My romance in a town haunted by its Nazi past

I was a young Jewish woman dating an older man, but I couldn't escape Vienna's dark history, or my fears about his

Topics: Life stories, Coupling,

My romance in a town haunted by its Nazi past

The following is adapted fromEverything Is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour,” Rachel Shukert’s just-published memoir of traveling and living in Europe in her very early 20s. This excerpt takes place in Vienna, in the summer of 2003.

Berthold was very short for an Austrian man. He was also quite a bit older than he had looked from across the room — the lines around his eyes deeper, his face more determinedly weathered, but artfully so, like one of those distressed handmade journals bought in overseas marketplaces by people who are very serious about properly poeticizing their self-absorption; for example, people like me. We stood beaming idiotically at one another like befuddled dignitaries determined not to cause offense, I wondered if Berthold might not serve the same purpose as such a journal — a sort of talismanic shortcut to authenticity, a leathery foreign object suitable for display in dimly lit cafés, telegraphing my literary ambitions, my credibility, my admirable commitment to tasteful pretension.

Berthold finally spoke. “So,” he said finally. His eyes, I noticed, were a beautiful, liquid golden brown, like a stream of perfectly brewed tea. “You are from New York City?”

“Yes,” I said. “I mean, no. I mean, yes, I live in New York City. But I grew up in Omaha. In Nebraska.”

“Nebraska?” He frowned. “What is it?”

Several bottles of wine later, Berthold had me pressed against an ancient wall in a cobblestone alley, crushing his mouth onto mine. His breath tasted sour, of cigarettes and liquor, and he forced my jaw open to accept his tongue, which wriggled thick and slightly cold in my mouth, like a slab of reanimated sashimi. I was forced to store my own tongue in his mouth, pressing it somewhere between his undulating dorsum and the wet inside of his cheek. Our incisors met with a crunch, faint but sickening all the same, like a greasy butter knife scraping against a china plate. I pulled away for a moment, pretending to catch my breath.

“Look at this wall,” I murmured. “It’s so old. Imagine. Mozart probably peed against this wall.”

Berthold kneaded my neck hard with his chin. “Please,” he whispered. “Come please with me now, to my home.” His arms snaked inside my jacket and wrapped warmly around my waist.



Horrible kissing aside, I was tempted. I liked being with him. I knew his last name; I knew his occupation. I was convinced that he was neither a thief nor a serial killer, nor was he planning to abduct me in order to conduct grisly acts of medical experimentation and/or cannibalism. I had gone home with many, many young men about whom I knew a lot less — and when what I did know was a lot less encouraging. But that night, something held me back. Somehow, I wasn’t yet prepared to go home with an Austrian stranger named Berthold who was old enough to be my father.

He seemed to understand, and after I agreed to have dinner with him the following night, he insisted on seeing me to my hotel.

“The Hotel Kummer,” he said softly, when we arrived. “Do you know what it means, Kummer?”

I shook my head.

“Sorrow,” he said. “The Hotel Sorrow.” He gazed past me into the lightless void of the welcome hall. “Maybe next time I see you, you have no more sorrow, Rachel.” It was the first time he had said my name.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I was still jet-lagged, but the unease that kept me awake was something else — a vague, nagging feeling that I had lost something. Fully awake, I found some change and went outside to the all-night Käsekrainer stand across the street. The Käsekrainer is unique to Vienna; it is a special kind of sausage about a foot long, thicker than a broomstick, the crisped skin a mottled pinky brown and heavily beaded in hot fat. When you bite off the tip, a piping hot gusher of runny white cheese coats your tongue, singeing the roof of your mouth and any other parts of your body on which it may happen to land. At this very stand, on my first night in town, I had suffered a direct hit of cheese to the eye. My cries of pain were quickly drowned out by a chorus of cruel laughter from a pair of young neo-Nazi skinheads standing next to me, and I had fled from them in terror.

Now, as I stepped up to the counter and ordered a beer, I wondered if they had really been skinheads at all. I could have imagined the swastikas on their shirts. I wondered if this was my “sorrow,” as Berthold had said. To always see skinheads where there were none.

———

Berthold was already at the restaurant, drinking a gin and tonic at a table near the window. Over a dinner of Wiener Schnitzel with spaetzle and blackberry jam, he told me about himself. He had grown up in a small Alpine town near the Italian border, the youngest child of a policeman father.

“Your father was a policeman?” I said, frantically doing the math in my head. Berthold was in his late 40s, which would have made his father at least 80, which would have meant he was a “policeman” during the –

Berthold interrupted me before I could finish the horrible end of my thought. It didn’t matter, he said. He didn’t like to dwell on the past. He wanted to feel young. He stubbed out his cigarette against the word “Cinzano” printed in blue at the bottom of the ashtray, and reached across the table to touch my face. Softly, he murmured something in German.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I say: You are a beautiful child.”

When Berthold kissed me outside the restaurant, there was none of the unpleasant choking wetness of before, and when we broke apart and he asked me, again, to come home with him, this time I didn’t refuse.

