The War Comes to Hinterstoder -Chapter 6

Vladimir, my father, was very busy with his practice: house calls, delivering babies, setting fractured bones, and the gamut of medical diseases, pneumonia, heart failure, high blood pressure, etc.  Gasoline was at a premium.  There were no oilfields in Germany by 1943; there was very strict gasoline rationing in place.  Most of the house calls were to outlying farms and Vladimir was always short on gasoline.  The farmers all got a more generous allotment of gasoline because of all the farm equipment necessary for growing food, which was an essential substrate for the war effort.  So part of the house call’s fee was a beer stein, full of gasoline, poured into the tank of Vladimir’s Harley Davidson motorcycle, before he even entered the farmhouse to do the delivery or suture the laceration.  But even that source of gasoline dried up as the war raged on.  By then the Allied bombing runs from England became more common and when the planes returned after bombing their target, they would jettison the large aluminum torpedo shaped gasoline containers over the Alps.  Vladimir had his own troop of young boys who would scout out where the containers fell and he would immediately go to the spot to liberate the gallon or two of aviation fuel that was invariably left in these containers.  The motorcycle was Vladimir’s main mode of transportation.  It was cost efficient and used little gasoline.  It could go almost anywhere up the narrow mountain trails; frequently it was necessary to cross a raging mountain stream, or cross a narrow wooden bridge which often was nothing more than two wood planks laid side by side.  Crossings were particularly dangerous when the planks were across a gorge dozens of meters deep, and then at the bottom of this ravine ice cold snow melt water bounced off jagged rocks on its way down to the valley.  It was like off-road biking, but it was not for fun or sport.  The motorcycle was not only Vladimir’s mode of transportation, but also the whole family’s if we went somewhere.  I rode on the tank in front of the driver, my father, and my mother was in the backseat.  Later when my sister was two or three years old, she too joined us on the bike by sitting in my mother’s lap.  We were quite a sight when all four of us rode out on a Sunday drive.

Toward the end of the war gasoline was just impossible to find, and it became obvious that my father would have to find another means of transportation.  It so happened that a circus came to town, not to perform, but to try to feed their animals.  Food was scarce for people much less for lions, tigers, elephants, horses and dogs.  Many of the more exotic animals had to be killed because there just was not enough to feed them, but the domestic type animals, such as horses, could be used for work.  Vladimir bought a beautiful, trained, white Lipizzaner horse.

The day he took delivery of the animal was a beautiful sunny winter morning.  The town square was to be the place where he took possession of the horse.  I failed to mention that Vladimir had never even been close to a horse, much less ridden one.  He had only seen them in movies.  The town hall, the school, and the church with its appended cemetery surrounded the town square.    Vladimir mounted the horse and somehow the horse started into its circus routine of dancing and pirouetting.  He was unable to control the horse.  The cemetery being the only open space, the horse decided to leap over the gravestones very gracefully. The church had just finished Sunday services and the people who came streaming out of the church were horrified.  Imagine the town doctor mounted on a white horse leaping and pirouetting over the snow-covered graves of the town’s deceased.  Not at all acceptable by any standards.

 

Hinterstoder Church and Courtyard

By 1943 the war was beginning to affect even Hinterstoder.  The young men that were drafted and left home dressed in smart uniforms with shiny buttons, while the bands played marshal music, were beginning to return home in body-bags.  One farmer’s only son’s funeral was being conducted on a rainy Sunday morning; the fallen soldier’s sister was following the coffin and was wailing loudly lamenting her brother’s untimely death.  She expressed her displeasure about the war and said “I would rather be following Hitler’s coffin than my brother’s.”  Unfortunately this was reported to the SS and the ceremony was barely over when she found herself arrested.

