“We learned in school that millions of years ago, the Vienna Woods, now stand was the shore of a vast ocean. The scene must have been fantastic, with monster waves crashing into the hills, and huge fish cruising the depths where I am standing now. On the shore, dinosaurs, hunting and grazing in jungles of gigantic conifers, ferns and palms. But a new ice age made the Ocean levels drop and the shores moved towards the East, leaving only fossils from all the weird animals that had been swimming in it. The Danube, a byproduct of the glacial age, ate a hole in the hills that used to be the shore and started flowing eastward, as if searching for the ancient mother sea that had given it life . Eventually came the time of the great wanderings and the place where the river spilled out into the great plain became a crossroads of cultures and civilization. Celtic salt traders stopped here. The Tenth Roman Legion and the Gemini, marched through. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in Vindobona of Malaria. The Amber Road passed through the plain with long blonde haired Germanic Theones peddling the fossilized remnant of the ancient jungle to the Romans. The hight cheek boned, fur clad, Asiatic warriors came next. Bow legged and reeking from a diet rich in mare’s milk the Alans, Penchenegs, and Hun camped in the delta their ponies drinking from the Danube. s. Dr. Braunschweiger said they were bow-legged and constantly stank of fermented mare’s milk. Norman knights came through here on the way to the Holy Land, pillaging, and killing, and maybe raping. My history teacher in the Realgymnasium didn’t say much about that, but he was a very devout Catholic. You probably know about all this anyway, and of course you know about the centuries when Christian and Turkish armies were chasing each other around here, killing and bleeding.”
It was the second day of our trip to Vienna and my old man, the Westfield J. Clark professor of Psychology at Columbia University, Sam Floessel was lecturing me from a sidewalk overlooking the flood plain of the Danube. “No Pops.” I said with a chuckle “ They didn’t teach much Viennese history in the New Jersey public schools. But it’s good to know.” We were here at my request. Here meaning Vienna, not looking at the Danube, that had been his choice. This trip was, in fact, a 50th birthday present that I requested from him. Over the last few years, I had become intrigued about what it must been like for a 13 year old to flee from Nazi, Austria only to return as an officer in the conquering Army. Part of my curiosity was that of a storyteller, I tell stories for a living and the story of the return of the prodigal son is ageless, but it was mostly driven by an oddity. Pops loved to tell stories, but he had never told us his family this one.
While my fascination with his return to Vienna was a recent, my interest in his Army service was not. I grew up at a time when World War 2 was a recent memory. I am a boomer. Born only 12 years after the last shots of the war was fought and America was still taking its victory lap for saving the world and the war was a part of the collective zeitgeist.
The war was real to me. Not in a history book sort of way. It was real because I could walk into my friends’ home and see souvenirs that their fathers and family proudly showed off. I recall a friend proudly showing me a German helmet with a bullet hole in the temple. Another buddy proudly showed the deactivated pineapple grenade his father used as a paperweight. Or the German luger that another’s father had liberated from a dead “kraut” and now kept in a locked trophy case. My beloved grandmother, Pop’s Mama proudly carried around a fragment from a hand grenade in her change purse that my father had sent her claiming that it had just missed him.
It was real when relatives told of their escape from the Nazi’s. They told tales of hiding, degradation and deprivation that were scary but so captivating I hung on every word. Relatives, including my grandparents would tell tales of lost parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and cousins who were never heard from after the war. Their sadness and sense of loss was conveyed through spirit more than words for they rarely gave details of their experiences or showed their grief other than a sense of sadness even a child could perceive.
It was a part of my childhood library. My father had a book called “Up Front” a collection of cartoons drawn by Bill Mauldin for Stars and Stripes. It depicted two grizzled GI’s, Willie and Joe, citizen soldiers, as they made their way from Normandy to Germany and their experiences with battle, Army bureaucracy, and life in a war zone. We didn’t understand much of it on a deeper level than a puddle, but it made us laugh. One such cartoon, indelible to this day, depicted a US Calvary soldier next to his jeep whose axel is broken pointing his pistol at the Jeeps hood and covering his eyes as if he was putting down a horse. We earned that GIs spent a lot of time in mud, did not shave often, and the beverage of choice was something called Cognac.
