We were quiet for a few moments and he said “Lets go for a walk. “
Crossing the street we headed down Weyprechtstrasse and after a block or so we paused and he said “This used to be a park where me and my friends would play football.”
I asked “Was it grass?”
“No, gravel. It used to cut it us pretty good.”
“I can imagine.”
We resumed our walk after a short walk my father paused and pointed to a plaque on the side of a building. It read “Hier stand eine um 1885/86 nach planen des archiiteten Ludwig Tischler Erbautes Synaggoge. Zerstort in der Reichskristallnacht am 10.November 1938” (Translation: Here was a synagogue building built around 1885/86 after the plan of the architect Ludwig Tischler. Destroyed in the Reichskristallnacht on 10 November 1938.)
My father says, in a voice that is supposed to convey nonchalance but sends the exact opposite message “This is where my synagogue was before the bastards burned it down.” He paused and said something to me that he had said many times before “I didn’t even get a fountain pen” referring to a once traditional present for a young Jewish boy when he became Bar Mitzvah. This time, though, it struck me full force how hard he must have studied to become a bar mitzvah, how heartbroken, horrified, disappointed and devastated to see his temple be burn to the ground by a mob just weeks before fulfilling that dream. How that night changed his life forever. That every time he mentioned not getting that fountain pen, it meant more than not getting a gift, it meant the death of a dream and the end of whole period in his life.
It broke me and I started to weep and noticed my father was doing the same. I swore to myself there and then that I would get him his fountain pen and kept that promise later that year as a present for his 81st birthday. It must have meant something to him because after his death I found the card and the pen in his top desk drawer. The card read: “To Zaki ben Mordecai: Abba…a little late, but better late than never…Love Daniel Ben Zaki.”
We turned the corner and after a few more blocks came across another belle epoque building but this one had a huge gold coat of arms, a shield boarded by angels on its sides and a bust of Hermes above, on its façade. He pointed and said “That is where Litzi, Aunt Leni and Uncle Benno lived.”
“Litzi emigrated (alone) to Belgium, how or why I don’t remember, where a family named Weening became her foster parents. When the Germans invaded she fled with them to unoccupied France. They then made their way (on foot) across the Pyrenees, and then somehow Mrs. Weening, Lizzi, and her foster sister got themselves to Jamaica, where they were interned. Mr. Weening was gravely wounded while serving with Dutch Forces in the Normandy Invasion.
“Yes. In fact Litzi says the woman who was taking care of things walked over the Pyranees wearing high heels”
“What about Benno and Lenni?”
“He was arrested in 1938 and sent first to Dachau and then transferred to Weimar-Buchenwald. Sometime in mid-1939 he was released on the condition that he leave Germany within 72 hours. He got a visa to Italy (Milan) where we saw him as we passed through in November 1939. Because his visa was no longer valid, he managed our meeting by leaping on our train while it was in the switching yard and then rode into the Milan station with us, where he managed to disappear immediately on the platform. The Italians finally interned him in a camp in Southern Italy (Alberobello and Ferramonte in Bari) . The British liberated the camp and he attached himself to the Jewish Brigade, whom he served as a laundry worker and later worked for American troops in Naples.
“Wow. The guy always scared me a little but he must have been some tough son of a bitch to survive all that. And Linni?”
“She stayed in Vienna, living underground what they called a u-boater.” One of her life savers was her gentile sister’s baptismal certificate. She never left. She hid with people all over the city. I think a good part of it in the red light district. “
“Unbelievable story. I can’t even imagine what they must have gone through” I replied and then mentally chastised myself because for years I had remembered them as the horrible couple who had babysat my brother and who hadn’t allowed me to have potato chips when I wanted them.
We walked a little farther down the road until we came across a white multiple story building with Schule Der Stadt Wien or School of the City of Vienna in red letters across the front of the building. He said “this is where I went to primary school.”
Deciding that we had been too serious for too long, I tried a little humor on him. I said “Is there a plaque somewhere.”
He smiled and replied “Smart ass.” And we walked on until we reached a very imposing, very federal looking building that said “Bundesfaschule fur wirschatliche Frauberlufe” which I in my very bad German roughly translated as “Federal School for Women.” Pops said “This is where I would have gone to High School.”
“But it says that it’s a woman school.”
“It wasn’t then.”
