Familiar Voices: A Kaleidoscopic Vision of Catastrophic Times

Chapter 1: L’il Orphan Anny’s Monologue

(To be read while listening to Johannes Brahms, Alto Rhapsody; Director: Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus, Christa Ludwig)

Anny SteinerWell, those were hard times. Difficult times. What should I say? What do I tell you? A young person like you. You would not know what I am talking about. Still weighs on me.

Na ja, listen up then. It was May 1st, 1945. Earlier that year, in January, when Hans was on his last home visit, he said he was going to desert. They just had transferred him from Znaim to Retz, and now to Hainburg, much closer to the Eastern front, right on the Danube, and you knew that the Russians were coming up the Danube Valley. He said he was going to desert because he knew all was lost. He even heard that they were negotiating a peace with the Amis. He said I should not tell anyone, and not expect him to come home or write any more. He was sure the Russians were coming and they would kill all of them and he would just leave and hide, go back to Retz in the North, hide out in the Waldviertel, or the Weinviertel and wait until it was all over. He knew they raped and hurt all the women. So I had to be careful too. I should keep my eyes open, not go out much. But he would be home sometime after they had finalized the truce. And take care of me and Brita.

I was worried. What if the Germans caught him? They would string him up on a lamppost. I had seen those bodies in Leopoldstadt. If they thought you were a traitor they would string you up. So he was running from the Germans and the Russians all at the same time – it was so crazy, the only thing you could do is laugh.

He said he was going to be alright. He knew a lot of farmers up in the Waldviertel and the Weinviertel, north of the Danube. He had trained their sons for the Wehrmacht, for the battles on the Eastern front. He had been nice to them, kind, helped them get over their fear of getting killed. Then they would send them off to the front. He loved them, and they trusted him. He was such a good Unteroffizier, got promoted quickly in the first two years. Took care of his kids. He was too old to fight, so they kept him in the base camps.  And the kids would write to their parents to tell them how Unteroffizier Steiner had helped them and been nice to them. They called him “the dad away from home”. So the parents would send Speck and Eggs and cheese. Just to say thanks. A godsend really, because we did not have much to eat then and Brita was hungry almost all the time. Well she was just 4, almost five; her birthday is on June 5th. A kid, growing. And the food stamps did not get you anything anymore anyway. But the day before there was a rumor going around, which you couldn’t talk about otherwise they’d kill you: The Russians were in Berlin and the Fuehrer was dead. We heard all this stuff about surrender of Germany to the Allies, which Himmler was initiating, but Goebbels also was talking on the radio how we all had to fight. And really, we still saw the soldiers who were fighting, but mostly going around and killing people if they refused to fight, so nobody really knew: war or peace?

So, it was May 1st. Beautiful Spring day. Blue sky, the air was soft and warm. And you could almost believe it was peace, like it used to be. Still, I was worried about Hans. I always worried about him. I have to say, one day when I went down to Praterstern, I saw the saw the SS stringing up a soldier on the Teggetthoff Statue, and I all of a sudden got such a fright that this was Hans and I ran and looked, but it was not him, JesusMarandana. So, to get my mind off all this craziness, I said to Brita: come, Pupperl, let’s go for a walk, a nice little walk in the Prater. Because that was very close, we lived in the Austellungsstrasse, Number 55 in the second floor, number 28. The Prater was right across the street. I always loved the Prater with all its beautiful Chestnut trees, especially around this time of year. The blossoms would be on the branches, standing straight up like Christmas tree candles, such a nice picture, so beautiful. Pink and white they were the blossoms, little clustered trumpets on a mini tree. And then the Flieder, oh how the lilacs smelled, so sweetly, their white and blue and purple clusters swaying in the breeze and intoxicating you with their smell. You almost forgot that you had not had a good meal in over a month.

Anyway, I put on my Dirndl, because it was warm and balmy, packed my Pupperl up into her sweet white summer outfit, but I also gave her a blanket, coat, put her into the blue pram – she loved riding in that thing, made her feel like a princess – and off we went into the boulevards of the Prater. I was headed for the Lusthaus, in the middle of it all, because that was so pretty. We would sit on the steps there and I would tell Pupperl about all the wonderful things to eat that they used to serve there before the war, and she would say: Can I have a Millirahmstrudel too? And I said: only if you are very good and wait till Vati comes home, because he will take us here and buy us a delicious snack. But he is still up in Niederoesterreich, he is visiting friends. He is coming home soon. And then we will get one, each one of us their own piece. That made her happy.

