©2005, 2008 Bruno Ehlich
Into the Cellar
Life was hard and we lived like thousands in this mad world on handouts, ration cards and luck. Dad started looking for a job and it did not take long for him as a mechanical engineer to obtain one. I do not know where or what he did until two years later. Every apartment owner or renter had a cellar partition and this was used mostly to store coal and firewood for the winter. Every room in those old buildings had a fireplace.
It was a long way down into the cellar and at least Grandpa with his aging body now had help. We boys had to collect timber again from bombed out buildings, bring it home, saw it and split and stack it. Then we had to run down into the cellar three flights down to fetch it up when they needed it.
At that time I was told that I had to start school again. I had missed by now exactly one full year of schooling due to the closure of the school in Leuchtenberg, Bavaria, and my service as a runner and helper for the German army. Mum took me days later to the school about one and a half kilometers from our apartment. Well, hardly had I started settling in, when I was in trouble. My German dialect did not go over well with the children and they said to me, "Go home, you Nazi Schwein!" Go home you Nazi pig. And before in Bavaria, Germany, they said, "Go home you Ostmark Schwein." Go home you Eastern pig. Now, at nearly ten years of age, this was a big blow for me. I went home crying and very upset. Dad took a day off work and he went to school with me. What he said to the headmaster I do not know, but knowing my father and the screaming coming out of the headmaster's office was an indication that things would be better from now on. Dad rushed out of the headmaster's office and into my classroom. There he cursed and yelled his head off to all the children. I must say no one could do this today as he would be arrested right away. But in those days it was dog eat dog, open warfare. The situation was resolved and I had no more trouble from then on.
One week later the first of many incidents started which nearly cost the life of my dear Grandma and Grandpa. First, I must tell you here, that when the bombing leveled the houses opposite our block of apartments it shattered all the windows in our home and Grandma's dining/living room. In our bedroom, the window was cracked in four places and the winter storms and winds whistled through the crack. Therefore Grandma decided to use paper sticky tape to cover the cracks. About 200 yards across from Grandma's window the Russian Army had about 500 men stationed. It was part of the postwar occupation force. They were looking right across the bombed out city block into our window. As Grandma applied the sticky tape onto the cracked glass, it must have appeared to the soldiers that we may have made a Swastika in German. Seconds later BANG! BANG! The glass in the window blasted into our room and covered Grandma with hundreds of glass splinters and a very nasty bullet graze on her right arm. The bullet, a nine millimeter slug, traveled across the room and lodged in Grandma's linen cupboard. I was in school and Dad was at work but Mum nearly had a miscarriage that day and Grandma had to call not only the police but also the doctor for her bullet wound. God was surely on her side. Grandpa was lucky as he was sleeping in our room on the sofa and did not even wake up! Well, this incident made the neighborhood rounds and the next day some angel turned up with some glass, putty and a cutting knife and the whole incident was forgotten, but written into the Ehlich family history book.
We struggled through wintertime and soon it was spring 1946. This year was and always will be the most memorable in my life as it brought with it trouble after trouble. Granddad was from early 1920 a member of the SA. As a Nazi Party member, the occupation he was practicing was that of an advocate, but most of his life he was to be the mayor of the city of Ebreichsdorf near Vienna.
So we struggled through very hard times, living together in the confinement of a very small apartment which comprised a very small kitchen, an entrance room, one toilet, one living room/lounge and one bedroom. As I had mentioned, we turned this living room/lounge into Grandpa and Grandma's bedroom and their bedroom into ours. So Dad, my pregnant Mum, my brother and I were confined into one space. There was no bathroom or showers in those 1835-built houses. Bathing was a weekly affair and was done in turns in the tiled kitchen using what was known in those days as a "sit-bath." It was a very small galvanized bathtub of about four feet long and one and a half feet wide with a higher backside. Usually Mum made the hot water in a large pot and this was transferred into the tub and then cold water was added. We children came first and starting with me (by now I was ten years old), I had to stand in the tub and Mum scrubbed me down. Any complaining at all brought in my Dad and for a sure slap with his belt. Fritz, my little brother, was next, then Mum and Dad. The water by then had to be topped with hot water again. Next Dad emptied the bathtub and refilled it again with fresh water for Grandma and Grandpa. This happened every weekend.
