At 6:30 in the morning of May 24th 1938, a police inspector rang the doorbell of the Weldler family, at Aufhofstrasse 88.
He declared he had come to fetch Leo for an urgent communication. He explained to Wilma, who desperately stood by, that her husband would certainly be back within an hour. That hour would last almost a year, and would mean to the Weldlers the final exile from their country. Later on Leo gave a written account of his experience, to which I will refer closely to report what happened.
Leo was driven to the Central Vienna police station at Schönbrunn and on the way there the inspector dropped the remark that perhaps the matter had something to do with “protective custody” (a euphemism by which the Nazis called the arrest of people unwelcome to the regime, as if they wished to “protect” them from the people’s indignation). At the police station there was fervent activity, and a great many prisoners were already waiting to be questioned.
A lawyer had already had a nervous breakdown: when he had to hand over his tie to the police, he just managed to stammer: “So then I’m a criminal” and collapsed in a terrible fit of screaming.
I entered a cell normally meant for 8 people, in which however 31 were crammed. There were all sorts of occupations: lawyers, labourers, managers, shop-keepers, white-collar workers. The atmosphere was still hopeful. None of these people had anything on their conscience and we were confident that we would all be with our families again in a few hours. One after the other went to be interrogated, and only then did I see how serious the matter was. The official filled out two pages and one of them was entitled “custody order”. The questions I was asked were strange. They covered mostly race-disgrace, homosexuality and, only at the end, possible previous convictions. Inexplicable for me was that the race-disgrace offence dated back to the year 1920, even though the year mentioned in the law was 1938. But with the Gestapo anything was possible. I did not deny having previously committed that offence, however this confession did me no harm.
In the course of the morning, the wives of various prisoners tried to get in touch with them, but it was impossible. Around noon all the people held in custody were pushed into police cars and the journey went on. The look on the faces of their desperate wives in the police station was heart-rending. The men could see them the women through the little back windows but were invisible to them.
The next stop turned out to be a roomy school in the Karajangasse, a street whose name immediately recalls the famous conductor, and which was named after his great-grandfather Theodor, a well-known historian and linguist, and a member of the Vienna Imperial Academy of Science.
The school, since the day of the Anschluss, was used for emergency detention. The prisoners were placed in a big gym filled with large stacks of straw, with which they began to stuff some sacks, under the directions of a decorator’s apprentice, who was not a prisoner, but was only there to instruct them. Their ‘instructor’ was very helpful, but not quite disinterested.
We could also communicate with our relatives through this young man. He organized telephone conversations, deliver of parcels, visited our families etc., everything over weighty payments, and as I heard after my homecoming, he demanded the same from our wives. But we were still glad that he was so helpful.
New arrivals followed each other incessantly. The whole building was already overcrowded. At nine o’clock we each lay on a our straw-sack, by three o’clock there were seven or eight men to every two, where we stayed until our successive transfer. Meanwhile we somehow kept ourselves occupied. Acquaintances met in small groups. We had to do something, because people’s nerves were fraying by the minute, and we only had ten minutes in the morning and in the afternoon to be taken for outside exercise. This was an opportunity when many of us had the pleasure of seeing their wives. Inventive as women are, they soon found out that from the staircase of the next building they could see us in the yard. Unfortunately this pleasure was stopped very soon.
As all those arrested had the intention of emigrating, to while away the time they started foreign language classes, and the police willingly supplied them with notebooks. Unfortunately one of those note-books would soon become a source of terrible pain for a prisoner who had used it incautiously.
What would be their destiny? At that time, torrential rains had fallen over Switzerland, and many prisoners assumed that they might be used in helping to reconstruct the damaged streets. No one actually thought about a concentration camp, the existence of which (above all of the notorious Dachau camp) was already known to the Austrian public, although, until then, mainly political opposers and common offenders had been imprisoned in them.
Things changed the day Dr. Lutze appeared, the Gestapo disguised as a German Police official. The almost friendly and familiar face of the Viennese police was replaced by the chilling Prussian snarl.
