A GIFT FROM THE ENEMY
Chapters from A Gift from the Enemy
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 nearly 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. Millie had always moved about the house humming some Austrian folk tune and with a bounce to her step; now she worked in silence. 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 nearly 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 slipped 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 before, 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, Millie entered, placed a silver-plated soup tureen on the table, then 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."
My mother was right. I did not know what it all meant. I felt threatened. What did it mean that German soldiers invaded Vienna? Who were these German soldiers? I wanted to ask these questions and more but somehow did not dare.
We had just finished lunch when Mutti suggested I take my daily rest. "Go, Erichl!" I usually loved it when she used the pet name Erichl, but this time it did not seem to matter much.
A blaring radio jolted me out of my nap. The noise had to be coming from neighbors across the courtyard. No one in our home would turn on the radio right after lunch when we were taking our afternoon naps. Nor would my parents, out of concern for the other tenants, allow the volume to be so loud. Strange music screeched from the speaker, mixed with a man's voice more loud than understandable. Crowds screamed in the background. I got up to see where the sound was coming from.
In her colorful Austrian dirndl, the costume she wore only for special occasions, Millie sat transfixed in front of our radio. She had pulled a dining room chair into the antechamber, next to the small table on which she had placed the much-too-large receiver. It looked dangerously close to the edge and almost ready to fall. And that chair? No one had ever moved those chairs out of the dining room. Millie knew it wasn't allowed. What was going on? She seemed hypnotized and unaware of my presence. I walked up to her and placed two fingers on the volume knob when, without a glance, she grabbed them and pushed them away with such force as to crack the small bones and make my hand go numb. I was in shock. Was this the gentle and loving Millie in whose bed I cuddled many mornings before going off to school, preferring hers to my mother's? I wanted to cry out, but her meanness made me run away and look for safely inside my room, where I buried my face in the soft down pillow.
That evening the situation grew still more troubling. Millie was nowhere to be seen, and my mother was left to bring dinner to the table herself. My parents hardly spoke and I, grasped by the fear of the unknown, did not dare utter a sound. After dinner, Mutti moved our dishes to one corner and pulled her chair next to mine. She cleared her throat and, though looking at my father, spoke to me. "Listen to me carefully, Erich. I don't want you to go out of the house. I don't want you to speak to Millie or anyone in the building. I don't want you to listen to the radio, and you will not be going to school for the next few days." From her tone and my father's nodding approval, I knew none of this was open for discussion.
1930, the year I was born, and 1938, my family had enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Papa, with his younger brother Oswald, my Uncle Osi, managed the Hotel Continental. It must have been a first-class hotel since so many rich and elegant foreigners came to stay. I thought that the hotel was ours but later learned it was owned by my granduncle Maximilian, who had made a small fortune when oil was discovered on his land in the Ukraine. From my parents I learned that Uncle Max, who was my grandpa's brother, was a generous man who shared his good fortune with members of his family. With the proceeds of the sale of his oil fields, he had purchased real estate in several European countries, then let a number of his relatives benefit from some of the revenues these investments generated.
After my parents married, and for the first four years of my life, we lived at the hotel, where my mother enjoyed many comforts: built-in babysitters, daily maid assistance, two restaurants with room service and laundry. Well-to-do families without children found it convenient to live in a hotel in those days. The Continental had suites with kitchenettes and living rooms, and it offered services and comforts not found in private homes. A number of my parents' friends had taken up residence at the hotel.
Cooking and baking were my mother's loves and, since living in the hotel made it difficult to satisfy her longing for those passions, we moved to our own apartment in 1934. I had liked living in the hotel. It was the only home I knew. My friends were all there: the bell captain, the concierge, the waiters, the chambermaids, and some of the regular guests. I wasn't anxious to change. So I asked Mutti why we had to move. "Growing up in a hotel is not good for a child" was her answer.
We stayed in our first apartment for the year I attended kindergarten but, as soon as I was ready to start first grade, we moved again, this time to larger quarters on the Tabor Strasse. The hotel was on the same street, right on the corner intersecting the Prater Strasse, no more than two hundred yards away. For Papa this was very convenient. He could walk to work, come home for lunch, take a short nap, and be back at the hotel for the remainder of the day.
Mother's lifestyle was typically Viennese. In the afternoon, almost ritually, she met her friends at the Kaffee Fetzer where, after an exchange of gossip, she played bridge until evening. After dinner at home, many of these same women met again, this time accompanied by their husbands, to socialize in one of the many coffee houses for which Vienna was famous.
Our first apartment was across the narrow street from the Kaffee Fetzer. Often I walked over to see Mutti, not out of any interest in her friends or the coffee house, but because I liked the candies one of her lady friends frequently brought with her. Once that friend sent me to the candy store around the corner. "Please get one-quarter pound of chocolate-covered orange peels," she said.
Convinced the woman intended the candies for me, I asked the clerk to let me taste one before placing the order. I cringed. "Too bitter," I said.
"May I get you something else?" the clerk asked.
"Yes, I'll have those," pointing at the pralines.
When I returned with the wrong candies, the ladies looked amused, and I did not get scolded. Not even Mutti was annoyed. The lady, who had given me the money, took her change. "It is perfectly all right," she said. "You may keep the candies for yourself.
Mine was a happy, orderly life, a life that revolved around my Millie, two-month-long Alpine summer vacations on the Semmering with Mother until I was about four, yearly visits with my grandparents in Poland, and weekly afternoons with Omama, my maternal grandmother. I also had many friends near may own age; we played in our courtyard and shared mutual birthdays. Oh, how I loved the chocolate pudding with sliced bananas, a favorite at any birthday party. Then there were our relatives, who made a great fuss over me, for I was the only child in the family's Viennese contingent.
During the four days following March 14, our lives changed dramatically. I stayed home with Mutti while Papa came and went more often than usual. My parents endured Millie's many disrespectful actions. Because of the disturbances on the streets, no one shopped for groceries that Monday and, since we had no means to keep food cold, by Tuesday we had little in the house to prepare for a meal.
"Millie, would you go to do the shopping?" Mutti asked.
