In the end, it had not been difficult to convince my father to go to Austria with me. While I am sure that my desire to understand his war experience and write a story about it was a part of the decision-making process, I am pretty sure that it not take a lot unction to get him to go. One factor was no doubt to see his oldest friend in the world, my namesake, Paul Gross. He had been suffering from Parkinson disease and the chances were if my father didn’t visit him soon, he would miss the chance to have one last talk with him.
Another reason it had been relatively easy to convince to embark on this trip with me was that despite all the pain and suffering he had experienced in Vienna as a child, and the heartbreak he discovered on his return as a young man, he still loved the city. It contained the memories of his childhood. Those memories most of us hold most fondly. And knowing my father’s optimistic attitude and perhaps sharing some of the same brain chemistry, I know that the tough times had faded to the background while the memories of families, of his friends, and the good times had been burnished over time and visiting the city added to the polish the remembrances of a long ago childhood.
What made this trip even remotely possible is that he and I were good travel companions. Over the course of my adult life we had been on a number of adventures together. In 1988 he and I spent 10 days in Israel exploring the country and both living out childhood dreams of visiting the Jewish homeland. In 2001 we had gone to Alaska, another bucket list trip for both of us, in celebration of my father’s recovery from Lymphoma. We knew how to be together. When to chat and when to be silent and when to give each other room to be by ourselves. We saw humor in many of the same things and could point out things to each other that we would relish. He knew, as did I, that no matter what happened on our journey, it would be enjoyable because we would be together.
A little more than two months later on a crisp and sunny May afternoon, we arrived in Vienna. I had arranged for a driver to meet us at baggage claim and were soon speeding our way into Vienna in his spotless Mercedes. The cab was warm, so I cracked the window and gazed out, mesmerized. Not because the scenery was spectacular, mainly open fields intermingled with a few industrial parks that had a far neater, more elegant look than their American counterparts. But because that is what I always did when taking a cab from the airport into a new city. It was a city’s overture I wanted to hear it.
I looked over at my father. He was wearing an outfit so common for him it should have been trademarked. He wore khaki pants with a light blue shirt, safari jacket and Ray-Ban Outdoorsman aviator style sunglasses. He was lost in thought and I wondered if he was remembering what this part of Vienna looked like before and when he had returned at the beginning of the occupation.
I asked, “When you returned to Vienna at the end of the War what time of year was it?”
He looked thoughtful, like he was thinking about what he should say, and replied “I really can’t remember.”
“What do you mean you can’t remember? You remember everything!”
“I just don’t remember.”
“Well, can you remember what the weather was like.”
“No, not really except it was not too cold nor hot.”
“So, it was likely Spring or Fall?”
At this point I was getting pretty frustrated with my father’s non-response responses. I asked, no doubt in an irritated tone, “Can you remember what year it was?”
“I think it was 1946.”
“But you were in Europe since early 1945. Why did it take you so long to go the 300 miles from where you were stationed in Italy to here?”
“It was not that simple.”
“But you can’t remember when that was.”
“No. Now will shut up so I can enjoy the ride into the city?”
I shut up. I did not think it strange for him to ask me to shut up. I tend to chat and ask questions when I am in new situations. I think his asking me to pipe down had more to do with the fact that we were on the outskirts of the city proper and the “real Vienna” was revealing itself. No doubt he was caught up in the thoughts we all get when we return to a place that is full of memories. What I did think strange is my father’s equivocation on the details of his return to Vienna. How could he not remember the time of year? Not only had he had the months in which we had planned the trip to contemplate that but I didn’t think it was a detail that I was likely to forget and his memory was every bit as good, if not better, than mine. But instead of questioning this further I too got lost in the sights and sounds of Vienna.
My father insisted that we stay at the Hotel Sacher. When he had told me of this request, I was more than just a little surprised. In the past when we traveled, the hotels we stayed in were more of the three star or, on a good day, four-star hotels. For him to insist on a five star, let alone an iconic was completely out of character. But I did not challenge him. If that is where he wanted to stay, it is where we were staying but I sensed there was a deeper meaning that perhaps I some point I could coax out of him. If you have ever been to the Hotel Sacher you know the lobby is impressive. All dark woods, velvet couches and overstuffed chintz chairs. It is an echo to the past when Vienna was a capital of empire. Dad seemed to breathe in the history of the place as we entered and was transformed from Sam Floessel, American to the Viennese Hugi Floessel. (How I discovered his birth name is another story) This was reinforced as he lapsed into Viennese German (there were many ah-so and naturlichs) when speaking to the front desk clerk and securing our room.
