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Other People's Houses
By Lore Segal
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Lore Groszmann Segal
All rights reserved.
Vienna: A Liberal Education
"Did you read this, Igo?" my Uncle Paul asked at dinner in the autumn of 1937. "Another speech and Hitler can put Austria in his pocket. I know the university; it's ninety per cent Nazi."
"A lot of Socialist propaganda," said my father.
My mother's brother Paul, who lived with us in Vienna and was twenty-six, a medical student, and generally avant-garde in his thinking, liked taking extreme positions in order to prick my father, who was forty-two and an accountant, to his predictable platitudes.
"You're talking about a handful of lunatics," said my father.
"We Jews are a remarkable people," Paul said. "Our neighbor tells us he's getting his gun out for us, and we sit watching him polish and load it and train it at our heads and we say, 'He doesn't really mean us.'"
"So what should we do? Go and hide in the cellar every time some raving lunatic in Germany makes a speech?"
"We should pack our rucksacks and get out of this country, that's what we should do," Paul said.
"And go to the jungle, I suppose, and live off coconuts. According to your brother, Franzi," my father said to my mother, "every time a raving lunatic in Germany makes a speech, we should go and live off coconuts in the jungle."
"Is it going to be war?" I asked my mother, aside. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I knew about the First World War. I had a recurring nightmare about my mother and me sitting in a cellar with tennis rackets, repelling the bullets that kept coming in through a horizontal slit of window.
"No, no, no. Nothing like that," my mother said.
I tried to imagine some calamity but did not know how. My mother was ringing the bell for Poldi, the maid, to bring coffee. I decided there must not, there could not, be anything so horrible that we would have to pack and leave everything. I stopped listening to the grownups.
On the eighth of the following March, I had my tenth birthday. On the twelfth, Hitler took Austria and my mother called Tante Trade a cow.
Tante Trade, a cousin of my father's, and her husband, Hans, were having dinner with us and had arrived with the news that Chancellor Schuschnigg had abdicated in favor of Hitler. When Paul called a friend, the editor of a Socialist paper, for confirmation, he was told, "Not yet." We ate with the radio on, and suddenly the music was interrupted for a short speech by Schuschnigg, which ended with the words: "And now I say good-by to my faithful friends and compatriots and wish them all a bearable future." Then they played the Austrian national anthem for the last time: "Sei gesegnet ohne Ende, Österreich, mein Vaterland. "
"They're playing it slower than usual," Tante Trade said. "Franzi, don't you think they are playing it slower than usual?"
"They're probably using the record they always used," my mother said.
"How can you say so, Franzi, and you a musician. Listen, Hansi! Igo! Don't you agree with me, they are playing it slower than usual?"
"Trude, you are a silly cow," my mother said. "Don't you understand what has happened to us?"
"What has happened?" I asked.
"Hans, our coats," Tante Trade said. "You heard what she called me, and in front of the child."
Everyone was standing up. "Trade, I apologize," my mother said. "We're all nervous tonight." But Tante Trade was already walking out of our front door.
Very early the next morning, my parents took me downstairs and we stood in a long line of people outside the bank at the corner; the bank did not open. All around us in the street were young men in strange, brand-new uniforms, saluting each other with right arms stretched forward. It was a clear, sunny March morning. Bright new flags were flying, but my parents hurried me back home.
By May, Poldi, the maid, had to leave our Jewish employ. My father was given a month's notice at the bank where he had worked as chief accountant for twelve years. A week later, an S.S. sergeant commandeered our ugly, tall, lightless flat and all its furnishings, including my mother's Blüthner piano. My father, who had to remain in the city until the end of the month, went to stay with Kari and Gerti Gold, good friends of my parents, who offered him the use of their now empty maid's room. My mother and I went to the country to live with my favorite grandparents, and I had the happiest summer of my life.
My grandparents lived in a big village near the Czechoslovak border, some twenty kilometers from Vienna. I used to think the village was called Fischamend after the great bronze "fish on the end" of the medieval tower that stood on the central square, catercorner from my grandfather's shop, but now I rather think it took its name from its geographical location at the point where the River "Fischer ends" in the Danube.
Our house was huge, old, and rambling, with thick walls. The ground floor was taken up by my grandfather's dry-goods store. The first week, I amused myself by messing with the rolls of fabric on the shelves in the storeroom behind the shop, where my grandmother made dirndl dresses and aprons for sale, until she told me to run along and see my grandfather.
Out in the shop, I danced on the counter until my grandfather got down the box full of ribboned medals and picture post cards "vom Grossen Krieg " (from the Great War) as a treat for me. There were pictures of men in peaked caps and mustaches, and ladies looking over their rosy shoulders out of oval clouds, but I preferred the drawers full of shoelaces, buttons, hairbrushes, and catgut for violin strings. One day I found a violin behind the boxes of gum boots, but the whole summer's searching never turned up the bow.
