A Beautiful Day
In old age, long after his retirement from the engineering faculty at Syracuse University, my father, Harry Gruenberg, began to have flashbacks about his life in Vienna before he escaped in 1939. He also had recurring nightmares about being buried alive. I realize now the dream was triggered by his discovery of the details of his parents’ murders, details released by Austria in the late 1990s.
“A Beautiful Day” is one of a group of essays and stories titled Searching for Mia. Mia was my father’s younger sister, who disappeared into Germany in 1941 at the age of fifteen. The essays deal with trying to come to grips with my father’s emerging stories, and my search for his sister, his lost family, and his friends and neighbors after his death. They also explore my own experience with depression, and its relationship to creativity and writing.
Josephine Helwing, my father’s Aunt Pepi, is one of the many relatives I try to recreate on the page.
My father’s Aunt Pepi’s medical record arrived at our home in 2007, a full two years after his death. I’d plowed through dozens of documents in search of my father’s lost family, but the brevity of this record documenting the last eight weeks of Pepi’s life at Am Steinhof, the mental institution on the outskirts of Vienna, still shocked me. There are only ten notes documenting her decline—from her admission note after she attempted suicide, dated March 7, 1942, to her death certificate seven weeks later. She was forty-five years old, single, unemployed, Mosaisch—Jewish. Her final weight was seventy-one pounds. The cause of death was written in Latin: Marasmus e Psychosis—Severe Malnutrition due to Psychosis. This was not a diagnosis I ever learned about in medical school.
There was a set of photographs attached to her file. In profile her head is held up on a post with a label spelling out her last name, Helwing. Straight on, her mouth is slightly open; her eyes are closed. Her lower lip is swollen, as if she had been struck. I could not tell if the photo was taken when she was dead or alive.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl signed Pepi’s first evaluation. Frankl survived deportation, concentration camps, and the Death March, and went on to establish a psychiatric institute in Vienna after the war. He wrote a worldwide bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, describing his particular branch of existential psychiatry honed by his experiences during the Holocaust.
Although Frankl was head of the female suicide ward at Am Steinhof in the 1930s, he was no longer allowed to work there after the Anschluss, when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. He could only recommend admission from the Rothschild Hospital, the Jewish hospital that would be closed down a few months after Pepi’s death. Frankl’s approach to life reminds me so much of my father’s, and of that of so many I interviewed who survived that time and went on to flourish. They carried on by burying part of the past, erasing other memories, and rewriting the remainder of their stories. It’s what we all do—a normal response to suffering so that we can live our lives. But in the setting of overwhelming trauma, I wonder if this adjustment of memory is just another kind of madness.
Pepi’s admission note stated: “The patient has been psychologically disturbed for the last months…She jumped into the Danube Canal and her mother, who is malnourished and half-blind, can no longer care for her at home.” This was my father’s maternal grandmother, Sabina Helwing, who would be dispatched on one of the last deportations out of Vienna a few months after her daughter’s death at Am Steinhof. Sabina took a passenger train to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia on September 10, 1942. She left her luggage on the railway platform and was herded into a cattle car on September 11 and was gassed on arrival in Treblinka.
The note goes on: “For the last two to three days the patient has refused to eat.” The note doesn’t mention that by 1942, the Jews of Vienna were all starving. Families were forced to share one or two ration cards, and most shops did not allow Jews to enter.
“The patient is dysphoric, agitated, and voices concerns about cleanliness. She is restless and repetitively strokes the bed linens. She admits she hears voices. She is unkempt and incontinent of urine and feces. She says the whole world is against her. She says she knows the assistant physician, ‘he lives in my building.’ ‘The Frau Doctor is my cook.’” Pepi goes on to talk about her husband and children, even though she is childless and unmarried. “‘My husband went to America—my mother-in-law is making me meshuga.’”
Pepi’s pulse was described as “rapid and small.” The picture was thought to be consistent with “toxicosis.” Frankl states that this is a catatonic picture in the setting of an acute psychosis of menopause. The note finishes with, “The patient was normal before this and there is no family history of mental illness…There is a reactive component to her presentation and there is good hope for recovery.” Frankl suggests transfusion with her own blood, and heart medication, as well as tube feeding. There is no evidence that any of those recommendations were followed.
