Photos by Internet
These events are true. Mutti and I lived through this. There is only one incident where I used poetic license: Uncle Jakob is a pseudonym for Schussnig, the assassinated Austrian Prime Minister. The words are a combination of Schussnig’s speeches, as well as various comments of several people we knew. The minor poetic license serves as background for time and place.
1986. As they walked over an ancient cobblestone bridge, the clean-mud, vernal smell of Lake Geneva’s glacial melt water welled up around them, and, without warning, propelled her back in time to the child tightly holding her mother’s hand on that bridge on another rainy day, fifty years before in August of 1938. A nod of her head sent her husband and the others strolling along the esplanade, leaving her enveloped by the smell of the lake.
1938. By late afternoon, the Gestapo returned her mother, ashen and shaking. They unceremoniously pushed her into the foyer wall, executed an about face and slammed the door. Two sets of hob nail boots beat a slow retreat down the front stairs and onto the Viennese streets.
Immediately after the door slammed shut, the frightened maid helped her mistress to a chair, then quickly drew the heavy drawing-room drapes. Finni was distressed by the fragility of the small, still woman she had known for so many years. Her mistress’ vulnerability was heightened by the maroon velvet chair which engulfed her. Quickly glancing at the child, she scurried into the kitchen and returned with loose pieces of ice which she stroked on lips leaking spittle and blood.
The child fleetingly wondered why her Mutti’s face was so misshapen. She decided that Mutti was rehearsing for one of her wonderful bedtime stories, turned away from the drawing room to go back to a small hall window overlooking a courtyard and a nearby railroad overpass, three stories below.
“Look, Finni! Some of the red paint has spilled on the ground!” The child tugged the hurrying maid to the octagonal window. They saw some twenty soldiers lounging near a half dozen men and women wearing bright yellow arm bands who were painting red designs on the overpass.
“Yes, child.” A hurried glance toward the woman. “It is red. Paint. They are, are, Communists. Soldiers – the soldiers, they tell – yes, they tell them, “Paint the hammer and sickle. Soon, other soldiers – others – others will take them away because they are . . . painting. Come, drink your lemon tea and let me wash your mother’s face.”
As the child drank, she overhead the women hissing at each other like the elephants in the elephant house. It was a delicious thought, that. Mutti and Finni were two tiny elephants hissing at each other.
“You must leave here!” No protection! They will come back. Stay with my mother tonight. The train to Geneva before breakfast. Two tickets. No trouble.” An unmusical giggle. “I do not wear a yellow band. They only harassed those with — You needn’t wear — No one need know.”
“The trunks. . . ? My own. . . ? My husband’s. . . ? My grandmother’s. . . ?
Flustered, mistress looked past the maid at the dozen large, metal-bound steamer trunks with high rounded lids scattered throughout the drawing room, and fluttered her hands in uncharacteristic hopelessness.
This past week, after the child’s father had been hurriedly put on the plane to America, the women had been packing the cherished mementoes of their shattered lives, while Fredl and Oma took the child for outings to the park and the zoo.
Yesterday, the three returned somewhat past noon, and were merrily sharing the morning adventure at the elephant house when the soldiers and the Gestapo arrived. Mutti had gone with them immediately, her slight figure dwarfed by the armed men.
“The trunks?!” Finni fairly spit out the words, causing the child to look to the drawing room with sudden wonder. “Two suitcases you can carry! One suitcase! The trunks, indeed!”
Her mother rose without warning, clutching Finni’s shoulder. Slowly, she began weaving unsteadily toward the child sipping her tea by the window. The child giggled, Finni’s sharpness forgotten. How much like an elephant they now looked. Mutti, in her gray suit, and Finni in her gray uniform.
“The child, Frau Brück, has been watching them paint. I did not tell her as yet. No need, you know?”
“Yes, of course.”
As they paused by the window, the light of the setting sun radiated though the stained-glass escutcheon and cast a ghastly reflection on their distorted faces. The child was startled by the sight and began to cry.
“You are not elephants.” she whimpered.
Frozen momentarily with shock at the outburst, they stared at her. Then, after that moment, both women sank to the floor to comfort the now sobbing child as she wailed in a sing-song chant, “You’re not elephants! You’re not! You’re not!”
She was gathered into Mutti’s lap as the chant lengthened into a rhythmic wail.
Abruptly, her mother made a decision and stood up quickly as the sobbing child slipped to the ground with a gasp, her wailing swallowed and forgotten.
The mother shook off her fright and distress. “Finni! Send Max to your mother. We will be there after dark. All of us.”
“But, if we all leave the house, they will confiscate — ”
“Finni!” Severely. “Send Max. At once.”
Immediately the maid skittered through the hall door and communicated with the kitchen.
