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"When Jewish Blood Drips from the Knife ..."
* * *
Vienna, March 1938
Gustav Kleinmann's lean fingers pushed the fabric under the foot of the sewing machine; the needle chattered, machine-gunning the thread into the material in a long, immaculate curve. Next to his worktable stood the armchair it was intended for, a skeleton of plain beechwood with taut webbing sinews and innards of horsehair. When the panel was stitched, Gustav fitted it over the arm, stretching the fabric taut; his little hammer drove in the nails — plain tacks for the interior, studs with round brass heads for the outer edge, tightly spaced like an orderly row of soldiers' helmets; in they went with a tap-tapatap.
It was good to work. There wasn't always enough to go around, and life could be precarious for a middle-aged man with a wife and four children. Gustav was a gifted craftsman but not an astute businessman, and once or twice he'd gotten into severe financial trouble, but always muddled through. Born in a tiny village by a lake in the historic kingdom of Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he'd come to Vienna aged fifteen to train as an upholster, and then settled here. Called to military service in the spring of his twenty-first year, he'd served in the Great War, been wounded twice and decorated for bravery, and at war's end he'd returned to Vienna to resume his humble job as a journeyman upholsterer, working his way up to master craftsman. He had married his girl, Tini, during the war, and together they raised four fine, happy children. And there was Gustav's life: modest, hardworking, and if not entirely content, at least inclined to be cheerful.
The droning of airplanes interrupted Gustav's thoughts, and he paused with a tack between his fingers and his hammer raised; it grew and receded as if planes were circling over the city. Curiosity overcoming him, Gustav laid down his tools and stepped out into the street.
Im Werd was a busy thoroughfare, noisy with the clop and clatter of horse-drawn wagons and the grumbling of motor trucks, the air thick with the smells of humanity, fumes, and horse dung. For a confusing instant it appeared to Gustav to be snowing — in March! — but it was a blizzard of paper, fluttering from the sky, settling on the cobbles and the market stalls of the Karmelitermarkt. Gustav picked one up.
PEOPLE OF AUSTRIA!
For the first time in the history of our Fatherland, the leadership of the state requires an open commitment to our Homeland ...
Propaganda for this Sunday's vote. The whole country was talking about it, and the whole world was watching. For every man, woman, and child in Austria it was a big deal, but for Gustav, as a Jew, it was of the utmost importance — a national vote to settle whether Austria should remain free from tyranny.
For five years, Nazi Germany had been looking hungrily across the border at its Austrian neighbor. Adolf Hitler, an Austrian by birth, was obsessed with the idea of bringing his homeland into the German Reich as the first step toward building his "Greater Germany." Although Austria had its own homegrown Nazis eager for unification, most Austrians were opposed. For two years Hitler had been putting pressure on Austria's chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, to give members of the Nazi Party — which was banned in Austria — positions in his government, threatening dire consequences if they continued to be excluded. Now it looked as if the Führer would get his way; unless decisive action were taken, before long Schuschnigg would be forced out of office and replaced with a Nazi puppet; unification would follow, and Austria would be swallowed by Germany. The country's 183,000 Jews regarded this prospect with dread.
The world watched keenly for the outcome — on the far side of the Atlantic, TIME magazine was preparing a cover picture of Chancellor Schuschnigg, a dapper fellow in round spectacles with a Ronald Colman mustache, with his nationalist slogan, "We are good Germans, but always good Austrians." In a desperate last throw of the dice, he had announced a plebiscite — a referendum — in which the people of Austria would decide for themselves whether they wanted to keep their independence. Schuschnigg was confident of victory, while Hitler fumed. It was a courageous move; four years earlier, Schuschnigg's predecessor had been assassinated during a failed Nazi coup — and right now Hitler was ready to do just about anything to prevent the vote going ahead. The date had been set for Sunday, March 13, 1938, now only two days away.
Nationalist slogans ("Yes for Independence!") were pasted and painted on every wall and sidewalk. Government planes were carpeting Vienna with Schuschnigg's propaganda. Gustav looked again at the leaflet.
... For a free and Germanic, independent and social, Christian and united Austria! For peace and work and equal rights for all who profess allegiance to the people and the Fatherland.
... The world shall see our will to live; therefore, people of Austria, stand up as one man and vote YES!
These stirring words held mixed meanings for the Jews. They had their own ideas of Germanism — Gustav, immensely proud of his service to his country in the Great War, considered himself an Austrian first and a Jew second. Yet he was excluded from Schuschnigg's Germanic Christian ideal. He also had mixed feelings about what Austria had become under Schuschnigg's Austrofascist government. As a younger man, Gustav had been an active socialist, an organizer for the Social Democratic Party of Austria. With the rise of the Austrofascists in 1934, the party had been violently suppressed and outlawed (as had the Nazis). As a Jew and a socialist, Gustav was doubly excluded.
But for the Jews of Austria at this moment, implicit disdain was preferable to open persecution of the kind going on in Germany. The Jewish newspaper Die Stimme had a banner in today's edition: "We support Austria! Everyone to the ballot boxes!" The Orthodox paper Jüdische Presse made the same call: "No special request is needed for the Jews of Austria to come out and vote in full strength. They know what this means. Everyone must fulfil his duty!"
