Biographies & Memoirs

The Invasion

Two months after our concert tour in Italy ended, on the evening of March 11, 1938, the whole family sat listening to music on the radio in Papá’s library. At eleven o’clock, the music was interrupted by the announcement that Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg was going to speak. We could hardly believe what we heard:

“The German army is at our border with tanks and troops ready to invade Austria.” He sounded perfectly calm. “Austria does not have enough capability to avert the German invasion. Resistance would accomplish nothing. It would only cause a terrible bloodbath.”

We sat stunned as strains of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” followed. For a moment no one said a word. Then the sound of Nazi marches with fifes and drums came through the radio.

The invasion had begun and with it World War II. It was the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday.

Then we heard church bells ringing. The sound was so loud that Papá called the police to find out what was going on. In his mind, there seemed to be no connection between what he had previously heard on the radio and the ringing of church bells. The police gave the answer: “Hitler just marched into Austria.”

There it was. But why the ringing of church bells at midnight? That was done only on holy days like Christmas and Easter! The invading German troops had gone into the rectories of the churches and demanded that the bells be rung to welcome them. My birthday was celebrated on March 12 with the usual presents, cake, and candles, but the mood was not festive. We all walked around subdued.

Before lunch on the next day Hans, our butler and handyman, came to talk to Papá. He said that he was a member of the Nazi Party and that we should be careful about what we discussed during meals because he had to report to his superiors everything he heard. Even at that early stage of the war, we could see and feel the changes.

That afternoon several of us bicycled to Salzburg to find out what was going on there. Two bridges for vehicles and two for pedestrians led across the Salzach, the river flowing through the city. We saw German tanks and troops parading from one part of Salzburg across the main bridge to the other side. As we approached the main bridge, we saw that it was festooned with long red Nazi flags with the black crooked cross on a white circle as background. “How did they ever get there overnight?” we wondered.

In those days, when a family member died, the surviving members of that family wore black clothing for a year. After that, they wore black armbands for another year as a sign of mourning. To express our grief over the invasion, I made aprons of black brocade and we wore them over our black native dresses instead of our usual bright colored ones.

Very soon after our trip to Salzburg, Nazi emissaries—actually just teenagers on motorcycles—appeared at our door requesting that we hang the Party flag from our house. Papá told them that we did not have one, but if they wanted to see the house decorated, we could hang a few oriental carpets out the windows! They returned with a large flag, but it never waved from our house. To satisfy the new authorities, the Stieglers, who still lived on the third floor of our house, produced two miniature Nazi flags and hung them from their windows.

After Austria was “liberated,” as the Nazis called it, changes were made everywhere in Salzburg. Although merely superficial, one of the changes concerned the traffic. One-way streets became two-way, and vice versa. Other, more distressing changes came about, however; people were vanishing. We heard that the Nazi police force, the black-coated SS men, arrived at homes in the middle of the night and took away one or several of the occupants without explanation of where they were to be taken or when they would be returned. Schoolchildren were interrogated about what their parents discussed at home, who came to see them, and what books they read. Parents became terrified of their own children.

Stories circulated about concentration camps where Jewish people were tortured, starved to death, or gassed and burned in big ovens. Genealogies were investigated, and if any Jewish ancestors were discovered within the last few generations, the family or person was considered Jewish and in danger of being arrested and deported. Fear gripped Salzburg and all of Austria, especially those who were not members of the Nazi Party.

At that time, our family had Italian citizenship. We were citizens of the Austrian city of Trieste, which had become part of Italy after the First World War. Because of this circumstance, all people who were citizens of Trieste automatically became Italian citizens and lost their Austrian citizenship. Ironically, sometime before the Anschluss (the Nazi term for the invasion), Rupert had repatriated when he studied at the University of Innsbruck. Mother suggested that the rest of the family also repatriate to Austria. But when Papá looked into this possibility, he found out it was too expensive for the whole family to take this step: it would have cost five hundred Austrian shillings per person. We had lost all our money when the bank failed five years earlier and had just enough to survive by taking paying guests. God was looking out for us! The bank failure had a silver lining; it saved our lives. Since at that time the so-called Axis (the alliance between Germany and Italy) did not yet exist, the Nazis had no legal right to arrest Italian citizens, even if they did not comply with orders or “invitations,” as they were called.

