Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Thursday, October 27, 2011
This is an excerpt of a short memoir written by my great aunt, who experienced the war both in Bohemia and Vienna. Schloss Friedland still stands in Northern Bohemia, described here as the Sudetenland. In 1945, the family lost all of their property in Bohemia. The picture on the left shows the family house in Vienna. Today it is the French Cultural Institute, at Währingerstrasse 30.
In 1938 our mother died. Very soon after that came the “Liberation of the Ostmark”, as well as the “Liberation of the Sudetenlands”
A planned visit of the so-called Führer at Schloss Friedland went by the wayside at the last minute. Thereby luckily sparing Herr von Papen a visit with him in the castle. Herr von Papen and his Silesien neighbor arrived that day when Hitler was in the town of Friedland. During the war military quarters were allocated in the castle. This was the staff of the local operations regiment. It worked quite well for us and wasn’t problematic. Once the bombing of Berlin started, the contents of the Berlin Library were brought to us for safekeeping. I was in Friedland for the last time shortly before Christmas 1944. Thereafter I no longer received papers for traveling there from Vienna on the basis that I was required to stay in the city for the purposes of “air raid security”.
The cellar of our large house in Vienna was used as a public air raid shelter for part of the city. My sister Edina and I functioned on an ad hoc basis there as hostessess. Those who came to the cellar became with the passing of time and the dropping of bombs a real community. Once the Palais avoided being blown up by sheer miracle. A carpet bombing raid dropped bombs to the front and the side of the house. The wing of a neighboring house was destroyed. Beneath the sloping of the house down to the lower garden the cellar extended expansively below. This also functioned as an air raid shelter--people came there from Floridsdorf. There was room for 10,000 people in these cellars, which had an enormous number of branching tunnels, and had originally been used for raising mushrooms. It was a time of great sadness and fear but redeemed itself for the goodness experienced in being able to help people, whose lives were endangered by the war. This brought me into contact with many wonderful people. In particular I recall the unwaveringly brave Deacon P Bruno Spitzl, as well as the quietly courageous Etta Matscheko. Etta fell victim to a bomb attack later.
In the very last days of the war a first aid station opened up in the Palais, with a young staff doctor, Dr Wiesner (now a pediatrician) in charge. There were ten officers and 50 staff. This was to a certain extent a stroke of luck, because later when an SS group marched into the garden, they found it was already occupied and had to move on. During the days of the war when Vienna was actually under attack, the Palais and the the little house in Botlzmangasse 2 took two grenade hits, which in comparison to the bombs that were later dropped by the Americans, were not very significant. A German tank stood at the garden fence of the Währingerstrasse--later it was a Russian Stalinorgel.
There were several automatic weapon installations located around the house and on the flat roof of the kitchen area. In those days we shared everything--both good and bad-- with those poor souls who found themselves in our care as a result of the bombing: the pharmacist couple known as the Dormanns, the brother and sister pair Leo and Helene Schreiner (he was a civil servant, she a doctor), and a Polish family, who arrived in an appallingly filthy state, Gräfin Sophie Skarbek and her two sons. Gradually others found their way to us for protection and support. A great help to us in this time, and through the rest of their lives, were the two sisters Marie and Annerl Erger. Even in the most trying moments of the war, they never let us down. They suffered a great deal with our family, and all people whose flight through a war torn city brought them to us, always found themselves in caring hands.
The first aid unit that had been with us moved over the Danube, but became a useful source of food as they left provisions behind. We spent most nights in the cellar sheltering from bombs. We kept watch for the sake of precaution. Generally my sister Edina and I went through the house. First we feared the SS, later we feared the Russians. Then, the dreadful work of having to help bury the dead from local bombing raids in the garden. There were Italian workers, who were there to help, who asked to be given shelter in the house. They were memorable for the fuss they made the instant they sensed Russians nearby--it was like the capitoline geese raising the honking alarm.
There was considerable excitement involved in the removal of ordinance from the house--weapons, ammunition, hand grenades. Handling them, in particular the latter of these, was always tricky as we were never sure whether they might accidentally go off! Our lives returned--only very slowly--to some sort of normality. An unforgettable event amidst all this was a concert of the Philharmonic Orchestra on the 29th of April 1945. Food continued to be scarce for a long time however, and we were thankful for every little vegetable that grew in our garden. Sometimes half starved cows were driven into the garden by Russians with an eye to slaughter, who then took to my lovingly tended vegetable garden.
