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Born on the wrong Side of the Fence

Biography and Memories of an Austrian Migrant

1936-1947

Bruno Ehlich

2005, 2009 Bruno Ehlich

Chapter 13

The Trip Home

    Mum was sick and pregnant. The trip from Leuchtenberg, the cold, the food, the worry brought a serious case of diarrhea. Mum was exhausted and dehydrated as she lay moaning on a heap of straw. Dad had to call the camp doctor, a U.S. soldier and a Red Cross sister. All they had was this black charcoal powder and black tea. Somehow Mum felt a little better and Dad relaxed a bit. He was so tired of dragging Mum to the toilet so many times, and all the cleaning up afterwards.

    We young boys roamed around the camp all day annoying the GIs, begging for chocolate, cigarettes or chewing gum for trading. To our surprise, a lot of the GIs did respond to our begging and gave us some of their rations. But the girls had it better, especially the older ones. Well, that's life.

    After many days of waiting we noticed that a huge amount of railroad boxcars were being shunted around and coupled together and some of them had rows of bullet holes in them. The stench of dead human bodies was everywhere and I did not realize at that time that much of that rolling stock was used to transport war prisoners and Jews to and from the Concentration Lagers. This rolling stock was also used for soldiers' transport to and from the eastern front.

    The wagons had no toilet or water supply. Some had a large hole in the floor to use as the only manner to eject human waste. Some of the wagons were so shot up that it's a miracle they were still used for transport. Dad told me in later years that some of those wagons had bloated bodies in them for weeks before anybody had the opportunity to remove them; therefore that terrible smell. The U.S. ordered some of the camp refugees to clean the boxcars and all of them had about 12 inches of new straw put in. More and more refugees arrived at the holding camp in Passau and we noticed that most wagons had destinations painted on them like Vienna, Graz, Innsbruck, Linz, Budapest, etc. So departure was near.

    Mum felt a little better but she had lost a few kilos in weight. Only the hot barley soup with meat we received every day saved my mother from not having a miscarriage. We still thank the Red Cross today after sixty years for looking after my mother at that time of need.

    One day we were given tags to attach to our clothing and after showering we were covered in DDT and told to report to our boxcar with our meager belongings. Hundreds upon hundreds of refugees stood there for hours in front of our boxcars and finally, after receiving a Red Cross food parcel each, we were told to enter our wagon. Just to climb up was a huge task for us and Mum in her condition as it was nearly four feet off the ground. Fifty persons per car and one forty gallon drum of water, and that hole in the corner. Lucky for us we had a reasonably solid carriage, but it had no windows. Two huge steam locomotives were coupled up, which nearly threw all of us into the straw as they connected, and after two long weeks of processing we finally left Passau for the long trek home to Vienna.

    Slowly the train rumbled over the hills and down into the Danube valley. Today, a modern high speed train would only take five to six hours from Passau to Vienna, but our trip lasted days. There were many stops, some of them nearly a day long, where we had the opportunity to climb out of the wagons, stretch our legs or take a very short stroll making sure not to stray too far away from the train just in case they decided to pull away suddenly.

    As we traveled through the early frosty winter days, the temperature in our wagon dropped to nearly zero degrees. After a few days traveling with no showers, the inside of the carriage started to smell. Say for instance, a lady wanted to go to the toilet (the hole in the floor). She had to ask someone in the carriage to hold a blanket up for her so she would have some privacy from all those prying eyes. But believe me, no one bothered, as most of us just sat or lay on the now trampled down straw.

    The crying of the babies due to all this noise and the lack of proper food nearly drove us up the wall. Those poor mums. After a few days someone suggested to open the roller door to suck some fresh air into our carriage. However, to add to our misery the hot ashes from the steam engine got sucked through the open door into the wagon and nearly started a fire in our straw. Well, that was the end of having the door open. Fresh air was channeled into the carriage by some ingenious rotating devices on the top of the carriage roof. One day -- and thanks to God it happened during the day and thanks to the engineer for seeing this which saved a massive loss of lives -- as it happened, one of those unserviced rail wagons seized an axle bearing. It was due to not having any grease or oil in the bearing box. The result was a fire starting underneath the carriage's wooden floor and with the draft pushing the smoke into the carriage it started to suffocate the people inside. They all screamed in terror and opened the roller door which of course made it worse as it sucked all the smoke inside. Slowly the train came to a halt, the engineers uncoupled the wagon; then the train pulled away a few yards and then uncoupled it again so it stood there by itself. All the people were evacuated from this carriage and they were looked after by a very friendly farmer nearby.