Through secret channels, Hitler had threatened Schuschnigg that if he didn't call off the plebiscite, Germany would take action to prevent it. At this very moment, while Gustav stood in the busy street reading the leaflet, German troops were already massing at the border.
* * *
With a glance in the mirror, Tini Kleinmann patted down her coat, gathered her shopping bag and purse, left the apartment, and woke the echoes in the stairwell with her neat little heels click-clacking briskly down the flights. She found Gustav standing in the street outside his workshop, which was on the ground floor of the apartment building. He had a leaflet in his hand; the road was littered with them — in the trees, on the rooftops, everywhere. She glanced at it and shivered; Tini had a feeling of foreboding about it all that Gustav the optimist didn't quite share. Gustav had little religious faith but he always thought things would work out for the best; it was both his weakness and his strength.
Tini walked briskly across the cobbles to the market. A lot of the stallholders were peasant farmers who came each morning to sell their produce alongside the Viennese traders. Many of the latter were Jews; indeed, more than half the city's businesses were Jewish-owned, especially in this area. Local Nazis made a big issue of this prosperity, stirring up anti-Semitism among the workers suffering in the economic depression — as if the Jews were not suffering from it too. Leopoldstadt, Vienna's Second District, had once been its official Jewish quarter, and it still retained much of that character. Gustav and Tini held only lightly to their heritage; they weren't particularly religious, going to synagogue perhaps a couple of times a year for anniversaries and memorials, and like most other Viennese Jews, their children bore Germanic rather than Hebraic names, yet they followed the Yiddish customs like everyone else.
From Herr Zeisel the butcher Tini bought veal, thinly sliced for Wiener schnitzel; there would be leftover chicken for the Shabbat evening soup, and from the farm stalls she bought fresh potatoes and salad; then bread, flour, eggs, butter ... Tini progressed through the bustling Karmelitermarkt, her bag growing heavier. Where the marketplace met Leopoldsgasse, the main street, she noticed the unemployed cleaning women touting for work; they stood outside the Klabouch boarding house and the coffee shop, some equipped with pails of soapy water. The lucky ones would be picked up by well-off ladies from the surrounding streets who needed their kitchens cleaned. Those who brought their own water got the full wage of one schilling. Tini and Gustav sometimes struggled to pay their bills, but at least she hadn't been reduced to that.
The government's pro-independence slogans were everywhere, painted on the sidewalks in big, bold letters like road markings: the rallying cry for the plebiscite — "We say yes!" — and everywhere the symbol of the Austrian Kruckenkreuz. From the open windows of houses and businesses came the sound of radios turned up high, playing cheerful patriotic music. As Tini watched, there was a burst of cheering and a roar of engines as a convoy of trucks came down the street, filled with uniformed teenagers of the Austrian Youth displaying the red-and-white national colors, waving patriotic banners, and flinging out more leaflets. The people crowding on the sidewalks greeted them with fluttering handkerchiefs, doffed hats, and cries of "Austria! Austria!"
It looked as if independence was winning ... so long as you took no notice of the sullen faces among the crowds. The Nazi sympathizers. They were exceptionally quiet today — and exceptionally few in number, which was strange.
Suddenly the cheerful music was interrupted and the radios crackled with an urgent announcement — all unmarried army reservists were to report immediately for duty. The purpose, said the announcer, was to ensure order for Sunday's plebiscite, but his tone was ominous. Why would they need extra troops for that?
Tini turned away and walked back through the crowded market, heading for home. No matter what occurred in the world, no matter how near danger might be, life went on, and what could one do but live it?
* * *
Across the city the leaflets lay on the waters of the Danube Canal, in the parks and streets. At the end of the afternoon, when Fritz Kleinmann left the trade school on Hütteldorfer Strasse on the western edge of Vienna, they were lying in the road and hanging in the trees that lined it. But the propaganda trucks of the Austrian Youth, which had dominated the streets that morning, were long gone; instead, roaring down the street came column after column of trucks filled with soldiers. Hütteldorfer Strasse was one of the main routes west; the troops were heading for the German border, two hundred kilometers away. The boys coming out of school watched excitedly, as boys will, as rows of helmeted heads sped past, weapons ready.
Fritz headed for home. At fourteen years old, he already resembled his father — the same handsome cheekbones, the same nose, the same mouth with its full lips curving like gull's wings. But whereas Gustav's countenance was gentle, the gaze from Fritz's large, dark eyes was penetrating, like his mother's. He'd left high school and for the past six months had been training to enter his father's trade as an upholsterer.
As Fritz and his friends made their way homeward through the city center, they saw a new mood taking hold of the streets. At precisely three o'clock that afternoon the government's campaigning for the plebiscite had stopped due to the developing crisis; now the spirit of optimism was fading away. There was no official news, and rumors had begun to spread — rumors of fighting on the Austrian-German border, of Nazi uprisings in the provincial towns, and most worrying of all, a rumor that the Viennese police would side with local Nazis if it came to a confrontation. Bands of enthusiastic men roamed the streets — some yelling "Heil Hitler!" and others replying defiantly "Heil Schuschnigg!" The Nazis were louder, growing bolder, and most of them were youths, empty of life experience and pumped full of ideology.