We would beg Dad about his exploits during the war. He, like many of that greatest of generations, was reluctant to discuss his service. However, at bedtime when he asked what story we wanted him to tell us, he would, from time to time, share little blurbs of his life in the service. He would tell us about Cookie the pilot of the piper cub observation aircraft that was assigned to his artillery unit. Or was Cookie his driver? Time has a way of eroding childhood stories. In any case Cookie was always doing something interesting like placing sandbags underneath his seat in case they ran over a mine so should the run over a mine it would not blow his nuts off. (The word nuts would always make my brother and I giggle.) Or the story of my he told of crossing a bridge in a jeep to see if it could support the weight of 105 mm howitzers when the span collapsed and being saved from drowning when his trench coat, inflated with air due to the fall, had served as a life preserver.
Even our bedtime stories had to do with the war. The one I loved and asked for most often was of two boys who were walking along the banks of the Danube one afternoon when they happen upon a broken-down old rowboat. They are desperate to leave Vienna because of the Nazi’s, so they scheme to convert the rowboat into a submarine. They could then float past the Nazi’s patrols to the Black Sea and escape to Israel. The stories were episodic, recounting the adventures the boys had trying to get the materials they needed for their ship and avoiding detection by the Germans and those who wished them harm. Similar to old time movie serials they often left us hanging just before we would go to sleep.
As we grew older, more of my father’s life, the World War and his life in the service became known to us and incorporated in our family’s mythology.
My grandparents, through the intercession of my grandfather’s brother Max, has managed to get visas to enter the United States three months after the war began and a year after Kristallnacht. A night in which my grandfather was arrested and jailed for a week. The night the synagogue my father and his parents belonged was burned to the ground denying my father the opportunity to become a bar mitzvah. A sadness he carried with him for the rest of his life.
Part of the story of his arrival here was his first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and how it made him feel like he was finally safe and how the darkness of the past years had been shed. He bestowed on her the honorific “ladily”, perhaps a bastardization of the little English he knew at the time, which he would call out to her whenever he saw her. Even 70 years later he could tell you the make and model of the car his Uncle had picked them up (1939 Buick Roadmaster) in and how on that first meal on American soil he ate a pound of butter because he was hungry and he thought it cheese. America was a land of plenty.
When I first heard this story as a child, I had no concept of hunger. What real deprivation was all about. We were not a rich family but I had never missed a meal or lacked anything I really needed. I had no real understanding of what it meant to escape and find safety; to know deprivation and hunger and suddenly have your fill. But what I knew was the emotion my father poured into these stories. I knew what they meant to him. I knew what it meant to him. Not because he was melodramatic or overtly sentimental about it but because of the joy in which he told this story. It was a hallmark of the optimistic spirit that defined my old man.
We were told that we he entered the Danbury Ct school system at the age of 14 they initially placed him elementary school because of his lack of English skills. He found this humiliating so he focused on learning English. He claimed he learned much of his English by going to Ronald Coleman movies and reading a dictionary, facts borne out by a slight English accent when he spoke and the fact that he often used words so obscure that most native speakers would never have uttered them. And once the English hurdle was overcome he moved through the grades quickly because of his intelligence and excellent Viennese schooling. (This is even more impressive when you consider that he had not attended school since shortly after Kristallnacht as the Nazi’s were denying Jews access to a secondary education.) Remarkably, perhaps incredibly, he graduated at 17 and entered Syracuse University as a Freshman just three and half years after his first glimpse of “ladily.”
