Despite everything my mother was a good woman and she lived and died for love. She had four great loves, my father of course was one and I another. The others were Germany and Adolf Hitler. If only she had not loved him more than she loved my father or me or anyone else.
I didn't understand it at first, i'm not sure I understand it now. The why is easy enough of course - my father the war hero abandoned by his country and left to fester as a meanly paid clerk. Austria is a beautiful country but beauty doesn't fill your belly or pay your bills. She'd lost her two brothers and a cousin too. And all for what? For the humiliation of Germany and Austria and everything she loved. And then there was Hitler and with him was hope. He promised jobs, houses, fully stomachs. Even cars. A paradise on earth. I don't know if she knew what else he promised, what he had in mind for the people he didn't want in his great Reich. I hope not, I can't believe she'd have been so selfish.
Father knew though. Well he guessed some of it at any rate. A derisive snort, he didn't believe in Hitler any more than he believed in Hindenburg or the communists. "No good will come of it" he told my mother "all these political extremists are the same. They want us to die for their ends. Won't be anything in it for us, you mark my words". But the light of the fanatic shone in her eyes and she didn't listen. I didn't know what to say so I said nothing. I'm not sure what to say even now, Hitler promised us so much and he dragged Germany away from the humiliation of Versailles. But what an awful price we paid for our brief happiness. And how much worse the price paid by others.
She kept it quiet at first. The Nazi police state got an early start in her household because she didn't know if the neighbours were what she called loyal - and which a lot of other people would call traitors. I don't know what the Nazis paid for Austria but she'd have sold it to Hitler for a pfenning.
When it seemed the Germans would come to Austria it was was different. She took me to the cinema a told me I should learn the salute the boys were doing in the news films. "Won't it be good when you can be in the Hitler Youth and learn to be a soldier?" she asked me. I had no answer. She brought fabric and made a flag, the new German flag, which she kept hidden until it was wanted.
Then the Germans came and everything changed. She strutted round like a peacock, as well she might for the local Nazis had long known her to be a party loyalist. A true daughter of the great German Reich, such a shame she had only one child, only one boy to offer up for the Fatherland. She told us this sadly and father coughed his great gas-wrecked cough and muttered that he too was sorry to have a son.
They found work for her too. Spying on the foreigners who lived in our area. A hospital and a school, what harm could they have done us? But to me it was a game, fun to follow people around without being seen or heard. Nice to have her full approval for once too rather than her lamenting my un aryan appearance and small frame which promised little for soldiering.
We followed them up the mountain one day, a man and some girls. They had some papers which mother wanted to get hold of because the Nazis thought the man was a spy using the girls to cover his activities. It was a long hard walk up the mountains and, when we could follow no longer, mother pushed me up the rocks and ordered me to go on alone. I gritted my teeth for I was a German soldier now, with a duty to do.
But I was not a soldier, I was a child and I was lonely and hungry. Besides how could I follow a group of big people all running off in different directions? I did what any child would do, I ate their good food and drank their coffee. I suppose you could call it the spoils of war. Then I followed some of them, who had the papers, until they disappeared into the earth itself.
I was very scared but I told myself that if I were ever in a bomber crew or on a submarine it would be dark and cramped and I would have to go on. Imagine it - on the top of a mountain and thinking about submarines. I followed them into the mountain, feeling that their voices were a comfort more than anything bad. How awful if they got away and left me lost and trapped underground. Which is what they did. I was terrified, more scared than i'd been before or have been since. In the worst of the bombs and the shells, in the darkest of the nights, I am back there in that cave.
I found a way out at last and decided to hide until the girls came back out of the mountain. Being small it was easy enough to hide but I was a poor sentry. I only watched the cave itself and so another girl snuck up and caught me. She was so angry she looked a true foreign devil and I believed she could tear me apart bare-handed. She gave me to the others and then they all marched me back to the cave. I didn't care what had happened to their friends, I was too busy imagining my bones lying there forever.
They didn't make me go inside. They stopped outside and bade me to lie down and rest. I was still scared but so tired I went to sleep anyway. They searched for their friends all day and on into the evening. I imagined them being killed by falling rocks or lost forever. I thought I would never get home. Finally they gave up. The big man dragged me down the mountain by the scruff of my neck, I waited for my mother to rescue me but there was no sign of her. I had failed her and Germany and, most of all, Adolf Hitler.
Somebody took me home eventually, I don't remember who or even how. In a car I suppose but maybe I managed to walk. Mother was out and father looked older and tireder than I had ever seen him. He took me gladly and nodded when the man said I should be kept out of mischief and away from matters that didn't concern me.
Mother was angry of course, even angry that the foreigners had taken me home rather than given the Gestapo an excuse to rescue me and break their heads or take them away. Mostly though she was angry that there were no papers and therefore there was no great prize to be had. Evene so the party and the Fuhrer were greatful for her services.