Millie's tone was insolent. "I'm busy right now. I'll do it when I have time."
I couldn't believe my ears. What had happened to her respectful "Of course, madam, right away"? At twenty-two she had lost all her good manners. Mother would never have tolerated that tone from me.
The radio, the volume blatantly turned high to show Millie's newly asserted independence, blared throughout the apartment. In the streets people were chanting and marching, but I did not know what was happening since my ever-watchful mother made sure I did not look out the window.
Millie was allowed to take off more time than ever before. Well, not really allowed. She didn't ask, merely announced: "I will be going out for the day."
"When will you be back?" Mutti asked.
"Whenever I get back."
Mother never asked that question again.
Millie's absence gave my parents the freedom to talk openly. They would ask me to leave the room, but even though I did, I could not help but overhear when their voices rose. In their eyes I knew I was not old enough to be trusted with the gravity of our situation, yet I was old enough to sense it was really serious.
"They're rounding up Jews and taking them into cellars," my father said. "I don't know what they are doing, no one knows, but I hear horrible stories. Someone said they have stopped women on the streets, Jewish women, and forced them to use their fur coats to wash the sidewalks." When I heard that, I thought of my Mutti and could not imagine her complying with such an order.
"We must leave!" Mutti said. She left me no doubt about what was to happen. She was a woman of action, always in charge of our family. "With our Polish passports, we'll be able to leave Austria without any trouble."
In spite of living in Vienna for more than twenty years, my parents had never given up their Polish citizenship.
We must leave? I repeated to myself. Everything during those days was terrifying. What did that mean, and where would we be going?
Most of the next four days were spent in my bed whispering to my teddy bear and trying to read. I felt like a prisoner who, having been found guilty, dreaded the sentence. The fear of the first day mounted with every passing hour.
On March 18, five days after the German troops had marched into Vienna, Mother came to my room to tell me we were going to Poland. Her face was pale, her eyes swollen and red.
"Do we have to?" I asked.
With a forefinger placed on her lips, she signaled for me to remain silent. "Opapa is ill and has asked us to come visit him." Her voice was unnaturally loud. I couldn't understand why she had raised her voice so much when I was standing close to her in the same room.
We had been to Lwow not long before. "We were..." I started, but Mother placed her full hand over my mouth.
I had always looked forward to visiting my grandparents, but this time was different. The brand new sleigh I had craved for so long was finally mine, a surprise gift from my parents on Saint Nicholas Day. (For those who, like us, did not celebrate Christmas, this day was recognized as the gift-giving day.)
Through free-flowing tears, I tried to cajole my mother into relenting. "Just this time. Please, Mutti."
"The answer is no."
Although her voice had a determined tone, I was not deterred. "Why not?"
She looked tired, drawn, and annoyed at my persistence. "Just do as I tell you. Please."
Dashing from the room to get away from her, I shouted, "I hate you!"
Millie kept sitting in the anteroom. In those last four days she had spent so much time listening to the radio that she had done nothing else around the house. Worse yet, she, who for the past three years had been my solace and comfort, was now coldly indifferent to my pain. Two months and thirteen days from my eighth birthday, in our own home, surrounded by the people I loved, I felt alone and abandoned.
That afternoon, my parents exited the bedroom. Father, in his fur-lined overcoat, carried two suitcases. Mother, wearing not her fur coat but her cloth overcoat, tried to be warm and friendly.
"Millie," she said, "we will be gone for only a few days." The young servant never looked up. She seemed not to have heard. My mother stood silently for more than a moment. "Here is money in case you need to buy something for the house. If you need anything else, you know you can call the hotel." The woman made no attempt at reaching for the money. Mother placed it on the table, near the radio. As she did, she spotted the daily paper lying on the floor. Staring at her was a full-page picture of Adolf Hitler. Abruptly my mother turned to my father. "Get a taxi and make sure you find one flying the Nazi flag." Her voice had a slight quiver.
Papa was back a few minutes later. We were ready to leave and, as I walked backward toward the door, my eyes remained focused on Millie. Oh, how I loved her, and I was certain she loved me. Why else would she have taken me to spend the past two summers at her parents' farm? I stopped and waited. Very softly, hesitantly, I called, "Millie." She never raised her head to look at me.
Mutti grabbed me by the arm. "Let's go!"
Life was so cruel! I was leaving behind my Millie and my Teddy. I didn't know one could hurt so much inside. Little did I realize that we would not be coming back and that my parents were leaving all their possessions and their comfortable life behind.
The taxi was waiting. Its front fenders flew two small red flags bearing a strange black cross similar to the Austrian cross. Once we were in the car, Mutti told me that was a swastika. The driver held the door for my mother. She stepped in, immediately lowered the side curtain, and fell back onto the seat. I didn't know whether she wanted to avoid seeing what was going on outside or to prevent anyone else from seeing us inside.
During the ride I stole some glimpses of the outside world. A circle of agitated people surrounded two kneeling, well-dressed women washing the sidewalk. "What are they doing?" I asked. My father made a small opening in the curtain and glanced out. He leaned over to Mother and, with a hand cupped over his mouth, he spoke in a whisper. "Just what I was telling you. They want these poor women to rub off the oil-painted Austrian symbols with their furs." I remembered having asked my father why all those Austrian emblems had been painted on sidewalks and bridges. "To celebrate the new year," he said.
The cab dropped us off at the main entrance of S<\#159>dbahnhof, one of the city's train terminals. The driver lifted our two suitcases from the luggage rack and placed them on the curb. Papa looked around for a porter but none was in sight. "Take the bags and let's go!" Mutti said, nervously.
The railroad station, with a hollow-sounding interior, was not as I remembered it from our previous trips. Soldiers, wearing a variety of black uniforms, were everywhere filling the large halls. Prominent on each of their sleeves was a red armband with the same funny-looking black cross that I had seen on the taxi's flags.
"My God, we're surrounded by the SS," Mutti whispered. I noticed that she trembled.
"What is 'SS'?" I asked.
Mother ignored my question. My father put the suitcases on the floor of the large hall. This was March, still winter, yet perspiration had formed on his forehead. He had carried the luggage up the long stairway and halfway into the hall and now stood there out of breath. I had hardly ever seen my father lift anything heavier than a glass of water at the dinner table.