In the blink of an eye we fell from the status of prisoners to that of dirty Jewish pigs and dangerous criminals. Mr. Lutze, the prototype of the Prussian civil servant, insulted us with unrepeatable words; the end of each orgy of insults consisted of “wait for Dachau, there you’ll be bent to order”. And he got that right, they bent us, so that our skin ripped and many, many of us were broken.
When Herr Lutze honoured us with his visits, which happened three or four times a day, he always kept his right hand in his coat pocket. We did not make much of this, until a policeman made us aware that he always held a gun with the safety catch off in that pocket. For God’s sake, we shouldn’t do anything silly, because he would immediately shoot. He had done it frequently. Well, so far so good. But on May 30th , all hell broke loose. We were sorted into groups ten times. We didn’t know why or by what system, because almost all of us met again in Dachau . All day long we were chased from one room to the next. Finally at seven in the evening we were called by name and evacuated.
During the journey many queries were made about the destination, all denied by the direction which the police van took. When the vehicle turned into Marihilferstrasse, heading south-west, Leo realized what was awaiting them. He said to his fellow sufferers: “Right lads, now we have to grit our teeth, we are going to Dachau”.
The police vans got to the freight depot of the Westbahnhof towards eight o’clock. In the few seconds they had to wait before the van doors opened, the escorting policeman, a kind-hearted Viennese, whispered to the prisoners: “Lads, glasses off, heads down and get into the coaches as fast as you can”. With these words the door opened and the Jews had their first contact with the German escort.
I was the first to get out. An honour guard of steel-helmet clad SS, some armed with carbines with bayonets, others with steel rods, was waiting for us. I hesitated just a moment but was immediately encouraged to go on by the blow of a steel rod to my face. Remembering the words of the policeman I hurled myself through the honour guard, accompanied by the yelling of the SS and by blows with steel rods and rifle-butts.
I have no idea how I got onto the train. I still only remember that my companions in misfortune stumbled after me as in a wild chase and that I suddenly found myself sitting by the window, my clothes in shreds.
Ten men were squeezed into the compartment, so that with the best will in the world no one could move. As soon as they were seated, an SS stormed in, pulled the first man up by his hair and ordered everybody to move into a second coach. They were also ordered to sit still, hands on thighs, and to stare at the light on the ceiling.
Five minutes in that position are enough to cause awful cramps in the neck, but the Jews had to maintain it for about two hours, until the train departed. Only one dare-devil attempted to change the head position a little, but the beating he got made the others refrain from even trying.
Then I thought about my wife, and made up my mind not to respond to provocation under any circumstances. I wanted to get through this and I succeeded, even if on some occasions during my “protective custody” it took great strength not to jump at the throat of my tormentor and take him along with me to the other world. This is not just idle talk. As time went by, because of the inhuman treatment, we descended to such animal-like behaviour that anyone of us would certainly have been capable of it.
Suddenly a shot rang out. A failed escape attempt. A madman had tried, as we later found out, to flee as he stepped out of the police car. Immediately afterwards, the SS stormed into the compartment with terrible screams and again started to beat the prisoners with steel rods and gun butts.
Finally the train started to move. It might have been nine in the evening. The relief didn’t last long because, when the SS began their lovely delightful with them, the prisoners realized that the guard team was completely drunk. The Nazis were all aged from17 to 21 years old. Only the transportation leader, a Second Lieutenant, must have been about 25.
The situation was approximately as follows. The coach in which we were travelling was a 4 axle Pullman, one half of which was covered, the second half open and separated into compartments. As I later heard, we were blessed with good fortune when we were let out of the closed section and pushed into the open part. Our pleasant companions actually turned up the heating, so that those poor people, besides our common torture, also had to put up with the terrible heat. Of course if they had coats, they had to wear them. Those people literally sat in a sauna. It was so terribly hot that, as one of my comrades showed me when we were set free, the photos in his wallet had melted and stuck together.