The distraught farmer came to Vladimir.  “They will kill her,” he said.    The farmer and Vladimir talked all night to try to figure out what they could do to save her.  Then it came to him.  He told the farmer that he must go to the authorities and explain to them that his daughter was schizophrenic and had been under medical care with Vladimir for some time now.  Vladimir also went to the SS and informed them of this little white lie.  “It would not be seemly for the great and powerful German Reich to execute a poor, harmless schizophrenic girl for some crazed statements she made in her sorrow for her brother”. Vladimir also visited her in jail and instructed her to do absolutely nothing but stare at the wall of her cell, not to answer any questions, not to talk at all, just stare.  The SS called in their own doctor to interrogate the girl.  She did what Vladimir instructed her to do and the SS doctor bought it.  The SS let her go, under the custody of her physician.  Of course the father was elated and was very grateful to Vladimir for saving the only child he had left.

There was one other occasion where Vladimir had to deal with the SS. The American bombers’ route was from England, over the Alps and then back.  This, in fact, is my earliest recollection.  I must have been two years old playing in my sandbox.  I have this vague recollection of the sky turning dark and noisy as the B-24’s droned overhead and my mother ran out to snatch me from the sandbox and carried me in, as if being in the house would be safer. A few minutes later the distant explosions of the bombs could be heard like far off thunder, and then the sky darkened again as they returned on their run back to England.  It was on one of those bombing runs, that on the return flight, the Alps were shrouded in icy fog and one of the planes hit the side of an Alpine Massive, the Spitzmauer.   Here are remnants of the plane that crashed on a dark and foggy night.

Amazingly  some survived, but they were seriously injured.  The best village mountaineers were called upon to hike up to where the plane crashed to bring down the injured pilot and crew.  When they finally brought them down half a day later, the SS was there to supervise taking custody of the prisoners of war.

The SS major was a stiff, unfriendly man “These prisoners will not receive medical attention; these animals that bombed the Vaterland don’t deserve to be treated as human beings,” he said.  Vladimir was horrified and went to care for them anyway.  The major ordered him to halt and furthermore ordered the guards to raise their weapons.  Vladimir ignored them and continued to splint the broken limbs and bandage the bleeding wounds.  There were some angry words between the two men, but Vladimir prevailed.  He ordered several ambulance vehicles so the injured could be transported to the hospital.

That same SS Major had it in for Vladimir now.  Every time they met there were unpleasant words.  One day Vladimir was out and about making house calls on the motorcycle.  That usually meant that he would bring home some good piece of ham or butter or some other nourishing tidbit that was a luxury for the rest of the family.  It was part of his professional fee since money had no meaning or value by then.  Barter for food was illegal.  On that particular day he had gotten some eggs, raw of course.  He put them in his pockets and was as careful as he could be.  But when the SS major approached him, he was anxious and forgot about the eggs.  He made his conversation as short as possible and hurriedly got back on the motorcycle.  The eggs were crushed as he raised his leg to swing over the motorcycle seat, and the broken eggs slowly ran down his legs coming out in a little puddle by his boots.  Luckily the SS major had already turned and was walking away.  Vladimir could not wait to get home to wash off the eggs.

Was it Hemingway or Sherman who said, “War is Hell”?   Well, they got it wrong, it is worse than hell.  At least in hell the suffering is retribution for evil doing.  In war so many innocents suffer.  One such innocent was a young man, perhaps 22 or 23; he was the son of the Principal of the school.  The Principal was the most prominent and respected man in town.  He was the administrator of the local school system and a very educated, gentle man.  He was a poet and loved nature, the environment, the mountains, and the people of Hinterstoder.  He would not make a good Nazi, but he was the natural leader.  His son, Karl, had mild cerebral palsy and mild physical, as well as, mental handicaps.  Thus, he was not drafted into the German army, but instead wandered around the local mountains drawing and painting what he saw.  He was not at all challenged in his artistic endeavors; he was indeed a very accomplished artist. He painted a scene of an evil court jester that displays his artistic talents and later served as an inspiration to a painting my father subsequently painted, based on this painting.   One day a new order came from Berlin that “race purification” would be necessary, even in Hinterstoder, and that the “undesirables” could not be tolerated.  They took the Principal’s only son and killed him.  Vladimir petitioned the authorities but to no avail.  They injected gasoline into his veins, it only took a few drops and it was over. His heart stopped almost instantaneously when the bolus of gasoline reached it. Some seventy thousand “undesirables” were put to death in that purge and many more would have died if it had not been for some very courageous Catholics, among them Bishop Clement August von Galen of Münster.  He preached a sermon August 3, 1942 that called this so-called euthanasia, murder.  Other people demanded this stop such as our landlord, Friedrich-Went Duke of Eulenburg (see Chapter 11). There was enough pressure and in three weeks Hitler halted this massacre. The Catholic Church is often accused for not doing enough to stop the mass murders of the Hitler era, but in this instance, they did.  Too late for Karl, the gentle artist who once upon a time wandered through the hills and valleys of Hinterstoder with his easel and pallet.  Thirty years later Vladimir commemorated this innocent by duplicating one of his paintings.  The painting this young man painted was a medieval court jester wearing a cowl with bells attached to his wrists.  He was, you could see in his face, comical but nevertheless evil.  In his hands, he held a candle as he walked through the dimly lit halls of some imaginary dungeon.  The painting had a chilling effect on the viewer not only because of the strange and unpleasant demeanor of this deranged comic, but his eyes were painted in such a fashion that wherever you stood in the room the eyes seemed to follow you.  I have seen this painting 60 years after it was painted and after its creator met such a gruesome end and still goose bumps run down my back on viewing it.

