by | Mar 23, 2009 | Stories | 0 comments

This is a true story. Only the names of individuals have been changed to protect their identity. In 1952, I obtained an industrial training placement at a large steelworks in the Austrian city of Linz-an-der-Donau and stayed there for three months. During that time, I gained insight into the impact of the Second World War on the people with whom I came in contact.

Linz is the second city of Austria. Adolf Hitler was born in the nearby village of Braunau. His parents, Alois and Klara Hitler, are buried in a cemetery within the city. The town of Urfahr faces Linz on the other side of the River Danube and is connected by bridges. In 1952, at the time of my visit, the stretch of the Danube in the vicinity of Linz formed the border between the American and Soviet zones of occupation, Linz in the American Zone and Urfahr in the Soviet Zone. On the Linz side of the main road bridge, a large notice warned travellers they were leaving the American Zone and about to enter the Soviet Zone. On the Urfahr side of the bridge there was a Soviet checkpoint. Austrians could move freely between the two zones provided they produced an identity card at the Soviet checkpoint. There was a lot of interchange between the two communities; many people living in Urfahr worked in Linz and trams plied back and forth across the bridge.

On arrival in Linz, I was accommodated in a barrack hut inside the high perimeter fence of the steelworks. During the war, the barrack huts housed forced labour deported from territories occupied by Germany. The sleeping accommodation was rough: closely-tiered bunks three high and very little space between them; each bunk had a blanket but neither a sheet nor a pillow. There were no cubicles for belongings so I kept my rucksack on the bunk. The place had the feeling of a prison camp; unventilated, dimly lit, and with a strong smell of body odour. The other occupants of the billet, Austrians about the same age as me, were cheerful and friendly. I learned from them that the steelworks, an extensive green field development dating from the Nazi era, was formerly known as the Hermann Göring Werke. A canteen provided basic food, obtained by queuing at a hatch. The fare was meat soup ladled from a 40 gallon barrel resembling an oil drum. Into the soup the server plunked two doughy balls, each about the size of a cricket ball. They were dumplings. The situation reminded me of films about life in Alcatraz. For work experience, I was attached to the department responsible for servicing the instruments on the steel furnaces. I was the only trainee in the department and simply accompanied the technicians on their duties in the works. There was no animosity towards me; quite the reverse, the staff were very friendly.

After a few days based in the barrack hut, I was transferred to the Red Cross House near to the centre of Linz. Students from various countries in Europe were being accommodated there: three Frenchmen, two Germans, two Austrians, and two Englishmen. The sleeping accommodation comprised two dormitories. There was a bathroom and a utility room. We lived as a community, talked about our experiences in the works and about student life in our home countries. On the square facing the house, we bought food cheaply at an open air fruit and vegetable market.

Of the three Frenchmen, two had very little to say except to each other, and the third, a Parisian, was sarcastic, self-opinionated, and generally disparaging about England and the English. The English, he said, are a mongrel race, uncultured, poorly educated, and whose language is an odd mixture of French and German. The British Army, he said, left the French Army in the lurch by retreating from France in 1940. His scathing criticism did nothing to endear me to him.

Happily, I had a good rapport with one of the German students, Hans Hiebler from Munich. A Sudeten German, he was studying electrical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Munich, and spoke English fluently, taught as a child by his mother, a teacher of English. Very articulate with a wide vocabulary, the elaborate construction of his sentences suggested his mother taught him English by using classical literature. He and I became friends. He told me about his earlier life in the Sudetenland, a German-speaking region in Czechoslovakia that Hitler incorporated into Germany in 1938 under the terms of the Munich Agreement. His family hailed from the small town of Wigstadtl, where his ancestors, manufacturers of decorative ribbons, had lived for generations. After the defeat of Germany in 1945, the territory was returned to Czechoslovakia and soon afterwards the three million Sudeten Germans were summarily deported from their homeland by the Czechs. The fifteen years old Hans and his mother, each with only a rucksack of possessions, were evicted from their home and transported in a crowded and insanitary railway cattle truck to the town of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. With little food and water, they endured a long slow stop-and-start journey that lasted some days. At last, hearing German spoken outside the cattle truck when the train was stationary in a railway siding, they realised they were on German soil.

