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SECRETS IN THE ATTIC
I shined my boots to a mirror finish and polished my belt buckle. Then I rubbed gasoline on a tiny grease spot I had noticed on my uniform jacket. I was nervous. The other soldiers in the room had no idea of what I intended, why I was making such a fuss over my appearance when we were only scheduled to attend rifle practice on the shooting range.
My heart thumping faster than usual, I left the barracks at five minutes before nine and marched across the enormous exercise grounds toward one of the administration buildings. The November fog hung in the leafless chestnut trees; a bell in one of the neighboring churches began to toll the hour.
I had an appointment with the division commander, Oberstleutnant Poppinger, a man distinguished by his red nose swollen from French cognac and the gleaming Iron Cross that always hung around his fat neck. Considering what a tiny cog I represented in the gears of the huge German military machine, my request to see Poppinger was somewhat similar to demanding an audience with God himself.
At 9:00 a.m. on November 10, 1943, I stood in front of Poppinger's desk, facing both him and the large portrait of Adolf Hitler that hung on the wall at his back. My boot heels clicked smartly together, my right hand snapped a lightning salute to the edge of my cap, and, in the overloud voice decreed by the German army, I yelled at Poppinger, "Funker Rauch reporting, sir!"
"At ease. And what does he have on his mind?" Poppinger lounged behind his desk, regarding me with an expression that could almost be described as benevolent.
Thereupon I bellowed the sentence that I had been framing in my mind for weeks. "Funker Rauch wishes to be permitted to report that he cannot be an officer in the German Wehrmacht."
With an astonished, almost idiotic expression on his face, the lieutenant colonel sputtered, "Are you crazy? Did I hear you correctly?"
"Jawohl, Herr Oberstleutnant!"
Poppinger, who was almost a head taller than I, stood up. His face was becoming crimson. He came around the desk to stand directly in front of me and snarled, "We decide who will be an officer in the German Wehrmacht. Whoever refuses to serve his fatherland as an officer, once we have deemed him acceptable, is a traitor."
Turning toward the door where the orderly was standing, he said, as though seeking support, "The man isn't in his right mind. Denial of his abilities to serve his country as an officer-that's high treason!"
By this time, his voice had risen almost to a screech. With a visible attempt to regain control of himself, he returned to his chair, sat down, took a drink of water, and continued in a more factual tone, "I demand an explanation."
Again I clicked my heels together. As though charged by an electric shock, I pressed my hands flat against my thighs and shouted once again, "I don't feel able to become an officer in the German army because I have Jewish blood."
Poppinger sprang up, his face almost purple, and blurted out, "What did he say?"
"I have a Jewish grandmother."
"Mensch, how did you get here in the first place? Jewish grandmother! You must be completely mad."
He motioned the orderly to his side and, after a few whispered sentences, turned again to me and said simply, "Dismissed."
The orderly took me to his office, where I explained in a considerably calmer atmosphere that I had included the fact of my having a Jewish ancestor in the personal data I had submitted when I was drafted. He dismissed me then, and I returned to my barracks.
When I reentered my room, it was empty. The bunk beds were all perfectly spread. The straw mattresses had been shaken; on each bed two gray blankets were folded as though with a measuring tape and carefully laid over the rough, tightly stretched sheets, and all pillows were positioned in exactly the correct spot at the exact specified angle. The smell of Lysol was pervasive.
I had no idea what would happen next as a result of my interview with Poppinger; nonetheless, I felt relieved. I climbed up to my bunk and stretched out, deciding to enjoy the unexpected bonus of a few free hours to myself until the rest of my bunkmates returned from exercises.
* * *
Lying there, I reviewed the events of my military existence up until now. How utterly hopeless I had felt the day that a draft notice finally appeared in our mailbox! Though I was used to enjoying the deep, dreamless sleep of the young, that night I lay awake for long hours thinking of where I could hide myself so I would not have to become a German soldier.
I knew it was hopeless. Hadn't I already gnawed at the problem for a whole year while pedaling my bicycle hundreds of kilometers through the Austrian Alps? That perfect place where I could be taken in, fed, and kept warm and safe while all of Europe tried to annihilate itself did not, unfortunately, exist.
Regardless of where I might turn up in my civilian clothes, as an obviously healthy young man I would immediately be asked for my papers. Men between the ages of eighteen and sixty and out of uniform were practically nonexistent. World War II had snatched up every man who might possibly be able to carry a weapon.
