My Father Comes to Hinterstoder- Chapter 4
Vladimir became a doctor of medicine in his late 20’s, ca. 1934. He was from a poor family and in order for him to go to medical school his mother took on extra housecleaning jobs. He had married my mother, Olga Dowhanczuk, the daughter of a wealthy businessman who made his fortune by exporting beef to England before the war. Through my mother’s family status and connections, he was able to establish a thriving practice in Bucharest, Romania. His patients were the wealthy class of Bucharest. He was suddenly elevated from the very poor to the upper class. He vacationed in the vacations spots in the Crimea on the Black Sea, the playground of the rich and famous ever since Catherine the Great ruled Russia. Vladimir would also do part-time work as a resort doctor, for a little extra income.
He also had the opportunity to persue his athletic hobbies, gymnastics and soccer. He was particularly skilled at the rings. This gave him his washboard abs. He also got a position as the team doctor for the Romanian National Soccer team. Life was good. But as so often is the case, if things are going superbly, you must have overlooked something. In this case it was the plan of Adolf Hitler to march into Austria, annexing it to Germany, then Prague and claiming Moravia as a German Protectorate. On September 1, 1939, he marched into Poland and that was the beginning of World War II when England declared war on Germany two days later. Romania, and its King, King Carol, was on the Axis side and took part in the invasion of Russia, alongside the Germans, in what was called “Unternehmen Barbarossa”. Barbarossa was a medieval German King who had taken part in the Third Crusade where he was killed. The myth was that he and his trusted knights were buried while awaiting the call when the German people might needed him. He would wake up, reach for his sword, and all the knights would wake up and return to battle the enemies of Germany. It was Hitler and Barbarossa who derailed Vladimir’s perfect life. Vladimir was drafted into the Romanian army. Captain Iwasiuk was a battalion surgeon, treating the wounded, and all war related illnesses.
Olga and Vladimir were separated because he had to move wherever the army went. The Romanians were not faring well and were driven ahead of the Russian army toward Germany. The Russians were gaining on them. Vladimir was busy with the care of the war injuries and illnesses that an army on the move had: cholera from drinking contaminated water, typhus from the lice that had no national allegiances, and tuberculosis from the close quarters that were forced in war conditions. Along with this, there was the constant bombardment from the Russian artillery, which did not let up day or night.
One night, Vladimir found a farmhouse farther away from the battlefront where he could stay overnight in more pleasant surroundings than in the usual tent. A physician from another regiment, actually an old classmate from medical school, named Kwasnetzki, also found temporary shelter for the night. They shared a room. About midnight, Vladimir woke up and was startled to see a dark figure in the shadows looming over him with both hands extended as if sleepwalking, but he just stood there and did not move a muscle. Vladimir became increasingly concerned that this could not come to a good end, so he jumped up in one move and toppled the shadowy figure. There was a brief scuffle and the shadowy figure revealed himself to be none other than his colleague and old friend. “What in heaven’s name were you doing?” Vladimir said. The two got themselves off the floor and sat at the edge of the bed. Kwasnetzki answered with a sigh and somberly said, “Promise you will not tell anyone because they will think I am crazy, but I used you as a medium to speak to my dead father.” Vladimir was appalled! In the middle of a war, in some desolate farmhouse near the battlefront running from the Russians, and now this. Kwasnetzki had gone mad! What could he do now in the middle of the night? Not much, Vladimir concluded, the best is to humor him. So Vladimir spent the rest of the night listening to his old friend who proceeded to tell his story of how his dead father visits him, when he can find the appropriate medium, and tells him the future. That night, Vladimir learned the future events of the war in great detail: the decimation of the Romanian army, Hitler’s conduct of the war against the world, the entrance of the United States into the war, the eventual defeat of Germany, and the victory of Communism. This was the winter of 1940.
In the morning, Vladimir called his superior commander to report Kwasnetzki’s strange behavior of the previous night. His old friend was taken away, another casualty of the war. They called it “shell shock”, the term at the time for “traumatic stress disorder”. The irony of his friend’s delusions was that everything Kwasnetzki foretold did come true, a fact my father pondered the rest of his life. Vladimir was never a believer in the occult, yet this gave him much consternation — how to reconcile reality with this event in which he participated?
The war dragged on. The Romanian army was able, with the help of the Germans, to retake Bucharest, and Vladimir was able to see Olga again. It was many months after that fateful night in the desolate farmhouse, and he had actually forgotten about it since so many events had crowded into his mind since then. But one day on the street, he saw Kwasnetzki again, gaunt with dark shadows under his eyes. He had lost a lot of weight. He smiled at Vladimir. They shook hands. Vladimir mumbled something to the effect of an apology for having caused him so much trouble. Kwasnetzki shook his head and said he had no recollection of anything that happened in the last few months. He had been institutionalized and had received shock treatments but was feeling much better now. They parted and Vladimir never saw or heard of him again.