After the invasion, Papá received such an “invitation” by letter, ordering him to take command of a German submarine. That, of course, meant he would have to serve in the German Navy. Papá refused. Then our oldest brother, Rupert, who had just finished his medical studies at the University of Innsbruck, was asked to take a position as chief physician in a Viennese hospital. Since all the Jewish doctors had left or had been deported to concentration camps, there was a shortage of doctors. Rupert also refused. Next the Trapp Family was invited to sing over the Munich radio on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday. We refused in unison.

The Nazi regime duly noted all these refusals. Had we remained in Austria, we all would have disappeared into a concentration camp as soon as the German-Italian alliance was established.

Sometime after the invasion of Austria, Papá and Mother went to Munich on business. Out of curiosity, they went to see the new museum of art. After viewing some of the exhibits, which had been personally selected by the Führer, they decided to have lunch at the museum restaurant. As they were seated, what did they see? At the table next to them, Hitler and his SS men were also having lunch. Of course, Papá and Mother watched closely to see what transpired. In this situation, they saw Hitler as a private person. He and his followers, when not in the public eye, behaved without restraint, cracking vulgar jokes, laughing loudly and crudely. When our parents came home, they told us about their experience, which we could see left them very troubled now that they had witnessed Hitler’s “true face.”

Another time when I happened to be in Salzburg with one of my sisters, it was announced that Hitler would make an appearance by motorcade through the town. Everyone expected the Führer to come around the corner any minute. But the minutes became hours. Still no sign of Hitler. Finally after three hours, he appeared riding in his car, standing upright to look over the crowds. He stood very straight so that everyone could get a view of him. He made a speech, as was his usual custom.

A bystander told us that every time his appearance was announced, Hitler came late. He would let the crowds stand lining the streets for hours, waiting for the “great” Führer.

In August, less than six months after the invasion, Hans, our butler, came to talk to Papá and told him that the Austrian borders would soon be closed. No one would be able to leave the country. By warning us, he thereby saved our lives. Hans remained loyal to us even though he was a member of the Nazi Party. We remember Hans with gratitude.

Strangely enough, even before the Nazis came into Austria, I had a strong feeling: if we could only leave this house in Aigen. For no obvious reason, I felt oppressed by the fact that we still lived there, and I hoped we would not have to live in that house much longer.

Even though it was clear to us that we had to leave Austria as soon as possible, given Hans’s warning, Mother looked for divine approval concerning the move. Papá called us all together, opened the Bible, and let his finger pick a passage at random. Then he read it to us: “Now the Lord had said unto Abram: Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee” (Gen. 12:1 KJV).

Papá still had to have the consent of each member of his family before accepting and signing the contract from Mr. Wagner for concerts in America. We were sitting around our table when Papá asked each of us, “Do you want to leave Austria and go to America?” Each one said, “Yes, I want to leave.”

The first problem to be encountered before we left was that of our clothing. For our tours, we had adopted the native dress of Salzburg in order to solve a very expensive and complicated problem: that of appropriately dressing seven girls at all times. Obviously this problem could not have been solved by civilian clothes, since obtaining fashionable dresses for seven young ladies of different sizes and shapes would have been too time consuming and expensive. The native costumes had to be made before we left the country, so two seamstresses were given the job and did, in fact, achieve the next to impossible.

On the day we left, we had three sets of clothing, two for the concerts and one for traveling. With different colored aprons and white blouses, which we had made at home, our wardrobe was complete. The men wore the traditional suits of Salzburg. In those days, the national dress of the different provinces in Austria had experienced a revival and was fashionable, so we were not conspicuous.

Another problem we faced before leaving the country was what we should do with our house and our furniture. The solution to this problem appeared. Nearby in a suburb of Salzburg called Parsch, the priests of the Boromaeum (a high school for boys who aspire to become priests) were forced out by the Nazis. Their situation came to our attention just at the right time. When Papá offered to rent our house to the displaced priests, they accepted gratefully. After a transaction in which they paid Papá one shilling, they moved into the house.