This sort of thing had been going on sporadically for days, and there had been occasional violent incidents against Jews. But this was different; when Fritz reached Stephansplatz, right in the very heart of the city, where Vienna's Nazis had their secret stronghold, the space in front of the cathedral was teeming with yelling, baying people. Here it was all "Heil Hitler" and no counter-chant. Policemen stood nearby, watching, talking among themselves but doing nothing. It looked as if this rumor was true, that the police sympathized with the Nazis. Also watching from the sidelines, not yet revealing themselves but content to see the fervor rising, were the secret members of the Austrian Sturmabteilung — the SA, the Nazi Party's storm troopers. They had discipline, and they had their orders; their time was coming but hadn't yet arrived.
Avoiding the knots of demonstrators, Fritz crossed the Danube Canal into Leopoldstadt and was soon back in Im Werd, his boots clattering up the stairs to apartment 16 — home, warmth, and family.
* * *
Little Kurt stood on a stool in the kitchen-dining room, watching as his mother prepared the noodle batter for the chicken soup, the traditional Shabbat Friday meal. It was about the only Shabbat practice they maintained; Tini lit no candles, said no blessing. Kurt was proving to be the exception to the family's lack of interest in religion — only eight years old, he sang in the Stadttempel choir and had made friends with an Orthodox family who lived across the hallway (he'd made it his role to switch on the lights for them on Shabbat evenings), and was becoming quite devout. Kurt was the baby and the beloved; the Kleinmanns were a close family, but Kurt was Tini's particular darling. He loved to help her cook.
While the soup simmered, Kurt watched, lips parted, as she whipped the egg batter to a froth and fried it into thin pancakes. This was one of his favorite cooking duties. The very best was Wiener schnitzel, for which his mother would gently pound the veal slices with a tenderizer until they were as soft and thin as velvet; she taught him to coat them in the dish of flour, the batter of beaten egg and milk, and finally the breadcrumbs; then she would lay them two by two in the pan of bubbling buttery oil, the rich aroma filling the little apartment as the cutlets puffed and crinkled and turned golden. Tonight, though, it was the smell of fried noodles and chicken.
From the next room — which doubled as bedroom and living room — came the sound of a piano; Kurt's sister Edith, eighteen years old, played well, and had taught Kurt a pleasant little tune called "Cuckoo," which would remain in his memory forever. His other sister, Herta, aged fifteen, he simply adored; she was closer to him in age than Edith, who was a grown woman. Herta's place in Kurt's heart would always be as an image of beauty and love.
Tini smiled at his earnest concentration as he helped her roll up the cooked egg, slicing it into noodles that she stirred into the soup.
The family sat down to their meal in the warm glow of the Shabbat — Gustav and Tini; Edith and Herta; Fritz and little Kurt. Their home was small, just this room and the one bedroom they all shared — Gustav and Fritz in together, Kurt with their mother, Edith in her own bed, and Herta on the couch. Yet home it was, and they were happy here.
Outside, beyond these walls, a shadow was gathering over their world. That afternoon, a written ultimatum had come from Germany, insisting that the plebiscite be canceled; that Chancellor Schuschnigg resign; that the figurehead President Wilhelm Miklas replace him with the right-wing politician Arthur Seyss-Inquart (a member of the illegal Austrian Nazi Party) with a sympathetic cabinet under him. The justification given by Hitler was that Schuschnigg's government was repressing the ordinary Germans of Austria ("German" being synonymous with "Nazi" in Hitler's mind). Finally, the Austrian Legion, a force numbering thirty thousand Nazis living in exile, must be brought back to Vienna to keep order on the streets. President Miklas had been given until 7:30 PM to comply. Though the public had no knowledge of this ultimatum, many could sense that something was wrong.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Stone Crusher"
Copyright © 2018 Jeremy Dronfield.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I Vienna
1 "When Jewish Blood Drips from the Knife…" 5
2 Traitors to the People 25
Part II Buchenwald
3 Blood and Stone: Konzentrationslager Buchenwald 43
4 The Stone Crusher 59
5 The Road to Life 70
6 A Favorable Decision 84
7 The New World 101
8 Unworthy of Life 115
9 A Thousand Kisses 133
10 A Trip to Death 152
Part III Auschwitz
11 A Town Called Oswiecim 161
12 Auschwitz-Monowitz 178
13 The End of Gustav Kleinmann, Jew 186
14 Resistance and Collaboration: The Death of Fritz Kleinmann 198
15 The Kindness of Strangers 217
16 Far from Home 231
17 Resistance and Betrayal 246
Part IV Survival
18 Death Train 267
19 Mauthausen 280
20 The End of Days 294
21 The Long Way Home 309
Epilogue: Jewish Blood 317
Bibliography and Sources 325