The first time my father mentioned his Aunt Pepi to me was May 2004, when I drove to Syracuse to check in on my parents, right after photographs of prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison were released. My 83-year-old father was growing frail. Parkinson’s slowed his movements and his thinking. It made his already serene visage more wooden, and his speech even quieter and less expressive than usual.
A few days into the visit, we all sat down for breakfast in front of the south-facing windows. I grew up in Syracuse’s flat light, so the rare sunshine delighted me. The clouds that clung to the city were a standing joke between my husband, Martin, and our teenaged daughters. Martin took on a thick Viennese accent or my mother’s clipped British Columbian speech whenever we hit the wall of precipitation that almost always met us on the Thruway outside Rome, New York.
His version of my father: “Ach, it’s shnowing!” My Canadian mother’s voice: “Pull up your socks, it’s just another spot of bother!” Martin’s imitations made the girls laugh. I didn’t find them funny. I couldn’t hear my parents’ accents.
“Such a gorgeous day,” my mother said as she whacked the top off her soft-boiled egg.
My father fiddled with the “Saturday” compartment of his day-of-the-week medicine holder; my mother reached across the table, took the dispenser from him, and handily opened it, dumping the contents into the china bowl next to his orange juice. My father took his pills one by one, rinsing them down with tepid coffee. When his hands settled in his lap, the tremor of Parkinson’s took over. He stared out the window as if too exhausted to pick up his spoon.
In the garden, tulips broke through the dirt. My frugal mother’s used pantyhose restrained vines against the picket fence. Cotton crotches waited for leaves to cover their immodest display. “What a beautiful day!” My father turned to me suddenly, speaking as if these next words flowed out of my mother’s last sentence about the weather. His voice was steady; he didn’t clear his throat the way he usually did. “A few days after Hitler marched into Vienna, it was a day just like this one. We needed to leave the flat to look for food, even though the streets were dangerous. My parents asked me to walk to the Second District to check on Grandmother Sabina and my mother’s younger sister, Pepi. There was glass everywhere, and on doors and across storefronts was written JEW or DIRTY JEW.”
My mother stood up and muttered, “Here we go again.” Even though her egg was only half eaten, she grabbed the cardigan from the back of her chair and went out to work in the garden. This wasn’t the first time in the past few years that my father suddenly segued into the 1930s when I visited, but it was a calmer transition compared with outbreaks I witnessed before, and he spoke in English rather than breaking into German, the way he had with earlier flashbacks.
“I was seventeen,” he continued. “It was a beautiful day just like this one. A crowd gathered around something, and they were laughing and talking.” My father’s voice was modulated, not the usual quiet monotone.
“Dad?” I always tried to speak to my father when he veered into the past. But this wasn’t the father I knew; I sensed it wasn’t me he was talking to.
“I walked to the edge of the crowd and then pushed my way to the inside of their circle. They were watching what appeared to be a pile of rags moving in the dirt.”
A man lay on the ground. It was an orthodox Jew with a long beard and forelocks, his dark clothes covered with dust, his face bloody from a beating. The man moaned and struggled to stand.
“The Jew begged for help,” my father said. “A young woman, dressed in a blue suit, moved into the center of the circle.” Wavy hair framed her lovely face. She grinned and winked at the crowd. She smiled down on the man with an expression of pity, and reached down as if to help him up. He lifted his hand to hers. Turning again to the crowd, she circled her hips. She raised her skirt up over the tops of her stockings as she continued to gyrate, and then straddled the man who slumped back to the ground.
My father’s eyes weren’t old and watery when he told me this; they were the clear eyes of an angry young man. I wanted to touch him across the table, but he seemed very far away. He swallowed twice. “She urinated onto the man’s face,” he whispered.
My father looked down and then back to me. “What kind of a thing is this for a young boy to see?” He turned back to his soggy Cheerios. He shrunk in front of my eyes; the tremor in his hands returned. A little bit of milk dripped from his lower lip.
“Shall we go for a drive?” he asked.
Once the episodes were over, they were over. I wiped the milk from his face with a paper napkin. He leaned against the table and pushed himself to his feet and waved me away when I got up to help.
“I can manage,” he said.
He carried dishes to the sink one at a time. Back and forth he went, using one hand to prop up his thin body on the table, on the counter and back again. He scrubbed each dish with soap and scalding water before placing it in the dishwasher, and steadied himself against the walls to get back to his room to dress.
“I’ll get Mom,” I called after him.
