There was a large group of people who were treated the same as enemies, and may have been traitors, people other than thieves, highway robbers, child molesters, and forgers. At any rate there were serious doubts about their loyalty, and obscure clerks like my father were given control over their destiny. Of course, in normal times I wouldn’t condone such behavior, but remember this was a very dark time in our history.
I’m sure my father’s job was an important one. I don’t think anyone accused him of abusing his power. This much I do know: he went from punishing drunks by dunking them head first in the Danube to overseeing the preparations for the hanging of convicted malingerers. Sometimes he spoke of banishing all Serbians, while other times he incarcerated suspected traitors. But he was never a Nazi, and more than anything else, of all the things that need to be taken into account, remember the times were abnormal and the whole city was in a state of flux.
The ride to the hounds went on throughout the decade, a decade when huge crowds flocked to see people hanged. It wasn’t long before pictures of the hangings circulated throughout the city and the death of a dissident was treated as a laughing matter. During this time trial dockets were always full and officials such as Papa were applauded because of their quick work. Still leisured and official Vienna continued to parade undeterred through the fashionable streets of the city, for nothing was to be gained from objecting to the brutality.
But still having to face policemen with sticks or army officers with riding crops had a chilling affect.
While geniality concealed horrific wrongs nothing was heard of betrayal. In short everyone shared the guilt and a whole generation has had to come to terms with it. Because of this climate some people were already talking about leaving and going to the Americas. Others anticipated deportation.
A proud man my father was, and I understand he carried out his duties in a rigid, precise, and even pedantic manner. I heard my mother talk about it. I saw how he often wore his field-gray uniform to work. After a while his physical appearance bore the mark of his occupation. Though the crooks to which he owed his position thought that they had him in their pockets, had he really sold his soul to them? Yes, unfortunately, his handlers knew they had his unimpeachable loyalty. However according to my mother they were dishonest especially when they wanted something from him. From what I gather my dad was a full-fledged member of the bureaucracy and gave into those pressures. He was often called upon to demonstrate his loyalty. Knowing him he seized every opportunity to distinguish himself, and I’m sure many people around his office viewed him as a true prince.
Since the war I’ve learned that he was empowered to review and sign death warrants. Because of this he was stung. Unable to control his outrage he identified himself to authorities. He demanded proof. They had the wrong man, he claimed. Soon he realized that exposing himself in that manner was a horrible mistake. With a stock of political homilies he searched for the right words, because words such as duty and honor seemed empty. He said that for the first time in his life he had brutality thrown back at him. He was used to being perfunctory, but never at a lost for words.
I’ve read testimony that he’d stare at an inmate and sneer, blaming the condemned man for not saving himself. Other times he’d shout with anger. I can imagine that because I’ve seen it. Imagine the glares, the indignation, and the defiance of the condemned. They perhaps never knew that my father was merely a clerk. “Why, then, Herr Supervisor, lieutenant, zoo keeper, or whoever you are! Where are the peanuts? Peanuts! Peanuts! Peanuts for the apes!” While the parade went on, we danced to Strauss.
Why didn’t they show the petty clerk more respect? Hadn’t he sent many deserters and vagabonds to prison, or even to their deaths? Though in reality none of them knew who he was or what he could do from his distant desk. None of them knew his signature.
No doubt mistakes were made and the wrong person ended up with a noose around his or her neck. But that happened all over the world. I don’t intend here to participate in a tirade about the mistakes that were made by Austrians during the last war.
My father may have wanted to resign, but he knew he couldn’t. It was an imperfect system. We could easily pick apart an imperfect system and rightly proclaim it wasn’t the individual’s fault. But what if the system were insane, even though its servants were not? I understand Judge Jessner entirely sympathized with his clerks. On the other hand, when necessary the judge also was extremely ruthless. Meanwhile my father tried to forget the past, and I don’t think he saw what was coming.
My mother worked with the displaced, people who brought with them an array of social ills. She never took us down to the soup kitchen on Liniengasse where she worked. A vast and growing number of people then depended on soup kitchens. Many of them slept in parks and under bridges. Even a greater number of them lived in squalor, as landlords gouged them for everything they made. Often crowded into basement flats and other box-like quarters, their lives were filled with distress and filth. And then there was the problem of the lack of coal and the misery associated with freezing.
All of this suffering left lasting impressions. It fueled stories that were passed on from one generation to the next. With empty disks for eyes, I suspect few of these people made the connection between their vacant expressions and their abysmal existence.
As I’ve said before, never was Vienna more dedicated to pretending. With the failure of the war, people felt demoralized and confused; but the music of Strauss gave everyone such a lift that (if only for a few minutes) they were able close their eyes and overlook their plight. With music everything seemed brighter than it was. While clinging to the tattered shreds of what they had before people in every corner of the city looked for encouragement in music.
Eva Marie considered herself very lucky to have a job as our nanny. A peasant girl who came from good stock she achieved her enviable position by winning the trust of my parents. This young lady, a devout Jew, was suppose to teach Niki and me Christian values.
Eva made her appearance when her influence on us would’ve been the greatest. Niki and I preferred going to her to going to either one of our parents. And as a substitute Eva appeared when we missed and needed our mother the most. Largely absent our mother rarely showed us any affection. Often she was stern and strict, which earned our obedience. While we were in awe of her, we feared our father and learned to expect chastisement from him.
Take the painstaking way with which I flaunted the rules of social conduct. This came from rebellion. My father’s tyranny made chastisement seem normal; so normal in fact that when my time came I treated my daughter in the same way. For as long as I lived at home, I respected my father, even though he was hard to live with.