On my way to Vienna one fine day in 1956 I decided to pop in to see my sister who was living in Paris at the time. She liked the idea. We had not seen each-other for quite a while.
We had dinner at her place and she served me one of my favorite dishes – Wiener Schnitzel, mashed potatoes and cucumber salad – and spent a small fortune on a pair of reasonably priced bottles of decent red Beaujolais to wash it down with.
Of course, by the time the first bottle was empty we were both in a melancholy, reminiscent mood. “You know,” she said, out of the blue, hiccoughing discretely, “once you are in Vienna, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to try to locate Tante, and find out what has become of her.”
Tante became our live-in governess in 1938, a few weeks after the Anschluss, the date the German Third Reich annexed Austria. Originally from Vienna and a licensed pharmacist, Tante realized that she had to hide to survive because she was Jewish. But hiding for her in Vienna was difficult – she was too well known. A thirty-eight years old childless orphan, she decided to leave her pharmacy behind and flee her homeland.
She ended up in Budapest where my parents volunteered to help her hide. They took her on as our in-house governess, a job she held capably for six years, right up to when the Germans invaded Hungary in 1944.
“So how do you suggest I go about finding her?” I asked.
My sister handed me a slip of paper. “Here’s her family name as I remember it. Check the phone book under ‘Pharmacists’ and you might find her listed there.”
I did so when I got to Vienna and, lo and behold, there she was, still working in her own pharmacy. I went to see her. She did not recognize me at first and then teared up when I introduced myself. She insisted on taking me to lunch during which she brought me up to date about how she had managed to survive1944.
Her story had a very amusing ending.
“When your family fled the bombing, your apartment on the third floor remained empty. Nobody wanted to live directly under the roof… too close to falling bombs and artillery shells. I had nowhere to go so I moved to the cellar and waited until the Russians chased the Germans away. Guess what I found in your apartment having climbed up three flights of stairs after the siege ended?”
“A young Russian soldier and his horse. The soldier – hardly more than a child – was eating his lunch and the horse was feeding on the stuffing of one of the armchairs in front of the fireplace.”
I burst out out laughing. “And what did you do?”
She gave me a tolerant smile.“While helping to bring up the two of you I learned how to give orders to children in a way as to be obeyed, so I sternly ordered him to get out.”
“And what did he do?”
“He picked up his Kalashnikov, led the horse out of the apartment and they left.”