We were told that my father was desperate for an education and to get a college degree. As a consequence, instead of waiting until the fall semester and enter with the majority of the class of 1947 he matriculated that summer. So by the time he appeared before his draft board in December of 1943 he had already completed his Freshman year of college. Drafted into the US Army. He served basic at Ft. Wolters Texas where he was naturalized and went on to Ft. Sill Oklahoma for OCS and Artillery school. On completion of his training he was shipped to Italy where he became a member of the 88th Infantry Division, The Blue Devils, who fighting their way up the boot of and ultimately being stationed in Gorizia, north of Trieste, a little less than 300 miles from Vienna where his adventure began.
When I was in High School I had been given an assignment in my AP American History Class to research and write about some element of our family’s personal history. After a lot of consideration, I had decided to write about my father’s return to Vienna. I thought it was an interesting topic and was certain that Pops would be more than happy to share with me his recollections. I could not have been more mistaken. When I broached the idea to him one late night in his study his response had been “Why do you want to write about that? Its boring. Why don’t you talk to Grandma about what was like growing up in Sopron?” I don’t recall what I wrote about but my bafflement about Dad’s response never went away. It was like an injury that never healed properly and every so often would reassert itself.
In February of 2007 it did just that. I was at Syracuse University. My alma mater as well as the old mans. I had to come to the campus, as I had most winters since my graduation in 1979, to see a basketball game with a group of “boys” with whom I had attended the University. It was our annual trip into the way back machine where we could relive much of our college behavior such as eating slices of pizza at the Varsity or late night donut runs to satisfy the munchies brought about by other behavior we had enjoyed in college. Just previous to the trip, Pops had made a request of me. He told me that when he returned to Syracuse after the war he had a poem published in the campus literary magazine, The Tabard, and if I had time would I get a copy for him. It was an unusual request from him. He rarely asked favors of his children but one in which I was to do for him. So between slices of pizza, shots, and juvenile hijinks I went to Byrd Library and with the help of a librarian, I managed to track down the poem.
Bar Danubia by Sam Floessel
Their Streets are narrow, dark, and full of people.
Saying what I used to understand.
Their Virgin Prostitutes, their children dirty,
Full of strange deals, crying to me:
HEY JOE, CIGARETTES TO SELL, JOE?
And in the shadows of their great cathedral,
On the side streets , in the parks,
Their misery bears fruit for me.
In a night’s entertainment,
SEHR SCON GOOD JOE, SLEEP WITH ME.
The day is coming to a close.
The sentry watches
As soldiers streaming to the city
Pass by his lonely post,
The chilly, windswept road is endless.
And lined only with facades.
NOT AT ALL LIKE AMERICA
Where are going, Joe
The passing soldier hails me,
And, not knowing the reply, I answered “The Bar Danubia”
And so we joined in our Journey…
On the outskirts of the town is a tavern,
Full of lights and a band blaring.
The Cognac good
The women pretty
Not a bad place to forget,
Here on the edge.
Now out I look from the Tavern’s window
That the streets are filled with howling angry people,
Crying for what might bring
What they have not,
And hating all which is not them.
You, crowd, jamming the Main Street,
Austrians and Hungarians
You have tilled your poor, ungrateful soil.
Education is the privilege of your rich,
The burden of your Poor.
Your hunger and your cry for self-respect
And across the border they will say:
Comrade, let us be your guide.
All others hate you, dwell under our star and cry:
Plato and Aristotle lived on more fertile plains.
Ignorance is a horrible disease.
And yet without pain.
And through the ruins of the world are shivering
with memories and balconies,
Your own soil soaked with blood.
Vienna Youth in the Side Street,
Your hunger weaves a different, equally horrid pattern
You have a marble God that does no wrong,
A marble God, a State
Glorious regiments, Queens of Battle,
Colors bright and waving
The mutilated dead are but monuments,
The ruined villages, crossed swords on History-maps
DEATH TO BOLSHEVISM!
They meet on the corner,
Insult each other,
Lie, then shout, then stones hurl through the air,
Clubs, Tear-gars, Pain and Screams
The scene, familiar as a summer-storm approaching
Brings all the long-forgotten sorrows to my ear.
