chapter16


November 1968

The train arrived six hours later at Vienna Franz Josef Station which looked very similar to Prague's train-station was equally shabby and dilapidated. , I was tired. The Grenzschutz (Border Patrol) gave me written directions to the refugee camp of Traiskirchen just outside the city. I took the D-Tram to connect with the Badner Bahn. The D-Tram passed the Wiedner Hauptstrasse and I spotted a yellow building with an arch and a sign that said 'Buchantiquariat Votova'- 'Votova Antiquarian Bookshop'. I planned to visit the Votova family and tell them about Anton's letter. In the meantime, I had to reach Traiskirchen.

The gate-keeper in the grey uniform  let me in. The white and red building was a former barrack. I was asked if I wanted to apply for political asylum. I said yes and explained my situation although I did not go into details about Professor Varady nor Adolf Schaden. I was photographed, fingerprinted and not really sure whether I was going to be released. I was exhausted. I thought that the situation at home was not that bad, if Traiskirchen had been near the ČSSR border, I would probably not have bothered with staying in Austria. The Grenzschutz Wachmann Zinkel was dealing with my file, typing with two fingers or as it's known 'zwei Finger Adler Suchsystem'. I asked if I could phone my cousin in Vienna and ask him for his opinion. The Wachmann looked up and said that it would be more comfortable for me if I could stay with relatives rather than in Traiskirchen itself or shelters run by the church or trade-unions . I said that I was not sure that my Austrian family wanted to meet me again. He said that it was worth a shot. Political asylum was not necessary in order to remain in Austria but without it, it was impossible to travel further nor gain employment. I needed to go down that route as I wanted to earn a living and rebuild my life.

In the meantime, I was given a blanket and other necessities then led to a communal isolation dormitory. I was used to dormitories and I stored my possessions in the wooden locker. I snoozed safe in the knowledge that I was not sleeping at Pankrac SNB headquarters nor in Leningrad and thankfully, I was not in a hospital with a pancreatic infection. I wondered if and when I would be able to leave this place. I refrained from talking to the other people in the room and they did the same. Everyone seemed in a state of shock.Shortly afterwards,  staff with trolleys came to the room and brought us afternoon coffee. I was well-used to this routine from the hospital. The coffee and the rolls with butter and jam were nice. Yet, we were all waiting to be summoned for an interview at the office. However, this being the weekend, the office was closed. There was nothing to do apart from waiting for bed-time on the day of freedom and democracy - svobodu a democracii. I read a little from Rilke's 'Two Stories of Prague' and then I fell fast asleep. On Monday morning, I spoke to my cousin Stefan on the phone. First, he was surprised to learn that I was in Austria, then I heard him talking to someone in the background. He then said that his mother - my aunt Olivia Votova née Schaden - would love to see me. Would I do them the honour of joining them at a remembrance ceremony for Herr Lukas Votova? My blood froze. I was intruding on a a family's grief. Nevertheless, I said it would be an honour to pay my respects to Herr Votova. Stefan said that he would be down within the next ninety minutes and that I should look out for a yellow camper van. As I put down the receiver, I speculated that the Votova family may originally have been called Vot (the Czech form of Veit) and that the children kept the female form of the name when they moved to Austria. I told the porter at Traiskirchen about the planned visit and he said that it was fine, I only needed to sign the register. 



An hour later, my pale cousin with the colourless hair arrived in a yellow van. He was wearing his anorak over a black suit. He wrote down his address on the porter's register listing himself as my cousin on the paternal side. Stefan then said that it was very kind of me to join the family on this sad occasion. Lukas Votova had been ill with colon cancer for many months and died at home. The family had time to say goodbye properly and take note of his wishes. He insisted on a civil ceremony because he was not religious and that Olivia would be holding the eulogy. Stefan added that his father would have been happy to see his nephew at the ceremony. He was sad though that I was really related to Anton and that he was sorry for finding out the awful truth about him. I asked him to park his van for a minute. When the vehicle stopped, I explained to him that Adolf worked for the Comintern. He looked shocked then breathed a sigh asking if he really wasn't a Nazi. I said that he wasn't a Nazi and that he worked for the Soviets. “That's awful! With all these Soviet tanks in Prague'!” I replied President Svoboda and Secretary General Dubček also were on the Soviet side during the war. He smiled. We arrived at the Vienna Central Cemetery. The fog was covering the grounds in a dense monochrome blanket. Mere ghostly shadows, the small group of people who had gathered there. I guessed that Olivia Votova was the ash-blonde woman who was addressing the group with a shivering voice – she was holding a wreath of red roses. Apart from the hair, she bore a striking resemblance to my father :

“In the old days before the war, people who knew Herr Lukas Votova were fond of him. He was a man at home at the Hawelka, the Mozart, the Sacher, the Prückl, the Imperial, the Landtmann cafés. He drew cartoons of artists and writers of the day. Until 1934, you might have seen him and my brother Adolf pacing Old Vienna. Their legacy are postcards of a world before it was destroyed by tyranny and war. When my brother moved away, Lukas worked as a book binder. The war saw Lukas as a reluctant soldier. He was shot in the back on the Eastern Front. After he was repatriated, he became a porter at the Franz-Josef-Spital. One day, he refused to salute a German Nazi officer and he was taken to Gestapo headquarters on Morzinsplatz Square where the was severely beaten and was sentenced to seven months of hard labour at Mauthausen Camp. He was there when the allies liberated it. He could no longer sketch, but he was proud that the Gestapo never found his stash of books. When the German Nazis burnt books in 1933 in Berlin, Lukas set out to buy every title from the banned list from Austrian bookshops. He vowed to outlive the Nazi regime and have these books displayed after the war. He was a man committed to the arts and free speech. No tyranny should ever destroy those. After the war, he opened a shop and proudly displayed those literary survivors. As a family, we wanted to build a monument to him, but he chose to donate his body to medical research and this is why we are assembled here in this field to remember him and everyone who is dedicated to help people. Lukas was a survivor. He was a devoted husband and an inspiring man who will be sorely missed.”

