That Thursday, all pupils were called into the minor-hall in the convent, where the Mother Superior, her voice cracking occasionally, told them that under a decree from the German High Command and with immediate effect, the Roman Catholic nuns would no longer be allowed to teach them. She added, “Apparently, we are not capable of following the Aryan policy. Whatever that may be.”
Ominously two men in black uniforms stood in the doorway, frowning at her words. There were gasps from some pupils. Mira felt a strange heaviness inside her as the Mother Superior told them that their new schools were about to be allocated. Mira felt a degree of relief to hear that those who spent their nights in the convent could retain that privilege and return there when the school day ended.
With a curt nod in their direction, the Mother Superior gave way to the two sullen men moving forward from the doorway. Without any preamble and, with guttural tones, they began calling off names from the lists they held. Starting with the youngest pupils, who looked close to tears, they were directed to form a growing group. No less tearful, the nuns led each group out.
Mira wondered if she had ever seen a sadder sight. She stood nervously watching until at last the names of the pupils in her own class were read out. One by one they were pointed into a group until at last, reaching the end of the alphabetic list, “Vollen, Katrina,” was called out and shown towards their group.
Mira wondered why one of the Germans calling from the list scowled at her before sneering, “Wirtz, Mira.” She began moving in the direction of her classmates, when the German held up a hand and pointed to the rear of the hall, “Nein, over there.”
Unhappy, unsure, and very nervous Mira shuffled to where she had been directed. She saw the surprised look on the Mother Superior’s face as her class was ushered out of the hall without her. Why had she been singled out like this?
Mira had never felt so alone and abandoned as she stood there, frightened and lost.
The answer, untrue as it was, struck her hard, as the tallest man strode towards her with a look of contempt on his face, which he pushed close to Mira, snarling, “Jew!”
Shocked, Mira opened her mouth to protest, but the Mother Superior appeared alongside him and said, “You SS must be mistaken.”
The German turned angrily to the elderly nun and disrespectfully thrust his list in her face, “Father is Hans Wurtz. Jew. She is Jewish.”
Fearful as she was, Mira found her voice to protest, “I am Viennese.”
The German swung his hand and caught Mira a glancing blow on the side of her head, “Silence, insolent, little Jew bitch.” The slap was not severe. It made her stagger a little, but Mira felt more pain in the way he spoke to her. Determined not to cry, she was angered that a wayward, unwelcome tear ran down her cheek as she saw the Mother Superior step forward.
Coldly and harshly the nun said, “How dare you lay your hands on our children? You are guests in this convent.”
The Nazi looked at her with something near disgust, before, muttering a growled comment, he went striding away out of the hall.
The kindly nun laid a hand on Mira’s shoulder, “You were very brave,” she murmured quietly. “Don’t worry. You’ll be back here this evening. Now, two sisters will escort you to—” She paused, unsmiling, before she added, “--your new school.”
Mira’s ‘new’ school turned out to be nothing more than a small house with very limited room space. The nuns muttered brief words of reassurance to her, but when they reached the house, Mira was dismayed to see an armed German soldier posed at the front door. It was to be the first of several stark shocks awaiting her.
The nuns handed her over to a tall, extremely thin lady who seemed pleasant enough as she introduced herself as, “Madame Silpha Milstein, here to keep things going, if possible, in these awful times.”
She knelt to be closer to Mira, as she said, “There are some things you need to know. First, all the teachers are female. The two men in black uniforms you will see wandering around corridors and classrooms are SS, Germans.” Mira thought she almost spat the identification of the two men before she went on. “Always avert your eyes when you pass them.
As she stood up and took Mira’s hand, a tall, man in thick-lensed spectacles strode towards them. Mira immediately fixed her eyes on his shining black boots.
“An extra waste of space,” he snarled, and he reached forward and pinned something onto Mira’s dress. “This remains there. At all times.” As he strode away, she saw the large fabric square at her chest, bearing the single letter ‘J’.
Madame Menstein laid a gentle hand on Mira’s shoulder, “I know from your history from the Mother Superior that you should not be here. But sadly, it is the distorted way of Hitler’s world.” And again, her voice became accusing. “Please, don’t try to remove that while here or outside. Punishment is harsh.”
They walked around the narrow corridors, where they passed the other SS agent, and dutifully lowered their eyes. Then Madame Menstein led her into a tiny, extremely crowded classroom, and introduced her to the young lady teacher, Lydia, who Mira thought was too young and pretty to be a teacher.
Lydia was cheerful enough as she introduced Mira to the rest of the class. They nodded a greeting but said nothing. “Most of them are still dumbstruck by the events that have overtaken them, and hardly talk at all.”
Mostly shy, gentle, uncertain smiles were passed her way for the rest of that first day. Little talk ensued, Lydia’s lessons were pleasant enough, then as the school day ended, Madame Menstein met her at the door, a concerned look on her face.
“Stay wide of other people,” was her ominous warning, as she indicated the fabric square marked ‘J’ on her dress. “They do not understand.”
Hurrying towards the convent, Mira quickly experienced exactly what Madame Menstein had meant. First, a group of four chatting housewives halted their conversation and pointed at Mira crossing the street. Nothing was said, but the four pairs of eyes never left her, making her most uneasy.
But it was her next encounter, as she neared the convent, that really upset her. A group of maybe six children about her own age were playing on the street. They glanced as Mira approached and with an instant reaction to what they saw, they began to move towards her, all chanting, “Jew! Jew! Jew!”