“Come here, child.” There was an unusual, stern note in her mother’s lilting voice.
Great Uncle had spoken like that in the Parliament Chamber when he wore his red robes with the gold buttons and ermine trim that matched his wig. Everyone had listened attentively to him. Afterwards, he was given polite applause interspersed with some scattered cheers.
Afterwards, she and Mutti had visited him in his office. He was, as always, kind when he spoke to her, gravely listening to her chattering with a benign smile. At the end of the visit he presented her with a shiny copper pfennig in exchange for a hug and kiss.
Mutti was speaking to her now with Great Uncle Jacob’s tone. The child fixed her eyes on her mother, wondering if the robes would appear first, followed by a wig to cover her mother’s disheveled, brown hair.
“Child, sorrow and trouble are here. Listen! Your father went away to America because the soldiers were looking for him. Do you understand?
“No, Mutti. Papa is not bad. Why should they? But why do soldiers look for him?”
“I said to listen, child!”
“In a musing but stern tone, she said, “Your father is not bad, nor am I . Neither are you bad.
“We are merely Jews. Just Jews. Bad? No!” Her mother’s voice reminded her of the lion at the zoo growling over his food.
“It is the soldiers. It is the Gestapo. They are bad. You see by the railroad bridge?” Mutti swallowed and gently touched her wounds. “My face? That is what the soldiers and Gestapo did to me,” she exclaimed with fierce sterness.
The child looked closely at the bruises, then stared attentively into her mother’s eyes. There was no laughter there. The eyes were deeply sunk into Mutti’s face, like the raisins in that morning’s breakfast scone. There were unfamiliar shadows and contours as well.
“Yes? Mutti?” Part statement, part question.
“They will — No, you are but five. You must understand. If we are to go to Papa, you must understand.
“At the overpass, the soldiers are …” Mutti leaned wearily against the window, obstructing the view below. “That is not paint running in the street. That …” a deep sigh and a fluttering of hands. “is blood.”
Released by the truth, words tripped over each other like a slow drum roll, but the voice remained stern. “Quiet! Listen to me. That is blood. They are Jews, the painters are Jews.
“Not Communists. Papa is a Jew. You are a Jew … and myself, and your Omas , and … But Finni is not a Jew. She does not wear the yellow arm band.”
“Mutti! Great Uncle Jakob did not wear a yellow arm band but Finni says he was killed.” Her mother stared at her daughter, momentarily at a loss for words. She merely nodded helplessly. Many years later she admitted that at that moment, the enormity of the coming firestorm washed over her. It would not just engulf the yellow armbands, but would swallow others as well.
Slowly, the setting sun formed lengthening shadows that draped over the three of them, the furniture, and the floor.
“Finni and I will pack — just one, Finni! — at once. You will not ask for any special toys or clothes except your Teddy. We will go with Fredl to Mrs. Langer’s for the night. In the morning, we take the train to Geneva where there is a-a-a lake, and a f-f-fountain, and you will not cry. Even if the soldiers talk to you, you will not cry.”
Finni startled mother and child by making a chopping motion with her arm.
Mutti spoke. “If they hit — You will not cry. You will always hold my hand and will NOT let go, do you hear me?” Ferocity melded with sternness and the child nodded.
She understood that the soldiers would … harm them? … if she cried. She would not cry. She would hold her mother’s hand tightly. She bit her tongue until it bled. The taste of the salty fluid was interesting enough to push back the sickness that had begun to well up within her. She went into the kitchen to return the empty tea cup, took a tea cookie and returned to the drawing room to play with her beloved Teddy.
“Finni. Please. Ease my tensions. I think, after all, one small suitcase for me is sufficient. If you dare, and they are not confiscated, send the trunks at a later time. I will leave money for you.”
Finni nodded. “I will help you after I bring her milk.”
In low whispers the two women exchanged several words to each other. The maid returned to the kitchen .
As her mother returned to her chair, the child, hugging her Teddy, asked. “Must we still wear the yellow arm bands if they — if the soldiers — will hurt us?”
“No, we will not wear them again if you will promise not to tell the soldiers — or anyone, as you have been doing, my daugher — that we are Jews. Do you understand me, child? You may no longer say you are Jewish until we reach safety.”
“Yes, Mutti, I promise.” The child, holding her Teddy, walked to her window, but darkness nearly veiled the outer world. She saw dim shapes by the overpass.
She heard her mother say the train to Geneva would take them past here tomorrow. Would the painters with the yellow arm bands see them? Would the soldiers look up to see if the yellow arm bands were on the train?
Abruptly, she turned back to her mother. “Mutti, can I take my Teddy’s arm band off? If the soldiers see he’s a Jew, they will hurt him.”