Months passed. The Germans had to pull back because they had their own problems and could no longer aid the Romanians. Vladimir once more had to say goodbye to Olga and was on the move again with the army. This time it was much more serious. There were more casualties, fewer supplies, and less food. It had been several weeks since he had received any news from home. The mail was haphazardly delivered due to the war conditions. He was tired of war, of soldiers dying of shrapnel wounds and sickness, of the constant bombardment, and mostly he was worried about Olga and his family.
He hatched a plot with some of his friends. The army was retreating so rapidly that they had left some strategically important artillery behind. Vladimir and his friends were going to go back behind the Russian lines and bring back the large guns. They took teams of horses and they were off. The plan was, however, to be caught by the Russians and thus be able to return to their families which were in territory now controlled by the Russians. They took the main roads, sang patriotic songs to make noise, traveled by day rather than night, but to no avail. The Russians did not notice them, and they were forced to return fully laden with the salvaged artillery. They were greeted as heroes, with bands playing marshal music, and naturally the obligatory medals and speeches.
A few days passed and the “heroes” were devastated because they were still separated from their families. The only choice they had was to defect from the Romanian army. The Russians let it be known that the Romanians were to allow anyone who wished to return to their families in Russian held territory without any adverse consequences. So Vladimir and his fellow heroes stood on the same reviewing stands (where just a few days before they had received their medals) to have their medals and rank designation torn off their uniforms in shame and were branded as traitors. But the Romanians were afraid to harm them and allowed them to go back to their families.
Vladimir found his family safe and well. Life was not much different under the Communists. Vladimir, like most young intellectuals, leaned left politically. In his student days, not unlike today, if you were not left leaning you were an outcast. The phrase, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (Karl Marx, Das Kapital) seemed so right to the intellectual set, until later when Stalin rounded them up and packed them off to Siberia. Vladimir, a poor proletariat, who worked hard, became a physician, deserted from the Romanian army, and returned to the Communists voluntarily, appealed to the Communist leadership. He was promoted rapidly, after deserting and returning to Bucharest. He attained a high rank in the Romanian medico-political Communist world, something equivalent to Director of Public Health/ Surgeon General.
He did his job as best he knew how, and things seemed to go well, until one day a woman, bare foot, wearing tattered clothing and a torn babushka concealing her hair, came into his office and announced that she was Doctor “so and so” sent from Moscow with orders to replace him immediately. Vladimir thought it was a joke and ushered her out of his office, only to find out several days later that it was no joke. He was dismissed as Surgeon General. Dejected, he went to his Communist friends to complain. They reassured him that he simply had to lock her out of the office and that she would eventually just go away. But she did not and Vladimir was forced by Russian military men to vacate his office. His friends, trying to console him, offered him the directorship of the biggest hospital in Bucharest. He took the job and was again happy for a while. Inevitably, various problems arose.
In the summer of 1941, there was a cholera epidemic and many people were admitted to his hospital, including Russian soldiers and their families. Two such patients were the five-year-old twin daughters of a Russian Colonel, very sick, dehydrated, with high fevers, near death. The father came to Vladimir and pulled out his service revolver. He pointed it at Vladimir’s head and informed him that if his twin girls died he would personally shoot Vladimir. This was before the era of antibiotics, at least in Romania. Vladimir spent day and night with the two girls, and one survived.
The Colonel did not carry out his threat, but he made trouble for Vladimir. Moscow became aware of this and more problems arose. Vladimir was given orders from Moscow to institute policies in the hospital that he felt were not appropriate and even wrong. He ignored orders that he felt were not in his hospital’s best interest. That proved to be an almost fatal error. He was demoted to a lesser job in the same hospital, and suddenly he was no longer the fair-haired boy wonder of the Communist hierarchy. He was, in fact, the enemy of the people and the revolution. His friends warned him that he must go into hiding. He and Olga moved out of their apartment; she lived with friends and he moved every night to a new location. The Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD predecessors of the KGB) were looking for him. A hearing was set to review Vladimir’s crimes, and to no one’s surprise, he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, just one of the 12,000,000 people Stalin executed; this was all done without his presence or any one to represent him, a different concept from our idea of due process.