He used his breast-pocket handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his face, then walked away, leaving us standing there. Mother paced stiffly around the two valises. Soon Papa returned, escorted by a soldier in that sinister black uniform. The man, apparently an officer, turned to my mother, clicked the heels of his highly polished boots, and raised an arm in a snappy salute. "Heil Hitler!" he blurted. My mother nodded and smiled.
"Follow me," he said. Walking with a distinct Prussian step, the soldier led us to a far corner of the station.
"Can you believe this?" Mutti mumbled. "Still trying to be chivalrous<\#209>even to a Jewish woman?"
"Sai sha." My father shushed her in Yiddish.
More people in uniform than travelers filled the immense hall. Echoes reverberating throughout multiplied the harshness of each sound. Men and women wearing the same menacing black outfits constantly clicked their heels and raised their arms in that strange salute. Each click of the heavy boots bounced off the distant walls and the high ceiling, creating a deafening clamor. I felt like we were surrounded by a whole army.
"You go here and you there!" the officer barked. This was the same man who had, only moments before, so gallantly saluted us. Hearing the threatening tone, I cringed and took one step closer to my mother. With one menacing finger he ordered Mother and me toward one door and my father to another.
I held on to Mutti's skirt as we moved quickly in the direction the man had pointed. We walked through the door and found ourselves in a small room, made tinier by a very high ceiling and white sheets which, draped over metal frames, partitioned the space into small cubicles. They reminded me of the oppressive prison cells I had seen in the movies. I looked to Mutti for help. She offered none. Her forlorn look one I had never seen before<\#209>made her face seem very small.
"Undress. Take everything off, everything!" a woman, sitting at a small desk, shouted. The tone of her voice was similar to the one I had heard in the hall. I was shivering. "Schnell! Schnell! Ich kann nicht auf die Juden Schweine warten!" she yelled, ordering us to hurry, hurry, for she could not wait for Jewish pigs.
The fear I had felt over the last four days was pale in comparison to my present terror. If only I could run away or maybe hide somewhere. How could so many people be so heartless?
I stood there, unprotected in that empty space. Catching an encouraging look from my mother, who was standing naked, bashful, and full of fear, I removed my clothes as well, laid them on the floor, and waited. I, who once had refused to undress when Papa had taken me to an all-male Turkish bath, now stood stripped, while evil-looking men and women milled all around.
A large woman, wearing a black dress, high black leather boots, and the scary red and black armband on her sleeve, pushed the partition to one side. She seemed tall, perhaps taller than she actually was because of my nakedness. That hair tightly pulled toward the back of her head, those thin lips held rigidly together, and her manly gait all exuded a ruthlessness that held me paralyzed. But what terrified me most was the icy, empty look in her eyes, a blank stare that cut through me. I was naked and cold and so frightened!
"Do you have any jewelry?" the woman bellowed.
"No, no! No jewelry, I swear," Mutti protested in a high-pitched voice.
As the big woman's hands searched all of Mutti's body, my eyes turned away. I had never seen my mother naked and didn't want to be a witness to my proud parent's indignity. Then came my turn. I heard the heavy boots hit the pavement and felt the woman's rough, large, sweaty hands grabbing me by the shoulders. Without a sound, she forced open my mouth, looked into my ears, looked under my arms, and last, pushed her cold finger into my rectum. I was too crippled by fear to scream, and though the physical pain was intolerable, my mental anguish was even more so. Several times she rotated that large searching finger inside me. Dying at that very moment would have been a relief.
After what seemed the longest wait of my life, we were allowed to dress and join Papa. The strain on my parents' faces reflected the ordeal they had endured. I felt so helpless and wished I were big and able to comfort them. I wanted to say, "Don't be sad. It's all over." Instead I was just a little boy, not yet eight.
From that vast hall we walked toward the platform<\#209>Papa, bent over by the weight of the two suitcases; Mutti and I following close behind. As we reached the train's open door, my mother, breathing with great difficulty, stopped to dry the tears off my face with her pretty embroidered handkerchief. "I want you to forget what just happened."
"Why did they do this to us?" I asked, still trembling.
"Because we're Jewish. Just because we're Jewish."
My father lifted the suitcases on the train and boarded. "I'll find us a compartment. Wait here."
We waited and waited. No sign of my father. Mutti was wringing her hands. Finally, Papa's head showed through a partially opened window. "I found us a compartment."
Dad's find was already occupied by five other people. One of the men helped my father lift the suitcases onto the rack, freeing the wooden bench of the second-class cabin for us to sit on. We had removed our overcoats, which Papa had hung on one of the wall hooks.
The train was late leaving the terminal. My parents were nervous. Father looked at his watch every few minutes, almost as if he kept forgetting what time it was. "This train was supposed to leave twenty minutes ago. What's happening?" he said. I didn't know whom he was talking to since no one responded.
German soldiers, dressed in those ghastly black uniforms and those heavy boots, were everywhere. Each time one poked his head into our compartment, Mutti, as though hit by some electric shock, stiffened in her seat. Unable to follow her advice to forget, I cringed and broke into a cold sweat at the sound of their every step. After what seemed an eternity, the conductor whistled and the black locomotive, with a deafening blare, spewing white steam and dark smoke, began pulling the train out of the station to the screeching of its iron wheels. But the soldiers, stiff in their black uniforms, continued to mill in the narrow passageway outside our compartment, refusing to give our nerves a moment of rest.
By the time the long line of cars pulled over the maze of rails and onto the open tracks, the sky had become dark and the street lights were turned on. I leaned out the window and watched as the distance increased between my city and me. Accompanied by the rhythmic clank of the iron rails as they bounced back on the passing wheels, we traveled through the night.
I sat immersed in my own thoughts while my parents, so absorbed by their own fears, did not speak for the longest time. The snack cart passed our compartment, and Papa bought three sandwiches and two bottles of mineral water. Mutti broke her silence. "Go to sleep," she said. "I'll sing you 'Sonny Boy.'" Since my birth, Mother had put me to sleep with Al Jolson's famous melody. I loved that song, and she sang it so well.
