Hunger Waltz - Poem by Paul Hartal
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 camp 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
sated.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.
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