It was 1938 and Mira Wurtz, eleven years old, loved to eavesdrop the gossip of the customers in the grocery store where she bought the weekend bread and milk for her busy Grossmama (grandmother), Jana Kanner. Here in the city of Vienna, talk, for a long time, had been full of despair involving the cost of living, and work prospects for the future.
But recently, a new word had crept into conversations. That word was ‘Anschluss’, which seemed to raise the spirits of the majority. However, Mira noticed that some of the more elderly population were less enthusiastic. “They’ll prevent us from being Viennese.”
When she asked her grandmother, Jana, Mira was surprised when her grandmother, usually most forthright, had seemed reluctant to talk about it. She had pushed her dark hair, slightly flecked with grey, back from her brow as she said, “Nothing for you to worry about, my dear. It’s about our Government unifying with Germany.” To Mira, that didn’t seem so bad.
Although born in Vienna, she had grown up in Berlin until she was seven years old. Her father’s stove business had thrived there. She recalled Germans as kindly people and she had made friends with children of her own age. Her disappointment when they returned to Vienna was eased only by her dear mother telling her consolingly, “It is safer.” It would be some years later before Mira understood the sense of that.
But their return to Vienna preceded the greatest tragedy that had befallen Mira in her short life. She was just eight years old, when, after a cruelly short illness, her dear mother, a beautiful, adoring lady, was lost to them. Such a sudden, stark event had torn at Mira on two fronts; the actual loss, and seeing the utter devastation of her father. A tall, often dour man, he had clung desperately to Mira as they wept together.
Her grandmother, Jana, herself saddened by the loss of her only daughter, had become her guardian, since her father had a tiny flat over his Vienna workshop. Mira loved her grandmother but was boarded out through the week at the convent school while her grandmother tended her haberdashery business.
For Mira, life had settled into a pleasing pattern. The disturbing memories of her mother’s passing slowly faded, and she was happy with all her friends, some of whom also lodged at the convent. The nuns who were also her teachers, were always most helpful and understanding.
Sisters Agnes and Gabrielle were surprisingly reticent when answering her question about ‘Anschluss.’ They said that they had been advised not to say anything, but that things would become clearer. Sadly, in time, things became much clearer.
Now, it was Friday and her weekly, five days stay at the convent were over. Mira turned into WahringerStrasse on her way to where her grandmother was always waiting to greet her, having closed the haberdashery early. Mira’s father, Hans Wurtz, would leave his tiny flat to spend the weekend with them. Mira so enjoyed that time with him, and her grandmother loved to make her very special strudel just for him.
This early day in March, Vienna had been bathed in welcome sunshine. Mira’s heart absorbed the pleasure of the approaching Spring. But the moment she opened the front door, and her grandmother greeted her with her usual bright smile and hug, Mira could tell something was bothering her.
There was none of the familiar brightness in her eyes, no eager telling of the day she’d had. Glumly, she said, “You have homework? Go see how much you can get done before your father gets here.”
Her grandmother, turned away towards the kitchen, leaving Mira to ponder why, when she was so eager to embrace the brightness of the day, a strange mist of worry hung in the air.
Mira, partly at her grandmother’s insistence, kept her small bedroom tidy. Only the small desk by the window was cluttered with pens, her writing paper, her diary, and a couple of letters from friends who had moved to Salzburg. Symbols of an active mind, she excused this break from tidiness.
She was well into her homework, when she heard the front door open and close, signalling the arrival of her father. Eagerly she hurried out onto the landing expecting to see his smiling face at the foot of the stairs. But unusually, he had turned towards the kitchen, and his question was directed at Mira’s grandmother, as he said, “Jana, have you heard the news?”
Her grandmother appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands, “On the radio, Hans. German troop parade, Thursday, as expected.”
Mira had never heard her father’s voice sound so bitter, as he cursed, “Damned Nazi troops, parading down our Ringstrasse, the very heart of our city.”
“What about--?” And her grandmother’s eyes began to turn towards the staircase. Mira hastily ducked back into the shadows.
Her father hesitated, and then said quietly, “Everyone believes it is some kind of blessing.” He paused and drew in a deep breath before adding contemptuously, “They’ll learn. The prospect of this evil man’s stormtroopers marching our streets is unbearable.”
Her father’s referral to ‘an evil man’ increased Mira’s confusion. The only name she had ever heard was Adolf Hitler, who was somebody important in Germany.
Her father had begun speaking again in lower tones, “I fear what Mira has to learn. Sunday, we tell her some truths before others give her a distorted view.”
