Family History - Hilde
Imagine being a 16-year-old girl, hunkered next to your mother in the dark, dank cellar of your apartment complex. Imagine shaking with terror as your whole world quite literally disintegrates before your eyes. Imagine knowing that an invading force was knocking at your door and that no one, not your father, not the government, not the armed forces and certainly not your mother, who had you tightly wrapped in her arms, could save you.
These were the end days of WWII. My grandmother, Hilde, would alternate her time between huddling next to her mother in bed and in her mother’s arms in the cellar of their apartment complex. They didn’t dare go outside anymore. Apart from the mass chaos of lawlessness that was descending on the populace, there was the very mortal threat that the bombed-out buildings could collapse and bury you underneath.
Hilde preferred the bed to the cellar. In the bed, her mother would sing to her and distract her with funny stories. In the cellar there were the rumors; the dark, gallows humor. The rumors were about the mass rapes; the reprisals, the hordes of Untermenschen thirsting for revenge. How much was she to believe?
Were people capable of what was being said or was it just more propaganda? Was it true what they said of the terrible mayhem that their own armies and paramilitary forces had wrought on innocent civilians as they steamrolled through the East? If they were, how were they not about to reap what had been sown?
The humor was not really humor. The women recounted the nuns who cut off their noses in the hopes that their disfigurements would stop the Norse invaders from raping them. They were raped anyhow. And such the phrase, “cutting of your nose to spite your face” was coined. Then there was talk of women who wrote “syphilis” on their foreheads in hopes that this might deter would be rapists. But they were raped anyhow, either by those who didn’t care, couldn’t read the message, or already had syphilis themselves.
But before we really get to the end game, as the Russian soldiers were so close to her that she could smell their sweat, we should go back to the beginning.
Hilde was always a free spirit. She was headstrong to the point of obstinacy; she was a contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. Following the annexation, she refused to join the Jüngmädelbund and then later, when she was of-age, she absolutely refused to join the Bund Deutscher Mädel (the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth). As punishment for her refusal, she was “mobbed”— an Austrian neologism that means that her female companions would chide, harass, and bully her; they would also say things like, “Hilde thinks she’s too good for us.” Or “Look at Hilde, she always thinks she knows best.” Or, more dangerously, “what do you expect from someone whose parents are communists?”
But it was not just her free spirit and engrained unwillingness to “just go along” that kept Hilde from joining in— she, like her parents, also had personal reasons. Her closest friend, a Jewish girl, one day just suddenly vanished. Only many years after the war did Hilde find out that her friend was alive and well in Phoenix, Arizona. But there were other scenes that had a profound impact on a girl who was just 9 years old when the annexation occurred.
One scene that she vividly recalls is that of a Jewish family that lived in their apartment complex. The family consisted of a husband, a wife, a young boy (of about 4 or so) and a grandfather. Hilde recalls that the husband and grandfather rarely left the apartment for fear of being targeted. The wife and her son would undertake the precarious task of venturing outside for necessities. Hilde remembers one day in particular; she was playing out in the courtyard when she heard screaming. Terrified screaming. She ran out to the street and saw that the wife and her son had been cornered by a bunch of teenage boys who were spitting on them and yelling, “Sau Jüdin, sau Jüdin!” (pig Jew, pig Jew).
The mother, whose terrified son was clinging to her, trembling like a leaf and crying, picked up her son and started running down the street to get away from her tormentors. She ran, with the mob in hot pursuit, towards 9-year-old Hilde. She made a hard right into the corridor of the apartment complex and tried to slam the door shut, but far too late. As she ran towards the door that blocked off the corridor and courtyard from the stairwell, she found it locked. She made her retreat from the stairwell to the courtyard, her son shaking in her arms, when one of the youths grabbed a hold of her skirt and tore it.
There she was, cornered in her own courtyard with the pack closing in. “Sau Jüdin, sau Jüdin!” they chanted. All the while Hilde was standing in the wings of the darkened corridor, deathly afraid to move a muscle. The harassment went on and on for what seemed like an eternity. Hilde can still vividly recall the little boy sobbing and the mother shrieking ‘like an animal caught in a trap’. The youths became more and more emboldened, grabbing at the lady, lashing her with sticks they had picked up in the yard.
And then it all came to a sudden end. At some point, the youths just got tired of it. They had cornered their prey, terrorized it, established their dominance as Herrenmenschen, and then, just left. As they brushed by her on their way out, Hilde jammed herself as close to the open door as possible, not daring to even look in their direction out of mortal fear. And just like that, it was the three of them. Hilde stared at the lady, who at that point was trying to jam the key into the keyhole, her son making little wailing noises that Hilde would remember for the rest of her life.
