William Federer

William Federer

Interviewed July, 1999

 

 

The Early Years

Basically, through no fault of mine, but circumstances, I had an interesting life. I was born in the first war. The first war was 1914 to 1918. 1 was born in 1915, May 1915. My father, I heard, was in the army. My mother was a young girl still, then, I would say twenty years old, and was a woman and had this baby. Neighbors would come and take care of me. In those days you didn’t have babysitters like we have here. A neighbor would come. There was no money involved. There was no certain hours. She would make sure the baby falls asleep and go next door to her apartment and maybe took in on you during the night. Then my mother did night work, in my case my mother worked in a metal factory, where my father used to be a worker. I suppose it was easier for her to get night work than day work and then (she) came in the morning and (she) took care of me during the day. When I assume I was about five years old, she put me into a home for waifs. I wasn’t quite a waif. I had a mother. My father was somewhere. The war was over by then and he was in Siberia in Russia.

In our days when the Gulf War is over, they load everybody up on a ship or on a plane and the next day people are back home. But in those days, the war is over they open the prison gate where the prisoners of war live and (they) told you you can go. How do you go from Siberia to Austria? So it took some time. They would stay over. They would walk a lot. They would get a ride on a horse ‑ridden something. In order to pay for some things like a train, they would work for a farmer along the way and get a little bit of money and then continue towards their home, in this case it’s Austria.

So, I must have been about six years old, it must have been about 1921, when my father came home and we had a somewhat normal life. Until this time I was in a children’s home, as a matter of fact, even a little bit longer, because until they got set up, (and) my father was back to work, things were very bad after the war which they had lost. Hungary/Austria was taken apart and given new names, like Little Austria, suddenly from a big empire. Czechoslovakia and part of Poland and Austria was given to Italy so that Austria became a small country of roughly eight million people from a large empire before the war. So it was difficult for people to get work, to get established. It took a little while to get the house stable, a home, so (I stayed) perhaps a little longer than I had to. Then I had what we would call a normal life.

It was a normal life, because as a child, you don’t know you’re poor, as a child you don’t know you’re deprived of something. A child feels happy under any circumstances. Sure we didn’t have everything because after the war, 1914‑1918, the next ten years couldn’t be the best of anybody’s life. Now we are so much more advanced, but then it took so much longer to build up again. Now if you have to build bridges, you build it within a year or less. In those days it was more difficult especially when a country had lost the war and was very poor. There was no Marshall Plan then or anything. After the second war, America helped rebuild Europe, especially Germany, a great deal.

My normal life was wonderful. I had some very nice parents. They were musical so I became then musical. I went and joined the Vienna Boys Choir. I had a good voice. As a matter of fact, so much so, that after your voice changed about fifteen, it must have been about sixteen, I started singing. After a few years I played the violin, I played in an orchestra and then I had a wonderful musical education. It added alot to my life. Vienna being a very musical city, the school was well endowed with music.

 

In 1928, was Schubert’s anniversary and since I sang and had a good voice, I sang in front of Schubert’s birth house (solo). I didn’t think I had that good a voice to be an opera singer. I got so involved with music, especially Schubert, who wrote 800 songs and my ambition was to sing all 800 songs. Of course, all 800 songs are just not worth singing. Some of them are not worth learning over.            Boys and girls were separated in school. Also, different from the system here, you sat in one classroom and the teacher came to you. Here, I think, the students go and pass to a teacher. Your classroom was, let’s say B‑3, middle school, which is a form of high school, although our middle school was in preparation of going higher. You enter first class middle school. There were four years, 1, 2, 3, 4, and first class there are A, B, C, D. There are four different codes, it depends on how good or how bad a student you were where you went ‑A, B, C, or D and so you would go in 1‑D and the next year 2‑0, 3‑D on until you were either in fourth or fifth school. But that was the system and you sat in a class. So every day you went to I ‑D for that one year and the teachers would come to you. (Normally, there were) eight years of schooling. You started at six, what you call volks schule‑ folks school‑ why I don’t know, a whole nation of folks. Then you had two, haupt schule‑high school‑ and middle schule, but there was a name for it, I don’t know, one of the things was creative because it was better than high school. Everybody had to go four years of volks schule and four years of haupt schule. If you were selected for four years of middle school that was instead of high school but it was for a more select group of youngsters who showed promise that maybe could go higher, to gymnasium they call it. Then you would do like, from the first year until the end of gymnasium, you’d have thirteen years of schooling. You started at six and you were nineteen when you got out of there. And then if you wanted to, you could go to the university. Parents would go to evenings (at school) and they would select the teachers they would want to see or sometimes they (the teachers) would tell a child, “Tell your father or mother when they come to the PTA meeting to talk to me.” And he had something to say either it was very bad or very good. He would say, “He’s very talented in this or that. Why don’t you send him to school?” Most of the bme it didn’t cost anything to go on higher, if you’re talented. That’s what you did discuss with the teacher. The teacher would seek the parents out to talk to them. I went to gymnasium, thirteen years (of schooling).