My grandfather told me to run along out to the yard, and he lent me his young salesgirl, Mitzi, who was standing idle, to play with. Mitzi and I would sit on the sunlit outhouse roof, sucking the little sour grapes from the huge vine that grew and twisted like a thick, tough snake along three walls of the square yard and was too ancient to ripen its fruit. We talked for hours, or, rather, I talked. I told Mitzi my life plans. I was going to look like her when I grew up; Mitzi was fifteen. She had fair hair, a fine country color, and a pretty, petulant mouth. Mitzi was my only friend in Fischamend until Paul got thrown out of the university.
My Uncle Paul was the hero of my childhood, a role in which he by no means recognizes himself. He says he remembers himself as shy, except in his own set, with a tendency to fall over his own feet, but precocious. He says he was one of those clever kids who have a mission to enlighten their benighted parents and expose the foolishness and knavery of all the world. Paul punished his anti-Semitic teachers by failing his examinations, so that when the Nazis dismissed Jewish students from the Vienna university, he was still one semester short of his medical degree.
Paul was a slim young man with a rich head of hair. Old ladies embarrassed him by commenting on his immense violet-blue eyes. What a pity, they said, they were hidden behind glasses. He carried his long, witty nose with an air of melancholy.
It was Paul, not my father, who had been the man in my life: Our affair, dating from my birth and based on a mutual enthusiasm, was an entirely happy one. In the evening, before my light was put out, this Paul, who hobnobbed by day with his glamorous friends, artists and revolutionaries all, sat by my bedside and initiated me into what was going on in politics, science, and poetry. For light entertainment, he would sing the four-footed German student songs, accompanying himself passably on his guitar and taking, every once in a while, a lip-smacking draught from an imaginary stein of beer.
Or we talked about me: Paul encouraged me in drawing and painting, for which he said I, unlike himself, had an interesting talent. He was a fair audience for the impressionistic dances encouraged at my dancing school, though, after some hours, he might thank me and tell me he had had enough and wished to be left alone to get on with his studies. If I persisted, he slapped me roundly and looked into my face with such frank and genuine irritation that I went away, unprotesting, to find my father and tease him for a while, but there was not the same satisfaction in it.
The only treachery my uncle had ever perpetrated upon me was a bicycle tour he took the summer before Hitler, into the Austrian Tyrol and across the Alps into Italy. He went with his own friends. I was not invited.
Hitler put an end to that. There was no gadding about after Paul arrived at Fischamend late in May, sneaking into the yard by the back door and up the back stairs to the east wing of the house, in which my mother and I were staying. His right ear was gashed and bleeding freely. My mother sat him down in a chair and sent me for water and bandages, with instructions not to let my grandmother catch wind of anything, but when I returned from my errand, my grandmother had arrived on the scene and was tying up my uncle's face, toothache fashion, saying quietly and bitterly, "You and your clever friends never did have any sense—getting into street fights with the Nazis!" Paul patted his mother's hand and grinned at me across the room.
After this incident, I understood that Paul was going to stay indefinitely.
Now Paul's friends came out to Fischamend from Vienna to visit. Liesel came to spend a weekend. Liesel had been Paul's girl for years. She was beautiful and witty, and even my grandmother approved. She was blonder than Mitzi, and more delightful to talk to, because she would talk back to me and we had conversations. I sat on her lap while she and Paul sat in the yard at a card table with paper and pencils. They were writing a fairy story for me. The heroine was called Princess Vaselina. The hero was a pretentious commoner named Shampoo von Rubinstein, and as they wrote they laughed and laughed.
When Liesel left, my grandmother said it was Paul's own fault. She said that if he and his friends had not spent their time playing at socialism and walking round the picture galleries, he could at least be a doctor now. I did not like him to be scolded, and I went to sit on his lap, but he said that my grandmother had a point there, and he looked quite depressed.
The next visitor was Paul's friend Dolf. According to my grandmother, he had had the most baleful influence on Paul's career. Dolf was a poet. I thought he was splendid. He was extraordinarily tall and seemed to be embarrassed about it; he had a way of scratching the top of his head that stood his shock of black hair up in a cone and made him look even taller. He was so tall that when he sat down in a chair he folded like one of our folding beds. Paul made him write a poem in my autograph book. He wrote:
We are followed from our cradle and first cry
Until the grave, by hate and lie.
From our cradle till our last rest,
Attends us other men's distress.
Be true and help.
You'll come to understand—
But of yourself, I hope, and not at Life's hard hand.
He illustrated it with a facetious drawing of my uncle, in angel garb, hovering over my bed. The picture pained me; I felt it spoiled the noble tone of my book. This is the only notice Dolf ever took of me. His indifference excited me. I danced interminable impressionistic dances for him. I learned to stand on my head—an accomplishment of which I am still capable and proud, though it has never worked for me any better than it did then. When Paul and Dolf went for a walk by the Danube, they took me along. Each young man held one hand. Their talk of pictures and books bounced from one to the other above my head; like a watcher's at a tennis tournament, my eyes, if not my understanding, followed it.