We were so excited to see the first cars of the Swiss Red Cross in Vienna. They stood lined up in the park, white and clean (something all but forgotten to us), and seemed to us to have arrived from another happier world entirely. With great gratitude we also received packages from the von Trapp family, sent over to us from America. We were able to help many with the things they sent us.
Because it was the Americans who had had taken over from the Russians in our Bezirk, it was decided that our house should be handed over for use as a US Service Club for officers--this however after a great “resistance” fight! Our house thus fell to the fate of all the others that were “used” by occupying forces. Mrs Eleanor Dulles, who had earlier been director of a civilian unit and lived with us, found to her irritation that she, too, had to yield to the arrival of the US officers. And so it was that we moved out of our family home with heavy hearts. It was at just this time that the Podstatzkys, destitute and hungry, arrived in Vienna in the hope of finding a quiet and safe harbour in the Währingerstrasse.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Leo was always the sensitive one, the one who was least robust of the four children, the one that everyone worried about. He had bouts of moodiness as a child and teenager, and was probably overshadowed by his boisterous and confident twin sister and his talented elder brother.
The first letter here is written by the mother to her husband. In it she describes her reservations about Leo's future in the army. Following this is the first letter from Leo.
April 20th, 1942
Enclosed is Leo’s first letter. It just arrived today, though it was written on the 15th. He had carried it around in his pocket. He’s so absent minded--I can just imagine his state of mind. He’s such an unlucky boy, he’ll probably have to shoot someone straight away, and I can imagine what sort of miserable expression he’ll have on his face when he has to pull the trigger! In every respect he will struggle, much more so than Andreas--who had his boot camp as a preparation, and was in much better shape. I feel sorry for Leo because he will suffer terribly, and in addition to that the hunger, the cold, etc. Yesterday the Attems and Galen boys were on leave and they rang up as they had their driving school elsewhere. They weren’t able to see Leo, and wanted to visit him today instead. That will cheer him up a bit. I gave them a little care package to take with them, which will also do him good!
April 15, 1942
Leo to his mother
Return address on letter reads “Pt Sch Winkelbauer, 2. Pz.Ers.Abt 4; Wien Mödling
Just a quick letter! I have a couple of requests-- 1. please can you send me some dry shaving creme, and 2. Please if at all possible can you please send some shoe polishing materials--here we have nothing! Please send as much as possible.
Do you know Franzi’s address yet? I am known here for being a glutton. Today the staff sergeant praised me. If things continue that way, I’ll be fine.
Best wishes and a kiss
[on one of the reverse side flaps]
Dear Mami, many thanks for your sweet note which I found in my suitcase. Please don’t praise, as that makes me soft. And then sometimes that hurts.
These letters were written quite early on, while the eldest boy Andreas--he signs himself Alter, meaning the "older one"--is on training. They still has something of letters home from a summer camp, despite the references to lung worm and hard labour. The tone is cheerful, and he's very pleased to have been singled out for services as a draughtsman, since he had hoped to be an architect. The locker is also a matter of some pride.
The watercolour above probably dates a little later than these letters, but I include it here to show what his talents were as a caricaturist. The long arms and legs were a family feature, and the title of the picture as "healthy optimism".
March 28, 1942
Andreas to Parents
Frankstadt (training area)
Dear Mami and Papi
I was so pleased to be able to speak to Mami on Thursday. It was unfortunately not possible this Saturday and Sunday to get to Zanchtel because I was on duty. I shall look forward to the Sunday after Easter all the more!
So, what should I write to you about. Everything is the same here, and Frankstadt is, and remains, a pig-headed and tough kind of a place. Something did happen however which was wonderful for me. I think I wrote to you already that I had done a couple of drawings which I thought were quite good, and they not only gained the praise and approval of my superior, Lt. Dr Gerhold, but also the company chief and my former company chief. For this reason, I have been offered the honourable job of making fresco-type caricatures of the entire unit. Because I am short of both time and practice, I had to decline. However, what I will do is make sketches, and then produce them at 1:1 size and paint them, and then pass them on to a new recruit who is architect by profession, and he will complete the work. So you can imagine that I am walking around with a song in my heart, and on the other hand feel nervous that I may not be up to the job. So please keep your fingers crossed. This would be my first real commission.