Her mother’s face convulsed. “Yes! I had not thought of that. Yes! We must take his arm band off! Finni! Did you hear? The Teddy’s armband?”
Finni appeared with a glass of warm milk and looked stricken. She looked at Mutti and wordlessly nodded assent. Then she skillfully skimmed off the butterfat skin and said, “Here my little one, drink this down.”
The two women held each other’s hands and watched the child as she sat her with her beloved Teddy on her father’s velvet chair. After Papa had left several days ago and was no longer there to drink his glass of warm milk with her, she was permitted to sit there.
They watched her drink without speaking. Gradually, she sank into sleep. The women picked up her Teddy and she watched as they carefully removed the stitches that held the narrow yellow arm band with its black, six-pointed star to the arm of the toy.
Lazily, or so it seemed to the child, it floated to the Persian carpet. Minutes later, she herself floated into a deep, drug-induced sleep.
In the morning, she drifted back to awareness at the train station, dimly conscious of a maelstrom of sounds and sights eddying around them. Soldiers with guns were everywhere, shouting, shoving people with rifle butts. Baggage carts piled high with trunks were brought in by porters, only to be savagely removed by yet other soldiers.
Yellow, arm banded souls, most of them women, bitterly swallowed recriminations when they saw those who dared to speak up being brutally knocked down and dragged off. Instead, they scurried quickly onto the waiting train, accompanied by the catcalls and whistles of the soldiers. Many carried or dragged terror-stricken children at whom the soldiers aimed kicks and cuffs.
The child, held now to her mother’s breast, remembered her promise. She closed her eyes, held her bear tightly, and said nothing.
The child murmured and laid her head on her mother’s shoulder. The woman, her face wrapped in a loose silk scarf, carried a small overnight bag and the child. She strolled unconcernedly to a first class carriage, nodded at a soldier, and graciously asked him to open the door. Grinning good-naturedly, and softly clicking his heels together, the man honored her request. “In first class you won’t have to smell the filthy Jews.” Her mother laughed softly in assent and stepped slowly onto the steps into the train compartment. They were the only occupants.
Hardly had they settled in, it seemed, and train lurched forward.
For hours afterwards, they heard nothing but the hypnotic clack of the train wheels, echoing the tumult of the station. As the child drifted in and out of sleep the landscape rushed by: stone houses, wooden houses, evergreen trees, carved-stone people.
They were interrupted once by a conductor who glanced obliquely at the woman holding the child in her lap. He smiled ingratiatingly and disappeared. The child slept again.
She opened her eyes to the sound of voices. Mutti was standing, and had left the child on the seat. There was no sound of train wheels. Soldiers were in the compartment. One voice croaked harshly like the jackdaws on Oma’s farm.
“Jewess, are these your passports?” Jewess, why don’t you wear the arm band? Why are you going to Switzerland and leaving Austria today? It is not allowed to be traitorous, Jewess. You are a Jew. Here. On your passport.”
The child closed her eyes to fight back the terror. What would happen to them? Would the soldiers spill their blood? She mustn’t talk. She had promised her Mutti.
Her mother’s voice floated through the compartment, as low and stern as yesterday evening. “We are not — yet — part of your Fuehrer’s Reich. Nor are you empowered to enforce Austrian law here at the border or elsewhere. Tomorrow the Parliament votes. Today,” the voice dropped a full octave, “Austrian citizens,” a pause. The voice became haughty, “are permitted to travel as they wish.”
The child opened her eyes in time to see the gloved blow land on her mother’s nose. Blood spurted over the compartment and onto its occupants.
“No one said otherwise, but if you wish to file a complaint, you must return, bitch — you and your pup.”
Daintily, the soldier dropped the passports into the spreading pool of blood, snatched the teddy bear from the child’s arms, butted it on his comrade’s bayonet, and tossed it onto the spreading pool. He and the others pushed aside the conductor and left, laughing and cursing.
Moments later, the train once again lurched into motion. Her mother stood, her hands held firmly on the seated child’s shoulders, remaining there while she stared out of the window for perhaps half a minute before she sank to her seat, blood as red as paint still spattering the compartment. Tumultuous sounds from other parts of the train filtered into their consciousness.
“Switzerland! We are safe.” Her mother whispered and sat down.
A dour portress appeared with a mop and began to clean the compartment. She was followed by the conductor, who wordlessly bandaged her mother’s face. As he left, he deftly scooped up the bloody sponge of what had been a teddy bear.
Stolid and grim, the portress remained with them, sitting on the facing seat. Without comment, she opened the window, despite a light rain.
Long before the train slowly pulled into Geneva, the child smelled the waters of its lake, nestled in the arms of a peaceful alpine valley.