My mother was digging in the garden.
“Why did you leave?” I asked.
She leaned the shovel against the side of the house and pulled off her gardening gloves. “I don’t like to see him upset,” she said.
“He was talking about the Anschluss. When was that?”
“Who knows?” She answered as if she were really saying, “who cares?”
“Did he ever talk to you about after the Germans came in?”
“He seems to be talking about the whole thing a lot. Maybe it’s that new medication he’s on.” She deadheaded a few exhausted peonies. “He used to sit across from me for hours and not say a word—forget about actually having a conversation. Then he’d go to his office and close the door. But now you can’t get him to stop talking.”
“But, Mom, this wasn’t just Dad running on with one of his old stories.”
“All I know is this stuff comes up at the most inappropriate times with the wrong people.” My parents adored each other, but my mother couldn’t tolerate the old stories, and she seemed to find my father’s outbursts unbearable.
“Who are the right people, Mom?” I pictured my father going off the deep end when I wasn’t home. I wondered if my mother continued to fill in The New York Times crossword puzzle with ink, maybe patting his hand, waiting for him to come back to himself.
“The past belongs in the past, don’t you think?” she said, picking up her shovel again. “You can’t change it.”
At the end of the day, I asked my father again about the scene he described. He seemed surprised that I knew about it. That was the way it was with the flashbacks. The memory was triggered; the symptoms of Parkinson’s disappeared. He often spoke rapidly in German, a language he rarely spoke when we were growing up and certainly never spoke fluently in our presence. Once the flashback emerged, my father regained a chunk of memory, but when he talked about it afterward, it often sounded as if it happened to someone else.
“I saw the white lace of the woman’s garter belt,” he said. “I thought I saw the shadow of hair between her thighs.”
I winced. My father was always so proper. I imagined the urine caught the sunlight and sparkled as it splashed against the Jew’s upturned face. The crowd broke into applause. The woman laughed and they roared with her. Some of the men clapped each other on the back. The Jew coughed and then lay still.
“A policeman watched the whole thing and did nothing,” my father said. “What would have happened if I walked into that crowd to help the man?” But he turned away and ran up the avenue, toward the Danube Canal and his Grandmother Sabina and Aunt Pepi’s house. Passersby moved in slow motion. My father reined himself in to walk with them.
“I had to be careful,” he said. “The Nazis changed the traffic rules after the Anschluss, and now the cars were driving on the right side of the street instead of the left.” The change threw the city into turmoil. Leaving aside everything that happened in Vienna during the months after the Anschluss—the beatings, the lootings, hundreds of Jews jumping out of windows because they couldn’t bear the weight of their lives—just this simple fact of a change in traffic rules, something I hadn’t heard about until my father’s outburst, added a tactile disruption to the lovely Vienna he constructed for me when I was a child. A world turned mad.
Once in the courtyard of his grandmother Sabina’s building, my father took the stairs three at a time. He pounded on the door, but it fell open. He heard Sabina’s reedy voice singing a Yiddish lullaby. He told me the gilded mirrors in the salon were all smashed, breaking up reflections of books scattered on the floor. Omama Sabina was one of my father’s wealthy relatives. His father was usually unemployed and my father’s own family was living hand-to-mouth well before the war.
My father followed the voice into Sabina’s bedroom. Pepi sat at her mother’s vanity, dressed in a slip, but didn’t move to cover herself when my father came in. A bruise in the shape of a hand marred her white neck. “My aunt’s dark hair was suddenly streaked with gray,” my father told me.
Sabina’s silver brush cut furrows in her daughter’s hair, and she put a plump finger to her lips when she noticed my father. She led Pepi to bed and pulled down the coverlet. Pepi slipped between the sheets. Sabina moved away but Pepi moaned, then sat up, her eyes wide.
“Don’t leave me,” she cried. Sabina sat down on the bed.
“Would you make us some tea, Harry?” Sabina asked my father, not taking her eyes off Pepi.
“Where’s the maid, Omama?”
“She hasn’t come since the Germans arrived.”
Christians were no longer allowed to work for Jews after the Anschluss. My father pumped water into a pot, lit the stove, and put the water on. Scraping a circle of mold off a rind of bread, he sliced it and spread it with marmalade. When the tea was ready, he loaded everything on a tray and carried it in. The grandfather clock in the hallway measured empty seconds.
