We left New York City for Vienna, Austria on my thirteenth birthday, November 10, 1946.
My father had been assigned to Vienna and had left in July of 1945, so we were anxious to join him. I can’t remember his specific assignment, but he was in charge” of the American sector of Vienna, which was divided into four sectors American, French, British, and Russian, as was Berlin. He had superior officers over him so I am not sure what my mother meant when she said he was “in charge”.
We were on a troop transport carrier, which took around seven days to reach Bremerhaven, and was not exactly a cruise ship. I slept on top of a three-decker bunk bed in a small cabin with my mother and brother. The ship was pretty utilitarian, but there was a large room we used as a recreation area, and it had an old upright piano in it. Occasionally, they showed a movie and we played cards. It was a long, boring trip for the few teenagers that were on board. The only excitement was when we saw the white cliffs of Dover and crossed the English Channel. The weather was horrific and the piano rolled back and forth across the room due to the heavy waves. We were advised to remain in our cabins, but we were all seasick, and didn’t follow that advice.
When we arrived in Bremerhaven, we were escorted to a train bound for Vienna. I had traveled by train before, but this train was very different and I finally realized we were indeed in a “foreign” country. When we arrived in Vienna, it was late in the day, and my father met us and we drove to our new home.
It was a three story boxy house, on a relatively small lot, up in the hills close to the Vienna Woods. We had a live-in cook/housekeeper, named Heidi, and a man named George who came twice a day to take care of the furnace and the yard. We had never had any household help before, so we felt very special. Heidi cooked our first meal that evening. She was very proud of her efforts, but I have to admit that I thought it was terrible! She made a type of bread dumpling, cooked in water that tasted like wet dough, a salad with endive (very bitter) and a vinaigrette dressing, and a very small piece of beef. The one bright spot was the bread. It was delivered each morning, warm from the bakery, just as milk was delivered at home, and was delicious! I was to learn that in those early months after the war not much was available in the local markets. The Army advised us not to drink anything that was not bottled, and not to buy local produce, as it may have been fertilized with human excrement. All of our food came from the Commissary, and it took awhile for supplies to be available. That improved over time, but those early meals were anything but memorable.
I was excited about the whole experience and wanted to learn as much as I could about Austria. I remember that there was a house near us that had an entire poem painted on the side of the house;
Dies haus ist mein,
Und doch nicht mein.
Wer nach mir kommt,
Ist auch nicht sein.
Dann wirds dem dritten ubergehen
Dem wirds g’rad so, wie mir ergehen
Den vierten trught man auch hinaus
So sagt mir doch, wem gehort dies haus?
I puzzled over what the meaning was every time I was taken to school each morning. Loosely translated (very loosely! It means something like: ” This house is mine and yet not mine. Those who come after me also do not own it-so I ask myself, who does own this house?” I thought that having a poem written on the side of your house was a very interesting thing to do, and one of the little magical things about the city.
We lived in that house for almost a year, and then May Day came. We were shocked at the number of red flags that showed up on the houses in our neighborhood, and the parades and celebration that took place in the main streets of Vienna. It was a time of tension and anxiety for us. Around that time, my father found that our telephone was being tapped, and that Heidi was a Communist and had been spying on us. My father dismissed her and ordered her to leave the house. She was extremely upset and went to her third floor room to pack, we thought. About an hour later, we were sitting in the living room and saw her attempt suicide by jumping from her room to the ground outside our window. We were horrified, but fortunately she survived. She broke her back and was hospitalized for some time, but we never saw her again.
Shortly after that we were moved to a new home. These homes were leased to Army officers, who signed an inventory and were responsible for all of the contents, as well as the upkeep of the homes. They had been owned by Austrians who had been in the Nazi party and were confiscated by the Army. Our second home was an estate on a large piece of property. It had three main floors as well as a basement and an attic, I have forgotten the actual number of rooms, but it was between 18-20. It included an orchard, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a gardener/caretaker’s home, and separate garages. With all of this property we needed additional help, so we had a cook, two maids, a gardener/caretaker, a furnace man, and a chauffer. I don’t know how they were paid, but I seem to remember that my father was required to add an additional $10 each to whatever they received. The gardener/caretaker lived on the property with his wife and sons, who were my brother’s age; he was 8 and they were 7 and 9, as I recall. They played together frequently and were friends.
Years later, my mother and sister-in-law went to Austria on a visit and I asked them to go to #15 Khevenhullergasse and look at the house. They met him and his wife and they were very pleased to hear about our lives and what had happened to us. I loved that house and I chose for my room, a small two-room apartment on the third floor. It had one small room with a window box seat, a desk, and an armoire, and adjoining that room was a bedroom with a built in bed, across from which was a raised platform for an easy chair and bookcases and built in shelves and cabinets. The whole apartment was in knotty pine and was hand painted. It was a dream room for a teen.