Our room was not ready which was just as well. We were both anxious to go for a walkabout. My father wanted to rekindle old memories and I wanted to get a sense of city that I had not seen since I was seven. After dumping our bags at the bell desk, left the hotel and headed down Kartner Strasse towards St. Stephen’s Cathedral.. As we walked Dad’s morphing into a Viennese continued. Instead of walking with hands by his side, as most Americans do, his hands were clasped behind his back. His chin tilted just a little higher. We strolled rather than walked.
At the time, I didn’t question the reason my father wanted to walk to St. Stephens. It is the city’s landmark and seemed a natural destination. It was one of the few clear memories I had from my only trip to the city over forty years before. But later I would wonder whether these first steps in Vienna were really a pilgrimage, of a sort, for him. Eventually, we found our way to a café and ordered an afternoon pick me up, which in Vienna is an exquisite pastry accompanied by an espresso. As my father ordered for us, I remember thinking natural it was for me to hear him speaking German. This was the language he learned to think in. I wondered how speaking the language of his childhood would stir ancient memories.
When the coffee arrived I asked “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your Army career. I want to make sure that I have the timeline correct.”
“Sure. If you must.”
“Well if I am going to write this story, I would love to get the facts straight.”
“You entered the army in the summer of 1944.”
“Yes, my draft board had issued me a deferment so that I could complete my sophomore year.”
“How long was basic training.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Two months, 3 months?”
“Probably closer to 3 months.”
“So, if you entered the Army in the Summer of 1944 you probably finished basic training in September or October.”
“I guess so.”
“And you went to basic in Texas.”
“Yes. Fort Wolters.”
“So, did you go to OCS immediately after you finished basic”
“Did you have to take a test to be any officer, or did they have some other way of selecting you?”
“No, you had to submit a request and then the Army decided whether you were selected. And I didn’t know whether I wanted to become an officer or not.”
“Didn’t you want to become an officer?”
“I don’t know. I had a friend in basic and he thought it was a good deal. So, I applied and was accepted.”
“Is that why you became a citizen in Texas…so you could go to OCS?”
“Where was OCS?”
“Fort Sill, Oklahoma.”
“When did get there…. I mean what month.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Was it right after basic?”
“So, if you finished basic in October. Then November would have been the earliest you entered OCS.”
“I guess so.”
“And OCS took 8 weeks, right? That is why 2nd Lieutenants were called 8-week wonders.”
“I think the Artillery school took a little longer. Probably 12 weeks or so but I really can’t remember.”
“Well if it took 12 weeks the earliest you could have been shipped overseas would have been February. Right.”
“Then if you were in theatre before the end of the War then you probably got there sometime in late February or early March of 1945, right?”
“I guess. To be honest Paul the dates I really do not remember. I just remember thinking it was cold. But can we end for this right now and head back to the hotel.”
The next morning is when my father took me to the Danube and gave me his little speech. It was another beautiful mild spring day but we decided to take a cab as the walk would have been a little too far for my eighty-one year old father. We didn’t dawdle there. It was too windy and there was a distinct chill coming off the Danube We grabbed another cab headed to the Kunsthistoriches Museum which contains the amazing art collection of the Hapsburgs and was the one place my mother insisted I visited.
Arriving at the museum Pops chose to sit on a bench opposite the statue of Empress Marie Theresa while I gave the museum the once over. It was not that he did not like the museum, but the standing and the stairs would be a challenge for him. And moreover, despite the sophisticate he was, he had a low tolerance for museums. 30 minutes to an hour and he was done. Add to that the fact he had been there before, sitting in a garden, soaking in the Viennese spring seemed ideal choice for Dad.
The collection of paintings and antiques were amazing in their depth and scope. But what struck me most of all was the realization that this had been an Empire, for five centuries a leading power in Europe and Vienna its capital. And for a time, it was the center of the Universe. And then, after World War 1 they were suddenly an insignificant capital, in an insignificant country. It helped me understand the Anschluss and why most Austrians accepted annexation by Germany and becoming part of the Reich. They wanted their empire back.
