A CHILD AL CONFINO
Chapter I: Escape From Vienna
Stunned, peeking from behind the hallway wall for the longest moment, I watched my father rapidly pacing the four corners of the living room floor. I could tell he was very tense. Never changing his fast rhythm, he was mumbling in such a low tone I couldn't tell whether he was speaking German or his native Polish.
We had eaten our breakfast hours before, yet my mother was still in her silk robe. Mutti's hair lacked its usual neatness and her face was drawn and without makeup. She sat stiffly against the wall on one of the dining room chairs. While her eyes followed my father's every step, I could tell that her mind was far away, immersed in other thoughts. Never, until that awful morning, had there been such an upheaval in my well-ordered carefree life of eight years. What did I do? was the only thought running through my mind. I was scared. Did my teacher send home a bad report? Or what? I was certain they were discussing what punishment I deserved, something they had never done before.
"What happened?" I asked, meekly voicing words that had crossed my mind moments before, instantly sorry to have said anything and hoping not to have been heard. Neither of my parents answered. Often I was bothered that so many times they didn't notice my presence but this was one time I was glad they didn't. In my frightened state, I felt relieved not to have to cope with their answers.
That morning, for the first time, Mutti had not helped me to get dressed. She had come to my room at the usual time and sat on the bed. "You're not going to school today."
"Please, don't ask questions."
My mother's nervousness of earlier that morning was now more intense. I watched as her foot delicately tapped the parquet floor. Her hands tightly clenched her knees, showing the white outline on her fair skin.
Millie, our housekeeper as well as my governess, walked into the dining room to set the table for the midday meal. My father stopped his pacing the moment the young woman entered the room. What Millie had always done while humming an Austrian folk tune, she was now doing silently. The sight resembled a movie scene in slow motion. Mutti sitting motionless and staring into space, Papa awkwardly standing still on the spot where he last had placed his foot and Millie moving about as if unaware of our presence.
I was not quite eight but had already learned to stay out of my parents' way when something unusual was going on. What was happening was more than unusual, it was downright scary. Perhaps it was best to make myself invisible. Creeping backward, I was halfway through the doorway to my room, all the while trying to guess what could possibly have happened to cause such gloom, when a bizarre thought crossed my mind: I wished I could have been in school, with the teacher I detested, doing assignments I liked even less.
From my doorway I watched as Millie left the room and Papa resumed his pacing. Hoping to escape the mysterious tension, I quietly finished slipping back into my room. Cuddling my teddy bear, I lay on my bed and cried.
Soon after, I heard my parents' loud exchange. Driven more by curiosity than fear, I walked back to the living room. They were shouting in Polish, a language I could understand when spoken slowly and calmly. And as they did neither, I understood nothing. But I could tell they were not fighting with one another, as they had done many times and that was a relief.
"I'm glad you're here," Mutti said. "I was just going to call you. Come Schatzele. Lunch is ready." Her tone had none of the pleasantness I so loved.
As though nothing had happened to give rise to the strange behavior I had witnessed all morning, we sat at the table to eat the main meal of the day.
"Millie," Mutti called. "You may start serving."
Sullen, the maid entered, placed a silver-plated soup tureen on the table, turned on her heels and left. Never had she acted like this before. My ever-smiling Millie had always served each of us. No one ever had to ask her. She had loved doing it. Papa was about to say something but my mother looked at him and, with one finger across her lips, motioned for him to be silent. Then she shrugged her shoulders and, reaching for the ladle, did the serving herself.
We sat in silence. I waited for the storm that was certain to come. "Why aren't you eating?" Mutti asked. Her words caught me off guard; trembling, I started to cry.
"I'm scared, Mutti. I don't know what's happening."
She placed her arms around me, pulled me close and stroked my hair. "Erich, one day you'll understand." As she spoke, I saw tears well in her eyes. It was March 14, 1938. "Yesterday German soldiers invaded Vienna."
The taxi was not just old; it was ancient, its parts held together by rusty wires and frayed cords. The driver's door stayed shut thanks to his elbow holding it. I noticed the many cracks in the age-worn canvas top and was thankful it was a sunny day.
The journey to Ospedaletto d'Alpinolo, less than five miles up a graded, dusty and unpaved mountain road, took more than two hours. The clunker's slow speed contributed to the delay but the main causes were three breakdowns and the countless times the engine just quit, unable to take the uphill strain. Getting it restarted was not a simple task, since the electric starter was missing a part of the original design. Instead, dangling from the front of the engine was a partially rusted metal crank that required all the strength the small cabby could muster to give it a half turn. Starting the engine also required an additional person to stop the car from rolling down the hill, for the hand brake had long become a useless metal grip which the driver made no attempt to engage.
While pressing one foot on the brake pedal, the driver fished out a block of wood from under his seat. With deference, he said to the detective, "Commissario, can you put this under the back wheel? I don't want our lovely lady to end back in Avellino." He snickered, as he tipped his beret to my mother. It was like a scene from a comic movie.
Our escort took the wood and wedged it under one of the rear wheels. "I'm only a detective, not a police chief," he said.
Each breakdown brought out a series of invectives from the driver, most of them directed at Italy's head of state. "Quel benedetto Mussolini!"" He removed his cap and used his arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead.
What for us was an annoying experience, seemed to be an everyday occurrence for this driver. By then, I was too tired to care. It was boiling hot at midday on that dusty road but I was sure Mother's perspiration was due less to the heat than to her restraint from making comments. "Close your eyes, Hasele and try to get some rest." She placed her arm on my shoulders and caressed my hair. I could feel her heavy breathing.
The poor quality of wartime gasoline caused carburetors to clog up with regular frequency and, while the driver may have been annoyed, Mother was incensed, especially when, after asking how far our destination was, she was told we could have walked the distance in less time than it took to drive. "I'd just as soon start walking," Mother said.
"Signora, we'll get there soon. Don't worry. You're much too pretty to worry." The driver spoke in dialect.
Tired, dirty and hungry, we arrived at our destination, hoping our ordeal had finally come to an end.
The detective had told us he was going to spend time with his family. Now, his assignment almost completed, he looked eager to leave. With the taxi driver, he lifted our trunk and suitcases off the cab and set everything on the street at the entrance of the carabinieri headquarters. "I have to make sure I place you in the good hands of the local police officer, Signora."
At the sound of the car stopping, a carabiniere stepped through the heavy wooden doors.
He looked as though shaken from a deep sleep and not yet awake. Our detective approached him and after exchanging more gestures than words and handing over our documents, he wished us luck, made a respectful bow and left us standing, a bit baffled, on the narrow road.
People's heads peeked out windows and doors. Our arrival must have been a newsworthy event for this small village. A group of boys of various ages, dressed in rags and without shoes, had followed the broken-down taxi from the moment it entered town. Curious, they now stood near us. More than anything, their filth caught my attention. The dirt that had accumulated on these boys was greater than I had ever seen on anyone before. So encrusted with it were their bare feet, that their skin had the appearance of hardened leather.
"Mutti, did you see the feet on those boys?" I asked in German.
"It's disgusting. Keep an eye on them, while our things are in the street."
The carabiniere, entrusted with his new charges, was wide awake by now. He invited us to come through the small inner door, cut out from the heavy wooden portal, then motioned to two boys in the group. "Take the luggage and bring it inside. Now!" He commanded.
"I'll wait till everything is inside," my mother said.
"Signora, trust me. I will take care of it. Eh! Let's go fellows. Hurry!"