This time, however, the song held no appeal. My mind was so mixed up. Before I had wanted to escape; now I was determined not to shut my eyes, fearing that if I did fall asleep something might happen. My eyelids kept closing, for I was exhausted, but I was too stubborn and afraid to give in. "You'll be tired tomorrow," Mutti added gently. I could tell she was not going to insist on my going to sleep.
I didn't even know what time it was, for my beloved silver watch, a special gift my grandfather had given me for Pesach on one of our last trips to Poland, had been left behind.
It was still pitch dark when the train stopped and what sounded to me to be foreign-speaking soldiers boarded the train.
"Passaporto, per favore," one said, asking for our passports.
"Why don't they speak Polish?" I asked.
Only after the men left and Mother realized we were no longer in Austria did she share the truth with me. She jumped from her seat. "We are in Italy!" she exclaimed. Then she looked at me, sat, took my hand, and, in a soft tone, said: "We are not going to Poland."
Because I was unable to grasp what was going on, that bit of news had little impact on me. But I was excited just being in a new country, and my anguish gave way to anticipation.
The border crossing had a big effect on the other passengers. Everyone, silent before, was now engaged in lively conversation. Dad ventured into the corridor, looked right, then left, and shouted with enthusiasm: "No Nazis."
"Not so loud," Mutti warned.
There was an air of jubilation in the compartment. All the lights were turned on, and snacks were exchanged between passengers.
My father sat next to me and, in an enthusiastic tone, looking out the window, told me of his experiences during the war. "This is where it all happened. Some of the bloodiest battles took place right here. The Italian army tried desperately to push us back but with no success. We were at the top of the mountain and they were down below. You can imagine we made chopped meat out of them."
Papa seemed to be reliving those days. "The Italians had mules to carry their big guns. We were set in place and our machine guns just cut them down. Tat, tat, tat. Even the animals were killed." His details of the battles convinced me he had been in the middle of it all.
"Did you get wounded?" I asked.
"Oh, no. Never." Then he told me that he had been kept from combat because of his flat feet.
"That was a blessing," Mutti said. "The Polish army was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, if your father had been allowed to fight, the empire would have collapsed sooner than it did." Mother had regained her sense of humor.
Papa's words created all sorts of fantasies in my fertile mind. As he related stories of battles, I envisioned swarms of soldiers rushing from the dense foliage, surrounding the fast-moving train and shooting wildly at an invisible enemy. I could see bodies partially entombed under a thin layer of soil, their bloody limbs stretched upwards toward the sky<\#209>the gruesome sights of death.
For hours my mind ran wild as my eyes followed, in the faint light coming from the window, the smooth up-and-down movement of the telegraph wires as the train raced from one pole to the next. In the end, overcome by fatigue, I fell asleep until the screech of the iron wheels, braking to a slow halt in the Milan terminal, awoke me. As the train came to a full stop, excited passengers moved with a new charge of energy. Everyone in the compartment was standing, stretching limbs, loosening necks by turning from side to side, then reaching for items placed on the overhead racks the night before. There was no room for anyone to stand. The floor was covered by baggage. Papa was close to the window and pushed it down. A strange smell, a mixture of steam and burning coal, invaded the cabin. Mother was busy gathering the belongings we had taken from our luggage during the night while Papa, with the aid of a stranger standing outside on the platform, pushed our two valises through the open window and into the man's outstretched arms. Nothing about my father's dapper look betrayed that he had sat up all night. His hair was neat, his tie perfectly knotted, and the white handkerchief in his breast pocket gave a finishing touch to his steel grey double-breasted suit.
He grabbed his overcoat, then rushed down the corridor and onto the platform to claim the luggage gathered there. Mother looked around one final time to be sure nothing had been left behind; then, handing me my fur-lined coat, she pushed me ahead through the corridor and down the three steep steps. The height of those steps made it impossible for a woman to get off the train in a ladylike fashion for she needed to lift her skirt way above her knees. Standing at the top of the platform, her head outside the door, holding on to both side railings, Mother looked to either side, I imagined to be sure no one would see her upper legs, before lifting her skirt and stepping down.
Seeing my father's hand gesture, a wrinkled porter, who seemed older than any other person I had ever seen before, rushed up to us. He grabbed a thick and heavily worn leather belt that was holding up his pants and ran it through the handles of our two suitcases. He secured the strap to the buckle, then, with a rapid jolt, draped the belt over his right shoulder, letting one suitcase fall in front and the other behind. After balancing himself under the heavy weight, mumbling words I could not understand, he led the way through crowds of passengers. We walked the full length of the platform under a steel and glass roof, blackened by years of smoke from the coal-burning locomotives.
The old man carried our bags to the side exit from where he hailed a taxi. The driver rushed from the cab to place our luggage on the car's roof, then tied it down with a rope that was hanging there. The porter looped the leather strap through his drooping pants, gave them a yank to stop them from dragging on the ground and, respectfully removing his oily and sweat-stained cap, turned to my father and said, "A suo favore," leaving the tip to my dad's discretion.
Papa pulled from his wallet a few Austrian bills. The porter, with a blocking motion of the hand and a smirk on his face, made it clear he wasn't at all interested in taking those bills. Papa had to find an exchange booth to bring this predicament to an end.
Saint Nicholas Day is considered by many in Germany and Austria as a gift-giving day without religious connotation.
For years, rails were joined together with metal plates. The lack of a uniform solid rail caused the train's wheels to clank whenever the train crossed over a splice. Today, most rails are welded together, producing a much quieter ride.
Poland - My Extended Family
Both my parents were born in Poland: my papa, Markus Lifschutz, in Krzywczyce on February 15, 1897, the oldest of three boys; my Mutti, Carlotte Szyfra Brandwein, in Nadworna on May 10, 1901, the youngest of four. When the 1914/18 war was nearing its end but before the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my father and his two brothers moved to Vienna.
Vienna was a cosmopolitan city, and the three young men looked for a better future than what would have been possible in rural Poland. Moreover, their uncles, Simon and Maximilian, had already settled in the Austrian capital and become successful property owners.