We found out later that the priests were unable to remain there. The Nazis wanted to rent our house, but Papá told them that we had already rented it to the priests. The Nazis ignored the arrangement, threw out the priests, and took possession. It became Himmler’s headquarters during the war. The Nazis built a wall around it, put in extra bathrooms, and built smaller houses on the grounds. At the end of the war, the Americans returned it to us, and we sold it to the Precious Blood Fathers in 1948. We were then able to pay our mortgage in Vermont with this money.

My sister Martina, then age seventeen, wrote a letter to her school friend Erika Klambauer about our last days preparing to leave Austria. Erika graciously gave me permission to translate and incorporate this private letter into my book.

August 23, 1938

Dearest Erika,

The last two weeks we were terribly busy. I did not have time to thank you for your lovely letter. Imagine, just before we left we did get the lire [the Italian currency we needed]. At that same time an acquaintance1 recommended to us a beautiful small pension not far from Brunico in the Pfuster Valley in North Tyrol, Italy. You know, we were already a little discouraged because we did not know where we should go.

Dr. Wasner did not get a French visa; therefore we could not go to France. Besides, the newest thing is that Italy will not let French citizens into their country, whereupon the French would not let Italians come into their country. There is now no way we can go to France. We are Italian citizens. Too bad, isn’t it?!

We wanted to leave from Aigen on Saturday, but in the last minute Papá had such a bad attack of lumbago that he just made it to bed and could not move for a whole week, just at the time when we needed him most.

Shortly before that Lorli came down with appendicitis and was operated on immediately, because we thought it is better to operate now than risk an acute attack on the ship or on any part of the trip. She was very good, unbelievably serious, and quiet. But now she is well again and jumps around as usual and talks as much as ever. Only once in a while when she falls down or walks very fast she says, “My cut [incision] hurts so much.”

We had to postpone the transfer of our villa to the Boromaeum for a week. One room after another was cleared out. The furniture was taken partly into the attic and the more valuable pieces were put into one of the upstairs rooms where the Stieglers used to live.

For this final night, five of us girls slept in the room of our former cook, Louise. We slept on iron folding beds. Maria and Johanna slept in the log house in the garden. Werner slept on a bed in the room where the furniture was stored. Only Papá and Mother slept in their own room. [Rupert and Father Wasner had left earlier.]

You cannot imagine what it looked like in our house, and—you know—we had to cook for ourselves and do everything else ourselves because Hans and Louise were not with us anymore. But Frau Mareck and Frau Hlavka still helped out. [They did our laundry.]

We cleaned up the whole house, prepared it, and did all that one does when one rents one’s house.

Then we packed our suitcases, and on Friday, we turned our house over to the priests.

We ate lunch at the local restaurant Flachner. In the evening we had finished just about everything.

Do you know what we did after that? We went to Maria Plain2 in Blecher’s and Gruenbart’s Taxis.3

The night was balmy and the sky clear, covered with stars. It was wonderful. The church was already locked, but the caretaker unlocked it for us and lit all the candles on the altar. There we received our last blessing in Austria.

Maria Plain is really beautiful, especially at night. Then we had something to eat in the restaurant and sang a little while in the meadow near the small shrines, just to say GOOD BYE!

Saturday morning at six o’clock we had Mass. After that, there were the last tasks to be done, and we cleared the rooms we had slept in. At last we took our suitcases to the train station.

At 9:30 a.m. the train left, and this was an indescribable feeling.

We were totally exhausted after all this work. We never got to bed before 10:30 p.m. or midnight and got up at 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning. Then running up and down between attic and cellar and bicycling back and forth between Salzburg and Aigen—that is nothing to laugh at.

Besides you must not forget, and this is the worst: Your “Uncle” Forstner4 came on Friday to look at his room. It was going to be the room in the middle, a very big room where Maria and Agathe used to sleep and where the linden tree stands in the room. He obviously did not like it because that is how he acted. He announced, “I do not care, it’s all the same. So, now I just have to move into this house. If the big wardrobe [an antique] cannot be taken out, I just have to leave my own at home.” A home he did not have anymore because the Nazis took it over. He continued: “And the tree; it has to go. I have no use for it.”

