A companion to “Woman with a Leica”, “Eating with the Devil” is set in Europe 1940 -1948; a world of deception, corruption and crime. It touches on real-life events in a time of unimaginable fear and uncertainty, in which bare survival was the name of the game.
There is no word from you. More than three months have passed and there is no response to any of my letters. My father makes me angry when he jokes about my efforts to communicate with you and says that you have managed “another disappearance from the face of the earth”. I really don’t find it funny, it concerns me. I ask him questions. He gets worked up about the subject of you; he won’t tell me what bothers him so much. He looks at me with an odd expression and our dialogue gets contentious. It’s not him that worries me, though. It’s you. You told me that you had to go to Leningrad and stopped our interviews. To do what? Assist a defector? Your phone in the Geneva apartment is ringing hollow. Leni, at your travel agency, is maddeningly vague about your exact whereabouts. She is downright rude. I checked, there was no Swiss group of travel agents visiting the Soviet Union, to promote tourism. If this letter reaches you, forgive me for sounding panicky, but ever since the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia everybody here is on tenterhooks. It’s nothing for them to swing into Austria. We are neutral, but defenceless. The cold war has never been so frigid. I hope you are safe, wherever you are, whatever you are doing. I know that you are good at surviving.
We have spent weeks discussing your past, without going deeply enough into your time during the war and the real reasons for your exile. You’ve opened the floodgates of information and then abruptly closed them. Have you lost your trust in me? We’ve developed a strong personal relationship. You said yourself that you felt I was like a daughter to you.
My father says, ‘If you are trying to coax her into returning to Vienna, forget it. She cannot come back. Do you realise that?’ And I ask him why. And he is silent. There are fearmongers today as, I suppose, there were in 1945. It’s scary to consider that mass rapes could happen again. We don’t talk about it. Dealing with the horrors of the savage instincts of a Soviet army is unthinkable now as it was in the past. Vienna is a snake pit, again. A nest of spies. A place of fear. It’s at the front of the war again, looking into the mouth of the lion. Thousands of refugees are coming from the East. You have seen the same thing, three decades ago. I am seeing it now. The Russians are doing things just to keep us frightened.
What you have told me about yourself so far, which is volumes, obviously, just by looking at the stack of my notebooks, I didn’t take as exculpation for the kind of life you’ve led. You lived, you did what you did, and resigned yourself to your fate. Your moral or immoral compass was in alliance with society. But you were detached, viewing the world through the lens of your Leica. It made you selective. It influenced your character. It caused a metamorphosis. You learned to cope and block out as much unpleasantness as you could; you focused on your studio, your work, your most immediate environment. You didn’t bother with things you couldn’t control. Survival was the only thing that mattered; feelings often didn’t. Living with a bohemian uncle didn’t embarrass you. You stuck to your independence. Forgive me for this analytical excursion, it doesn’t belong in a letter like this. I merely want you to know that I understood you. But the most crucial part of your life is missing, the action part, which thrilled you.
I want to know everything about your harrowing experiences in Poland and Russia. You saw what you never wanted to see. We didn’t learn in school what the post-war occupation was like. We got official mythology. You are carrying the torch of your memory; let the public know. There’s the collection of photographs that you left behind, for my father to find and exploit. It’s evidence of your life, your art, that you existed, that you are not one of the many ghosts of Vienna.
I am a novice in journalism. By ambitiously pursuing your story you should get a chance to set your record straight in the public eye. And what new moments have occurred since the last time we were together? The suspense in which we live today has its roots in the past, which you are familiar with. In order to understand the present, I need to understand the past. I want to share with you the pain you must have felt, I want to complete my project of writing about prominent exiled women. You are at the top of the list. Your connection with my father has a lot to do with it. Both of you are unique individuals that have much in common. You have no family to fall back on. Aren’t you utterly alone? Don’t you feel downhearted? Let me come to Geneva, I beseech you, let us continue what we have started.