I met both of my great-uncles, my grandfather's brothers. I visited Uncle Simon in his luxurious apartment with its thick Persian rugs, but Uncle Max, who was held in awe by the family, I only knew from a distance.
In 1936, my parents took me to Lwow, Poland, where most of the Lifschutz family had settled after leaving their shtetl. We stayed with Papa's parents, and during that visit I spent much of my time meeting the more than sixty members of my father's large family. I couldn't believe I had so many cousins, aunts, and uncles. But of greater disbelief was the uncle who was younger than his own nephew.
"How can Yankle be older than his Uncle Morris?" I asked.
Mother struggled trying to explain. "Why do you always have questions?" She hesitated. "Yankle was five when his grandmother died. Her husband married a much younger woman and their first child was Morris. When he was born, Yankle was already eight; that's why he is older than his Uncle Morris."
I was only six years old. How did Mother expect me to understand such a mishegas?
When not visiting relatives, I played on the street with the neighbors' children. One day a dirty, drunken, shabby, middle-aged man stood some distance from me. "You damn Jew," he screamed as he hurled a heavy brick my way. He may not have been too steady on his feet, but his aim was excellent. The missile sailed through the air. I saw it fly toward me and turned around just in time to save my face, exposing my back to absorb the full force of the impact. Crack! My thin shirt was little protection against that hard brick. In great pain and sobbing, I ran home to tell my grandfather, Opapa Moses. "Opapa, I wasn't d-d-doing anything to him."
He held me tightly to his chest while his white beard stroked my face and my freely flowing tears wet his shirt. "Sha, sha, Kindele. Ikh veis. Got vert im shoin beshtrufen."
The next day, to get me off the street, my parents took me for a long walk. We traversed a city park, then climbed up a hill. The gently inclined serpentine road circled several times until the last loop brought us to the peak, from which we looked at the town below. I saw people, horses, carriages, and even trolley cars that seemed real but were small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. I was baffled.
"Where do those small people live?" I asked.
"Down in the city," Papa replied. "It's called an optical illusion. You can only see them from here."
When we returned home, I was ready to explode. "Opapa, you have never seen people so small," I exclaimed. Then holding out the palm of my hand, I said, "I could carry them right here. Papa says nobody can get close to them. You can only see them from the mountain. Did you ever see them?"
He shot a questioning look at my parents. "Er redt auf di menschen man siht von oiben," Mutti said.
"Opapa, please tell me."
"When you see people from so far away, they just look small. You know when you look at the stars, you just see a small dot? But the stars are very, very large."
For Passover the following year we again visited Lwow. Pesach was a great celebration in my grandparents' home. In Vienna my mother observed the holiday with the traditional Seder and kept our home free from bread and other forbidden items, but in Lwow the tradition had a totally different flavor.
Preparations for Pesach went on for days. Cleaning every corner of the house, removing all dishes and replacing them with special Passover ones was for me an unknown experience. "Why are you changing all the dishes?" I asked my grandmother.
"For Pesach one must use special kosher dishes," she replied.
"But I thought your dishes were kosher."
At that moment my mother entered the kitchen, took me by the hand, and I never heard the rest of my grandmother's answer.
"Why is Grandma changing all the dishes?" I asked my mother.
"Because for Pesach religious people must not use the everyday dishes."
"How come we don't change dishes?"
She placed her hand on my mouth. "I'll tell you later."
A few days before the first Seder, Opapa asked me to recite the traditional four kasche. Although I was not surprised, for my father had alerted me, I was very excited. I knew that asking the four questions was a special honor.
The evening of the Seder I was running a high temperature but was not about to give up the momentous privilege that had been bestowed upon me. I argued about wanting to get out of bed so I could do my part at the table. "Please, Mutti, I have studied so hard. I know the four kasche well. I'll be good and will go right to bed after dinner. Please."
I did not hear an immediate "no," and with my mother that was a good sign.
"Are you sure you feel well enough?" she asked.
"I'm fine. I'm really fine." I was so overjoyed by her question I wanted to jump up and down.
"But back to bed right after dinner!"
Mutti was so good to me, and how I loved her. First she placed her hand, then her lips to my forehead to check my temperature. Then, putting her arms around me, she gave me a strong hug and a kiss. "When you're ready to get dressed, I'll help you." She always helped me get dressed.
I adored my mother's attention but resented her constant worry that something was wrong with me. Whether I had just come home overheated from running with friends or awoken from a short nap, she always thought she saw the signs of some hidden sickness on my face. "You don't look good. Come here, let me feel your head." Had I really been ill each time my mother thought that I was, I would not have survived childhood.
Grandpa was a warm, loving, and incredibly tender man. A dedicated Talmudic scholar though modern in some small ways, he looked like a classic Hasidic Jew. The pocketless, floor-length black coat, the round fur hat, the long white beard, the side locks, and tsetses completed the portrait of this kind old man. Each morning before breakfast in the sitting room, he'd say his prayers while putting on the phylacteries. I liked watching my grandpa in his white shirt, the left sleeve rolled up, as he wrapped the leather straps around his bare forearm. One turn after the other, he placed one band close to the next, adjusting its distance as he went along while his lips murmured the Hebrew prayers. He was very careful and meticulous and so absorbed in his ritual that I don't think he ever noticed my presence. My father, too, laid tfilin every morning, but Opapa's concentration and his visible devotion conveyed a more religious image.
Grandmother, all by herself, prepared the elaborate Passover meal while Opapa would conduct the religious portion of the Seder. Dinner started with gefilte fish, which Grandmother, just my mother did, made from scratch. I would go with her to the fish store to buy a live carp, which was dumped into the filled bathtub as soon as we got home. When Grandma was ready to cook it, we would begin the difficult job of capturing the lively fish no easy task for a young boy and an elderly lady. By the time we succeeded, the floor and our clothes were soaked from the many times the slippery fish slid out of our hands and splashed back into the water.
I would not stay in the kitchen to watch my grandmother kill the fish but would come back in time to see her slit it open and clean the inside. The thin outer skin she placed to one side. The bones she discarded, while the meat she mixed with vegetables and passed through a hand grinder. After cooking it, she put it back into the fish's skin. I looked in awe as she recreated the fish she had killed and taken apart.