Gaining an understanding of Austria’s vainglory did not diminish my contempt and anger at what they had done in their misguided attempt to reclaim empire. It was said while Germans were successful anti Semites, Austrian’s were pros. Worse, the Austrians had never fully accepted their role in the Holocaust.
My tour did not take long as, like my old man, I have a limited tolerance for museums. I love the art. I love the history but if I take any longer than an hour in a museum, I get cranky. I found my father sitting on his bench, enjoying the spring sunshine and it looked as if he might have even managed to slip a quick nap in while he waited for me. I asked him if he was tired and told him if he wanted, we go back to the hotel. What was to come next would require a huge reservoir of emotional energy that would be a challenge for anyone let alone an octogenarian. He told me, in no uncertain terms, to stop coddling him. To prove himself ready, he set off at a brisk pace to the Karlsplatz, a light rail station, a few blocks away. When we arrived my father without seeking guidance from anyone picked the #44 trolley and jumped on board.
Our destination was #48 Ottakringer Strasse, the apartment where my father was born and lived his entire life until he left Vienna in 1939. It was a central part of our family mythology about my father’s childhood. My grandparents were extremely poor. My grandfather worked in abattoir, cleaning hides and getting them ready to be tanned. A job that was brutal on the body and crushed the soul for little money. My grandmother worked as a seamstress making handmade ties at home. All they could afford was a two-room apartment that had a kitchen, where my father slept, and a living room where my grandparents slept. The bathrooms were shared privies at the end of the hallway and the refrigerator was, weather permitting, the ledge outside their window. It is this apartment that the Nazi’s invaded on Kristallnacht and arrested my grandfather and terrified my father.
I asked my father “We’re Jews allowed to take the trolley after Kristallnacht?”
He pursed his lips into a pucker, as if he was sucking on a sour memory, and said “No.” I wanted to ask him how he got around but I could tell he was far away and no doubt my questions would annoy him so I got lost in my own thoughts instead.
My father, who never talked to us about that night, wrote to us what he called a “minor memorandum” on the 50th Anniversary of that awful night.
A MINOR MEMORANDUM TO MY CHILDREN
ON THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF KRYSTALLNACHT,
NOVEMBER 9 AND 10, 1938
I don’t intend to make this a big deal literary effort or a weepy emotional debauch. I simply want to tell you what I remember about Krystallnacht. So, you should remember as well. And if there are to be others like us, so you can tell them. Nothing big! Just a small and portable lesson about the planet we live on and the hazards of being a little different.
Krystallnacht did not start for me until November 10, 1938. I knew that von Rath had been shot by Gruenspan, but I knew nothing about what was happening all over Germany during the night of the ninth. I was 12 years (12 10/12 ths) old and I was asleep.
I was still lying in my bed, at about seven on the morning of November 10, when there was loud knocking on our door. I heard my father and mother (your grandparents) talking to some people. Several stormtroopers (SA) had come to arrest Jewish men. The entrance to our apartment was through the kitchen and all this was taking place in the kitchen. After a few minutes I heard one of the Brownshirts ask whether there were any other male Jews in the apartment. Grandma said only my little boy. I dont think they believed her because they came into our main room, where my bed was. I closed my eyes and pretended I was asleep. They came to my bed and they looked at me and they must have decided either that I was too young, or that I looked too fierce to mess around with since there were only six of them. So, they took just grandpa with them and they left.
As we later found out, they took grandpa to the local police station. From there they marched him and others to the Rossauer Kaserne, a military barracks. He was lucky because he had a roof over his head. Many other Jewish men were taken to a large soccer stadium and did not have a roof over their head.
Grandpa had been fired from his regular job as a bristle processor a couple months before. He was earning some money by helping a carter hauling the furniture of Jews that had been kicked out of their apartments. The cart was pulled by one brown horse. Grandpa had a job scheduled for that morning.
Grandma sent me to help the carter in grandpa’s place. May- be grandma was a tough Hungarian cookie who did not want the Rothkopf’s reputation as men of their word sullied, or maybe we needed the money, or perhaps she wanted me out of her hair so that she and Aunt Mitzi ( who lived in the next apartment and whose son Walter and friend Albert were already on the way to Dachau) could weep in peace.
