by Evan Prusynski
My mother said that she knew from my first days. Right when I was brought into the world, in a maternity ward in Vienna’s old General Hospital, the first World War in its death throes. When I was brought to see my mother by a male nurse, I cried in her arms until I was returned to him. My father, grandmother, the nurse, and my mother all took turns, and I would only rest comfortably in the arms of the men in the room. My mother would tell me, “From then on I knew you would be a homosexual, but I knew you’d be alright. Good Austrians always hold their own.”
This wasn’t a thing I was told until I was much older. Thirteen years passed before I was clued into my mother’s assumption, and it was only after being found cuddling a bit more… intimately than what would be expected with a boy from school. That same day I was sat down in my father’s study, a sniveling, anxious mess, and we had a long conversation about what I was. Contrary to what would be expected, my mother and father were fine with it. As members of Vienna’s intellectual elite, they had more than a few friends, gentlemen and ladies in their circles, who were how I was. And above all, I was an Austrian, and a citizen of the capital city of Vienna. Liking boys wasn’t going to detract from how great my place in society already was.
I admittedly, did have a good place in Vienna’s society as a young man. My mother and father had both thrived in the days of empire and republic. My father was an officer in the imperial army, then a teacher of military science, and my mother a doctor at the same General Hospital that saw me brought into the world. They lived comfortably through the days of sickness and insecurity that wracked the capital in the times after the empire fell, and my family had lived in the three-bedroom flat in the Josefstadt district since before I was born. At first, they shared our home with other intellectuals to save on rent. Once my sister Maria and I came into the picture we each had a room to ourselves.
It was here, in the central Josefstadt district, that I came into my love of music. Josefstadt has long been loved for its proximity to both the University of Vienna and the greater downtown district. My mother wanted my life to be marked by a love of music, so by the time that I was able to sit a piano bench, I was learning. My sister and I both took to the piano, but my sister was markedly different than I. Besides her being two years younger, she was also focused on the sciences, taking heavily after our mother and attending sit-in lectures and classes at the university. Meanwhile, I stayed at home, or within the district, honing my talent on the family piano, practicing pieces over and over. This is what, ironically, got me into the university my family so adored.
I crossed into my life as a student at the University of Vienna in the fall of 1936, two months after my 18th birthday. A student of the fine arts, my college life was an unremarkable blur of boys, drinking, and studying; until I landed my first job as a pianist at a club in the Mariahilf district.
I was playing at a cozy social club called Die Fledermaus. It was a little place. The district is dominated by the Mariahilfstrasse, one of the busiest streets in the entire capital city, but my club was nowhere near that. Located in a basement, the club may have been something akin to a small dungeon but had been transformed. It was not the most elegant place in the city by any means, but the club was well furnished, and I did not get as many snide looks as I first expected when I explained to peers and professors where I was working as a pianist.
Most of my songs for this social club were not the classical waltzes that I was being taught at university, but instead the popular tunes of the day. Love songs, American jazz, and folk tunes were what I played at night. And most of these pieces required a voice behind them. Our singers seemed to come and go on a rotating basis, but one stood out to me.
Manfred Selbstos was a tall man, with eyes green as pine needles and his hair the black of pen ink. For this reason the various servers, bartenders, and other performers chattered about how he was most likely a member of the city’s underclass of Roma. I just chattered about how I wanted him to be mine.
On our little stage, it was magical. I was off to the side, playing my music, and I would just watch him for hours as I played. It was amazing how he never stopped singing, and how he smiled as he did. He had a voice that simply flowed, and he could sing well in both English and German.
His singing voice was beautiful, and so was he. He may have been the most handsome man I had ever seen. His naturally fair features were complimented by an expensive powder blue suit that fit well to his strong arms and his broad chest. In his lapel, a red and white pin, centered in the middle by the sigil of the Austrian Republic. There were no gemstones, but regardless, it would shimmer under the stage lights as if it was made of the crown jewels. It was one of a kind, just like he was. And in my teenage heart, his poise and grace on the stage only made my feelings for him bloom.
It was organic, how it grew. Nights at the club turned into rehearsing together hours before the club opened, turned into time practicing and running through new music at his home, turned into a kiss goodnight. Our relationship wasn’t marked by terms such as “dating” or “boyfriend.” We simply grew together.
“I love you,” came not with words, but with a gesture. One night as I sat behind the curtain Manfred came to me. Wordlessly he undid the pin from his lapel and placed it in mine. A pat on the shoulder, a kiss on the cheek, and it was cemented. “I love you,” but without words. That night I went home after my set, packed my essentials, and half an hour later was outside Manfred’s. He was waiting for me in his bed clothes, an easy smile on his face. I hadn’t even thought to change out of my own suit, but it didn’t matter. His apartment was now ours. It was still our apartment when the tanks rolled into the capital in the spring of 1938.
When Hitler came to be the Chancellor of the Anschluss, it became a tumultuous time for the city. My family was spared any kind of forced move into the city ghetto; we were not Jews. My mother was allowed to keep her position as a doctor, though my father’s professorial job was called into question. Regardless, we were all still allowed to keep our lives on the tracks they were on before. I still played at the social club, but Manfred was no longer a singer. Now he was a server, and our singer was a young woman from Germany proper. Blonde, of course.