But that was only a small part of the Seder. Grandma also prepared matzo balls for the chicken soup, boiled chicken and boiled flanken with horseradish, vegetables, and desserts.
Before enjoying the Seder meal, we had to observe the religious traditions. First we washed our hands, said the prayers, ate bitter herbs, then rinsed our hands again. All this while my stomach was rumbling and grumbling from hunger.
Soon my turn came. My knees were shaking. I was not quite seven. Rising in place at the table, I recited the traditional four questions in fluent Hebrew. " Mah Nishtanah ...Why is this night..." begins the traditional prayer. Not one error. Not a hesitation. My knees were still trembling, clapping against one another, but I was beaming from ear to ear. I had done it! My parents' faces had a glow. They were proud of me. I could tell. Then Opapa called me to his side. In his hand he held a small tissue-wrapped package. His eyes had a warm glimmer and, in a voice like a soft caress, he said, "Here! This is for you." I ripped the paper, lifted the lid of the small white box and, brightly shining, there it was: a silver pocket watch.
After overcoming my surprise, I flung myself at him and he, although sitting, almost lost his balance. "Oh Opapa, I've always wanted a pocket watch."
With a gentleness all his own, he placed one hand on the back of my head and held me against his face while I buried mine into his beard. At that moment, oh, how I loved my Opapa! I loved him more than anyone else in the world, and even kissing his coarse beard did not feel coarse at all.
"You did great credit to your parents. I'm proud of you," he said in Yiddish. There was a special tone in his voice making me realize how much my recital must have meant to him.
Holding up the watch, I asked, "Is it silver?"
"Of course it's silver. Here!" With his hand he motioned for the watch. His smile radiated through the thick grey beard. "You see this? This is all engraved by hand."
I got the impression he had done the engraving himself. "Did you do it?" I asked.
His quiet laughter slid through the air. "No, no! But I know the man who did it. He is one of the finest in our community. Now, look here." He pushed the small button on the crown and the cover popped open. "Read this."
Engraved in Hebrew on the inside cover was my Jewish name and the date. "To David Mendel<\#209>Pesach 5697." From the corner of my eye I could see Mutti, Papa, and Grandmother quietly enjoying the scene.
As I had promised my mother, right after dessert I went to my room. That night I wanted to sleep with my new gift. "You can't sleep with it," my father said. "You'll break it if you roll on it. Why not hang it on the wall?"
That was a good suggestion, I thought. Papa brought a hammer and a long nail and helped me hang the watch over the bed. Three times I took it off the wall before finally falling asleep. For four days the watch remained on the wall while I stayed in bed waiting to shake off whatever was ailing me.
I learned much of what was happening from the conversations between my parents and their visiting friends. Italy had kept its borders open to many displaced Jews from Austria and countries of eastern Europe, but in 1938 Mussolini was cultivating his friendship with Adolf Hitler. To appease his new ally, he promulgated a milder version of the German racial laws. Among other things, they barred Jewish children from attending public schools and Jewish men from serving in the military. And while the latter did not concern me at all, I was delighted about the former. But I was only eight and did not grasp the meaning of "racial laws."
So that fall, my parents did not enroll me in school, leaving me to cultivate my friendship with the cabinetmaker and the young women at Upim. Now I could build and tinker and not have to worry about homework.
My father had started to work soon after we arrived from Vienna. He bought silk stockings from a factory, then went house-to-house to sell them to other immigrants. I don't know how well he made out financially, but my mother had plenty of silk stockings and many of the premiums Papa used to give his customers.
Hardly a day went by that one or two salesmen did not come to our door peddling bolts of fabric, stockings, pens, or useless little gadgets. "Why are so many people coming to the apartment door?" I asked.
"Hasele! The police will not give immigrants a work permit. This is their only way to earn some money," Mutti explained. "Not even Papa can get a permit."
By sleeping in the same room with my parents, I had become privy to many of their concerns and adult conversations. That's how I learned that a new industry had sprung up in Milan, the manufacture of furs made from remnants. "Leave it to the Jews," Mamma remarked. "They always find a way to earn their bread."
Papa described these factories. They had been set up in old abandoned apartment buildings no longer suitable for human habitation. Cutting tables and sewing machines were crammed into poorly lit rooms, creating intolerable working conditions especially during the hot summer months, when a few small electric fans were all there was to mix some outside air with the stale air inside. "These poor workers, because they are illegals, would not dare complain," my mother remarked. "They are glad to earn some money. No one else will hire them. I ask how God could allow this to happen. I met people who were wealthy men in the old country and now are laborers. They look like beggars."
One hot day my father took me along to one of these sweatshops. Just as he had depicted, the inside air was intolerable. I found it hard to breathe and wanted to leave, but Papa had to speak to the owner. While I waited, I watched a worker take a small piece of fur, not much larger than a postage stamp, place it on a table next to many similar squares, and painstakingly try to fit it into a matching pattern. Slowly he turned each tiny piece a full circle until his trained eye was satisfied with the fit. Then with a pin he fastened the new remnant to the others, picked up a new square, and started the process all over. After several fur pieces had been pinned together, he carried the large puzzle to a special sewing machine, where he fed it into a curved needle and sewed the many sections into one continuous pelt. As one hand was pushing the jigsaw puzzle through the fast-moving machine, two fingers of the other hand removed the no-longer-needed pins. When the last pin was removed, he lifted his finished masterpiece high over his head, displaying it first to himself, then to me. He had a sparkle in his eyes. I would never have guessed this was anything but a single pelt.
In spite of my many requests, Mother had never allowed me to wear long pants. After I celebrated my eighth birthday, I thought it was a good time to ask again.
"They're only for dressy occasions. Do we understand each other?" Mutti admonished.
With a military salute, I said, "Oh yes, sir!" I was ready to understand anything she wanted me to understand as long as I got my long pants. In the end, she relented. I wrapped my arms around her and covered her face with kisses. "Oh, Mutti, I love you."
"I love you too, Hasele. You're my whole life."