Amazingly an almost unthinkable thing happened: Hitler and Stalin made a pact that even though there was a shooting war going on between Russia and Germany, there would be an exchange of populations. Germans behind Russian lines were to be moved to Germany, and Russians behind German lines would be moved to Russia. SS troops came into Russian occupied Romania under the white flag to supervise transport of all Germans back to Germany. The only chance for Vladimir to survive his death sentence was to get out of Russian-occupied Romania and flee to Germany, not to the West as they would just have returned him to the Russians to be executed. He went to work for the SS. The Germans, who paid great homage to the preservation of the pure race, took all Germans, including sick ones, back to the Fatherland. So it was necessary to have physicians to help in the transport of the sick and the injured. Trainloads upon trainloads of people were transported. Vladimir went with them but he had to return to Romania for the next group until they were all moved. He was allowed to go on the last train.
He did have to bend the truth a little. The Germans were not too happy to have a Ukrainian, they would have been much happier with a German. So Vladimir, like a chameleon, became a German. To help prove this “fact” it would be helpful if he were Catholic or Protestant, but not Greek Orthodox as he was, at least on paper. Olga was Catholic so it seemed logical that he too should be Catholic. In order to convert, he sought out a church where the priest agreed to produce the papers showing Vladimir had been Catholic all along. All it took was a bribe, and the ceremony. Both he and Olga appeared at the appointed church at the appointed time. There was not much ecclesiastic life at that time in history. The churches were deserted, except for the occasional homeless person who tried to find shelter. Vladimir, wishing to ingratiate himself to the priest, recalled something about dipping his hand in holy water and crossing himself. When he dipped his hand in the bowl that was supposed to hold the holy water all he encountered was old cigarette butts and spit. The holy water receptacle was being used as a spittoon and ashtray. That set the mood for the rest of the conversion. He did, however, get the valuable papers that would allow him to claim some German ancestry.
He said his goodbyes to his mother and sisters and packed. All he and Olga had to show for their thirty or so years in Romania was one suitcase each. They boarded the last evacuation train and they were off to Germany. The trip went smoothly until they got to the border. For some reason, the Russians ordered the train to be halted for hours at the train station and went through each compartment interviewing many of the people. Olga was well dressed and had some of the very valuable family jewelry with her. She became more and more concerned that something was amiss and they would be unmasked and arrested. In order to avoid attention, she took off her diamond earrings and rings, easily worth several years of Vladimir’s income, and threw them out the train window. What a shame, but it worked and the Russian NKVD interrogators did not notice them. The train went on into the “Vaterland”. From the frying pan into the fire perhaps, but at least the Germans were not going to hang Vladimir right now. As soon as the Russians discovered the escape, they arrested his mother, because in their legal view if the criminal cannot be brought to justice, the immediate next of kin is held responsible. She spent ten years in Siberia at hard labor. It is surprising that she survived it. Vladimir lost many a sleepless night wondering what he could have done differently. Even so, a new life was awaiting him and his wife.
They came to Steyer, Ober-Donau, (formerly and subsequently known as Ober-Österreich). The name changed when Hitler annexed Austria in the “Anschluss”. Vladimir worked on the surgical service of a large hospital. He was quite busy with war related illnesses and injuries. Steyr was an industrial city that manufactured tanks and other armored vehicles for the German army, and as a consequence a frequent target of the American bombers. A year passed. Vladimir was not very happy working under the German authoritarian format as a junior and foreign doctor.
About 100 kilometers away there was a small town in the heart of the Alps, a jewel, beautiful almost beyond description. Stark granite mountains that were snow-capped all year surrounded the village. Lush pine forests and meadows blooming with a variety of wild flowers carpeted the foothills, and through the center of the valley ran a crystal-clear ice cold river that began its long course to the Black Sea.
The Steyr river springs forth from under a massive granite mountain. The glacier above melts and trickles down through the rocks and then bubbles out at its base. This is the Steyrurspung, the origin of the Steyr.
Just a couple of hundred yards downstream it becomes a raging river, that eventually flows out of this hidden valley winding its way to the city of Steyr for which it is named.
The beautiful town is named Hinterstoder. It had, and still has, approximately a thousand inhabitants. The town had a doctor assigned to them by the German health authority. He was a good-looking man, perhaps too good-looking. Quite a few farmers’ daughters and some farmers’ wives became more than enchanted with this tall, handsome German, who also happened to be married. After the umpteenth scandal, and the strong urge of the local population to tar and feather him, not to mention his jilted wife’s anger, he decided to join the army in order to extricate himself from his problems. Off he went and left his post vacant. There were no other doctors to take his place, save one, Vladimir. It was great luck for him and Olga. He could have been pulled into the German army but instead he moved to the most idyllic spot on earth, Hinterstoder. People from large cities like Berlin, Munich, and Vienna, who could afford to, came there to escape the bombing. So the population grew quickly the hotter the war got. Interesting, wealthy people with unusual backgrounds, opera singers, authors, families of high ranking military men, engineers and business men could be found in the streets of this forgotten village. While the war raged on elsewhere, Hinterstoder had a grand time; parties, gatherings, concerts and masked balls were the order of the day and night. The war did not concern the population too much until much later when things got tougher.
