If you drive north from Vienna through the rolling plains of Lower Austria toward the Czech border, after about an hour you get to the town of Mistelbach. It’s over 40 years now since I’ve been there, but I always remember the golden fields of wheat and barley that we passed on the way. It was long before Austria joined the European Union and a good while before the Iron Curtain fell. It’s hard to imagine it now – Europe divided by barbed wire fences and machine gun posts but I remember them. We were on our way to my girl-friend’s parent’s house in the country. It wasn’t in Mistelbach itself but a small village nearby. I can’t remember the name, but I do remember the house and I remember that he was building it himself.
Her father, who we’ll call Herr Schmidt, was a master joiner who seemed to work all the hours of the day and a few more. He’d get up at four in the morning to go to the market to buy fruit and vegetables for the small convenience store that he and Frau Schmidt ran in Vienna’s 6th Bezirk. When he’d done that, he’d go and do his main job as a joiner until early evening when he would return to the shop to do the evening shift. When he’d finished, he’d go home and have his dinner and by 9pm he’d be in bed. At the weekend – which was probably just Saturday afternoon and Sunday – they would all leave for their home in the countryside where he would continue working on the house.
By the time that I got to see it, it was almost finished. It stood in its own small orchard of apricot trees, had a pool and at least three, if not four large bedrooms and two kitchens. One in the cellar for the summer when things got too hot. I remember being impressed and I loved the pool and the orchard and the underground kitchen. I was by the pool when I first met her grandfather, Opa. He was wearing a blue farmer’s overall, and he seemed very old, and frail and I remember him shaking. She said that he’d fought in the war and had been taken prisoner by the Russians and hadn’t ever really recovered from it. Or was that her other grandfather, I can’t really remember, I know they’d both fought and at the time I’d not thought about it much. I was young and in 1979 the war already seemed to be ancient history. But now, I know that thirty-four years is no time at all, and I sometimes wonder what their stories were and where they might have stood in the turmoil that was Austria in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
At the time I had no idea whatsoever about what had happened in Austria during the war. I guess I presumed that Austria was just another one of Hitler’s victims, but its story is far more complicated than that. The role that Austria and some Austrians had played during those dark years was very different to that played by the citizens of the other countries that had been conquered by the Third Reich. In 1938 for a great many in Austria National Socialism brought stability and jobs and as long as you kept your head down and you weren’t a Jew, or a gypsy or disabled, it brought security – at least for a while. But for people who were different or who resisted, it brought terror. I knew nothing of that then and I knew nothing of what had happened to children and people with learning disabilities. And if I had, if I’m honest with myself, I might not really have cared beyond platitudes.
It would be another 14 years before the first of my own children would be born and a couple more before people would begin to use the word “autistic” when talking about them. One day a paediatrician would use the term “Asperger’s” when referring to my eldest, I didn’t know then that it was a word that was intimately linked to Austria’s war and the role that some would play in the killing of disabled children. And nor did I know then that my youngest would be born with severe learning disabilities and that I would one day be grateful that he hadn’t been born in another place and at another time.
But none of this was in my mind as I stood by the pool in the house with the orchard, looking at the old man in the farmers overalls as he stared at me. Because the threads of time and place and identity that would one day connect me to the actions of the National Socialist Euthanasia program were still hidden.