You might be interested to know that in the beginning of this month I travelled to the United States. I met Colonel Hogan at his home in New Jersey. Dr. Wallas is dead. That may be a closure for you. It will surely interest you to know how Dr. Wallas died. I have a million questions to ask you, your lifetime’s worth. A lifetime! Let us forge ahead, break the stranglehold of your anonymity, your exile, that makes no sense anymore.
Vienna, October 22, 1968
A dialogue with Max
‘Think this through, seriously,’ Max implored his daughter Patrizia. ‘Think what you want, where you are going with this. Is it worth the time? What I mean is, don’t go off half-cocked, like f lying off to New York impulsively and nearly ending in a great deal of grief.’ Patrizia’s announcement that she was going back to Geneva in search of Greta, shook him. He thought she was over it. As a warning, he said, ‘She may not want to see you at all,’ Max said. ‘I understand your persistence; should I say stubborn nature? But you have used up your credit as my daughter. Something has changed. Isn’t it obvious? You wanted to find her, you found her the first time, you were lucky. There doesn’t need to be a second time.’
‘I have important things to ask her … she held back on the most important parts of her life, on her role in some key events. The first time we met, she only indicated that she committed crimes. I want to know about it. I cannot round off her story.’
‘You have no takers for her story,’ Max said. ‘I’m friends with your boss … he has a wait and see attitude. In my world that’s not a commitment. It also means no money.’
‘I’ll write a book … You really are doing your best to dissuade me.’
In order to talk to him, Patrizia had to coax her father into an outside lunch, away from home, into a small underground restaurant in the City. Max was reluctant, but there was no talking about Greta at home, in the presence of Patrizia’s mother. Greta wasn’t to be mentioned. But he decided to indulge in his curiosity and hear what Patrizia had unearthed in the United States. Patrizia’s aim was subtle. She wanted to ask her father similar questions to those that she planned for Greta. He avoided the topic of the war years and his relationship with Greta. He had been her source of information, practical advice, and helped out of scrapes for more than a decade. She even believed that he could foretell future events. He couldn’t foretell Greta’s reckless behaviour. Patrizia was sure that a bad conscience weighed on him. She was sure that he had been in love with her. How couldn’t he be? She must have been lovely. Much younger than himself. She had delicate cheekbones, a strong nose, full lips, large green eyes. She had brown hair, newly cut to the nape of her white neck, which she wore swept behind her ears. Max must have lost himself in that love. It was hopeless love. Greta knew that. She played him for her selfish purposes. He probably couldn’t erase the image of seeing her for the first time, in 1930, newly arrived from the provinces, when she was a bouncy nineteen. Greta disappeared in 1947.
At their previous meetings, Greta ignored the telephone interruptions, as long as she was in her element. The stories rolled on. The days passed. The women moved from room to room, cooked meals together and talked, they took long walks and talked. Greta was nonchalantly telling things that she never spoke of before. Patrizia embraced the drama of Greta’s moves, expressions of emotion, her eyebrows bobbing up and down. It was an insightful, insidious autobiography. Most likely there were gaps in her story, omissions, and a significant part of Greta’s expose was missing.
There was one telephone call that Greta did not ignore. She must have expected it. Patrizia’s entire endeavour was off the rails on an enormously different track.
Greta was a superbly gifted photographer and corrosively ambitious. She was prepared to do anything to facilitate her success. She often said that in Vienna she had a date with Fate. Linz, where Greta was born and educated, was a staunchly conservative backwater, while Vienna was throbbing with an energy never known before. Max was a convenient friend, unable to transcend a numbing, risk-free passivity, while Greta gained an active hand in her own dark destiny, unwilling to enter into marriage with Max or anybody else. She had a savage charm on the uncharismatic Max, somewhat deluded, perhaps, that she couldn’t manage more than just affection. He couldn’t escape the longing. Greta tried a life outside the confines of social conventions, but an extraordinary fate awaited her, which victimised her to a masochistic degree.
