
“Do you remember when you were in Augsburg a few weeks ago and I showed you the trunk that supposedly held the Crown of St. Stephen and that I had been assigned to find the keys to unlock the case and how I might need your assistance in tracking them down?”
“We think that Gombos might have knowledge of where those keys are and want to chat with him about it.”
Himler raised an eyebrow and asked with suspicion “Why?”
“Come on Martin. You and I both know that these Hungarian fascists hate your guts. You have arrested them. You have arrested their families. You are going to send them back to face Soviets courts. They just as soon kill you as to talk with you. I need to cajole this SOB and they won’t warm up to me and Floessel with you around.”
You could tell from the expression on Himmler’s face that he was both offended and complimented at the same time. Offended that Granville had the audacity to suggest he was not welcome at an interrogation of his own prisoner but complimented that he held sway over those in his charge. But it did not matter. Granville had played him perfectly because in short order we were sitting in an interrogation room speaking with Enroe Gombas.
You can tell that at once that while he still carried himself with dignity, he was a greatly diminished man. He had to force himself to sit erect in his chair and struggled to give the air of indifference. But defeat was written all over him. His eyes were sunken with heavy bags underneath and darted all about as if an attack could come at any moment. His shoulders were slumped and exuded the weariness of someone who has been knocked down one too many times.
We did not introduce ourselves. Instead, I began by saying “Is your name Enroe Gombos?”
“Was your father Gyula Gombos, former Prime Minister of Hungary?”
“Yes. What is this about?”
“Just answer the questions please.”
“Were you an aide to the Arrow Cross Prime Minister of Hungary Szálasi?”
“I worked for the people of Hungary.”
“Answer the question yes or no.”
“Yes, but what is this all about.”
“Were you also a Captain of Crown Guard.”
Sighing he replied “Yes.”
I took a second to gain eye contact with him and asked “Did you know a man by the name of Anton Skoda, a former officer of the Crown Guard?”
Gombos answered automatically “I don’t recall knowing anyone by that name.”
I paused and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes from my blouse pocket and offered him one which he took with shaky hands. I took one myself and then lit both of our cigarettes. Exhaling a large plume of smoke, I said “I am going to ask you that question again and you are going to answer me honestly this time because I don’t have time to fuck around. Understood?” He nodded and I added “Because if you fuck around when I leave here, I will make sure that Colonel Himler spreads the word about how cooperative you have been and all the vital information you have provided. On the other hand, should you decide to be truthful with us, our conversation will only be between us. Do you understand?”
He nodded and I asked, “Do you know Anton Skoda.”
Fifteen minutes later we left Gombos in the interrogation room with a pack of Lucky’s and no doubt a few regrets. Colonel Himler intercepted us as we were leaving the building. He said “That went quickly. You must have used some very persuasive techniques.” clearly implying that Granville and I had used physical techniques in our conversation with Gombos and further that would not have bothered him if we had.
Granville answered him “No. Not at all” and pointed at me said “ Sam here cracked him like an egg.”
Himler, surprised, replied “Really?”
“Really! And he also gave up this” holding up an ornate iron skeleton key on a leather thong.
The sight of the key clearly annoyed Colonel Himler. No doubt Gombos had been searched any number of times and no key had ever been uncovered. The fact that Granville and I had managed to get in 15 minutes must have humiliated him because he said “I am going to have a serious conversation with the prisoner about keeping things from me.” With that the popinjay gave a sloppy salute and headed towards the interrogation room where we had left Gombos.
“Aren’t you going to stop him?” I asked.
“Why would I?”
“Because we promised Gombos that we would protect him from Himler. He knew that there would be hell to pay for keeping the secret from him.”
“Didn’t you tell me earlier that you wanted payback for the death of Skoda.”
As we made our way to the car, I realized that for the second time today I was being confronted by a moral dilemma. Since I was a little boy Papa had drummed into me that a man only had one thing of a real value and that was his reputation. That if a man gave his word, he needed to keep it. I had promised Gombos that I would protect him. Now I was walking away from him. Breaking my word because of another obligation: making sure Uncle Anton’s death was avenged. The difficulty I was having balancing these things must have shown on my face because as we were getting into the car Granville said “Son, don’t think about these things to much. We have a job to do. That is what you have to keep your eye on. Nothing else matters.”
“I am working on it. But tell me one thing. Why didn’t you mention anything to Himler about the other keys.?”
Granville chuckled. “He didn’t ask.”