My parents made many good friends there, and had many good times with them. They made their own entertainment, had parties, dances, opera evenings, literary readings and masked balls, not at all what one would expect with the rest of Europe going through the dreadful war. One of their dearest friends was a couple who had their roots in the distant past in Italy, but now were Germanified for several generations. The patriarch of the family was an author and classical singer. He did only “Schubert Lieder” (Schubert songs) and made a very nice living before the war, traveling around the world on big cruise ships, entertaining the ships guests with interpretations of the many songs of Franz Schubert. He had been to the US many times and wrote travel books about his experiences. He lived with Native Americans for a time and hunted and fished with them. It made for very entertaining books that were just the thing the Europeans of the 1920’s and 30’s loved to read. This was before the Depression and the Second World War. It was a beautiful life. They had a son and a daughter. The son took after the father and became an opera singer. The daughter was also musically talented but did not pursue a career. At age nineteen she married a man 18 years her senior. He was a South African Dutch man, an engineer who swept her off her feet and took her back to Africa. It lasted 6 months. He turned out to be a wife beater and all-around bore (so to speak). The marriage did last long enough though, for her to get pregnant. She returned to her parents dejected, depressed and with child. This is how my father met the family. They came to him to procure an abortion. It was not that my father was opposed to abortion, at least theoretically, he was, however, very selective about it. He did abortions only when he thought that having the child would be a worse evil than having an abortion. He tried to talk most women out of it and in this instance, he was successful. He delivered a healthy, bouncing girl 6 months later. She became a delightful human being and the pride and joy of her mother. She is now a research psychologist working on various psychotropic drugs and living in Switzerland with her husband, and until recently her mother, who just died at age 92.
On coming to Hinterstoder, Vladimir and Olga were assigned to live in a small apartment in one of the villas, the Grisserhaus, belonging to the Duke of Eulenburg, who wanted to support the village by providing a home for the town doctor. It was rather small, plus with the war condition they shared the villa with a number of people, including the rightful ones, the daughter of the Duke who lived there by herself as her husband was off fighting the war with the Luftwaffe as a fighter pilot.
This is Grisserhaus. They were happy there, despite the small quarters, I had not yet arrived on the scene. Thus, the small apartment was adequate. It was their dog, Hugin, that caused a move to a much more spacious quarter. Vladimir had procured a dog. This was no usual dog. The war brought a variety of people to Hinterstoder which was relatively isolated from the goings on in Europe, namely World War II. The large cities were often the target of bombers who flew over the Alps from England, and mercilessly bombed the cities, with any strategic military mission. It was not just London and Coventry who were on the receiving end of the bombers payloads, but so called collateral damage included women, children, churches, and animals on both sides of the war. A circus came to town, not to perform, but to try to find shelter for their animals. Hugin was a performing dog. He was trained to jump through burning hoops, walk on his hind legs, count by barking or pawing the ground with his front foot, and other things of that nature. Hugin was the perfect dog for the town doctor to accompany him on his house calls.
Hugin was no little lapdog. He looked ferocious and had a deep sonorous bark. When, the Duke’s daughter, Baroness Schönebeck, saw the dog for the first time, she shrieked in fear and horror, and exclaimed, “The dog must go!” By that time Vladimir had established himself as a competent, and caring doctor. He had the town’s folks on his side. He could make certain demands for his hard work and conscientiousness. He responded to the Baroness, “The dog will stay!” However, the Baroness’s father, the Duke, was still the boss. He and Vladimir had words and the resolution was to move Vladimir, Olga, and Hugin to another villa, the Prielervilla. The whole third floor was ours. The Duke’s private secretary, Herr Weinbergmeier, had an office and small apartment on the second floor. The forester, Herr Diesenreiter, who oversaw all the lands, logging operations, and fishing/ hunting domains lived on the first floor with his wife.
Forester Diesenreiter going over estate documents with the Duke of Eulenburg
Vladimir in front of the town hall which also contained his office on the first floor.
Below is his EHR (Electronic Health Record) except it wasn’t electronic nor much of a health record. Basically it was a one liner: the date, the patients name, where the patient lived, the diagnosis, the treatment, if the patient was capable of working, and the fee. That was all the written documentation of that medical encounter that existed, a far cry from today’s endless reams of words describing what was done and not done, to ensure medico-legal protection, and the financial justification.
The traditional Austrian dress and also the usual daily clothing Vladimir wore doing his job as the town doctor.