BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
I KNEW something was wrong the moment my father called me away from doing my homework, and asked me to join him and my mother in the parlour. I knew from the way my mother glanced at my father, and from the way he returned her look that they harboured a secret. And I knew they had withheld it from me because it undoubtedly concerned me.
I glanced around the room. Everything was still in its place: Mamma’s sewing machine in the corner, the heavy round mahogany table covered by a lace-edged table cloth, the hand tinted lithographs in their heavy wood frames on the wall over the fire place, and the photographs of grandfather and grandmother on their wedding day behind my father’s armchair. What could be the matter?
My mother reached over her shoulder and pulled the chain to turn on the standard lamp. In the dusk the bulb burned dully through the ivory silk shade. She picked up her knitting and concentrated on counting the stitches on one of the needles, avoiding making eye contact with me. Her downcast eyes told me that she was not really counting stitches, but that she was sad, too sad to look at me with bad news.
“Before the end of the week,” my father announced, “at the latest, they will close the border.” He leaned forward in his shabby, horsehair-stuffed armchair.
“Who will close the border? How can anyone do that?” My mind raced. “Why?”
I looked first at him, then at my mother. When she averted her eyes I knew that meant the worst was yet to come. My father knocked the dottle from his pipe and slowly refilled it from his tobacco pouch. I waited in silence until papa was satisfied that the new pipe was drawing well. I knew almost nothing of politics. My father had tried several times to explain what was happening in Austria and the wider world, but I had few interests outside school and my piano lessons.
My father rested his hands on his knees. “You know there is to be a referendum tomorrow to decide whether Austria should join Germany,” he said. I nodded. I had heard, but had taken no notice. “If the vote is ‘Yes,’ then Austria will almost certainly become part of the Third Reich. The authorities will close the borders to all travellers without the proper documents. That means no-one but Germans comes in; no-one but Germans leaves. And that means especially us Jews.”
“But you’re Catholic, Papa. Only Mamma is Jewish.”
“I expect we will all be lumped together, at least until things get sorted out,” he said, though his voice betrayed his uncertainty.
“What if we vote ‘No’?”
“I don’t know,” my father replied, “but word is that if we vote ‘No’, Germany will annex us anyway and the Wehrmacht will march in. After that?” He shrugged.
I looked at my mother for some kind of reassurance, but found none.
“What your father is trying to say, Hannah,” she said, looking up from her knitting, “is that, either way, it might not be safe for Jews to remain in Vienna much longer. You have seen the newspapers. You know what it is like for Jews in Germany under Hitler.”
I still did not understand. The Germans had always seemed so nice, in many ways so like us. We spoke the same language, we ate the same food, and did the same things for fun. I did not understand why they should not like Jews. What had the Jews ever done to them?
“Your mother and I have suspected for some time,” my father said, “that Austria’s fate hangs in the balance and that it will not tip in our favour. We have prepared for this. It is for your safety that we are doing this.”
“While you were at school I packed your suitcase,” my mother said quietly. “Everything you will need for six weeks is in there.” She patted my arm as I sat up with a jolt.
My father reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a slim, cardboard booklet. “This is your passport, Hanna,” he said. “It is valid. I issued it myself. It is one of the few advantages of working in the passport section of the Foreign Office. I have backdated the issue date four months.” My father stifled a catch in his throat. “From today,” he continued, “you are no longer Ruth Hanna Meier but Anna-Lise Jaeger, born April 20th, 1919, in Vienna, which makes you nearly nineteen, old enough to travel unaccompanied without questions. And you are no longer Jewish but Catholic. You have a well-worn baptismal certificate in your new name which you use as a bookmark in your Catholic prayer book.”
Mamma looked at me. “I put your father’s prayer book and bible in your suitcase with an inscription to indicate that you received them as a baptism gift from us,” she told me. “I have also wrapped up a ham and cheese sandwich for you in case anyone inspects your luggage. Of course, you don’t have to eat it, unless you wish to or get very hungry. If anyone has doubts, eat the sandwich as if you enjoy every morsel. It will not kill you and God will forgive you. It is vital for your safety that you are not seen to be in any way Jewish, at least until you reach America.”
“America?” My mouth gaped open. “But I don’t want to go to America,” I almost shouted. “I want to stay with you. I want to stay in Vienna. I want to stay Jewish, like you, Mamma. I don’t want to be Catholic.”
“You only have to pretend to be Catholic for a few days, a few weeks at the most, Hannah,” Mamma said. “Once you are in America it will be safe to be a Jew again. Jews are accepted there, so your Uncle Friedrich says.”
