By Connie Phlipot
Johannes had spent the war with his grandmother in the village. “Watch out,” she’d said when he told her he was visiting the house. “Could be mines under there.” He shook his head. Aerial bombing, fires, that’s what had done it. All in the open. Nothing hidden. Still, he studied the ground for shards of glass and strange, dangerous-looking objects before placing his foot over the former door step onto the once elegant tile floor, grime having turned the patchwork of colors into a grey blur.
No other house on the block had suffered like this one. The white jewels of Beaux Arts architecture on each side had survived barely scathed. Windows were dark holes on some, shutters off their hinges, an arm or leg missing from a caryatid, but otherwise the buildings held the grandeur of the turn of the last, glorious century. Many inhabitants had not fared as well as their dwellings. They had been plucked out of their bedrooms, loaded on trains, sent to their death.
Why had his house been targeted? It was as common and dull a building as any in Vienna. No important businesses, no important people. A modest grocery store run by an Italian couple occupied the ground floor. The cash register, its metal blackened by flames, stood among the crumbled shelves. The scales wobbled in the breeze as if Mr. Antonucci was weighing a hunk of salami right at this moment. The upper floors were two or three room residential flats. Johannes and his mother on the third floor, an academic — a scholar of Egyptian art — on the second. The couple in the apartment under the roof floor were Czechoslovakian.
“Because of the train station.” Johannes’ uncle said when he reported on the house’s ruined state after he had returned to the city from the countryside.
“It’s just the intercity line,” Johannes argued. “And other houses are closer?”
“Bombing is not precise,” Uncle Max countered. “They drop a bomb in the vicinity of some strategic object — maybe it hits it, most likely it won’t.”
Unlike Johannes’ crumbled apartment, Rebekah Soyfar’s grand, pale green building stood as proudly as the day he had last seen her walk down its steps, her dark braid swinging against her navy school dress, one hand holding tightly to her aunties’, the other waving at him. As if she were off to the mountains on holiday. He punched the third door button on the left — he knew that was her’s even thought there was no name beside it. Silence. The bell probably no longer worked. He stepped back across the street to look up to the floor above the mezzanine. The windows looked back at him blankly.
“Take care of my bike,” she had shouted to Johannes.
“Of course,” he said, and put it under the stair well in his building. He had taken his own bike on the train to Oma’s, leaving Rebekah’s behind. A twisted piece of metal in the approximate shape of a bicycle frame lay where the stair well had been. A circle of bright blue, the only color amid the charred detritus, caught the sun. Her bicycle bell. It tinkled against his house keys when he put it in his pocket. She had rung it fiercely as she biked the sidewalk, its tininess echoing against the houses, angering Mr. Antonucci’s patrons.
“This is a walkway not a bicycle path!” the old Viennese ladies told her, pulling their shopping carts out of the way. She stuck her tongue out as she careened toward town.
Johannes poked through the debris for an hour or so. A newel cap rolled across the floor. The warm, roundness of the simple ornament was comforting in his hand. Its surface, smoothed by the hands of stair climbers, was dusty, but undamaged. He’d have a carpenter mount it on a pedestal or maybe someday he’d have a house and place it on his own newel post. Everything else was shattered or burnt. Rectangles of glass threw anarchic patterned reflections where the floor length mirror had stood in the hall.
Johannes moved to the U.S. after university, settling in a Midwestern college town. The locals only spoke of the war to mark a point in time. “Silvia married after the war” or “The bank is getting old, built before the war.” There was no need for the newel cap in the one-story house he built in the suburbs, but it made a fine paper weight. He gripped its rounded top when he needed to order his thoughts before writing. Rebekah’s bicycle bell jingled merrily to him when he opened his desk drawer. In the park he could see from his study, middle school aged children raced their miniature mountain bikes up and down mounds of dirt. Rebekah would have done that if such bikes existed then.
Long after he retired, his great niece e-mailed him a picture taken a block away from the apartment building on Gärtnergasse of a gold plaque sunk into the sidewalk. She wrote that it was a project called Remembrance Stones, to honor the former inhabitants who had been deported during the Holocaust. He enlarged the photo to read it. Soyfar. No mention of children or family, only the historian-philosopher that was her father.
