“‘Die Omama” was originally published in 29 Kurzgeschichten aus Wien, the 2020 edition of Eine Stadt. Ein Buch. For this annual series, the City of Vienna traditionally selects an existing work of fiction and distributes 100,000 free copies around the city every November. 2020 was the first year in which original work was commissioned, in the form of short stories by 29 different authors.
Then somehow it all went pear-shaped
In Oma’s garden, the roses stand to attention. She gets rid of voles by fumigating their burrows. Her hands are agile, even though she’s about to turn eighty-five. With her nimble fingers she plucks the snails from the vegetable patch and throws them into a bucket full of salt or, if she feels like it, flings them over the thuja hedge into the neighbour’s garden. Thirty years ago, the neighbour poisoned her cat. “You remember something like that,” she says, “for a lifetime.” She’ll never forget how little Schnurli, foaming at the mouth, croaked it under the apple tree. When she says the words “croaked it,” she spits three times.
Oma has the best-kept garden in the Viennese suburb of Nussdorf. People walk past and marvel at it. They say you can eat a sandwich off Horacek’s lawn. Not a weed to be found, no matter where you look. Daisies or dandelions are no match for Oma, who always carries a knife, and her eyes are as sharp as its blade. If she spots something, she doesn’t rest until it’s eradicated. When she says “eradicate,” she cackles at the thrill of it.
Oma’s name is actually Horácek. But she writes it “Horacek,” without the accent, because she’s uncomfortable with it looking Bohemian.
She got the name from Opa, whose father emigrated from the South Bohemian village of Deutsch Reichenau in 1918, and although Opa has long been dead, she still blames him for turning her, a born Herzog, into a Horacek. She was young and beautiful back then. Young and stupid, too. If she had known better, she wouldn’t have kissed him in the undergrowth on their walk through the Vienna Woods. Two weeks later, she missed her period and had no choice but to marry him. That was in 1945, shortly after the end of the war.
The wedding photo is still in her possession, of course. It shows Oma in a dress made of parachute silk, and the first signs of a bump underneath. She looks older than just eighteen. Her shoes are a few sizes too large and have been stuffed with cotton wool. She tries to smile. Opa too. He stands next to her and looks short, like a crouching man. He borrowed his grey suit from his best friend, a bricklayer. Opa himself, a house painter by trade, was slim compared to his friend. But that’s how it was back then: you wore things that didn’t fit you. “All kinds of things,” Oma says, “that were too tight or too loose, depending on the contacts you had.”
Whenever Oma picks redcurrants, she thinks back to the years before the wedding, when she was still a Herzog. Reminiscing about that time keeps her feeling young and fresh, and although she holds a grudge against Hitler for invading Poland on the day she had her first period, she regards the war years, the years of her youth, as a golden time. When she says the word “youth,” she crushes a redcurrant between her fingers. She lets the crimson juice trickle down her wrist and arm, which is dotted with liver spots. Then she licks it off.
The nicest thing about the war was the singing. Oma was in the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ wing of the Hitler Youth, because she liked the folk songs she sang there and because she was given the solo parts in choir, thanks to her very fine voice. Sports were also a nice activity. Oma loved to do gymnastics. She was even chosen for the long jump trials. Too bad she wasn’t good enough to get a ribbon.
Oma was born out of wedlock. She grew up with her mother in a block of flats in the working-class district of Ottakring. The stairwell smelled of overcooked potatoes and over time, less often of meat. Whenever Oma helped Frau Stanek from the apartment next door with carrying her shopping, she was rewarded with a piece of chocolate and then, more and more often, with a dog biscuit as hard as a rock.
She had barely any relationship with her father. He was a small-time hustler from the neighbouring district of Hernals, who spent his days betting on cards and horses. Now and then he’d show up at the door just to ask her questions. How old was she now, what was she learning in school, was she being good and helping her mother around the house? Then he’d always make off again. Oma still remembers his lopsided gait. “He walked,” she said, “as if something was causing him pain in his side,” and when he disappeared for good one day, with talk he’d gotten into hassles with the Nazis, the only enduring memory of him was this invisible pain in his side. Nobody knew what had happened to him. Some family members reckoned he’d joined the Foreign Legion and gone to Morocco, others said he’d cleared off on a ship bound for America. Oma was teased at school because of this, but the girls at the Bund Deutscher Mädel left her alone. She belonged to the community there, and that felt nice.
Her mother had to work a lot. She taught at the Schloss Wilhelminenberg children’s home, where the kids of whores and drunks were sent. She was more eager to care for these social misfits, Oma says, than she was for her own child. And anyway… Oma is lost for words. She can’t finish the sentence; her voice is stuck in her throat. She takes her pruning shears and snips a dead branch off a bush. The redcurrant harvest is meagre this year, no doubt because of the crazy temperatures. She read in the newspaper that there’s no spring anymore. Winter is followed by summer and summer is followed by winter, because now there’s no autumn either.