 

 

 

The war dragged on and more Austrian boys met an untimely end at the Russian front, the Italian front and at the French front, in fact everywhere.  One of Vladimir’s duties was to notify the families of the death of their loved ones.

It was Christmas, I was almost two years old, and the good times in Hinterstoder were waning.  Food shortages were looming at the grocer and the cupboards of most homes in the idyllic Steyr valley.  There was not much Christmas cheer for a two-year-old.  Toys were out of the question.  Somehow Vladimir managed to have a small wheelbarrow made, just the right size for a two-year-old, by one of his patients who was a carpenter.  This was to be the major and only present for me.  Vladimir still had many house calls to make before coming home for Christmas Eve.  One of these house calls was to a farmhouse far up a mountain.  It was a long way from the valley floor to this farmhouse.  Vladimir had to bear the news that this farmer’s son had been killed in action along the Russian front.  It was only logical that the town doctor should deliver such horrible news.  Often the wives or mothers of the dead soldier would faint or become hysterical.  They would need some words of comfort, but usually a sedative shot was required.  By this time Vladimir had learned to ride his white horse, Zora, fairly well, and it was none too soon because by now, even the farmers could not get gasoline and his Harley had to be stored in the garage for the duration of the war.  So on these rides to the distant farmhouses, in the hills surrounding the village, the horse would follow the trail without much guidance from the rider.  It would plod along, as long as there was a path in front of it.  Only when Zora came to a fork in the road did Vladimir have to intervene to direct her.  These rides became longer and longer for Vladimir.  He got very bored.  So being an inventive soul he bought a miner’s lamp for the night rides.   He would wear the lamp and read so that the time passed more quickly.  That night, Christmas Eve, was a cold but clear night.  The horse’s hooves crunched in the fresh snow and the stars were all out, crystal clear since there was barely any light pollution from the village below, that was slowly receding from view.

 

Vladimir had his Christmas present for me, the small wheelbarrow in a rucksack on his back with the handles sticking out of the sack over his head and of course the miner’s lamp on his head for reading the newspaper.  As he approached the farm, a big four-sided house with a central yard, imagine the picture he must have created, a man on horseback at night, a single light in the middle of his forehead, with the handles of a toy wheelbarrow sticking straight up over his head like two horns.   He heard a scream.  He dismounted and went into the farmhouse.  He searched all over, but he could not find anyone.  So, who had screamed?  Finally, he went back out by the well, which was in the center of the courtyard.  There lying on the ground in the snow, was the farmer’s wife, dazed and incoherent, mumbling something about the devil on a white horse.  This was not the time to break the news of her son’s death.  The farmer had just come home and Vladimir talked to him instead.   He gave the wife a shot to sedate her and left.  Next morning, Christmas day, while I was playing with my wonderful new toy, the wheelbarrow, the farmer and his wife were grieving over the loss of their only son.