And behind THIS window the band plays,
When the Librarian found out why I was searching for this information she agreed happily to make copies for me. She returned after a rather long absence and told me that the University had extra copies of that issue of the Tabard and presented me with one to give Pops. I was more than grateful.
On my snowy, hungover, painfully slow drive home to New York City I could not get the poem out of my head. Unlike my father, who loves epic poetry and at the least provocation will recite “Kubla Khan” by Cooleridge (In Xandu, did Kubla Khan…) I do not like poetry. But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand and appreciate it. But Bar Danubia was undecipherable to me. It had no bearing on anything I knew of my father’s history and the emotions expressed were none that I had ever heard from him. Was this poem about his return to Vienna? Was it him trying to express the emotions he felt on returning to the city of his birth? that one of the things I had never done enough of with my father is ask him enough questions about his time in the army. The 2nd World War had been a central theme of my childhood. My father’s service and his history had been a source of pride and even wonder all my life yet other than a story or two I knew nothing deeper than a very few times, and places. I had no idea of his feelings and his emotions. For reasons I can’t explain except for perhaps the sense of storytelling that I possess I fixated on the return of my father to Vienna. I wondered what it must have been like for a boy of 14 who had fled his home fleeing from religious persecution, personal violence and war, to return a foot taller and officer in the conquering army. It was beyond anything that I could comprehend, and it was a story that I not only wanted to know but one that I would love to share.
It was a week before I could make it out to my parents’ home to give my father the items I had retrieved from Syracuse. Sitting in his office I watched as he unwrapped and stared in disbelief at the copy of the Tabard that I brought to him. I watched as the emotion streamed across his face like a creeper on at the bottom of all news channel. I could see pleasure on his face akin to finding a five-dollar bill in a pair of pants you have not worn in a while. I saw in his face the reflection of an 82 year old man looking back on 60 years…the roads taken, and the paths not followed. The opportunities lost and memories found. I wanted to tell him what the poem had meant to me but sensed that the timing was not right. The moment belonged to him, so I said nothing.
Eventually, he took my gift to him and replaced it in the envelope it had come and it one of the cubby holes on his desk. There were no words of thanks. I didn’t expect any. With my father, silence often said far more than words. Back downstairs in the kitchen, enjoying a cup of coffee with both parents the conversation turned to my upcoming 50th birthday. I told them that turning 50 was not necessarily a milestone that I wished to dwell on. However, there was something that I did wish for. I looked at my Dad and told him that I wanted to go to Vienna with him. He said “Why the fuck would you want to do that? “
I told him that his poem had made think about a lot of things. How despite what I knew of his army service I really knew little because he didn’t talk about it very much. That while I knew about his arrival in this country, I knew very little of his departure from Vienna nor his return 6 years later. That the poem had inspired in me the desire to understand what it was like to flee a city as a boy, a refugee from hate and terror, and then return a young man, and officer of the conquering army and that I didn’t think it was something that I could understand by just talking about it at the kitchen table or his office.For me to utterly understand what that experience must have been like I needed to go there with him.
His response was pretty typical for him. “So what? A lot of people experienced the same sort of thing. What I did was not that special.”
I said “We can agree to disagree on whether your experience is unique. No matter what it is unique to you and to our family. But are you asking what the point is?”
“Yes. What’s the purpose? What are you going to do with it other than have some kind voyeuristic understanding of what I went through?”
He was being difficult, but I knew what he was driving at. My father always wanted me to write. He thought that I had a gift and he thought I was wasting it by trying to earn a living in the advertising business. I replied “I want to write a story about it. I want to understand what it must have been like because I think it is more universal than just your experience. I think that what you went through and how it ended up for you is something that people not only can relate to and I do think it is special but I also think that is a story that is fading fast with time and deserves at least the chance to be told.“
He shook his head, a Mona Lisa like half smile on his face, untranslatable but I took as him feeling complimented by my desire and a wish to make my desire a reality but a reluctance to relive those experiences again. For a few moments he was silent and said, “Let me think about it.”