I liked school. Things came easy for me. Why? I don’t know. All kids had to sit and study and sweat. (At nine or ten) I was a book worm. I loved reading. I would lie down on the floor and read one book after another until it was decided that after gymnasium that I (would) do something with books. Parents always decide. Like when you are fourteen you have eight years of schooling. So you are on the borderline. You are fourteen, sixteen, you left school. Most of the children would leave school and would go and would learn a trade, hat‑making, plumber, whatever. The government would make a contract between your father, mostly your father, could be your mother, basically your father, the owner of the business and the government. Those three parties would be interested in your education and there would be a contract depending on what the length was for study. If you wanted to become a plumber or an electrician you went four years. If you become a hat salesman or a grocery clerk or something like that it would be three years and during the three years your boss had to keep you and there were strict rules as to how much you got paid. It started off, for the first six months with enough for your streetcar to go back and forth and the next six months you got a little increase so you could go to a movie on Sundays. And so it went on. Every six months you had an increase. And the boss had to adhere to that. That was expected and it was because of (a) contract. I used to write articles for magazines and I became an apprentice at the Vienna Universtiy library and that was my job until Hitler came.

 

Basically, I always was an extremely satisfied person. I had a wonderful home life. I was the only child which helps and my parents were middle class. My father was a sheet metal worker. He went back to the metal factory. My mother went into business, that’s probably a connection between the candy making (and the business I had). (Also), when you get a little manufacturing plant, you get two stores together. The one next to it was a store where you were permitted, with a special license, to sell everything that you use in candy making which means milk, and with‑milk, of course bread and rolls, which has nothing to do with it, but they permitted you to and all kinds of things like a little variety store, The grocery store was the overflow, her basic means was the candy making.

We had two apartments because, with a business, it’s a system there. There was always an apartment above or behind the business. Most of the time, people who have a store like a grocery store would live behind the store. Originally, where I was born, called the 16th district of Vienna, we had an apartment. My father would work nearby in a factory which was close to it. The other (apartment) was in the 2nd district where my mother had her business. I would stay there many times because, at 5:00 in the morning, things like milk and butter for the candy business would be delivered there and I would be there. I would take it in.

(For fun) I liked music anything connected with music and that goes for dacing too. In general, I spent a lot of time in choral work and orchestra work, because I played the violin and that took a lot of my time. I think I have a lot of friends. Of course, there were no cars, We had bicycles and when we had a long weekend, any kind of holiday, we would go into the Alps with our bicylces, six, seven eight kids. Some would go swimming, the overflow of the Danube, very nice places that you could reach only with a bicycle. Then you belong to organizations and that was male and female. Most of the time you belong to political organizations. Austrians were extremely politically minded. If the father happens to be a Social Democrat because he was a worker in a factory, the children automatically were in youth groups that belonged to the Social Democratic Party, so they grow up to be Social Democrats. But it was, I would say not politically so, but in general, a wonderful system. We did not have to hang around on the corner on weekends. You got a magazine once a month and it would say on Sunday at 7:00 or 7:30 in the morning you meet at this club and from this club you are going on an outing to who knows where and it might say bring $.70 for a streetcar for the river. You bring your own lunch and you spend the whole day with the boys and girls. Some of them you love more or less, but you spent the day with them. So you basically were taken care of continuously.     I come from (a) mixed marriage. My mother was Jewish, my father was Catholic. So therefore, we celebrated two kinds of holidays, Austria, being very much a Catholic country, I would say 90% Catholic as opposed to Protestant and Jewish, I would say 5% each. Protestants and Catholics celebrate the same kind of holidays like Christmas, Easter and so we celebrated those holidays.

