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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Franz's Story

Memory can come out like a change in the weather. All it takes sometimes is a Spring day, two people sitting on a porch and some sunshine breaking through.

We had tenants for years when we first moved in. When the boys were small the house was far too large to be reasonably used by one family. Three apartments on three floors, running up and down the stairs in three separate directions - no way. We took over the first floor and rented out the second and the third.

Some tenants were memorable. There were a few I wish to this day that I could forget. Most were no trouble at all.

Franz and Lisa-Britt, as I will call them here, rented the second floor for two and a half years. They were both doctors and worked at the community health-care center on the next block. Both were rapidly approaching retirement. They owned several properties in outlying areas, farms they said. Franz refused to commute and had no intention of owning yet another house. So they rented.

Lisa-Britt was a typical hardworking, polite and contained native. Franz was different. An immigrant like myself he was ebullient, meddlesome and very big. You noticed Franz. Once in the middle of a fierce electrical storm the power went out and the smoke detector started howling on the second floor. I rushed up the stairs. Franz opened the door to the apartment. He was standing just inside the hallway, right under the smoke detector, smoking a huge cigar. The smoke was spiraling, with complete predictability, straight up, right into the smoke detector. Franz was baffled.

"I can't understand why the damn thing is making such a racket. There is no fire here."

One afternoon in late April I was sitting on the back porch when Franz came out and sat down next to me. Would he care for a cup of tea? Certainly. I went into the kitchen and came out with a tray. We sat drinking our tea, making the usual village small-talk, looking at the nascent garden before us in the brilliant Spring sunshine. Not much happening there yet, but very soon it would all happen in a hurry. Seasons here in the North are not leisurely, there is a lot to be done and it all must be done quickly. And Franz had a story on his mind.

"Heh. I remember such a day in the Austrian Alps in 1945. I was twenty years old. I will tell you about it."


"You know the German word Anschluss?"


"I figured. Yes, Austria, my home country, was a part of the Reich. I was there, you know, with my father in Vienna in March of 1938. I saw them. All of them. The Viennese couldn't cheer the Wehrmacht loudly enough. Jumping up and down like madmen. They thought Hitler was the Messiah himself. I was there, I saw them. Cheering their fool heads off. What a sight. You know, today Austria is supposed to have been a 'victim'. That's what they've decided to call it nowadays. Such lies people dream up.

I was a boy and understood nothing. I was just fascinated by the guns and the uniforms and the big cars. My father knew better. He didn't like to talk politics, but I remember to this day what he said after all the parades and the speeches and that wretched plebiscite. He said only one thing: 'No good will come of this.'

Well, I won't bore you with all the details.

Seven years later I was an Alpine Ranger in the Wehrmacht. You wouldn't believe it to look at me today, but I was a good climber, a good alpinist. I loved being in the high country. The military was awful, but we, our little unit, had been incredibly lucky. We had been posted to the Austrian Alps for well over a year. It's like they forgot about us up there. Now it was the Spring of 45 and, as you know, the Reich was in its death throes. But that made no difference at all to the generals. They needed more cannon fodder to throw at the Red Army. And then they remembered us.

So, we got our orders. We were going East. We all knew what this meant, everybody knew and had known for a long time. It was a death sentence, the guys who went to the East did not come back, you could count on it.

Me and my closest buddy decided that we would not follow along. On the evening that the trucks came we ran for it. Right up the trails. Running at top speed with our packs. Imagine! Ha! Now I get winded going up the stairs.

They didn't come after us, there was no time.

Well, we had been trained to live up there and that training came in very handy. There were caves, milking lean-tos you could sleep under and even food if you knew where to look. It was still bitterly cold on the slopes, so it wasn't fun. But we were alive and nobody was shooting at us.

The people who lived in the high country knew we were there. They knew everything that happened up there. They were kind to us and gave us food at times, although they had little enough themselves. End of the winter at the end of a time of pure hell. A old farmer showed us a tiny cabin in one of the highest summer pastures and said we could stay there. It could have fit in your kitchen, easily, but to us it was like a paradise.

We went out every day and ranged over the slopes. We figured that if we kept moving during the day - moving and watching but out of sight as Rangers are taught - we would be invisible. We came back to the cabin after dark, very carefully, very slowly. We would eat in the dark and sleep a few hours, and go out again at the very first light.

And then it happened. One night we came down off the mountain and approached the cabin. The area was clear, we were sure. We went down to the little door in the pitch darkness. And there was a note on the door. Written with a pencil on the back of an old envelope and jammed in the door frame: 'Beware you two. The Gestapo knows about you and knows of this place. They are coming. Get out.'

We turned around and went right back up the mountain. No more paradise! Ha!

Of course, had they found us, had they surprised us at night when we were sleeping, for example, they would have shot us immediately. Right there, no problems, no questions whatsoever. They were doing this, shooting people you know, right through April and into May.

Then Hitler did the only good thing he ever did in his life and Berlin fell. We found out a couple of weeks afterwards. We were well hidden, I assure you. Two twenty year old kids, can you imagine it? Ha! Twenty! Barely one whole brain between the two of us but we got out of that mess alive.

And we walked down, off the slope. It was a day rather like today."

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