Vienna: Final Sunrise
He had lived for thirty-four years and had never noticed how many
shades of color streaked the early morning sky. But this would be his last
sunrise, and the horizon seemed incredibly detailed and bright.
Walter Kronenberger stood at the window of the shabby hotel room
and watched the colors change in the eastern sky. Deep purple blended
into a thousand hues of blue and crimson and a lighter shade of pink
where the sun would soon appear.
Below him German tanks, emblazoned with the emblem of Hitler's
Reich, rumbled past on the streets of Vienna. Walter did not look at
them. He had seen them before. He had left Germany because of such
sights and sounds. Like every fool still in Austria, he had stayed because
he thought the tanks could never come here.
Behind him he could hear the deep, even breathing of his sons.
Lifting the edge of the shade slightly, he let the faint shaft of light fall on
the tousled blond heads of the boys.
Suddenly the sunrise lost interest for him. He turned and gazed instead
at the two five-year-olds. They were all that remained of his shattered
life, all that was left of the love he had shared with Maria. And they
were the only things left that made him regret leaving the world.
The pistol he had purchased was loaded and lay beside two plain
white envelopes on the table. When the Nazis came for him, as they
surely would today, he would not die without a fight. But he was certain
he would die today.
He reached out as if to touch little Charles on the forehead, but he
held his hand above the child's head, and in that moment of his greatest
agony, he prayed for him instead. Who would love this broken little
one now? Who would rock him when he cried in the night from
the pain of the earaches that struck him so often? Charles had grown
wise through his pain-wise and tender. But who would see this
child's heart past the deformity that marked him as an object of scorn
Walter looked at the gun and then back to Charles. Would it not be
kinder? Walter drew back his hand in horror at the thought. He closed
his eyes and prayed still more fervently. Tomorrow the sun would rise,
Walter knew, and his sons would be fatherless. But they must live!
As if sensing his agony, Charles opened his eyes and blinked drowsily
up at his father. Blue eyes, more beautiful than the sunrise, Walter
thought. Full of kindness and love. Let someone see his heart, dear God. Walter
stroked the boy's forehead. These must be Your children now.
"Are you hungry, Charles?"
The boy nodded slowly.
"Then come along quietly. We will watch the sunrise together and
have some strudel while Louis sleeps, ja?"
* * *
On such a day it would have been more fitting if the sun had not risen
over Austria at all. The woods beyond Vienna should have remained silent
and dark. The towering spires of St. Stephan's Cathedral should
have snagged the passing night and held the blackness over the city like a
shroud. Flocks of pigeons sleeping among the hideous carved gargoyles
of the building should have slept on until they too turned to stone.
But the sun did rise, and with its coming the hearts of men turned to
stone in the light. The traitorous bells of St. Stephan's rang out a greeting
to the hordes of Hitler's army. The gargoyles above the cathedral entrance
sprang to life. No longer content simply to watch the folly of men
below them, they leaped from the parapets and shouted a victory cry for
their master: "Heil Hitler! Heil Deutschland! Deutschland über alles!"
Austria was no more. It had fallen without a single drop of blood being
shed in resistance. The Führer had fulfilled his promise. Germany
and Austria were one nation, one people, with one Führer.
Red-and-black swastika flags were unfurled from every window, covering
the face of the city in such abundance they seemed to have
sprouted from the stones like fungi.
In one day the face of the nation had been stripped away and discarded
as though it had never been. The voice of Austria joined the
clamor of St. Stephan's bells. The birds swirled upward as though held
aloft by the resounding cries: "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Heil ." The sun
should have hid its face and wept behind the clouds at the sight of such
treachery. But it did not.
* * *
Leah Feldstein lay beside her husband and stared out the high window
at the patch of blue sky. Shimon still breathed deeply and held her close
to him as he slept. She did not move, even though she had been awake
since before dawn. As long as they lay peacefully together, she could pretend
that things were as they had always been. The events of yesterday
and last night were only a dream. They would get up this morning and
have breakfast and go together to the Musikverein, just like always.
Two small suitcases were packed and placed beside the door. Leah
did not look at them. They were a reminder of everything she wanted to
forget. She stared hard at the patch of blue and found some comfort that
the color of the sky was bright and unchanged. She would not think
about what was below the sky. She would not let her mind wander to the
barricades manned by Austrian Nazis who blocked off the Judenplatz.
She would not let herself remember the way pink-cheeked boys had
proudly worn their Nazi armbands and shouted obscenities at her and
Shimon when they tried to get to their friend Elisa's house last night.
Leah frowned when she looked at the bruise beneath Shimon's eye.
Someone, one of the boys at the barricade, had thrown a bottle at Shimon
and hit him in the face. "Stinking Jewish scum!" the boy had shouted.
"You'll see what kind of law Germany will bring for the likes of you!"
There had been a hundred of them-maybe more. Throughout the
night they had burned their fires and sung their songs. Leah and Shimon
had returned to their home in the Judenplatz to wait and watch in terrified
exhaustion until at last a merciful sleep enveloped them.