But I was happy to continue. Our club became a favorite among the local Nazi party and soon our patronage was proudly wearing swastikas. I kept playing. After all, the way to preserve ourselves was to blend into the fold. We were not Austrians anymore. We were Germans. The pin he had given me now had a place of honor on my nightstand, but I no longer wore the token of Manfred’s affection while I played.
Manfred was not as quick to take up this idea; He resented the swastikas and all that they stood for. The ideas or purity, of a strong German land, all of it. Meanwhile I simply did my part, I played my piano and smiled. I changed my music to popular pieces straight from Berlin. But Manfred’s mood only soured. It culminated one night in our bedroom.
Manfred accused me of betraying Austria. All I could do was ask him what was so bad about being a German? What was so bad about safety? Manfred just had this look on his face. The kind of harsh look that can only come from a broken heart, and he asked me, “Do you think that they will still consider you a German when they find out about us?”
That was the last time Manfred and I shared a room together. I left right after the argument. In a childish act of defiance, I wrote a letter explaining why he was wrong, why the Nazis were good for us, asking why he couldn’t see the safety they provided, and left it on the kitchen table. Atop it, I left behind the pin he had given me. From then on, I was living at home again, in the room where I grew up back in the Josefstadt district. Once I was home in Josefstadt, I realized that my happiness was taken from my life. Vienna had a very open culture at this time, but Manfred was different from the boys who I had spent time with as a youth. Manfred was Austrian in every sense of the word. Gifted in the arts, gifted in being a romantic, and a firebrand’s personality. It was what had drawn me to him in the first place. I gave all of that up for a spot playing German tunes at a lounge.
Within a few weeks my place as an honorary German was tenuous at best. There were complaints of having such an “inferior” German playing at such a popular club, and pressure on the stage manager to replace me with a pianist from Frankfurt or Berlin. But I played on. Though now, it was with a swastika armband, and fleeting thoughts of going to a salon to get my hair dyed blonde.
Manfred, on the other hand, was in a swirl of rumors. Some were that he was picked up for being a Roma. Others were that he was working in the Austrian underground. Still more grumbled that he had simply moved on to something better. I made it out as if I did not care. After all, what business was it of mine if Manfred was out cavorting with boys, or smuggling Jews and Roma out of the city? I had my job, and I did it loyally. A good German and citizen of the empire.
In all honesty, I know that I did care. I cared so deeply. Often I would catch myself coming home late to stare out the window and just imagine what it would be like to see Manfred walking down the street towards my home. Even just to see his Paris green eyes shimmer under a streetlight, to see the light reflect off his glossy black hair. I cared much more than I let on.
My mother and father were also being worked under the wheel of the German war machine. My father had been removed from the University of Vienna and was now teaching history at a local gymnasium school. My mother had her space as a doctor, but that was only kept in place by how long she had been loyal to the hospital. We were Germans, but not Germans in the sense that mattered. We were German in the sense that we were not exiled from our own country.
We all existed for years like this. Through Poland falling, through the war beginning, through the fires and the drafts that stole away most of my young friends from Josefstadt and the university. But I played on. I smiled, I wore the armband, I was a good German.
By the 1st of May 1943, there were less than eight thousand “undesirables” in all of Austria. Many of this number were concentrated in Vienna, and Manfred was still among them. I knew from the whispers that he was assisting others in getting to Switzerland, or even bunkering them down in the city. But I had sold myself completely into the German ideal.
I lived out the war. I played my piano, and just as I saw the tanks roll into the streets of Vienna under Nazi banners, I saw tanks roll into the city under Allied banners as well. But by this point, I had not heard much of Manfred. It was not until several months after the liberation of my city that I got my last memento of him.
With the horrors of the “work camps” exposed to the masses, many people had flocked to such areas to see what they could find of their loved ones. One of mine and Manfred’s mutual friends, Emile, had made a visit to Majdanek concentration camp after the war was over. This was under a hint that it was where his sister Margot had been sent. This friend called on me when he returned, and in a small coffee shop, punctuated his story to the camp with a gift.
After finding his sister alive, Margot had told Emile that Manfred had been sent to the camp as well. They had been on the same train but had been separated when they arrived. As my friends searched the camp they found their conclusion to what had happened. In the camp’s infirmary was a room in which the belongings of the dead were housed. This had mostly been looted by people coming and going, but on one shelf, they found it. A simple pin, of Austrian colors with the republic’s sigil. Still with a bit of shimmer, under the dim light. I took this gift, thanked Emile, and went home to cry. It was my confirmation that I would never see Manfred again.
It’s been twenty years since the war ended, and I still live in Vienna. I survived the terrors of the war because I was eager and ready to declare myself German, but the government I was ready to put myself out for took away the man I loved. All I ever got back of Manfred was the pin. The only burial I was allowed was that of my own identity, smothering the boy I had been with German songs and swastikas. Smothering the boy that Manfred had loved. Sometimes this leads me to wonder what would have come of my life if I had elected to help Manfred. I may not have survived the war. As a matter of fact, I probably wouldn’t have. But if I had done this, if I had worked with Manfred, if I had stayed true to myself, at least I could have helped others. Even if my only contribution would have been giving Manfred a hand to hold in that infirmary in Majdanek, it would have been something. Something that would have made me feel as if I were truly a good Austrian.