Interview Leopoldine Maier

I’ll start my life story from the end. Basically, I was saved by a nurse who told my mother that I will disappear some day if she does not visit me every Sunday, even if she is not allowed to see me. And that the children who are not visited will disappear and perish somewhere. And really, she visited me every Sunday, and I was not always allowed to see her. Whenever I lost weight, I was not allowed to see her, whenever I didn’t eat everything, I was not allowed to see her, whenever I had vomited, I was not allowed to see her. Thereafter, she used to return home to Mödling and the whole trip was for nothing. And this was the end. After huge efforts she managed to get me out in 44, that is, at the end of 44, and took me home - basically against the will of the people there. I remember a huge dormitory with iron beds and mattresses without linen sheets, and a refectory with a wooden table, with the vomit that had to be eaten until it was gone. And the weighing days, which were always on a Saturday, and the weight loss, and whether I got visitors or I didn’t. This was always decided there, I was always sweating, was vomiting with frustration, and any weight increase was simply impossible in my case. I am sure I hadn’t survived if she hadn’t got me out of there on time.

It was the freezing, ice-cold atmosphere between the people there that drove me crazy. There was not a single friendly word, there were no relations with the other kids, this was strictly forbidden. One was alone and exposed alone to everything one was asked to do, yes, that’s how it was. Marching through ice-cold mud, or standing naked on the cold floor beside the bed. Eating was terrible, if you didn’t eat it or you vomited it, you were forced to eat it, spoon by spoon, until it was down again. Of course, I vomited again, and the vomit had to be eaten again and this was a nightmare. I still dream of it sometimes. You never get completely rid of it.

Of this stone floor, of this cold bed with a mattress without linen sheet, of the fear whether I had wetted my bed or not, and which punishment would come after this, whether kneeling, standing for hours on one leg, and the punishment got harsher if you cried, then they chose another nasty thing that you had to suffer. It would be announced what you were in for. Running in circles, up and down, push-ups, and all of this in a thin shirt. I was lucky, I survived, but I am convinced that not everybody survived. Any contact between children was impossible, was totally forbidden. You were not supposed to speak with other kids, that’s the way it was. One was really on one’s own, and totally alone with one’s fears. For any child, this is horrible. And the term “unworthy life” is still ringing in my ears. There is still a sign above my life that says: strictly speaking, you have no right to live.

Can you imagine this? Without any contact to other humans, no talking to anybody? Not the slightest bit of human warmth, no holding hands, no hug, nothing of this did exist. It was not possible. Just the fear what would happen next, what wrong did you do, and what would they accuse you of having done?

I was born in ’35, and I was just at an age when a mother or a family was utterly needed, but… And of course, the open tuberculosis was a problem. The whole stay there did not help to close the cavern. Of course, I used to cough and spit blood and they punctured without anesthesia with a needle as thick as a knitting needle between the ribs, which for a child is, of course.... I still [can hear] the cracking sound of the needle that slipped between my ribs.

There was an examination at Spiegelgrund, which nowadays sounds ridiculous, but then they used to check the ears, because Aryans have earlobes with a crease between auricle and skull bone while Jewish people have no such creases. So this part is Aryan. And of course, I was happy that my earlobes were not directly attached to the bone. But I am sure there are many that had that crease and were Jewish. But then, it was [...], the skull measurements, they always measured the head and such. These are such memories of insignificant things which nonetheless remained firmly in my head. Whenever I see someone, I still look at the person’s ears and such. There are extreme ears which are directly connected to the skin there, behind the ear, where there is no crease at all. For once, I was lucky.

Everybody was glad when another girl was punished. That’s the worst in such situations, that you turn into an inhuman being yourself. Because one was happy to escape punishment while the other one was punished. There was no solidarity with the others, but you just counted, today it’s her turn and she will be beaten, therefore it is not my turn, that means, today I have a chance that nothing happens to me. Because they always picked one out of the group whom they punished. And you were lucky if it wasn’t you. That’s how it was, there was a total lack of sticking together and forming a bulwark against the others, we just didn’t manage. For one was so focused on one’s own survival that one told to oneself, duck, make yourself as small as possible so they won’t notice me.

No contact at all, no contact at all. But as I mentioned, this was celebrated on purpose, whenever we were on good terms with another child or talked with a specific girl, we were separated from each other. They didn’t want us to talk to each other. It wasn’t welcome that visitors would talk to each other, either. Everybody was worried for their own children and didn’t want to stick out of the crowd. After visiting time, they were gone at once, and everybody was heading in [a different] direction. And this terrible situation, I knew that my mom was out there and she is not allowed to see me for I had lost weight and she had come, nonetheless. She knew she was not allowed to see me and came from Mödling to Vienna. In those days and by public transportation, this was a nightmare. There were the bus lines number 360 and 60 and so forth. One had to travel for hours and had to wait a lot. But she came although she knew she would not be allowed to see me, but at least she would be there. I knew she was there, in the visitors’ room and I cannot go to her. This is a feeling, this is awful despair and anger and fear, we knew precisely that we had no chance to do anything about it.