    We were there for most of the day and the U.S. Army was bringing supplies to us, coffee and biscuits, apples, milk and bread. There we sat in the middle of Austria in early winter waiting for a rescue team to arrive. The U.S. Army toppled the carriage off the track. All persons were distributed into the already full wagons, then we were coupled up and away we went.

    The next day we stopped at St. Poelten to fill up with water and coal and to offload some of the families and individuals. It took quite a while so some of us decided to take a stroll. So out we climbed from our wagon to cross a few rail tracks they used for shunting. My little brother started to cross by himself, without waiting for me, Dad or Mum to assist him. Very quietly and silently a rail wagon which was shunted around came rolling towards my brother. I yelled "Fritz, watch out!" He panicked and instead of jumping over the rails and out of harm's way he put his foot onto the icy cold slippery rail track and fell on his head between the rails. Mum screamed as the carriage rolled over my little brother. People came from all over the railyard running to give us some help. God must have looked after my little brother as the wagon just rolled over him. Because he was unconscious and not moving, he came into no contact with the rolling stock and all he needed was seven stitches on his eyebrow and a few hours' rest in the medical wagon looked after by a U.S. military nurse. All my life I've remembered this incident and when I see my brother we joke about this very serious incident.

    One day there was a suicide in one of the wagons. A man cut his wrist in the night and not only killed himself but turned all of the mushy straw in the wagon blood red. Nobody could change it and all those poor people had to put up with it until Vienna, including the body.

    Later that day the train stopped again as the tracks had to be repaired. A bomb crater which was close to the rail tracks had made the earth collapse and the rails were very badly buckled. Again this happened during the day. One could only imagine if this would have happened during the night. I have seen a train disaster, as described in an earlier chapter, and I thank God for having spared us from a very serious derailment.

    Closer and closer we approached to Vienna and the country outside looked more and more like a war zone. Most villages sort of clustered around the railway system.  The bombing by the Allied air forces which tried very hard to knock them out to stop movements of German troops also leveled a lot of those towns and cities. It looked terrible to us and rumor had it that Vienna was also 90 percent bombed out.

    The next day, after many days of traveling, we approached Vienna. All along the railway track everything was bombed and blown up. Cars, tanks, houses, factories, bridges and churches were absolutely unbelievable. Mum just cried for hours as did most of the people on the train. Where was Hitler now with his great generals and his great ideas? As we rolled into the lovely Vienna woods, the villages well known to me were all in ruins. Two kilometers outside our final destination, Vienna's Westbahnhof (Main West Railway Station) was also the end of the western railway system. Everything was bombed out, burned out, caved in. Molten glass and melted steel bridges. What happened to all those people who lived in all those houses, thousands upon thousands? God help us. Poor Mum and Dad and us children had no idea of what was in store for us. As we had had no contact with any of our family and relations for months, we did not know if our families were alive, or if their homes were still standing.

    Finally, after many days of terror on the train, we came to a standstill in this burned out shell of one of Europe's biggest railway stations. We were surrounded by French Army nurses, doctors and first aid people from the Red Cross. Mum was helped out and put on a stretcher to be looked after by a very friendly French doctor. Why French, you may say. Well, we happened to be in the French zone. Vienna was divided into four military sectors. American, French, English and Russian. So we all stood there; Dad, Fritz, myself and Mum on a stretcher. We each received a large box of rations and then we were given our first Austrian registration card. We were now ready to start our new free life in our homeland.

    The horror which unfolded before my eyes was indescribable. What I had seen years earlier, when part of Magdeburg was bombed and burned, was only a minor incident against what happened in Vienna. Vienna was laid in total ruin. Streets kilometers long were lined on both sides with burned out and collapsed buildings. Glass mixed with bricks and mortar, concrete and warped steel beams meters high filled ninety percent of all roads. Streets usually twenty or more meters wide had only a three-foot path winding through the rubble. Tramlines that were ripped up and used for the last street defenses lay rusting mixed up with rubble. Burned out car and truck bodies were everywhere. Military hardware, German, Russian, etc., mixed up with live ammunition on every corner and uniforms splattered with blood amongst the rubble. The most horrible thing I saw was human bones minus flesh sticking out of half caved in cellar windows. They just could not make it as the fireball in the streets were thousands of degrees. With only superheated air around people who made it out of burning and collapsed buildings had no chance to survive. They melted instantly.

