Small-town beauty belies Nazi trauma Child of 1930s returns to home near Austria's Vienna Woods.

March 09, 1997|By Hans Knight

EVERY FEW YEARS, I succumb to the urge to visit my old hometown once more, and if you ever saw the place you would understand. It is a small, sylvan town called Moedling, right at the edge of the Vienna Woods, just 10 miles south of the Austrian capital. To a child of the 1930s, the town was pure magic. Skating on frozen ponds, swimming in the municipal pool, kicking soccer balls around the bright green meadows, climbing trees and tossing fir cones at the lovers below, coming home to schnitzels and jam-oozing crepes.

Franz Schubert wrote some lilting songs in Moedling, and Ludwig van Beethoven annoyed his neighbors by hammering away at his "Missa solemnis" in his small room. He sought solace amid the wildflowers growing in the forest. In his diary, he wrote, "Don't the woods, trees and rocks resound with what man wishes to hear?"

On March 12, 1938, I perched on the low window-sill of the bank building across from the town hall. It was the night of the Anschluss. Moedling's beauty was no antidote to Hitler's venom and the town resounded with harsher music.

Bonfires flickered from the hills like giant lightning bugs. The wood-smoke wafted into the streets below, making eyes blink. People lined the main street, some milling about in low, muttering expectancy, others standing silent in front of their homes and stores, listening and waiting.

From around the bend, far below the town hall, came the muffled roll of drums, the rhythmic crashing of feet, the blurry sound of voices.

As the parade approached, the words became clear.

Solo: "Austria."

Chorus: "Awake." Solo: "Judah . . ." Chorus: "Perish."

In unison: "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer."

Solo: "Sieg . . ."

Chorus: "Heil."

The marchers were mainly young boys and girls and they carried flaming torches. Some of the people in the street melted into the column. Others pressed their backs against the walls. As the marchers poured into the town hall square, about 30 policemen appeared on the building's ramp, fingering their rubber truncheons, uncertain what to do.

Somebody produced a wooden ladder and propped it against the town hall's facade. A boy in leather shorts and white stockings climbed up the ladder, a small dagger dangling from his belt. With a few slashes he cut off the red-white-red Austrian flag and tied a swastika flag to the pole. The crowd along the periphery gasped. The boy looked down. "The rats have left the sinking ship," he cried. "The Schuschnigg regime has resigned. The slavery is over, the Fuehrer is coming. Sieg Heil."

The crowd took up the cry. Someone started singing the Horst Wessel song.

A gray-haired man in a large overcoat stared at the tattered Austrian flag on the ground. "This should not be allowed," he kept saying. "Why don't the policemen arrest them?" Another bystander said softly, "There is nothing they can do. The Germans are marching in, I heard it on the radio. What do you want? Perhaps it will not be so bad. Perhaps things will be different again soon. It is best to howl with the wolves."

The policemen, though, had now received an order. They pulled swastika arm bands from their pockets and slipped them over their elbows. The crowd cheered. Near the bank building, a couple of windows shattered. A man wearing a cloth cap turned to his companion. "This can't last," he said. "The Russians won't allow it. The English are arming like mad. In six months all this will be over." The other man shrugged. "I don't care as long as they give us some work. Things can only get better."

A truck, horn blaring, cut through the crowd. The truck was filled with men in brown shirts. Its side bore an anti-Semitic banner.

A few blocks away, the synagogue was already burning. Tongues of flame licked upward toward the gilded Star of David. A fire truck carefully sprayed the adjoining buildings. The crowd, most of it, roared its approval.

For me, the carnival was over and I walked home. Up on the hills, the bonfires crackled far into the night. And before I went to sleep, I could still smell the sweet, acrid scent of wood smoke, and hear the joyous chant, "We thank our Fuehrer."

The weeks that followed did not match the frenzy of the Anschluss night, but they were not without excitement. Mobs of S. A. men and civilians lugged buckets of paint to all Jewish shops and forced the owners to smear their store fronts with the word "Jew." One radio merchant evaded the task by hanging himself before the posse reached his shop.

One face still haunts my memory. It belonged to Frau Eisler and it was not beautiful. Frau Eisler was in her seventies. A slight stroke had made her lower lip droop. The last I ever saw of her, she sat on a chair in the display window of her tiny clothing store. The brownshirts had put her there. People were looking at her the way you stare at animals in a zoo. Her eyes looked scared under heavy lids. Some of the watchers shook their heads in discreet disapproval, but others laughed and shook their fists. Too many of them.

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