On the 6th of December we had Krampuf and we don’t call him Santa Claus There are two of them that would come to an apartment. Let’s assume there are forty apartments, four stories high, ten apartments on each floor. They sould come and they would knock at the door where there were children and the parents most likely had given the so called Santa Claus with the white beard a gift for the child. For those unfortunate (parents) who didn’t give anything to the Santa Claus for the children on that evening, there was the Krampuf. The Krampuf was the devil and he had a whip, really a soft whip, and he had no gifts, so the poor child. I hope they changed it because it was really cruel, because if a parent didn’t give anything to them for that specific child, then the child didn’t get anything. But sometimes a neighbor would give something for this little child so the child would get something. Then there was a Christmas gift, of course, in the family. But at the beginning of December, you had one that was dressed like the devil, with horns and red tongue, a tail. Santa Claus looked like we have here.

 

I didn’t have much of a Jewish background because the Jewish temple was a little further away and, in general, there wasn’t much of a separation, and you didn’t have just Jewish friends or just Catholic friends. There was a great assimilation of Jewish people. I know that if, let’s assume that I was considered Jewish, no Christian family would object for me going out with their daughter or even thinking further. When Hitler came, we were astonished to see how many of our friends were Jewish that nobody ever knew, that nobody ever talked about. It wasn’t important at all. I can not remember a single incident where it played any part, not just with me, with other people who after were viewed as Jewish. Nobody was hiding their daughters, not to go out with a Jewish boy, you know.

I think my father came out of a foster home. I have never met anybody (from his family). My mother had the a large family in Galicia. Galicia was Austria‑Hungary at the time that she came to Vienna. My mother’s father took her to Vienna, for what reason, I don’t know, he just figured that Austria might be better than Poland. Certainly, no doubt. I was born in 15, chances are she came there before 1914, before the war started and was considered Austrian because that part of Poland still belonged to Austria, Austria‑Hungary, and after the war it was different. Her family was in Poland and she was the only one who had produced a son. All the others had girls and there were three or four girls because they were waiting for a son to come so they created more and more girls. My summers were taken up by visits to Poland because they were dying to have a boy for alittle while and they were fighting over me. (My cousins) were beautiful little girls. I saw them the last time, of course, in 1937 and then all of tem disappeared. Nineteen members of the family, including my mother, got killed. When I came to America, I had not a single correspondence with any members of the family, similar to what you have now in Kosavo. You see how it can happen? Today you can read it in the paper. You find more and more places. Thirty‑five pages of articles.

Excerpts‑ Memories of World War II

When I was in Vienna and worked for the Vienna University Library, I loved it. Not only that, it helped me to get out of the concentration camp, for some strange coincidences. The British diplomats, at one time, had had sons and daughters who started at German Universities. When Hitler came to power in 1933, (there was a change). It was not for religious reasons. It was just that they didn’t want to be under Hitler in Germany having their children study there. So the only German universities that those children could go to were either Vienna or Prague in Czechoslovakia, wonderful directed German universities. They could select one of those two cities and, of course, most of the youngsters selected Vienna and I met some of them. They would come to me and would give me a book of a famous author and they would ask me when they would come to give a lecture, “Why do’t you push this book under his nose, maybe he would sign it.” They were anxious to get the autograph on the book. Sometimes they wanted to keep the book longer than they were supposed to and I could help them with that.

When Hitler went into Austria, they went home. They had no other place to go to. There was no other German university. When I was Dachau, my mother found this little notebook of mine with addresses and she wrote to them and told them of my plight, that I was in a concentration camp. Could they do something? And through diplomacy, they created an opening at the Oxford University and wrote to the German embassy that they could use a German librarian of my qualifications at Oxford. Of course, (they pretended) they had no idea that I was in Dachau. Of course, they had an idea, but according to the Germans, they had no idea. There was some fake friendship between Chamberlain and they promised no wars in their time. In those days (there) was a very famous picture in the newspaper (where) Chamberlain waved a very famous white paper and an umbrella ‑ there won’t be any war between the two countries. And so to show good will, I somehow sneeked in.

