By Alexandra Redisch and Anne-Sophie Redisch Three summers ago, on my way home from the Caucasus, I had a stopover in Vienna, about 8 hours long. And a chance to investigate something that had been on my mind for many years. Of course, why it took so long is anyone’s guess. Vienna is a mere two-hour flight away, practically just down the road. I suppose I was finally ready. Here are my notes from that day.
Baden bei Wien, 14 July 2017
As I write this, I’m sitting at Cafe Sachergarten in Baden, in Helenental (Helena Valley) in the Vienna Woods, looking up at a medieval castle on a hill – and on an address: Helenenstrasse 98 – Helena Street no 98. I’ve moved on from war-torn Nagorno-Karabakh to go in search of memories of another war, long ago. Here’s that war time story.
The student POWs: Sennheim
On 30 November 1943, 1200 students at the University of Oslo were taken prisoner by the Nazi occupying forces. Nine days later, 291 of them were shipped onboard the S/S Donau and sent to a camp in Sennheim in then German Elsass (present-day Alsace). 106 of these were medical students; seven of them had just finished their very last exam hours earlier and were now doctors – well, not authorised, but not students either.
My father, Walther, was one of those seven. He died when I was 2 years old, so I never heard him tell his story, but we have his war-time diary, Wienerleger, Vienna Doctors.
Alexandra has gone through her grandfather’s diary and sums it up:
This is not a typical heroic story with bombs and self-sacrifice, but rather a clinical description of the enormous psychological pressure he was under, as well as the frustration of being interred as a civilian and forced to work for the enemy. He was an involuntary SS-doctor.
At Sennheim, the Norwegian students were pressured to join the SS, sometimes with sweet talk, other times with threats of punishments of various degrees of severity, including death. They all refused. When forced to wear German uniforms, the students tore off all insignia in protest. Total unity amongst them.
8th Company SS Lager Sennheim. The Norwegian student company. An exceptional company. Forced to German marching, singing and sports. And skilled at this, more skilled than most German companies. Even more skilled at defiance, and at sabotaging Nazi world views and German lessons. Extremely skilled in unity.
Before and after
Many of the students remained incarcerated at Sennheim, but those that could be put to good use, were.
17 May 1944. Great pomp and circumstance. Flowers everywhere. Never was such flowery splendour seen in a Prussian military camp. We enjoyed the moment and, with the usual routine, pushed away the unpleasant ‘why?’ that appeared along with the floral brilliance. Any kindness on the part of our prison guards aroused suspicion of impending unpleasantness. – What now? – But the flowers were lush and fragrant. Bang! The usual ambush. “The four doctors A, B, C and D are to submit all military effects, travel to Berlin, and report to medical services. Will probably not return to camp.” That was that. Confusion. Mood fell to deepest darkness. Funeral atmosphere. The yellow flowers shone with poisonous irony: Division begins! Death to total resistance! ! You are now to be broken individually! ! ! The flowery scent now a heavy pressure at the forehead. – Oh God! Four alone, against a world of Nazi devils.
On to Vienna – and Baden
The four doctors were sent off to forced labour, working at SS-hospitals. First Berlin, then a further split. Two were sent to Sudetenland (present-day Czechia). Walther and Christian had surgical experience, and were sent to Vienna. That, at least, was something. Vienna was one of Walther’s favourite cities:
City of joy, city of music, city of Strauss. Authenticity and a confident sense of style. Vienna was divine. And no bombs.
He continues to wax lyrical over Vienna’s charms. It pleases me to read that. In the midst of despair, he could still appreciate the city’s beauty. A few months later, they were moved out to Baden, in Wienerwald, the Vienna Woods. Today I have been tracing Walther’s footsteps here in Baden.
I’ve been wandering the streets, trying to soak up the atmosphere, thinking about how the town might have appeared in 1944 – 45.
It’s not that difficult, really; most of the houses remain. Baden is a spa town, as you might have guessed from the name. It’s a refined sort of place, Baden. Idyllic. Not the worst place in the world to be a prisoner, one would think, free to walk around even.