Sabina poured tea into a cup and added a large spoonful of sugar and handed it to Pepi. Pepi held the translucent china in her hands but did not bring it to her lips. My father passed onto the balcony. It grew dim by the canal, and he could barely see the buildings of the Inner City across it.
“An old Jew with a cane hobbled below, and a group of laughing boys chased him,” my father said.
“Take off your disguise, old man! Take it off or we will have to help you!”
The old man’s breath was heavy and uneven. One of the youths grabbed his shoulder and spun him. Another took hold of his beard and shouted as he yanked on it, “Take off the disguise, old man!” He swung the Jew around by the beard. The cane flew against the side of the building and clattered to the feet of one of the bigger boys. He picked it up and swung it around to the back of the man’s head. The sound as it hit the Jew’s skull was oddly muffled. The old man dropped to the ground. The boys looked up at the houses that lined the street.
“I jumped back against the balcony doorway,” my father said.
At midnight the streets were quiet again, and my father got ready to leave. Sabina threw her arms around his neck. “Harry, don’t leave us!”
My father pried her fingers apart. “I’ll come back tomorrow, Omama.”
Outside, the body of the old Jew was gone. My father walked toward home along the dark canal.
“I thought I heard the boys coming up behind me. I broke into a run.” When my father turned off the Ringstraße, he was sure he saw the boys walking toward him on the other side of the street.
“A young woman walked tall and straight in front of me,” said my father. “I came up beside her and pretended I was with her. We passed the boys. I think she smiled at me—I think she took my hand.”
My father ducked into an alley and made his way home.
When I got ready for bed that evening, I pulled down the family genealogy my father put together after he retired from the Engineering Department at Syracuse University. I barely looked through the weighty binder when he gave me my copy in 1994. There were several pages about history, and then he’d written something about almost everyone, even relatives who died long before the war. His writing was cheerful and full of exclamation points. It didn’t match his carefully rendered family trees, so many branches withered with phrases like “perished at Auschwitz” and “died, Minsk?”
I realized he’d written several pages about his great-grandparents but less than half a page on each of his parents, who were deported a few weeks after Pepi died. The story of his younger brother Uri, who was sent on a Kindertransport to Palestine in October 1938, received a few paragraphs. Their youngest sister, Mia, who disappeared into Germany in 1941 when she was just fifteen, did not even have a section of her own.
He wrote that Pepi stayed on with her mother when her five siblings married. In the ’60s, his brother Uri located her pauper’s grave in the Jewish section of the Zentralfriedhof, the central cemetery of Vienna. My father doesn’t mention visiting the grave himself, even though he and my mother visited Austria many times as tourists. Those visits now seem incongruous to me.
I asked my father about Pepi again the next morning. He remembered her as shy and withdrawn. “She was a little pathetic,” he said, but he couldn’t come up with any details. “She and Sabina were badly beaten on Kristallnacht. I wonder if she might have been raped. She could have been subject of medical experiments, or she might have been euthanized.” He said all those things in his expressionless Parkinson’s voice.
After the visit, I decided I needed to get down the “real story” once and for all. My father agreed to allow me to videotape him a few weeks later. It would turn out to be his last visit to our home in Boston.
At the beginning of the first videotape a stuffed chair fills the screen. My father talks to me off camera and then shuffles into view. His back is bent so that he has to angle his head up to look forward. Watching the tapes now, I can’t help but think of my father-in-law, Marty, who was in a nursing home at that time, biding his time while cancer finished digesting his bones. His vertebrae collapsed into that same pitiful C.
I begin. “When all these things came up, Dad, I thought, ‘Well, it’s not so important now. You lived a long life without telling these stories.’”
“Well, I think you know I was writing about this, but then—I don’t know—in order to write about it correctly you have to organize it and think about it.”
He tells me, as he does often throughout the tapes, “It’s the history that I really want to get down on paper.” He stares at the camera and meanders through history or drones about his happy life before the Anschluss. Sometimes there is the clank of dishes in the background, or a hushed conversation between my mother and me captured on tape. My father’s quiet voice marches on. His eyes seem to search for something beyond the lens.