We sat there for a while. Just as we were getting ready to leave, the air raid sirens sounded. All the people around us looked at each other: we had not heard one of those in weeks. An air raid? We thought they had stopped bombing us because the Germans had surrendered on the Western front. We knew that the Russians were coming, but air raids? That was always from the West, the Amis and the English.  Maybe this was false alarm. Everybody stood around and did not know what to do. Then we heard the planes droning, that sound we knew quite well.  “Americans” someone yelled, “Those are Liberator bombers. They are coming. Get down, get down."

I wasn’t afraid, because usually they dropped their bombs over by the Danube, onto the boats and barges that would bring up ore, coal and oil from the Black Sea. And as long as you did not live near there and stayed in the Prater, you usually were ok. Well, things would burn and go up in flames, and people would die, but you just had to know where to go. And the Lusthaus had a nice basement; we had been in it before.

We all went down. Pupperl was worried, because we had to leave the Pram upstairs, the steps were too narrow, and there were too many people trying to pile into the basement. But the worst thing was that the light wasn’t working this time and so people would practically step all over each other and fall down, almost like in the movies, it was funny.  And Pupperl kept saying: “I want light”. I think she was afraid. But I hugged her really tight and told her to hug me and then we‘d be all right.

The raid was over in a couple hours. On the way up, a man said “What a stupid thing to do. It’s over, and they are still dropping bombs on us. What are they thinking? Sometimes I think Goehring is right: they just want to destroy all of us”. Nobody said anything and we all went our own ways.

Pupperl was happy, because the Pram was right where we left it. We headed back towards Austellungstrasse. There was fire and smoke toward the North, where the Danube was, that’s the way these things usually ended up. And some explosions coming from the harbor, because they probably hit some weapons storage place, and there were a bunch along the harbor. Some Volksturm guys, you know the kids and the real old ones were running towards the fires, because they always tried to put them out. They usually couldn’t because they had no more stuff to do it with. So they usually just stood there and stared and tried to get people out that were not too hurt. The wounded ones they had to leave to burn up, because they could not be helped anyway. And you could hear them scream. Horrible, it gave you the goose bumps. But what could you do? If you got them out they usually would bleed to death real quickly anyway. This way they had at least had a cremation. 

Anyway, we crossed the street to get to our house door. And as we stood by the milliners shop right next to our entry, I saw that our building was down, gone, a heap of rubble. I could not believe it. At first I thought we were at the wrong address, but there was the milliners shop, just in the right place. A bomb had hit our building, went right through it and blew up. One wall was still standing, and you could see part of the staircase going up, and some parts of all the rooms. I looked up to our apartment on the second floor and saw the couch in the living room hanging down over half the floor of the room, but everything else was gone. Pupperl started to cry, so I could not, but I felt like it, believe me, so silly, really. But I had to be strong, especially now that Hans was still gone. I had to be him and me.

I went to the milliners shop and waited for her to come back. Helga was her name, a really nice woman. She said “ JesusMariaundJosef, Frau Steiner, are you ever unlucky. My god, crazy, really. You can stay here of course, wait for the Volkssturm guys to show up and help you, although they are all so old and so young now, I am never sure that they really are much help”.

Mostly I was worried because I had no clothes other than what we had on. And there would be weather of course, rain and all that. And me in my Dirndl. You know what they look like, don’t you? And the Russians were coming for sure.

That evening I sat down with Karl and Fini, my sister and her husband, they lived nearby, a couple blocks and their house had not gotten hit. They had a kitchen/bedroom, small, the WC on the hall, so we could stay there for a little bit.  But mostly Karl was worried that I had nobody to be with me all the time, and my Dirndl was just too much. So Fini gave me a couple old dresses and a coat to cover up. A couple nights we spent with Fini and Karl. But then I had an idea: I would also go to Niederoesterreich, and hide in one of the convents up there, there are so many deep in Waldviertel, nobody ever would bother going there, not even the Russians. And the nuns would take care of us, we’d have stuff to eat, and I just could wait until Hans got back, leave word with Karl and Fini that I was up in Zwettl, and he could find me there.