The dormitory was like a hall, and right and left there were beds of steel, that is, metal beds with metal inserts, with extremely coarse mattresses on them. And this, these metal beds with metal rods above and below, at your head and at your feet, without wire inserts, this was quite brutal. Our heads were at the window, our feet towards the middle, and in the center there was sometimes, but not always, a table. Anyway, we were lined up there one after another with a “Kotze” – that’s how we called these blankets, rough, milled blankets and, as I said, sometimes a linen sheet, and if someone had wetted the bed, one had to lie on the sheet until it was dry. And the one who had wetted his bed was called upon in front of the whole class – no, in front of the whole dormitory – and was attacked, cursed and so on. We all were forced to say that the person was a pig and that he should be ashamed and that he’ll never amount to anything and such things. And the poor soul was standing there in his wet nightgown with his wet sheet and was cursed and molested from all sides. And of course we were trembling, maybe you will be the next who will stand there. It could well be that it happens to you, too.

These long nights with this mattress and with the cold floor. And there were two possibilities: either you went to the toilet, and then you were freezing like mad because these rooms were ice-cold, or you wetted the bed and you were beaten and punished the next morning. Waking up at night was always a nightmare. Well, what shall I do now: shall I stay a little bit longer in the warm bed or shall I leave the bed and be beaten. With outstretched hands, standing on one leg, without shaking, without crying, if not, they made you stand even longer. These were such nasty things that never ever helped anybody, this was pure cruelty for those who had to suffer through it. I had a friend there, Hansi, and one day he was gone, too. Yes.

[We met] over vomit. Both of us had to remain at the table for we had vomited into our food, and we were forced to eat it, both of us were the last ones who had to do this, and Hansi was there with me. He was, in other words, my brother in misery. He was treated as badly as I.

Kale, red beets and cabbage and for breakfast we had a strange jam which was like jam to slice and was made of red and yellow pumpkin. And this jam tasted of nothing. Every child got a slice of something like a stollen, a jam stollen and with it a piece of bread. Of course, that was never enough and we were constantly hungry. And chicory coffee, which was called “Muckefuck”-coffee, which was brownish water. It was neither tea nor coffee, just brownish water. And we never had enough to wear and we were freezing right down to the bones. And we never had enough to wear and we were freezing right down to the bones. Your entire inside was cold and you really... We had the feeling that we froze from inside outside. And during the meals I always kept a better piece until the end, for instance a piece of potato without brown spots. And I always kept the good one until the end so I would have memories of a good potato.

In the morning we had to jump out of our beds and we had to stand next to it and then we had to go to the washroom. There were tubs with faucets with cold water only and we had to wash ourselves, get dressed and then we had to salute the flag and after that we had breakfast. Then we had some sort of school lessons, but it was for several grades together. And mainly, I have a gap of knowledge in geography, for in geography we only learned about Germany and Austria. Nothing else existed. And with geography I realized that I have a big gap. I still have it that there are things I don’t really know, but with geography it was only about Germany and Austria, marginally, this was liberated Germany. But otherwise, all the other countries, that was... They told us about the evil Russians, but nobody knew where they lived. Nobody knew that. There were also the evil Americans, but far away. And how they lived, nobody knew either. These countries were never described to us, we just learned of the evil people living there, and that was it. And, of course, the many [Nazi] slogans about expansion and land seizure. One doubted very much that we would turn into obedient German children, but they tried all the time. And when they told us: “You are not a German girl!” it was a terrible insult.

There were those kinds of memories, but also some positive ones. There was a nurse who was very nice. She secretly sang Viennese folk songs with us, and we had to swear not to tell anybody. She sang with us those typical Heuriger songs like “Mei Muatterl woar a Weanerin” and so. She always told us…. and she raised our awareness of being Austrians and not Germans. We were Austrians, but we could not tell that to anybody. Well, she was the only one who talked to us this way. And these were, of course, gleams of hope. What happened to her, I don’t know. It is not the horrible things, but those little things, maliciousness and meanness that hit us so hard, you see. It is hard to come to terms with the big events like being torn away from your mother, being put on a bus and carried away, and then all these little things. Difficult to come to terms with.

For example, it was a game for the nurses to badger us by breaking things we loved. We did some handicraft. We made something like a bed of twigs and a baby out of a cone and so on. When the nurses saw that, they destroyed it on purpose. And it became some kind of game, how else could it be, if…. Still to this day, I do not understand that unnecessary malice.