He unfolds the old narratives in the same way he did for me as a child, even though I can recite all the punch lines with him. He skips the events of Kristallnacht in November 1938, the subject of one of his first flashbacks. He jumps to a tired version of crossing the border into Belgium in March 1939. “A soldier told me we couldn’t keep any currency,” he said, “so I flushed my few pfennigs down the WC.” He speaks as if he is telling me someone else’s story. In this third person version, he and the other Jewish boys and young men traveling with him threw their caps in the air when they crossed the border into Belgium. He leaves out the parts I heard during other flashbacks, about his rail car being uncoupled and pulled off track; he omits the dog straining on the soldier’s leash, his description of the soldier’s eyes, one blue and one green. The soldier forced him and the other Jewish teenagers to play Russian roulette until the next train came along and they were reconnected and sent on their merry way.
Listening to the tapes now I feel the same impatience I felt when I sat with my father. I keep on thinking, “the history has been written, I want to know what you saw and experienced.”
He describes in detail his work at the Zionist training farm in the south of England and repeats a lighthearted version of his arrest by the British fourteen months later, in June 1940. He was incarcerated at a ramshackle seaside hotel on the Isle of Man with hundreds of other Jews. Ostensibly, the British were afraid of spies. Every other day soldiers escorted a group through the barbed wire surrounding the hotel, and my father swam in the frigid waters of the Irish Sea under armed guard. Local girls flirted with the soldiers while my father toweled himself off with a monogrammed towel.
He was shipped out at the end of that summer and imprisoned in POW camps in Quebec and New Brunswick for the next year and a half. Other Jews who were interned by the British were bitter about those lost years. My father focused on the education he received from the Jewish professors and the rabbi incarcerated with him. He spoke about that time as if it were a brief hiatus in his otherwise uneventful life.
The rabbi and my father were released in December 1941, right after Pearl Harbor. My father’s Uncle Menio, one of Pepi’s four brothers, had managed to escape Vienna via the free port of Shanghai and then was sponsored by the Jewish Community in Salt Lake City. But my father wasn’t allowed to cross the border to join him, because he was considered to be an “enemy alien.” Menio found my father a sponsor in Vancouver, so he went there, finding himself a job as a janitor. He talked his way into the third year of the University of British Columbia in 1943, and graduated at the top of his class in 1946.
His roommate, Mel, who was engaged to my mother’s sister Phyllis, brought my father home for his first Christmas dinner in 1943. By then, my father had lost contact with his family, but had no idea that almost everyone he left behind had already been slaughtered. In a photograph from my mother’s album, labeled “our first meeting with Harry,” my father sits uncomfortably on the sofa next to his future wife, her sister, and Mel. A Christmas tree looms behind him.
“The rest is history!” was the way my father always put it.
I took my first trip to Vienna in 2006, a full year after my father’s death. I went to trace his family and neighbors, but also to visit his old haunts. I walked along the canal to Pepi and Sabina’s home on Obere Donaustraße, with the Danube Canal on one side and whizzing traffic on the other. Cracks fissured the façade at number 65, perhaps left by mortar fire when the Second District became the battleground between German and Russian troops toward the end of the war. The balcony where my father witnessed an old man’s murder still extended off the second floor.
I was still trying to hang my father’s old stories and outbursts onto the framework of history. The Anschluss was in March 1938. My father was thrown out of school that June. Kristallnacht followed in November, and my father would leave Vienna for England alone, in March 1939, at the age of eighteen.
In a letter written to Uri in Palestine, my father’s cousin, 15-year-old Kurt Helwing, Pepi’s nephew, recounts the events of Kristallnacht. My father’s most vivid flashback was about the events described in this letter. This is one of the few family letters that openly talks about the events of that night. Kurt was already in England, having been sent on a children’s transport soon after Kristallnacht, so he didn’t have to worry about censors.
I want to tell you a few things about Vienna after November 10. They took away the keys to our apartment. We did not get the keys to our apartment back for another 14 days, but then we were forced to give up the flat by 10 December. [Jews were systematically moved out of their homes and forced to move in with other families, mostly in the Second District.] So we moved in with Omama. There, all mirrors, some of the windows, the radio, a table and two chairs had been smashed. Your parents were also driven from their home and their keys were taken away from them. In the evening, Göring announced on the radio that all had blown over, so your parents went back home with a second set of keys and went to bed. In the morning the Nazis came back and took away the second set of keys. After about a week they got the keys back [my father’s mother had to go to Gestapo headquarters to get the keys]. Your flat was ransacked. The suitcase from Germany [with supplies for Uri], the lamp, which Harry had made at school, and 1.50 German Marks that Mia had saved, were all gone. Uncle Sisko [one of Pepi’s brothers], Uncle Simel [Sabina’s brother-in-law], and Ludwig [Simel’s son] were all arrested. Uncle Simel was released soon after, but Sisko and Ludwig were sent to Dachau. Ludwig is still there.
