In the Austrian Army

Moshe Paul’s enlistment procedure was uneventful, except for several smirks and side comments about Jews… but he was in very good physical condition…

11 min

Yaakov Bar Nahman

Posted on 28.12.10

Solomon’s Trains, Part 13
 
It was a nice hot June day in 1934. For three days the maintenance and janitorial crews of the Vienna Technical Gymnasium (High School) had been searching one of the class rooms to track down the source of the horrendous stench that had caused Mr. Zapf to dismiss class until further notice.
 
Finally it was discovered that the cause of unbearably pungent odor had been a lump of well aged Limburger cheese stuck on the underside of the teacher’s desktop above the central drawer. It being the hottest days of the year helped amplify the “perfume” of the gifted Limburger. It required literally taking the desk apart to discover this and to remove the offending cheese. Mr. Zapf had won this dubious prize for his rather nasty style of rapport with the Jewish students in his class.
 
The maintenance chief reported their find to the school’s headmaster. He finished his report with “Sir it will require at least another three days to properly clean the desk top and then rebuild the desk, and to clear the air of the classroom. I swear that I am sure that the devil himself smells no worse than that room.” Due to the cleverness and daring of the trick, the blame was instantly placed on Moshe. A message was sent to his home for Moshe to appear in the headmaster’s office the next morning.
 
In the office of the principal of the Vienna Technical Gymnasium Moshe Paul was standing before him and the school’s disciplinarian. He was used to being in the disciplinarian’s office. Yet he had not been in the Headmaster’s office for a long time. Not much had changed. There were the same fancy carved oak wood desk, leather upholstered chairs, and the cherry wood paneled walls, though the old worn carpet had been changed. Then he noticed a disturbing change. There had always been the placard with the Austrian coat of arms on the wall. This was a black eagle with its spread wings curled upwards with a hammer in one talon and a sickle in the other. But something had been added. Superimposed on the eagle’s tail feathers was a red disk with a black swastika inside.
 
As Moshe stared at the placard thinking to himself, “So, as we suspected, Zapf and the other four are not the only ones of the staff who are in the Nazi gang. This explains several things. The fish stinks from the head.”
 
The Headmaster spoke. “Young man I presume you are quite proud of yourself, as you stand there looking so smug.”
 
Moshe Paul’s reply took them even further aback. “Herr Headmaster with all due respect you must admit that it was an ingenious idea, yes?” He couldn’t withhold a grin.
 
Both the principle and the disciplinarian turned color alternately red and white. With the increased tension most definitely noticeable in his voice, to the point where he almost stuttered, he continued, “The – the utter audacity of such a thing – – and causing destruction of school property in our maintenance men having to rip the desk apart because of you is beyond our comprehension. You – you should be thankful that we do not charge you for the desk. I must inform you that such shenanigans cannot be accepted in our school. This is your graduating year. We are now one month before the end of the school year and I am hereby giving you your grade reports and diploma early. You may go now and quickly please. Haruous geschmisen gotferdamdt yid!”
 
Moshe quickly grabbed his grade report and diploma from the desk, flashed his charming smile and replied, “Thank you Herr Headmaster. I’ve been thrown out of better places.” Then he scatted out so fast they did not have a chance to say anything more.
 
After he left the disciplinarian turned and said, “I hate to admit it but that damned Jew boy is clever. Yet his cleverness will not help him one bit when the Fuehrer takes over Austria. I pray that it will be soon and we will be well rid of all those Jews.”
 
On the way out of the building one of the teachers called him aside. “That was clever. Don’t tell anyone I said this but I laud you for what you did. Come to my house this evening I wish to help you in your plans for your future.”
 
The house was in a mixed neighborhood, not the best and not worst quarter of Vienna. It had heavy brick and stone walls. Its exterior and interior were clean orderly and austere looking. When Moshe had entered he noticed that on the inside panel of the right side door jamb was a patch of wood slightly different colored than the rest. He presumed that it was due to some repair.
 
That evening in the home of Franz Oberhoisen with the door doubly locked and the curtains closed well, Moshe was hearing something that took him a while to believe.
 
“What, you Herr Franz are Jewish?”
 
From under a floor board Franz took out a box with papers proving his being Jewish. From behind a secret panel in a wall he took a well worn Talit (prayer shawl), a set of Tefilin (phylacteries) and a siddur (prayer book). To show further that he knew what it all was about Franz, after pointing out that he had already prayed the evening service, recited several portions of the morning service by heart, and recounted which weekly portion was to be read the coming Shabbat.
 
“The patch on the door jamb which you looked at twice is covering a mezuzah. It is placed that way to assure its not being recognised by anyone as such.
 
