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Thursday, November 27, 2003

I am honored that Arthur has allowed me to post this.


by Arthur Bierman

It happened sixty-five years ago, a few weeks after my thirteenth birthday. I woke at seven to a gray and overcast Vienna morning, it had rained during the night, and I could see puddles on the pavement below. Hanging from balconies on the other side of the street, the red and black swastika banners looked soggy and wet. It was quiet in the apartment. My parents were still asleep in the next room, it was a recent development, their sleeping this late, but after losing their store to the Nazis they had lost also the desire for getting up early. For me, however, it was a regular school day, though school was a joke now, not the way it had been under the old regime.

In the old days my teachers had all been Christians, or Aryans as they were called since the annexation, and we were afraid of them. We leaped to our feet when they entered the classroom and didn't sit down until they told us to.. But in June they had expelled all the Jewish students, even those whose grandparents had converted decades ago. There was only one school left for us Jewish teenagers in all of Vienna, and that was the Chayes Gymnasium It was an religious institution, orthodox actually, which meant that they made you study Hebrew and the Torah on top of everything else, and who would want to go there when you could attend a regular school? But now we had no choice any more, so hundreds of Jews enrolled in Chayes and discovered at the start of the semester, that there weren't enough chairs for everybody. So some of us had to sit on the floor, some on the window sills, some even had to stand the whole hour, leaning against the wall, and school became a joke.

The teachers at Chayes were all Jews, of course, but how could you be afraid of them when they were scared, like rabbits, with terror in their eyes. They may have earned advanced degrees and even published scholarly books, but out on the street they were just filthy Jews, no better than any of their brethren -- which meant that any brown shirt who felt like it could smack them in the face or have them crawl in the gutter. They were afraid, our teachers, and it showed in their eyes, in the hunch of their shoulders and the stoop of their backs, and we despised them for their cowardice. So we would yell and shout and run around the classroom, and the teachers would stand there, angry, upset, helpless. It was a joke, that school, in the fall of '38, but I went anyway, not because of the learning, of which there was none, but because I had nothing better to do and because I had friends there and because it was fun, this sudden lifting of discipline...

Of course, this freedom held only inside the building, for as soon as we stepped outside, we had to be careful not to be caught by the Hitler Youth, brown shirted youngsters with swastika armbands, who loved chasing us and beating us up. It was a strange New World we found ourselves in, after the March annexation--much free time, no school work, our parents sitting idly at home or running desperately from one consulate to another, trying to find a country that would allow us in. Meanwhile we roamed the streets, but always on guard, watching out for the uniformed Hitler Youth.

So I jumped out of bed that Thursday morning, on the tenth of November, my parents still asleep in the next room, and after washing my face I ran down two flights of stairs and out into the street. It was a cold, gray morning, the pavement still wet from the night rain, you could smell the smoke of burning coal, winter was coming and people were firing up their stoves to take the chill out of the air. I stepped out into the early morning, walked quickly down the Denisgasse, the street where I was born, where I grew up and where I knew every stone in the pavement, every store between number 12 Denisgasse where I lived and our grocery store on the Treustrasse five blocks away .

Even now, seven decades later and six thousand miles away, I can still see those streets of my childhood, their images burnt permanently into my brain. Stepping out of my house, and hearing that heavy wooden door slam shut behind me, I would turn to the right and immediately pass the Schuster grocery store, a big one this was, not like ours, which had been a hole-in-the-wall. A gold mine my mother would say, enviously eyeing the customers massed inside the door. Then came the shoemaker, an old man, always wearing a black apron, then three houses without any stores, then a bakery, the pungent odor of fresh bread wafting out from its interior, then two more houses without storefronts, just heavy doors and blank windows and then came the corner, where the Denisgasse ran into the Webergasse and you had to choose. If you turned right, you would soon find yourself at the police station, a fearful place it had always been for me, even before the Nazis came. Huge, uniformed men, much bigger than my father, you could see them through the window; they carried night sticks and guns, and personified for me the brute power of the State, which could crush you like a fly, and, as it turned out, did precisely that just a few years later...

