October 19, 2008
By Alfred Traum
The moon glistened on the river Weser as our long column of Centurion tanks made its way back to our barracks at Luneberg. We were passing through Hamlin, the very same town that gained fame through the stories of the Pied Piper who rid it of a rat infestation many centuries ago. The street was lined with neat houses and manicured lawns to our right and the river to our left. We rumbled along, the tank tracks clattering on the cobbled streets and shattering the still of the evening. Here and there lights flickered on as homeowners drew back curtains to see what the noise was all about. We were not welcome guests there. It was late in the summer of 1952 and the conclusion of a month-long Rhine army maneuver.
My thoughts of the Pied Piper were abruptly interrupted by Dinger Bell, our driver.“Fred, what’s that sign down there on the lawn?” he asked me. “What does it say?” Knowing that I knew some German, he was always asking me to translate something for him. I don’t think it was his thirst for knowledge that led him to ask but more likely the boredom of being stuck in the driver’s compartment.
I took a look. The sign read “Betreten Verboten.” “Oh, it just means keep off the grass,” I answered.
“Thanks,” he laughed.
As I took a further look at the neat oval cast-iron sign with its raised letters, it triggered a memory I had long thought dead. Like an odor or a familiar sound, the sight of something stored in your memory bank has the power to transport you through time to recapture a moment. That was the effect that sign had on me.
I could feel the frustration and rage rising within me. I was again that nine year-old-boy in Vienna returning home from school. As usual, I took the short-cut through the park. What used to be fun—coming home with my classmates—had turned into a daily nightmare. These were the same kids with whom I grew up and with whom I had played all the time. But since the Anschluss they had all been enlisted into various Nazi groups. The poison spread within them. At first they just distanced themselves from me, shunning me; later they turned to name-calling, taunting, pushing, and shoving. On the particular occasion the sign had triggered the memory of, the taunting became more physical. One of the boys ripped my school satchel off my back and threw it on the grass. They all laughed as they ran away.
As I stepped over the small railing surrounding the grassy area to retrieve my satchel, a policeman suddenly materialized, seemingly out of nowhere. He must have been there and witnessed the whole scene and probably enjoyed it, too. Now it was time for him to have some fun. He caught me by the scruff of my neck, dragged me on to the pathway, and gave me a harsh dressing-down.
“Don’t they teach Jew boys how to read?” he said, pointing to the sign. He then took down my name and address. Several days later, my mother received a letter ordering her to come to school. She came to our classroom. As was the custom, students were to stand up when an adult entered the classroom out of respect for our elders. We all stood up as my mother entered.
“Sit down at once,” the teacher barked at us. “You don’t need to stand up for her.” He then went into a lengthy diatribe about the lack of respect Jews seem to have for the beauty of Vienna’s parks.
My mother and I stood in silence, having to listen to one insult after another before we were dismissed. Shortly after that incident, but probably not because of it, I was expelled from the school and transferred to a school for Jews. This is not to be confused with a Jewish school, which generally provides a Jewish education. No, this was a school were Jews were herded together so they would not be able to infect Aryan children. This school was much farther from my home and I had to take a streetcar past several stops to get there. But aside from that, it was a far happier place to be, to sit once again among friends. Our teacher, Professor Schwartzbard, was excellent and wonderful. He had taught at the university level until he was fired because he was Jewish, and now he was relegated to teaching fourthgraders. The university’s loss was our gain. We all liked him.
Frequently a bunch of bullies hung around in front of the school when we left to go home. Since I didn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood, I had to make my way home alone. On more than one occasion I was chased. I never slowed down to find out what would happen. I outran them all. I was fast.
Streetcars traveled in the center of the road and motor traffic had to stop when the streetcars came to a halt. By each streetcar stop was a small island for people to stand while waiting for their ride. On one occasion, I was waiting along with others but before I could climb aboard, the door closed and I was left standing on the island. I was small and the driver probably hadn’t noticed me. Traffic began to move. I was so amazed at what was happening that I took a step backward and suddenly I was hit by the fender of an oncoming vehicle and knocked to the ground. The next thing I remember was a man standing over me saying, “Are you hurt?”
“No,” I answered.
“Where are you going?”
“To school,” I said, somewhat hesitantly.
“Jump in, I’ll take you to your school.”
I thanked him and climbed into the passenger seat of the car. It was a brown staff car of the dreaded SA, complete with a small Nazi flag attached to the fender. The man driving the car was an SA officer. Generally, when a car of this type pulled up in front of a school like ours, it spelled trouble. It wouldn’t be a social call. This time, however, you should have seen the look of some of my school friends when I stepped out of the car. It was the talk of the day.
To top it off, I bought an ice cream with my fare money. But all days didn’t always finish off in that satisfying way.
One day when I was being chased by a bunch of bullies I quickly turned onto a side street and ducked into the first building entrance. These buildings were old and had massive doorways that could accommodate a fully laden horse and cart. Two doors swung inward to the side of the entrance. There was just enough room for me to squeeze behind the door. I had often played hide-and-seek and used the shelter of these large doors. I could hear the boys talking as they came to the corner of the street, looking around and wondering where I had disappeared to. I stayed there for what seemed to me an interminably long while. I thought that the beating of my heart would give me away. It sounded like an anvil being pounded at a blacksmith’s shop. Outside the sound of the boys had stopped; they had given up their chase. I continued to stay there a while longer and then with the relief of being safe I felt a sudden warmth around my shorts and legs. I had wet myself. I was so ashamed, I was unable to move. I lingered a while longer and then finally made my way home. Not long after that experience, I left with my sister for England on the Kindertransport.
Twelve years later, I was back in former Nazi territory. Although I was too young to have fought in the war, nevertheless I was there in Germany—not as a victim but as a tank commander with the Royal Scot Greys, the British army of the Rhine occupying forces. The weight and power of the Centurion tank, with all its armament, felt good beneath me. Perhaps there is some justice in the world after all.
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