That week Mother took me to a tailor. There was a long conversation about the kind of pants before the man started taking my measurements. I was dancing around from being so excited. Annoyed, the tailor said, "Unless you stop moving, I won't be able to make your pants." I froze in my tracks. Around the waist, down my leg, then from the crotch, around the hip and the thigh. I never knew pants needed that many measurements. Meanwhile, my mother had chosen a grey checkered fabric from the swatch book. "Do you like it?" she asked. I liked it a lot.
"Come back next week for the first fitting," the tailor said.
Back for the fitting we went, but all his measuring did not seem to help the pants fit my body. Perhaps he made a mistake and used someone else's measurements. Perhaps this was a plot to deny me the long pants.
The man looked puzzled. He walked around me twice, pinched some loose material, circled me again, and marked some places with chalk while other spots he pinned.
"Come back next week," he said.
Although my mother had ordered knickers and not quite the long pants I had hoped for, they were more adult than anything I had owned before. I had to wait through one more fitting and two more agonizing weeks but, when I tried on the finished knickers, they fit, and I walked out from the small shop wearing my first long trousers. I swaggered like a man instead of the boy I still was. I felt taller and certain everyone on the street was aware of the fine figure I cut.
The second time I was allowed to wear my new pants, I took a tumble on a stone sidewalk, causing an irreparable rip to my knickers. My knee was torn up, too, and bleeding badly, but my crying was not for the physical pain. It was for the loss of the long trousers I had wanted for so long.
My mother took one look at me, then looked at the pants. "Well," she said, "I guess that's the end of your long trousers."
My initial infatuation with our landlady blossomed. Often Rina invited me to eat with her, developing my taste for a variety of Italian specialties. I loved being the center of her attention when her husband worked late and she and I were the only ones at the kitchen table.
Within weeks after our arrival, the going-to-bed ritual also required a goodnight kiss from Rina.
"Signora Gigli, you like children so much. How come you never had your own?" Mamma asked.
"I would have loved to but we couldn't. But you brought Enrico, and he means as much to me as a child of my own could." I had cuddled up to her, and she held me close to her bosom.
From the time I returned from Switzerland, I began spending more and more time with Rina. Mother was happy I was staying off the street, and Rina and her dog were delighted to have me around.
My papa and I did not spend much time together a few minutes each morning just before I left for school and at mealtimes. On occasion, when I got home before he did, I waited on the street and, recognizing his characteristic waddle from a distance, I'd run and throw myself into his waiting arms.
Nor did I know much about the relationship between my parents. I saw many tender moments, but also there were many shouting matches in their impenetrable Polish. Once my mother threw a metal plate at my father, hitting the wall right over his head with a force that left a chip in the plaster. Judging from the spankings she gave me, I knew that Mother had a strong arm but, fortunately for Papa, not very good aim.
One day my father had just come home for the midday meal. Breathless, he tried to explain to my mother what had happened that morning. "I went to the police office and they sent me to another office. There they asked me to go to the Prefettura, the government offices. Lotte, they don't want to renew our permit."
"What do we do?" Mutti asked. Dad had no answer.
Within days, my parents applied at the U.S. Consulate for an immigration visa. The Polish quota was much too small to accommodate the large number of applicants. At least a two-year wait, my father was told. We had to leave Italy.
Hearing talk about going to America, I asked, "Why do we have to leave? I like it here."
"We can't stay here any longer," Mutti said.
There was much discussion between my parents and lots of shouting, but I couldn't figure out what was going on.
One morning after breakfast, Mutti announced, "We are going to France, and Papa is going to Lwow."
The news caught me off guard. "Why can't we all go together?" I asked. Where was France? Why don't we all go to Lwow to be with my beloved grandparents? "I don't know anyone in France," I cried.
"That's the way it has to be," Mutti replied. "We'll be back together soon."
I tried to find out where France was located but Rina did not have an atlas. Asking, I learned that France bordered Italy. Through conversations my parents had with friends, I also heard that France was still a safe refuge, yet you could not cross the border without a visa, which the country denied to Jews. Somehow I had overcome my earlier feelings of being dislodged and had settled down in our new home. Now again I was being uprooted.
When in November we prepared to leave, friends and acquaintances filled the living room for days as they came to wish us well and kiss us goodbye. We left Milan with all of our belongings minus my trolley car and the Indian outfit I had made in the Swiss camp. My heart was shattered. In Vienna I had been forced to abandon my brand new sleigh, my beloved Teddy, my irreplaceable silver watch. But at this very moment, while she was holding me close to her, my greatest ache was having to leave Rina. Without the slightest notion about where Paris was in relation to Milan, I promised her I would be back to visit.
"I'll get a bicycle and come back," I assured her.
As I descended the stairs, tears running down my face, Rina threw me kisses with her fingers. She was standing on the landing where I had first seen her holding the little grey cat. Unlike the welcoming smiles of that earlier day, she was sobbing, and what little makeup she had put on that morning was smudged and flowing with the tears down her pretty face.
A taxi was ready at the front door. "To the terminal," Papa said in respectable Italian, and the driver took us to the station where we had arrived eight months before. The train was already waiting on the track. The porter placed our luggage on the racks inside the compartment while, on the platform, my parents held each other in an extended embrace. Mutti looked anxious to board while Papa kept holding on. Then came my turn. My father lifted me up in his arms and, just before he squeezed me tight, I looked into his eyes. They were swollen and red. This was the first time I had seen my father cry. "Don't cry," I said. "We'll be back together soon."
"Sure, sure." There was an odd sound to his voice.
Again he kissed me and, as the conductor's whistle announced our imminent departure, he picked me up, set me on the train, and pushed me inside. Tears were now streaming openly down his face. What a sad picture of a proud man. Even in his double-breasted suit, with his hair neat and his tie in place, he did not exude the dapper look I knew so well. Slowly he pushed the heavy metal door shut but not before an admonition in a quavering voice: "I want you to listen to your mother."