But this morning, on the tenth of November, on the way to school I turned left on the Webergasse, walked a short block to the Klosterneuburger strasse, a big Avenue it was, with streetcars clanging along every few minutes, and where our neighbor, Lilly Zuckerberg, had a small dress shop-- she who fled to Shanghai in '39 and lost her only child Erika to cholera in '46. I turned right on the Klosterneuburgerstrasse, and was surprised to see so many people about --and not just ordinary men and women, opening their stores or going to work or returning home from the bakery, fresh loaves in their bags, but brown shirted storm troopers walking briskly in two's and threes, and policemen guarding the street corners. I had not seen so many uniformed men since March when the Nazis had taken over, or February '34 when the Socialist workers had revolted against the Fascist coup. So I stopped at the newspaper kiosk at the corner and read that Ernst vom Rath, the German embassy's third secretary in Paris, had died after being shot by Jew Herschel Grynszpan. Revenge, the black headlines screamed, revenge for the spilling of sacred German blood.

I ran quickly across the street, trying to reach the Chayes Gymnasium which was only some twenty or so feet from the corner, but found myself blocked by a crowd of students who were standing silently near the entrance. Curious, I pushed to the front and saw our principal, a small, elderly man, bearded, always with skull cap on his head, being dragged down the long, narrow staircase by two burly storm troopers, his face bloody, one eye shut, the other still open but bruised, his broken glasses slipping down his nose, his jacket torn, his necktie awry. Down they came, the three of them, the principal moaning softly as he was dragged past me into a waiting car and driven away.

Heart pounding, I ran home to tell my parents but when I burst into the apartment they were already dressed and knew that a pogrom had started. They had been warned by some neighboring women -- in those days, when none of us had telephones, it was usually the women, not the endangered men, who would run from house to house, warning people of impending trouble. Of course, this didn't last long, this gentler treatment of Jewish women -- for the time would soon come when they too would be herded into cattle cars, concentration camps and gas chambers, just like their husbands, fathers and brothers. But this was still in the future, November '38 was still a civilized time, and the storm troopers who were revenging vom Rath's death, had mercy on Jewish women of all ages, on Jewish boys under 15, and even on Jewish men over 70.

So my parents had already been told that an Aktion had been launched, that's what the Nazis called this pogrom, an "action", and the women were reporting three such actions: That Jewish storefront windows were being smashed on the Wallensteinstrasse and the Jaegerstrasse and God knows where else; that the big temple on the Hannovergasse had just been torched and fire trucks were standing in front of it, the firemen with hoses in their hands, but only to prevent the flames from spreading to the adjacent buildings; and finally, that storm troopers were going from house to house dragging off all Jewish men from fifteen to seventy.

They left soon, the two women, with my mother moaning that my father had to hide, God in heaven, run, run, Jakob, but where can you go, there is no place to hide, and Jakob, he, the silent one, he, of the calm, almost lethargic demeanor, was already putting on his coat, hat and gloves, saying softly, as he went out the door, that he would go to our tailor on the Webergasse, he had alays been a decent man, we had used him for years, he would surely hide him, and furthermore, he was right around the corner, which was good since they were stopping men in the street, asking for their papers. So my father left and my mother started to cry, sitting, as usual, at the kitchen table, face in her hands, sobbing in anguish, and I stood there, saying nothing, for I had learned from years of experience that I could never console her when she was trapped, like this, in a terrible world of unspeakable grief. So I stood there in the kitchen, dry eyed, silent, feeling utterly abandoned.

Some time later, maybe half an hour later, my mother had calmed down and was resting on the sofa, when we heard a loud pounding on the door and there stood two storm troopers, I swear I can't remember their faces, but they seemed huge -- big, burly men who demanded to see Jakob B., my father. My mother rushed into the kitchen, crying that Jakob had gone out, she didn't know where he was, they pushed her aside, looked under the bed, looked behind the doors, it was a small apartment, only a kitchen, a small dining room, a bedroom, no closet even, no place to hide. And he, they asked, pointing at me, how old is he? Thirteen, she whispered and they shrugged their shoulders, I was small for my age, and out they went, slamming the door behind them.