On the outhouse roof next morning, I told Mitzi the new plan for my life: I was going to be a student at the university; I would walk with young and clever men by riverbanks, talking of painting and poetry; I would take bicycle tours in the summer. Mitzi had never a word to say against it.
When Dolf left Fischamend, Paul and I saw him off at the little railway station. Paul gave Dolf a book as a good-by present, and Dolf gave Paul a book. When the books were unwrapped, each turned out to be The Little Flowers of St. Francis.
The next day my father arrived, late in the evening, after the shop was closed. We were sitting upstairs in the corner room. I remember Paul was in the armchair with a book; my grandmother was laying out a game of solitaire. They were watching me do a new dance I had invented and laughing at the silly song my mother was playing. As I came waltzing around, I saw my father in the doorway, so tall he had to duck his head. I thought, That's the end of all the fun, and was horror-struck to be thinking so. My father was making the mock-sentimental face he always put on when he found my mother at the piano. He turned his eyes up and said, "La-la, la-la, la-laaaa. Very pretty."
"Igo! I didn't see you come in." My mother closed the keyboard and stood up. "Sit down. What is happening in Vienna?"
My father told us that Tante Trude and Onkel Hans were leaving for England. They had money abroad. He said there were lines outside the foreign consulates. Everyone was panicking because of the anti-Jewish articles in Der Stürmer.
Then my mother took me off to bed.
Next day at lunch, which we ate in the storeroom behind the shop so that my grandfather could keep his eye on the door, my father told me to take my elbows off the table. (The three lessons I recall my father contributing to my early discipline were that one must not slouch at table by leaning on an elbow, that one must never eat sausage without a piece of bread to go with it, and that one must always wash one's hands after playing with an animal.)
My father then turned to my grandfather and proposed his plan of sinking his considerable severance pay into my grandfather's business and becoming my grandfather's partner.
"Ja so," said my grandfather and scratched his little Hitler-type mustache, the only distinctive feature on his little person. He said, "That way we could pay off arrears in good order and put the shop on its feet."
My grandmother had put down her fork and sat looking from her son-in-law to her husband, with her handsome black eyes opened to their large fullness. "You are going to put the shop on its feet, Joszi, so it can walk right out of your hands into the pockets of the Nazis!" my grandmother said in a thick Hungarian accent. She and my grandfather had both come to Vienna as children. My grandmother had mastered German perfectly, but she imitated my grandfather's accent and odd grammar so cleverly that he smiled. Paul and my mother laughed. My father put on his mock-amused face. He turned up the corners of his lips and said, "Ha-ha, ha- ha, ha-haaaa. Very funny."
My mother stopped laughing and said, "Igo, please ..."
"Maybe you haven't looked outside today," my grandmother said. Overnight, there had appeared in the street, outside the entrance of the shop, letters tall as a man, painted in white on the macadam: KAUFT NICHT BEIM JUDEN ("Don't buy from the Jews").
"The local boys," my father said.
"Franzi, your husband is almost as silly as mine," said my grandmother.
"Please! Mutti ..." my mother said.
"Franzi, your mother knows almost as much about everything as your brother Paul," said my father.
My mother had begun to cry. My mother always cried when my grandmother and my father were being rude to one another, though it had happened, throughout my childhood, whenever they met.
The other way my father had of making my mother unhappy was by getting ill, which he always did when I least expected it and always, it seemed to me, when there was some excitement my mother and I had planned, a birthday party or a Christmas visit to Fischamend. My mother would meet me at the door as I came home from school and say, "Now you must be my friend, Lorle; they have taken Daddy away to the hospital." And we would go down into the blue dusk and bitter-cold street and take a tram across Vienna to see my father, laid out flat in a white hospital bed without even a pillow, his pale, peaked nose pointing at the white ceiling.
"When is he going to come home?" I would ask my mother, seeing her pale, shrunken face, in which her eyes looked large out of all proportion. Her lips seemed a dark pink, with a rough surface as if they were sore.
"I don't know, darling."
"Is it because of the kidney again?"
"Nobody knows what it is this time. The doctors are testing for an ulcer. Lorle, I have a favor to ask: Will you be a real friend and not ask me anything for the next twenty minutes? By then this migraine will be better, and we will talk again. All right?"
"All right. What time is it now?"
"You can talk to Lore as you would to a grownup," my mother told my grandmother. Sometimes my mother talked to me about my father. I was flattered, but I did not like to listen, and I cannot remember what she told me.
And always my father would get better again and come home. It seemed strange to see him upright again, wearing his navy-blue business suit. My mother would cook him special diets and fetch him his bicarbonate of soda, and on Sundays he and I would take our morning walks. "Don't fill her up with ice cream before lunch," my mother would call after us.
Excerpted from Other People's Houses by Lore Segal. Copyright © 1994 Lore Groszmann Segal. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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