The need to remember became a pain in his body, like a toothache that hurt sometimes in his gum, sometimes, in his jaw or his shoulder. The years of pretending he had snipped away his childhood, thrown it into the compost heap like unwanted tops of carrots, pushed up against his breastbone. Johannes rummaged through his shoe box of photos for something of Gärtnergasse. Not one picture from before the war. He’d given those to his brother when he left Vienna. “You can remember for me, “ he’d said. “I don’t want to.”
“Uncle Johannes, nice to hear from you.” Helena’s voice was friendly, but rushed. She had probably just come home from work or maybe she was enroute to pick up her small children.
“I’m coming to Vienna.” He waited for the response that didn’t come before he continued. “I know what you’re thinking. I’m too old. Don’t worry. I’m in good health. Last month, I even went to Rome. I have to do this.”
A cement block of a building stood in place of his ruined home. The flat facade, devoid of bas relief or statues, was as utilitarian as a prison. Across the street the Jugendstil building housed a hairdresser. The grand ladies supporting balconies on their heads on the opposite corner looked wearily ahead, their eyes averted from the newcomer on the street.
“There’s the plaque,” Helena pointed down the street. “Do you want to walk over there? Or are you tired?” Johannes strode forward. He was still a strong walker having trekked every day for years through the woods and fields around his house.
A banner above the doorway of the building where Rebekah had lived announced the opening of a language school. Johannes knelt down by the plaque and traced the lettering with his fingers. 1938. Buchenwald. A young girl whipped past them, her hands gripped tightly on the handlebars and he started to call out, “Rebekah!” then remembered she would be an old woman, not the little “hellion on wheels” as his mother had called her.
“Let’s walk around,” Johannes said, refusing the arm Helena offered. They crossed the canal over the Rotunda bridge. What a strange mix of anxiety and disgust he had felt crossing the temporary Soviet bridge after the war and then the excited anticipation as the new one was being built. But he had left before it was completed. Ducks and swans plied the canal as they always had, their tail feathers standing upright as they dipped their heads deep into the water to fish. He pointed at the Reisenrad circling against the sky. “It’s smaller? Or am I looking at it through that backward telescope of age?” No, it had been rebuilt with fewer gondolas after being destroyed during the war. “Oh, of course, I forgot,” but everything was diminished, it seemed to him, the bridge, the Allee, the city itself.
Like everywhere else he’d been in Western Europe lately, tall buildings, powerful bridges and sparkling train stations had erased the war. Hulking apartment complexes built to house the displaced, their plaques proudly declaring themselves social housing, just like after the Great War. Vienna had learned well how to pick itself up and move forward. Maybe he should have returned to his birthplace, got a job at the University, spoke his mother tongue. And now, a pensioner, he’d be walking in the Wienerwald stopping for a late afternoon beer or schnapps. Like his grandfather had done.
They returned to the Landstrasse side of the canal. “Do you think I could look for her?”
“Who?” Helena stopped. She made that distressed face of the young when they thought their elders were jabbering. Of course, Helena didn’t know about Rebekah.
He tried to explain as succinctly as possible about his friend who lived in the building now housing the language school. “You see, the plaque mentions her father, not her.”
She put her hand on his arm. Her voice softened as she told him that she had tried to help others find lost friends and relatives. “I’ll send you websites. There are a lot of resources. But… “ she shook her head. “Prepare to be disappointed. Most news is bad. Or you just never find out.”
He hugged his niece, but declined her offer of supper at her home in the 18th district. “I need a little more time here.”
She nodded and kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow at noon for lunch.”
He walked past the language school, his muscles twitching with the memory of running down the street, pushing open the heavy wooden door of Rebekah’s building with his shoulder, sliding across the tiles in the hallway to the courtyard where she kept her bike.
He found himself at Radetzkyplatz, near the elevated tracks and warehouses where his mother had forbid him to go, now a welcoming pastiche of working class and Bohemian bars and restaurants. He sat down at a wobbly wooden table at a sidewalk cafe and ordered a viertel of Gruner Veltliner. Young Austrians and middle-aged Serbians chattered around him.
Rebekah could be living in Israel, an old woman with grandchildren, having made a new life from a tragic start or maybe she was in Westchester county New York. What would he do if he found that out? Would it comfort his pain? Or, as Helena implied, if he found out anything it would be her name in the list of those perished at Sosnoviy Bor or Buchenwald. He finished his wine and walked back under the rumble of an S-bahn to his hotel.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction. Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Connie.