To my grandfather Armin, who I never met, but from whom I inherited a watch

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Zurich, January 1939


Emmy, Georg and the three children arrived in Zurich on the 31st of December 1938, at six in the evening. After the hardships of the last days in Vienna, they were immediately captured by the city, which they found fascinating and clean, and by the hotel, wonderfully furnished, all the rooms equipped with hot and cold running water, and the “dream-like” beds.
We awoke at midnight just the same. The church bells were ringing, the cannons were fired three times: “Happy 1939!”. It was the most impressive New Year I had ever experienced. As we sleepily crawled out of our warm beds to look out of the windows, it was warm and rainy, people on the street were singing, everything really was completely new this New Year, and as we lay again in our soft and warm beds we thought: “This new life isn’t going to be so bad”.
The Mahlers stopped off in Switzerland for five days, using up the provisions brought from Austria to avoid running out of their scant savings. On the third day, when Emmy’s “magic bag” was almost empty, they got the address of an unnamed assistance committee (Emmy’s diary doesn’t give further detail on the matter), which also paid the hotel bill.

The children were taken in by a newly wedded ministerial couple, who took them on an outing by car and brought them back to Zurich laden with fruit and sweets. Georg and his wife were put up in the house of a pensioned railwayman.


Those people were so kind, so happy to give us something, so natural, honest, religious and clean, that I not only felt transported to a different country, but also to a different time. Every day we had flowers on the table, yes, real flowers. Nowhere are there so many or such beautiful flowers as here.

Saying goodbye to such hospitable people was painful for the Mahlers, who were taken to the station with many good wishes and left with more money than they had when they had arrived.

On their way to Paris Emmy found a diversion from the dullness of the journey in deciphering the various signs she saw and trying to remember her long forgotten school French. They arrived in the French capital in the evening of January 6th , and stayed just one day, because they only had a transit visa. Nevertheless, my aunt’s penetrating powers of observation allowed her to leave us an unforgettable picture of the ville lumière a few months before the outbreak of war.

A serious internal and international political crisis was under way: the Daladier cabinet had broken the alliance with the Popular Front ( winner of the elections in 1936) and repressed a general strike in November 1938; in anticipation of the war, industries were being decentralized from the big cities. And yet nothing in Parisians behaviour allowed to foresee that tragedy was imminent and that, in eighteen months’ time, the German troops would parade down the Champs Elysées.

The little hotels in Paris are tiny, tall bee-hives. Narrow winding stairs, teeny windows, but all with hot and cold running water. We put the children to bed and made our first excursion into the night life of Paris. It is too bad that one cannot get anything to eat after 8 o’clock in a cheap restaurant, otherwise one can buy everything until midnight, because the avenues are a permanent fair. Colourful, dirty and noisy, and even department stores don’t close down till midnight, but the next day they open at about ten. Since we kept converting prices into German marks, Paris seemed to us the cheapest city in the world. Shoes cost three mark, dresses eight marks, and similarly jewellery, watches and everything you may wish for. Unfortunately we couldn’t buy anything.
The next day Emmy was fascinated by the shops, more modern than Vienna’s, offering a whole range of precooked food: “Mashed potatoes, puréed spinach, cooked vegetables, the meat only to brown. A paradise for housewives”. The Mahlers also found a way to make a tour, albeit a hasty one, of the city, crawled up the Eiffel tower and visited the tomb of the unknown soldier. My aunt was not too thrilled by French cuisine, which she dismissed with a few contemptuous words, like an exacting Viennese: “The appearance of dishes is wonderful, unfortunately there is nothing inside, and desserts are just horrible”. She also severely judged the clothing of Parisian women who, in her opinion, were only experienced in making up: “In Vienna one can see more well-dressed ladies!”.

Instead technological progress thrilled her: the traffic in the streets, inconceivable in the sleepy capital of the former Habsburg empire, and above all the underground!