As you can see, we were lucky that morning, my mother and I. The storm troopers had behaved like gentlemen, almost, they had not beaten us, they had not smashed any furniture, they had not screamed at us, they had not even uttered a single insulting word.

After the storm troopers left, we felt exhausted, my mother and I. She was calmer now, the Nazis had come, had looked around, but nothing terrible had happened, the worst was over. So after a while we went looking for my father but when we came to the tailor, there on the second floor of number seven Webergasse, the tailor looked astonished and said that he had not seen him, no, not this morning, and not yesterday either. No, he knew nothing about his whereabout, nothing, and he licked his lips nervously, hoping we would leave. Yes, he had known us for years, yes, we had been good steady customers, he had fitted all of us, pants, suits, dresses, yes, we were decent people, honest, as far as he could tell, not like some other Jews he could tell us about, but these were different times now, a new wind was blowing, he was just a little man and had to be careful. My mother stood there, stricken, her eyes black holes of despair, and I dragged her out of the tailor shop and down the stairs, she moaning, God in heaven, what will become of us, and I dragged her down the Denisgasse and into our house and up two flights of stairs and into our apartment and closed the door as she collapsed crying at the kitchen table.

Fortunately a friend soon showed up, I don't remember her name, but she knew what to do -- she took my sobbing mother into her arms, held her, stroked her face and hair, and gradually my mother calmed down, made some tea for the visitor who told us that we were lucky -- after all, we didn't really know whether Jakob had been caught. But other people were not so lucky, she went on, K., remember K., had been arrested right in front of his wife, also his brother-in law, the lawyer, and also M. who had owned the Pharmacy on the Wallensteinstrasse. My mother just sat there, nodding her head, in a daze, saying nothing. Soon another woman showed up, a distant relative, and she had big news, she told us in great excitement. We know now where they are taking our men. They are taking them to that school on the Karajangasse, they have sent the children home and turned it into a detention center, can you imagine, that's the Nazis for you, they take a school for innocent children and make it into a prison.

My mother leaped up and announced that she was going there, to the Karajangasse. Maybe Jakob was there, maybe she could see him, in any case, anything was better than waiting here, eating your heart out. So the women rose, and I put my coat on, and off we went, out into the cold, gray afternoon, the streets filled with brown shirts and policemen, they were excited, these men, you could tell it from their loud voices, their flushed faces and determined steps. This was an extraordinary day, an historic occasion, a day to be remembered, and they were important participants, actors of some significance. As we rushed along the street, the three women and I, we could smell the smoke and soon could see the smoldering fire from the temple, the firemen standing around and laughing, everything was under control, they had kept the flames from spreading to innocent Aryan buildings. Soon we reached the Karajangasse and saw a most extraordinary scene -- the whole street was filled with women and children, hundreds of them, massed in front of the building, moving around, stomping their feet, talking, crying, hoping to catch a glimpse of their arrested men. But the school, four stories high, was quiet, the windows were shut, dark, not a sound coming from it. Had it not been for the two brown shirts at the entrance you would not have guessed anything out of the ordinary. Occasionally, though, a truck would drive up, the two guards would push the women and children away from the entrance, storm troopers would run out of the building, open the rear of the truck and men would emerge, silently, with averted eyes, and be led into the building. A sigh would then rise from the crowd, a loud sigh from hundreds of chests, a collective groan, and names would suddenly be shouted -- Herbie, Adi, Heinrich -- an anguished cry, oh God in heaven, there he is and then silence again as the truck drove off into the darkening afternoon.

So we stood there, my mother and I, hemmed in on all sides by hundreds of people, we were tired, cold, stamping our feet and rubbing our hands, waiting in front of that dark and silent building, when I looked up and discovered that we were being watched by hundreds of eyes. On both sides of the block women were leaning out of their windows, some smoking cigarettes, some holding coffee mugs in their hands, some waving to friends in nearby houses, but excited they all were, you could tell it from their high pitched voices, from their eager laughter and their sparkling eyes. We were providing a dramatic scene, a spectacular event, one they would remember for years to come. I searched their faces for some signs of pity or compassion, but could find neither sentiment in their happy eyes and laughing mouths, and suddenly, for the first time since this day had dawned, I felt such rage in my heart that I turned my face to the darkening sky and implored the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to take into His hands this terrible street, these terrible women, this whole terrible city of Vienna, and burn it, oh Lord, Master of the Universe, burn it to ashes, just as You had burnt to ashes the cities of the plains, Sodom and Gomorra.