The Volkssturm never showed up, so we had nothing anyway. Well, not quite. Karl climbed up to the flat when the walls had cooled down and there was no more fire and found enough clothes for me to fill a little suitcase that we found in the street. And we had the pram, so I put Pupperl in the pram with the suitcase and we went over to the NordWestbahnhof. But there were no more trains running. They had a schedule, but after waiting for three hours, and not one of the trains that was scheduled came through, I figured – no trains. And so I started walking.

Zwettl is really not that far from Vienna, 120 kilometers, and I could do that easily in 3-4 days if we kept going. And you walk at first right along the Danube, right by the orphanage in Nussdorf where I grew up, and I always liked showing Pupperl where that was. I showed her the exact spot where I would stand and reach through the fence to shake Mutti’s hand when she came to visit on Sundays. The people there had always been so nice to me. I was there from 2 to 14. And when they told me I had to leave at 14, I cried so hard and did not want to go at all. Yes, that’s the way it was.

Anyway, so we walked along the Danube, through Brigittenau, Nussdorf, Klosterneuburg. We had to cross the Danube at some point to get to Zwettl, but there were no bridges at all in Vienna and the ferries were not working either. Pupperl thought we had to swim across and started crying, because she could not swim, but, the little silly, always worried about things, so I just gave her a Busserl and said: ‘Schau, Puppilein, there will be a bridge somewhere, I am sure. They didn’t destroy everything. I will find one. Mutti always finds a way. You will see.” And that settled her down and she would start looking around again, out of her pram, and tell me what she wanted and how hungry she was.

The first day we got as far as Tulln. We slept in a farmer’s hayloft. The wife was very nice and gave us stuff to eat and drink in return for my watch. She also gave us breakfast. The second night we were in Mautern and the ferry there took us to the other side to Krems. The third night we were in a field very close to  Zwettl, and then finally, we were there, tired, but there. I knew that there was a big Zisterzienserstift there, just like Karl had told me. And Hans had said that he would hide somewhere in the Waldviertel, so I thought maybe this would be the one. They also put nuns into the monasteries to make them safer, keep them hidden. We always thought that was funny, because, you know they are not supposed to be together. But I knew that they would take us in because they were the ones that helped out at the orphanage. The nunnery was hidden in the back of the huge Stift, a little hard to get to, but that was just fine with me, because we knew the Russians wouldn’t find us there.

There were some Ursulinen from Vienna, they were the ones that came over to the orphanage to teach us in school. Mother Superior asked me whether I was Catholic. And I said: sure, I was raised that way. I didn’t tell her that I converted to Augsburger because Hans was Evangelisch AB. And she did not ask. They gave us a cell way in the back of the nunnery, to make sure nobody could find us. They all immediately were in love with Brita, although she was crying almost all the time now, because she was afraid of the women in the black and white habits. But I kept saying that they were nice and she should give them a Busserl, and one day she gave mother Superior a big Busserl on the cheek, and from then on Brita and mother Superior were very good friends. In fact, she started calling her Oma, which was really funny, it made all the nuns laugh and giggle. It was funny, because you know they shouldn’t really have kids or families.

After two weeks we heard that the war was over. I wrote to Karl and Fini, told them where we were and that they should write: had Hans been home yet? They wrote and said no. So that had me worried again. It was so long that I had heard from him, middle of winter. Maybe he was dead? Maybe the Germans had gotten him? Or the Russians? Or he starved? I told Karl and Fini that I was worried, but they kept saying: “Unkraut verdirbt nicht”, and although it made a little bit mad that they called Hans a weed, it also made me laugh and settle down: yes, he was tough, and he would make it, he would make it.

The week seemed so long without him, and me just worrying. And there is always a lot of rain in the Waldviertel, and that made me a bit downcast. But Puppilein would cheer me up, because she played with the dogs in the yard, she helped the nuns with preparing the meals and setting the table, and she stopped asking about food. She even had a little belly. But where was Hans?