 

 

 

Hinterstoder is a unique place in the heart of the Alps. It is surrounded by beautiful mountains, named “das Totengebirge” which translated means the “dead mountains”.  The name probably comes from the stark granite mountains that dominate the view, with no visible life above the timberline.   The valley is a cul-de-sac, open only on one end where the Steyr River leaves the valley. At that location there is a spectacular waterfall where the river, by this time quite formidable, cascades over granite rocks to exit the valley. There is a legend that the devil tried to lead the people of Hinterstoder into lives of sin.  The people, however, remained true and would not follow.

The devil in disgust tried to dam up the river with big granite rocks in order to drown the people.  You can see those huge boulders that have been maneuvered into the path of the raging waters of the Steyr, but the water broke through the rocks and foiled the devil and he left in disgust, stomping the ground with his hoofed feet on his way out.

The devils temper tantrum created a giant hole in the earth, the Kreide Höle that you can visit and see for yourself. . And the water found a way around and over the huge boulders creating the cascading waterfall, which people have named Stumboding.  However, the devil must have sneaked back because sin was no stranger to this little hidden village.

 

 

 

The war brought many interesting people to hide and escape the bombings of the large cities.  There was even royalty represented.  One dynasty, the patriarch of which was the Duke of Eulenburg, owned thousands of Hektars (one Hektar is two and one-half acres) of the mountainsides and valleys.  This was their private hunting and fishing preserve.  There were several villas on this immense domain.  The Duke donated one of these hunting villas for the use of the town doctor.  So that villa was our home for the duration of the war.  How the Duke came by this great fortune is not known to me, but as so many other blue bloods in Europe I suspect he got it the old fashioned way, he inherited it.  The plague swept Europe from the East in the thirteen hundreds and killed millions of people.  So many dead left fewer and fewer to inherit the assets of the dead.  This, in effect, concentrated the money, and many fortunes still date back to that time.

Since my parents and I lived on the estate, our closest neighbors were the Baron and his family.  The Duke stayed at his German estate in Schleswig-Holstein primarily because we occupied his villa in Hinterstoder.  The Baron was gone, as he was a prisoner of war (more about that in Chapter 11).  He had a son, Andreas, who was my age. I had a toy pink water pistol that I had managed to hide from the Americans on their quest to remove all weapons, or weapon facsimiles, that would incite the blond blue-eyed race to become homicidal again.  It was quite a prize for me.  Andreas had a beautiful toy Mercedes sports car, built to scale with real rubber tires, and a functioning steering wheel and tiny doors that opened.  When you put it on a table to run around it would turn automatically when it came to an edge so that it would never fall off.  It was a real collector’s item.   Andreas wanted my pink water pistol and I wanted his toy car.  It was a win win situation.  We traded.  About that same time, Baron had been released from prison and took a great interest in all that happened on his estate, including our little trade.  My water pistol was a cheap toy, while the car was quite a masterwork with an appropriate price tag.  The Baron himself came up to our house with the pink water pistol and I sadly had to return the car.

The Baroness was very regal and stiff and she was not too happy to have her son play with a commoner.  Our friendship did not last too much longer.  The sister of my short-lived friend was a real beauty.  She was 12 years my senior about 19 or 20.  She was in love with the son of the wealthiest man in town, who had been the Bürgermeister of the town more than once.  He owned a large plot of land and a spectacular villa at the end of the valley in a cul-de-sac, encircled with massive granite monoliths that reached into the sky to touch the clouds, the Dietlegut, (see chapter I).  The two made a handsome couple; they were both very much in love.  But he was not a blue blood.  The Baroness soon put an end to it.  That and other events gave her the nickname “The Bloody Baroness”.  The blue bloods did not want to dilute their bloodlines with commoner blood.