 

(While at Dachau) in three weeks we were permitted to send a card from Dachau, and the card said, “I’m in Dachau, I am well. You may send me up to 35 marks a month.” And that’s it. I had an arrangement with my mother because I was a librarian, otherwise I wouldn’t have thought of it. We have two forms of writings in German. You either have the Germanic, the gothic type writing, which was a very stiff writing, and then you have the Latin writing. Sometimes poorly educated Germans will mix letters and words. They can write one word in Germanic and one in another. I (had) told my mother, if ever anything happens, and in the letter, I write in German writing, to disregard it. So I when I wrote you may send me up to 35 marks a month, that, I wrote in German Gothic writing. And so she knew, she didn’t have to.

Then, of course, as time went on, we could write a letter once in three weeks. There were lines, fifteen lines is all you could write and when you bought your stamp you could only glue your stamp on one corner because the Gestapo checked underneath the stamp, You know it’s crazy. How much can you write underneath the stamp? They would censure your letter. You could only receive a letter in three weeks. Let’s assume, before I went to Dachau, I applied to Shanghi for immigration and they would send me a form or just a travel log or something like this. That would be sent to me, not my mother’s letter. The cruelty was whatever they could think of to make your life miserable. You knew, when you got that advertising or whatever, that for three weeks you can not hope to get another (letter).

My father died while I was in Dachau. I didn’t find out. I couldn’t be told. First of all, I don’t know if the censor would let it go through. Number two, her letter would not come to me with that information. (He died) of a heart attack. He was a Roman Catholic so there was no reason (to kill him). I’m sure his condition must have been very bad because of a son who is in Dachau. Mother, who was in the business district of Vienna, was forbidden to go from one (apartment to another). At that time, suddenly there was a verdict going out that any Jewish person Who is in one district is forbidden to go from that district to the other district. Legitimately, she had an apartment there and a husband.              I was in Dachau for a year. After Dachau, I went to England. I was very fortunate the British let me in to work for number to come to the United States. You have a number. Of course, thousands of people want to come to the United States. My number was one that I would have had to wait three years. I know I couldn’t have lasted some days in Austria. For that reason, the British, just before the war, allowed a certain number of people to come to England and wait for their number there. And so it only took a year there. I was able to leave England and come to America.

Basically, I can’t understand, to this day. When I went back, for example the first time, I took my wife, who is American born, to Europe. She had never been to Europe before. In 56 I took her to the place where I came from. I went in a streetcar and I looked at people my age then, about 42 years old, and I asked myself, what did you do during that time because, unfortuately, everybody was involved and not in the best way. And this is something that you don’t understand. You go back there and you go to wine cellars and to the amusement places, and you go to , for example, Beethoven’s house where he composed the Eroica, you go in back and they have a wine garden. So in front you see the house where he composed, in the back is what they call heurigen‑ wonderful, easy going‑ and you say, “Those people are murderers!” Many of them, I don’t say all of them. But I can tell you that I woke up one day, and I didn’t have a single friend. One of my friends, her name was Rudy, she and her family were the only ones who stuck by us. I must admit it was very difficult for them and it was also very dangerous in spite of the fact that I was of, so‑called, mixed blood.

 

Mixed blood reminds me (of a story). When I was in the service, I was here in the service, in the American army. I was in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. In that camp, part of it was a prisoner of war camp. There were some German prisoners who had injuries and had to be operated on. Our doctors, would talk to me and say, “When you talk to them, tell them the following story: They’re in for an operation for next week. Next week’s blood supply, blood plasma, comes from New York. New York is heavily Jewish. There is a great chance that that blood may contain Jewish blood. If they want to wait two weeks, a blood supply comes from the Mid‑West. They have a better chance of getting so‑called Aryan blood. There wasn’t a single one who said, ” I’ll wait. Basically, you heard in the propaganda, different bloods, what can happen to you if you get Jewish blood in you or you would never want Jewish blood in you because it’s inferior, it’s whatever kind of race. (Yet), that was quite interesting.

(Now, I ) tell children about the Holocaust. They are interested in (questions like) How do you get into a concentration camp? Why do you get in there? What’s your punishment? Sometimes they want to know, why we didn’t rebel. In Dachau, when you are with 11,000 or 12,000 people and there were 200 SS men, why couldn’t we do something about that? You do give them an explanation. First, they have weapons and you may be with 11,000, but you live in a barrack with 200. You don’t know the 200 and you certainly can’t go to the next barrack. You can not organize anything. If at night you are walking around there, someone from a tower could shoot you. And you have no way of getting material to make anything. You don’t have a gun. You don’t even have a stick. It’s just impossible. By the way, Dachau was the learning camp for further concentration camps. This was the first camp.