Using the underground, which is the grandest you can imagine, you can get everywhere in Paris in minutes and every child knows their way around. Our children had a great time with the escalators, the automats, where you could get free schedules and explanations of connections with other lines, the automatic doors, and the blacks and Chinese you meet everywhere. In the evening one can see many perfectly made-up ladies, but my high expectations were disappointed. In Vienna one sees many more beautiful well dressed women. I’ve never seen so many cars on the streets as here. In Zurich there were the most beautiful taxis, here the most, private cars too. Nevertheless one can cross the streets without worrying. Every car stops, because pedestrians have right of way. Crossings are marked with big nails, and if anything happens to a pedestrian while between two of these rows of nails, the driver will lose his licence no matter whose fault it is, and the victim will be rich. We tried very hard to get run over just a little.

In the evening of January 7th , they went to Montmartre and later to the cinema. They were showing Snow-white and the seven dwarfs by Walt Disney, which Emmy judged “the sweetest film she had ever seen”. They watched it twice, it was nice to be transported to a fairy-tale world and to forget the sadness for their lost fatherland and the anxiety for an unknown future for a few hours.

The following day, at nine o’clock, they resumed their journey, heading to Bordeaux. In comparison with the Austrian winter it was already warm, and Emmy, who suffered from severe migraines, anxiously wondered whether she would be able to work in the weather which was awaiting them in the tropics.

In Bordeaux too, they were helped by religious people. Minister Farell gave them a recommendation to a Dr. Langstein, who had recently emigrated to Ciudad Trujillo (today’s Santo Domingo), and expressed all his disappointment at being unable to do more for them: on that very day he had divided up everything he had among other emigrants.

In Bordeaux they stayed at the Hotel Madrid, “quite a dilapidated building still showing its past splendour” and in the dining-room they met the first passengers of the De La Salle, the ship that would take them to the Dominican Republic. They boarded the following afternoon at four o’clock.

The landing bridge was pretty shaky and Heinz, who fears bridges, was very frightened. We had our cabins on the upper deck. We inspected the two outboard cabins, mid-ship starboard and with windows (very important), we cheerfully welcomed a European toilet and then viewed the ship.

During the next hour the children disappeared from our sight, partly because they immediately found many new friends, partly because there was so much to see that they were totally occupied. Since they had different interests, the whole ship from hold to bridge was not safe from their raids. I could never find them and getting them together for dinner was an art.

After dinner the Mahlers discovered that the ship had an anchor break and therefore would only leave on Friday 13th . In spite of superstition, during those three days they ate and drank plentifully and well. In the evening of 13th January, the engines finally started and the ship slowly left the harbour. The passage was made difficult by the choppy sea, which after four days turned into a proper storm, confining half of the passengers to their beds seasick. Of the Mahlers only Emmy and Peter escaped nausea:
Lizzy and Heinz were in bed and poor Georg did not get better until we saw land for the first time, and this was thirteen days after leaving. The De La Salle was three days late because of storms.
Almost everyone soon recovered, and the weather gradually improved, allowing the passengers to admire the starlit sky at night, “a very strange sky with many more stars than we could see in Europe, and a moon hanging backwards in the sky”. Another attraction were flying fish; on the last day a shark followed the ship for some distance, causing great sensation.

Finally the first land was sighted, Point a Pitre of Guadalupe, the capital of the French Little Antilles, discovered by Columbus in 1493. The description which Emmy made of it shows its charm and at the same time her feeling of complete foreignness:

In the evening, a light standing still in the middle of the ocean, in the morning some foggy mountains and later a picture, as from a colour film, with palm-trees in unnatural colours, all beautiful to see, but also such dirt and such poverty that one could not grasp in Europe.

Here the exiles from Gmünd transhipped onto the Saint Domingue, a small ship that shuttled from Santo Domingo once a week, and while waiting for departure they toured the town. It was their first encounter with the sun of the tropics (“a heartless sun and an unbearable heat. Suddenly it poured with rain and a couple of minutes later it was completely dry and as hot as before”) and, more generally, with a totally new world, which demanded quick adjustment to the rules of the game.

