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by Gloria Gray Katz
WAS IT FISTS pounding on our door, or was it rifle butts? The balmy midnight of a small town near Vienna was suddenly rent by a torrent of insistent blows on the flimsy entrance-way. In the quiet autumn night, the sounds were unearthly, incongruous.
“Hush,” my mother whispered, “Not a sound; perhaps they will go away.” The year was 1938, a few months after the “Anschluss,” Germany’s annexation of Austria. In this small suburb of Vienna -- Mödling bei Wien -- the changes wrought by the Nazis were like a slowly creeping disease, encroaching with morbid insistence on my previously placid childhood.
In uniforms of authority, and sporting gleaming SS insignia, the men at the door pushed inside anyway, rifles at the ready. Torn from sleep, I stared in dumb amazement, incredulous and, actually, only a little frightened, almost, it seems, a little thrilled by all this drama. I was, after all, barely eight years old at that moment in time.
THEY CAME WITH ORDERS, papers and clipboards. “All of you: up, and come with us at once!” barked the commandant. My mother’s protestations are waived away. “Take your documents, and put any valuables in this envelope,” another, the bearer of papers and clipboard, bellowed.
“But we are on the verge of emigrating anyway, I and my two children. See, we have tickets, permits almost completed…you can see I’ve been packing....” my trembling mother pleaded.
Surprisingly, “I’ll go and inquire for you,” the clipboard soldier retorted, leaving his cohorts, still clutching their guns, to keep guard. But nothing availed.
“You must come. We have orders to take along all the Jews in Mödling. No exceptions.”
For this eight-year old, these events -- my mother hastily bringing out some clothes, the hurried dressing and gathering up of sundry items, the few “valuables” on hand nervously deposited as ordered in the specially provided envelope -- induced primarily a sudden and urgent need to empty my bladder. “She has to go to the bathroom,” my mother whispered on my behalf. “Well, one of our men must accompany her.”
And indeed, one of the group, youngish and clearly of lower rank (and looking markedly uncomfortable) took up his post leaning against the bathroom door jamb. I was, of course, thoroughly embarrassed but also astounded – with a budding but misplaced sense of self-importance. Such untoward attention....
This over, my mother and we two children (I and my sister, nearly ten) were ordered to proceed outside, and then marched, two soldiers in front, and two behind, their rifles now militarily in evidence, through the quiet streets of the darkened village. Once again I remember gazing around in amazement, peeking at the hundreds of stars, at the glowing half-moon in evidence, thrilled by the unaccustomed feel of darkness and a brilliant, crisp night sky. The rifles and boots notwithstanding, the darkness, punctuated by a thousand stars, made the most vivid impression on me. Born into a careful and protective European family, I had never before, after all, been permitted outside at such an hour.
THE LITTLE GROUP WAS MARCHED through the still and darkened streets, to come all at once to the town square. And, oh, what a sorry sight greeted our eyes. There, milling about -- with many still in their nightclothes -- were several dozen people, young, old and some markedly old. For the eight-year-old, the feeling of an adventure abruptly ended there. The people gathered in the town square looked too pathetic, too bewildered, for any childish, romantic fantasy notions to continue.
“Why are we here?” “Where are you taking us?”
“Some trucks will come; then we’ll dump all you Jews in the Danube...,” one of the armed men guffawed. The pitiful group seemed to shudder as one.
And indeed, trucks pulled up -- coal trucks, actually. The assemblage was herded onboard. The eight-year-old had once again to suppress, as too unsuitable by now, a fleeting sense of adventure, a macabre feeling, the open truck appearing to fly through the sky...the air rushing by....
Abruptly, the group was duly deposited at the Vienna Bahnhof (train station). “You must board the next train leaving for the border. Anyone who turns back will be shot!”
“But they won’t let us in...We have no visas, no money...,” the straggly group protested. “We have our orders...No Jews to remain in the town of Mödling when this night is over...”
And there my memory falters. Only fleeting impressions of an interminable night, cold and miserable, resolving finally in a pink and chilly morning, remain to me.
But suddenly, a hurried announcement out of the blue:
“You can all go back to your homes now.”
“Mach Schnell!” (“Make it Quick!”)
“The envelopes’s contents will be returned to you on presentation of your receipts.”
Astounded murmurs of disbelief, and then a surge of relief… The assemblage disperses rapidly. I recall only a sleep-drugged taxi ride home.
“It was the whim of a drunken senior officer,” the explanation filters through days later. He wanted a “Juden-frei” (“Jew-free”) Mödling by morning. Eventually, it appears, he sobered up.
FOR ME, AS A SMALL CHILD, and later, as a refugee in London, the incident became remote and shrouded in mist, yet with vivid periodic re-emergence. In war-torn England, my feelings and thoughts about Austria were soon supplanted by other, more urgent impulses and calls on my attention. Separated from my parents and sister, my focus turned to making new friends, learning a new language, and adapting to myriad pressures of survival. Sporting school-issued gas masks like purses, we schoolchildren were more concerned with looking smart than with unpronounced dangers. A yearning for security, as well as for achievement, sat at the base of my childhood struggles.
When my family and I were reunited in America in 1940, I did not attach too much importance to my experiences in Austria. More pressing to me was how to enjoy my newly-acquired status as an American. Harking back to these experiences in Mödling, I must acknowledge the healing power of time. Certainly, one doesn’t stay a prisoner of searing memories forever.
Born in Vienna in 1930, Gloria Katz escaped Austria with her family, lived in England, and eventually settled in the United States. She holds a Master’s Degree from Columbia University and worked most of her life as an educator and a federal court clerk. Gloria currently resides in Oakland, California, where she is working on a collection of essays about her family in the Holocaust. Gloria can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.