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

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Vienna, autumn 1938

In Vienna Emmy had the joy of meeting up again with Georg, but also the discomfort of having to live in a flat which was much smaller than their house in Gmünd, two rooms with use of the kitchen.

Meanwhile the Mahlers were preparing their departure from Austria, ready to move to any European country which was willing to receive them, or to the United States. Instead, out of the many job propositions which Georg had received, only one offer in the Dominican Republic stood out, and the opportunity was grasped.

We spend our days on the street. We queue up at the passport office, at the city hall, at the tax office, etc. There are so many papers to fill out, to sign, it looks as if they are trying to prevent us from departing in every possible way. We already had the ship tickets, but we have to exchange them for a later date; and I have the strong feeling that if we don’t leave within the year we will never get out.
In the meantime the children were back at school, except Lizzy, who was already fourteen and was kept at home. The school superintendent, with the best intentions, insisted that Peter and Heinz, who were Christians like their parents, should be sent to the Aryan school.

The results were tragicomic:

Peter comes home every day with new problems. He has to write an essay on how a boy in the “Hitler youth” spends his free time, or how Hitler’s take-over was the happiest time in his life, or on the subject “How my father has now found a new job”. The youngest one is beginning to greet “Heil Hitler”, he is learning how to draw a Swastika with unsteady hand. I spoke to the town school-board again and this time I succeeded in convincing the man that, according to the new laws, we are considered Jews and the children are enrolled in a Jewish school.

These were the paradoxes of Nazism: The Mahlers, who had never had any relationship with Judaism before, approached it now to prevent the poison of propaganda from infecting their innocent children. At the Jewish school neither danger nor problems were reduced, but concerned the pupils’ physical safety.

This school is in another district and the road to get there is long. Every day the children must be taken to school and brought back home. Lizzy and I share this disagreeable task.

It would not matter so much that it’s terribly cold, if only, in spite of the cold, the Hitler youth didn’t make it as hot as hell for us. The bloom of today’s German youth perform their heroic deeds here. Armed with sticks, they ambush the youngest pupils of the Jewish school to beat them up and frighten them. It is so bad that the principal, who is a National Socialist himself, frequently has to call the police to disperse the gang.

Meanwhile Emmy was learning those practical skills which no one had taught her during her comfortable childhood in Mährisch-Neustadt and in Albertgasse, but which would be necessary to survive as an emigrant: she learned how to sew gloves and knit clothes (they were without winter garments and her children had caught flu). She also took a cooking class and learned how to drive. In the meantime more bad news came from Gmünd:

Our house, our furniture, even clothing and linen have been confiscated by the Party. I am supposed to have left debts, which have now been covered. It seems strange, I am supposed to have owed this money to the Jewish grocer who travelled overseas months ago. There is no address to be found. This lie was not even well invented. The little store had existed for about a year and on rare occasions I bought trifles paying cash of course, but in such a short time, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t have built up debts for over 1,000 shilling. We very carefully tried to investigate and also asked the Minister what we could possibly do, but we were told that most of our things had been carried off beforehand and that, in his view, we should accept the loss. To my luck, one of my friends moved to Vienna right at this time. She shipped my sewing machine passing it as her own, and a suitcase of winter clothing and a lot of kitchenware.

It was by then late autumn, the children built a snowman on the balcony which was a poor substitute for Gmünd’s garden and meadow. The family had to face financial constraints, because Georg was not able to cash some back-pay which Bobbin owed to him. In fact, the new owner ordered him to stop being so persistently bothersome, otherwise he would see to it that Georg would be sent to a concentration camp, where he wouldn’t have time to write any more reminder letters.

Finally the eagerly awaited visa for the Dominican Republic arrived. On that very day they went to buy the tickets, which they only managed to pay for when the sewing-machine was sacrificed and a friend stepped in.

The last days in Vienna had the flavour of farewell: a night trip to the Vienna woods, the visit to Armin’s grave, “the finest and best of all people who lived on this earth”. The good-bye, in their apartment in Pressgasse, to the old aunts, Katharina and Vicky, by then unaware witnesses of an elegant and tolerant past, dead and buried in the brutality of Nazi Austria.

But a damper awaited the Mahlers: they did not get the residence permit for France, but just a transit visa, valid for two days. They were therefore obliged to stay in Vienna longer than expected, and Emmy had to sell dishes and books to buy food and coal.