“But what will happen to you?” I tried to stem the tears that had been building behind my eyes. My parents looked from one to the other. I realized then that they were deadly serious and that I had no say in the matter. “Be a good girl and do as you are told,” they had told me often enough. And I had never rebelled. I was going to America to stay with my uncle Friedrich, whether I liked it or not.
The moisture in the bottom of papa’s pipe gurgled as he drew on it.
“We will stay in Vienna,” he said in a calm, quiet voice. “It is our home.”
“What will happen, will happen,” my mother said. “We will get over it, just like after the war. Don’t worry about us. When it is safe, when this unpleasantness is finished, you can return. It is only temporary, you’ll see. And when you come back we will hold a big ‘Welcome Home’ party for you.”
Father handed me the passport and a small crucifix on a gold chain. “Take this,” he said. “It was my mother’s, and her mother’s before that.” He placed it in my outstretched hand. “It is part of your disguise. Keep it around your neck always, until you are in America and it is safe to remove it, if you no longer wish to wear it. And give your Magen David to your mother for safekeeping, Hanna. She will take good care of it until you return, I promise.”
I lifted the Star of David hanging from the thin chain around my neck and handed it to my mother. I saw the tears in her eyes as she slipped it over her head to nestle between her breasts with her own.
“I will be back soon to claim it,” I said, but could not stop the tears or the doubt that filled my mind.
Mamma reached out and held my hand. “I know you will, Hanna,” she said, but no words could mask the doubt in her voice.
Papa handed me some papers in a small oilskin roll. “This is your return train ticket to Trieste,” he said, “where you will be spending six weeks with your sick, widowed aunt. The return half is for the Monday after Easter. Don’t forget to call it Easter, not Passover.”
I took the small bundle and closed my trembling fingers over it.
“Also,” my father continued, “here are 80 Schillings in case you need money on the train journey. Inside the oilskin you will find a ticket for the steamer from Trieste to Alexandria, in Egypt. You do not have a cabin but the journey is short, no more than two nights so you will have to sleep in a chair on the deck. Do not, under any circumstances, accept an offer to share anyone’s cabin, do you understand?”
“The second ticket is for the ocean liner from Alexandria to New York and 140 American dollars that your Uncle Friedrich sent from Detroit. You have an inside cabin with four bunks. The travel agent assured me that it will be shared by women only. With the American money you can buy your train ticket to Detroit. Send a telegram to Uncle Friedrich from New York and he will meet you off the train. I have written the details in the papers.”
I nodded again, struck dumb by the enormity of the demands being made on me. I began to understand the seriousness of the situation, and was scared.
“All these must absolutely remain hidden where they will not be found, even if you, your clothing, and your baggage should be searched by the border guards.” He looked at me. I did not understand what he was saying. Searched? Hidden? What did he mean?
Papa drew on his pipe but it had gone out. He knocked the ash out and reached for his pouch. “Damn!” he muttered. “I am out of tobacco.” He looked at mamma. “Show her where to hide the package while I slip out to the tobacconist, Miriam,” he said. He rose from his armchair, put on his hat and coat and closed the front door of the apartment behind him.
“Come with me into your bedroom,” mamma said.
My eyes opened wide. “But..,” I began in protest. I followed her along the hallway.
“It is important that you do not undo all that we and your Uncle Friedrich have done by being squeamish,” my mother said. “From this moment on you are no longer a 16-year-old schoolgirl, but an adult, a grown woman of almost 19.”
Mamma held my bedroom door open and I passed through. She rolled the oilskin into a small, tight wad, handed it to me and told me what to do.
“It will probably hurt a little but it won’t last for long,” she said, and she was right. It felt most uncomfortable at first, tucked inside me but I understood that my parents would not take such drastic measures without good reason.
We ate dinner that evening in a silence that continued all through the tram ride to the railway station. It was late when we arrived, past 11 o’clock. We pushed our way through the crowds until we reached the barrier for my platform.
“Railway officials,” my father said, “are turning away all unaccompanied children and anyone without a return tick to destinations outside Austria. Now you understand why your mother and I had to take all those measures for your safety.”
I looked past papa at the platform, jammed with travellers and luggage, and wondered how I would ever find a seat on the train. I produced my ticket. The inspector glanced at it, then at me, then at my parents, then back at me. My braids had gone. My hair fell in waves to my shoulders. I wore my mother’s lipstick, my best coat, gloves and a small hat. Still, he must have suspected that I was younger than I pretended. With a final, disbelieving look, he clipped my ticket and nodded for me to pass through.
“Say ‘Hello’ to Uncle Friedrich for me,” my mother said as she hugged me and kissed me on the cheek.
“I will,” I replied.