When Oma was fifteen, she was sent to Uncle Fritz and Aunt Helene in Lower Austria. All four of her cousins were at the front. Letters sometimes arrived via field post and Aunt Helene always got all worked up afterwards. She would rant and rave about Hitler, cursing so loudly that Uncle Fritz had to lock her in the barn. She would continue ranting in there, until eventually you could only hear her crying. The names of her sons carried through the cracks, each of them ringing strangely hollow.
Oma only knew them by their handwriting. Gustl’s was angular, Ernst’s was round, Fredi’s was big, Hans’s was small. What they wrote about was always the same: the food, their homesickness, the food. A chunk of dry-cured ham, they wrote, would be really nice now. A little piece of home to bite into. This was in the winter of 1942. Oma knitted a pair of socks for all four of them and Aunt Helene stuffed them full with dry sausages and cheese. Uncle Fritz got all of it from the Huber farm for a pretty penny. Oma slyly bit off some of the sausage for Hans, out of sheer hunger. But he didn’t resent her for it, as far as she could tell. He was killed shortly after in the Battle of Stalingrad, as was Gustl. And then Ernst.
Apart from the business with her first period, Oma had a good relationship with Hitler. She had a picture of him hanging above her bed, which was more like a camp bed, and though she didn’t find him especially attractive in the conventional sense, she detected an aura emanating from his eyes. This aura intoxicated her. Before she went to bed, her hair braided into swirls, she kneeled in front of the framed picture in her cotton shirt and bloomers, joined her hands together, and recited the Lord’s Prayer. She wasn’t very Catholic, but praying helped her to feel close to the aura she found so intoxicating. After the Lord’s Prayer, she talked to Hitler about whatever was going through her head. She told him about things like the disappearance of Elsa Friedmann, a girl from a block of flats in Ottakring who had gone missing along with her entire family. She told him she couldn’t believe what the other mothers had said about Elsa – namely that she had been taken away. To work. She told him she had always admired Elsa from afar because of her slender and pretty legs. And she told him she wanted to have long and pretty legs herself, should it somehow be in his power to grant it, because her dream, she told him in a low voice, was to become an actress one day. A brilliantly talented actress like Marika Rökk, who oozes glamorous allure and sings that she doesn’t need no millions – she’d be happy without a single penny extra, all she needs is music, music, music.
With this song in her head, Oma got through the hours of her home economics classes. When she had some time to herself in the afternoon, she would stand in front of the bedroom mirror with a small hat on her head and try out a series of poses while pushing her chest out. She was very proud of her breasts. Whenever she rode her bike across the cobbled village square and her bosom bobbed up and down, the boys would whistle at her, and that was a great feeling. Here comes Lady Herzog, they would call, and their eyes almost fell out of their heads.
There’s a bench in Oma’s garden, but she rarely sits down. She has to keep moving, she says, otherwise she gets swollen feet. Pacing around all day runs in her blood. When she says the word “blood,” she rams a shovel into the ground and loosens the soil around the old well. She wants to plant herbs there – parsley and chives. Oma doesn’t believe in gardens that are only to be looked at. A garden has to be useful; it has to produce something. The hard work you put into it has to pay off in the end.
Oma did a lot of walking when she was seventeen, mostly down to the air raid shelter at night. The wail of sirens still rings in her ears to this day. The drone of low-flying aircraft, the roar of bombs. One of them blew a munitions train at the station sky-high, which made a hell of a racket. The ensuing silence blotted out all other background noise. It wasn’t until the all clear that you could hear your own breathing again, breaths squeezed from the pit of your stomach. Aunt Helene was the first to gather her wits and launched into a loud rant, but this time Uncle Fritz joined in, shouting “Hitler is a Jewish bastard!” It was so hilariously funny that Oma doubled over with laughter.
In the spring of 1945, when spring was still an actual season, Oma and Aunt Helene and a few other girls and women from the village were brought to the Groiß farm. It was supposedly safer there, because the Russian and his Katyushas – Stalin’s Organ, as they were dubbed – had almost reached the Ölberg hill. Oma wondered why people said “the Russian,” as if there was only one. Peering out of a knothole in the cider cellar, they could clearly see that scores of them were closing in. Shots were being fired in all directions. Through the hole, Oma saw a soldier slumping to the ground, fatally hit. Hanging on to life by a thread, his body swayed in the wind like an ear of barley for a few seconds. Then he collapsed, blood around his mouth, and was dead, one of the many bodies strewn along the path heading west. Oma had walked the same path days before, happily singing to herself, and picked a bright yellow flower from where the soldier’s face was now staring blankly into the sky. She tucked it behind her ear and felt like the most beautiful girl in the world. More beautiful even than Liesbeth, who now had a boyfriend. It was whispered that she had clambered into the hay with him, where he had snuck his hand under her skirt.