Somewhere in the distance Leah heard the rumble of a truck engine. The
Nazi shouts and threats were silent now. No doubt the young Nazis had
fallen asleep at the barricades. Evil needed its rest as well, it seemed, to regain
strength for the attacks that would surely come today. Down in the square,
the mutilated statue of the Jewish playwright Franz Lessing served as a reminder
that the Nazi youth would destroy a living, breathing Jew with as
much enthusiasm as they had destroyed the bronze of a Jewish statue.
Leah closed her eyes and held tightly to Shimon's big hand. She remembered
Elisa's description of the mutilated hands of Rudy
Dorbransky. Dear Rudy! How the Nazis had made him suffer! How long
until they turned their fury once again to the Judenplatz? There would
be no Austrian Schupos now to stop the rampage. The government of
Austria was smashed. The Austrian chancellor was under arrest. The laws
of Nazi Germany were now in effect in Vienna.
The thought made Leah shudder. She was afraid-for herself, for
Shimon, for Elisa. For anyone who would not raise a hand to salute the
crooked cross of the Reich's bloody flag. What would become of them
now? The Nazis would be checking the identification papers of every
man, woman, and child in the Judenplatz. Arrests had already begun.
The Nazis would not want to waste any time in bringing Austria into line
with the laws and policies of the Third Reich. What had taken Germany
many years to accomplish in the campaign against the Jews would now
be accomplished in Austria within days.
Shimon breathed deeply and let his breath out slowly. He cleared his
throat and then squeezed Leah's hand gently. "Awake?" he asked in a
"Too awake," she replied, pressing herself closer against his warmth.
He still had his shoes on. They had not dared undress.
Shimon pulled her closer and buried his face in the nape of her neck.
"Did you sleep at all?"
She answered with a question. "Did you hear them? Singing those
songs down there?" The words of the song had cut into her like sharp
knives as the Nazis had paraded beneath their window by torchlight,
singing, "Break the skulls of the Jewish rats." Their hatred seemed to remain
in the air like the stench of an open sewer.
"Did I hear them?" Shimon gave her a quick hug meant to reassure
her. "Of course. They were off-key. Such lyrics will not sell well here in
Vienna. Not against competition like Mozart and Strauss." He waited for
her to reply, but she did not. He squeezed her again, then sat up. "Then
again, Nazi music might do well if all the musicians leave Vienna, eh?"
"Shimon?" Her voice trembled. "What will we do?"
"We have our visas for Palestine."
"You know how much that will mean if they decide-"
"Decide what? To throw us into a concentration camp? A cellist and
a percussionist? We are of no significance. They have no reason to keep
us here, Leah. We will simply tell them that we shipped the china plates
to Jerusalem last month. We have nothing left for them to smash." His
words contained a false cheerfulness, and Leah knew that he also was
"What now?" She turned and looked beseechingly up at him.
"Now?" He stared toward the patch of blue sky. "Make coffee. Wash.
Comb your hair. It is Sunday, and there will no doubt be a concert for us
to play at the Musikverein."
"Stop!" she almost shouted. "It is not just any day! Shimon, quit pretending
or I will lose my mind!"
He would not allow her the luxury of self-pity at such a time. "If you
lose your mind, then I will have to unpack the dishes myself in Jerusalem.
No doubt I will break a few." A near smile turned the corner of his mouth.
Leah blinked back at him angrily. "How can you talk as though nothing
"Because at this moment nothing has happened to us." He stretched
and stood up, avoiding her eyes as he made his way toward the door.
"Not yet, anyway. And before it does, I want a cup of coffee. I want to
brush my teeth and go to the bathroom. And I'm going to take my shoes
off for a while, too."
He disappeared into the other room as Leah glared after him. She
was angry at him now, and somehow it helped her. She sat up slowly
and looked down at her rumpled clothes. She would change. Shimon
had a point. Nothing had happened to them yet, and she might as well
be clean and pressed if something did happen. She heard the clatter of
pots and pans in the kitchen as she rummaged through her drawers for a
blue sweater and skirt. Shimon was hopeless when it came to making
coffee. "I'll make it!" she called, suddenly no longer angry or afraid.
Shimon had made it easy to pretend. She glanced again at the sky. They
would pretend until reality demanded that they pay attention.
Shimon stood grinning in the doorway. His feet were bare now, his
shirt unbuttoned, and the hair on his head stood up on one side. "I was
hoping you would." He thrust the coffeepot into her hands.
At that moment a sharp cry sounded from outside in the Judenplatz.
The roar of smashing glass filled the little flat.
"This is what we think of Jews!" One stone was followed by another,
and then another. Splinters of glass flew across the room and fell to the
floor as Shimon pulled Leah behind the door of the closet. What
sounded like a thousand voices chimed in with taunting insults.
"We will paint the walls with your blood!"
"Now you Communist Jews will taste justice!"
"Come out, Jews! Come out from your nests! Out into the bright
light of Greater Deutschland!"
Shimon closed the closet door behind them, and they stood trembling
together in total darkness amid the heavy smell of mothballs and
wool. Leah rested her head against Shimon's broad chest. She gripped
the coffeepot tightly as still another rock smashed through the high window
above the bed.
Leah tried to speak but could not find her voice. The thought ran
through her mind that they had waited too long to have coffee. It was a
strange thought to have as the clatter of boots sounded outside on the
stairs, but at that moment there was nothing she wanted as much as a
cup of strong Viennese coffee.