Then something occurred to me. “What do you mean would have gone to high school. I thought you started high school here.”
“No. I was about to but after Krystalnacht Jews weren’t allowed to attend secondary school.”
“Krystalnacht was in November of 1938 and you didn’t immigrate until a year later….What did you do with your days.”
His reply, slow coming as if he didn’t want to open up a can of worms said “I hung out with my friends. Lets get a cab. Were late.”
What we were late for was a visit my father’s boyhood friend Paul Gross. For the last several years he had been suffering with Parkinson’s disease. Recently, his symptoms of body tremors and stiffness, confusion, and an inability to communicate clearly had forced a hospitalization. His wife Henni had invited us to their home and we would take her to the Hospital where we would all have a visit with Pop’s oldest friend.
Despite being named for him, and being my father’s oldest if not best friend, I had only Paul twice in my life. The first time was on my only previous trip to Vienna when I was seven. My memories of that trip are few but I have a vivid memory of visiting the Furrier shop Paul owned. He gave me a mouse that was made out of mink that I adored. That is until I lost him. The other memory I had of him was when he had visited the United States shortly after I had become a Bar Mitzvah. He had given me a beautiful Seiko chronograph with an orange face that I wore for years and still cherish. Other than those two meetings, that he had been the leader of the Jewish Community in Vienna for decades, and the rare stories from my father’s childhood, I knew little.
As the cab maneuvered in traffic I asked, “When you returned to Vienna did you look for Paul?”
“How did you find him.”
“I went to the grocery store his mother owned. But it had closed so I went to the apartment they used to live in and was told they had moved but the folks there had a forwarding address. I made my way over there and I found his mother. Paul was not there but she, in the best Viennese tradition and despite the shortages the war, invited me in for coffee and cake. While we were having coffee with her Paul arrived. ”
“That must have been one hell of a reunion? I mean you had done it. Survived. And then to just show up on his doorstep wearing the uniform of an officer in the American Army? That is a whole new definition of the term shock in awe!”
He paused and replied. “He just acted, as did I, like we had just seen other the week before. Hi Paul. Hi Sam” He grinned, a self-satisfied smile and said “We didn’t need to say anything more. We knew what it meant.”
“What did it mean?”
He took a beat before answering. As if there was a lot to unpack. Then said, “We survived.”
I nodded, knowing that while I understood the words, I had no comprehension of how that moment must have felt for them. I don’t think anyone who is not a survivor can understand the jumbled emotions that go along with that status. I asked, “Why didn’t they leave?”
“That is complicated.”
“It wasn’t that easy. You had to get permission to leave. And for a variety of reasons Paul couldn’t”
“How did they manage to make it through?”
“Paul’s mother’s family hid them and I think they spent some time living in the sewers. U-boaters.”
We fell into silence. I knew from a life of living with my father and how he told stories of those years during and surrounding the war that what happened was more complicated than the responses my father was giving me . I knew, for example, that at the beginning of the war nearly 200,000 Jews were living in Vienna and that many, up to 130,000 had managed to find other places to live including places like Singapore. But those who left, left almost all their wealth and belongings. Where ever they went they had to begin their new life with little but the sentimental items like photographs and other family ephemera they managed to carry with them.
Of the 60,000 Jews left in Vienna when they closed the border only 2,000 survived the war. Paul had managed to win one of the most horrific lotteries of all time.
When we walk up the front steps, to Paul’s home we are met by Henni. She greets my father with hugs and kisses on both cheeks. I get the same treatment even though I have not seen her since I was a small boy. She then steps back and taking us both in while commenting on how much we looked alike. We were ushered into her parlor because in proper Viennese fashion as she has prepared us a little cake and coffee so we would not go to the hospital with any hunger.
Over the coffee and cake she explains that Paul had been admitted to the hospital because his Parkinson’s had progressed to the point where he was no longer able to take care of himself, that his ability to speak had become limited and that the Dr’s had thought that a change in medication would help him with his tremors and communication. This had been going on for the past two weeks. She is , in the gentlest of ways, trying to prepare my father to see his oldest friend now altered by this horrible disease.
Vienna’s General Hospital is different than any hospital I had ever visited. It is a high rise. Twenty-two stories tall with a motor lobby for cabs and cars drop offs and a mini mall that contains everything from flower shops to McDonalds. It was more like visiting an apartment complex in Miami Beach than a hospital that had originally been established in 17th century.