I don’t remember exactly where I met the carter but it was at his client’s apartment near the Jewish section of Vienna. We loaded the wagon with furniture. I sat next to the driver on the high bench behind the horse. Then the brown horse slowly pulled us through the streets towards the place where we had to make our delivery.
Groups of people were standing in front of the broken windows of Jewish stores, gawking while Brownshirts were putting their owners through their paces — handing over business papers, washing the sidewalk with lye, licking Aryan employees’ shoes clean. Anything that would keep the cultured Viennese crowds amused. We passed a narrow street that led to one of Vienna’s larger synagogue. The alley was jammed with jeering onlookers. Stormtroopers were throwing furniture and Torah scrolls through the big main door into the street. One side of the roof (I couldn’t see the other and you know what a sceptic I am) was afire. I remember very vividly the twists of whitish-yellow smoke that were curling up the slope of blue tiles.
Farther on we passed another synagogue that was fully ablaze. The police had made people stand back from it. I suppose they feared for their safety. A fire truck was parked down the street. The firemen were leaning against their equipment, talking and smoking cigarettes. Everywhere there were clusters of people, in a holiday mood, gathering around smashed Jewish stores. Little groups of Jews, both men and women, were being led along the sidewalk flanked by squads of SA men. The Jews were made to do all sorts of menial chores. Someone told me later, that one elderly Jew asked to go to the toilet. They made him go in a bucket and then forced him to eat his feces.
By now I was beginning to figure out what was going on. I sat high on my horsey throne (just like the Duke of Edinburgh when he drives his high-stepping pair, except that I didn’t wear an apron). Whenever we passed a sidewalk event or other happening, I pulled down the wings of my nostrils (I thought I looked more Christian that way), staring straight ahead, but watching the Nazi street theatre out of the corners of my eyes. The driver, who was also Jewish, was a hard-old soul. I don’t remember him saying a single word to me, all day, about what was going on. Maybe he thought I was too young to hear about such things.
I don’t remember much more detail. I got paid. The trolley I went home on was crowded. I kept staring out the window so that people wouldn’t notice the handsome Jewishness of my face. Beyond the rattling trolley panes, the peculiar happenings of November 10, 1938 were still in progress here and there, even as the day’s light was fading.
When I got home, grandma and Mitzi were still weeping. They had just come back from the police station, but grandpa and the other Jews were no longer there.
Grandpa came home ten days later. He had spent that time in a room with 500 other people and one water faucet. They did a lot of military drill (was this the beginning of the Hagganah ?) and exercises — push-ups, deep knee bends, and the like. Some who didn’t do so well got beaten up. He never told me whether they did anything to him. But then I wouldn’t tell you either. Grandpa was lucky. A lot of the Jewish men who were arrested on the 9th and 10th of November were sent to the concentration camp at Dachau.
Not one single synagogue was left intact in all of Vienna. That really screwed me up because I was nearly thirteen. You need to have a Torah to become a Bar Mitzvah and you need to have a table on which to lay the scroll while you read. And how was I to get a fountain pen now?
The dead, of course, are dead. They are mourned by those who remember. Tears dry. Bruises heal. Razed synagogues become parking lots. Injured dignity heals although slowly. What hurts most to this day is impotent compassion for those who were swept away.
In order to have faith in our quality as human beings, we need to remember! And that’s why I am writing you this note.
As the trolley made its way I recalled the words my father had written nearly 20 years before and I tried to imagine what it must have been like as a 12 year old boy to have to have your house broken into the middle of the night, have your father taken from you, perhaps never to return and then being forced to go and do your fathers job, while atrocities were happening all around you, because you needed the money so badly that you didn’t have a choice. What must have it been like to see your neighbors making your co-religionists lick their boots and clean their sidewalks with toothbrushes. To see your synagogue, burn to the ground just days before you were to become a bar mitzvah after studying for years to achieve this milestone rite of passage.
I could not imagine what he had gone through.
My father jostled my arm to get my attention and said, “We’re here.”