Hans and his mother were destitute, without relatives or friends in Germany. Eventually, they found accommodation in the nearby cathedral town of Eichstätt, sharing a room with another family. Hans’s mother, a devout Roman Catholic, found work as a teacher of English in a seminary for priests. Through her influence there, Hans was admitted to the school attached to the seminary. One of his lasting memories was being taught by a priest how to survive during the long harsh winter of 1947 when they were very short of food. The priest explained how to obtain maximum nourishment from a piece of bread: hold it in the mouth, move it around slowly and chew it thoroughly before swallowing it. Hans said it was a lesson he never forgot.

The pay we received from the steelworks was the equivalent of about ₤3.00 per week, enough to buy only meagre rations of bread rolls, gherkins, and tomatoes from the market stalls. We appealed to the personnel department at the works for more pay but were told it was generous by Austrian standards; a man with a wife and three children to support received only the same as we did. I felt ashamed and survived on plain fare without further complaint. Curiously, I felt a sense of happy release; I was so poor in terms of cash, I nothing to lose. Incredibly, Hans saved some of his pay for his mother.

After a few days living in the Red Cross House, I became acquainted with the permanent regional secretary of the Red Cross, Karl Kubinger. In his early forties, he had a spacious office in the building and lived with his wife Klara in an apartment on the top floor. Neither of them spoke any English. Nevertheless, they were very kind and hospitable, sometimes inviting me to a meal in their spotlessly clean home. Occasionally, I accompanied them on walks in the city. Frau Kubinger did my washing. By having this close personal contact in a sympathetic environment, I soon learned enough of the German language to communicate with them and our conversations covered a wide range of topics. Hitler and the Nazi regime were never mentioned but Frau Kubinger often spoke nostalgically about the glorious days in Austria during the reign of the Emperor Franz Josef even though she was born long afterwards.

The health of the tall and very handsome Herr Kubinger had been impaired by war service in the German army; he suffered from a chronic stomach disorder. At one stage during his army service, he was admitted to hospital. During that time, his platoon was posted to the Eastern Front. His admission to the hospital saved his life because all his comrades perished in Russia. Later, he was posted to Jugoslavia and witnessed what he said was the barbarism of the ethnic groups in that country fighting among themselves. He showed me his gruesome pictorial record of the events: decapitations, eye-gouging, and corpses hanging from trees. Lying awake in bed that same night, I wondered what to believe; in the British press, I had read that the Germans had committed atrocities against the Jugoslav partisans. In normal circumstances, as a regional secretary of the Red Cross, Herr Kubinger would have made periodic visits to the national headquarters in Vienna but he refused to do so because that entailed travelling through the Soviet Zone of Austria. In this respect, it seems he was not alone; apparently many people in the western zones of Austria had a pathological fear of being trapped in the Soviet Zone as a result of the zonal frontier being closed without warning. Many thousands of Austrian soldiers had not returned from the Eastern Front after the war ended.

Frau Kubinger’s brother, killed in the war, had served in the SS. She said he had been conscripted into the force against his will. A framed photograph of him wearing the distinctive black uniform of the SS stood on a small table in the corner of the living room, alongside a vase of fresh flowers and a crucifix. In the evening, after a meal, we would stand before this shrine and say a prayer. Having read reports in the British press about the ruthlessness of the SS, here was I praying for the soul of one of them. I stilled my conscience with the thought that it is a Christian’s duty to forgive the sins of others.

Frau Kubinger was born in Schärding, a little spa town near the frontier with Germany in the vicinity of Passau. She was a bonny country girl, full of vigour and fun, and an adoring wife. She worshipped her husband, cared for him, attended to his every need, and tended her own appearance. It was her daily custom to wear the traditional dirndl folk costume of Upper Austria: a white embroidered blouse, a red waistcoat, a long skirt, and a blue-and-white striped apron, a form of dress worn by many women in Linz. Herr Kubinger responded to his wife’s care with warmth and affection. I sought to help with the household chores such as washing up after a meal but Herr Kubinger, politely firm, declined the offer on his wife’s behalf; he said with a smile that it was important to observe the traditional customs of an Austrian household, where the wife did all the household chores, including cleaning the husband’s shoes. Evidently he was a chauvinist but perhaps Austrian women preferred the husband to be that way, a sign of his manliness. Frau Kubinger introduced me to the music of W.A. Mozart. We listened to it on Austrian Radio. Through her, I came to know and love his “Linz” symphony, his “Prague” symphony, his piano concerti, and his Requiem. She encouraged me to visit the nearby monastery of Saint Florian, where Anton Bruckner had been the resident organist. Frau Kubinger gave me a taste for classical music I have savoured ever since, sustained initially by its association with happy memories of her.