On the day I reported for duty to the Kaserne (barracks) in Vienna, I filled out all the forms, listing my education in a technical school as well as six years of instruction in French and my hobbies, such as radio building. I also indicated my familiarity with Morse code, at that time the only means of wireless communication.
As a result, the Germans permitted me to choose the branch of service I preferred. I chose the infantry, thereby proving my complete idiocy as far as my friends and family members were concerned. After all, most other branches of the service were cleaner and more comfortable: the air force, the navy, and even the tank corps.
Although I was well aware that soldiers in the infantry had to endure great hardships, my instinctive decision was based on one essential fact: in an all-out war such as this one, I didn't want to be caught sitting helplessly in any kind of iron box, expecting it to explode from a grenade, torpedo, or mine hit. The ground, where a fellow could run or hide, seemed a lot more secure to me. If I could dig fast enough and deep enough, I still might have a chance, if worse came to worst.
The camp on the outskirts of Vienna where I received my basic training as a telegraphist, or Funker, was an ugly complex of three-storied gray buildings that looked as though they hadn't been painted or renovated since the days of the monarchy. We sweated through most of our first weeks on the parade ground, mastering the fine art of Prussian drilling from dawn to sunset.
Soon we were so well-trained that we carried out most commands more or less automatically, and we began to spend more time on our specialization: the installation and use of shortwave sets and telephones. The training came easily to me, as I enjoyed anything having to do with electrical apparatus.
My transition from playful adolescent to disciplined soldier was far from simple, though. The offspring of doctors and architects, I had grown up with the assurance that my opinion would always be heard and at least considered. I found it particularly difficult, therefore, to follow orders that often seemed illogical, serving only to produce a completely submissive subject who could be depended upon to obey without the slightest objection. One of our training officer's favorite sayings was "Leave the thinking to the horses. They have larger heads."
On three separate occasions I was locked up for minor offenses: failure to salute an officer, unauthorized absence from the barracks, and going back to bed while the others were out huffing and puffing on the drill grounds. But something a little more serious occurred during one of our weekly field exercises.
That lovely May morning, two companies from my camp took the red and white Viennese streetcars to a small mountain north of the city, the Bisamberg. Carrying our spades and rifles, bedecked with all the other equipment and gadgets, and wearing our gas masks, we were hounded, sweating and panting, up one side of the mountain. On the summit, without even having had a chance to catch our breath, those of us in Company Red were ordered to begin fighting Company Blue, which came rushing at us from the opposite side.
Through beautiful spring meadows filled with tender flowers and grasses reaching to our hips, we stormed the other company's position, fell back, and attacked again. Back and forth we went, bullied by constant shouts of "Hit the dirt! Get up! Crawl! Attack!" until noon, when we flopped down, exhausted, to wait for the next assault command.
We lay there in the high grass, spaced about thirty feet apart. The powder smoke from the last blank cartridges had drifted away and was slowly being replaced by the heady aromas of the flowers and the damp spring earth. The pause lengthened, and still the order didn't come, so I decided to make myself a little more comfortable.
Detaching a few pieces of equipment and placing them to one side, I opened my shirt and let the sun dry my perspiration. I gulped thirstily from my canteen, chewed a piece of bread. Honeybees buzzed among the flowers. Ladybugs crept to the ends of the blades of grass and jumped into flight. I sank back into the meadow and, breathing in the soothing springtime smells, promptly fell asleep.
The rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire and a painful jab in the ribs jolted me awake.
"Mensch, what are you doing here?" yelled an angry voice. "Didn't you hear the command to attack? Do you need a personal written order to get your lazy ass into motion?"
Through my sleep-fuzzed eyes I could see a black boot in the process of aiming a second, more vigorous blow to my side. The angry face above it belonged to the officer in charge of the entire maneuver.
The shots and shouts of the attackers rang out quite clearly but were already some distance away. Here I lay on my back in the warm sun; under the circumstances, I would have been expected to spring to my feet and begin attempting to justify my most awkward situation.
Defying all the rules, still flat on my back, I cracked my heels together, threw my hand to my forehead in salute, and yelled up to the oberleutnant, "Funker Rauch died for Führer, Folk, and Fatherland!"
Where there's a war, there have to be dead bodies, I reasoned, but I watched carefully and with considerable unease the face looming above me. Suddenly I had visions of being sent to prison, drilling until I fell over dead, or, at the very least, peeling potatoes into eternity.
