by Lisa Alpine
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances — to choose one’s own way.”1 — Viktor E. Frankl
Cold drizzle in summer. I arrived in the heart of Vienna hoping to find a bed at the youth hostel. Full. Then, I wandered over to the Stadtpark (public park). Grizzled bums occupied the benches, lolling in a cloud of fruity schnapps fumes. I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping there, so I strolled along Europe’s longest shopping boulevard, Mariahilfer Strasse, to the Wien Westbahnhof (the main train station). As I walked along the same wide promenade that Hitler triumphantly marched down in 1938, I asked strangers if they could recommend a cheap place to spend the night.
It was the summer of 1972. I was 18 years old, blond, wearing nondescript jeans, a raggedy t-shirt, and ported a small backpack. Hitchhiking from Denmark, I was lured south by the sun-ripe peaches and beaches of Greece. Passing through Germany, Austria, and soon, Yugoslavia, Albania, into Greece and its tantalizingly chalk-white cliff islands and aquamarine sea. Motivated to the edge of the Mediterranean by Joni Mitchell’s “Carey,” a song from her 1971 album Blue. It was inspired by her time with a cave-dwelling hippie community in the village of Matala, on the Greek island of Crete. It was my siren’s call to the caves of Crete, the stark white-blue of Santorini, to bonfire nights fueled by retsina and ouzo, to dancing under a cat-eye moon. Far away from drizzly weather, grey skies, and Teutonic attitudes.
Not one of the business-suit-clad people clicking by in their well-heeled shoes offered any helpful suggestions. I began to feel invisible. I was considering hitchhiking out of the city, even though it was dusk, and finding a place to camp out on the side of the Autobahn in a grassy ditch (it would not be the first time), when a short woman in a grey cardigan walked up to me and asked, “Do you need help?” She was as tall as my shoulder. I looked down into her wrinkly, smiling face and realized she was speaking English. Good English that I could understand, which was uncommon.
“I’m looking for an inexpensive place to spend the night.”
She continued to peer up at me and said, “Let’s go get coffee at the train station café.”
Getting out of the rain seemed like a good idea, even though she had not mentioned anything about where I might sleep.
We walked two blocks to the café and chatted over rich, cream-topped Viennese coffee, a glass of water, and a newspaper. She told me she had lived in Chicago and that is where she learned English.
Her name was Rada Milovich.
When our coffee cups were drained, she said, “Would you like to come home with me?” She was staring at me through cloudy bifocals.
“Okay. I only need a place to sleep for one night, as I’m hitching to Yugoslavia tomorrow. Where do you live?”
“In another district, but we can walk there.”
And walk and walk we did. The wide boulevards shrunk to pot-holed streets, the sidewalks cracked and carpeted with gangly weeds. Storefronts disappeared and warehouses took their place as I followed her sturdy march. Broken streetlights failed to provide light in the waning dusk. The evening strollers and café-goers had disappeared and we were the only pedestrians, our footsteps echoing through the shabby, deserted street.
She suddenly turned and went down an alley, motioning me to follow her, and then opened the metal door to a building with no windows. I would never have followed her here if she was not a tiny, grey-haired old lady with an impish grin.
Up three flights of clanking metal stairs, and then through a door that opened into a grey-washed hallway with a yellow light bulb hanging from the ceiling, providing an eerie glow. It recurred to me that maybe I should have hitchhiked out of town.
Rada opened the door to her apartment with a thin, bent key. She did not offer any excuses as to the dingy living quarters. Or to the motley-brown rat that scurried down the hallway before we entered.
“Come in. You are my first visitor.”
Somehow that did not surprise me.
It was a one-room studio with a bathroom. There were no adornments on the walls or trinkets on the bureau. Plain. Clean but rundown. I hesitantly set my backpack down as she made us tea. We chatted for a while but she was tired and wanted to go to bed. I helped her unfold the convertible sofa bed we had been sitting on, and began to lay out my thin sleeping bag on the bare floor.
Rada appeared in a simple white nightgown and climbed into bed. She looked up at me and said sternly, “No, no. You must sleep in the bed with me, not on the floor!”