Roman Catholics in Austria are very respectful to departed souls and I accompanied the Kubingers when they visited a well-tended cemetery to tidy the graves of deceased relatives. At a grave in that cemetery, a headstone in the form of a cross surmounted by a German army steel helmet carries the inscription in German, “Christ is on our side”. In that moment, I felt confronted by the anguish and the implicit belief of those who had been the enemies of the British. During the war, the British politicians said that Christ was on the side of the Allies. Where did the truth lie? The contradictions of international politics were beginning to show and nothing in my education had prepared me for this situation. One evening, walking with Herr Kubinger through the darkened streets of Linz near the city centre, he pointed to a door leading directly off the pavement, saying, “Here lived Richard Tauber – but a Jew.”

The aftermath of the war was very evident in Linz. Many relatively young men had only one leg, walking with the aid of a single crutch, no artificial limb to fill the void. Many others had only one arm, the empty sleeve of the jacket tucked into a pocket. I was told they were casualties of the Russian front where, in the absence of medicaments, amputation became the norm. The Austrian authorities were said not to have the means to provide these ex-servicemen with artificial limbs. It shocked me to see this as an everyday facet of post-war life, in sharp contrast to the normality in Britain, where limbless ex-servicemen were not in evidence. There were many Displaced Persons in Linz, refugees from the Eastern Europe. Known as DPs, many of them wizened old women clothed from head to foot in peasant black, they lived in hutted camps in the poor districts of the city. All in all – the American occupation forces in Linz, the Soviet occupation forces on the other side of the River Danube, the many limbless ex-servicemen, the presence of the DPs – the atmosphere in Linz was of a defeated people still in the grip of war.

In these circumstances, my presence in the workplace could have been a source of resentment but there was no evidence of it. A relaxed informal atmosphere prevailed, enabling me to move about the works quite freely, communicating sometimes in English, at other times in basic German. The steelworks had been bombed by the Americans during the last days of the war. According to my Austrian colleagues, the reason for the bombing soon became apparent. The western occupation zones of Austria were granted aid for reconstruction under the terms of the Marshall Plan and all the new machinery and equipment for the steelworks was of American manufacture, ensuring a continuing dependence on American spares.

Fritz Langer, a young engineer in another department, heard of my presence in the works. He spoke English fluently and made a point of coming to see me occasionally. Outside of working hours, he showed me places of interest in Linz. During the war, he was a boy soldier. Captured by the French, he had been tethered to other prisoners and dragged through the streets of Marseille, beaten and spat upon by the mob. Terrified, an English colonel rescued him, subsequently taking him into his home in Bagshot in southern England. I was the beneficiary of Herr Langer’s gratitude to the colonel. Unlike the Kubingers, Herr Langer was anti-Church and deprecated the power of the reactionary Roman Catholic Bishop of Linz, whose influence so prevailed that on Sundays only church music could be broadcast on Austrian Radio.

Dr Albert Fuchs, an analytical chemist in the department, was prematurely old. Bent and with a shuffling gate, he had a number of sabre scars on one cheek, the result of duelling when a student. Shabbily dressed, he wore a stained grey smock and knee-length stockings darned at the heels with wool of a contrasting colour. He had been an officer in the SS and after the war sentenced by an Allied court to a term of hard labour in a de-nazification camp. Physically broken, in spirit he was unbroken. He engaged me in arguments about the merits of the Nazis and the demerits of the British. I was ill-equipped to counter his arguments or initiate my own but because he spoke English we had fairly frequent encounters. Once, I asked him how he could justify the killing of three million Jews. He corrected me; it was six million, not three million. He would get angry in the heat of argument but afterwards cool down and chat amiably as though nothing had happened. He invited me to his home. He lived in a small house with a very attractive young wife and three small children. These he dangled on his knee and evidently they were very fond of him. Thus, I was confronted with another contradiction: a confirmed Nazi who showed no remorse for the mass killing of Jews yet in private life a loving husband and father, full of humanity.

I told the Kubingers that on my return to England I would be obliged to undertake National Service. They tried to persuade me to remain with them, offering to hide me from the authorities. He


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *