In 1868 the famous Austrian musician
Johann Strauss II composed the 'Tales
from the Vienna Woods', Opus 325,
one of his six ingratiating waltzes.
A sublime musical triumph, it became
an inseparable part of the pleasures of
life in the joyous and romantic Austrian
However, as far as I am concerned,
despite the beauty and loftiness of
the 'Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald',
I approach the tenor and dance of life
in Austria with mixed sentiments.
This is because I spent a year
in the Vienna Woods,
where my experience
was neither joyous nor romantic.
Mind you, from the summer of 1944
until the spring of 1945, I was a prisoner
in the Nazi slave labor camp of Strasshof,
a suburb of the buoyant Austrian capital,
located in the midst
of the Viennese Forests.
Surrounded by barbed-wire fence,
the Strasshof lager was guarded by the SS
and their Ukrainian minions.
Here, rather than hearing the birdsong
invoked in Strauss' flute cadenza,
the melodious tunes
of the 'Tales from the Vienna Woods',
I heard the sighs of war in the forest,
the rattle of guns and the thunder of
exploding bombs in the suburbs.
In the camp I often was visited
by vertigos. At different hours
of the day my head suddenly went giddy
and spinning; not because of dancing
a whirling waltz but because of hunger.
I suffered from malnutrition.
I was starving.
I was eight years old
when we were deported.
It happened on a rainy day in late June
of 1944. Ruthless Hungarian gendarmes
pushed mother, my three year-old sister
and me, along with thousands of others,
into box cars of a freight train
in the railway station of my hometown,
After a dreadful journey of three days
the cattle cars arrived in Vienna carrying
a cargo of people. Many of them died
on the road even before the train
reached the Austrian border.
Strasshof was a complex of camps filled
with Jewish Hungarians, as well as Russian,
French and Italian prisoners of war.
They all worked as slave laborers
in factories and farms.
They built fortifications
and cleared ruins
from bombed out buildings.
Historical research shows that the Nazis
set up thousands of ghettoes and camps
throughout the Third Reich.
The masters of torture and death
kept their victims in brutal conditions
behind barbed wires, dispensing different
degrees of agony, misery and suffering.
In Strasshof there were no gas chambers.
It was not an extermination factory but
a prison of slow death.
Still, compared to
Mauthausen or Auschwitz,
Strasshof was a first class hotel,
a first class hotel in hell.
In the unrelenting cold
I had no warm clothes.
I was exhausted and sick.
The food was awful
but its scarcity was even worse.
It was never enough.
I suffered from terrible hunger pangs.
I hallucinated about delicious dishes
and meals. I had drumming visions of
tasty viands and savory pabulums.
In many a day I fantasized about eating.
I frequently envisioned being free and
The fabric of the future was made
And I had a recurring daydream:
on my table there lay
a huge slice of buttered bread,
topped with a thick layer of apricot jam
mixed with prune preserves.
Poet's Notes about The Poem
by Paul Hartal published in PoemHunter.com, relevant to this story, include, 'The Restaurant Keeper', 'War Memories with Acrostic', 'Travel in a Box Car of the Fuehrer', 'The Exercise', 'The Messiah in Strasshof', 'Grandma', 'Return to Strasshof', 'The Phosphorus Bomb' 'Carpet Bombing' and 'Painting for Hitler'.
On March 19,1944, Hitler's armies occupied Hungary. It did not take long and the then eight year old Paul Hartal and his family were deported to Nazi concentration camps. He was liberated from the Strasshof slave labor lager by the Russians in the spring of 1945. Two weeks earlier, on March 26,1945, the US Air Force bombed the Strasshof marshalling yards in the vicinity of Vienna. Unbeknownst to the pilots that hundreds of Jewish prisoners—among them Paul Hartal, his mother and sister—were locked in box cars of a freight train, the American planes destroyed the marshalling yards in a dreadful carpet bombing raid in which many people died. Ironically, the bombing almost killed the future poet, too, but at the same time it probably also saved his life, because it interfered with the ‘final solution' plans of the Nazis in the camp.
An amazing part of this story pertains to an emotional meeting that took place many years after the war. In the spring of 2004 Paul Hartal met in San Diego with Hal Rout and Larry Rosenberg, American aviators who participated in Mission 203, the bombing of Strasshof. Rout was the co-pilot and Rosenberg the bombardier of a B-24 Liberator in Mission 203. Ironically, Lt. Rosenberg, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, happened to be a Jewish raider of Strasshof. The 'reunion' was reported by Fox News in California on March 27,2004.
For further reading:
Arthur Lightbourn, 'Three men whose lives crossed during WWII meet almost 60 years later in RSF',
Rancho Santa Fe Review, April 8,2004
B. A. Lanman and L.M. Wendling, 'On Heroic Wings', Foreword by President George H.W. Bush, San Diego: The Distinguished Flying Cross Society,2012, pp.64-67
Paul Hartal, 'Liberation', The 461st Liberaider (US Air Force) , June 2002, Vol.19, No.1
Becky Todd York, 'A Veterans Day Remembrance: My Father Survived the War, and Took its Secrets to His Grave', 'The Herald Leader', November 11,2012
Comments about this poem (Hunger Waltz by Paul Hartal )
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