    In nearly every street Austrian men and women under military supervision worked from morning to late afternoon cleaning the rubble from the roads. They cleaned the bricks of mortar by hand using a small ax, then stacked them by the thousands near the roads to be reused later for the rebuilding of Vienna. Steel beams, bent and molten glass were taken away for recycling. Not anything was thrown away. Brass fittings from taps and other items were reused again in later months. Those were the first few months after the war.

    The feeding of those hard-working Austrians was the job of the occupying military forces. They brought the soup kitchen right up to the rubble heaps. Also they paid the weekly wages for each of the workers. So most of the streets of Vienna were cleared of rubble in the first two years.

    Now Dad and Mum tracked through this rubble towards my Grandparents' home which luckily was only one kilometer from the Westbahnhof railway station. Dad left part of our luggage at the station for later collection. We could hardly believe our luck as we approached the street where my Grandparents lived. On one side of the street the houses were standing with only minor damage, but the other side was totally gone, bombed and collapsed, just meter high rubble for hundreds of meters.

    God was with us. Grandpa's home was there looking fine and undamaged. Dad had tears running down his face and Mum was again nearly collapsing. We finally dragged her around the last corner into the Markt Graf Ruediger Strasse (Baron von Ruediger Street) Number One. Again the cold weather was having a very bad effect on Mum, and also we had no decent winter clothing. We climbed up to the second level in this wonderful old building which was built about 1835 in the Rococo Style. Everything inside was handcrafted in finely hammered railings and beautiful rose marble slate stairs. Then the final moment had arrived. We knocked on the door. Grandma opened the beautiful carved door with inlaid leadlight glass panels and bronze handles. She just stood there in the dimly lit passage and not a word was said. Mum now collapsed into her arms, and Dad and Grandma dragged her into the bedroom. Finally after five minutes she and Grandpa came out and I never had so many hugs and kisses in my life. This also was repeated onto my little brother.

    We were ushered into the apartment by Grandma, who was a small-built, big-busted lady of about 73 years of age. Her silver hair was combed straight back and tied into a large knot. I had not seen Grandma very much in my then young life, as I had spent most time with Grandma's daughter, Aunt Rosa, my father's sister, in Purkersdorf.

    Grandpa Ehilch was the mayor before the war of a  small city called Ebreichsdorf south of Vienna. As Grandpa Ehlich was a Nazi Party member, he lost his job as mayor in the last month of liberation by the Russian Army in 1945. I had absolutely forgotten his looks, but further, I had no recollection of the man himself. So it was for me a new beginning with my own grandparents.

    It was very strange that Grandpa sent Grandma out to greet us while he stayed in his room. He finally approached after some five minutes and unceremoniously and unemotionally, without hugs or smiles, led us to the dining room/lounge. Oh, he was very happy to see Mum and Dad and my little brother Fritz. He was setting him on his lap, stroking Fritz's blond hair. It was then that I noticed that Grandpa had absolutely no love for me. I was glad that at least he had feelings for my brother, as Fritz was not well with his asthma. Grandma, however, was different. She really loved me and hugged me often.

    We had to find out on the day of our arrival where we were to stay. Aunt Rosa's house in Purkersdorf was already chock full of our relatives. To make matters worse, the Russian occupation forces had made Aunt Rosa look after a Russian officer. More about that later. Aunt Anna also had an officer at that time in her little home. So what now? Here we were without a home. Grandpa wasn't very happy at all. He was not used to pressure of any kind. Vienna was bombed out completely and as hundreds and thousands of refugees returned, they were unable to find any living space. The rush was on to find a foothold anywhere for the time being. People were living in bombed out ruins, iIn cellars, anywhere there was shelter as wintertime was coming fast. Bombed out buildings were robbed for their destroyed doors and window frames and left over floorboards if they had survived the flames at all for firewood.

    Grandma made Dad shift their brass double bed into the living/dining room including a huge wardrobe and one small one and her huge dressing table. We moved into their now empty bedroom. So now what? No beds? Dad stormed out of the apartment and one hour later dragged a double bed frame he had dug out from a burned out building into the apartment. The rusty old twisted bed was used for them. For the first night there was no mattress. We boys slept on and in an ottoman settee which had a pull out drawer in the bottom. That was our bed for the next two years.

Contents                   Chapter 14