I observe in today’s world a growing reluctance to ask people about their family backgrounds and heritages.
But I think that hearing and learning about individual and unique stories of strife and perseverance is one way in which people can learn from each other, break down barriers and become closer. My daughter, Andrea, who co-founded this blog with her cousin Lexi, encouraged me to write about my father- her grandfather “Papa Hans”. Hans Heinz Muller was an Austrian Jew, and a U.S. citizen. His story is one of strife and perseverance – and survival – during World War II.
Beginning of Catastrophe
Hans was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1914. 24 years later, in 1938, the Nazis marched into Austria – the “Anschluss.” Hans was immediately picked up by a Nazi contingent and taken to some warehouse where he was made to do “heavy-lifting” manual work for two days – and then, miraculously, was let go, avoiding being sent to an emerging concentration camp. This was only the beginning of the Nazi’s presence in Vienna, and so he was “lucky.” The Nazis also started forcing “high society” ladies of Vienna kneel in the streets in their fine dresses, sponges in hand, and scrub the streets, just to degrade.
Later, of course, things became markedly worse.
That evening, Hans had a family meeting to decide what to do. He was an only child with a very small family consisting of his parents, an uncle, and a few cousins. It was decided that Hans would be the one to leave immediately and find his way out of Austria, with the eventual goal of bringing his relatives to safety. Many other families didn’t do this, fearing losing their businesses, professions, property, valuables and everything else, with the ill-conceived thought that “things would just blow over.”
Planning to Save the Family
The plan was for Hans to eventually end up in London and do what he could from there. He left Vienna the next morning with a friend, Kurt. They decided to head for Cologne, Germany, a long way from Vienna. They heard that a person there was issuing fake German passports with swastikas, which would be integral in their escape. Imagine the risk for two young Jewish men in entering Nazi territory in 1938. It was a Friday afternoon when they arrived. They had to wait in hiding over the weekend until Monday, when they were successful in getting the passports.
They decided to go to Switzerland, which was neutral, to try and get a visa to England.
However, the Nazis had stopped allowing anyone from Germany to take a train to any Swiss destination. Hans and Kurt, with their German passports, decided to buy train tickets to Milan, Italy, which made a stop in Zurich, where they discreetly disembarked. With very little money in hand, they hitchhiked across Switzerland toward Montreux, where there was an English consulate.
At one point they were picked up by a stately limousine – a Rolls Royce or such – complete with a chauffeur. They found that the older man in the back was none other than one of the Guggenheims, the famous Jewish art-collecting family, traveling in Europe. He was sympathetic and drove them quite a distance, bought them dinner and wished them luck.
Do What You Have to Do
Upon their arrival in Montreux, they headed to the English consulate and were able to meet the consul, who told them that to be considered for a visa to England, they would have to show evidence of a sponsoring individual in England who had agreed to take them in, as well as a tidy sum of cash (perhaps the equivalent of $5,000 today) – way out of their reach. However, Hans knew an Austrian family friend living in London, so he sent an airmail letter, and got an affirmative response five days later.
The second requirement was the money. Kurt had an Austrian family friend — a well-heeled business owner living in Switzerland — who agreed to lend the money as long as it would be returned the same day, before 5:00 PM (when the bank closed), so that no interest would be lost.
One after the other, they brought the wicked witch’s broomstick, so to speak, to the consul.
Kurt went in first, came out and slipped the money to Hans, who then went in. The consul, flabbergasted that both demands were actually met, pretended to be less than impressed, saying he would still have to think about granting the visas. Hans, in his broken English, responded with one of the great guilt lines of all time:
I had heard about word of an English gentleman and can’t believe that the you would go back on your promise after we had met the requirements.
Frustrated and embarrassed, the consul told Hans to come back in one hour. So, the two waited outside on beautiful Lac Leman for that hour, no doubt sweating bullets. When they returned, to their delight, the “English Gentleman’s” line had worked – they were granted the visas!
Their next step was to get from Montreux to Paris, en route to London. However, the French boats were not accepting additional passengers, and the Swiss also were curtailing assistance to those fleeing from Europe. Somehow, they were able to get the last two seats on the last flight from Geneva to London, where they finally arrived– alive. Some time later, Hans was able to get his parents out of Vienna at the last possible moment, and with all of their furniture – including their grand piano – crated up and sent to London. His father died there, but Hans was consoled that neither of his parents ended up in concentration camps.
Finally, Made it to the United States
After a couple of years, Hans got a visa to the U.S. and was living in New York. As a new immigrant, money was tight. Breakfast most every day was at this coffee shop – two donuts, a cup of very weak coffee, and thin, powdered OJ – for ten cents. One of the highlights during this time was going to the premiere of Gone With The Wind for the higher-priced ticket of 25 cents (most movies were fifteen cents).
In the summers, for three years, Hans put together a band of musicians who played in the storied Catskill Mountain resorts.
Having grown up in Vienna, the “center” of classical music, Hans was a classically trained pianist and also played the accordion, saxophone and clarinet. He put together a five- piece band that played jazz and pop music of the day, from Benny Goodman to Sinatra, at several of the large hotels. They earned decent money, got to eat and stay for free, and had a great time, returning to New York City during the off-seasons.
Following this, he married Melly, my mother, also from Vienna. Unfortunately, Melly’s experience was far different, finding out after the war that her parents perished in concentration camp(s). They are listed at Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust) as “murdered.” Also, sadly, other than Hans’ parents, none of his other relatives at the family meeting were ever heard from again.
Back to Europe to Serve His New Country
As U.S. had now entered the war, Hans was inducted into the U.S. army with the deal: serve your new country and you can become a citizen. Based on his ultra-German sounding name, he was interrogated by the FBI as a possible Nazi, but was quickly cleared, first and foremost because he was Jewish. He was assigned to, of all places, Panama, in anticipation of a possible invasion from Japan. As no invasion occurred, Hans spent more than two years becoming an expert at ping pong, avoiding crocodiles (a creature unheard of in Austria) and learning to speak English better than most native-born Americans, albeit with a Viennese accent.
By 1945, he worked his way up to the rank of First Lieutenant and was sent back to Europe, where he remained past the end of the war. He commanded a company of seven or eight soldiers. They happened upon the notorious and first major concentration camp in Germany, Dachau, on the “day of liberation.” What he saw there could not be believed nor described: mounds of corpses; people still alive – looking more dead than alive; the stench in the air. In one corner of the camp was a group of grotesquely emaciated “inmates” in a circle, taking turns pounding the near-dead or dead body of a Nazi guard, with the butt of a rifle.
Hans and his men spent the next several weeks traversing the Bavarian countryside in a jeep, rooting out Nazis in hiding. After Hans got his discharge papers, he returned home safely to New York, now a soon-to-be U.S. citizen.
Making a Life
A couple of years later, while working several menial jobs, including one in a brassiere factory, he and Melly had their first child, a daughter. They made the cross-country journey to Los Angeles to start their new life as a family. Six years later, they had their second child, Larry (me), and 38 years later Larry had a daughter, Andrea, who, 25 years after, co-founded this blog. Hans died in 2001, at nearly 88 years of age. When I went through some of his things, I found his fake German passport with the swastika!
So there you have it. Lessons learned: everyone has a past. Many people and families had to overcome incredible odds and hardships to make better lives for themselves. You will know people better and get closer by asking about their heritages and their own family stories — similar or different from this one – but stories unique to each person. Talk with people and learn their stories before dismissing what you may think but do not know. This is how barriers come down and people get closer to one another. Ask – gently, perhaps, but don’t be afraid to learn about people, and share of yourself. You may be amazed at what you find out!