On the 7th of November 1938, in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old Polish Jewish student, shot the German diplomat Ernst von Rath, to avenge the deportation of his parents, who had been living in Hannover for over twenty years and in spite of that had been imprisoned in a concentration camp in deplorable conditions. Rath died two days later. Using this excuse, Goebbels stirred up a shocking wave of violence against the Jews, their properties and their temples in Germany and Austria. Two hundred synagogues were burnt, thirty thousand Jews were arrested, ten thousand Jewish shops were destroyed. It was the Night of Broken Glass an event of extraordinary importance by which the Nazis clarified once and for all two issues which were however before everybody’s eyes: in Germany (including Austria, by then annexed to the Reich), there was no longer any place for Jews, and the Nazis, “Hitler’s willing executioners” who, Goldhagen wrote, “yearned after bloodshed”. Emmy gave the following account of the event:
Do you remember? It was a cold sunny day. I did not let you go to school. The newspaper headlines described a “mass atonement”, all Jews were guilty and conscious of their guilt. One saw them creeping along the houses, we were all afraid. I went to my class in the morning, at that time the street was quiet. An hour later, on my way home, everything had changed. On the street there were gangs of screaming people. On one corner a group of battered Jews were driven into the Nazi headquarters. On the next street, shops wee being plundered, there was a rattle of splintered windows, and I’m afraid of walking on. Further on, a young woman was running across the street. She was holding a small child by the hand. She hasn’t yet reached the other side when a pack of buys storm over her. They beat the woman who keeps running and shouting, still holding the child. A man stumbles and falls, his face is a bloody clump of flesh. He surely sees nothing, blood runs in his eyes. On the next street the Temple is burning. I stop at the corner, I can’t go on. Then a fat woman starts a conversation with me and I go home with her, under the protection of her big Party badge . I let her tell me that they also burned the temple in her district and that it serves the Jews right, I slip into the main door and I am home. Meanwhile the phone rings. A friend tells me that they have just picked up her husband, I should hide mine. My God, where? An old man comes to visit us, they have just trampled his son before his very eyes. They lead groups of ten to fifteen men into the party headquarters. I see them go into the house across the street, they search the house next door, then I hear footsteps on the staircase. I believe I stuck a piece of bread into my husband’s pocket, “Goodbye Georg, somehow I’ll get you out” and then the steps became softer and no one came to our lace.

In addition to what Emmy wrote, Lizzy and Peter vividly remember having been given cyanide capsules by their mother, to swallow in case the Nazis had broken into their flat. Eleven-year-old Peter, in despair, thought that he had no wish to die…

After the big fright, things finally took a turn for the better. The firm paid a small part of Georg’s credit, the Mahlers again had enough food and coal to warm the room. They sent their luggage to Bordeaux, from where they would embark for Santo Domingo, and waiting for the departure they had to live camping like gypsies without linen or dishes.

It was Christmas time, and they celebrated it as best they could, in a nostalgic atmosphere, but ready for the forthcoming trials and confident of a possible return home.
For Christmas we had a tiny fir-tree with lights and I saved a fir branch, I am taking it with me to the foreign land. Goodbye homeland, beautiful, beloved homeland. My grandparents lived here and are buried here, my parents also spoke German and loved you and we grew up here. Man’s will can chase us from here but cannot take our homeland away from us. With God’s help we will see you once again.
In the evening of December 30th 1938, The Mahlers left Vienna by train, and they were so exhausted by stress and sadness that they fell asleep immediately. In the morning they were already among Tirol’s mountains, enthusiastically greeted by the two youngest children, while Lizzy, sitting in a corner, was lost in thought writing her diary.

As the family approached the Swiss border, silence descended among them. The police check was awaiting them: they feared that something might go wrong, they were afraid of being sent back to the Country they so loved but where they could no longer remain.

Everything happens differently from how one expects. After all the stories heard in Vienna, the border was an agreeable surprise. The check was very meticulous, but absolutely correct. Since we had nothing illegal with us, nothing was taken from us, we could keep our wedding rings and a little chain of Lizzy’s. You could take along watches and small jewellery, as long as they were not valuables. Besides, the compartments were well heated, therefore there was no danger of catching cold during the scrupulous inspection of the border patrol. Thus, without really realizing it, we slipped over the border, and when we were already in the principality of Lichtenstein, we were still waiting to bid a painful farewell to our homeland. Only when the Swiss border patrol came to use “Have you anything to declare?” did we realize that we now were homeless vagabonds who, somewhere and somehow, would have to begin a new life, and that we had bidden farewell to everything we loved, probably forever.

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