A high-speed elevator takes us to the 21st floor where Paul’s room is located. Hennie leads the way to Paul’s room with my father and me in her wake. He is not there. She suggests that my father go to the nurse’s station and see if they have seen Paul. Apparently, despite his currently being confined to a wheelchair and troubles speaking, he liked to socialize. While Henny and I remained guard outside Paul’s room my father makes his way down the hall. We see an old man in a wheelchair emerge from a room. It is Paul. Pop walks up to him and when Paul recognizes him, he slowly extricates himself from the wheelchair and despite tremors stands at attention for my father and salutes him. My father returns the tribute with a crisp salute of his own. No words are spoken. 70 years of friendship encapsulated without a word. The silence a part of their code. Why speak of things that are not capable of being understood or where words are inadequate.
We decide that all of us trying to sit in Paul’s hospital room would be too uncomfortable and an inconvenience to his roommate. Instead, after straightening Paul up a little bit and gathering up his caregiver, we ahead downstairs to the Hospitals coffee house. I should have known that in this city that invented the coffee house, where patisseries and pastries were part of their birthright, a hospital coffee shop would be far superior to its American counterpart. It was decorated in browns and brasses, the tables of real wood, no Formica. The menu had everything from Schnitzel to Sachertorte. And apparently smoking was on the menu as well because everyone in the restaurant seemed to be smoking and a blue haze hangs just below the ceiling.
We arranged ourselves around a square table. My father and Henny on side. Paul and I on the other with the caretaker sitting on the end closest to Paul. Dad could tell that this was a difficult situation for Paul. His verbal skills had deteriorated to the point where getting a word out was painfully labored. This was made even more tortuous by the fact he wanted to speak English so that I would feel a part of the conversation. As a consequence, a pattern emerged pretty quickly at our table. I would ask a question and Paul would try to answer. If he got hung up or frustrated in finding the words my father would help him complete his thoughts. Paul would react and try to expand a little a to me.
After we had ordered coffee and some Austrian pastries my father told Paul that the reason, we had come to visit was because I was interested in writing a story about what it must have been like for him, to return to the Vienna at the end of the War… a Jewish boy forced to flee his homeland only to return a few later, a man and an officer in the conquering army.
This embarrassed me a bit. I am not a professional writer, and I didn’t know if I could even write something worth reading. Leaning into my discomfiture , I ask Paul “What was your reaction, when you saw your old friend in your mother’s living room, wearing an US Army officer’s uniform?”
Paul glanced over at my father, and then back at me, his large eyes gleaming with a sense mischief and says in a halting voice. “It was good to see him.”
“Were you surprised?”
“No. I was pretty sure that he would turn up sometime.”
I could tell that he was going to be every bit as difficult to get information out him as my father so I decided to change tack a bit. I had heard stories for years of how my father had a group of friends who roamed the streets of Vienna after the I said to Paul “Who was the leader of the gang you two were in.” I knew that as close as my father and Paul were that part of what defined their relationship was a fierce competitiveness and I was not above tossing a grenade to see if I could some details beyond single sentences from them.
They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds and then my father replied, “He was.” but in such a way to make sure the listener knew he was just being gracious. And Paul smiled back and said in a halting way but with the same inflection as my father, “He was.” And then they both laughed knowing that had both outsmarted me.
Frustrated, but somewhat undaunted I persisted. I asked Paul “What was the name of you “gang.” He smiled and responded stuttering a little bit “The Wolf…wolf pack “and smiled eyes gleaming as if the thought of this band of miscreants brought back every good childhood memories from schools.
“How many people were in this gang.”
Paul held up his hand and said “Four.”
“Who were the other two?”
Paul began “Walter…” and seemed to get hung up and my father added “Eduard…Eddie.”
There was a pause as if the thoughts of these childhood gang blocked out the present for these old friends. As if their friends were now seated at the table with us. Enjoying a smoke and a coffee with their old comrades. I knew how special this gang was to my father. He had been telling us about them since we were small children asking for bedtime stories. He would tell of the adventures of Tad and Huge and their desire to escape Vienna in a makeshift submarine they were creating in a fishing shack on the flood plain of the Danube and the adventures they had along the way.
Wondering whether these bedtime stories were based in fact I asked “What this gang of your do?”