It was odd and uncomfortable sharing a bed with a person I had just met a few hours before. But it was only for one night and she was harmless. A faint whistle-snore escaped her. In the dim light of the room, she looked so peaceful as she fell into slumber. The sheets were neatly folded over the thin blanket edge and her arms were resting on top of the sheet. Her face calm, haloed in wispy grey hair. I decided it was good to be here and looked back over at Rada before I, too, prepared to succumb to sleep. Then, startled, my eyes focused. I saw the numbers in faded bluish ink tattooed on the inside of her left forearm. The numbers her cardigan sleeve had concealed.
I’d never met a Holocaust survivor.
Deeply disturbed, I didn’t fall asleep until she scurried out of bed in the bleak light of dawn. She pulled her cardigan back on immediately and left. Awhile later, she burst through the door, seemingly propelled by a wave of damp, frigid air trailed by the yeasty aroma of fresh baked bread that filled her tiny apartment. She had gone to the bakery to get our breakfast.
This would be the first of many mornings of racing to the bakery to see who could buy breakfast. This sprint was ridiculous. Rada rose at 6 AM, and then, after I beat her to it one day, at 5 AM she’d pop up, raring to be the first to the bakery. I didn’t want her spending her meager pension feeding me, but I also didn’t want to walk in the pitch dark down those haunted streets. I kept promising her I would stay yet another day if she would let me purchase the warm, crusty rolls and butter we noshed on around her pill-box-size Formica table.
The days stretched on as she showed me Vienna. We walked the city and sat on park benches, feeding the pigeons. We talked over coffee and then we talked some more when we would lie beside each other in the dark on the sagging sofa bed.
Her stories were what kept me there. As we got to know each other, she told me about the origin of the etched numbers on the thin skin of her arm. About her time in Auschwitz and the family she had lost.
She told the stories in vivid, gripping detail but without bitterness or anger. She brought to life the sounds of the harsh, screeching grate of the rusty cattle car doors as they slid open; the scuffling noises of boots and worn shoe leather meeting the ground as her family was shoved out of the trains and into the camp. The unfolding of the chapters from this horrific period in her life took days. Intertwined with the nightmare were also happy memories of her earlier life in Czechoslovakia, her homeland.
Had she ever told anyone else about the tragedy of slowly losing her entire family? Her daughter, her son, her husband, her sisters, her mother and father. And then surviving Auschwitz all by herself? Was I the first?
“Why didn’t you go back to your country after the war?” I asked.
“I can’t go back. My village was destroyed and I have no family or friends left there. The borders are closed to my kind. Czechoslovakia is lost to me.”
One day I asked, “Rada, the day I met you, you told me you learned English in Chicago. How did you end up there?”
She became reflective and then said, “I was evacuated from the camp and the Red Cross arranged for me to go to America and live with a sponsor. I took a job as a nanny and learned English, but I never fit in. I knew no one. I’m a Jew from Eastern Europe. Always. Austria is closer to my country, so I moved back here.”
In the two weeks I stayed with her I never saw or heard another resident in the hallway. I wondered if she was squatting. She told me it was government housing that was offered to her as a Holocaust survivor.
We went to the train station and drank coffee daily. She liked watching the people. She was keen on staring at the immigrants with their shabby, bulging suitcases as they got off the trains coming from Eastern Bloc countries. She could tell which country they were from by their appearance.
“That fellow wearing a cap is from Hungary. That one in the blue work shirt is from Romania.”
It surprised me that she liked hanging out at the train station café, considering it was a train that took her through the gates of hell to the concentration camp. I asked her why she kept coming here and she said, “I hope to see someone I know from my village.”
One day, a lovely lattice-topped Linzer Torte was placed before Rada and me between our coffee cups and saucers. The waitress indicated that a customer had paid for it and sent it over as a surprise. We looked around the café for him, but he had left. After a steady diet of crusty, warm rolls and butter, this was Technicolor flavor. Symphonic, sweet-yet-tart red currant jam crowned the lush cake layer of aromatic ground hazelnuts and butter.
Rada leaned forward to hear my groans of pleasure and beamed as I fingered the streaks of red currant jam off the plate and licked my fingertips.
She said, “The Linzer Torte recipe is the oldest-known in the world and is one of the most famous Viennese culinary specialties.”
She continued, “I worked briefly in a bakery and learned how to make it. It is a very crumbly pastry made of flour, unsalted butter, egg yolks, lemon zest, cinnamon, and ground hazelnuts, covered with a filling of red currant jam. It is covered by a lattice of pastry crust on top of the preserves.