Except… you’re a prisoner. You can’t leave. You can’t go home. You don’t know when (or even if) the war will end, and if you’ll ever see your family again. It’s a bit more difficult to imagine that.
Compared to other prisoners of the Third Reich, the Norwegian doctors had it relatively easy. Food was sufficient, most of the time. According to the SS-officers at Sennheim, they were “Super-Aryans whose racial purity was enviable”; not there to be exterminated, but to be converted. Good luck with that.
Weekly allowance: 2230 g bread, 250 g meat, 150 g butter, 70 g margarine, 175 g marmalade, 200 g sugar, 150 g dry goods, 50 g substitute coffee and 60 g cheese. Bit heavy on the carbs, that diet.
Yet, the diary is sometimes chilling reading. It tells of being ‘persuaded’ to join the Nazi cause with a gun at your temple, it talks about nurses addicted to ether, about instruments not being sterilised, about unqualified, incompetent doctors with no surgical experience, operating a perforated ulcer. There are also stories of challenging everyday life, such as having only one set of clothes. If you were soaking wet from rain, you simply had to wear the clothes until they dried. When you washed them, well, you had nothing to wear. Anecdotes of minor frustrations (relatively speaking):
With a poorly preserved school German and a strong resentment towards Germans, their language and their very being, I was to play doctor for German-speaking patients. I tried to learn the language, but did not want to, but still had to.
Amusing stories of quiet sabotage:
We abhorred the idea of discharging Germans that were to be sent to the front. The more meticulous work we provided, the more effective the sabotage.
Walther and Christian were very thorough in their examinations, and often found diseases other doctors overlooked or paid little attention to. They insisted on only discharging patients completely healthy, which necessitated all kinds of tests and examinations, all taking a very long time. Or they sent them on to specialists, which took even longer. When they discovered patients simulating illness to avoid being sent to the front, they let them continue the simulation.
Back in the present
Across the street from where I’m sitting, is Helenenstrasse 98, the low, cream-coloured building in the photo on the right. Once, the address belonged to Pension Silvana, a boardinghouse transformed into an SS-hospital. That’s where he worked, Walther. Christian worked in Legenstein, another boardinghouse-turned-hospital, across the street.
From the outside, the buildings looked magnificent; they must surely have been first rate boarding houses. As hospitals, they were not. Everything was too small and narrow, and it was almost impossible to transport patients on gurneys in and out. Additionally, it was overcrowded, and hygiene was a problem. … The waiting room was now “adorned” with swastikas and Adolf framed with gilded laurels, with the gold flaking. I peeked in several times during the workday, to see if the gold fell off as quickly as I, in my impatience, wanted it to. This private little competition amused me and was quite encouraging on days where I noticed particularly large gold sheets had fallen off. It became a symbol of the progressing dissolution and our approaching redemption, a secret little pleasure I indulged in.
See the castle in the background then and now? That’s the Burgruine Schloss Rauhenstein, the remains of Rauhenstein Castle from 1186, with wonderful views of Helenental, the narrow valley below. Walther describes it as a
…romantically idyllic a landscape as only Austria can produce. The castle ruins contributed greatly to the romance, situated mysteriously up there on the cliff, brooding over memories of a bygone era. The castle had belonged to robber barons in medieval times and must have borne witness to many a bloody feud.
The two of them made little excursions up to the castle, imagining those memories of a bygone era – about robber barons and fair maidens with moonlight shining on their pale faces, about parties with piglets roasted on a spit, wine flowing in streams and everything that followed —
This is how it must have been, we decided, on moonlit nights with shadows mysteriously speaking in the ruins. And if some wicked tongue was to suggest the medieval character was but a scam, and that the castle had instead been constructed as a tourist attraction by some emperor in the last century – well, we would refuse to believe it, and we meant we had conclusive evidence of its ancient age.
I rather enjoy letting my imagination go wild, too, so decide to do a little exploring myself. The road up to Rauhenstein Castle begins just by Helenenstrasse 98, and turns out to be an easy ramble through tall, thin trees. I walk along the path up to the main entrance – only to find a sign saying Ruine gesperrt, ruins locked – and a gate, indeed locked.