That afternoon found the team on the road to Augsburg and SAIC. We were heading there because in addition to it being Granville’s commanding officer we believed there was good shot that the two keys that remained unaccounted for we were there. Gombos had told us that after he had left Colonel Skoda’s home with the keys, he had been ordered to take them to a Father Strasser in a small-town north of Salzburg called Zelhof. He almost made it was stopped by an Army patrol just outside Mattsee. When he could not present any legitimate travel papers, they had become suspicious and was arrested. He had been taken to SAIC for interrogation.
In ironic twist of fate one of the first inmates at the camp he had run into was Colonel Pajtas, the man who had ordered him to retrieve the keys. He told Gombos that it had been decided to do everything possible to keep the Americans from opening the trunk. It was hoped that if they could delay long enough a settlement could be reached whereby the Crown would go to the Vatican where it would be kept until such time as a legitimate government of Hungary (non-communist) could reclaim it. Pajtas then demanded that he turn two of the keys over to him for distribution and allowed him to keep one but to protect it with his life.
By the time we had reached Gombos and interrogated him he had bigger problems that protecting a key. He had been a part of a government that had killed 700,000 Jews and was now facing trial and a possible death sentence for war crimes. Moreover, his family name was on the line. His father had been a luminary, Prime Minister and we could destroy that legacy if he did not cooperate with us. Clearly the calculus of his decision making was that helping us would serve him far better than protecting a single iron key that by itself was worthless. The only part I could not figure out was why he gave up Pajtas. He did not have to. Perhaps it was an attempt to curry more favor from us. Or perhaps he was prosecuting an ancient grudge. In the long run, it did not matter. As Granville had pointed out to me that morning. We have a job to do. And that is what you had to keep your eye on.
The drive to Augsburg from Salzburg was not far. Just about one hundred and fifty miles. However, it was painfully slow going. We were passing from an area controlled by Patton’s Third Army to Patch’s Seventh. Patton was a real pain in the ass with regulations, hell his troops wore ties, so passing from one zone to another required minute inspection of documents, countless clip boards consulted and a few hushed conversations before we were allowed to proceed. Combine that with the roads being in poor conditions made for a long journey. The only saving grace was that it gave Paul, who along with me, was sitting in the back of our staff car while Cookie drove and Granville rode shot gun, time to speak. Something we had not been able to do for a variety of reasons since the murder of Anton Skoda.
I asked “How are you doing.”
He gave me a woeful look and replied “Nit mit sheltn un nit mit lakhn ken men di velt ibermakhn.,” an old Yiddish expression which roughly translates as “Neither crying or laughter will change the world.” While I was surprised that he was using quoting Yiddish wisdom I was not surprised at the sentiment. He had always been a bit of a stoic. It was he who had told me with great admiration the story of the Spartan child and the fox. A boy finds a fox on his way to school and hides it under its tunic. The fox, restless and angry, gnaws at the boy’s flesh just above the heart. The child studied his lessons without a word or cry, though he grew pale and weak until he collapses. When the teacher rushes to him the fox leaps from the boy’s toga and runs away but the boy was dead.
He was telling me that he was hurting over the loss of his Uncle. It was eating at his insides but what could he do but grin and bear it. Life went on. He was also saying that there was no need to talk about it because if I had a lick of brains in my head, I would understand the pain he was feeling and we need not talk of it as it would only embarrass us both. Friends do not need to share a lot of words to understand each other, and even though Paul and I had walked very separate paths over the last seven years the bond of understanding that had been forged between us all those years ago was still as strong as it ever had been.
I asked, “What do you think of all this?”
He knew what I meant. I was not talking about the car ride. I was asking what he thought of this game of intrigue that he and I had become wrapped up in. This adventure that had without question changed the trajectory of both our lives. He got a playful smile on his face and said “My dear Shatterhand, while you are still a greenhorn, I the great and wise Winnetou have been living this life for a long time.”
While I bristled at the idea of being called a “greenhorn”, it being one of the great insults we would hurl at each other as children, I also knew that it was true. While I had been in the United States learning how to become an American he had been here, learning to navigate the tricky waters of survival in a world at war. I replied, aping a quote from Karl May “Hey I know how to put on a knife, so it does not stab me in my thigh when I bend over.”
“Yes, but precious little else.”
“Maybe so but I won’t be a greenhorn for long.” Pointing to Granville I said, “He seems to think I have promise.”
My comment was off the cuff, but it seemed to catch Paul off guard. He scowled and said, “Are you sure that is what you really want?”
Confused I responded, “What do you mean?”
“I mean are you sure you want to get caught up in all this intrigue and spy nonsense?”