“Young Moshe, come to the basement. There you will see that I have a private mikveh (ritual purification pool), though that too is hidden. Not only am I a Jew, but I am an orthodox religious Jew. Now you also know why I am always wearing some kind of cap or hat even in class. My story of catching cold easily is merely a cover up.”
 
Herr Franz led him to a bookcase near a corner of the salon at an exterior wall, or at least it appeared to be an exterior wall. “Take out the book “Water is Life”, there on the right side at your shoulder height, and feel behind it. Yes you feel the little lever? Pull it. Now pull on the side wall of the bookcase.”
 
The bookcase turned quietly on hinges and revealed, cleverly hidden in the thick exterior wall, a narrow stairway leading down into a secret basement. Franz closed the door behind them.
 
Upon descending the stairs they came to small vestibule with two doors. One opened to a study with bookshelves containing a couple hundred books of ranging from basic Torah, Prophets, etc, to commentaries to legends, and books of Jewish law and moral teachings. The other opened to a neat clean mikveh, small but large enough to meet all requirements to be kosher for ritual purification. Moshe Paul now found himself in a state that was basically unknown to him. That being that for the first time in years he was speechless.
 
They returned to the salon and Herr Franz carefully closed the secret door and made sure that there was no mark on the floor from its having been opened.
 
“Now you can feel comfortable having a cup of tea and some cake here young man. Yes? Do you prefer a marble cake or white with dried fruit?”
 
When they were sitting at the kitchen table Herr Franz handed Moshe a piece of paper and continued. “Here is the name and regiment of an officer in the army who is also a secret Jew. I wrote for you here where and how to find him.”
 
Handing him a second paper he added, “Show him this note from me and he will help you there. If the army system will not permit you to approach him before enlisting then enlist into the horse drawn artillery and from wherever they place you, find him from within the system. Maybe say that you have greetings to give him from an old school mate.
 
“Again I beseech you to not let anyone in Austria know that I am a Jew. Keep in mind that in the army you will not be able to do the things you did in the school. They would kill you, and quickly. May God help you, and may God help our people. I fear that what is soon to come is the worst our nation has ever seen. Shalom young man and God bless you.”
 
The enlistment procedure went uneventful, except for several smirks and side comments about Jews. As he was strong, in very good physical condition, and had a good report from metal crafting from the Vienna Tech High School, he could easily choose to be a blacksmith and farrier in the horse drawn artillery.
 
* * *
 
About six months had passed since Moshe had enlisted. Staff sergeant Hans Schwarzkopf and Lance Corporal Dietrich Yeager were commenting on the new recruit. “Humph that dirty Jew always insists on washing his hands the first thing every morning on waking. Strange people they are.”
 
“Yeager, decide, is he always washing his hands, or is he dirty?”
 
“What? Oh, well maybe because he knows he is filth like his entire subhuman race he is always trying to clean himself.”
 
“Won’t help him any. The filth is inside.”
 
“Why must we suffer their presence here in our army?”
 
“They’re useful and whenever I need someone for a particularly disgusting job to do or something especially dangerous I prefer to send one of them instead of one of ours. I also enjoy tricking them, or setting them up for failure so I can punish them.”
“Wonderful ideas you have.”
 
“That’s why I’m a sergeant and not a corporal. Wait and see, this afternoon what I do to this one. To help me set him up get me some poorly made mule shoes from the refuse pile in the blacksmith’s bin.”
 
“Yes sir, with pleasure.”
 
That afternoon sergeant Schwarzkopf called Moshe. “Private Moshe Paul, come here. Take these and go shod the captains steed. Be quick about it and do it right.”
 
Moshe looked at the iron shoes, then at the sergeant, back at the shoes and again at the sergeant. “Ah sir these shoes don’t look quite right to me.”
 
“Impertinent Jew, you have just come here, are still only in training and you want to show yourself as a superior farrier? Follow orders or I’ll have you court-martialed and punished for disobeying orders. You will spend four months in military prison.”
 
As he walked across the ill kept lawn of the compound from the sergeant’s office to the officer’s stables, he pondered over the trap that had been laid for him. Moshe knew he was being set up, but wondered how he would get out of it. Then, “Ah, how brilliant of me even if I say so myself.”
 
He took the mule shoes, which even if had not been defective would have been inappropriate, went to the officer’s stables and led out the captain’s prize riding horse. Then he stood and waited for…
 
He spotted Private Fritz, the barrack dunce, walking by. He gave himself an “accidental” whack on the hand, even managed to draw some blood, with the hammer and shouted out “in pain”.
 
“Whoaw what a clod I am! Fritz, come help me.”
 
After helping Moshe wrap his injured hand, Fritz most obligingly accepted being given the great honor of shoeing the captain’s favorite horse. He was even given the honor of getting to sign his name on the work report form. Oh how happy and proud he was indeed.
 