Very well, a bit of climbing is in order then. I’m not concerned about being busted; no one is about, except for a cat perched in a hole on the castle wall, staring lazily at me. It’s a bit ghostly up here, but in a nice, tranquil way. Or maybe it’s just my mood.
The castle towers above, at least three floors high. Inside it is all but crumbled. Fab views all round, though. And at least this gate is open. For a second, it’s as if I hear a horse galloping through next to me; I have to stop myself from pressing up against the rocky wall to let it pass. It’s an inspiring place for a bit of fantasy role-play, Rauhenstein Castle. I regret having so little time.
Back down, I now notice a sign saying Ruine gesperrt just next to Helenenstrasse 98, too. Then I spot another one at the start of the forest path, and all over the place really. Not that it would have made a difference to my little excursion. But good to know Austria has a high safety focus.
I also have a closer look at this church on Helenenstrasse 96, next door. A quick search on the phone tells me it’s a listed 16th century building, housing St Helena Kirche and its rectory.
Walther was interested in philosophy, thought processes, beliefs. He studied theology at uni before switching to medicine. I wonder if he popped into this church next door occasionally.
I don’t know. But on Sundays they ran up to Eisener Tor, a mountain in the Vienna Woods. Intervals. 15 minutes intense run, then 5 minutes’ walk to catch their breath.
During winter, they missed the snow at home and tried to borrow skis. To no avail. The difficulties were insurmountable for those that weren’t member of the party. Instead they ran in knee-deep snow. Exhausting. And refreshing. And the sore muscles felt the same as after Sunday skiing at home.
There’s a lot of wondering. Many maybe’s, could be’s, might have done’s… I don’t really know all that much. But continuing up the road, I do find a sure thing: Jammerpepi.
The diary isn’t all about the horror and drudgery. There are also some bright spots. One of these is Jammerpepi. To the involuntary SS-doctors, Jammerpepi was sanctuary. The only place where they weren’t spied on.
The inn was run by Frau Wallner, whose husband was at the front. She had two children – sweet 4-year-old Franzl, and his 14-year-old sister, Mitzi, who sang off key.
Then there was Marij, a 19-year-old Ukrainian girl. One night, she had been dragged away from her homeland, and deported to Germany and to forced labour. Somehow, she had ended up at Jammerpepi.
Inside the rather plain room – the veranda, Frau Wallner called it – they were astounded to find a large mahogany grand piano. What luxury! Playing the piano at Jammerpepi became a great comforting refuge after long days at the hospital. They were there frequently, the two of them, breathing easy.
We gave in to the urge to briefly soar on its tones, away from this world. We formed our own little world up there on the veranda on the evenings. A world where we searched for strength after another day at the hospital, with all the blood and puss and screams and our continuous fight against a hostile force that wanted to devour us and incorporate us into it – – – And we played. With notes, without notes, so long as we could play and let the strings scream out all the pent-up hatred and bitterness inside us, which we did not dare let loose during the day – and scream out a longing we couldn’t let get the better of us, or even admit to, being men. The tones released that longing and transformed it into smiles and quiet joy; sometimes even twirling us along in laughter and untamed exuberance.
Today, the house is someone’s home. I think. I work up the nerve to knock on the door, but no one answers. Wouldn’t have made much difference, I expect. Probably not much left of the old inn.
I walk back to the centre of Baden, along a pretty back lane, across a bridge. Again, I wonder if Walther walked these lanes. Chances are, he did. In his one set of clothes.
I continue along Renngasse, noticing a sign on the wall of no 4. Wolfgang Amadeus wrote Ave Verum Corpus here, it says. Turns out, he rented an attic here in 1791, just months before his death, while working on The Magic Flute. This thrills me.
Walther must have been pleased to know that. Inspired even. If his way of thinking was anything like mine.
Back in town, it’s time for a final sit-down to gather my thoughts and finishing my notes, before heading back to the airport.