April 2, 1942
Dear Mami and Papi
First of all I’d like to send you my very best wishes for Easter, and thank you for the two wonderful Easter packages you sent. I am going to try to control myself and open them on Easter Saturday, since I’m hoping to be together with Clemens Wainbold and von Hornstein at the Seilerns in Millatitz. I’m not even sure if I can go, since we have to go at 12 noon, and apparently need to be back in the afternoon for a rehearsal to be standard bearers in the parade for the swearing in ceremony. Hopefully I’ll get leave and be able to go, otherwise I’ll be sitting here--in which case I’ll be extra grateful for the package and the RM 50. Many thanks; my wallet is feeling replenished, and therefore I’m feeling much better.
As we’ve been having driving school since last Tuesday I have more time to write. I’d like to describe to you my locker. I do this as I am quite proud of it (when it’s tidy and ready for inspection!). The top shelf is my pride and joy! A bookshelf that looks like something from a library: Brockhaus, Goethe, HDVs and piles of drawings. Then my neatly folded laundry, and behind it my piles of letters and more drawings. My peaked cap finishes off the row of items on the top shelf. After the first shelf, the shelf with my toiletries, then then come the uniforms. Makes for impressive viewing! To the front is my gun, my very well polished ammo bag, a belt with a polished buckle, which I use as a mirror to shave, and my good shoes, which are the envy of all as they are so well polished. Then I have the so-called magic bag (the bag that used to hold my ski boots), in which I keep 10 large boxes of matches which I have bought for you. I’m not allowed to post them because of the fire hazard, so I’ll give them to Mami when I see her.
The door of the locker is also a matter of great pride. Now, now, you needn’t think that I’ve decorated it with photos of attractive girls...no, it’s been done with taste! Drawings, photos of home, things to inspire me. That’s my locker. By that I mean that’s what’s good about my locker. Behind the magic bag there is a little space where I keep dirty socks, filthy handkerchiefs, khaki shirts, and the dark coloured undershorts and almost black neckkerchiefs. All these things that need washing lurk in the dark and produce an unpleasant atmosphere for the rest in the locker, until I give up the dirty things on Mondays for washing, and receive it clean on Fridays.
For now, the driving school is a relaxing break from the normal grind, and a time to recharge batteries. I have time to look after my poor feet, and let them heal. My cough is also much better because of it. Thank God it will go completely now, since up to now I simply couldn’t get better with all that I was doing. Before this we had hard sweaty training in the mornings, so much so that our shirts stuck to us, then we had to stand around and listen to a lecture, during which your every effort was inspected. Under such circumstances no one can rid themselves of a cough. Now I’m on the road to recovery, and hope to rid myself of my lung worms soon.
I’d also like to write about something else. At Easter I am hoping to go to the Seilerns, as you know, with von Hornstein and Clemens. I spoke about it with von Hornstein. The poor fellow, he’s very upset. Today he learned that as an officer-hopeful he’s been removed from the list--no chance. Why, I am not entirely sure, he just said the following: “it’s because of my parents”. He can still make the rank of officer, but he will only ever be a reserve officer.
Well, time’s rushing on, and I have to get ready for duty.
1000x love and happy Easter from
Monday, September 12, 2011
On the 27th of August 2011, a ceremony was held to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the opening of the German Soldiers' Cemetery in Gontscharnoye, a small town located between Sevastopol and Yalta on the Crimean peninsula. The cemetery was opened as part of a cooperative effort between the Ukrainian and German governments, to provide both a suitable memorial as well as collect up as many remains as possible from unmarked graves across the country where they laid unrecognised and in some cases entirely lost. Under the Soviet Union, organised war cemeteries, such as can be found all over Europe, were not possible. The Ukraine, a young country that gained independence in 1991, put the tract of land in Gontscharnoye--one of several--at the disposal of the German government, and it is maintained through the German War Graves Association (VDK -- Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V), largely by voluntary contributions.