Back in our compartment, I found my parents speaking through the open window. With a loud whistle and a sudden jerk, the train started to roll. My parents grasped each other's hands. Papa walked alongside the window until the train's speed forced him to let go. Mother, her eyes swollen, pulled back from the window. Quickly I took her place to watch my father's image get smaller and smaller and disappear as the train followed a curve. The tiny people I had seen from the hill in Lwow came to mind, and I finally began to understand what my father had tried to explain on that distant day.
"Mamma, now I know what an optical illusion is."
The ride to Ventimiglia, the Italian town bordering France, took all morning. I sat in silence for most of the trip. So much crossed my mind. I thought of Rina, the dead cat, my trolley car, Omama, Millie. But what gnawed most at me was my papa. The sad picture of him standing on the platform had seized my mind and refused to let go. Would I ever see him again? He had seen me leave before, the times I went on vacation with Mother, with Millie, the time I left alone to go to Switzerland, yet never had I seen him so distraught. Did he know something I didn't?
"Do you want something to eat?" Mutti asked.
"You haven't said a word. Is something the matter?"
"About what, Hasele?"
"Nothing. The trolley car, Millie, Rina, Papa. Why couldn't Papa come with us?"
"He just couldn't at this time, Schatzele."
When other refugees had come to visit my parents in Milan, they spoke of horror stories of how people, trying to escape the Nazis, had risked their lives crossing illegally into Switzerland or France. "The Alps are an excellent camouflage," someone had said. "For the young who are capable of scaling the high passes, there is little risk, but for the older and physically weak, life often ends in a long fall down the snowy slopes and an agonizing death."
"And I understand there is no assurance," my father had said. "We don't know that, even if one is successful in crossing the border, France or Switzerland is willing to offer asylum." Someone warned that families traveling together were a sure target to be intercepted at the border.
Although an indomitable woman, my mother was not ready to cross any mountain peaks and said so. "I would rather rely upon my own ability. Scaling mountains with a small child is not for me. Mischa will be able to join us later."
When the conductor announced we were reaching Ventimiglia, my mother used the toilet to make a quick change from the winter clothes she had been wearing to a flowery summer dress and a white straw hat. She looked radiant without any traces of the tears she had shed earlier that morning.
We left the train and were walking from the small railroad station when, baffled that we had left our luggage on the train, I asked, "What about the suitcases?"
"Somebody will take care of them," Mutti said. "We are going to take a long walk now, and I want you to act as though you are here to see the sights."
That is how, after stepping off the train in Ventimiglia, we found ourselves facing the breathtakingly beautiful stretch between the Italian border town and Menton, its French counterpart.
Bending at the knees, Mother stooped and brought her pretty face down to mine. With one hand she gave my clothes a maternal yank. She always did it whether they needed it or not. Then, with her moistened fingertips, she smoothed out my hair.
Clutching the fresh bouquet Papa had bought for her in Milan and holding hands with me, Mutti and I advanced toward the French border along the wall overlooking the blue waters of the Italian Riviera. The road wandered along the spectacular azure Mediterranean. High above the horizon, the sun produced an uninterrupted shimmering streak upon the nearly quiet waters. My mother seemed as enthralled by nature's splendor as I, and we paused to bathe in the surrounding beauty, forgetting for a short, solitary moment all that had happened to us in the previous nine months and the unknown dangers facing us.
As we continued our walk, we passed the Italian customs agents without a hitch and approached the French control point. Mother let go of my hand, walked up to the little shed, and spoke with a border guard. Because she spoke in Italian and used much gesticulation, I was able to somehow follow what she was trying to convey to the bewildered official. We were going to meet some friends for lunch and would return before evening. That's what Mother tried to tell him with many smiles. Finally the man, whether he understood or was confused or was charmed, relented and allowed us to cross the barrier and walk onto French soil.
We strolled a bit farther until we were out of view of the border guard. Mutti mumbled, "I hope he doesn't change his mind," which caused us to hasten our pace with every step.
Mother's nervousness, transmitted through our clasped hands, made me sweat like I had never sweated before. The walk to the Menton railroad station was only a few minutes long, yet I imagined police dogs chasing after us and soldiers dragging us into some dungeons.
As though just waiting for us, a train for Paris was on the tracks ready to depart. We boarded and, though we departed a few minutes later, I did not stop trembling until we picked up full speed.
Moving to Our Apartment
Before fall set in, we rented not just a room but a small apartment for the same fifty lire. We had grown fond of Antonietta's, where our stay had been so pleasant, but the new place offered what Mutti prized more than anything else: her very own kitchen.
The apartment was on the top floor of a three-story building, facing the carriage road that, coming from Avellino and passing through our village, led to the nearby town of Summonte and eventually to the city of Benevento. The front of the stone edifice, situated almost at the edge of town, faced the municipal gardens and occupied the far corner of the main piazza. Following the road toward Summonte, with the exception of three houses and a small chapel that were still part of Ospedaletto, lay a large forest, while to the rear of the building open fields softly rolled into the valley.
Antonio and Concetta Santoro were our new landlords. Antonio was modern by local standards, well-mannered, with a university degree. An ex-mayor of the village, he was now one of its public school teachers. An avowed Fascist and proud to tell us that he was a card-carrying party member, he wore his black shirt uniform at every opportunity.
In contrast, Concetta had little formal education, was provincial, and reveled in local gossip. She was a bit taller than Mamma, and her oval face had well-balanced features. Pretty and neat in her appearance, she was always clad in black<\#209>a black dress, black knee-length stockings, black shoes. Thinking she may have had a death in her family, my mother offered her condolences a few days after we moved in.
Concetta looked baffled. Then, realizing what my mother meant, responded with a big smile. "Oh, the black dress. I just wear it. You know, with a large family, there is always someone dying."
When we met for the next morning walk, Mother asked Signor Howell, "John, can you explain something to me? My landlady wears black, yet she tells me she doesn't know who died in her family."
"I don't know how to explain it," he said. "These people are full of superstitions, old habits, and anything else you can think of."
Mother looked puzzled. "Is that why so many women dress in black?"
"Something like that," he replied.
"While we're on the subject of habits, what's this custom of asking one to sit and eat with them when people go to visit?"
"Don't pay any attention. They don't mean it. Just a custom. It's har