We were safe from this in the open part, since the SS themselves would have had to suffer, while in the other part of the compartment they could stand by the closed door, which they opened only to torture people inside. On the outskirts of Linz one of the occupants of the closed compartment, a lawyer, died of a heart attack, obviously brought on by the unbearable heat. The dead man was not removed, but was left in the compartment, propped up in the corner so that he wouldn’t fall over.
The next entertainment of the SS’ was the prisoners’ military training. Leo, who had the misfortune to sit in the corner near the sentry, was ordered to jump up and scream loudly “Achtung!” every time the commander went by. At that call, all ten victims had to jump up, stand still, hands on the seams of their trousers, and the man in front of Leo had to yell: “Herr Kommandant, I respectfully announce ten Jewish pigs in one compartment”.
I am afraid I could not scream this loud enough, so, after receiving three or four blows to the face, I was allowed to sit in second place. Unfortunately my neighbour too lacked a loud enough voice and so it happened to all ten men, as this was once again a perfect reason for beating us.
Since the arms of the SS man weren’t long enough to reach the last man by the window, they used the gun butts to help. Sleeping was of course forbidden. Admittedly none of us felt the need. Only one of us closed his eyes for a moment. How a man can stand the beating he received is a complete mystery to me. With fists, bayonets and rifle butts he was beaten until he was unconscious. He was bleeding from the mouth, nose and ears and leaning against us, unable to fall to the ground because, as long as we sat, there was no room.
Shortly afterwards, an SS soldier came in holding a notebook and asked to whom it belonged. The owner responded: it was a wine dealer named Wolf, from Vienna, who had lost it when he got into the coach. “You son of a Jewish whore, you dirty swine, you pimp, you ass with ears”: this is what he was called. Then he was beaten once again until the poor devil lay unconscious on the floor. But suddenly a jug of water appeared and brought him back to consciousness.
Only then did everybody fully understand what was happening. The poor thing, using the notebook he had received in prison to study English, had started writing a diary, in which he had mentioned his torturer in Vienna, Dr. Lutze. He had written nothing offensive or suspicious, but the mere thought of writing a diary, in the eyes of the Gestapo, made him worthy of death.
At this point he made a serious mistake: he pleaded, lifting up his hands: “Shoot me, but don’t torture me”. With devilish laughter, the company commander pulled out his revolver, pointed it to the poor devil’s neck with the words: “So say your last prayers to your dirty Jewish god”.
We waited to hear a shot at any moment, but that would have been too humane. Having enjoyed the fear of death long enough, he replaced the revolver and said: “For a dirty Jew a bullet is too valuable, because it costs 18 pfennig”.
Wolf answered: “I can pay you in gold” and brought out a heavy gold cigarette case.
With the words: “What? You dirty dog, you want to bribe us?” he was beaten again with the steel helmet, the steel rod and the gun butt until he fainted.
After the SS had vented their drunken anger on Wolf, the examination of each prisoner began. Leo was the first to be questioned because, as he wore glasses, the Nazis, ignorant as they were, believed he was a physician like his father, and this would have meant that he had infringed law “144” which banned Jews from practising the medical profession. The sentry pointed his bayonet-studded gun at him:
“You dirty Jewish pig, you surely are a…” and he mentioned the occupation of a doctor who had something to do with abortions, a phrase that, try as I might, I am unable to repeat.
The following conversation developed: “What nationality are you?” “Viennese!” “What are you? (slap)” “Viennese!” “What are you? And again the same treatment. “Austrian”.
After I had been treated again as I deserved, he explained to me what I was: “You are a dirty Jewish pig”. Now I knew it, and it was difficult to contradict.
“What is your occupation?” “Car mechanic.” This caused an outburst of laughter. A mechanic? A Jew that works? “Show me your hands!” Having satisfied himself with a look at my hands that it was the truth, he went on: “Who did you work for? Jews or Aryans?” “For both.” “Aha, then you surely stole from your Aryan employer and plotted with the other to cheat your Aryan customers!”