But the worst was autumn with all that mud. We always fell onto the slimy and muddy ground. Once I slid down an entire slope. The area there at Spiegelgrund is very big as you know, that green area. When we walked over a slope I slipped, fell, and was covered in mud. And I was forced to scrub and clean my clothes. That idea was horrible for me. But in the early fall it was so beautiful, all the pine trees were smelling nicely and also the cones. But the mud, the cold fall weather, such coldness. That was felt in your bones and it was bad. And the hunger was so, for instance, when we had to clean our teeth we received a piece of hard toothpaste, such a block. And I ate the whole piece for I was hungry. Yes, I ate the whole thing, but thus I did not have any toothpaste anymore and was punished, of course. But because I was so hungry I ate the whole piece. And those endless turnips, which were grey, brown and slimy and were always burnt into a thick roux. What we had to go through. It is unbelievable what a human being can endure. Well, we certainly had problems with it. In the moment one feels like saying: “I’ve had enough.” There were those broadcasts, and once they talked about people in concentration camps who threw themselves at the barbed wires and killed themselves this way. And it was said that only adults did that, no young people were among them. The hunger to live on is still so inherent in young people. They do not want to finish their lives no matter how horrible the situation is. It was certainly easier for many concentration camp inmates to throw themselves at the fence, a brief shock and then to end all the suffering instead of wasting away slowly. But the young people didn’t want that.

It is amazing that a child has so much will to live, to endure so much. As an adult I am always surprised that a child does not simply lie down and say: “I want to die right now.” Strange, but as a child one does not want to die. When I hear that people are so world-weary and say: “I’d rather be dead” and such. As a child you don’t want to be dead, as a child you want to have enough to eat, you want to be loved, and you don’t want to die, whatever bad things they might do to you – dying is something you don’t want as a child. I mean it would have been easy to throw myself down somewhere, and I would have succeeded, but I did not want to die, I wanted to live. And to live happily.

And there are things that are so minor that people aren’t touched that much by them. During the Hitler period, for instance, Jewish families were not allowed to have a pet, not even a canary. They could not have a pet for it was forbidden. Just as [they] were not allowed to sit on a bench in a park. This really hit me hard because I told myself that this might have been the only thing for these people to hold onto, to have a living creature. They had to turn them in, actually small matters which are not that essential, but they caused a great uncertainty. What is still allowed here? And I really don’t know my roots since my father was unknown. I don’t know why he was unknown. Was he a Jewish father or was he a... I only know that he was a Social Democrat, that I know. My mom told me so, but what happened to him and how he perished, I do not know. On that side I am without a family.

And this “illegitimate child” continued into my first marriage at the court registry: “name of the father” and I had to say “unknown.” That bothered me quite a bit even as an adult because “unknown” meant in these days that you were not Aryan because you could tell them when he was Aryan, but when the father was Jewish, it was better to say “unknown.” This stigma of the unknown father has actually kept catching up with me later on. And that it could be deadly to have the wrong father, that in this case you wouldn’t have any chance in this life.

All of our papers were gone, and I think it had to do with the Aryan Certificate, I cannot see any other reason. Well, we had no papers at all, everything was gone. Our baptism certificate or something, everything was gone. Probably, my mother had put the papers away or she had burnt them.

There were just no documents. No birth certificate because the religion of the father would have been stated there, but all that didn’t exist. Then I fled with the other children from the home. The home was dissolved then, the guards were gone and the supervisors too, and all of us children ran away. I was somewhere in the woods, wandering around in Czechoslovakia. Mostly we were with farmers where we were begging for food and clothes. We stayed only for a short time there and then we kept on walking. We wanted to get back home to Vienna. And the strange thing was that these farmers always baptized me. I was a Nazi child and I was baptized. The following day I already knew: When we are hungry and they give us something to eat, we have to ask to be baptized. So I was baptized again. I do not remember how many times I was baptized during that time. But we were always fed on these occasions and then we ran away.

The images of that time in Czechoslovakia are still very fresh in my mind – shot soldiers, we always searched them to find out what they might have. There were six of us and it sounds very cruel now, but being children we took off their boots, stole their foot rags and looked into their pockets if there was something to eat. Then we just left them lying there and ran away. Most probably a child who grows up without love becomes brutal and cruel. We were only interested to find another corpse to see what we could take from it or find something we could make use of. Those were my fairytales. To find the emergency ration of the soldiers who were shot or beaten to death or so would have been, of course, a dream for us. The ration was chewing gum, a piece of fruit and a chocolate, and we just left the body behind.