As he rambled off to the camp infirmary to care for his hand Moshe mused to himself. “Well I got out of that trap well enough. But what will that sergeant come up with next. I must get to where Oberst (Colonel) Nuestater is located.”
 
At the infirmary the medic commented as he bandaged Moshe’s hand. “Fool clumsy youngster, you should be more careful. That’s quite a bang you gave yourself there. I’ll have to write you a week or so off from manual work. I certainly hope that sergeant Schwarzkopf won’t give you too much trouble for it. Hmmm, I’ll request from the camp commander a seven day leave for you.”
 
“Thank you very much Doc. Along with that, maybe you can help me find out where the 23rd regiment is located? I wish to visit there to bring regards to someone there from a common friend in Vienna.”
 
“The 23rd? Sure enough, I can tell you myself. I served there too for a while. While you’re there give my regards to Oberst Nuestater please.” The doctor winked at Moshe and slightly lifted the front edge of what turned out to be not his natural hair but a toupee, and whispered. “By halakha this too is considered a head covering. And by the way he, Johan Franz and I were childhood friends.” The doctor winked again and then he said out loud for other ears to hear. “Well good enough Private. Enough tarrying here. Get on your way.”
 
Moshe was delighted. He hand in his hand a full weeks pass, plus a note telling where the 23rd Horse Drawn Artillery was and an official request by the camp doctor to permit his traveling there with a purported message from the doctor to the colonel.
 
He went home, rested a couple days, caught up local news and then, in uniform with his pack on his back was off to meet Oberst Nuestater.
 
A two day train ride, and five hour hitch hike later he was standing at the gate of the 23rd Artillery’s base camp. It was almost twice the size of the 17th where he had been stationed.
 
“Halt! Papiere!” Two guards were standing opposite him, one with a rifle pointed directly at him the other with his hand held out to receive the papers through the grating of the large heavy iron gate.
 
Unflustered he handed them the papers and awaited their response. A careful look over, and a phone call to an officer in the camp, “Es gibt einen privaten hier mit einem brief an Oberst Nuestater von arzt Rottman.” (There is a private here with a letter from doctor Rottman). Having received permission they opened the gate, which unlike the gate of the 17th Regiment did not creak.
 
“Soldier geben schnell!” (Enter quickly soldier.)
 
With his ever charming smile Moshe entered quickly saying, “Danke feinen herren” (thank you fine gentlemen). A comment that left the two guards looking at each other in wonder. And Moshe chuckling quietly to himself, “That’ll have them scratching their block heads.”
 
The meeting with Oberst Nuestater was cautiously friendly. The message from Franz Oberhoisen and from doctor Rottman opened a door for him. But the secret had to be kept precisely that, a secret. Quickly transfer from the 17th regiment to the 23rd was arranged. Within a week Moshe was promoted as due to corporal.
 
While life in the 23rd regiment was easier for him there was no way to totally escape the anti-Semitism that was so rife in the Austrian army.
 
A very few weeks after his transfer to the 23rd an interesting incident occurred. An incident that reminded him of Staff sergeant Hans Schwarzkopf and in which his sharp eye and good memory served him well.
 
It was morning line up.
 
“Achtung!”
 
The captain was inspecting the horses in the stable that Moshe was partially responsible for. He went from one to another checking the coat, the stand, the feet, the condition of the saddles and harnesses etc.
 
“Corporal Jew farrier step forward! Come with me and inspect the horses.”
 
At one riding horse he stopped at the feet. Looked twice and shouted. “Corporal! Shame on you! I will have you court-martialed for such negligent lousy work. Look at these shoes. Poor horse, what shoddy work!”
 
Moshe quickly recognized the horse and the shoes. It was the very horse that the sergeant in the 17th regiment had tried to get him in trouble with. The animal had only arrived the past evening. “My apologies for speaking out Herr Kapitan, but this is not my handiwork. Please look at its identification and papers at the stall’s head. It arrived last night from the 17th regiment. From the work I can even tell you who shod the poor beast. Again I apologize for saying…”
 
“Corporal you dare correct me?”
 
“Herr Kapitan, in my appreciation and respect for you I dare protect you from a serious error and from being reprimanded for such by the camp Kommandant! I beg of you to permit me to correct the poor workmanship of the farrier of the 17th regiment and to heal the harm done the poor steed. You will see that after I have done what needs to be done he will be a prize personal riding horse for you.”
 
“Humph. Well said corporal. Your request is granted. But be sure you do it right and fulfill all you promised.” On the side he quietly added. “Paul you arrogant little Jew, my compliments to you on your sharp eyes and good will. I swear to you by God that if you weren’t a Jew you could become an officer.”
 
“Thank you Herr Kapitan for your appreciation.” In his heart Moshe added silently, “I wonder how much it wrenched your bigoted gut to admit that I was right.”
 
To be continued

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