Now to our weekly and daily washing routines. We did our washing in an enameled hand basin. Mum and Grandma did their weekly laundry in the bathtub with a scrubbing board. The washing and rinsing was hard enough, but the drying was a massive job. Dad had rigged up small hooks between the window frames and Mum strung some small ropes from one hook to the one opposite and then the washing was hung using the open windows. In wintertime the windows were shut and the drying took much longer. By late springtime it was easier.
I was the only one to attend church not far from our home. I was proud that I was allowed to be an altar boy. Nobody from my family ever went to church. They had lost faith in God seeing all that slaughter during the war.
In the early summer Mum took us to the local bathhouse where we had our weekly scrub-up. There I had my first experience of seeing a gentleman committing suicide by slashing his wrists in his bathtub. I happened to see this as the bath master opened this bathroom. The time had run out for this man to use this bathroom and we were next in line. When he opened the bath room, I saw this blue body floating in this blood red water and the tiles in the bathroom were splattered from top to bottom with blood as he must have thrashed around in his death throes. My pregnant Mum had to sit down and recover for quite a long time. But in later weeks she never booked that particular bath room again. I have never forgotten this bloody incident; as shortly afterwards this dramatic incident was to be repeated in our own home.
By now summertime had arrived in Vienna and Mum was in her last month of pregnancy. She could not do what she usually did. I had to do a lot of work after school, on top of my homework. Like shopping at the corner shop. There were no supermarkets in those days. Also fetching firewood from the cellar, cutting and chopping wood down in the cellar. Do this and do that. Any back talk to Mum and Dad would strap me when he came home very tired late in the evening. He himself was very tired out as he had to walk to work every day. No trams, no buses, no trains, nothing. All was smashed up and all had to be rebuilt in those postwar days. So one day on a rainy weekend Dad told us boys to go down into the cellar to cut up some firewood into manageable lengths. As the cellar deep below the building had no electric lights, we had to use candles. And believe me, the cellar was really deep below street level. It was about sixty steps winding down in a very small stairwell. The damp and musty smell one can never forget. We boys were really frightened down there as we had heard stories that robbers and murderers used these underground passages for hideouts.
These cellars and passages traveled underground from one building to the next. During the war the walls were cut through so in case one building was bombed the people who used the cellars as air raid shelters could escape into the next building. As I explained earlier, people who used those cellars were drowned and gassed to death. The passages filled with water from broken water mains, broken gas mains and smoke from the burning houses.
Into these frightening surroundings we went. No wonder we boys nearly fainted with fright. Then there were those shadows of our bodies reflected onto the wet tunnel wall. I laugh today remembering the way we used to work, me and my little brother. Me cutting the timbers and splitting them and my brother standing watch and looking into the dark passage. He was really afraid of ghosts, moreso than I. So when we were ready to carry up a load of firewood he walked up in front of me and I walked backwards with the flickering candle. Up the sixty stairs we went with one hand holding the firewood and in the other the candle. Finally we arrived on the first floor totally breathless and shaking so we took a rest by placing the firewood on the landing. While we rested there and recovered, my father came down from the second floor, screaming and cursing us because we took so long.
We explained to him that we were afraid down there in the cellar. What did our war hero Dad do? He slapped us in our face and kicked us in the bottom for admitting to being frightened. Suddenly the first floor resident, a school professor, opened his door and asked my father why we boys were being treated this way. He had no right to slap us around for only admitting to being frightened down there in the cellar. It was obvious that he had heard all this through his closed door. What did my father do? He dropped this professor with a swift punch to the chin so fast that I didn't even see his hand move. Only in later years did I find out that Dad was an amateur boxer in his college days.
Through all this commotion someone had called the police just around the corner from us. Dad was arrested and spent four days in jail. He had to publicly apologize to this poor professor and he was lucky that he was not jailed longer. That was the first time that I had seen the other side of my father's temper. I was told he acquired this during his war experiences from all the slaughter he had seen. I want to only mention this here as in later years we will see his temper led to his mental illness.