Max was a fool. Patrizia wouldn’t say it openly. In the typically conservative manner of the time, Max was unable or didn’t know how to express his feelings for her. He had waited an eternity, demanding nothing of Greta, except the pleasure of her extended friendship, and her dubious satisfaction that he was there for her, when she needed him. Every morning he would watch for her through his shop window, across the Ring boulevard from where she lived, anticipating her arrival to pick up newspapers and sit down and have a coffee. With relief, he saw her carefully crossing the wide cobbled avenue, dodging the approaching trams on the double tracks. Each day he believed he was making progress in breaking her reserve and willed himself to say the right things. He was only a tobacconist and newspaper vendor, but his small concession shop was importantly located in the arched front passage running the width of a large government building, housing ministries and government offices. He felt safe there, with a regular f low of customers who stopped to read papers and drink coffee. Greta engaged him in conversation when he wasn’t too busy, and had been tapping him for gossip and news almost on a daily basis. It became a routine, and Max expected Greta to consult with him whenever she had doubts about something or a problem cropped up that she wasn’t sure how to solve. Max was very deferential to her, lent her books to read and gave her the advice she expected.
After months of patiently listening to Greta, Patrizia was dumbfounded, paralysed, when one day out of the blue she was denied any further time with her. Greta refused to discuss the reasons for breaking off their continuous sessions. She lied about having a group visit to Leningrad. Her suspicions that Greta was asked to engage in a delicate mission weren’t far from the truth. It was a case of extraction of a defector from the Soviet Union, a previous friend and ally and partner in crime. The risk of being caught was great; it wouldn’t be a question of deportation, but something far more serious. The Soviet intelligence circles had a long memory. Disturbing events were taking place shortly before Greta’s declared departure; the aggressive Soviet incursion into Czechoslovakia had everyone in a panic, not only in Austria. Everybody was talking about the Red Menace again, and Austria was yet again on the frontline facing a possible Soviet onslaught. It was an easy target. Greta’s disappearance from her f lat in Geneva could have meant nothing or everything. Patrizia was sure that she had been waiting for a signal. The whole business merely increased Patrizia’s resolve to adamantly pursue Greta’s story. She would explore what she could about her current preoccupation and about the people she was dealing with. If she was still “in the game” it could develop into something sinister; in that case she would expose these connections, probably with an explosive piece of journalism.
‘What is your opinion; did Greta go after Borkers to Leningrad?’Patrizia asked Max.
‘It’s possible … she’s crazy enough. In a way, I can understand … Borkers got her out of very tight situations more than once. They collaborated closely and he also dug a few graves for her. On the balance of things, she owes him a lot. She became rich due to his actions.’
‘I was made to understand that you owe Greta and Borkers your life …’ Patrizia said.
‘For a price. I won’t go into it now. Borkers attempted to defect from the Soviet Union in 1956, during the Hungarian uprising, and failed. His wife Katya was shot in the crossfire. Borkers was in charge of quelling the opposition as one of the leading KGB task officers, only to find that his wife was with the rebels. Katya was Hungarian. Borkers was arrested, tried, and sent to a hard-labour camp in the so-called Stalin Quarter. He was released in 1964 but stripped of citizen rights. It is possible that he had been trying to get in touch with Greta and request her assistance for an escape from the Soviet Union for quite some time. It just so happened that just such a call came while you were with her in Geneva. A call she wasn’t going to ignore.’
‘You seem to know a lot about all of this …’
‘I read Soviet papers. Yes, I owe Borkers my life. My health in Russian detention was deteriorating rapidly. I was actually shot and saved in the nick of time. Greta’s and Borkers’ interventions paid off. Greta paid Borkers a heavy bribe and Borkers passed the bribe to key officers. I never met him in person.’
‘You never had any direct contact with Greta since her disappearance in 1947? Why are you so strongly opposed to my cooperation with Greta? Are you afraid that I would persuade her to return to Vienna?’
Max was silent for a few long moments, lost in his gloom. Then he said: ‘Is that what you think? Is the interrogation over for the day? We haven’t ordered lunch. Some of us still have work to do.’ He sounded angry.
Patrizia was ambitious in her pursuit of freelance journalism, with a penchant for writing about illustrious dames who were exiled or self-exiled, for mostly the same reasons: they either came afoul of their families and Austrian society, committed crimes, or bore a grudge over something that had corroded or warped their lives. Patrizia was pushing for details about Greta’s life as a renowned photographer, her involvement in spying, and how it was to serve more than one spymaster, playing them off against each other. How many times was her life at risk? How was it that she survived when so many around her perished? How could she rub shoulders with mass murderers, sadists, evil personified?