When the Baron came back from his interment by the Russians, he was a shadow of his former self, but the rich Austrian diet quickly added back the pounds. My father was already dismissed by the new Austrian Government as the town doctor, but no replacement had been found.  The Baron accidently managed to cut one of the major arteries in his arm and Vladimir was the only one that could keep him from bleeding to death, even though he was no longer permitted to do so.  That did a lot to keep my father in good graces.  The Baron was now in charge of the estate since the Duke was getting on in years.  There were many employees on the estate; one was a real beauty, a gypsy girl with olive skin and long black hair.  She was my babysitter and, it was rumored, on occasion the Duke’s mistress. Those kinds of activities usually did not require any “blue blood”, female and pretty was all that was required.  Pepi was her name.  She was very good to me.

If she was unable to babysit, my parents would leave me with our family dog, Hugin. He had to carry something in his mouth, at all times, like a rock, a stick, or a rag.  The dog had an oral fixation.  At times, he would carry small trees that he pulled out and run with them.  If two people were walking along the road and he would come running behind them with this tree in his mouth, the tree being about knee height, he clipped both people and they would flip backwards simultaneously. Lawsuits were not customary at that time.  More than once my father would have to apologize, as well as suture lacerations, of course free of charge. Despite this, Hugin was the best dog I have ever known.  Feeding him during wartime was no easy task.  Such a large animal consumed a lot of calories that were sorely needed for human consumption.  As a doctor, my father had a little more opportunity to procure food from the farmers of the area.  But eventually they too were not willing to give away food to the doctor’s dog when they could sell it to people from the cities.  Vladimir eventually had to barter for food.  Money became increasingly useless toward the end of the war; everyone realized that Germany was losing the war and the Deutschmark had the backing of a government in ruin and retreat, meaning the Mark was worthless.  My father took his prized possession, an Omega watch, and gave it to one of the farmers.  He came three or four times and got some meat and bones and then the farmer said, “Now we are even”.  Next Hugin’s food required a new item, a ring, a broach, perhaps a string of pearls.  The farmers became quite wealthy during the war.

The war’s end came in May of 1945.  Hitler had committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin.  The German army was in disarray.  They were running away from the advancing American troops. There was double jeopardy because the Russians were advancing from the East.  No one wanted to be a prisoner of the Russians.  Some troops actually marched toward the Americans in order not to be in the Russian sector.  Hinterstoder was a good place to make a last stand.  The valley, having only one entrance, could be defended much easier than if the soldiers were surrounded on all sides.  But, of course, only one entrance also means only one exit.  The Germans came with all kinds of vehicles and light armored tanks and artillery.  Even small airplanes landed in the farmers’ fields.  When the Americans came there was luckily not much resistance.  The majority were taken prisoner.  A few fled into the mountains and for weeks the Americans drove up and down the valley, day and night, with loudspeaker trucks aimed at the mountains urging the escaped soldiers to come down and lay down their arms.  A few soldiers remained up there for several months but eventually all came down without any fighting.

The immediate post war period was very bad.  All weapons were confiscated; even hunting rifles were taken away.  Toy guns were taken away from children so that they would not reinforce the violence that was now said to be inborn in the blond, blue-eyed race.  There was chaos and no infrastructure to carry on the normal functions of a society.  Food was scarce to non-existent.  Whatever infrastructure had existed under the German government was wiped out.  The prisons were opened and disgorged of all prisoners.  Not all people that were in German jails were political prisoners.  There were standard criminals too, like burglars, rapists and murderers.  Crime was rampant.  There was no law enforcement.  It took the American authorities some time to realize that not every administrative action that Hitler’s government did was evil, and it took some time until order was restored.  Food became more available.  The Marshal Plan was set into action to rebuild the war-torn country.

When the war ended in 1945, my father was suddenly out of a job.  There was an oversupply of doctors.  War is usually good to doctors.  They are behind the front, not usually involved in any combat.  War is usually not so good to the plumber, farmer and carpenter.  They are in the front-line shooting and getting shot.  So, when the soldiers came home most doctors survived, except the handsome doctor from Hinterstoder whom Vladimir had replaced.  He had been assigned to Mauthausen, a concentration camp near Linz, the town of my birth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The war memorial showing the Hinterstoder men killed.  Note in the closeup the name killed on May 2, 1945, Dr Rudolf Jöbstl. The German surrender was May 8, 1945. This was the doctor whose job my father took in 1942 when he went to administer the Concentration Camp, Mauthausen, near Linz, Ober Donau.

