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The papers Alfred Steiner received from the Republic of Germany demanded that he report in a few days to an aviation factory in Munich. He was assigned to work on delicate timing devices for bombs that would be used in the war Adolph Hitler was about to wage. This factory was to be just one part of Hitler's military infrastructure for world domination.
Fredl was adamant: going to Germany to serve a madman named Hitler was inconceivable. His only choice was to quickly flee Austria. Lizzi and Fredl spoke briefly of the separation they would endure if Fredl left alone.
"If you go, I go!" Lizzi declared.
At twenty-seven years of age, Fredl—a common nickname for Alfred—was five feet six inches tall and had always been slight of build. He bore a thick, healthy head of dark brown hair, curly but always meticulously groomed. His large, brown eyes revealed intelligence. He was an accomplished master jeweler. His superior skill level in working with intricate pieces of jewelry made him an ideal choice for working on bombs.
Lizzi, her mother's pet name for Alice, was one year younger than Fredl, stood five feet two inches tall, and had fought, and mostly lost, a battle with weight gain all her life. Her brown eyes sparkled with enthusiasm and an irrepressible zest for life. She was an expert dressmaker. Her rapid professional ascent would also be abruptly stopped if she were to join Fredl. Their plans to have their first child would be put on hold indefinitely. Their apartment in Vienna, which they had saved for years to buy, would be lost. All the worldly possessions they had worked so hard for would also vanish from their lives.
Lizzi & Fredl's Apartment
(Photo taken by Molly Makofske-July 2009)
And so, the decision was made. Waiting any longer would mean the end to freedom and probably life itself. Fredl and Lizzi had to leave Vienna now. Their home and all the possessions they had accumulated in five years of marriage would be just a memory. That, however, paled in contrast to the heart-wrenching thought of leaving their parents and friends, whom they might never see again. Their dreams of a better life had to be left behind as well. They had no choice. The only things they could take with them were the clothes on their backs, their passports, some money, one change of underwear each, and prized photographs of their families. Taking anything more than what filled a small suitcase would arouse suspicion.
Their instinct for survival drove them. War was imminent. Their hope was that after the war, they would be able to return to Vienna and reestablish their lives in much the same manner as when they left. It was this hope that made their decision somewhat bearable.
Fredl's brothers, Ernstl and Fritz, and their wives, Elise and Betty, had made the same decision. Ernstl, Fredl's older brother, who was married to Lizzi's sister Elise, had not received his papers yet, but he knew it was only a matter of time before he, too, would be ordered to Germany. Fritz, the younger brother, had already passed his physical for the Austrian army. He had not received notification to report to the army, but it was inevitable. Hilde, the eldest of the four siblings, was married with two children and lived with her husband in Kapfenberg, a hundred kilometers south of Vienna. Fredl knew Hilde would never agree to flee Austria, so, for her own protection, she was never consulted.
Many young Austrians were choosing to flee rather than take part in the tyranny of Hitler's Nazi regime. Several anti-Nazi organizations existed. Out of necessity, they were all covert.
Anticipating that this day might come, Fredl had already received vital information on how they could make their escape. An advisor gave Fredl instructions about what train to take, what attitude to assume as they left, and whom to contact for help once they got to France, which was still free of Nazi influence. Any suspicious or unusual glance or look might give them away. German military people were everywhere in Vienna now. An innocent look displaying fear might raise suspicion and result in detainment; an arrest would surely follow. They had to behave as though they were just out for a pleasurable holiday ride.
The train would take them to Germany, to a town called Saarbrücken. There they would all get off, attempting to look like carefree young people on holiday. That night, under cover of darkness, they would illegally cross the frontier between Germany and France. German soldiers armed with machine guns and high-powered rifles guarded the borders. Searchlights beamed from tall, wooden observation towers. Anyone caught trying to escape would be unceremoniously shot dead.
On August 29, 1938, three days after Fredl received the papers assigning him to the aviation factory, the three couples boarded the train separately; they had to avoid being seen together. A group of six would raise unwanted suspicion. The passenger train had eight forest-green wagons, soon to be filled with Viennese travelers. Each row of seats, upholstered in handcrafted leather, had a large window. Pulling the cars was a massive locomotive with oversized spoke wheels. In the front, the distinctive cowcatcher glistened in the sunlight. Directly behind the engine was the black-painted coal tender that would supply the fuel to drive the high-powered pistons of the locomotive. The tall smokestack would spew the smoke from the spent coal.
Fredl and Lizzi entered first and found a seat by a window. Fredl wore casual brown trousers and a stylish, pale yellow cotton sport shirt. Lizzi wore a dark blue skirt and a white peasant blouse with puffy sleeves. Dainty, hand-embroidered flowers trimmed its square neck. They were dapper-looking holiday travelers. They certainly didn't appear to be fleeing their homeland. As they casually looked around, they observed several German soldiers walking through their car. One officer had the ominous swastika armband on his sleeve. The soldiers' presence sent chills down both their spines. A couple walked past them that looked familiar; neither Lizzi nor Fredl could put a name to their faces, but it settled their nerves a bit to see that other young couples were probably leaving on holiday too—or were they?
