I’m currently reading the epic novel “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, a fascinating page turner that takes place during WWII. My father Bernard and his younger brother Charles endured similar circumstances as the young Marie-Laure, running from madness, trying to find their ground without parents nearby.
As I languish in the throes of a new year funk, unable to write, and losing touch with my goals, I turn to my late father to be my guest writer for the day to describe the chaos he and my uncle Charles had to endure as children during this horrendous time in history. Pardon the typos, if there are any.
“Is Austria Accomplice or Victim of Teutonmania?”
By Bernard Rotmil
I was twelve years old that day in March 1938 on that thoroughfare in Vienna. Excited by the cries and shouting, I pushed myself through the thickly gathered crowd. Hitler’s caravan was already being sighted by those who managed to occupy high vantage points. They hovered and crowded open windows. The sight of the caravan caused them to point excitedly at the sharp bend in the wide tree lined avenue. Faces, young and old, were straining, not only out of curiosity, but obvious pride at the coming of the savior and leader of their race.
A burly, brown shirted Nazi saw me struggle through the crowd. His swastika armband loomed overhead as he saw me wiggle through. Desirous to leave an unforgettable impression of the moment on this young specimen of the German race, he grabbed me by the armpit and proudly deposited me unto a pedestal nearby, where I became a prop set for the Fuehrer’s arrival.
Little did this Nazi soldier suspect that this man-child was a Jewish mud lark, drawn by an overriding curiosity to view this historic spectacle.
I will never forget the roaring crowd, stiff arms raised as the impassive Moloch passed by, standing in his big shiny black limousine. They chanted and clapped in cadence, their hearts and minds delirious with the job of deliverance, dissolving the pent up frustration gathered since the melting away of their Austria-Hungarian empire, finalized by the defeat of World War I. He, almost oblivious to the tremulous mob about him, would deign raise his arm, bending it at the elbow, then let it slowly sink at his side. His eyes shone bright under the visor of his military cap. They were hard, these eyes, as his vaunted mustache twittered occasionally. I will never forget the immaculate light khaki raincoat he wore. Khaki raincoats were important to the Nazi psyche.
The next day, about two block up the same thoroughfare and within view of the famous wheel of the ‘Prater”, a famous ancient amusement park, I was almost overrun by a similar open limousine. Jumping aside, I recognized the mousy features and prominent Adam’s apple of Dr. Joseph Goebbels; the high priest. He came so close, I could have touched him, but he was instantly gone.
A few days later, during the infamous “Krystal Nacht”, a half dozen brown shirted SA men invaded our modest flat near Tabor Strasse and proceeded to mercilessly beat up my father, stopping only when his blood soiled one his attacker’s uniform. Tush started a long and often repeated series of episodes out of which remains only a certificate from a magistrate in Brussels stating that my father was part of the Railway Convoy XXI which departed from Malines, Belgium on July 31, 1943 under number 779. I understand its destination was the infamous concentration camp of Mathausen. I never saw him again.
Let me explain, first of all, we are not Austrians. My father was a native of Poland and an art broker who traveled intermittently between Germany, Austria and France. The onset of World War II found us in Brussels, Belgium, to which we had fled from the aforementioned. As for myself, I was born in Alsace and had spent my childhood in Strassbourg, Metz and Paris. At the Anschluss, we had been in Austria for about a year and my most vivid memories were of a vibrant Jewish Community with a touch of Sholom Aleichem’s “Shtetele”. My memories of Vienna and Leopoldstadt – the Jewish District – is as warm and kind as anyone might entertain of his childhood locale, anywhere. Although I did view the city as a foreigner, in no time at all, I was absorbed by the local sport scene and a Jewish Soccer team by the name of “Hakoah” and a tall, lanky and superb soccer player by the name of Schindler.
