Palmer, Margaret: Austria: 1946 – 1947: Vienna: From Kansas To Vienna And Back

Getting There and Trips Around Europe: 1946 – 1947

Mists of time. Yes. That depicts it well. Fifty-five years ago I embarked upon an event that affected my life forever. And it is covered in a scrim screen in my memory. I was six years old and am now sixty-one. The memories are mine and may or may not be precisely accurate but they ARE mine.

So many aspects of 1946-1947 I could ramble on about. The trip over to Europe, life in Vienna in post war times, trips while there, school times, etc. So, this epistle will be about trips. Others later.

First Trip was actually getting there.

. While we were waiting in NY Grand Central Station for the bus to Fort Hamilton my mother heard a familiar voice cry Eunice!”. It was an old high school friend from our hometown in Kansas. He was returning from Europe and she was the first person from home that he saw. Small world.

. In Fort Hamilton we were quartered with hundreds of other women and children on their way to join husbands and fathers as dependents of the occupation forces. I can remember sitting on the front stoop of a barracks and my mother braiding my hair into tight strips to be tied on top of my head. Also running in Central Park chasing balloons and wandering NY streets in another time and place.

. We boarded a troop ship. It had only recently finished returning soldiers from the front. Not exactly a luxury liner. My mother told me about a lady who boarded and took one look around and said (in 1946 language) “I am out of here.”

. One day we watched a medical evacuation of a very sick lady from the ship via a net to another ship. Heard that it was reported in the NY Times.

. A fire in the kitchen caused us all to don life jackets and start to board the lifeboats. What could be more exciting to a six year old? Maybe being sent by the mother of one child to retrieve her child from the movie theater in the lowest deck? My mother was a bit incensed at the lady, to say the least. I just remember dashing down stairs to the theater and then after getting my friend we ran back up the stairs as the automatic doors were slamming shut behind us. Great fun for kids. Heart attack time for parents.

. Being brought up on deck by my mother at midnight to see us passing the White Cliffs of Dover. I played cards under the lifeboats with a friend. But I never forgot the feelings of the adults that were whirling around us.

. The train to Vienna. Watching the countryside passing by. Seeing destruction. Wondering what my grandmother would think about all of this. Remembering years later the smell of decay that was present as we took a walk through Munich while we waited for a train change.

Second Trip

. The entire school went to Chiemsee for a summer vacation. When I look at the pictures now it looks like any summer camp. Only I know that it was a trip by a true conglomerate of people in a very unusual situation.

Third Trip

. Now, the trip to the Eagles Nest (Hitler’s home in Bavaria) was truly strange. I knew even at the age of six that I was in the twilight zone. But it was fascinating. Tunnels. Elevators. Wind. Craggy cliffs. And the aura of death.

Fourth Trip

. How many of you have been in the Sistine Chapel with only three people? Well, I was. I remember laying on my back on a bench to look up at the ceiling and having only my brother and mother near by. In addition, the memory of desperate Roman citizens selling their family belongings on the train station platform has left a lasting impression on me. I still have the antique mosaic necklace/bracelet/brooch set that my mother bought from a distinguished gentleman as our train departed from the station.

Fifth Trip

. Going to Switzerland to experience the Alps. Only to find oneself in a cable car that had decided to lose a cable. My mother told me later that as I clung to her I asked if we would make the headlines the next day if we crashed to the valley floor. More pleasant is the memory of feather beds.

Sixth Trip

. Going to Salzburg and being the first children that American soldiers had seen in years. We were definitely spoiled. One incident happened that I remember to this day. My mother let me know in no uncertain terms that derogatory terms (in this case a person’s appearance) were not to be tolerated in our family. Made a lasting impression. Meeting General Mark Clark on the “Mozart Express” from Wien to Salzburg.

Seventh Trip

. Fishing at St. Wolfgang, sailing around the lake and visiting the famous little church on a nearby island. Twenty years later my brother and I revisited the place and were amazed at how little it had changed.