Again, my father exchanged a look with Paul and said “Mostly, we tried to find a way to get out of Vienna. There was always some rumor of Singapore, Palestine or some other country opening up for visas’ or a Kindertransport to England or anywhere safe. We tracked these down and let our friends know. Or when people needed someone for an odd job. We needed the money. It cost money to leave and we…..”
Paul nudged my elbow and signaled that he wanted to have something to write with him. My father obliged him by handing him the pen that was perennially in his pocket. Paul then took a napkin on it drew what appeared to be a stick with five branches growing out of its top. He said “The wolfs paw.” He then drew a line through the second branch sticking up from the stick and said “Me.”
My father jumped in and said “That is how we used to leave messages to each other. If we had been some place and wanted to tell the other we had been there we would draw the wolf’s paw and depending on what digit was crossed we could tell who it was. I was the first, Paul was the second and so on. “
“But what kind of messages would you leave each other.”
Exchanging a glance with Paul he said “Nothing really important. Just kid stuff.”
I asked, reluctantly “What happened to them…the other members of the Wolfpack?”
Paul replied “Walter I used to see around for a while and then he disappeared one day. One day he was there and the next gone and no record as to what happens I thought he had managed to escape. After the war I found out he died at Mauthausen.”
My father replied “Eddie….” and sighed and then said “He got out before all of us. A Kindertransport to England where he lived with in Lancashire with two school teachers. When he turned 18 he enlisted in the RAF and on the very last day of the war his plane crashed and he was killed. Poor bastard.” A silence fell over the table. I didn’t realize it at the time but my Dad had been in touch with Eddie from the time he left Europe until shortly before he was drafted. After my father’s death we discovered he had saved the letters for over 70 years and had even written a short story about being in England and searching for some trace of his old friend and Wolfpack member.
There was a pause in the conversation. The memory of Eddie and Walter of the memory of the adventures of the Wolfpack hovering over the table like the cigarette smoke at the tables adjacent to us. It made me realize that the salute Paul had given my father by getting out of his wheelchair and standing like a soldier at parade rest was more than courtesy afforded to any old friend. It was a salute to their old comrades and friends. Paul’s and my Dad’s survival and a tribute to Edi and Walter there fallen comrades.
Paul looked at my father and said in his halting way “Does he know about Tomahawk?
Pops gave a half shake of his head but before he could answer I said incredulously “The Hugi and Tad stories are true?”
Dad looking extremely uncomfortable replied. Well let’s just say there was some fact in the fiction.”
The stories of Tomahawk were my favorite bedtime stories, but I thought them the gifts of Pop’s vivid imagination to his children. Stunned and curious I decided I need to pull this thread. I asked “What is the real story?”
“Its too long a story to tell.”
I rollmy eyes. This whole trip I had been trying to find out more about his life and what happened to him before and after the war only to run into brick walls like “its too complicated” or “Can we talk about something else” or him just changing the subject.
Paul must have sensed my frustration. Directing his gaze at Dad he said, and considering his condition a very insistent tone “You need to tell him the story.”
My father’s response was a raised eyebrow and a shake of the head.
The conversation proved exhausting to Paul. His nurse signaled that it was time to leave, and our coffee klatch broke up. We said our goodbyes in the lobby They were more matter of fact than emotional. Sometimes silence says more than words. Kisses on the cheek for Hennie, a shoulder squeeze for Paul and we were out the door on our way to cab stand. We were silent as we waited for a cab. Each of us lost in the dissection of the day and adrift in our memories. I, for one, was wondering what Paul meant when he said “You need to tell him the story.” What story? And why was the old man so reluctant to tell me. I was confused. I thought he wanted me to write a story and this whole trip getting information out of him was tougher than finding the truth at a liars convention. A cab finally arrived and as the it pulled away from the hospital Pops says “I need a drink.”
I heartily concur. His reasons for imbibing are no doubt different than mine. Watching your best friend slowly fade away is not for the feint of heart. It is what he told me when my best friend was dying of brain cancer the year before. He was right. It forces you to think about things that are best left in the dark recesses of your consciousness most of your life. Dark questions. Questions without answers combined with deep sorrow and now bittersweet memories often requires a distiller’s skill to allow you to muddle through.
