The Ash Tray

By Paul Berg

The skulls glowed in the yellow light of the candelabras. They advanced through the opened door of the coffee house, carried by a “Staffel” of S.S. troops, The skulls were the emblem of the SS, fixed onto their peaked hats.

The buzz of the conversation ceased, a frightened hush descended on the room as the SS troopers started to stalk their prey. I could sense the terror they evoked, the ashen faces around me proof of it.

My father had been talking to a man with a nervous twitch for some time now; I had to suppress my desire to laugh at his grimaces as he related to my father his story of escape from Germany and the Gestapo.

I was very familiar with the word Gestapo and SS, didn’t Mr. Weber, the detective who interviewed me at our home in Vienna while my parents were in “Schutzhaft” threaten to send my parents to the Gestapo-run concentration camps if I did not reveal to him where my parents hid their valuables.

As for the SS, I saw the same skulls on the peaked hats of the two boyish looking SS soldiers who came to pick up my father only a few weeks ago. (We were given refuge in Prague after we were deported from Austria)

I heard them tell my mother that “no doubt he will have killed some Christians” in reply to her questions wailed at them and trying to hide her fear and terror. As soon as the “twitch” saw the skulls advancing in his direction, he pulled out a small piece of paper from his coat pocket, threw it into the ash tray, and fled..

My father, with his recent memories of his stay at the “castle” fresh in his mind;( the Gestapo were headquartered in the castle and used the cellars as their torture chambers), grabbed the piece of paper, put it in his mouth, chewed and swallowed it. This was real cloak and dagger stuff, I thought, just like in the Edgar Wallace detective novels I had been reading.

The “hunters” pounced on some traditional- looking Jews, with long beards and long side burns, dark and greasy looking coats, and terrified eyes. They dragged them out through the door, we could hear them screaming in pain - they started beating them as soon as they were outside.

We went home to Pension Holubkova, located right next to the oldsynagogue. I could see the clock with its Hebrew letter from our window, just yesterday I visited the attached cemetery, and saw an SS trooper with the skull on his peaked cap place his wish written on a scrap of paper on the famous rabbi’s grave; joining the many other scraps of papers with their wishes and prayers.

I felt great not being singled out as a traditional Jew because I heard from my father that the Gestapo released him after he was able to prove he was Austrian, and not Polish (as were most traditionally dressed Jews in Prague).

They did not physically torture him like the Polish (traditionally dressed) Jews, whose hands were put through the open doorjambs and the doors closed on them. Some were hung with their arms tied behind their backs, feet off the floor, all day and night. My father told us that he was blindfolded, and heard the Mauser pistol clicking as the SS pretended to shoot him, and laughed when he wet himself.

While my father was comforted by my mother, at this point he was shaking violently, I looked for my uncle Charley and my cousin Kurty and saw them at their usual games, leaving rude messages inside the hall windows for the young female residents of the pension who passed by to read and giggle over.
All was normal again for that day……………

Paul Wagenberg, age 9 – in Hitler occupied Prague



Paul Berg makes his home in Melbourne, Australia