When the American Third Army, under direct orders of General Eisenhower, liberated the concentration camp, the inmates bludgeoned the doctor to death.  They were mostly emaciated Jews who managed to escape the last massive Nazi attempt to kill as many Jews as possible to hide the atrocities, among them ironically was Simon Wiesenthal, who became the famous “Nazi Hunter” after the war. The doctor’s wife who owned the medical office and pharmacy in Hinterstoder blamed Vladimir for her husband’s death since, after all, if he had not replaced her husband, he might not have been assigned to the concentration camp and would still be alive.  She did everything in her power to get Vladimir fired.  And now there were a lot of doctors looking for work.

The people of Hinterstoder banded behind my father because he had served them well and they all loved him, but they could not save him.  The new Austrian government dismissed him.   “Go to Germany!  The Germans brought you here,” they said.  It is interesting how quickly the Austrians also considered themselves victims of Hitler.  Anything that was connected to the Germans had to go.  No income, no job and soon the Baron wanted us out of the hunting villa, which he donated for the active working doctor that provided medical services to the town.  My father lost his right to practice medicine, and he worked only occasionally when some of his old patients came and begged him to help, since the new doctor had not yet arrived.  So he did what he could under some risk of being accused of practicing without a valid license. It was especially difficult for the sick people of the village who depended on the village doctor.  Sometimes my father would take me along to house calls that he made secretly to avoid trouble with the law since he could no longer exercise his profession openly. One day it was to an older female patient of his who had terrible hypertension.  In 1947 there were no medications for high blood pressure.  The only treatment was to limit the amount of salt in the diet, and periodically remove blood from the overloaded system.  This event made an indelible impression on my youg mind.  I recall vividly the white porcelain hand-washing bowl into which the spilled blood streamed out from a large bore needle that was inserted at the elbow crease.  There was a rubber tourniquet above the elbow, which made the blood flow faster so that it would not clot.  You could hear the stream hit the side of the bowl. I recall a strange clean antiseptic odor that I thought came from the blood.  Now I realize that this was the alcohol used to clean the skin for the venipuncture.  The woman became visibly better with each drop of blood that she lost.  Her face which was all contorted with the pain of a severe headache from the high blood pressure resumed a more normal, relaxed appearance.  I liked the whole thing; pushing a needle into the engorged vein, the antiseptic smell of alcohol, the dramatic spraying out of life’s vital fluids, the sounds, the color of the dark red blood hitting the white porcelain, the obvious improvement of the suffering woman, and the power of the healer to give this gift.  I knew then at this early age that I too had to become a physician.  Ironically this form of treatment, bleeding the patient, is pretty much in disrepute.  It dates back to the Middle Ages and except for treating polycythemia, a disease causing too many red blood cells in the circulation, is not utilized.  But it certainly helped that poor woman and was a defining moment for me.

After a couple of years of living off past income and selling everything that could be sold, Vladimir found a job with the United Nations, a branch called the International Refugee Organization (IRO).  They helped displaced persons immigrate to new lands.  Physicians were employed to do health screenings since no country wanted to take the sick, especially if they had communicable diseases or would become a burden to that country.  So only healthy people that could contribute to the society would be eligible.  This often created tragic situations.  Families potentially could be split up.  Vladimir did not enjoy this work.   He found a better job.  The US Army needed doctors and would take even Germans.  My father, although not a German, was accepted and he started to work for the United States Army.  Although he spoke many languages his English was not so good, but good enough to get hired.  He often hid in a closet when the Inspector General came to the base so that his English would not become an issue.  But because he spoke so many languages, Russian, Romanian, German, French, and Ukrainian he picked up English fairly fast.  In a few months, he didn’t need to hide any more.

We continued to live in the Prielervilla, a spectacular venue, but by the early 1950’s the good will and gratitude toward the former doctor of the town had reached its end. The war was over and we had to move in 1952 literally over a pigsty, but that is another story.