My father translated this letter and a number of family letters from 1938 and early 1939. He promised to translate the rest for me, but he never did. Many of the letters were illegible; they were often written in code to avoid the censors. Even after he died, when I hired a translator, it was hard to understand what was going on in these one-sided conversations, and many of the later letters, from 1941 to 1942, were missing from my father’s files.
I have no doubt that the events my father described during and after his flashbacks happened, but if they happened exactly as he remembered them, I have to doubt. The broken mirrors in Kurt’s letter would suggest my father’s memory of the events of the Anschluss actually happened months later, on Kristallnacht. My father’s concern that she might have been raped was impossible to substantiate. Many Austrians and Germans who researched the Holocaust said it would have been unusual for a Jewish woman to be raped by a gentile during this period, but I wonder.
Pepi wrote to my father in England right after he fled, two years before her hospitalization at Am Steinhof. When she wrote this letter, she and Sabina hadn’t been forced out of their home yet to an apartment they shared with distant cousins, a few blocks in from the canal. The letter belies my father’s description of Pepi as addled and incapable.
Vienna 3. April. 1939
I have a big favor to ask of you—if you would be so nice as to follow the advice of Mrs. Novak, who lives in our building, by going to her son and his cousin, Alfred Eiberschütz, so that, with his reference, I will be able to obtain a house maid or nanny position in England. Mrs. Novak’s son is a British citizen and, according to his mother, a nice young man. He is 24 years old and married to a British woman.
Mr. Alfred Eiberschütz is a member of B’nai B’rith and would be very obliging if you needed anything. Mrs. Novak asks you to give greetings to her cousin and her son and daughter-in-law from her mother, Ms. Dr. Clara Kraus, and from her as well.
Dear Harry. I hope you are in good health and write to me soon.
Your Aunt Pepi
Those still trapped in Vienna had to visit numerous bureaucratic offices to get permissions to leave Austria, but then they also had to find a place that would offer them an entry visa, and those visas were becoming harder and harder to come by. Many sought positions in Britain as domestic servants. Thousands would be deported and murdered because countries like the United States and Britain did not allow them entry. Aunt Pepi was only one of many relatives writing my eighteen-year-old father to find them a place. He didn’t have a clue how to help any of them, and then Britain declared war and he was arrested and deported.
One of the archivists I befriended in Vienna suggested I go in person to Am Steinhof: to locate Pepi’s medical record, to see an exhibit on Nazi euthanasia, and to visit the Otto Wagner church built on the grounds. I took a cab from Pepi’s home and was dropped off inside the entrance of an enormous compound. A patient interrupted a conversation with himself to ask me for a cigarette. I hadn’t realized that Freud and Viktor Frankl’s institution was still in use as a mental hospital. I headed uphill toward the dome of the church, passed locked wards and a cemetery, then tried to catch my breath as I walked into the vast gallery of the exhibit hall.
Dozens of children stared at me from photographs. Some had cleft lips, others the features of Down syndrome. Many looked perfectly normal. The captions told me that several hundred children had been murdered at Am Steinhof as part of the Nazi euthanasia program, designed to purify the Master Race.
At the end of the hall was an office, and sitting at the desk was a red-haired boy I recognized from one of the many archives in town. Young Austrians can avoid military service by working on projects focused on the Holocaust. He turned to his books when I came to the door, but his burning cheeks gave away that he recognized me from an earlier visit at the Archives of the Austrian Resistance.
“Can you tell me how to find the central office?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” he answered without looking up.
“Perhaps you could look up the phone number?”
“There is no way to get this information.”
“But surely you could tell me where the administrative offices are?”
The boy looked up at me finally, with an expression that clearly communicated he thought my request was inappropriate or even perverted, a look I had gotten used to in Vienna and Germany. I wonder if this attitude kept my father from pushing for more information about his family. He grew up in a world where getting on the wrong side of a bureaucrat could get you killed; I did not. By the time I wandered the grounds and found the main office, the doors were locked; Wednesdays they closed early. A young woman was getting into her car and I ran down the steps to her. “I came a long way, and I am trying to locate a medical record from wartime.”