“And to Aunt Helga in Trieste,” papa said. “Have fun, be good and we’ll see you at Easter.” He gave me a hug and, like mamma, a kiss on the cheek. I turned and walked past the barrier and along the crowded platform in search of a compartment with an empty seat.
With one foot on the first step of the carriage, I stopped. My doubts and fears returned, my resolve vanished and my legs turned to rubber. I wanted to turn back, to return home with my parents but, if they were still at the barrier, I could not see them, lost in the hundreds of people trying to board the train. I waved anyway, but a horrible, sinking feeling in my stomach warned me that, in spite of all their reassurances, I might never see them again. I turned and climbed aboard.
At 11:30 p.m. on the 10th March, 1938, the train pulled out of the station carrying, among the hundreds aboard it, one tearful and frightened girl with a large suitcase, a passport and papers in a name I had difficulty remembering, and the means of getting to America uncomfortably hidden inside my body where, I hoped, nobody would dare to search.
The man opposite looked up as I took my seat. Without saying a word he stared at me with small black eyes and a creepy smirk. I imagined him peeling away my coat, my dress and my underclothes to peer at my naked body. I knew he had discovered my secret, and precisely where I had hidden it. My skin crawled. The blood drained from my face and I almost fainted. I wanted to scream. To avoid looking at the man I closed my eyes, but I dared not sleep, waiting for him to touch me at any moment. I kept awake during the night by making up and memorizing all the little details of my newly acquired life before the questioning at the border began.
Shortly before eight in the morning our train halted at the Austrian side of the Italian border. We were ordered onto the platform for a document and baggage inspection. I knew there was nothing in my suitcase that a guard would not expect to find. I still had my uneaten ham and cheese sandwich in my handbag. Would this be a good time to take it out and eat it? I was certainly hungry enough, but I thought better of it. It might be my last line of defence in case someone asked about my religion.
Under a large “Border Control” sign hanging from the soot-blackened roof over the station platform, my knees shook as I waited in line to be inspected. One of the crowd, I shuffled forward in the cool morning sunlight, waiting to be questioned, and praying that my secrets would remain undiscovered.
“Next!” the inspector shouted.
I stepped forward.
“Name?” he barked.
“Anna-Lise Jaeger,” I stammered, hoping he could not see my quaking knees beneath my coat.
He regarded me with suspicion. “Passport and travel documents.”
I handed him my passport and my return rail ticket. He inspected them closely for several seconds, glancing from the photo to me and back, his lips moving silently as he squinted at the pages.
“Your first visit to Italy?” he asked before handing my documents back. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“Go over there to Fräulein Hess,” he said, pointing to a large, uniformed woman standing by the ‘Women Only’ waiting room door. “She will search your baggage.” He turned his back on me.
I took my first nervous step towards the formidable-looking Fräulein Hess. Beneath a grey uniform hat her straw blond pigtails fastened in pinwheels lay flat against the side of her head. She took me into a curtained cubicle in the unheated waiting room.
“Anna-Lise Jaeger,” I told her, wondering why I needed to be questioned again.
“Purpose of your visit?”
“I am visiting my aunt in Trieste. She is widowed and not well. Hopefully she will be better before I return home after Easter.” Thank you, God, for helping me to remember not to say Passover.
“Your aunt’s name and address, Fräulein?”
I had anticipated such a question, but I was still terrified that they might check the address I gave.
“Turn around,” she ordered. Her hands moved through my hair to the nape of my neck and down over my shoulders to the small of my back. When she had finished I turned back.
“Turn around,” she ordered again, “until I tell you to face me.” I turned. “Unbutton your coat.”
Too frightened to ask why, I did as she ordered. She ran her hands down my ribs to my waist and up again. She crushed the seams, lapels and hem of my coat, and prodded the whalebones of my corset before raising her hands to my breasts. I tried to push her away.
“Stay still,” she ordered, “or I will have you arrested. They are less gentle than I.” Her hands lingered over my breasts before she dropped them to the hem of my dress and ran them under my petticoat, past my knees and between my thighs. She stopped when she reached the top of my legs, at my crotch. She ordered me to strip.
Fräulein Hess nodded. “Completely,” she said, “Everything off unless you want an internal examination.” Mortified, I balked, but one glance at Fräulein Hess gloating at me convinced me it was better not to argue. She would find my package, and I would be arrested at gunpoint.
I took off my coat and turned my back to undress. Naked and shivering I bent to fold and place my clothes on the bench in front of me. I heard the woman’s sharp intake of breath behind me. “Turn around,” she ordered again.
“I see you are cold, Fräulein,” she said. Her breath came out of her mouth like steam as she visually examined me. She sneered when she caught sight of the crucifix between my breasts, then dropped her gaze to my crotch. “Turn around and spread your legs apart.”