Even as she tried to cry out, “But I am Viennese,” one of the boys dashed close and tugged at her long hair. Another lobbed a stone in her direction. It missed, but, tearful and afraid, Mira ran for the convent.
Once through the gates, she was safe from her irrational pursuers, and was lucky enough to run, weeping, into the welcoming arms of Sister Agnes. As she sobbed her dismay and disbelief that her own people could be so cruel, the kindly nun was unpinning the fabric marker. “This may be demanded outside, but not in this Convent.”
As Mira continued to express her disillusion about her own people, Agnes said, “It is the result of this regime. I’m sure it will pass. They will learn. I’ll see the Mother Superior about future travels.” Despite the sympathy, all Mira really needed in her despair was the support of her father and grandmother.
However, true to her word, Sister Agnes was able to approach Mira that night with the good news that the Mother Superior, recognising unusual circumstances, agreed that Sister Agnes could escort her each morning.
Being accompanied by Sister Agnes made a big difference. With the nun holding her hand they passed several other children, and although, again wearing the fabric ‘J,’ which gained hostile looks, there were no unkind comments or jeering. Sister Agnes did remind her that, since it was Friday, she would have to be careful when she made the slightly longer return to her grandmother’s house. “Stick to the back lanes, or anywhere quiet.”
Her second day at her new school was made, lesson-wise, very interesting by the charming Lydia. The major difference on this day was that, during break times, some of the pupils were able to talk about the horrors that had befallen their families.
Tears were never far away. One boy broke down when speaking of seeing his father beaten unmercifully with rifle butts before his unconscious body was thrown onto the back of a lorry and driven away. A small, fair-haired girl wanted to tell her about her mother and father being led away while an uncle kept her concealed in their home.
There were so many tales of family or close relatives being taken. A girl mentioned hearing the word, ‘ghetto’, but didn’t know where that was. Another girl said she had seen a black-uniformed Nazi point deliberately at a particular wagon for three men, as he snarled, ‘Auschwitz.’ Another new word. But it all became too horrible for Mira to take it in.
By the end of the day, during which she had given some worried thought to the route she would take to her grandmother’s home. It was about one thousand metres further than the convent and by sticking to the back lanes it would take her longer, but she had so much to tell her grandmother.
The route she took turned out to be the most successful. She encountered only a few individuals, who largely ignored her. All went well until she reached the park where a new, large sign on the gate declared in large print, ‘JEWS FORBIDDEN.’ Banned from her favourite play area. “But I am Viennese,” she said to herself, while thinking how stupidly cruel such a banning was.
Then some girls saw her beyond the fence and raced in her direction screaming, “Jew. Jew. Jew.” Mira noticed that one or two of her true friends were hanging back from the jeering group and she was grateful for that. But she wasn’t going to wait to be yelled at through the fence, and she raced away over the few hundred metres to her grandmother’s house.
And how comforting it was to be clutched to her grandmother’s bosom as she recounted the shocks and worries of recent days and told of the horrible events she had been told about. Her grandmother, blue eyes blazing, practically tore the tell-tale patch from the front of her dress.
“How could the Mother Superior allow them to make a mistake like that?” Her voice was sharp and angry. Mira had rarely heard her like that.
“She told them it was a mistake, but the SS man pointed out my father’s name as though that was enough.”
Her grandmother gazed silently into space for a moment. When she turned back to Mira her brow was furrowed. “Mira, I your father knew he was the cause of your problems, he might do something silly. Just when he needs to be so careful. Can you tell him a small lie when he asks?”
Mira could see the sense in her grandmother’s request. She had been upset for a while that she was only seeing her father for two to three hours mostly on Sundays. Her grandmother told her that he was only safe in the fact that some of the stoves his company manufactured went to the barracks of German military.
But Mira took much consolation from being held in his arms when he, looking unusually strained, visited briefly on Sunday afternoons she answered his frequent school queries as though she was still being educated at the abbey. He was happy to accept that and would go on speaking soothingly of better times that would come.
Soon, Mira had found a series of ploys to prevent any cruel confrontations on her weekend journeys between the Jewish school and her grandmother’s. Sister Agnes delivered her from the Abbey in the mornings, and, if time allowed, collected her at night.
She was pleased to avoid some of the terrifying attacks that the families of other pupils had experienced. But by mid-year, a subtle change began taking place. After months of Nazi domination, people, even children, were beginning to realise the biased attitude and cruelty of the regime. Mira found that she could pass groups of children, even with her ‘J’ badge on her chest and be ignored.
“I’m pleased you’re finding life easier,” her grandmother said bitterly, “but these thugs are still present and active.”
And indeed, there were so many reminders of the German intrusion. Countless buildings bore the red swastika boasting banners; German soldiers were visible on every street, all carrying threatening weapons, while, Mira quickly recognised the occasional black uniformed presence of , the many Schutzstaffel the SS. Mainly because they walked the avenues in pairs, and generally because they were sour-faced and cruel.
Through caution, and the careful concerns of those close to her, her grandmother, and the nuns, Mira managed to see the months pass in relative safety. Her one concern was that she saw less and less of her father.
Her grandmother would say consolingly, “He is just as sorry at these limited meetings, but the Nazis are making life very hard for him, and he fears leading them here.”
On the few Sundays he did risk coming to see them Mira clung to him fiercely, never wishing to release his hand when she held it.
Then came that dreadful night in early November.