There, astride the corner of Ottakringer Strasse and Bergsteggasse was a 4 story V shaped Belle Epoque building, the color of ripe hay, with a mansard roof. The main entrance to the building was at the end of the V on Ottrakringrer Strasse above which a blue and white sign with “48” printed on it. Embracing the outside of the building was a small café with a blue awning that looked as if it was the place where the neighborhood sippeds its coffee and guzzled its beer.
Pops pointed at the building and said, “See the third floor, 2nd window over, that was our apartment.” A feeling of déjà vu rippled through me as I realized my father and I had this very same conversation over 40 years previously on my first and only trip to Vienna. It was so long ago that fragments of the trip are all that remain in my consciousness. My parents cutting me off after my third hot chocolate. Seeing a Tom and Jerry cartoon in German.
I had, when I thought about this moment in preparation for the trip, realized that coming back to his childhood must evoke powerful memories and emotions for my father. More than just the Holocaust and all it wrought. But of motherly hugs, and family gatherings. Of fatherly love and the complicated man Marcus had been both loving and angry and the occasional beatings these unexercised emotions would generate. A childhood of happiness and deprivation that would help create the man that would one day be the father that his children adored.
Now we were here at the site of those sweet and sour memories and for a moment was so overcome with the emotion of the moment I needed to turn my back on Dad so he would not see my tears. Eventually, the light changed, and I followed him across the street.
We walked up the front steps and into the dark foyer of the building. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the lighting and when they did, I saw a set of broad stairs that led up into the building. I turned to my father and asked “What are you thinking about?”
He paused, reluctant to share his thoughts and replied “I was thinking about the wife of the superintendent of the building. She was a nasty piece of work. She hated having Jews in the building and would scream at us kids every chance she could get. She would say vile things and scared the shit out of us.”
“Didn’t your mother say anything to her.”
“What could she say without getting us thrown out of the building or worse.”
I decided to change the subject. “Really, no bathrooms in your apartments.”
He smiled and said “Yes. If you had to go the bathroom you had go down the hall. Except when I small and we kept a honey pot in the kitchen so I would not have to go outside…. The Super’s wife always yelled that we were fouling the bathrooms and making her life miserable.” He paused and said, “You should go up and look.”
I replied “No. I have seen enough, and I don’t want to have explain myself to the current tenants. Let’s go outside and get a beer.”
Once seated, and beer ordered. I asked “When you got to Vienna at the end of the War how did you find a place to stay.”
“You have to remember that Vienna, at the time was an occupied city. The Army found something for me. I seem to remember being put up with the Brits… and eventually assigned me a room that I had to share with another officer.”
“Did you two get along.”
“No. Not at all. My recollection is that he was a real asshole. But I met someone other folks there and they were thrilled that I spoke the language and knew the town. He took a long sip of beer and I could tell he was struggling with the idea of telling me something and said ‘Yeah, they even tried to recruit me. “
“Recruit you how.”
“He wanted me to stay in Vienna and help them with intelligence work. He thought that I might be an asset.”
“Really!” I said honestly surprised. “What unit was he in?”
“I can’t remember.”
“I remember that his shoulder patch had was gold and black and had a spear on it.”
“Why didn’t you do it?”
He smiled at me, into a benevolent way that suggested that there was no way that I would understand him and replied “I wanted to get back to school.”
He was right to think that I wouldn’t understand because to me it sounded like he could have been James Bond if he wanted. Even at 50 I could not understand giving that up. But thinking about this years later, knowing what I know now, I realize that my father had already lived too exciting a life. That what he craved was a less interesting, not more interesting, life. All things considered I could appreciate that.
I said “I didn’t mean to go down the sidetrack. What I wanted to get to is what was required of visiting officers.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what did you wear. You didn’t wear fatigues or civilian clothes. You wore your class A’s right?”
“So did you come here when you came back looking for your relatives.”
“And did you see your landlady.”
“And did she recognize you despite the fact you were 4 years older and had grown a foot since last you seen her and were now an officer in the US Army?”
“How did she react?”
He looked away from me and I could see on his face that he was retrieving a very specific moment, likely in full 1040p resolution and Dolby sound and said “ She was scared.”
I smiled at his simple response and asked “How did that make you feel?”
He paused, as if a little ashamed of his emotion, and said “Great. ” I was not ashamed of the smile I had my face at the thought of a tormentor of my old man being scared shitless. The thought of it made my day.