We went shopping. The store, an open shack with nameless articles littered around. What can you buy here? Food for example and shoes, pots, dresses or rolls and knick-knacks or a bit of everything. The trade goes like this. You go into the shop, the trader sits there disinterested. You look, you feel whatever you want, leave or ask “How much?” Now the man comes to life. He scratches wherever he itches and names a price. Certainly it is much too high. But only seldom can you buy it for a third. Normally after long discussion the trader asks what you want to pay. You finally agree to half, leave satisfied and find out later that you have overpaid ten times. This was good practice for our new life.
On the ship, the crew and waiters were all black. For the first time the Mahlers felt homesick and spent their evenings on the deck “with some very nice Germans, that is, not Germans any more”, singing Viennese songs and ending the evening with a beer.

Every day a new island appeared before the eyes of the bewildered travellers: volcanic rocks in the strangest and most mysterious shapes, “craters in the sea”, and everywhere the contrast between the beauty of the landscape and the poverty of the inhabitants. Also the number of passengers grew day by day, unforgettable human types:


Dutch priests, who have a monastery somewhere, the governor of Martinique, who gets re-elected every four years…A fat black princess with a short light yellow skirt, blue petticoat and lilac turban on her head bids a tender farewell to her daughter. The daughter is pure white and fashionably dressed, only her panties show a bit. Panties are very important here and everybody shows them…

On the fourth day Santo Domingo appeared: “on the horizon, mountains and big mountains and everything beautifully green”. When Emmy saw the land, she realized that the holiday was over and that this was the place where they would have to spend the following years:

My heart began to pound and I felt fear, stupid, cowardly fear and I was glad that we didn’t have to land yet. Not to the unknown, six more days, safe and secure on board, eating and sleeping. My God, not off the ship. But then we got a permit and went to the city (Puerto Plata) to look at some of our new homeland.

Back on ship, the damper. The ship’s commissioner summoned them, telling them there were difficulties with their landing in Ciudad Trujillo. Since December 28th a law demanded that everyone coming in should pay a one-time tax of 500 dollars per person.

Emmy and George didn’t have such a sum and were stunned. No one had told them either in Paris or Bordeaux.

The commissioner, worried and sympathetic, put forward a solution: the shipping company French Line could leave them ashore there, in Puerto Plata, of course reimbursing the fare of the unused trip Puerto Plata-Santo Domingo. There was no other option: they packed in half an hour and got medical permits as quickly. At seven p.m the Mahlers were at the customs office, trying to get their luggage back. The office had already shut down, they only succeeded in getting their toiletries.
Georg speaks a little English, I speak a little French, the customs officer only Spanish. I explain with my hands and feet how hard it is to wash without toiletries, he does not understand but the children start to laugh and that appeals to him. Everyone is nice and friendly to children and when I take out a packet of cigarettes he begins to understand. We may take our toiletries and also get the address of a hotel for free.
The next day Georg hired a car which took them to Ciudad Trujillo, their original destination, crossing the whole island. Forgetting tiredness and anxiety, Emmy portrayed the landscape with vivid brush-strokes:

We drive through tropical forests, orange and lemon trees all rich with fruit, palms, blooming trees which I don’t recognize, with enormous red blossoms, red blooming acacias, and in the underbush cacti, high ferns and shorts banana trees. There are fields of sugar cane, rice fields where peasants are at work, then again banana plantations: they look like turnips after a storm, but the leaves are man-sized. This trip through the centre of the island of Santo Domingo is impossible to describe without painting it. We have never seen a lot of this before and therefore there is nothing to compare it with. It is beautiful beyond description. Little settlements appear again and again. Then you keep seeing men riding on donkeys, mules or horses. Little naked fat-bellied natives on the streets. Women carrying baskets with meat or fruit, then again fat black pigs, and in the gardens flowers, blooming bushes, roses in colours never seen before and of unimaginable beauty.

The driver “drove like a demon” on the uneven roads and Heinz felt sick on that crazed trip: the car had to stop almost every hour to allow the poor little one to throw up. Finally the child fell asleep exhausted in his mother’s arms and at six o’clock the taxi arrived in Ciudad Trujillo.