A young woman with mousey hair wearing a trouser suit played a piece of music on a violin which I recognized as 'Auld Lang Syne'
Only now did I recognize Comrade Ammereiner. He did not let on that he was acquainted with me. He briefly spoke to Olivia Votova, then left hastily. Olivia Votova said quietly:
“Finally we meet,
Karel Skodaček,” . It is a pleasure to see you. Would you like to come with us? 
“Thank you, Mrs Votova. It's nice to meet you.”
"Please call me Olivia."
Stefan said:
“Let me introduce you to my wife Monika."

I shook hands with the violin player.
She was called Monika Djokovic-Votova and was a musician born on the Croatian coast of Yugoslavia. She worked as an usher at the Burgkino on the Ring and in the evenings, she played violin at a Yugoslavian-Macedonian restaurant on the Friedensbrücke. She said:
“Nice to meet you, Karel.”
“My pleasure. You played beautifully.”

The four of us stepped into the yellow camper and Olivia drove first to the cinema where Monika got off. Our final destination was the Wiedner Hauptstrasse where she parked the camper in the inner patio area of the old yellow building. Stefan opened the blue glass door of the Votova Bookshop. The crystal chimes tinkled and caught some light.

We entered a dark shop bathed in blue light, the wooden floorboards creaked as we walked. The place had pine bookshelves and was filled from floor to ceiling with decaying books and paper-ware. An opaque yellow glass ceiling-lampshade provided the light. The till on the counter must have been borrowed from a museum or a junk shop. Pressed alpine flowers and old postcards could be seen under the glass-top. Behind the counter, in a glass cabinet, there it was: Lukas' collection of the banned Berlin books.I noticed Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and I said that I used to live next door to Kafka's old house in the Prague Old Town. I proceeded to describe that odd black house with the white fairy tale figures. Olivia was in awe so I told them about the Karl-Ferdinand University in the red Bata building. Stefan asked if I wanted to sit down and have a cup of coffee. I followed him into the back-room and sat down on a decrepit old sofa, glanced at the faded Persian rug - 'the banned books were hidden inside a cache underneath the sofa' Stefan explained 'and the rug was around them - my father's favourite story. He used to run the shop from this sofa.' He added that the condensed milk was off and that he was popping into the bakery and buy some. I went back into the shop asking Olivia, who was perched on top of a step-ladder, whether I could give her a hand. She wondered where her son was so I told her and she said that if I wanted I could brush the floor. When she came down the step-ladder, she wrote down the book-titles inside the ledger at the counter - 'the bohemian library' she added . I had finished brushing the floor, and was looking at the other volumes in the shop, there were books on philosophy, biology, zoology, botany, religion, dictionaries encyclopaedias, dime novels, politics and thrillers. When Olivia said that the shop bought its stock from junk shops and house clearances. I realized that this family was in the same trade as the men who stripped Irina's flat bare of all its contents, furniture, books and ornaments. She added that the place here could be very quiet at times but the students from the Technological University (TU) liked foraging through the 10-Schilling-boxes. I liked the fact that this place was located near a university and briefly thought of the students at home.

The wind-chime tinkled, Stefan Votova was back. He took off his anorak. He said that we might as well go to the flat upstairs, it was cosier than the back-room. Olivia turned the open/closed sign on the bookshop's front door. We entered the flat through a kitchen that had a wooden dresser decorated with painted flowers, as well as a polished table and benches. The tiles above the sink and above the gas-cooker were green. Stefan opened his satchel and took out some 'Semmel' white bread rolls, a can of condensed milk, some gherkins, eggs and other vegetables. We could hear the lunchtime commuter traffic and the pinging of the D-Tram bell through the open window. The pale sun through the fog briefly shone tired rays before disappearing again. Stefan Votova switched on the lights, as he prepared the meal, he asked whether I had anything in mind where to stay in Austria. I said that at the moment, I was working this out with my case worker in Traiskirchen. As his mother came up, Stefan said that I could have the attic room here if I wanted 'that might be a bit more comfortable than the Traiskirchen compound, although we would need to move the boxes'. Olivia said that many  boxes belonged to Adolf and that I could stay here and look through them. Although this went against my first principle of never to live with family again, I warmed up to these two. Olivia asked whether I could drive. I said that I used to drive a van in the Army. Stefan said that this was brilliant because I could drive the yellow camper-van. I realized where that talk was leading, and against my second principle of never working again with a family member, I thought that working with these two could be fun. I was also wondering what Adolf kept in those boxes in my assigned new quarters.

After lunch, Stefan and I drove to Traiskirchen to pick up my belongings and complete forms. In Austria, every inhabitant needs to register an official address and thus fill a Meldeschein. After Traiskirchen, we went to the Magistrat of the Fourth District and completed the forms. When we were finished, Stefan drove the van back to the Votova Bookshop. He ceremoniously ground some coffee beans in a grinder and stayed for a cup of coffee then explained he needed to get home. He scribbled down his address and walked to the D tram-stop. He and Monica rented a flat in the Rögergasse near the Franz-Josef train station.
Comments