Eighth Trip

. Going home. We were told on coming over that the USS Holbrook was on its last trip. Guess what ship we took home? I remember sitting on top of our luggage pile in Bremerhaven to guard it as my mother checked tickets and my 10-year-old brother checked passports (life was different in those days!). My mother told me that a soldier tried to get me to let him help me, but I told him that I would not budge until my mother returned. Again, life was different.

Family Life: 1946 – 1947

My memories about the Vienna of 1946-1947 are mainly snippets of events surrounded by a very vivid ambiance of music and sensations. Ever see the movie “The Third Man”? I remember seeing it as a child when it first came out. The visual aspects and most definitely the musical ones depict my Vienna to perfection. The haunting melody of the movie theme says it all.

Family Outings:

To a child there could be no better place to go with family and friends for a picnic and play than the Prater or the Tiergarten. Remember the famous boxcar Ferris wheel in the Prater? One of the few times I have not been afraid of heights. There is a safe feeling to being in a Ferris wheel car that is the size, at least in the eyes of a six year old, of a subway train. The blanket picnics with other children as well as Viennese friends are fond memories.

Got my first taste of opera and ballet in Vienna. Even though the Opera House had been damaged it still presented events. To this day my favorite opera is the first opera I ever saw, Carmen. My mother also enrolled me in ballet classes. Was dancing on “toe” in a few months. Not done today for one so young. But I loved it. Still find one of the most relaxing things to do is to go to a ballet alone and just immerse oneself in the sensations.

Many excursions were made to Schönbrunn, the Hapsburg Palace. Two most remembered sights are the first British tank into Vienna that sat in the middle of the courtyard and the Gloriette. What a wonderful gazebo for a child. Told my mother I wanted one in our backyard at home in Kansas. No luck.

Now the Ice Cream Parlor was something else. We went there for the obvious treats. But if you stayed late you would see it turn into a “club”. Saw my first belly dancer with twirling tassels there. After that event my mother made sure we left early.

We also liked to wander the shopping area, what little that was up and running by then. I remember my brother and I buying my mother a gift for Mother’s Day 1947. A pair of white kid gloves with red fingernails painted on them. As a good mother she said, “I love them”. Never wore them though. I still have them. Also, a fragile pair of dusty rose deer still sits on my bookcases.

Conditions:

I never really felt unsafe but I know my parents were cautious about being on the streets, particularly if near the Soviet zone. In the evenings we would always walk right on the curb edge to avoid the deep doorways. My parents would walk in the center of the street if they were out late. We heard of people being robbed of everything down to all their clothes.

The main memories I have of the daily atmosphere was a Viennese child we knew who would get sick if he saw black olives. They reminded him of the rotten peas they had had during the war. Without exception, all Viennese we knew feared and hated the Soviets. One elderly lady gave my mother a gift saying she would rather give it to an American friend than have it taken by the Soviets when they took over. Yes. They were convinced the Soviets would absorb Austria. I have many very long letters my mother wrote home that not only cover what we did as a family but what she saw and felt. Fascinating. In one she even mentions the need for a structure that sounds an awful like the current E.U.

Our home was in a building that looked very impressive to a little child. Long dark corridor, lined with palms, which connected the front and back sections. An elevator that seldom worked. Large odd shaped apartments. Real excitement for a child from a small town in Kansas. Only one other American family in the building.

People:

We meant so many wonderful Viennese people. Our piano teacher who previously had been a professor at the university, the beautician/barber family, and the members of local bands that performed at the American clubs. All became lifetime friends of my family. There was a loose organization of the American families through which we took most of our trips and kept up with community activities. But we all lived scattered throughout Vienna and our personal lives usually revolved around the other Americans in our apartment building and the Viennese citizens we knew.

Sad Memories:

I remember Rudi. He was the brother of Mimi, one of my mother’s Viennese friends. He had been a prisoner of war of the Soviets. They lined up large groups and counted off by ten. The tenth man was set free. The other nine were shot. He was number ten. He walked home. I remember how handsome he was and I remember all the pitting on his back from shrapnel.