The woman smiled as if this happened every day. She handed me her business card and waited for mine; on this first trip, I hadn’t known that everyone in Austria had cards. “I will contact the director, Dr. Eberhard Gabriel. He will be more than happy to locate those records for you.” She hesitated, as if still waiting for my card. “Call me tomorrow,” she said.
There was nothing left to be done. I went back up the hill, following the signs to the church. The guidebook said that they allowed Otto Wagner to build here because he was too radical for the time. What better place for the building of a madman than the outskirts of the city, on the grounds of a mental hospital? I walked into the soaring white nave, sparsely trimmed in gold leaf. I sat in one of the pews. It was hard to feel meditative when I thought about the murdered children buried in tidy rows outside. I tried to focus on the ceiling.
I realized that I began mourning my father before he died—not the old man I captured on the video screen, but the young man I never knew, who smiles shyly from old photographs. I always sensed a void at the center of my father’s love, and I think I traveled to Vienna to find the source of that feeling. Maybe his love for me was really a love for something left behind—richer for that reason, but, also, less real.
An older couple approached me when I exited the back of the church. Big hands and feet hung from the man’s narrow limbs. I refit my father’s small smile into the man’s round face. He held the elbow of a woman with mirthful eyes. They struck up a conversation with me.
“Don’t you love Vienna?” the woman asked. Everyone in Vienna asked me this.
“Yah, yah.” I couldn’t explain to her my horror that life went on here as if nothing ever happened, or my guilt about not coming when my father was still alive. Vienna heightened all my sensations; her beauty lacerated me. I couldn’t see the city without putting her through the prism of my father’s flashbacks.
But even after he recovered some of his memory, my father still thought of Vienna as the most delightful place. The first and only chapter of his unfinished memoirs, written after the flashbacks started, begins with a popular song from that time:
‘Vienna, Vienna, only you will always be the city of my dreams!’…In spite of the hardships my family experienced and the times when there was not enough money for food, I feel I had a very happy childhood. And I was in love with Vienna!
Without the Holocaust, my father might have married the woman with mirthful eyes and continued to live here. My brothers and I would not exist. The couple said goodbye and supported each other as they walked up the steps and into the church.
I walked out of the compound into a wide park with a gentle view to the Vienna Woods. Couples and families walked hand in hand, enjoying the sun slanting on lush fields and lighting up Vienna in the distance. Here I thought my father invented the late-afternoon stroll; our neighbors in Syracuse eyed us as if the activity were somewhat suspicious. But those walks were yet another preserved island from my father’s former life. The memory gave me the odd feeling I had arrived home.
On my last visit to Vienna in 2007, I finally met with Dr. Eberhard Gabriel at an outdoor café in the Inner City. He had retired as the director of Am Steinhof and had just published his book about the history of the institution. Eberhard looked me straight in the eyes and shook my hand warmly with both of his.
“It’s wonderful to meet you finally,” he said. I liked him immediately.
Over coffee and strudel, we went over Pepi’s record together. He told me that although she should have been on a separate ward for Jews, they didn’t have the staffing to segregate her. He confirmed there was nothing in the record to support that she was euthanized, or that she was a subject of medical experiments. Family never visited before she died; the trams were closed to Jews and it would have been too far to walk. I wondered if there was information missing from the record, and why there was such a long delay between her death and her burial by the Jewish community. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask Eberhard when we met; I don’t remember what inhibited me. Maybe I thought it was impolite after he’d gone to so much trouble to have the record sent to me.
Eberhard acknowledged that the Nazi years were a sad chapter in the history of Am Steinhof, but he was clearly proud of the advancements made in the care of patients with mental illness in the years preceding and following the war.
“There is no way to know for sure what happened,” Eberhard said as he flipped through Pepi’s chart. “She arrived starving. She had an ear infection at one point. She probably just died of neglect.”
“And the photographs? Was she dead or alive?”
“Alive, definitely. That would have been quite routine.”
“But her head is on a post,” I pointed at the photograph.
Eberhard moved his pastry to one side and considered the pictures. “She was catatonic,” he said. “Quite routine.” he said again.
