Author: Vladimir Vertlib
Translator: David Burnett
Shortly before her death, the old woman gives me a silver cigarette case. It used to belong to her husband, she explains to me. But since I’m such a fine young boy, I can keep it as a souvenir. When I’m all grown up someday and become a smoker myself, I might be able to use it, she says. A map of the Greater German Empire is engraved inside the case, from after the occupation of the Sudetenland, but before the invasion of the “rest of Czechoslovakia,” depicting the major cities, railroad lines and roads. The outlines of the Empire remind me of a wild animal with its mouth wide open, chasing after a ball − East Prussia − under its nose. Or maybe it’s a seal playing with the ball, or a lion about to devour a piece of meat.
Right about there is where she comes from, the old woman explains to me, pointing with the tip of her toothpick (there’s always one in her mouth) at a place outside the boundaries on the map, not far from the predator’s lower jaw. The town is in Upper Silesia, she tells me. It was the Führer who freed it from its Polish yoke, in 1939, only a few months after this cigarette case was made. Sadly, it’s now part of Poland again.
“The worst was after the First World War,” the woman says, while I look at her photo album bound in reddish-brown leather. “I was still young back then, a newlywed. The Polacks roamed the streets with big whips, beating people. My husband got a lashing too. It was thanks to the Führer that our region went back to Germany again, like it was before 1918.”
I can’t make head or tail of what the woman is telling me. Who are the Polacks? And why, on the streets of that little town with buildings that look like dollhouses in the aging black-and-white photos, did they whip those decent-looking people − gentlemen with handlebar mustaches and curved pipes, and ladies in broad-brimmed hats and long skirts which only reveal the tips of their toes? They don’t look so terrible or wicked, these people on the photos.
Complete nonsense, my parents explain to me later. It was the other way around. The Poles were the ones that were beaten and murdered, hundreds of thousands of them, millions even.
I don’t know numbers like a hundred thousand or a million. We haven’t gotten that far yet in school.Frau Ernestine Berger, the neighbor I spend my afternoons with because my parents have to work, always wears a gray hat, even in the apartment. She seldom removes her cardigan, overcoat, thick socks and boots, because even when it’s not very cold outside Frau Berger freezes like we’re in Antarctica and not Vienna. Maybe that’s because Frau Berger no longer has the strength to fetch kindling and coal from the shop in the basement of the house next door and carry them up the three flights of stairs to the cast-iron stove in the living room of her second-floor apartment. I’m hardly surprised, for she can only walk with the aid of her dark-brown-lacquered wooden crutches; she’s incredibly thin, almost incorporeal, has a hunched back, a pointed chin, and an almost toothless mouth. When she walks, her legs make curious circular movements and noises come out of her mouth that sometimes sound like a mixture of hissing and growling. She reminds me of Baba Yaga from the fairy tales my mother reads to me at bedtime, but strangely enough, from the very first moment I was never afraid of the old woman, maybe because of her friendly green eyes and pleasant voice.
My mother brings me to school every morning and back home in the afternoon. She makes a quick meal for me, usually oatmeal or kasha, along with a glass of milk or cocoa. Then she has to go to work. As for me, I go to Frau Berger’s and spend the afternoon at her place until my parents get home around five o’clock. Frau Berger doesn’t ask my parents for money for the four hours I’m allowed to stay at her place. She likes me, and is happy when I come.
Frau Berger’s apartment is a cross between a photo gallery and a natural history museum. The walls are lined with pictures of all her relatives. Unfortunately, they’ve all passed away, she says.
There’s a young man, for instance, who gazes at me from the distant past with a mischievous smile. He seems a little like a carnival character, with his spiked helmet and lavishly decorated uniform. Several crosses and coins, which Frau Berger calls medals, are pinned to his chest. Medals indicate a person’s value. Hence the coins. The man on the photo clutches the handle of a saber with his right hand. “My father,” the old woman explains. “He was in the Prussian army and fought against the French in 1870. Back then we won the war.” I can hardly believe that this so vigorous and robust-looking man is the father of Frau Berger, who can barely walk anymore. Then again, he’s been dead for fifty years.
Nowadays I can only vaguely recall the aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and the group portrait of her sisters- and brothers-in-law. A sketchy picture of her son emerges: a dark-haired man with ears that stick out and big, somewhat childish eyes. He, too, is wearing a uniform, but doesn’t look nearly as warlike as his grandfather. “My son was killed on May 6, 1945,” Frau Berger tells me. “Even the Führer was dead by then.”