Greta’s answer: ‘In precarious times, when anything could happen to you when you least expect it, when you live in constant fear, when you can die and nothing can be proven, you want to live your life, in your world, within yourself; you go along from day to day. You follow the paths that others have prepared for you, perhaps living with the illusion that there was such a thing as free will … You never raise your head too high – you are enfolded in their logic. It’s easy to judge, sitting in a warm, safe room. The fear you live is within you, never leaving you, and yet you try to bury it, leave it behind you – never looking back.’
Greta had selfish motives for agreeing to speak to Patrizia at all, if only for the slightest chance of “setting her record straight” through this young ambitious person, provided there would be anybody to accept her writing. To be at least partially rehabilitated in the eyes of the denizens of Vienna was a far-f lung aim, a dream perhaps. Long memories persisted in Vienna. Trials were still ongoing against former Nazis, both in Germany and Austria. Who knew if the file was closed on her? As it were, Greta was remembered as a Nazi tool, an underground operator, an occasional spy, and a secret prisoner of the American military authorities, with an assumed date with an executioner. She had a selective memory about her experiences, but she thought that it was time that she lay some of her burdens to rest – on Patrizia’s shoulders.
‘It’s not too much to ask in one’s life, to forget the things that caused you pain, is it?’ Greta asked philosophically. Patrizia suspected that Greta would try to cover up or reinterpret some of the more egregious wrongdoing.
The amicable arrangement between the two women was cut off. Patrizia had to move out of Greta’s f lat into an expensive hotel, not knowing if she should wait her out. She stayed on in Geneva for another week, in case anything changed.
‘Tell me how you fared in the United States. In detail,’ Max requested.
Patrizia was unsure how much to tell her father. She didn’t dare be completely honest. The fact was that the trip was nearly a complete disaster with lasting consequences. Effectively, she became a fugitive, avoiding possible questioning by the authorities, possibly being blamed for the death of a “deserving” citizen. She felt like the carrier of a dangerous disease. If she were to be arrested, she couldn’t imagine how the press at home would treat her; as a heroine, or a damned fool. The New York Times published an item about the death of Dr. Wallas. He died under suspicious circumstances. He had a relapse, after a female visitor saw the doctor, probably causing severe distress that resulted in his death. The paper speculated, that the lady in question, young and foreign, could have been a relative of one of the doctor’s victims during the war. The doctor’s butler described her well. The New York Times described Dr. Wallas as a chemical wizard of Austrian origins, a shady character, but honourably serving the United States military after World War II, given citizenship, and formally cleared of any war crimes.
‘I had a short-term visa. In America, I found Greta’s interrogator, the ex-colonel Mike Hogan, in a place called Township, in the state of New Jersey. He is the publisher of a local paper, he smokes a pipe and chuckles a lot. He couldn’t believe what I told him who I was. He said: ‘My, oh my, if it isn’t a real Fraulein from Vienna! How’s Greta after all these years? I wrote to her. She never wrote back. I’m going to tell you a little secret. I was in love with that woman. Couldn’t do anything about it, but keep her out of courts. Conflict of interest and all that jazz. I went all out for her to get her released from army custody. She could have done us a lot of damage. Don’t lie to me about Greta. I want the bare knuckles truth. Did she ever mention me? I said that Vienna frauleins didn’t lie …’ he laughed. He said, ‘I never met one that could tell the truth. I suppose you will be the first one in that category.’
‘Colonel Hogan is a vain old coot, silver-haired, tall and tanned. An outdoorsman. He enjoys sailing. His office is full of model sailing boats. At certain moments he was serious and had a remote, sad, look. He took long pauses before he spoke. We met more than once. He took me to lunch … We covered a lot of topics. He ironed out a few wrinkles in Greta’s story. Naturally, he had a different perspective on what had transpired between them. He didn’t want to talk about his failed job … Now I have a lot of questions to ask Greta.