Vienna Dependents High School was in an old house, as I recall, and in the beginning there were few students, but little by little we added more. Our language teacher was a professor from the University of Vienna, who could read and write 25 different languages. He taught us German, and for fun added a little Russian, Chinese, Italian and French on occasion. Our English, History, and Math teachers had also been professors in America, so we had an enriched educational experience.
We often took “field trips” to museums and palaces and castles and places of historical significance. Once, we went to Trieste for a three-day trip on the Orient Express. We also went to Hochosterwitz, which is the castle that inspired the one in Disney’s Snow White. I remember climbing the stone steps to the tower and looking out. It was like looking down from an airplane at the patchwork of fields in the distance. There was little left in the way of furnishings in the castle, but there was a suit of armor still intact. I was amazed at how small the person was who wore it. I am 5’6″ and I towered above that suit of armor.
The Army tried to give us as normal an experience as possible there, so we did all of the things that a regular high school did. We had sports teams-basketball, football, etc., cheerleaders (I was one), school paper and albums, and so forth. We were even allowed to exchange games with other dependents school teams. I remember one trip to Munich that was a lot of fun.
At one point, they offered typing classes. In order to take typing, we had to leave by bus at the end of the day, accompanied by an M.P. to assure that we were safe. We were taken to an office building downtown, and learned to type on the old Royal typewriters from an American teacher. We soon discovered that we passed by the ice cream parlor on the way to and from typing, so of course we sweet-talked the bus driver and the M.P. into letting us stop and buy a hot fudge sundae. Now, the ice cream was made of powdered milk and powdered eggs and was not exactly what we were used to, but forbidden fruit is always sweeter, and we thoroughly enjoyed those sundaes!
We also had scheduled dances, or parties-usually in a parent’s home and supervised by those parents. We lobbied successfully for a “teen club”, which we helped take care of and we often did skits, etc. for our own enjoyment. We called it “The Sugar Bowl”. We even had members of the National Honor Society, and sometimes recruiters from colleges in the U.S. would come. Our graduation was very special-held in the Bristol Hotel. There were seven of us in my graduation class. All in all, I think the Army did a pretty good job at making our high school experience as close to stateside as they could.
I will always remember the time in Vienna. It was very special. I became close to our cook, Mary, who was born in Austria, but had been sent as a governess to London before the war and later went to Australia and married and had two sons. She often took me to the local opera house, not the Stadtsopera downtown, but a smaller opera house nearby. I enjoyed many of the operettas-more so, since she could help with the translation. We snooped in the antique shops, went to the Prater, and in the last year went to Damel’s in the Ringstrasse and ate those fantastic pastries that they had been famous for. We rode on the Gurtel and the Strassenbahn’s and walked miles, “spatzierengehen”, as the Austrian’s say. I learned to ski (poorly), and ice skate, and watched the Olympic hopefuls practice at the same ice rink where we were learning to skate. Two of those people were Dick Button and Carol Haines, who later won gold medals. One year we watched some of the filming for the movie, The Third Man, with Joseph Cotton and Valli, and were able to meet the actors. We also met Tyrone Power, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, Jeanette McDonald and other actors who were in Vienna at different times, and were kind enough to give us autographs. That was very exciting for kids who were away from home.
I also had the privilege of going to the first production after the war of the Passion Play at Oberammegau, where the entire village has a part in the performance, and which takes place every seven years and lasts about a week. It is on a split-covered stage, but is in the open, so you are outdoors, but with a roof over you. I stayed in a bed and breakfast there and slept on big poofy feather beds. It was wonderful.
There are so many wonderful memories. I could write a book. I remember crying all the way back home, on the train and on the boat. When we arrived in New York harbor, all the buildings had TV antennas on them, as TV had become available in the years we were gone. It looked more foreign than the country I left. There was a virtual forest of antennas. When I got off the boat, I felt like a stranger-didn’t know how to use a pay phone, or a vending machine. All of my clothes were out of style, and people kept saying to me that I “spoke English very well”, so I guess I had unintentionally picked up an accent. It was quite an adjustment to enter an American college, but I did adjust.
I will always miss Vienna. Although I would like to make a return visit, I know it will be different than it was during those post-war years. In spite of the changes that had taken place during the war, the lack of food and clothing, the damage to some of the buildings and the hardships that the Viennese people had to endure, they still maintained as much as possible their previous way of life. Music in the park, long walks, a structured life style. It was a slow paced way of life and very pleasant.
Although I kept a diary for the entire time I was there, when I read what I had written I was disappointed to find that I had really written nothing of value. It was a typical teenaged girl’s record of temporary crushes, and comments on what was going on at school. What I have written comes from memory only, so forgive the misspellings and the rusty grammar.
Copyright 2004 American Overseas Schools Historical Society