Completely terrified, I turned and planted my feet apart. “Lean forward and bend over.” I braced my hands against the wall behind the bench, and waited while her fingers pulled away the sanitary napkin I had used the night before to absorb the blood from my ruptured hymen. My humiliation was complete. She replaced the pad with a sigh of disgust. “There. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now get dressed.”
I dressed while Fräulein Hess rummage through my suitcase. She pulled out the open packet of napkins and held it up in front of my face. My hand flew to my mouth. My cheeks reddened, flushed with the heat of embarrassment. She picked up and shook my sky blue dirndl with the edelweiss and alpine summer flowers my mother had embroidered for my sixteenth birthday. I did not know mamma had packed it. She tossed it back unfolded on top of the bright salmon apron, and snatched my father’s prayer book. She opened it at my baptismal certificate bookmark, flipped through the pages and shook it by the spine before dropping it into my suitcase. She ignored the bible.
“Catholic?” she asked. I nodded, too afraid to speak, too afraid she might ask me religious questions I would not be able to answer. “You’ll get over it.” She laughed; a cruel, mocking crow that made my skin crawl with goose bumps. She opened my handbag and dumped the contents on the bench. She looked inside the paper bag containing my sandwich.
“My breakfast,” I said with a dry mouth.
She stared at me with a disbelieving look and snorted. “I will see you on your way back in April, Fräulein Jaeger. Next!”
I left the waiting room and tottered towards the yellow and black Customs sign marked “Zöll” with “Dogana” beneath it in Italian. All that remained was to bluff my way past the Italian border guards, passport and immigration control, and customs officials. To my relief, with their job already done by their Austrian counterparts, the Italian border police politely stamped my passport and wished me, “Buon viaggio, Signorina.”
In Trieste I took a taxi to the docks. While lining up to board the steamer to Alexandria I saw a van pull up at a newsstand. The driver unloaded bundles of newspapers. The vendor glanced at the headlines, and began shouting in Italian. I did not understand a word. Risking my place in the queue I bought a copy of Wiener Morgenblatt, the Austrian morning paper, and read the headline:
“COUP D’ETAT IN VIENNA. AUSTRIAN NAZIS SEIZE CONTROL. REFERENDUM CANCELLED.”
While I travelled, Germany had swallowed up Austria, my home, my country. I might have been one of the last to leave Vienna before the border closed. The Anschluss my father had predicted had begun. At 16, going on 19, I realized with a sickening jolt, I was completely alone.
I wept as I read the news. An elderly woman in a dark green tweed suit touched my arm. “You are Austrian?” I nodded. “So am I,” she said. “It is sad what has happened, and I am even sadder to leave behind my beautiful country forever.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To America,” she replied. “I’m taking the liner ‘Orion’ from Alexandria in two days.”
I nodded. That was my ship too.
“And you?” she asked.
“I’m going to Brindisi,” I said. “My aunt is unwell and my uncle, he is a party official and is very busy these days, you understand.” I was surprised how easily the lie tripped off my tongue, though it meant that I would have to hide from the old woman all the way from Brindisi to Alexandria. “All the trains were booked full, and I didn’t have a reservation.” I smiled. “I return to Vienna after Easter.”
The woman nodded. “Perhaps we might travel together, at least as far as Brindisi,” she suggested. “You are welcome to share my cabin if you don’t have one of your own.”
She seemed so nice and helpful but there was something about the old lady’s accent I didn’t trust. She didn’t sound Austrian.
“You’re very kind,” I said, “but it is only one night. I shall sleep in a deck chair.”
“As you wish,” she said, and I noticed her voice turn flinty. “You are very brave to travel all that way on your own.” She gave me a hard look and made it sound as if she didn’t believe me. “I hope your aunt soon recovers her strength. Gute Reise, Fräulein. Auf wiedersehn.”
“Danke,” I replied. She made her way along the deck and disappeared. I thanked my father for his warning, and prayed she and I would not meet again. Shortly before the ship sailed I watched the old lady step down the gangway to the dockside. She turned her back on the ship and walked away, in no hurry to be in Alexandria in time to sail on the Orion.
Sadness overcame me. I felt a stranger to myself. I had left my Star of David, the symbol of my Jewishness, my identity, in Vienna. I blessed my mother for packing my dirndl, my reminder that I will always remain Austrian, no matter what. And I remembered my father saying, “Whether a glass is half full or half empty depends on whether you are pouring or drinking.”
As the ship pulled away from the dock I prayed for my parents, knowing that whatever befell them, my glass at least, was half full.