Not very religious, almost rebellious, I was sent to an orthodox Yeshiva run by Agudath Israel and got into occasional trouble in school. The reason, I am sure, was that my prior education was in Paris, whence we had come from, and I became somewhat turned off by this sudden change in language. My life became not unlike Tom Sawyers in Hannibal and who, by the way, was my favorite read at the time. For one, we went by the vast lumber yards by the railroad (or was it the river), to band on the wood and watch the rats scurry out of the pile. We loved to climb over the high wall in the back of an old bakery, climb atop the woodpile inside the woodshed adjacent to the baking workshop. There, we’d imitate animal sounds. The baker, a pious man with skullcap, roused from his nightly labor, would appear, lantern in had, to inspect the source of the noise. He never thought to look on top of the woodpile and never found us.
In an era when private bathrooms in apartments was a luxury, the “Mikva”, served as a convenient community bathhouse. By definition, a Mikvah is a ritual bath for women. This Mikvah, however, had an adjacent building for men. It being the best and most convenient place for my personal hygiene, and very cheap at that! I went there as often as I had to. There, immersed in the very hot and steaming pools of water, were the reddish and sweaty faces of bearded Orthodox Jews, sitting totally naked, indolently soaking in the penetrating and soothing heat. It was a quiet scene where no one moved except to get n or out of the water. It was at such a quiet moment that I heard a yell from upstairs. “Mir Shlught yidden” (They’re beating Jews). This wry joke, directed at people whose experience of the pogrom was very vivid, was supposed to rouse them into a panic and have them run off in their lobster red nakedness. It might have worked at one time, but these old Jews just smiled, appreciative of the humor; except for an old rabbi who clothed and ready to leave for home caught the prankster and let him verbally have it.
I also remember my friend Gunther whose mother made the best cookies and cakes. We both loved to build model airplanes – a hobby that was in vogue back then. My father’s penchant for gambling on horses did not leave much for the family table and to a large extent we were indigent. The support of the community was generous and my wealthier friends went to great length to have me at their Seder during Passover nights. I still remember the world famous Viennese Horse Academy building – which had burned down at the time – and the racetrack nearby, on which my father left goodly sums on many wasted afternoons. I have fond memories of the Prater, as most children would. It was then that I had my first contact with Zionism and first heard and sang “Havah Negilah”. As a member of Bethar, a militaristic branch, I had mock duels using broomsticks for swords.
But I must say, my fondest memories are of the Synagogue in Leopoldstadt. I went there every Sabbath and holidays, not out of parental, school or religious duty, but simply because it was an absolutely beautiful place to be and I loved it. In old Europe, Synagogues in large Metropolitan area were supported, as a matter of honor and privilege by the richer members of the community, and Vienna had quite few of them. It’s rich interior of luxuriant wooded balustrades and gold chandeliers, all highlighted the luminescent and ornate Ark containing the Torah.
But most of all, it had the finest young boys choir and the best cantorial tenor voice that I had ever heard or will hear again. I suspect that my love for music started then and there. I dreamt of belonging to this choir and would sing in my room ad practice in the hope that I might join it. In a pique of jealousy, I engaged into a fight with the lead singer, who really did rather well for himself. In the dark days of World War II, cut off from this sustaining force, I did drift towards Catholicism, as many Jewish children were wont to do. But when exposed to the cantorial songs and ancient liturgy, all the voices from the Synagogue at Leopoldstadt reawakened powerfully within me. Also within me forever, live the memories of these fine and good people of pre-war Vienna who, except for the fact they followed an ancient tradition, were as people are anywhere: they had the good and the bad, the thin and the fat, the saints and the sinners, the absurd and the sublime. That anyone should have intellectualized away their right to live is beyond comprehension; their innocent is so evident.
As a GI in post WWII, I was stationed hear Heidelberg Germany. I met with German youth and felt awkward as they did when advised of my background. But I tried to explain that, having had to live my youth under the accusation of decide, certainly I would be the last to place them the guilt of their parents. But, unlike the theological and apocryphal basis for the medieval accusation, this most heinous period in the history of man is the best documented and more irrevocable. I felt, and still do feel, a sympathy for anyone having to bear this awful burden; because carrying this historical burden they must.