Hilde would witness many more such incidents of harassment: Jews being forced to clean the cobblestone streets of horse manure; Jews being forced to carry signs describing their transgressions. After the harassment the Nazis started coming for people. In the middle of the night Hilde would sometimes hear a truck pull up on their street. She remembers one night being awakened by the sound of a truck in the middle of the night followed by a bunch of shouting. She carefully peeked through the curtain and saw people being herded into the back of the truck. She vividly remembers an old man with a very thin jacket shaking in the cold, his breath coming out in misty waves. She remembers feeling impotent, wanting to give that man her warm winter coat. She remembers feeling fear, the fear of knowing exactly where these poor people were being swept off to in the middle of the night without even being given the chance to collect their belongings, because they wouldn’t need them where they were going. After that, Hilde stopped peeking out of the window. She says that her fear came from the knowledge that she and her family could face the same fate if it was made known to the wrong people that their resistance transcended mere apathy to actually helping ‘enemies of the state’.
Throughout the years she helped her parents hide the suitcases, buy the produce and distribute it to the less fortunate. As she was ‘just a girl’, she was not molested for her resistance beyond the taunting she had to endure from her classmates. And so, she spent her most formative years, from 9 to 16, either in resistance, in hiding, or, in the end, on the run.
When they were certain that the government was collapsing and the end was neigh, Hilde and her parents moved in with Hilde’s grandparents in a little town just northwest of Vienna. There they waited out the final days of the war, living off the food given to them by the local farmers until, finally, the day of reckoning came. The Russians were at the doorstep.
The Russians didn’t knock. Hilde and her parents were ready for them. She knew she shouldn’t have, but she overheard her parents discussing “strategy”. Should they hide Hilde? No, if she were to be found, it would be so much worse. Send her away? But where to? In the end, helpless as they were, they came up with one solution which to me, today, sounds almost banal: they covered Hilde from head to toe in flour. They made her look as much like a 90-year-old lady as was possible. And, they decided, it was best to hide Hilde out in the open.
So there Hilde sat, caked in flour, shaking, trying not to vomit from the fear balling up in her stomach, as she heard the Russian footsteps enter the house. Hilde leaned forward and put her head down, she didn’t dare breathe or look up. Her mother, who was sitting at the head of the table was breathing in rasps. Her father, standing by the door, welcomed the Russian soldiers. He did not know Russian and they did not know German.
Through much pantomiming and gesticulations conversation was made. “Who is in here?”
“Just me, my wife and her old mother.” Franz said, gesturing at Hilde. That was the first mistake. Franz’s own parents, who were terrified beyond all belief, were hiding in the closet. They made a sound and immediately a Russian soldier ran over and started beating on the door.
“And my parents! My parents are in the closet, they are also old!” Franz’s parents were herded out of the closet, prodded by the soldier’s gun.
With the family assembled the soldiers started tearing through the house. “Alcohol, cigarettes!!” they demanded. But nobody in the house smoked or drank. The Russians didn’t believe them.
“You, down into the basement!” they said to Hilde’s father and grandfather. They refused and the soldiers started beating them. Hilde’s father and grandfather felt that, if they went down into the basement, they would never return. So, they endured the beatings. Finally, the soldiers found the milk and bacon from the nearby farmers. They ate ravenously. Then they looted the place. Took everything that was of possible value. And then. They left.
Hilde hadn’t moved for what seemed to her an eternity. Then, when she was absolutely certain they had gone, she broke out into dry heaves. And then they waited, waited for more soldiers to come. But none did. And yet, the whole family was terrified. Of course, in the absence of any official media, there were the rumors. Rumors that the Russians had armed concentration camp inmates and let them run wild in the nearby towns exacting their revenge. But none came for them.
Finally, one day, an American paratrooper landed in their yard. Hilde remembers falling in love at first sight. She could have married him right then and there. She kept on saying that, until the Americans and British arrived, they felt the war was ongoing. Once the Western Allies came, they could finally breathe. They were enchanted by the Americans. Hilde recalled how it was the Americans and British who finally installed law and order, something that the Russians seemed to have no interest in whatsoever. She always describes that American paratrooper as an angel sent by god letting her know that the madness had ended and that she was finally safe.
Hilde eventually went to college and got her art degree. She is still alive today at the age of 92.