You know, I think this is very strange, but men are always terribly awkward and impractical. I don’t understand why he did not like the linden tree, and the rooms are certainly better than those in the Boromaeum are, especially his because I know it. One should not cling so much to earthly things, don’t you think?

I have never seen him in such a bad frame of mind, but at that time he was in a very bad mood, or—how should I say it?

Do you know what else I did? I bought myself a pair of straw slippers, just like the ones you have. My sisters and brothers liked them too. Anyway now we start becoming elegant. Too bad I cannot show you the beautiful handbag and the lovely aprons and the long-sleeved Sunday dirndl. I thank you in the name of the whole family for lending us your pattern. It was really a great success.

Here we are now, sitting in a very clean and cozy country restaurant in St. Georgen, Italy. Around it are meadows, mountains, and alpine pastures strewn with large rocks. Horses and geese are grazing freely in the village.

The pastor is terribly nice and entrusted us with a second key to the church, as well as with one for the shrine close by. We can say our evening prayers there. Isn’t that wonderful?

This coming Sunday we shall sing the High Mass in the church of St. Georgen. I am looking forward to that. You know we have Mass every morning at 7:30. After breakfast we practice singing. At 11:00 those of us who play the recorders practice until lunch. After lunch each one of us can do what we want until 5:00 p.m. From then on we sing until supper.

The border officials would not let our spinet [a small, ancient keyboard instrument] cross the border. Not even when we said we are only traveling through Italy. That is why Papá went back to the Brenner Pass [a mountain pass between Austria and Italy] to clear that up with the officials.

In spite of the fact that it rained until yesterday, it is very beautiful here. If you could only be here! I am really surprised that you had not climbed the Gaisberg [a mountain] again since our last excursion.

Today there was a chimney fire in a house almost adjacent to the inn where we are staying. Fortunately, the chimney sweep happened to be in the restaurant and readily knew what had to be done. However, it did look awfully dangerous. The iron doors of the chimney were already red hot and on top of it all, the house has a wood shingle roof insulated with straw underneath. That was a real shock.

Your kind parents invited me to come to Seeham for one or two days, but really I cannot stay away from home now. I have to write somehow from here and hope the letter arrives because I addressed it “Seeham, Poste Restante.”

I feel sorry for you that you have to learn French and that the coffee and the melons taste so bad. Here we have very good fruit. You already have quite a French handwriting.

Dear Erika, I cannot keep writing or else I will make more mistakes. I do hope you are not mad at me for not having written to you for such a long time.

Love,
Martina

P.S. Werner and Rupert send you greetings.

As Martina mentioned in her letter, this is how we left our house in Aigen:

The day after we gave the house to the priests of the Boromaeum we had Mass at 6:00 a.m. After breakfast we completed our last-minute tasks, then we quietly walked out of our door, not knowing whether we would ever come back.

Each one of us carried a rucksack (knapsack) on his or her back and a large suitcase in one hand. We took only what we could carry. We did not climb over a mountain; we just crossed the railroad tracks behind our property, proceeded to the station, Aigen bei Salzburg, and took the first train south to northern Italy. We stayed there in a small pension, as Martina reported to her friend Erika, until the day came that we had to leave the friendly village and the beautiful countryside of St. Georgen. Because the Italian government would not send Papá’s navy pension out of the country as long as he resided in Austria, he was able to collect a lot of back pay when we went to St. Georgen. It was enough to sustain us through the summer and get us to London. We had our passports, our visas, a contract, and passage to the United States of America in our possession. In March 1939, our visas would expire.

We boarded the train to France through Switzerland, had a rather choppy crossing through the English Channel, and then did a few hours of sightseeing in London.

On Friday, October 7, 1938, at 3:00 p.m., we boarded the train to Southampton where the American Farmer was docked. She left the harbor at 6:00 p.m. with seventy-five passengers on board. I remember seeing the rocky coast of Land’s End as we passed the English landmark in the evening light. It was very impressive. The thought ran through my mind: We are leaving Europe and our old life behind!

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