But of course, nothing happened. There was no message from heaven, no bolt of lightening, no fire and brimstone, not even a small roll of thunder, it got darker and colder, we saw no signs of my father, even the trucks carrying their cargoes of prisoners had stopped coming, so my mother and I left the slowly shrinking crowd, we went back home, past the pitiless stares of the Viennese women, past the storm troopers still going about their important business, past the policemen guarding the street intersections. We came home, listless, hopeless, the apartment was dark, no father, no husband, we ate, we went to bed, each of us grieving, silently, in solitude.

It must have been about eleven that night when we were awakened. Someone was knocking softly but persistently on the front door, we rushed to the entrance and found a young man in the dark hallway, we had never seen him before, blond hair, blue eyes, obviously not a Jew, he had a message from Jakob, he said, Jakob is all right, we are hiding him, we will keep him until it's all over. He was holding my sobbing mother in his arms suddenly, he was embarrassed, tears in his eyes, now, now, Frau B., everything will be all right.

And so it was all right, at least for that brief moment in time. We had been lucky again, my parents and I. An ordinary couple, old customers of my father's, not even friends, poor people, working people, they had opened their door to Jakob, they had risked their lives to hide this hunted Jew, and then they had sent their only son across miles of dark Vienna to bring glad tidings to Jakob's despairing family.

Later that night, lying on my bed and reflecting on the events of this remarkable day, on the three gentiles who had saved my father out of the goodness of their hearts, and also on the two storm troopers I had seen, dragging that bloodied old man down the stairs like a sack of potatoes, I was reminded of the story of Sodom and Gomorra. As told in the Torah, He, the Master of the Universe, enraged by these wicked cities and their wicked inhabitants, had decided to destroy them by fire and brimstone. But Abraham, our first Patriarch, a compassionate man, had pleaded with Him, the all wise, the all powerful, to suspend His punishment if He could find fifty righteous ones in Sodom and Gomorra. But after gaining God's agreement to the fifty, Abraham, suspecting the worst, had then proceeded to haggle the price down, first to forty five, then to forty, then to thirty, to twenty and finally to ten. But as it turned out, all his shrewd bargaining was of no help, since God could not find even ten righteous ones in Sodom and Gomorra -- which allowed the Almighty to pour fire and brimstone upon the cities of the plains, destroying them and all their inhabitants and all that grew upon the ground. So lying in bed that night and reflecting on the events of this terrible day, I wondered whether seven more righteous gentiles could actually be found in Vienna, and, if so, whether that ancient agreement would still compel Him to spare this wicked city and all its wicked inhabitants, right here, on the shores of the blue Danube.

I don't remember any more what I thought about the chances of finding seven more righteous ones in the city of my birth, but I do remember being distinctly uneasy about the wisdom of that biblical contract. Unjust it seemed, letting thousands of evil doers, storm troopers, Gestapo agents, SS men, pitiless women, escape their well-deserved punishment and only because they happened to have ten righteous neighbors. It wasn't fair, I thought, what Abraham had persuaded God to agree to. These criminals, these monsters, these brown shirted killers should be punished, regardless. There had to be a better procedure, I thought, some way of smiting the wicked without harming the righteous, but I did not really know how to accomplish this difficult feat. It can wait, I thought finally, after all, I was only thirteen years old, and there was time still, years and years of time, to figure out the solution. And thus I fell asleep, on the night of the tenth of November 1938, promising myself to tackle this problem later in life, not knowing, as I know now, that I had stumbled upon one of the most intractable problems bedeviling man's earthly existence.
Arthur Bierman is a professor of physics, emeritus, at the City College of the City of New York. Presently, he edits and writes for an online journal called Focus on Israel and lives in Boulder, Colorado. You may write to Arthur Bierman at arthur.bierman@comcast.net