When she was called to dinner they laughed and joked as though without a care in the world, and the evening moved along as they enjoyed their usual board games. Mira guessed that their light-heartedness was for her benefit.
Yet their apparent ease only served to increase Mira’s confusion, fed by her recent eavesdropping. Why were they so threatened by the prospect of German troops when most people had seemed delighted by this Anschluss? And who was this ‘evil’ man her father had moaned about?
When she was finally tucked up in her bed that night, her father came into her room, his tall frame bent as he kissed her brow and said, “Good night, my dear. Tomorrow we’ll have a lovely day out in the countryside.
That next day, Saturday, her father drove Mira and her grandmother up into the foothills. On grassy slopes where two small streams came together to run on downhill to join the distant Danube, they had a restful picnic with her father showing her how to identify the variety of birds and Mira collected a colourful bouquet of wildflowers to please her grandmother. Indeed, a sweet lull before harsh truths.
Those truths helped Mira clarify her thinking, but they came from her grandmother as her father had to hurry away after hearing of two suspicious characters lurking near his workshop. Eventually, it turned out an unnecessary scare but was indicative of the state of mind that was beginning to prevail generally.
After the evening meal, Jana took Mira’s hand and sat beside her on the soft sofa to outline the news of the German parade. Mira was still puzzled by their apparent dismay.
Mira couldn’t resist asking her grandmother why her father was so upset about the prospect others showed such eagerness.
Her grandmother’s mouth twisted momentarily, as she replied, “It won’t be all others. There are many like your father. Do you remember leaving Berlin when you were seven?”
Mira remembered so well. The German children spoke the same language, although Berliners spoke more quickly, and her Austrian tones were softer and slower. She recalled once being asked, “Are you a Berliner?” To which, in response to her mother’s prompting, she replied proudly, “No, I am Viennese.”
Her grandmother smiled, as she told her, “Your father told me how upset you were, but he believed you too young to understand why he brought you and your dear mother back to Vienna.”
Mira could only shake her head and her grandmother’s voice became harsh as she said, “Your father’s business was going well enough, but he did notice a gradual change of attitude towards other people of his religion.”
Religion? This had never severely impinged on Mira’s life. She, like her mother and grandmother, had always regarded themselves as Roman Catholic. A prayer at the local convent had been their sole tribute. Because her father never accompanied them, Mira had assumed he wasn’t religious.
“Your father is Jewish. In Germany, the man your father considers ‘the evil one’---”
“Is he called ‘Hitler’?”
Her grandmother showed her surprise, “Ah, you know the name. Yes, that’s who your father believes responsible for the disappearance, ill-treatment and cruelty to ‘the unworthy’, and Jews come high on that list. Your father discovered that his friends and colleagues were mysteriously disappearing. Your father saw a return to Vienna as being essential.” She paused and gave a deep sigh, “Now, this.”
When Mira asked about the parade on Thursday, there was anger in her grandmother’s voice as she said, “There is no way we will watch the strutting of men who will already be indoctrinated in his devilish beliefs.”
Mira found herself so worried, even though her grandmother hugged her close, and told her, “There is going to be change in our lives. But just stay brave, my darling.”
~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~
Things did indeed change. Hardly noticeable at first. But becoming more frequent, and increasingly imposing on her life.
On the day after her talk with her grandmother, excited school chatter was all about the coming parade. So many of her companions talked of buying flags to wave and stand-points they might choose to watch, “this brilliant display of might.”
The activities of the convent classrooms went on as usual, until the Thursday, when there were few pupils left in school. In fact, there was a surplus of nuns, and none of them looked happy about the situation. Sister Agnes tried to give Mira some attention, but from late morning and into mid-afternoon the blare of military music, the cheering of the crowds, and the steady rhythm of marching boots were a constant distraction.
Late afternoon and some pupils drifted back, all red-faced and bubbling. “There were thousands watching and waving flags.”
“Soldiers were so smart in dead straight lines,” someone declared.
“Soldiers are always like that,” came a response, “and will look bolder when their Hitler comes next week.” The enthusiasm was tangible.
It was Friday, so as usual Mira was delighted to be going home to her grandmother’s. On the way, she saw the first sign of change. From the larger buildings were draped long, red banners with a black swastika in the centre. Mira had been told by the nuns that this had been a symbol of ‘well-being’ for hundreds of years. She wondered if that was the reason it was used by the Germans.