Liesbeth was also in the cider cellar. She was the one who squealed the loudest when the door suddenly opened and the Russian stepped in. Oma had to cover her mouth. The Russian shouted “Ura!” And again, “Ura!” He confiscated their watches and every single piece of jewellery they were wearing – a charm bracelet here, a necklace or a ring there. Then he left, taking the farmer Groiß with him to help the men outside bury the dead soldiers. Nearly all the women were sent to cook, while five of them were taken to the stable, where they could be heard begging for mercy. Liesbeth was among them. When she came out, her blouse was ripped and she didn’t say a word. With pale lips she went over to one of the saucepans and began stirring the soup. She cried into the pan, gentle salty tears. Oma cried too.
Uncle Fritz’s house was commandeered by Soviet secret police from the GPU. During their interrogations, Oma had to make sure there was always enough tea on the table. If she did a good job, she was praised and allowed to pick up a pot of lard from the supply officer, who was staying in the neighbouring house. Because the officer had a daughter at home in Moscow who was her age, he often brought her a couple of cinnamon rolls from the officers’ mess. He would watch her eating, and if she enjoyed them it brought a misty sheen to his eyes. Oma liked him, but she kept that to herself. Somehow it felt wrong to like him. Just as it was wrong to like Andrei, another Russian. He had studied music before becoming a soldier, and came by every afternoon to play the violin for her. Once, he put down his bow in the middle of a piece, tiptoed over to Oma, who was rocking back and forth to the music, and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She pulled her face away and he immediately let go of her. Oma says this was very decent of him, although she actually only turned away to see if anybody was standing in the door, and she felt terrible regret about it afterwards, because Andrei stopped visiting her after this incident. She would have liked to have mended his uniform for him and to get a little hug in return, just to see what it’s like to be held close by a man.
Where the picture of Hitler had once hung, there was now, in the same frame of course, a picture of a guardian angel. Uncle Fritz had been smart enough to replace it without delay. He had rolled up the picture of Hitler and hid it behind a crate of sugar beets in the barn. “It would be a waste,” he said, “to tear it up or burn it. You never know when you might need something like that again, and it’s annoying if you no longer have it.” From then on, Oma prayed to her guardian angel and carried on praying for pretty long legs like Elsa Friedmann’s, because then she would be discovered and be able to take to the stage in a flowing costume, and that would be a life, an exciting one, a life like no other.
Four months after the end of the war, Oma was sent back to her mother to give her a hand with gathering bricks. The apartment building was still standing, but it was completely surrounded by rubble and no progress had been made in shifting it.
There is a photo of her on the day she left. Oma is wearing a blue soldier’s jacket, a cap with a feather, and green velvet shoes with straw soles that a displaced woman from the Sudetenland had braided for her as a farewell present. The photo is in black and white, but Oma remembers the colours very clearly. “Back then, when something was blue, it was really blue, more than nowadays, and so radiant,” she added, “that it was almost blinding.” When she says the word “radiant,” she tamps down the loose soil around the freshly planted herbs with her feet. Soon she will be finished for the day; all she has left to do is water the roses. One of them needs quite a bit of water or else it will begin to droop.
The supply officer picked Oma up in his car and drove her in style to Hütteldorf on the edge of Vienna, where she was collected by her mother. On the way, he taught her a Russian folk song. They sang it together, their hair in the wind. It was a melancholy song, which you could tell even if you didn’t understand a word of it. When they arrived, the officer gave her a kiss on the hand. It tickled because he had a beard, and despite it tickling her, Oma suddenly felt like crying. She was ashamed of this and quickly got out of the car. It also brought on a pain in her side, an invisible pain that she has since always associated with the smell of cologne. The smell came from the kiss on her hand, and she wondered if her father, the hustler from Hernals, hadn’t also smelled like that.
And then Oma helped to rebuild Vienna.
Opa, who had escaped from a prison camp near Linz, was finally back home with his parents in Nussdorf after a return journey with lots of detours and got to know Oma while they were gathering bricks.
Then the thing happened in the Vienna Woods.
Then she was pregnant.
Then suddenly her name was Horacek.
Then Andreas was born.
Then Robert and Christel.
… somehow it all went pear-shaped. When she says the word “pear-shaped,” Oma puts down the watering can and looks around the garden. She’s satisfied with what she sees. The only thorn in her side is the neighbour’s house, which desperately needs a fresh coat of paint. It’s a crying shame how shabby it looks, just like everything is getting shabby! Things used to be different, she’s sure of it. Things were definitely better in the past. And if she hadn’t been so young and stupid, she’d be standing on stage under a spotlight and the applause would never end, even long after the curtain comes down, and then she would stand there with her pretty long legs and just be happy, happy, happy.
From 29 Kurzgeschichten aus Wien, Echomedia Buchverlag, 2020.