I remember not recognizing my father. I was only 2 years old when he left following Pearl Harbor. One evening I, along with my friend and her mother, passed a soldier learning on the front of our building, waiting for a ride back to the base. I asked the mother of my friend, “Who was that man?” I was now almost 7.

School Life: 1946 – 1947

This third and last section about my experiences in the Vienna of 1946-1947 has been the hardest to write. It is about the actual Vienna Community School and therefore forces me to focus on just one aspect of our life in those days. Not easy for me to do – I tend to prefer to ramble all over the place going in and out of whatever topic strikes me at the moment.

History of Building:

The building always reminded me of a grand villa. It was. It was set in the heart of Vienna, with a large house, scrumptious grounds, winding drives and a massive iron fence surrounding it. The Danube River flowed nearby.

The pre-war owners fled Austria in 1938 and the Germans turned the home into a hospital. When the Soviets assumed authority over the building it was turned into a stable. Finally in 1946 it became the Vienna Community School for Americans. And in 1966 when my brother and I visited Vienna we had dinner there as it had been turned into an “upscale” restaurant. Wonder what it is today.

Building: Outside

I remember arriving on the school bus at the back door. Like in all the old films – a circular drive up to the portico for entering the house. So different than riding to school on your bike, or walking, and dashing up the steps as we did back in Kansas.

The front of the building was very imposing. Again, like something out of a movie. The grounds made a great play area for us. I can still see all the jungle gyms, teeter-totters, etc. Played tag running up and down the drives as well as in and around all the trees. I loved the iron fence. It was fascinating to just stand there and look through it at all the activity outside on the streets of Vienna.

Building: Inside

The lobby was immense – but then I was just six so maybe it wasn’t really that big, just seemed so to me.

The winding staircase in my mind seems like the one at Twelve Oaks in “Gone With The Wind”. Really romantic and classy. At Christmas in 1946 students gathered on it and sang carols.

I was fascinated by all the rooms. Never seen a house with so many of them. And each one so big. At least we had enough for all the classes, Grades 1-12.

School Events:

We rode a School Bus everyday. I can remember looking out the window of the bus and seeing Viennese children staring at us. It had just been barely a year since the end of the war and it must have been strange for them to see American children truly living there and going to school there.

My first day in the first grade is a strong memory. Our classroom was on the first floor at the back, overlooking the portico we entered. Seemed so dark and serious. Found out later it was the “office” of the old house.

The 1947 May Day Festival was a grand happening at school. We all dressed in Austrian costume. A full schedule of events took place. Each class performed with the lower grades doing little dances and some older grades having gymnastic events. And we even had a queen and princesses crowned.

Personal Events:

My brother attended the fourth and fifth grades. He remembers playing soccer and not baseball or football. Maybe the European influence? My mother taught the sixth-eighth grades in the fall of 1947. She had substituted in my brother’s class in 1946. He claims it was not difficult having his mother as his teacher. Not sure I would like that situation!

Now, I did misbehave once. Yes, only once. A group of us in the second grade did the unforgivable thing of writing on the blackboard during the lunch hour. All the others confessed. Not me. Really frustrated the teacher. She sent me to the “cloak room” for the rest of the day. Little did she realize that I really enjoyed that afternoon. The room had originally been a large dressing room with deep-set windows with sixteenth century type panes. I just sat in the window, looked down on a closed-in garden and daydreamed. Wonderful fun for a child.

The one unpleasant event was a typical childhood fall in the schoolyard. Ended up with a serious infection in my knee, which put me in the American hospital for a week. And that is were I had twenty-seven shots of penicillin in four days given by a doctor who hated children. Guess who is deathly afraid of needles to this day? The details of that hospital stay could make a mini article. See, I could ramble on about almost anything!

Just some memory wandering. Heaven forbid if no limit on words!

Copyright 2004 American Overseas Schools Historical Society