My reasons are, in part, a reflection of his. I love my old man. He is my friend and my hero. He has been, and always will be, my great protector but now I have taken on that role for him. It is what sons do for aging parents. Seeing him in so much pain is painful for me and I do not know what I can do to mitigate his pain, and this frustrates me. But this is not the only thing that is frustrating me. Dad has always chosen his own way in life often to the confoundment and exasperation of others. Once he adopted a point of view it was almost impossible to get him to change his mind. Clearly, there was a story he was hiding. A story that I traveled all this way to find and for reasons that I could not understand he was keeping it to himself.
The cab ride back to the Sacher was in silence. Both of us lost in our own thoughts. When we arrive at the Hotel we go directly to the bar and finding a table in the corner promptly order drinks. Doubles. Scotch for him. Bourbon for me. Please don’t think us drunks. Doubles in Europe is a light pour at home and we need extra strength medicine after the experiences of the day. When the waitress returns with our drinks and a few peanuts we silently toast each other and maintain our silence. Neither of us are being rude. It is a comfortable silence. We are old travel companions. We can sense when the other needs time to be with our own thoughts. This just happens to be one of these times.
Finally, when we have finished our first drink and have ordered our second, Dad still grim faced asks “Do you remember the coin I gave your brother, sister and you during the Holidays last year?”
I am surprised by his question because it seems so out of context to our conversation and because the gift of the coin had confounded my siblings and I. They had arrived by mail, unaccompanied by a note of explanation, and were it not for the return address on the package we would not have known who had sent them to us. That was not even the strange part. The gold coin wasn’t really a coin at all it was more of a religious medal. A Catholic religious medal with an image a crown with a cross tilted at an angle at its peak and the word “Stephanskrone” underneath. On the flip side was an image a medieval man king wearing that crown underneath which was written “St. Stephan.”
The present of the coin had baffled my brother, sister, and me. Why had our Jewish by birth, agnostic by practice, father, given us a religious coin? We all asked him about it. He told my brother “A little gold is good to have in case of emergency.” When my sister inquired, she was told my sister that it was “St. Stephan was the patron saint of people who help others, and you guys have been good at taking care of me…” He told me it was “for luck.” We all knew from his nonresponse responses that there was a deeper meaning for the gift than the reasons he was giving and each of us in turn had pushed him on it. Much to our collective chagrin we were unsuccessful in unearthing those reasons.
I reply to my old man “Sure.” And, then pull out my wallet and from a compartment inside it I pull out the gold medallion and place it on the table between us. He looks surprised. I say “You said it was for luck. So I carry it around with me.”
Getting over his surprise he asks “Can I trust you to keep a secret?
I can sense the seriousness of his question and for some reason it activates the snark in me and I reply “Well, I have managed to keep the world from knowing what a good guy you are?”
He doesn’t smile and says “Don’t be an asshole. I am being serious.”
I smile. In our family being called an asshole is often an honorific but not in this case. “Sure Dad. What is up.”
“I am serious. What I am thinking about telling you is classified and I am breaking about a dozen laws just thinking about telling you about it.”
“Is this about the war?” thinking back to Paul’s veiled references.
“Then how can it still be classified. The war ended nearly seventy years ago.”
“It is. I checked.”
“But that makes no sense.”
Frustrated he responds “Trust me. What I am going to tell you could still ruin people’s lives. Hurt reputations and worse.”
“If you say so.”
“I say so.”
He pauses and after taking a sip of scotch he begins “There was a man named Anton Skoda who worked at Winter’s department store…”
Five years after our visit to Vienna. Pops passed away. He died like he lived. On his own terms. Unable to walk at the end, and faced with three time a week dialysis, that involved lengthy ambulance rides and being stretchered in and out of his home, he chose to end his treatment and slip quietly into the goodnight. It was not easy to see him go but I would like to think for him it was just a transition to the next great adventure. He made that easy to believe because even as uremia took him away from this reality. His positive outlook never wavered. Even blessing us from time to time with recitations of Kubla Khan by Coleridge, “ In Xanadu did Kubla Khan. A stately pleasure-dome decree, Where Alph, the sacred river, ran, Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.”
Just weeks after Pops died the Federal Government, in an effort to streamline and codify how we classify documents ordered the declassification of millions of top secret documents. Among the documents released were those on the Crown of Stephan and how it came into American hands at the end of the 2nd World War.
Dad’s story could finally be told.