Life was very hard. Living space was hard to get as most buildings were bombed out in Vienna. So residents living in an undamaged house with spare rooms had by law people without a home living with them and they were called "Untermieter." Worst of all no rent had to be paid to the landlord. These were the conditions months after the war. So short were accommodations that people slept and lived in bombed out homes. The owners were either dead or had left. People lived in cellars or deep below Vienna in the catacombs. Especially in the cold Nordic winters with no electricity, gas or coal. It was terror. People just used up every scrap of timber they could find or dig out of the bombed ruins.
During those hard times suicides were plentiful and families who survived the whole war committed this frightening act not only to themselves, no, they killed their children too.
One lovely day as I was coming home from school and looking forward to playing with my little brother, I was confronted with a terrible scene. The front door of our apartment was open and outside stood about five or more residents of the upper and lower floors. They had Mum and Grandma between them and were hugging them and stroking their heads.
I asked, "What's the matter, and why are Mum and Grandma crying?" I was told that Grandpa was in the hospital and may be dying as he attempted to kill himself in our toilet by slashing his wrist. My father, who had come home early, saw the blood pouring out underneath the toilet door. He smashed open the door and found Grandpa slumped over the toilet half dead. He tourniquetted Grandpa's hands and carried him downstairs to the police station where the French medics were called. They rushed Grandpa to a military hospital.
Later that day after Mum had settled down I was told the very bad news that caused my grandfather to do what he did. Early in the afternoon there was a knock on the door and after opening the door Grandma and Mum were confronted by several French military personnel and amongst them a French and German interpreter. They asked if Grandpa was home as they wanted to speak to him urgently.
Sensing trouble, Grandpa invited them to his sitting/bedroom where he offered them a drink. To his astonishment they denied this invitation and came straight to the point. The person in charge was a female French Army officer, very arrogant, and through the interpreter she told Grandpa that due to his involvement in the Nazi Party and in the Brownshirts (the SA) his apartment was to be confiscated by the French military and that he and his family had 24 hours to vacate the premises. Grandma had to catch Grandpa as he nearly passed out. Sitting down on a chair, he had to sign a document releasing the apartment to the French military. I must state here that Grandpa had always lived in sponsored living quarters, as he'd always been involved in politics and the Nazi Party. Also, 25 years' service as mayor of Ebreichsdorf entitled him to a very nice large house. However, Grandpa and Grandma had a share in my aunt's villa in Purkersdorf in the Vienna woods. Unfortunately this villa was now partly occupied by several Russian officers and my aunt's own extended family. Grandpa therefore chose to end his life rather than to ask Aunt Rosa and Uncle Hans for help. The loss of the war, the loss of his job, his friends, his luxurious lifestyle and now his apartment drove him over the edge. We all prayed that he would survive. It would take nearly four weeks in that military hospital and then several weeks treatment in Vienna's Steinhof Mental Hospital for him to be released back home.
In the meantime my Dad and Aunt Rosa's husband had to find a horse and cart to transfer Grandma and Grandpa's furniture and meager belongings to Purkersdorf, a thirty-kilometer trip. The poor horse could have been two horses. I never found out. So at least Grandma and Grandpa were squeezed into the villa. Thanks to God for Grandpa's old mates. They found him a new council flat months later. Due to Mum's advanced pregnancy, the French military found us a small room not far away and as we had only a hand cart of belongings, the transfer was an easy one.
Our new home was about a half a kilometer from our now lost apartment and situated in a very large and wide street called Neubaugurtlel. Ninety percent of all houses here were bombed and burned out buildings in collapsible states. The underground tram system was not working and somehow the street tram cars were actually coming on line by now. The streets were still covered with rubble meters high. I had by now half a kilometer more to go to school, which I really did not like. So one way to school took me half an hour, but walking uphill.
Back to our new living quarters. Our one room measured nine feet wide and fifteen feet long, with one window looking into an internal yard. On the second floor level in that building the people who had to supply this room to the French military were business people by the name of Obratowisch and they had a hairdressing salon not far away and across the road. Mrs. Obratowisch was at that time about 50 and a widow who had lost her husband in the war. She had a twenty year old daughter named Milli. Milli really liked me. She loved music and her hobby was listening to records on this old wind-up gramophone. And as any young person today, she had a favorite LP called "Kleine Frau Warum So Traurig" (Little Woman, Why Are You So Sad?"), which she played day in and day out. Today after 60 years I still remember those words.