We did not find out until June that he actually had come home right after we left Vienna. He went to the apartment house at night thinking that would make sure that nobody saw him and could denounce him to the police or the SS. He had been hiding in farms up very close to Zwettl, staying just a few days in each place, making sure that he was not a burden to the people that fed him. He chose them carefully. He had a list of names from his soldiers that had written letters to their parents, and where he could be certain that he would be welcome. Because some of them were Nazis of course, so he had to pick. He heard in June that there was an unconditional surrender. All the Germans had put their arms down, people said, and walked home. But Hans later said that there were still some platoons that kept on fighting and would kill people that they thought were deserters, so he kept hiding. He did not run into any Russians, they stayed away from the area, so that was a good thing.

When he arrived at the apartment house, it was pitch-black. There were no streetlights yet, so he looked among all the bombed out places to find our house. And then he did exactly what I had done, the silly: he thought he was at the wrong address and kept looking for the place. Nobody there to ask, nobody on the street and he did not want to go to Fini and Karl in case someone would see him and denounce him. Because you know, that happened to him right after the Germans came. Somebody at work turned him in. Said he was a Jew. So they took him to the GESTAPO down at the Kai and started interrogating him. Steiner could be Jewish name. And his parents were from Kärnten and Slovakia, so they had dark hair and eyes. They made him go back four generations to prove that he was Arian. He had no problem, because the Protestants in Austria, you know they keep very good records, because there is so few of them. His village in Kärnten gave him all he needed. His Grandfather was from Jadersdorf, the Church was over in Weissbriach and Weissensee.  It was a great relief, but after that he always was very scared and very quiet, just as if he had done something wrong. And it made him very distrustful of neighbors and just people he knew. Because he never found out who it was that denounced him, they would not say. We had our suspicions though, we thought it either was someone from work that wanted his job; or even someone from the family. One guy in particular. Nobody in our family liked him, and he always made himself sooooo important.  The GESTAPO knew that he liked Al Jolson – Old Man River; and that he read Zane Grey and all kinds of stories from the Wild West. And how else would they have found out, because that stuff was by his bedside? But of course we could not prove anything.

Anyway, so he saw the house was gone. And he thought Puppilein and I both were dead. So he went to Karl and Fini’s house, but nobody was there or answered the door. So he left again to hide some more until he was really sure that the war was over and no more crazy SS guys were running around shooting people. His heart was broken, because we were dead. And he worried terribly. So he left a letter at Karl’s, under the door, telling them that he would be coming back – he did not say when  – and he told them to leave a message in our old mailbox – yes, (laughs) that was still standing. But for the longest time, there was no reply, because Fini and Karl had decided to leave Vienna to avoid the Russians coming in. They went down to his relatives in Steiermark, where they stayed on a farm and waited for the war to be truly over. So Hans thought that they might be dead too.

In June then, the Russian had come and settled in, along with the Amis, the French and the English. So now it was relatively safe again, because they were all watching each other. And so there were many fewer rapes and killings in the street, it was much better. The trains were running again too, so I took Puppilein and we went back to Vienna. The people in the house had made a shelter out of the ruins, and everybody lived together in the basements and whatever was left of the apartments. Lots of rats of course, but that wasn’t so bad, because there was no food anyway.

And one day, I remember exactly June 13th, my birthday; I went upstairs from the basement to get some food from the church. And there he was, checking the mailbox. I had not even thought about looking there, because there was no mailman. But there he was. My God was I happy. And Puppilein did not know who he was, and even was a little afraid of him, because he was so skinny.

And the rest you know. So we got the apartment in Fuenfhaus – a bedroom, a kitchen and a small living room, no bath, the WC out in the hall for all the apartments, up on the third floor. But it was bigger than Finis, because we had a kid. And soon two. That was next year then. Yes that was little Hans.

So that was it. I never was raped by the Russians. But Fini, Rosa and Kaethe all were. And all they did was go shopping. I was really careful and always stayed together with a bunch of people. And I never looked at them, especially when they were drunk. Hard times. So there. But: good luck in bad luck - we all made it. Everybody survived. Well, almost everyone, except Hans Heuschneider, of course. And the sisters forgot about their rapes after a while. Their husbands did not so easily, but you see, that is just how men are. Silly sometimes. And: none of them deserted the sisters after it happened. They just made sure that whatever kid they got was theirs