Defensive, I replied “You seem to be enjoying it just fine” instantly regretting what I had I stuttered “I mean…I didn’t mean.”
Paul held up his hand “I know what you meant. And, putting Anton’s death aside. I am enjoying myself. But it is what I have been doing for years. I am good at it and I get the pleasure at being good at something.”
Grateful for being let off the hook from my gaff “I said “You always were the cunning one, the master planner, when we were playing our games in Vienna.”
“You occasionally made a contribution.”
“Nah. You were the planner. I was the researcher. And despite how annoying you were I mostly followed your lead.”
He smiled and we sat in silence for a few moments, and I asked him a question that had been nagging at me since Maria Saal. “Paul, I am here because I have my orders. But as they say in Texas ‘You don’t have a dog in this fight.’ Why are you here?”
“Because Granville asked me to be here.” He said with his largest wise ass grin.
“That is not an answer.”
“Seriously, why are you here. What is in this for you besides being in great company.”
“The company is so so. But the answer is still the same. Granville asked.”
“Okay. Why did Granville ask?”
Sighing Paul said, “He wants me to meet some people.”
“Now you are just being an asshole. Why does he want you to meet people? Who does he want you to meet?”
Leaning forward, he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and said “Don’t be so dense, Sam. I am being recruited.”
“Recruited for what?”
“That I am not sure of but no doubt it has to do with helping them gather intelligence.” I must have looked at him with a blank, confused expression my face because he added “Honestly, Sam it is just like when we were kids and had to explain to you all the obvious things you were missing. Don’t you get it?”
“That while one war is over another is just beginning. Do you think the United States is going to sit by calmly while the Soviets, the communists, get a grip on Europe? They will not. They know, you should know that where east has always met west is Vienna. Our home city will be where the two powers clash and your boy Granville is recruiting people who can help the US when that clash comes.” Pausing he looked me in the eye and added “And that is why he is grooming you.”
Slapping me in the face would not have surprised me more. I stuttered “What do you mean?”
Paul laughed “You really are misshoganah you know. You asked me, why are you here. I could ask you the same question? Why are you here? Why do they need some greenhorn 2nd Lieutenant here? Do you think they need your expertise in interrogation? Do they need your well refined detective skills in tracking down the keys to open these verkakte trunks? They could easily do everything they need without you.” Always needing to get the last jab in added “Probably better.”
I was more than a little stunned. Paul was right. I had not even considered while I was being dragged along on this journey. It never occurred to me to do so. I just figured that as long as they had dragged my ass to Europe they might as well make good use of it. But really what benefit was I bringing them. Cookie and Granville spoke German as well as I did. So it wasn’t for my language skills. They had far more experience in the Army and intelligence work than I had. I had little to offer once we got Paul on board. So why was I here. Undoubtedly, Paul was right. I was being recruited. And oddly, I did not know how I felt about it. I had always loved spy novels and it was not hard to imagine yourself as the protagonist in a story where there was no consequence to being brave and noble. But in real life when you made a mistake you paid for it with your life like Uncle Anton had or your values got compromised like ours had been with Pichler.
As if he could read my mind Paul said “Can I give you a piece of advice?”
“Don’t do it”
“Don’t do what “
“Don’t get sucked into this world of spying and intrigue only for intrigue sakes. It is not as romantic as you think it is and it doesn’t suit you.”
Indignant, I have never liked being told I could not do something I replied “I think I would make a damn good spy.”
“I didn’t say you wouldn’t. I said I said I did not think you were suited for it. Sam, you think too much. It would wear on you like an engine without oil. Eventually you would just seize up. Besides, you have better options.”
Only a little appeased I asked, “What about you?”
“Sam, this is the life I have led for the past six years. There is no difference. This may not be what I was born to do but it is where I have developed a lot of skills. I could not have lasted as long as I did with Nazi’s without them. Plus, you saw what Vienna is like. It is a wasteland. No jobs. No opportunity. That is not going to change for a while. What else am I going to do?”
I could hear the frustration and sorrow in his voice. This is not the path we had discussed as kids and it was clear from his tone and words that this was not a path that he would have chosen for himself. It made me feel badly for him. No one likes to be trapped. My empathy for him made me ask “What would you do in my situation?”
“I would tell Granville thanks but no thanks. I would do my time in the Army and then I would go back to school. Live that dream we have had since we were in school together. You can still do it. Don’t give it up for this bullshit.”
We rode the rest of the way to Augsburg in silence, each of us lost in thoughts of lost dreams and new realities.