Our room was cold and musty and to our dismay there was no stove to heat up the room. Our furniture was a double bed and one ottoman lounge with a pull out drawer in which my brother slept, as I slept on the lounge above. In the mornings my brother came out of the drawer and the bedding went inside. Also there was one small wooden table and four chairs Dad had made out of boxes and a wardrobe, that's it. We had to fetch the water from outside as the apartment had no bathroom.
Again Mum dragged us to the bath house. In this terrible situation, the worst I ever had, my sister was born. I remember the first day Mum brought Evie home. Dad warmed up the milk which he received from the Red Cross on a candle stuck in an old jam tin. It took nearly half an hour to warm this ice cold milk. That was the first time I overheard Mum saying to Dad it would be better if they would turn the gas on in Mrs. Obratowisch's kitchen and put us all out of misery. I never found out if she actually meant to do it or she just joked. But I really was terrified as what I had seen with my grandfather was enough for me. Luckily my father had a job and in the next few weeks things improved. We even had a primitive electric heater for warming and cooking.
Next to our city block was a public park called Marz Park (March Park). God only knows how this park received its name. Right in the middle of it was a huge underground concrete bunker that rose about eight meters above street level. This bunker had all its entrances sealed up with earth and rocks and grass was growing all over. Since the end of the war children used this bunker (it was now one year since the war had ended) to play hide and seek or to go skating down its steep sides. I used to drag up my little baby sister in her pram and my brother was standing below. As the pram with my sister in it rolled down the steep sides, I would give the pram a little push to send it downhill by itself with my baby sister in it. Evie used to like this as she screamed with delight. Could it have been terror for her? Then one day as I passed the park after school I noticed that they were constructing a six foot high timber fence around the park which of course included our play bunker. Sadly I watched every day as slowly the day approached which spelled the end of our playground. The park was fully enclosed.
One full week passed. Then I heard a muffled explosion inside the fence. Well, I thought, they must have blasted open the entrances of the bunker. I wasn't far off. The whole roof of the bunker was blasted away. Actually they used only enough explosives to crack the roof shell. Then, using heavy machinery, the digging began.
I never expected what I would discover in the next few days. Later I passed again and tried to find a crack in the fence to see what was going on inside. As I did so I stumbled upon one of the most horrifying scenes in my then young life. I had seen such scenes before in the concentration camps in Germany days after the war ended and in Magdeburg during the bombing. What I stumbled upon here was both shocking and unexpected. Just in front of my feet, protruding out and underneath the fence, was a human hand, partly decomposed with shreds of skin hanging off the fingers which were all partly covered in a totally blood-soaked Russian uniform. The hand was connected to a decomposed body. It was too large to pass underneath the fence. I stood there frozen and tried hard not to scream. Then I saw just in front of the pointing ring finger a gleaming gold wedding ring protruding out of the clay and sandy ground. I realized that they must have opened a mass grave full of decomposing bodies and as they excavated them by machinery, one was flung forward and partly under the fence.
As I recovered my spinning senses I picked up that ring and ran as fast as I could around the corner. Guess who I ran into. My Dad coming home from work. "Dad! Dad!" I said. "Come and I'll show you something," and then I produced that gold ring.
"Where did you get that from?" he asked, and pulled the ring right out of my hand.
"Dad, come with me," I said. "There is a dead body part sticking out underneath the park fence."
"Okay," he said, and we walked around the corner towards the decomposing hand. To my surprise he laughed and kicked the hand back underneath the fence. "It's just what I need," he said, and stuck the ring in his pocket. Later I found out that Dad melted that ring and had a gold crown made for his front tooth. He later told me that it was a war injury, and God made it up to him, of course, with a big smile.
Weeks later I was told that that bunker contained nearly one thousand bodies of German, Austrian and Russian soldiers who died in the fierce fighting around Vienna; also bodies of civilian bombing victims. The available three-story deep bunker was very handy for a quick temporary grave.
Two months passed by. Then they removed the fence and behold, there was no sign of any bunker having been there at all. Just nice green grass and a playground for the children. That's life. "Here today, gone tomorrow." However, I was told that all the dead had been transferred to their respective cemeteries and buried with full honors. Bodies with identifications were sent back to Russia or their relatives in Austria, Germany and other places. Then a year later a memorial was erected in that park honoring the fallen soldiers and civilians in that awful last battle for Vienna.