An eternity passed during the minutes prior to the train's departure. They sat impatiently, avoiding stray gazes as instructed. No words were spoken, but their eyes told the story of the good-byes they had shared with their parents the night before. Would they ever see them again? Will I ever be able to hug and kiss my mother again? Lizzi wondered, swallowing hard.
The train finally began to move, creaking forward ever so slowly. They were leaving Vienna for a journey into the unknown perhaps never to return. They both looked straight ahead, motionless, hiding their emotions. Fredl lightly touched Lizzi's hand for a moment to remind her they would be together through this ordeal. No matter what the future would bring, they had each other.
Something caught the corner of Fredl's eye as the train began to slowly inch forward. Without looking out the window, he sensed a figure running alongside the train. Panic flooded him. Had they been found out? Had someone turned them in to the Nazis? Fear forced him to glance out the window. The figure was not a police officer or a Nazi soldier, nor was it a passenger trying to get on at the last minute. He stared in disbelief at the person running alongside the train: it was Lizzi's mother trying to say one last good-bye. She tried to keep up with the train, frantically waving a white handkerchief. Spying her mother, Lizzi felt her heart sink; she fought back tears, and her throat pained her as she tried to swallow her anguish. A flood of emotions filled her heart. It was almost unbearable. And, tragically, she couldn't acknowledge her mother's presence. Her mother risked being arrested. They had discussed this the night before. It would be far too dangerous for her to see them off. Yet somehow, her motherly instinct screamed at her that this would be the last time she would ever see Lizzi and Fredl. This was a risk she had to take, a symbolic closure to a life that would never be the same again for any of them. Lizzi broke her composure only to turn her head slightly and nod, and a moment later, her mother was out of sight. Lizzi and Fredl looked straight ahead, fighting back the emotions that begged to be released. Their hearts were being ripped apart, and they could say nothing. They dare not react in any way. Their grief would have to wait.
For Lizzi, the image of her mother waving good-bye would last a lifetime. It was an image that would wake her up in the middle of her sleep on many occasions throughout her life. Tragically, her mother was right; they would never see each other again. All her mother would have left to remember that day was a tear-stained handkerchief.
What should have been an exciting train adventure was a trip of desperation. For Lizzi and Fredl, the future was unimaginable. Their fear of the Nazi regime was certainly well founded, but no one could possibly imagine what was yet to come. Their instincts and intuition would have to guide them in the days ahead. Very little of substance was said as the train traveled across the Austrian countryside; they would speak only to give an appearance that nothing was wrong. They could not risk revealing the anxiety and panic they held inside them—their lives depended on it.
Eight hours and 750 kilometers went by in mostly numbing silence for each of them, their minds racing for answers to questions that had not even been asked. Fredl's brothers and their wives were in separate cars, and they would see them only as they passed each other on the way to the water closet. Even then, they avoided direct eye contact.
The scenery was beautiful as they made their way across the Austrian border into Germany. Ironically, the train would stop in Munich, but Fredl would not be getting off. Farmland dominated the landscape. The herds of cows grazing in the fields had been exactly the same for hundreds of years. The clickety-clack of the wheels on the tracks was mesmerizing but somehow still comforting. The occasional whistle-blowing of the train would startle them back into reality as their minds drifted.
The train came to a screeching halt as they rolled into Saarbrücken. The train conductor announced the arrival and encouraged those passengers who were getting off to disembark as quickly as possible. Lizzi and Fredl looked into each other's eyes and held hands tightly for a brief moment, forced smiles, then rose and nodded slightly to each other, as if to say, We can do this. No words needed to be spoken; each knew what the other was thinking. Making their way down the aisle and then down the metal steps to get off the train, they glimpsed their brothers and sisters but were careful not to acknowledge them. They quickly left the station platform, hoping not to draw the attention of the Nazis in street clothes watching everyone coming and going.
It was close to dusk when the couples arrived and, two by two, entered a small café at the train station. Train memorabilia adorned the walls of the rustic café, where travelers would commonly get a cup of coffee and some pastries after a long train ride. The dozen or so tables were almost fully occupied. Laughter and conversation filled the small café. The couples sat at different tables, never daring to look at each other, waiting until the late afternoon turned to night. About one hour had passed when Fredl and Lizzi paid their food bill and left the café. Under the blanket of darkness, they could begin to make their way across the German border. The others couples followed behind, separately, at a discreet distance. They walked behind the train station to the edge of the open field that separated Germany from the safety of France. The pastureland had at one time been part of a farm, but crops had not been grown there in many seasons. Overgrown grasses, weeds, and wild flowers adorned the roughly plowed earth. At the edge of the field, wooden guard towers with searchlights stood eight meters high, manned by Nazi soldiers. The barren field was devoid of any trees or shrubs, and the vegetation that grew afforded no protective cover from the probing eyes of the German guards.
On the other side of the field was Forbach, France, where taxicabs lined up in front of the train station awaiting travelers destined for Metz, the nearest town not watched by the Nazis. The group had been given the name of a cabdriver who aided refugees like them. The man, whose name was Merz, had helped other Austrian refugees and could be trusted. Of course, there would be a hefty price to pay for his efforts.
At the edge of the field, Lizzi and Fredl stood motionless for a few moments. Three kilometers separated them from freedom. Fredl reflected on what had transpired in Vienna to bring them to this incredible crossroad in their lives.