The First Time

When my friend Linda and I planned a trip to Berlin, Vienna and Prague we had decided, on a whim, to end it in Slovenia. We wanted to go to a country that was not famous for slaughtering Jews, one where we could not possibly have any dead relatives. Slovenia fit the bill; its Jews were expelled in 1500 and now numbered 75. Between us we increased the Jewish population by more than 2%.

Linda, my friend since the seventh grade, had snagged one of two tables outside the 4th floor breakfast room. A slice of Adriatic Sea sprinkled with diamonds of sunlight lay just beyond the concrete beach walk of the small town of Piran. Slovenia had turned out to be lovely. We congratulated each other on how smart we were to have come here. Two seagulls settled on the sloping red tiled roof and examined the breakfast of the couple at the neighboring table.

“They look hungry,” the man seated there turned to us and spoke with a German accent. We laughed. A gull opened its yellow tipped beak, puffed up its white chest, then shrieked. Three more gulls arrived.

“Like Alfred Hitchcock,” he said.

“Sie wollen etwas zu esssen,” Linda said to him. (They want something to eat.)

“You speak German?” he asked, turning to face us, a middle-aged graying man with a nice smile.

“A little,” said Linda. “My parents were from Germany. We started our trip in Berlin.” Berlin, where my father’s family name (my name) still appeared as a red logo for a shoe store chain although no one knew any longer who had once owned it. We told him we were from the United States. He was from Vienna. We had been there the previous week.

“My mother came from Vienna.” I added. A breeze blew over my shoulders, easing the flushing I started to feel.

“Did she leave for political reasons?” My breath caught a little. I assumed this was code for “are you Jewish?” His smile had disappeared.

“Yes,” I said, “the holocaust.” Although exhibits now used the descriptor “murdered” rather than “died” to refer to the fate of Jews in concentration camps, I had not seen the term “holocaust” used much in museums and memorials we had visited. Had we been to the Jewish Museum in Vienna?

Linda responded that we wished there were more Jews and fewer museums.

Had we liked Vienna, he wanted to know. Yes it was a beautiful city. Was it hard, he asked, to travel to the places our parents came from?

Suddenly I felt exhausted. How could I talk about this to a stranger, a citizen of the country that had nearly killed my mother? And had during our visit there held a huge state funeral honoring Kurt Waldheim, long revealed as a Nazi collaborator. When I met Austrians and Germans I calculated their age and whether or not they were old enough to have participated in the holocaust. If they were too young I wondered about their forebears. I had looked at him, reflexively thought, in his forties, too young, but is there a picture of Onkel Otto in his Nazi uniform in the family album? When a waitress was nasty and ridiculed our German, Linda and I looked knowingly at each other and said, “she knows we’re Jewish.” When a group of young blond boys came toward us on the street we smirked, “on their way to the Hitler Jugend meeting.” Linda started singing “they took all the Jews and put them in the Jew museum” to the old Joni Mitchell lyric, “they took all the trees and put them in the tree museum” when we were in the Jewish Museum in Berlin and we had been humming it ever since. That’s how it was to travel to these countries, but how could I tell him? How could I explain that beneath the cynical jokes and songs there was visceral terror, deep grief and rage that never completely subsided.

“My mother was 17 when the Nazis came,” I said. “She spoke of places she liked in Vienna, but her memories weren’t happy.”

Where had she lived?

“I can’t remember the address.” I wanted to say, I’m sure it was in the Jewish section, but such a place no longer existed.

The gulls began squawking again, and we finished our breakfasts. “Vereinesgasse,” I said as the street name suddenly popped into my mind, “my mother lived on die Vereinesgasse. Ecke Heinestrasse.”

We got up and headed inside.

“Please,” the gray-haired man now stood in front of me at the top of the stairs. He was stocky, not too tall. “I will show you the Vereinesgasse where your mother lived. I will show you whatever you want in Vienna.”

“Thank you. That’s very kind but it’s impossible, we arrive late and have to get up early to catch a plane.”

“I will come to you, wherever you are.” His eyes pled with me from behind his dark framed glasses.

“Thank you. I appreciate it but it just doesn’t work with our schedule.” I looked at his red shirt and then up at his face. Suddenly he had taken both my hands in his. For a moment we were silent and then he spoke.

“I am glad your family survived. I am glad that you are alive,” he said.

My throat grew tight, my eyes moist. No one had ever said this to me before. “Thank you,” I said.

He turned and walked down the steps.

I didn’t even know his name.

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