The picture of the Führer himself, whom Frau Berger only mentions with the greatest reverence, is not hanging on the wall. That’s not prudent “in times like these,” she explains to me, while emptying out a drawer full of clothing − underwear, stockings and socks. A black portfolio tied shut on the side with an equally black silk ribbon surfaces from beneath the mound of clothing. Frau Berger unties the knot, opens the portfolio and shows me her portrait of the Führer. Carefully, almost lovingly, she strokes his face with the index finger of her right hand. “A fine man, he was,” she mutters. “An artist. But he didn’t give in to his artistic inclinations. He decided to serve his people instead.”
The only thing that strikes me about Hitler is his little mustache. Aside from that, he doesn’t look at all like the great hero Frau Berger makes him out to be. “He did a lot for us,” she explains. “Most of all he got us through the Depression, put the Polacks in their place before they could get out of hand, and saved Europe from Bolshevism. Your parents were right to get out of Russia. They know what Bolshevism is… That was a mistake with the Jews, though. You shouldn’t spoil it for yourself with such a powerful people. It was the Jews that mobilized the evil powers against us. Everyone was against us in the end. That’s why we lost the war.”
“But don’t tell your parents I showed you the Führer picture. Promise?”
I’m sitting on her knees, her arms clasped around me tightly in an embrace it’s hard to free myself from. Her hands are gouty, their fingers crooked, the skin is yellow with blotches of brown. Her long fingernails are black on the edges. I don’t like her hands.
The old woman rocks me slowly back and forth, recounting interminably long stories about Poland and the war, about her husband who served in the paramilitary Freikorps after the First World War and was later an accountant, about her fallen son whom I remind her of a little, about her flight from Upper Silesia, the misery, her pain, the new beginning in Austria and the arrogance of the Viennese. “I was a stranger here myself once. Your parents and I, we have a lot in common.”
I’m not particularly interested in her stories. I don’t understand most of what she says, partly because of my still rather patchy German. I’m six years old and have only been in Austria for six months. Yet the old woman doesn’t seem to mind that I respond to her stories with silence and yawning. Sometimes I fall asleep on her lap and wake up in her bed.
She gently shakes me by the shoulder. “It’s five o’clock, sweetie,” she says. “Be a good little boy and run back over to your place. Your father should be home any minute now.”
More exciting than Frau Berger’s stories are her many real stuffed animals and the antlers hanging on the wall. A fox with glass eyes and jaws wide open bares its pointed fangs. I know he’s been dead for ages, but I still don’t dare stick my finger in his mouth, just to play it safe. You never know. A falcon spreads its wings as if it were about to lift off from the corner of the cabinet. And in a corner of the kitchen, a squirrel sits on an artificial tree trunk that reaches almost to the ceiling. Frau Berger strictly forbade me to pull on its tail. I’m supposed to leave her “critters” in peace, period. Only the white poodle, perched on the living-room table so the old woman can see it when she goes to bed, am I sometimes allowed to run my hand over. “Her name is Puppi,” the woman explains to me. “I used to take her out for a walk twice a day in the Augarten back when she was still alive. I wouldn’t have the energy these days.”
I don’t keep my promise to Frau Berger; I tell my parents about the portrait of Adolf Hitler, about the Polacks and the war. Father loses his temper, is up in arms about “that old fascist.” He explains that his colleagues in the stacks of the university library, where he recently found a job, talk the same way “Sometimes I ask myself,” he says, enraged, “if maybe it was one of them who murdered my grandmother during the war. You can still see the military drill in these people. All snappy and wiry. I’d like to take a machine gun and − ra-ta-ta-ta-ta!”
“That’s a fine way to talk in front of a child!” Mother is indignant. “Is that what you want him to learn from his father? What a thing to put in his head! If you don’t like it here we can always go back to Israel. It was your idea to leave in the first place.”
“Sure, just get on my case like everyone else! Apparently it doesn’t bother you if your son grows up in a fascist country. Just listen to what he says about this Frau Berger.”
“She’s the only one who can look after our son in the afternoon. Fascist or not. All that really matters to me is that my son gets a good education.”
“I couldn’t care less where.”
My parents spend the evening discussing my fate and future while I study the map of the Greater German Empire on the cigarette case and memorize the names of cities: Vienna, Munich, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Hanover, Berlin, Stettin, Königsberg, Breslau, Troppau… I never knew all these places were part of Austria. I found Vienna on the map, and Vienna – I’m positive − is the capital of Austria.