The foreigners left soon after that and I do not know where they went. Afterwards things went back to normal except that instead of the foreigners there were the Germans. Sticking their noses in everywhere (well eveywhere my mother couldn't reach anyway) and dragging away anyone they didn't like the look of. Everything changed, we had a Hitler Youth now, Hitler's portrait on the classroom wall and the beat of the military drummers echoed across the mountains. Mother was glad that 'those foreign devils' had left but it seemed to me that the Germans had done more to change our lives and not for the better either.
Then the war came and mother cried because she could not offer a son or a husband in defence of the Fatherland. Father was too old and too weak and I was too young. But of course I was in the Hitler Youth and so learn to march and use a rifle and recognise the aeroplanes of the foe. At the start of the war all the young men went away into the armed forces (I wonder how many of our mountain boys did end up in submarines) and after that we settled down to await victory.
Victory didn't come. After a few years we moved to Innsbruck so that mother and father could work in a factory making things for the war. The Hitler Youth in Innsbruck had more and bigger weapons and, beacuse of my mother's strong party record, I became a patrol leader. I was so proud to lead those boys in defence of our homeland. I just didn't realise what we were up against.
It was terrible when they started to bomb us. we didn't think their aeroplanes could fly so far or that they would brave the mountains. Of course we had air raid shelters but only because we were told to, we could not see any need for them. The one in our apartment block was used to grow mushrooms in and I would rather not say what I saw when somebody decided to have an air raid practise drill at school one day. Yes it was all a joke until they came. That horrible droning noise, hearing it and knowing what was coming. The noise of the sirens setting your heart racing. And worst of all the bombs themselves. I sat hunched in the shelter feeling like I was back in that cave except now there was a giant picking up the mountain, shaking it and slamming it back down again.
One day the sirens didn't sound, I don't know why they didn't perhaps everyone was too tired and confused to realise what was going on. My poor father with shrapnel in his legs and gas in his lungs couldn't get to the shelter in time. He was gone and mother said he had died a war hero. I did not agree, heroes died on the front and my father was just a poor sick man trying to find safety.
The invasion was just a rumour at first. Nobody believed it could be possible so we thought it was just some defeatist spreading stories. We beat up Uli Welz when he told us. He was a defeatist disgrace we said, dishonouring the Fatherland with his lies. We didn't apologise, not even when the official radio programmes admitted that France was lost.
By then of course it was obvious there was a problem. The old men had been called out now and drilled alongside us boys. We still had the rifles but new weapons too like grenades and panzerfaust anti-tank rockets. We even had an old machine gun. We were boys and old men but we would defend our city against any foreign devil who dared come. I was put in charge of a troop of older boys who all came from mountain villages. We were sent to the outskirts of the city with instructions to keep watch and attack any foreigners who came.
Uli said this was all a waste of time. That we had no hope against aircraft and tanks and whatever frightful weapons they had. We said he was a coward and should run back home to mother. Uli shook his head and said that he would die for his country but that if we thought we were fighting for a glorious victory we should think again. I had never liked Uli, his parents weren't party members and he never seemed very enthused by the Hitler Youth or the war. When we asked him whether he would join the Army, the Navy or the Air Force he would just shrug and say that after the war he wanted to become an accountant. I belived that we would have ultimate victory in Europe and then, in a few years time when I was old enough, Germany would invade the United States. I believed in Hitler's infallibity as my mother had taught me to. Defeat was unthinkable.
One day there were strange new noises from the West which gradually came closer and closer. We did not know them but the old men working in the fields said that this was the sound of big guns and probably tanks. We looked nervously at each other and prepared for what was to come. Then, finally, they came. A great column of tanks grinding inexorably towards us. Uli and I were hiding in a tree near a few others. We had our panzerfausts ready but we knew the tanks were out of range. Paul said the tanks were American. Michel crapped in his pants. We waited as the stench of excrement rose and a buzz of flies competed with the growing noise of the tanks. I was in a field under the shelter of a tree but my mind was in that cave again only this time it seemed that the giants would rip apart the mountain and destroy everything within it.
Finally the tanks were within range. I lifted the panzerfaust and fired off the rocket we had been promised would destroy any tank. My shot was good, oh glory of the Reich, and hit the lead tank squarely. Before bouncing off and being crushed under its tracks - the round was a dud. We ran away to hide behind a barn and looked at each other in dismay. Finally Uli said that the range was too long, we must get closer even if it meant leaving cover. He picked up his panzerfaust and ran into the roadway. Then the world exploded.
When I woke up it was days later. I was lying in a bed in a tent. At first I thought I was back at a Hitler Youth camp but there was no Michel, no Paul, no Uli. There were many Austrian boys and men of all ages but of my friends there was no sign. My mother wasn't there either, in fact I never saw her again. I heard later that she had committed suicide on hearing of Hitler's death. Any why not for she thought her four loves gone.
I was scared and tried to run away but a woman caught me and pushed me gently back into bed. She spoke to me in German, in Tyrolean German in fact, and she told me that this was a hospital run by the Americans. When I cried she told me that I was safe, that I wouldn't have to fight any more. A few days later she told me the war had ended. And when I told her of my home in the mountains she just nodded and said that she had lived there too.