An immigrant gave them the address of a hotel where he lived with his family. The Mahlers managed to get the last vacant room, a little windowless hole with four beds, a little electric stove and a kitchen cabinet. Two people had to sleep in the same bed and they did it in turns.

The next day, in the office of the French Line, the suffering went on. The agent explained that he could not refund the unused portion of the fare and added that they had entered the country in a completely irregular way; he couldn’t understand how they had managed it. Anyhow, they should go to the immigration office and there their future would be determined. At the immigration office,
Understanding each other is very difficult, but we understand one thing, that there is nothing to be done. We have to go back to Europe on the Saint Domingue. Finally some emigrants arrive and translate for us. Since we embarked in France after 28 December, we should have paid a 500 dollars per person landing tax. Because of an error of the French Line, however, we were shipped out, that was against the law, there is nothing to do but find the money or go back. Negotiating or begging was useless. I can’t explain the mood we were in when we got back to the hotel. Anyway, we told everyone and whoever had a rank or name in the hotel promised to help us, they would go to the President, and declared: no way, you stay here.

Before giving up, the Mahlers played every card at their disposal. Emmy went to see the French consul, who took all remaining hope from her and confiscated her documents. She went with her husband to see an American doctor, who was supposed to be very influencial but who explained that nothing could be done.

On that very day, however, two distinguished gentlemen, relatives of some government officials, turned up at the hotel and promised they would settle things favourably. In the evening at the harbour they met one of them, who greeted them with a beaming smile. The situation, he said, was favourably solved. They could stay in Santo Domingo or emigrate to the United States: he could get them a visa until 1940 and give them some affidavits:

If we had no friends there, he would be our friend, and if we had no brothers, he would be our brother.
Finally Emmy unpacked the suitcases, washed the clothes and in the afternoon they all went to look at the Saint Domingue, which was in the harbour on the way back to Cuba, very happy that they didn’t have to go back onto the swaying ship. At four o’ clock they went back to the hotel, anticipating a well-deserved rest and expressing optimistic plans for their new life…

In the hotel hall they found instead two men from the immigration office waiting for them, who told them that they had to pack and go back to Europe. The friends and the hotel owner said goodbye crying. For the second time Emmy packed their wet clothes.

They got into the policemen’s car and were taken to the Saint Domingue. Once on board, they sat on their suitcases feeling terribly helpless, while around them the passengers of the ship spoke in all languages. The steward showed them the cabins and the children scattered trying to find friends for the trip.

The French Minister of Foreign Affairs was called on the phone about their documents, confiscated from Emmy at the embassy and never returned, which were obviously now necessary to go back to Europe. The French Lines commissioner, sympathetic but powerless, was wringing his hands in despair.

Suddenly the resolutory coup de théatre:

A luxurious car suddenly drives up to the ship. The excitement reaches boiling point., We are introduced to a very elegant gentleman who suddenly stands on deck. He wishes to see our children, says something in Spanish and leaves the ship. All the people begin to congratulate us. One man from our escort gives the children a dollar. They grab our suitcases and take them off the ship and I cry my eyes out. And so for the second time I set foot on the Dominican Republic on February 7th at eight o’clock in the evening. Our luggage lies at the customs and this time there is no way of getting even our toiletries out. In the hotel we are received with tears and hugs, we even get a meal although it’s so late. At nine an American lady, our friend, comes back: she spent all afternoon visiting the most influencial personalities. They had promised her to let us stay here, and she did not dare come back because she didn’t believe it. When she sees us, she has a fit of weeping and embraces and kisses us as if we were her closest relatives. The ship was to leave at ten tonight.

In this adventurous way the Mahlers managed to obtain the permission to stay in the Dominican Republic. The will of a dictator had driven them out of their country, the will of another dictator, Rafael Trujillo, saved their life, because going back to Europe would have certainly meant deportation and death. Now long years of sacrifice and hardships and a new, heart-renting separation were awaiting them. Georg left for Canada alone and then moved to the United States, looking for a dignified job which only three years later would give him the means of getting together with his family again.



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