In the weeks that followed, we saw each other regularly. I only had sex with him one more time, mostly out of politeness, but I still enjoyed his company. Berthold was solicitous and fatherly, making sure I ate and bringing me little gifts — old sepia-toned postcards, a toy elephant made from wooden beads and elastic string. When he wasn’t working, he took me to art museums or for walks in the Prater, the large park on the outskirts of the city. After an hour or so, we’d stop in a café. Berthold would reach across the table and pat my hand distractedly while he fussed with his lighter and his tobacco and his gin and tonic. I imagined that the people who smiled at us as they walked past took us for a father and daughter; an estranged pair, perhaps, our halting conversation not borne from a language divide but from the bittersweet effort of getting to know each other again.

I suspected Berthold knew I was, shall we say, not of the Master Race, but he never brought it up, just as I never brought up who his father might have been arresting when he began his career in Austrian law enforcement in the very early ’40s. It didn’t seem fair to force someone to confront his family’s Nazi past until you’d been dating for at least six weeks.

However, there was something that had been bothering me that I felt I had to bring up. The other night, I had struck up a late-night conversation with the monosyllabic, grease-spattered sausage man, and he had begun to ask me about my ethnic background. Cagily, I had replied that I actually had relatives who had lived in Vienna.

The sausage man had snorted. “In the Second District, maybe.”

“What’s the Second District?” I asked.

He gave me a look that chilled my blood. “The Jewish district.”

“This man,” Berthold shook his head angrily. “This man has no right to say this to you.”

“Whatever,” I said. “I mean, I know he didn’t mean it as a compliment, but really, all he said is that I look Jewish. Which, you know, I kind of already knew.”

“No,” Berthold placed his hand over mine, and gazed deeply into my eyes. “No. You are beautiful. You do not seem Jewish at all. Please not to worry. Some people in Vienna still are full of hate.”

———

On Sunday mornings there was a huge flea market in the empty field just past the Naschmarkt. It was known as the biggest and best in all of Central Europe. I had begged Berthold to go with me, and on my last day in Vienna and our last afternoon together, he finally agreed.

It was another beautiful day. Spread before me as far as the eye could see, the detritus of Europe glittered, a vast museum of the unexceptional. Faded biscuit tins and bits of old glass, picture frames and atomizers and eyeless dolls with matted hair and parted lips; the sun hid the chips and scratches with dancing spots of light, lending the stacks of painted china and the rows of dusty old clocks an eager new sheen, like bedraggled puppies putting on a valiant show for prospective parents at the pound.

Berthold was soon deep in negotiation at a table piled high with luridly colored barware, and it seemed most of the items for sale in the inner stalls were out of my price range anyway, so I made my way alone to the outermost edge of the market, lined with makeshift stands bearing merchandise of a decidedly less rarefied nature: broken toys, scraps of greasy clothing hanging haphazardly against a length of wire fence. A large man carrying a stack of cardboard boxes brushed roughly past me, nearly knocking me to the ground. I grabbed the edge of the nearest table for balance, and suddenly I saw it.

It was at the bottom of a half-empty carton, tucked carelessly inside a creased plastic sleeve like an old comic book. The cloth was badly discolored, and its frayed edges had started to fold up on themselves, but there was no mistaking it for what it was. A yellow Star of David bearing a single word in faded black: Jude.

When I was a very small child, long before I had heard the words “panic attack,” I used to tell my mother that my “tummy was beating.” I’m not sure she ever knew what I meant, but to me, it seemed the best way to describe the terrible feeling of descent, of dread, as though I had mistakenly swallowed my pulsating heart. Now, I actually thought my heart might force its way out of my body and land on the grass with a bloody squelch.

Taking my frozen panic for interest, the woman behind the card table pounced. Nattering aggressively in an unfamiliar language, she seized the star from the carton and pressed it hard into my palm. The plastic sleeve fell open, and I could feel the coarse cloth against my skin.

“No,” I cried, and yanked my hand away, knocking a small metal vase and a ceramic ashtray to the ground. The woman began to scream at me, waving the plastic-covered star in my face in an accusatory salute. Suddenly, I heard a man’s voice behind me, shouting angrily and harshly in German. Berthold had come to my rescue.

The woman changed her tone and held up the star cajolingly, gesturing toward me. Berthold grabbed my elbow and jerked me away, an act made somewhat less masculine by the fact that he was carrying a shopping bag full of table linens and an enormous lamp shaped like an elephant.

“That woman …” I stammered.

He sniffed. “That woman was a Gypsy. Who knows how she gets what she is selling.”

“But the star …”

“You don’t want that,” he said.

“But I do,” I said softly. “It was there for me to find.”

“Forget about it!” he shouted. “It’s not nice! It’s not something to buy!”

The harshness of his voice seemed to startle us both, because he immediately plastered his face with an artificial smile. “I have bought some wonderful books, books from when I was a child. Come! We’ll have lunch, and I’ll show you.”

I took a long look at his hopeful face. He had been kind to me. For a moment, I wanted to tell him that all was well, that of course I’d forget about this, that my memories of Vienna, and of him, would be nothing but drinks in cafes and the glittering foyers of grand museums.

“I’m not hungry,” I said instead.

We said our goodbyes later that afternoon. He dropped me off at the hotel, kissing me on the forehead like a child. We promised to keep in touch, but I knew we wouldn’t — we both knew. I was leaving to face the future. And Berthold would always be a part of the past. 

Rachel Shukert is the author of Everything is Going To Be Great and Have You No Shame. Her YA series Starstruck is forthcoming from Random House in the spring of 2013. She lives in New York City.

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