D Dom: Miles from Dom (Home) Wind #4
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Vienna: A World Apart #4
Wind from the West
For my maternal grandparents, citizens of the multicultural world of
the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna was where their parents bought the
few precious pieces of furniture from well-known cabinet makers. The
Imperial Vienna my parents treasured was made up of tales that became
woven into mythology. Everything was supposed to be better here.
However, my first images were coloured as I pined for the company of
Milan and Ondrej to share this new experience that we had long dreamed
Vienna seemed only a short journey from the border.
In summer, dead flat Vienna wore golden colours and blue skies, the
Danube River a metallic-green, the masses of rooftops a velvet orange.
The trams reminded me of Prague, as so many other things did. Like the
girls who glided remote and vacant-eyed along avenues, stopping only to
examine their reflections in the windows of shops. I imagined what in
their life would prompt them to embrace escape to Czechoslovakia:
stress of having so many shoes to choose from in the window of the
shop, a lonely existence in the streets without undercover police to
watch every move and mood, or maybe the worry of having every newspaper
story and film uncensored. Their eyes, I fancied, spoke for escapees
across the land, yearning for Communism and, yes, for the May
So here I was peering through a half open window in a stationery car,
when I notice three huge television sets turned on, propped way up on
top of metal hooks inside a shop, and the song 'Yellow Submarine' was
playing and the Beatles dressed in colourful costumes were dancing in
front of my eyes.
The band had so much charisma and energy on those huge screens that was
captivating and I was mesmerized. Yet few young people my age paid the
band much attention as they walked briskly past the window each holding
onto some kind of colourful plastic bag. For a minute or so, I forgot
everything, that I was in a police car, the ordeal I faced and was
still facing; none of these things mattered as I watched this guys with
so much talent.
We did not stop for long and I would soon consume miles of colourful
signposts and disorientating advertisements from a moving car, mostly
filled with virile men and sleek women. My heart travelled the sidewalk
and rooftops filled with the warning signals of the loneliest day in my
When I looked at the young men and women at the supermarkets and cafes,
I was reminded of Milan and Ondrej. Vienna was to be where we all would
meet together following the escape, symbolising our new futures
together. The brief feelings of joy disappeared.
For many years I had toyed with the thought of what would it feel like
to be in Vienna, I mean, I have dreamt about Vienna, but what could I
feel? Perhaps fear? Why? For those of us born in the post-holocaust
world, it was hard to imagine living life as an Austrian or a German.
My history lessons were dominated by my teacher's hysteria about German
barbarism and psychotic Austrians, French and Americans.
Given my emotional tidal wave, I was not ready to face more questions
inside Traiskirchen, the Viennese refugee camp. The walls of the camp
kept the worst kept secret: that the eastern block idyll countries were
the worst places to live on God's earth. Degenerated Communism was the
source of the human flood moving in and out of the detention
Traiskirchen was the headquarters for the interrogation of hundreds of
defectors from the East. The courtyard full of ill-dressed refugees who
cast glances in our direction. Some spoke to the uniformed men as we
walked through the jig-saw of bodies. Because of the bright sunlight
and my blurred eyes, every face seemed in a haze.
I wondered if my feet would continue to work. I felt like I was walking
in several different directions. I could hear myself telling others
what had happened without being aware of what words I was using,
although 'Morava,' seemed to keep on being repeated.
Whatever the cause, it was clear that all Eastern European refugees had
one thing in common. The willingness to risk everything, for one thing:
freedom. It was here that I placed my story on record, even moving my
translator to tears. This surprised me, given the number of political
refugees there were at this time. The ruthless orphans of Cold War, the
graduates of the schools of Marxism who happened to be born into a
society that had no soul, no joy.
A mean wind and flood swell the number of asylum applications. In
Austria it peaked at 35,000, mostly Poles, in 1980. I was just another
amongst the thousands and that sense of anonymity was haunting. For
fifteen minutes, everyone wanted to meet me, but who would care about
my fate? My future would be addressed within the context of merciless
economics, never-ending racial prejudices and inescapable language
difficulties. If most of the refugees were broke, I was destitute. A
few came by car and some by train. Some walked and one swam, but we
were united in our homelessness and hope for a better future.
I had become another statistic, another escapee from the repression of
Czechoslovakian life. For most of the 20th century, it was accepted
that the view of Czechoslovakia that Czechs and Slovaks knew best was
looking back from a train or a car heading for somewhere else.
What is a detention center? A thin skin between you and the doubts.
Anthropology is there. It is in the sunrise; it is in the toilet; it is
in the metal beds sighing to the slivers of the moon. Future does not
yet exist, but memory and making of the past fills the air. Here we
talk about the temperature of the soup but we mean the coldness of the
soul. Life in the refugee camp was another new and unexpected
experience, one that has provided me with considerable insight into the
lives of migrants anywhere in the world and makes me sympathise with
many that enter Australia today. The emotional trauma of having left
your homeland is compounded by Spartan conditions and a prison-style
regime, where your movements are dictated by authorities, who may or
may not be oblivious to your fate.
Our sleeping arrangements in the camp were on a par with my Nitra army
experience. Privacy was non-existent. Through paper walls I could hear
the Hungarian couple having sex on one side, the Polish family of five
constantly arguing on the other. I resigned myself, with Bessie, to
sharing a tiny room with two other Czech and Moravian boys, Milan and
Peter. Our room was exactly six paces by seven, with three beds, a
palm-sized white window, a single wardrobe, one chair and no sink. As a
result, we shared the bathroom with twenty other occupants of similarly
tiny rooms and drank the dregs from others' wine glasses beneath a
naked light bulb. I existed nervously, never knowing what was going to
There were thousands in a similar predicament,: families, young babies,
all desperate for a new existence. It is heart-wrenching to leave one's
family and homeland. However, it is desperation that drives one on to
other lands. I was not alone in my predicament, just alone in my
Life became less and less predictable. We all have our comforting
little routines, our sense of control over what we do. There is no
sense of independence in a refugee camp. You are at the whim of others
and never know what each day will bring.
Of all topics of conversation, the most predictable was how migrants
were unable to stop thinking cigarettes, about how they started smoking
again. The shame they felt for picking up the disgusting, habit. The
price of cigarettes was part and parcel of the small talk, as was
anyone who happen to be caught picking up butts outside restaurants and
Freedom was a new, strange world pressing in. I had to face the
implications of my escape: that my experience of the new world, my own
identity, was fundamentally altered by one swim across the river. Who
was I without my roots? As long as I was in Czechoslovakia, I had never
wondered what I would do with my life beyond getting out of
Czechoslovakia. Now I had a whole new set of fears and trepidations as
to what I would do now.
At the same time, I was constantly confronted with the hideous memories
of the Morava River. I was ill-prepared for a single hour, even less a
whole day, without a word from Milan and Ondrej. Only twenty-fours ago
I thought nothing could touch me. Could 'we will not die,' mean 'we
will not live?' How could I counter this loss of heart? Where could I
find courage to face the future? What was the future?
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