Heaven only knows what thoughts must have passed through that Prussian brain during the endless seconds, until I spied a barely perceptible twitch in the left corner of his mouth, and he said, "When the troops pass this way again shortly, would you be so kind as to rise from the dead and fall in once more as a full, able-bodied soldier?"
"Jawohl!" I shouted up from my still supine position.
A few weeks later, at the beginning of our fourth month of training, Oberstleutnant Kraus, the officer in charge of the camp, put in an unexpected appearance when we fell in for the morning roll call. He exchanged a few words with our captain, handed him a piece of paper, and then left the parade ground.
The captain turned to address us. "The following soldiers are to take two steps forward as I call out their names." He began to shout, "Funker Sperling, Funker Magdeburger, Funker Zoellner, Funker Rauch..."
I stepped forward as commanded, wondering which of the many rules I had broken now. As the list of names grew longer, I comforted myself with the rationalization that all of these soldiers couldn't have done something wrong. There was a total of forty names.
"Those whose names I have called are to return immediately to their barracks, pack up, and report to Barracks Number 28. You are hereby assigned to the course for communications officers and raised to the status of officer candidate. Dismissed."
After all my misdeeds, how was it possible that I was now supposed to become an officer? The news was a complete surprise, and my feelings were mixed, to say the least. At any rate, this change would entail continued months of training in the hinterland, away from any front. I even entertained a faint hope that the war might be over before I could be sent into action. Best of all, I would still be close to home and could call almost every day.
My great awakening came a few months later, in August of 1943. Halfway through the officers' course, 80 percent of us received the order to report immediately to Brno, Czechoslovakia, some 150 kilometers north of Vienna. We were being removed from our communications course and transferred to one for training regular infantry officers.
The reason for this was straightforward. The losses of men and matériel in the battle for Russia were proving to be enormous. More than one and a half million Germans had already been killed, wounded, or listed as missing. Infantry officers were needed desperately, and now I was to become one-supposedly capable of ordering hundreds of men to attack and of screaming with conviction those commands that would send them to their deaths.
After two brief days with my parents, I found myself on the train to Brno. Although it had gradually seeped into my consciousness during the preceding months that I was actually a soldier in the German army, until now somehow I hadn't taken the whole thing seriously. Those training months had been spent in Vienna, the city of my childhood; I had still been at home, in a manner of speaking.
This trip in an express train, however, was carrying me away from my familiar territory. My youth was slipping away along with the city that was disappearing on the opposite side of the Danube. I was on the verge of being swallowed by this monster of a senseless war.
When I had been drafted at nineteen, I had been very naive. I had adopted a negative attitude toward Hitler's war and dictatorship from my parents, without any particular soul-searching on my part. All men were expected to become soldiers, and I had observed that the majority of them submitted to the inevitable and did what they were ordered to do just well enough so as not to give offense.
But to be an officer, that was something else again. Now they would expect me to be responsible for many others, to use my brain for receiving and passing on orders intended to win a war that, in my opinion, should be lost as soon as possible so that the survivors could go home again. It was illogical and idiotic that I, a quarter-Jew and therefore a citizen with limited rights, should have been selected for this "honor."
I was slow to recognize the possibility that I might be able to put in a veto. The closer I came to the Czech city where the officers' training course was to take place, the more determined I became. Somehow, I would get out of that training camp, and I would not become an infantry officer!
By the time of my meeting with Poppinger, the weeks in the camp at Brno had turned into months, and still I hadn't managed to convince those in charge of my unsuitability. First, I had tried to act dull, but nobody bought that. Then I simulated illnesses and physical weakness, but the strenuous training had turned my young body into a healthy bundle of pure muscle. Now, almost at the end of the course, I had made my appointment with Poppinger.
* * *
The day following that meeting I learned the consequences. Not surprisingly, I had been dropped from the officers' course and was ordered to frontline duty as a simple foot soldier, albeit with special training as a telegraphist.
On November 11, my mother came to the train station in the small medieval town of Krumau on the Austrian-Czechoslovakian border to say goodbye. Central Europe isn't famous for its sunshine at any season, but November is the grayest month of all. The trees have dropped their last remaining leaves, it rains most of the time, and a damp fog draws the sky down almost to the ground.