With a last blow of his gun-butt the sentry left Leo. The idea that most Jews were neither usurers nor pimps but earned their bread by working with their hands was unacceptable for those youngsters indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda, which in Germany however had taken root in long-standing anti-Semitism.
According to Goldhagen violence was for Nazis a way of conveying to the Jews the message of their passing from free men to slaves. It was necessary, by means of their bodies, to impress forever in their minds, once and for all, “the awareness of being only playthings, alive by the generous concession of the Germans”. A lash was worth one thousand words.
In Leo’s compartment there was a labourer with tattoos on his hands.
“Where else are you tattooed?” “On my chest and on my back” “Undress.” Unfortunately the man was tattooed all over. “Why were you arrested?” “I don’t know, my last sentence expired nine years ago.” “Oh, don’t you know? Bend over again.” And the strikes with the flat of the bayonet cracked on his naked behind until the skin split. So the man had to continue his journey, and after a few days was sent to hospital with a severe infection of the buttocks.
This occasion gave the SS the brilliant idea of asking everyone else the reason for their arrest. Whoever told the truth: “Because I’m a Jew, or else I don’t know”, got a sound thrashing, until he finally decided to invent some crime.
Without a reason or just because we were dirty Jews, there was no imprisonment in the Third Reich.
Meanwhile various fellow sufferers had physiological needs, but none dared to raise the issue. Finally someone summoned all his courage and respectfully asked. He was told to evacuate there and then in his trousers and was immediately severely beaten for being so daring. Nothing else was left for the poor souls but to obey.
After being in the torturers’ power for a whole day, at seven p.m of the next day drama turned into tragedy. Suddenly they heard the window-pane clank in the next compartment, immediately followed by a pistol shot. Leo tells us what happened:
The sentry in the next compartment had found a new way of amusing himself. One after another, each man in his compartment had to line up in the aisle and bend over. He then gave each one a sharp kick in the backside, so that he flew through the whole compartment up to the window.
With one poor devil, he kicked a little stronger, so that he crashed through the window-pane, cutting the artery in his neck, and was immediately shot down by the sentry because he supposed that it was an obvious attempt at escape.
Now at least the prisoners knew how they could avoid torment and tried to make use of this advantage. Someone threw himself out of the window, the train stopped and the runaway was wounded with a rifle shot.
This man also had a brother in the coach and we had to pick up the badly wounded man from the railway enbankment, carry him into the compartment and lie him down at his brother’s feet. The man was groaning terribly but his brother was threatened with death if he but glanced away from the ceiling light. So the man had to listen to his brother as he painfully, slowly but inevitably, breathed his last and could do nothing about it.
Before arriving in Dachau the exhausted Jews were still tormented with gymnastic exercise, forced to sing blasphemous songs invented by the SS solo and in chorus and to challenge one another to boxing matches. If the blows were not energetic enough, the torturers intervened personally, breaking noses and teeth.
At nine in the morning of the third day of journey, the train stopped in the open countryside.
Three days to cover less than 500 kilometres! The slow pace of the journey had been an extra instrument of torture.
The prisoners had to get our of the train as quick as a flash and remove the corpses from the coaches. They saw before them cattle trucks and a number of SS troops armed with rifles and machineguns. Trained by their recent experience, quick as lightening, they jumped into the cattle trucks. 120 men were squeezed into each van, while the SS made room for themselves on the roof.
The air-vents remained closed and the air reserve was soon used up by the occupants of the overcrowded vans.
Even before we left some people began to suffocate. The sweat ran in streams from our foreheads and our hearts pounded, seeming to explode. We did not believe that we would arrive alive at our destination. Finally the journey continued and after another half hour we reached Dachau. The reception we received there was worthy of the Third Reich.
Leo’s train arrived at Dachau with eight corpses, and was certainly no exception, because the following convoy, which reached Dachau three days later, was carrying eleven corpses. And that was only the beginning, when Eichmann “only” planned to expel all Jews from the Reich, and the final solution had probably not yet been conceived, except in mind of Hitler.