Rada chuckled and said, “I was not a very good baker, as I would improvise and not follow the recipes, but I did enjoy eating the tortes we baked. It was too tempting and I was still so scrawny from my time in Auschwitz. It was the only time I was fat in my entire life. I think that is what got me fired.”
Rada’s sunny temperament turned morose and subdued when she sensed I was getting ready to depart. Those white sand beaches and late-night mazurkas were calling me south. The greys of Rada’s apartment and the city streets were starting to weigh on me. I needed peaches, grapes, blue seas, and other young people. She could feel my restlessness as I sat beside her on the park bench. It made her sad, and she even had a temper tantrum, accusing me of abandoning her.
But leave I did. She was anxious about my hitchhiking, so I had compromised and bought a train ticket to Zagreb. After one last coffee, she walked with me to the departure platform and waved goodbye. For years I wrote her letters and sent postcards from exotic locales, but then she stopped responding.
Twenty-three years after meeting Rada, I visited Auschwitz. Four other journalists and I, all of us well-known in the American river rafting community, had been invited to Poland to attend the 54th Annual International Kayak Rally on the Dunajec River that borders Slovakia. On our one free day, the Krakow Tourist Board planned to take us on a tour of the salt mines. I had another plan. I wanted to visit Auschwitz. Rada’s stories were imprinted on my heart.
It was a mutiny, as the entire kayak team wanted to go with me instead of to the salt mines. The tourist board representatives rebuked my desire, but ended up arranging for a bus to take us there. They weren’t keen on American journalists viewing this particular epoch of Poland’s history.
The countryside was verdant with leafing trees and spring-green grass. As we approached the gates of Auschwitz, the terrain turned brown and sterile. Not a bush or blade of grass. Just barren soil. A tour guide led us through the dank warehouses, many storing the items guards confiscated from the newly arrived prisoners. One warehouse was just shoes and shoes. Another housed thousands of suitcases stacked to the ceiling, taken from people being pushed out of the cattle cars onto the hard-packed soil and into the camp surrounded by barbed wire. Our tour guide pointed out her own suitcase. A beam of dull light shone on this battered leather bag. Dust motes dancing on the light beam were the only movement in the cavernous building as we stood there, paralyzed with grief and shock. She survived Auschwitz just as Rada had—alone. I wondered if one of the suitcases belonged to Rada or her family.
We walked in silence, heads down and hearts aching, to our bus. Through my tears I saw wheat fields top-heavy with seed heads stretching for miles beside the road. Punctuating the green sea were bright, lipstick-red wild poppies. Their delicate petals fluttered in the breeze like miniature prayer flags on their tall stems. I saw these as evidence that the river of sorrow that had streamed from the camps decades ago had saturated the countryside, the crimson blood metamorphosed into flowers of beauty and cheer.
I asked the bus driver to stop and I went out into the chest-high wheat field and picked the poppy heads. Up close, the flowers were the same color as the red currant jam spread over the Linzer Torte that Rada and I had shared over two decades before.
Folded into a sock in my luggage, the seeds came home with me to California. I planted them in pots beside my pool. Soon, the summer heat coaxed the seedlings to sprout and grow. Each pot was filled with tall-stemmed scarlet poppies. It was odd, though, because the next year, they morphed and the blooms were cornflower-blue on shorter stems. The year after that, they were white and shaped like stars.
The seeds have spread and naturalized, and they now carpet my garden, blooming pure white.
I researched the true name of this special poppy that has kept Rada’s memory alive in my garden. Its name is Papaver rhoeas, the red-flowered corn poppy. It is a native of Europe, and is notable as an agricultural weed and as a symbol of fallen soldiers. It is the flower of wartime remembrance.
1: Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning.Beacon’s Press, 1959.
Lisa Alpine is the author of Exotic Life: Laughing Rivers, Dancing Drums and Tangled Hearts (Best Women’s Adventure Memoir in the BAIPA 2011 Book Awards) and co-author of Wild Writing Women: Stories of World Travel . Her travel essays appear in numerous anthologies, including BATW’s Travel Stories From Around the Globe 2012, Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing 2011, I Should Have Stayed Home, Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why, Lonely Planet’s Tales From Nowhere.
She teaches travel writing at the Writing Salon in San Francisco. To find out more, go to www.lisaalpine.com
She is a member of the California Writers Club, Bay Area Travel Writers, Bay Area Independent Publishers Association, Northern California Book Publicity and Marketing Association, and the Wild Writing Women.