When she told her grandmother about the banners, and about Hitler reviewing his troops the following week, she had shaken her head and declared, “Huh, banners! And he’ll not be coming to see the troops. He’ll want to convince we Austrians how lucky we are. I can’t imagine how angry your father might be.”
Very angry, was what Hans Wurtz declared himself to be, after giving his daughter his traditional kiss. “Banners, swastikas! They’re taking us over. There’ll be worse to come.”
Over their meal, he declared that he did not dare leave his workshop and flat unattended so he would not stay overnight. Mira was disappointed to hear that, but his next request was directed at her grandmother, “Jana, if you would, I’d like you to take Mira to the square next Tuesday.”
At first, her grandmother looked quite shocked, while Mira was overjoyed.
“You really want that?”
Her father nodded, “Don’t get too involved in the crowd, but she needs to see what a little nonentity this weasel of a man is.”
Accordingly, sharing the excitement of other convent pupils, Mira, clinging tightly to her grandmother’s hand was on the edge of the crowd in the Heldenplatz, the large square in the centre of the city. She was amazed at the number of people crammed into the square, waving flags and cheering. All attention was on the high balcony of the hotel and when the figures of generals appeared the cheering rose to a wild frenzy.
Mira’s distant view rendered the figures as miniatures. Then one figure emerged not as big as the others before he appeared to step up onto a platform, gave a German salute and began speaking.
The cheering and screaming of the crowd could not compete with the domineering voice that piped from countless loudspeakers. He yelled of growing strength of Germanic people, but when he demanded, “—to create this Reich without any suffering—“, Mira heard her grandmother’s clear grunt of contempt.
Later they had a brief, closer look at him as he toured the street, standing up in the rear seat of a car, saluting everyone, mainly his troops, who lined the way.
“Big uniform hides a little man,” Mira’s grandmother grumbled.
But from that day, the powerful influence of that ‘little man’ was to bring instances of cruelty and hatred that would alter Mira’s life forever.
~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~
In just what order the disturbing incidents came, Mira would not remember, but there was no doubt that the earliest signs of Nazi brutality shocked her. She saw two little girls dancing and singing nationalist Viennese songs, before being slapped into weeping silence by two German soldiers.
Sister Agnes told her they would have been ordered to suppress such national pride. And when an elderly man, unsteadily walking with a stick, was almost run down by a military truck. A man in a black uniform leapt out of the vehicle as though going to his aid but instead, cursing him all the while, he began beating the old man, until he fell in the roadside.
Again, Sister Agnes was a mine of information, “Black uniform. You have had your first experience of the SS, the Schutzstaffel. Pray you have no more.”
Other pupils were coming along with similar tales of individual cruelties and Sister Agnes and Sister Gabrielle revealed that they had spent some time in Hamburg and had seen the growth of such depravity.
For Mira, much worse was to come to her personally, but first, she was to experience the early stages of what Hitler referred to as ‘the solution.’
It was a Friday, and she was making her way to her grandmother’s. For no real reason, she took the route along Servitengasse, an area of high flats. A military wagon with a swastika on the side was parked outside the open doors of one of the blocks. A figure black uniform came out of the doorway, and some instinct, some fear, had Mira ducking out of sight in a shop doorway.
From her vantage point, she saw a soldier angrily calling. Mira was barely breathing as she saw a man and a woman appear, looking distraught and uncertain. Close behind them came a stream of other people, adults with a few children, all looking as though they had been unready for this. Alongside the line of people walked other armed soldiers, and when one of the lines appeared to ask a question, he was beaten to the ground with gun-butts.
Mira felt her legs shaking, as she heard some of the younger children crying. Here was the brutality that her father had feared. She was close to tears herself.
The line of frightened people, there must have been at least twenty, were pointed towards the wagon. Another German soldier brought up the rear. And they were urged to clamber aboard. Any sign of unwillingness brought a beating with a stick by the soldiers.
Mira waited until the wagon had pulled away before she ran, like a frightened deer to her grandmother’s. As soon as she was inside the door she burst into tears. Even after the verbal preparation of her father, her young mind could not cope with fearful circumstances like this.
Her grandmother held her close as Mira sobbed out what she had witnessed. “So they’ve started already. Please try to clear your mind of it. Although, I fear it will continue.”
Mira’s father did not visit that weekend, but her grandmother was not expecting him. “He has to be very cautious now.”
Mira was able to ease her mind when she played in the park with other girls, but even they had frightening observations. And by Monday some pupils had sorry tales to tell. The nuns tried desperately to reassure them.
But there was little reassurance for Mira by the following Thursday when one of the most terrifying periods of her young life began.