Later, I also very often ran away from my mother. I always had my bag with leftover food so I would not starve while I was running away from home. Then the police caught me and brought me back home again. I certainly did not have a straightforward childhood. Not a recommendable childhood it was. The only thing I really mastered was the tuberculosis. I really managed to get rid of it. Yes, that was the only thing about which I can say that it ended well. Today, this tuberculosis is no longer open.

Well, lucky to have made it, undeserved. One keeps asking oneself, why was I so lucky to survive and the others weren’t. This awful feeling of guilt that you do not understand yourself, but which will always return: Why was I so lucky and which advantage did I have over the others? Why were the others not as lucky?

Oddly enough, but after 1945 I went to the monastery, to a home economics school and finished there after three years. It corresponded to everything I had learned before. For instance, we were not allowed to walk in the middle of the hallway, but we had to walk along the walls, that was considered a sign of humbleness. This spoke to my mistreated inner life, and I wouldn’t have walked in the center anyway.

Once I fell in love with a man, but it was only for a very short period. He told me that he had been a young soldier in the war. There was a female partisan and they attached a grenade between [her] legs, ignited the grenade and blasted her into the air. I didn’t meet that guy anymore, but this episode is still in my memory. He was a young and educated man, and in my eyes a very nice person until he told me this. That a human being is capable of doing something like that is unbelievable.

I also don’t know what actually happened to me. I never had children. But I always wanted to have children. Whether they conducted some experiments on me or not. I just don’t know. But it has been proven that my fallopian tubes were blocked. Whether that was due to a cold or something else or if they had done something to me, we never could… I only remember that doctors’ office and that the name of Dr. Gross was frequently mentioned. Chief Physician Gross was a name for me that elicited horror scenarios. I don’t know what they did to me then, but there were no documents [showing] that this childlessness originates there. I just don’t know. Anyway, it never worked out. I would have loved to have a child just to spare him what I had to go through.

This undefined fear has stayed with me and I was unable to get rid of it. I am in therapy, but the fear, which you actually cannot name, is with me like a pressure on my chest: What will be? What will happen? What else is possible? And on the street, whenever there is a parade, a totally harmless affair, I flee into a side street. I just cannot watch it. No, I cannot watch rallies, they elicit feelings of constriction and breathlessness. Whenever there is a rally with a lot of people I can only retreat. This kind of hiding will probably stay with me. And each person raises the question in me: Are you for me or against me? It was always a question of survival. And that question still lingers with me somehow when I meet somebody: With whom is he siding now and with whom was he siding then. And would he have helped you had he known or would he not have helped you at all. Those are the questions that always return and they really do not help. I am not angry with anybody for how can you be mad with somebody when the evil has no name, when the evil is just a part of life, like it was the case there. But the evil belonged there, it was everyday life, and nobody questioned it: Why? This is not right, why are they doing this? But that’s the way it is and one has to endure.

When I do not watch myself, I always pull my neck in as if I were in constant fear of being hit in the neck with a stick or something else. In any difficult situation, I automatically pull up my shoulders and pull in my neck so I am prepared for the first strike. Even in situations where another person would not expect a strike at all. One is crippled by these childhood memories. You got your scratches and scars and somehow you can cover them up, but that is just a poor remedy, it cannot be really forgotten and the scars remain forever, you cannot get rid of them, or of the fears.

Whenever I wake up in the morning, I tell myself that I am old and it is over and that to me it will never happen again. This is my ritual each and every morning. I tell myself it is over and I survived it. While waking up, I still think I…, , sort of half-sleeping, and I am not sure at all that I really survived. Who can guarantee that it will never happen again in some way? Nobody can be sure today that in ten years from now we will be allowed to say what we think, to say what we want to say. And of course, I have this kind of fear still in the back of my mind. What would be if? You don’t know any of these things, you belong to those born after.

No, I was never again on the premises. I got to the entrance where the bus stop is and that is as far as I got and I turned around and went home. I just can’t do it. And for a long time I never talked about it, even my husband never knew anything about it. I never talked to him about it for I was afraid he would not understand and somehow would say: “It is only this bagatelle, this is ridiculous and it is over.” And that’s what I was afraid of. So I never told him anything. It is really difficult to tell this to someone who cannot even imagine it. I would love to live again for all the things… It appears to me like a carpet with many defects. I would want to live again and have a normal childhood with friends and a family, where I do not have to tremble that somebody will pick me up any day, like when there is a knock on the door. For this was always the signal, when they took me somewhere, this knock on the door. But I just can’t get away from it. I am constantly on the run and on the ready, I have always a bag packed with food like noodles, rice, salt and sugar. And when there is a knock on the door, I am immediately ready to flee. In this bag I also have with me a second change of underwear, soap and everything else possible. That way I can flee anytime and I never stopped with this habit throughout all those years.