The most wonderful experience was when I came out of Dachau, went to England , and I came to a place where some of my friends who were already in England waited for me. It was a farm in South Wales called Ponty Pool. The people especially youngsters were very nice to us. We were up on a hill, we lived in a farmhouse. Since there were coal‑mines in that area that were closed at that time, and unemployment was very great, I was surprised they took us in, because they themselves had nothing. But the government gave them and us seeds and a horse and a plow and we took care of the land, a couple of acres. We could go out with the seeds and (plant) rhubarb, green salad cabbage, and things like this. When it came up, we had more than enough to eat and the government also allowed us to sell the rest. So we had money‑ not the refugees‑ the Welschans, but we worked with them and we shared with them. They were very, very nice to us. They were generous and made us comfortable, and (through) all of it, we didn’t know the language.

Before I met Rose, my wife, I wrote a letter to the federal government. I was all alone here. I figured the war was basically my war because there was so much resentment. I don’t want to say hatred. I sent a letter to the government in Washington, to the army, and asked to enlist. I got a letter back from them saying that since I own a German passport, I am considered an enemy alien at that time. You know it’s really amazing. Don’t they look at the back ground? They know I’m a refugee. They know I was in Dachau. Do they consider me to be able to feel Germanic? So anyway, that was their policy. They thanked me, but no, thank you. I can not join the army.

So I knew Rose. We’d take walks together. She lives with her mother, her father is gone long before. I live alone. She said, “Why don’t you think of getting married now. They won’t take you in the army. There is no reason why not.” Basically, there was none. I just figured out I owed some money to somebody who helped me to get my mother here, he loaned me some money. It didn’t work out, but owed him. So I figured how long it would take me to save that, how long it would take me to save a certain amount for the honeymoon, and when I had that, we had figured that April of 43 would be a good month.

 

We got married in April of 43. We went to Florida. She was used to going to Florida with her mother, earlier than that, but I didn’t know that at the time. Then when we came back, we started our life together. Three or four months after I was married, I get a letter from the government saying that because now that I am married to a Native American‑ I’m still the same person with an enemy passport, but a little friendlier, so therefore, they accept my application. It changed my plans because I couldn’t get out of it anymore. I don’t know, as a matter of fact, that they (ever) accepted the first one. I still had the German passport and besides the German passport was not so complimentary. It was the one with a “J”. The United States government could easily know that it was not a regular German passport. (However) being a member of the armed forces, six months later, I became a citizen in the service, independent of my wife. Here, I had taken the first papers when it came. Normally, I would have had to wait five years.

Excerpts ‑ Thoughts about Life

 

I started in my house to make candies, and people would come to the house and knew there was a candy‑maker. I was very successful. I was in business in the Boston area for forty‑five years. And now I help others, which is extremely rewarding. I found some very nice people who I enjoy. I spend my days wonderfully with them,‑ teaching them and advising them sometimes.

I am fortuante. I have lots of friends, so I’m never lonesome and I don’t have it in me to be lonesome. I don’t sit in a corner. I don’t recall the past in a bad way. (With) what I had to deal with in war, I could withdraw from people. (Sometimes when) you have the experience when you wake up one morning that from all your youth activities, you don’t have a single friend, it doesn’t give you much hope or much willingness to either associate with people or do anything with people. I am extremely fortunate, within myself I am fortunate. My friend Kurt, who passed away four years ago, the one I came (to the U.S.) with, had a loving wife, two nice children, but a miserable life. First of all, no work that he did gave him happiness or satisfaction. He went to work because he had to make a living, but not because he liked to. In my case I loved what I was doing. I loved sixteen hours a day. Most enjoyable, very enjoyable.

I wish that everybody would have had the same type of life and the same marriage. The last eight years were bad because my wife had Alzheimer’s, but fortunately I could handle it. Maybe I could handle it because of the other things I went through. She was, in her way, a loving, caring person even during that time. She was easy to handle.

Basically, you say to yourself ‑I am nothing, I have no friends, I have no relatives, I have no money, I have no language, I have $66, Unless I sink below that, then I am a success, I had the chance to experience things and I was alive, which in Dachau, I don’t know ff there was a handful of people who came out of that in my time, I was 24 when I thought I wouldn’t live anymore. I’m 84, sixty years later. I’m very satisfied with my life. In general, it was a wonderful life.

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