I’d learned that Frankl and his wife obtained visas to the United States in 1941, but he didn’t want to leave his parents, so he let the visas lapse. His father died at Theresienstadt, his mother was murdered in Auschwitz, his wife in Bergen-Belsen. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote about a vision he had during the waning days of the war. He’d been separated from his wife and had no idea where she was. He and other prisoners were being driven along by cruel guards.
Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife.
Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
Viktor Frankl knew his wife and his parents were gone when he wrote these words in 1946. Did he really think of his wife as he stumbled along? Is that really how he survived, or is that how he chose to remember?
Eberhard cleared his throat.
“Do you think survivors rewrite memories to find meaning?” I asked him.
“I think we all do.”
“And is it common for survivors to have flashbacks when they get older?”
“Oddly, it’s when they get older that it often starts. I don’t know if it’s time that wears them down, makes it harder to compartmentalize memory, or if it’s illness, or medications, like the ones your father took.”
“When he told me these stories, I didn’t know what to do.”
“Maybe you didn’t need to do anything. He chose to tell you these things. Maybe you just needed to listen.”
We sat together for some time in silence, watching tourists strolling by the Stephansdom.
“Isn’t Vienna lovely in spring?” Eberhard asked me.
“Yes,” I said, stirring my second coffee mélange, releasing its pungent scent. When I spoke again, I had trouble keeping my voice from shaking. “My father used to cringe when I hugged him, like my touch burned him.” I took a sip of coffee. “And he never said I love you unless I said it first. People tell me that’s generational, but he never once told my brothers he loved them. He never hugged them.”
“The reason for that is obvious, don’t you think?” Eberhard looked at me as if he weighed his decision to elucidate or not. “He loved his family. In the end, he lost them. Maybe it felt too dangerous to say it out loud.”
He signaled for the bill. “When will you visit us again?”
“I feel like I’m finished here,” I said. “I don’t think I will ever return.”
My father lived another year after I finished videotaping him. His nightmares vanished and he never had another outburst. Perhaps, as Frankl and my friend Eberhard suggest, we tell stories to make meaning of our lives. I write mine down in order to find strength to move on. Putting this on paper, I feel my own skin growing less porous. But my father and his family remain inside me. Their memories continue, clear in my mind.
It was never emptiness I sensed at the center of my father’s love. At his core lay a void that drew in yearning—yearning for connection and for the people he lost. My search for our missing pieces left me aware of the joyous depths of my own life. As unsentimental as I’ve always been, I feel that joy when I catch up with my 93-year-old mother, still sharp as ever. I see it when I gaze at our daughters, both healthy and strong. I sense its warm weight when Martin’s arm settles over my shoulder. Even folding laundry sometimes feels like a prayer.
I think back to my last conversation with my father in 2005. My father-in-law finally succumbed the day before. The beds upstairs were unmade, dishes were piled in the sink, and the floors were sticky with bits of food and dirt tracked in by family passing through. I sat at my desk with a mug of strong coffee, almost dozing in warmth, feeling the pleasure of a sunny afternoon without the need to comfort anyone.
When I picked up the receiver, I knew it was my father.
“Hi, Dad,” I said into the silence.
We spoke for close to an hour that day. I pulled out my questions about his family and neighbors. I scrawled his answers into the margins of my notebook with purple ink. Those were the last questions I asked him about the past. I didn’t want to tire him out, and I figured we could finish up another time.
“No imposition,” he said. “None of this bothers me anymore.”
A few days before that call, my father had been in a head-on collision. He and the other driver walked away from the accident, but their cars were totaled. My father’s neck bothered him, so he drove himself to the emergency room in my mother’s car. The doctors overlooked the small vein seeping blood into his brain. The morning after this conversation, he would wake with a blinding headache. My mother sent him off for a nap. He never woke up again.
“How are you feeling since the accident?” I asked him.
“I don’t think I’ll drive anymore.”
I wrote that down—“No more driving!” underlining it three times.
Out of the blue, my father asked. “Well, how are you doing with all this with Marty?” My father-in-law was a difficult man, but I’d come to love him in the long months leading up to his death. I started to cry.
Thinking back on that last conversation now, I can see my young father standing in front of me, and for the first time, I hear his thick accent saying his last words to me. “Don’t worry about asking about the past. You know, despite everything, I had a wonderful childhood. I was loved—when you come down to it, that’s the only thing that really matters.”
And I remember now, what came next.
“I love you, Lisa.”
“I love you too, Dad.”
Then we both hung up.