After the terrors of Kristallnacht, Imogen’s Jewish family must flee German-occupied Vienna.
That morning, the Bernsteins had risen early, creating quite a commotion as they set about preparing breakfast and making sure nothing was going to be left behind. From the wailing of little Edna when she couldn’t find her stuffed bear to the clatter of silverware in the sink and the hurry to get out the door, there had been no room to think—not then and not in the past week either.
Standing on the platform and waiting for her train, however, Imogen couldn’t help but think back to what started it all, and why she was standing there that crisp morning, turning her back on Vienna.
9th of November—Kristallnacht
“Stop squirming, Edna,” Imogen chided her younger sister. “Hans! I want Hans!”
“Hans will be back soon. Stop acting like a two-year-old and start behaving like the four-year-old girl you are.”
Edna practically worshiped her older brother—if anyone could get her to stop crying, he could, so Imogen was looking forward to his arrival home too.
“Where is Hans?”
“I told you. He is just down the street with Mutti. Vater will be back from work soon. What do you think of that? The whole family will be home. Now dry your eyes. This is no way to behave. What would your friends think if they saw you now?”
These words had a powerful effect. Edna wiped her snotty face and stopped crying immediately. She did so in perfect time—just after, the girls heard the door slam at the front of the apartment. “Is anyone home?”
Their father was back from his grocer’s shop! Edna ran to the front of the home, squealing; Imogen followed at a more steady pace.
“Mutti and Hans are out at the butcher’s. How was work?” “Fine, fine. An ordinary day.”
* * *
Forty-five minutes later, her mother and brother were still not back. Herr Bernstein grew worried, and questioned Imogen as to whether she was sure they had not planned to go anywhere else. As he scratched his head, Edna started to cry yet again for her older brother.
After an hour, there was a faint—and then louder—noise and shouting down below. Running to the living room window, they could see men with and without uniforms smashing and looting the shops in the street below, every one of which was Jewish-owned. The men harassed people in the street who were hurrying to get to the supposed safety of their homes. Even more frightening was the steady crackling and orange hue on the horizon—the local synagogue was burning.
There was no question what this was, or who these people were trying to scare. “Papa,” Imogen whispered. “What about Hans? And Mutti? They are not back yet.”
A noise came from the stairwell. The party froze but breathed again when they heard a key in the lock—it was only Frau Bernstein.
“I am back. Don’t you worry.” Imogen’s mother had come in breathlessly. “But Hans! He disappeared. I don’t know what happened to him.” Frau Bernstein had tears in her eyes. “He disappeared before it started . . . I don’t know where he went, or if he thought it was some kind of joke, disappearing on me.”
Again, there was a noise on the landing. However, this time instead of the reassuring noise of a key turning, someone knocked on the door.
“It could still be Hans!” Frau Bernstein cried, but Herr Bernstein stopped her. “But what if it’s not?”
“Open up here or we’ll force our way in!”—pounding on the door.
Despite her heart feeling as if it was in her throat, Imogen picked Edna up and ran to her bedroom at the back of the home. Their mother and father, meanwhile, surrendered and opened the door.
“Stay right there. Do not move.” The voice was muffled from being all the way across the apartment but nevertheless loud and commanding. Imogen felt a shiver run down her spine.
Flushed and breathless, Imogen and her sister huddled behind the bed, Imogen keeping wiggling Edna in place.
The little girl opened her mouth to speak. “Be quiet, Edna!” It was said in a whisper, but Imogen still worried at the noise.
“Do not move while we search the house.”
Footsteps moving towards the girls. A man at the door, briefly framed by the light in the hall before he stepped into the room with a short bark of something like laughter. “What sort of hiding place is that?”
There was no question what this was, or who these people were trying to scare.
Imogen and Edna were pushed towards the kitchen and made to stand up straight next to their parents.
Edna was trembling and crying as the two soldiers shoved her around. Hans was still not back. Imogen hung on to her one weapon: Do not move. Stare straight ahead. Do not let them bother you. Do not let them see how you are feeling.
In the end, Herr Bernstein managed to get himself released from the threat of deportation. However, it came at a cost—he and his family must be out of Austria by the following week.
Hans was gone—they heard from the butcher that he had been deported. This was a crushing revelation, but without any means to get him released, they had even worse things to worry about.
Like the fact that they had no visas.
Herr Bernstein had promised the soldier that they would get out, but the family had nowhere to go.
* * *
By the 15th of November, just two days before they had to be out of Austria, arrangements had been made.
Herr and Frau Bernstein, along with little Edna, were going to Poland. In Poland, Imogen’s aunt lived with her husband and sons in Pastavy. There, they would be with close family.
Imogen, on the other hand, was to be sent to Switzerland. In Switzerland there was a good school where she could board. “The school has been very kind, taking you in on such short notice. You must work hard to repay their generosity, get your education, and study. One day all of this will be over.” Nobody could say when. “Edna . . . she is too little. Edna needs her parents.”
I need my parents, was Imogen’s thought as she stood on that platform, her parents having left only a few minutes previously on a train to Warsaw, from where they would travel to Pastavy. However, Imogen knew that she was plenty old enough to go on the journey—she was just plain scared.
Shutting her eyes tight, Imogen blocked out the station entirely. Think of a good time before the occupation.
Slowly, it came, then all in a rush: School, laughing with her friends. The block that her apartment looked over, quiet and serene but for the laughing and shouting of the local children playing. Sailing somewhere she couldn’t quite remember . . . possibly somewhere else in Austria. Her bat mitzvah, a year and a half ago now.
That was where the memories stopped, though. Instead, she found herself looking into the future. What would she find in Switzerland? Imogen did not have the faintest idea. She would have a place to sleep, a place to learn, a place that would offer refuge from the danger of Vienna . . . but would she find a home? Imogen no longer had a home in the place that she grew up. The soldiers had turned her beautiful hometown into a place she did not recognize, a place where she was not welcome.
Would she ever regain her home—or find another one? What did the years ahead hold?
Imogen was conveniently bumped and chastised—“You! Watch out, there!”— just in time for the conductor to yell, “Last call, route to Zurich!”
Imogen needed to get onto the train. Fast.
Through the crowd, jumping on at the last minute . . . the toot of the horn, and the doors closed. The train was moving, and the station was left long behind by the time Imogen found her seat.
Stop being so sentimental, she told herself. Stop thinking about things when you can’t change them, when they’ll only make you sadder. Maybe it’s better you didn’t get to look at Vienna one last time. Besides, you’ll see Mutter and Vater again soon.
After a moment, You’ll even see Hans.
Hans . . . what was Hans doing at this moment? Was he even still alive? The idea that the answer to that latter question might be no scared her, but it was undeniably true.
Imogen was surprised to find a single tear on her cheek. She never cried. Not once the past year had she shed a tear, not when Germany invaded and anti- Semitism had grown too close to her little neighborhood in Vienna, not even when Kristallnacht had arrived and Hans was taken away. Yet she was crying now, crying for Hans and Edna and her mother and father and every one of her neighbors who was in danger.
But Imogen realized something, and what she realized was also scary, yet somehow comforting as well: I can’t change it either way, and there is no way of knowing. If I think Hans might not be alive, I will only make myself more miserable with the uncertainty.
Instead, have hope.
As the train settled into its rhythm, and yellow grass and green bushes flew past, although the girl still found herself shedding a tear or two, one thing kept her going, over and over:
Better to have hope.