During a warmer season in better times, the ancient walled city, with its gabled houses and lovely churches, would have been a pleasant destination for a Sunday outing. But on this damp, cold morning, in the fifth year of a merciless war, Krumau was only a gray silhouette behind the freight depot, the perfect somber background for possibly the last words that a son and mother would ever exchange.
Beatrix Rauch, or Mutti (Mother), as I called her, was a strong woman in every sense of the word. She was of medium height and slim, but sturdy and wiry, thanks to a great amount of hard work. Her face was slightly asymmetrical because a case of meningitis had paralyzed a few of the muscles around her right eye, but both eyes shone with warmth and a sensitive intelligence. She always smelled faintly of lavender because of the dried blossoms lying in crocheted bits of wool among her clothing in the dresser drawers.
Although my mother came into the world in Vienna in 1889 with the privileges of an aristocrat and spent her first twenty-five years in all the luxury that the nobility enjoyed at that time, her personality was actually formed during the following decades by the events taking place around her. World War I and the resultant fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire took away her title and her wealth. As a Red Cross volunteer, she obtained firsthand experience of war and of the suffering and death of soldiers.
During the inflation and depression years of the twenties and thirties, she was a young married woman with two children. She spent most of her time trying to refashion our rags into presentable clothing and helping my father with the countless jobs and activities he pursued in an effort to earn enough money for our survival.
At the end of the depression Hitler entered Austria, and with him came new suffering and desperation for those, such as my mother, who were opposed to his regime. Considering the general atmosphere of evil and suppression, it must have been a most difficult time to raise a child, but my mother was untiring in teaching my sister and me the delicate values of true culture versus materialism and brutality.
During these years, diversions were rare. There was no thought of travel to foreign lands or even trips to the other end of our own small country. Once in a great while, we managed to scrape together something extra for a theater or concert ticket, but most music or other entertainment was provided by a small radio. We did go on outings in the Vienna Woods, carrying a thermos of tea and some slices of brown bread spread with lard. There in the woods and meadows surrounding Vienna, as well as in the city's many free museums and in our own home, we learned from her, directly and by example, what it means to be a decent human being.
I learned another lesson on the streets of Vienna. In the year I turned fourteen, cheering multitudes had welcomed the Germans when they came marching into Austria, and shortly thereafter the streets had begun sprouting National Socialist propaganda.
One day my mother and I were walking down a Viennese avenue spanned by enormous banners bearing Nazi slogans. She stopped in front of one of these, where letters five feet high proclaimed, "Might comes before Right!" Glancing up and down the almost empty street, she turned to me and said, "Do you understand what those words mean?"
"No," I answered, feeling somehow guilty and a little frightened.
Her expression of suppressed anger and disgust had become more and more familiar of late. "That banner means that he who has the power is automatically in the right. Our current rulers intend to determine what that 'right' is. Do you understand that no civilized or humane person can accept such a philosophy?"
At the time I had but a vague understanding of what she was trying to tell me, realizing only that it was an idea very important to her. In the intervening years, however, she had made her point of view-her complete opposition to Hitler and all he represented-very clear.
That last morning, at the train station in Krumau, my mother and I walked back and forth for half an hour on the platform. None of the hundreds of soldiers sitting on straw in the cattle cars waiting to depart had any idea where the trip would end or whether they would ever return. It must have been obvious to most of them that their chances were slim at best. All one had to do was count up how many friends and relatives had been reported killed or missing in action during the past four years-that is, if they hadn't returned home as cripples.
I was very impressed by two of the things my mother said to me that morning. I thought the first seemed easy enough to understand. She said, "Please remember something in the days to come. In case you don't return, I won't go completely to pieces. I will continue to live a full life, no matter what."
To some this might sound strange, even cold, but with her words I could feel a great burden lifted from my shoulders, the burden of having to survive out there for my mother's sake.
I wasn't to understand her second remark until much later. She said, just as the train slowly started to move and I leaned down to give her a last kiss, "And remember, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
The train picked up speed steadily. By sticking my head out the sliding door of the boxcar, I could still see my mother, a slight, pale figure in a threadbare winter coat standing alone next to the tracks, her arm held motionless in the air.
Finally, she disappeared in the chilly morning fog. I knew that soon she would be on her way back to the town square, walking with that typical hurried step. She would be rushing to catch the next bus back to Vienna, for after all, the Jews hidden in the attic had to be fed and cared for, and life must go on.
Text copyright © 2006, 2015 Georg Rauch