The next day I show the case to my elementary school teacher and ask her why Austria looks different than on the big map hanging on the wall under the crucifix and the picture of President Jonas. The teacher examines the case, shakes her head and asks me in a tone that’s unusually harsh: “Where did you get this?” I flinch, feeling like I’ve been caught red-handed. I don’t understand why she reacts so sternly, and mutter: “My neighbor gave it to me, the nice lady with a stuffed dog named Puppi.”
“That was foolish of her,” my teacher says and gives me the case back, saying: “That’s not a map of Austria… It’s… it’s…” She falters. “You’re too young to understand! Tell your mother to stop by my office.” Then she quickly changes the subject.
A few days later my parents take away the cigarette case from me and Father urges Mother to finally try harder to get me into a day-care center. It’s harmful for me, he says, to spend too much time with “the fascist.” It’s becoming clearer by the day, he says, that Austria is not the right country for us anyway. Mother sighs and, visibly irritated, asks Father whether he’s determined now to go back to Israel, or if he’s secretly toying with the idea of going to the Soviet consulate and trying to obtain a return visa. “Destiny brought us here, let’s make the best of it,” she says. Like always in these instances, Father accuses her of being fatalistic and not giving any thought to matters of principle. As for me, I’m only interested in one thing: whether and when I’ll be getting back my cigarette case. “You’ll get it back when you’re old enough to understand these things,” says Mother.
I met Frau Berger in the winter of 1972. We had moved into our little one-room-kitchen apartment in the fall, right after we got back from Rome. There were no rooms available in the émigré apartment building in Brigittenau where we’d lived the previous spring, and it was only thanks to our old acquaintance Madame Friedmann, who let us sleep in her kitchen, that we didn’t land in the streets.
Finding an apartment proved to be a daunting task. My mother clipped out ads from the major newspapers and went to the nearest phone booth. Half an hour later she would come back dejected. They don’t rent to foreigners, she was told the minute she opened her mouth. Even when they would show up for the scheduled viewing appointments listed in the paper, my parents had little luck. “You look like a decent foreigner,” an ever-smiling and rather verbose real estate agent explained to my mother once. “You’re not a Turk, not a Yugoslav either. But I’m really sorry. The landlord went out of his way to say that he doesn’t want any foreigners.”
Yet finally my mother met with success and we were able to move into our new apartment. The building was hardly distinguishable from the “Russian palace,” only this time its tenants were mostly locals. It was likewise located in Brigittenau, on a treeless street lined with old, gray-plastered tenement houses from around 1900. The apartment was relatively cheap. Though the toilets were in the hall, there was a washbasin with a cold-water tap in the kitchen, and the living room had a beautiful double bed, a real, sturdy single bed for me, two closets, a desk and four chairs − in other words, absolute luxury.
My parents would have been happy there too, had it not been for the elderly couple in the building across the street, standing all day at the window and staring into our apartment. They would show up at nine o’clock, on the nose, the man invariably in suit and tie, the woman in a lace collar, pearl necklace and plumed hat. They stood there with the window wide open, their arms folded and propped on the window sill, regardless of the weather, regardless of the temperature. Sometimes the woman would put on her coat and the man would wrap a scarf around his neck. Only when the mercury dipped below freezing did the window remain closed. They seemed to be petrified, two pairs of eyes staring across at us for hours, motionless. At twelve o’clock they disappeared, probably to have lunch, closed the window and returned at quarter past one. Like clockwork. The show was over at exactly five in the afternoon − to be continued the following morning.
My father was livid, since our apartment had neither curtains nor rolling shutters. He shook his fist at them, leaned out of the window in their direction and shouted obscenities in Russian. To no avail. The faces remained grave and immobile, wax-colored, as if they weren’t made out of flesh and blood but were a sculptural relief from a bygone era, a stucco decoration, not unlike the putto, medusa and titan heads on the façade of their building.
Then Father attacked Mother, told her to do something about this monstrous invasion of our privacy. But Mother refused to pay a visit to the elderly couple across the street. “Do you really think they’re going to give up their favorite pastime, just like that?” she asked. “Looking into our apartment might be their only contact with the outside world.”
“Maybe so, but at our expense!” yelled Father. “One of these days I’m gonna step in front of the window, stick my naked ass in their faces and see what happens then.”
It didn’t take long before Father made good on his word. I was thrilled, and ran around the apartment clapping my hands. Mother disappeared into the kitchen and didn’t speak to Father for the rest of the day. And yet the audience of this obscene spectacle had stared at Father’s bared rear-end without so much as batting an eyelash.
Eventually we got used to our uninvited “guests,” like just any other fixture in our apartment.
From Vladimir Vertlip, Zwischenstationen: © Deuticke im Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna 1999