My husband and I were on a two-week Eastern European trip with my in-laws. The trip started in Vienna, a fascinating but unsettling place. One of my guidebooks described the once-grand capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a head without a body. That was certainly a part of it. The city was imposing, but it was impossible to escape the air of faded glory.
Vienna was poignant in another way, because of my father-in-law’s experiences there during World War II. He was an eighteen-year-old Jewish kid from New York when he was drafted. He was a man of twenty when he came home.
Among his souvenirs was a diamond ring he’d had made from an antique brooch he’d bought on the black market in Vienna, when he was stationed there after liberation. He offered it as an engagement ring to the teenage girl who had written to him faithfully when he was away. They married a year after he returned home.
There were some darker stories, too. He had also seen “some of the concentration camps” not long after liberation. The details of that were hazy. He had wanted to spare his family the details.
My father-in-law had been put in charge of a small office of the American Inter-Allied Command that administered the city when the Allies took over. He laughed about it: Imagine a twenty-year-old Army PFC in that kind of position. It was the 17th district of the American sector, he said. He was determined to find it.
We walked around the city, until my father-in-law found the neighborhood where he had been based. It looked so ordinary. But the dark past felt disturbingly present. We were all glad to leave Vienna, a city too full of ghosts, and continue on to Slovenia and Croatia. There, we would see the scars of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. There really is no escape.
Last fall, when my father-in-law visited us, I asked him a few questions about his experiences during World War II. What was the name of the camp? Did he recall it? He did. Once he began to talk, he couldn’t stop.
It was the notorious Buchenwald, the first and largest concentration camp on German soil. It was also the first to be liberated, on April 11, 1945. Among the well-known survivors of Buchenwald were Elie Weisel and Bruno Bettelheim.
At the time of the liberation, my father-in-law had been a patient at a nearby army hospital, in a small German town, possibly Weimar, recently taken over by the Allies. He had developed a bad infection in his jaw and was hospitalized for a week, for antibiotic treatment.
One day, he looked out the window and saw a group of people marching in the street, all in striped clothing. He asked a nurse about this, and she told him these people had just been released from a “prison camp” that was near by.
He felt he had to see for himself. He was ill, but not bed-ridden, he insisted. He promised to come back by evening. He hitched a ride with another American soldier.
He entered the camp no more than ten days after liberation. The dead had been buried. But it was still a terrible sight. He saw many sick, weak survivors who were unable to take much nourishment and who would probably die.
Jews and so many others deemed undesirable would die in the Nazi camps: Roma, Serbs, homosexuals, pacifists, Slovenian Esperantists, the physically challenged. The list of Hitler's victims was long. But the largest number of victims were, of course, the Jews.
Inside Buchenwald, my father-in-law was surrounded by a group of about ten Jewish boys. They had never seen a Jewish G.I. before. It was probably good for them to see, he thought. He returned the next day, bringing them food and some supplies. He visited the boys once more, before he was sent back to join his unit, a heavy weapons company, at another location in Germany. The company was on the move. They ended up on the Elbe River, in Germany, when they met the Russian Army, on April 25, 1945. The war in Europe had ended.
After that, my father-in-law was sent to Vienna to work in the American Inter-Allied Command. He had a few other people who reported to him: a couple of other US soldiers and a local interpreter, a man a few years older. He thought the interpreter might have been Czech. He couldn’t recall the name at first, which seemed to frustrate him.
One of his tasks was to oversee the granting of passes to Viennese residents who wanted to leave the city for short periods. They generally claimed they wanted to see family. He had to sort out the people with legitimate requests from those who were trying to put one over on him, like those wanting to conduct black market activities. Sometimes they would make their true purpose clear to the interpreter, never suspecting that my father-in-law, who had grown up with Polish immigrant parents who spoke Yiddish, knew enough German to figure out what was going on.
“I always tried to treat everyone fairly,” he said.
He also spent some time at a center run by the United Nations Relief Association set up to aid Jewish refugees. Vienna was a central gathering place for Jews who had survived the war. Trainloads of refugees came from all over Europe to this center, where they were reprocessed, assisted in other ways, and searched through lists for lost relatives.
He and his friends also had a little black market “business” on the side, involving cigarettes. With some of his earnings, my father-in-law bought an antique brooch and took it to an old jeweler, who made several different pieces for him: bracelets for his sisters, a diamond ring for his girlfriend, and a small ring for himself.
“Was the jeweler Jewish?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “just a nice old man and his wife.”
He brought them food. He reminded me: “You can’t paint the whole population as bad.” “A minority were doing the terrible things.” “Most people were just trying to survive, like anyone else.”
The interpreter assigned to him had a wife and young child. Although his background was probably Czech, he had married a local woman and was attending medical school in Vienna. The couple had difficulty getting shoes for their child, so my father-in-law did a tracing of the child’s foot and sent it back to his shoemaker father in New York City. His father sent shoes in the proper size for the child.
That interpreter eventually came to America, two or three years after the war ended. They had a brief reunion when the man arrived in New York. He and his family, now with two children, were on their way to some city in the Midwest, where the interpreter would continue his medical training. The two men visited and the interpreter met my father-in-law’s wife. Unfortunately, the two men never exchanged contact information or stayed in touch. My father-in-law didn’t know whether the interpreter had remained in America or returned to Europe. But, in telling the story to me, more details came back to him. Finally, he thought he recalled the man’s name. It was Basler, or something like that. Robert, he thought.
Again, I wondered. “Was he Jewish?” I asked.
No, he said. He assumed he was just like most people, trying to manage in a tough time.
I decided to see if I could find the interpreter. I did an Internet search and there he was. Robert Basler, MD. My father-in-law’s recollections of this man were correct.
Dr. Basler had practiced as a family medicine physician in Urbana, Illinois until 2007. He died in October of 2009 at the age of 91. The lengthy obituary outlined his long, productive personal and professional life in America. But it didn’t avoid his early life in Europe. He was born in a town that was then part of Austria, but is now in the Czech Republic. The obituary described his work as an interpreter for the Americans in Vienna, just after the war ended.
The obituary included a single sentence, answering the question that had been on my mind: During the war, he had been drafted into Hitler’s Army, where he served as a medic.
“Did you know about that, or ever wonder about it?” I asked my father-in-law.
His response was that they didn’t really talk about it. But it would have been unusual if a healthy man of that age had not served in the German Army, he conceded.
“It’s easier to judge people when you stand at a distance,” he said. “When you are involved with them, it’s more complicated.”
I was impressed that a twenty-year-old Jewish American G.I. was able to view the horror of Buchenwald and still attempt to show fairness and compassion to ordinary people in Vienna—the elderly, women and children, even a former medic in Hitler’s army.
My father-in-law is not Martin Luther King, Jr. He is not always open-minded. He stopped talking to my husband for a few weeks when he learned of his plans to marry me, a non-Jewish woman.
But somehow, he saw horror and didn’t lose his belief that the truly monstrous are always in the minority. Most of us are ordinary people, just trying to do our best.
I’m not sure I could have done the same, if I had been in Vienna in 1945.
It’s a lesson I carry with me—along with that ring from Vienna.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders