Susanna S.

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Susanna S.


With roots in Eastern Europe, both World War Ii and the subsequent advance of the Red Army and the establishment of communist regimes had a dramatic impact on the family.


Susanna S.

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Susanna *
My name is Susanna and my family’s roots and my family background encompasses the time of World War II and a
civil war in Yugoslavia and the countries of Austria, Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia and with the roots
of my kids, also Turkey. This is the time and country frame I know. My knowledge of the time before goes back to
World War II on my mother’s side. I don’t have any knowledge of the time before, but I plan to do more research
and maybe I can add more to the story later.
I was born in Vienna, Austria 1959 and lived there for 46 years until I met my husband in 2006, and became an
American citizen in 2007. My mother, Hildegard, was also born and raised in Vienna, Austria, and lived there her
whole life. Her family roots reach back to her parents’ arrival from Czechoslovakia (former Bohemia) to Vienna.
She was their only child. Her parents owned a tailor shop and I believe they were pretty wealthy since they had an
apartment in the inner city of Vienna as well as a house with a big garden near Vienna. My mother told me that my
grandmother was the owner of a small business, a tailor shop with a few employees. She was the businesswoman in
the family which was very unusual for that time and era in respect of the position of a woman.
I am not sure what role my grandfather had, but I heard he opened a few businesses; one of them was a bowling
alley. They came from Prague, Czechoslovakia to Vienna. They were from the German-speaking part, the “Sudeten
Germans” (Sudeten Deutsche) and came to create a better economic future for their family in Vienna. My mother
was their only child and they lived in this two-family-house with big garden near Vienna. My mother went to school
there and successfully achieved a certificate in a special fashion institute (“Modeschule Hetzendorf”). The students
of this school went out in the world and made fashion in sophisticated cities like Paris and Rome.
Unfortunately when my mother got caught up in World War II in 1945, when she was 18 years old she had to escape
from Vienna in a big hurry together with my grandmother in a truck from Vienna. They only could grab a few
fabrics and throw them on the truck. The rest of the whole business was lost when they were able to come back later.
They were alone, because my grandfather died in World War II. I can only imagine how frightened out of their
minds they must have been both escaping from the oncoming Russians. I don’t know in which direction they
escaped but my mother told me that they stayed overnight in abandoned houses and even an old castle and that she
had a romantic crush on an American soldier who helped them along the way. When they finally were able to come
back, the business was lost but they still owned the apartment in the inner city and the house.

My grandmother had to go to prison after they returned because she was accused by her Jewish bookkeeper of
having said something insulting to her. Although my grandmother was rehabilitated, she was not the same person
anymore after that. My mother said the loss of her business that she lived for broke my grandmother’s heart. My
grandmother lost her will to live and fell in a deep depression. Finally my mom found her lying dead on the kitchen
floor soon after my grandma was released from prison. She died from a stroke.
Now my mother was alone, her parents were dead and she had no siblings. She had to sell the apartment in the inner
city of Vienna and rented a very small apartment in a much cheaper district. She started to work as a tailor and she
was glad to find any work at all at this time. Vienna after World War II was a tough place to live for a young and
beautiful woman, which my mother was. Her certificate from the fashion school did not put bread on her table but
sewing did. In fact, my mother never really used her certificate from the fashion school and worked as a tailor in a
big company (Tlapa) for 27 years, her entire working life. I often asked myself why she never tried to change the job
or start her own business like my grandmother, why she never traveled to other countries in Europe or why she
never tried to change to a better apartment. I believe my mother was, after witnessing the disaster of World War II,
the horrible escape from Vienna and the loss of practically all their belongings plus the business, very anxious and
did not want to risk anything anymore. The most important thing for her was safety and her job was safe. She also
never looked for a better apartment and never traveled outside of Austria, except one very short trip to Germany.
My father – his name was Danilo – came to Vienna, I believe, in 1955. From what he told my mom he escaped and
deserted from a civil war in the former Yugoslavia. He said that they fought partisans in the mountains. As a
Yugoslavian, living in Belgrade, he was drafted in the war when he was less than 20 years young. My father was not
a military type, he was a teacher, very smart, handsome and educated, and he spoke four languages. He got very
scared when he was a soldier and the stories about that time of his life up in the mountains with one of his uncles,
who was drafted as well, were scary and horrible. It was so cold, he said, that the toes of his uncle froze (frostbite)
and his comrades around him got shot, died or were wounded and often died from their wounds. I don’t know which
war it was, it was not World War II, it must have been a civil war with partisans in the mountains of former
Yugoslavia. Finally he could not deal with it anymore and escaped with a few other soldiers to Austria. He came to
Vienna without a passport and there he met my mother at the train station. My mom told me that he only had one

shabby suitcase in his hand and looked terribly thin and sick. Since he was a deserter, he could not return to
Yugoslavia anymore.
My mom had recently divorced from her first husband and had a four-year-old son, my half -brother Gerhard.
Gerhard still lives in Austria today, but we did not grow up together. Three years after they met they married – my
father was 23 years old then and my mother was 31– and I was born one year after that in 1959. My half- brother
grew up with his grandmother and his father but they lived near us. My father tried to stay in touch with his family,
many brothers and sisters and his mother, in Yugoslavia, but his brother Milan rarely answered his long letters.
Finally his brother wrote him that he does not have time to read his long letters and my father suspected that this was
his way to say that he did not want to have contact with him anymore because he was a deserter. That was a big
disappointment for my father as he still had hoped to be able to return some day and take his little family, me and
my mom, with him. I suspect that my father had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from his involvement in the
war because he exhibited the sure symptoms I read later about. One moment he was very nice and pleasant, and the
next he was triggered by something small that my mom or I did and broke out in destructive and violent behavior.
He also often had flashbacks from the time he was in the mountains of Yugoslavia with his uncle which prompted
him to drink too much. There was no name or treatment back then for it but the result was that he did not find work,
although his German was very good and he was smart and wanted to work.
When I was one and a half year old my father disappeared from one day to the other to – what my mom later found
out – Holland and lived there with another woman, who later (when he returned one year after) wrote him letters in
French. I believe that was after he learned that his family back in Yugoslavia did not want to stay in touch with him
anymore. My mom did not know where he was and she had a policeman come over who suspected that she killed
her husband and started to look around in the apartment. When my father came back, he did cross the border without
a passport, was caught by the Austrian police and brought to my mom because that was the only address he could
name in Vienna. After that my mom filed for a divorce.
During all this problems my mom kept working as a tailor and I was being taken care of by a nanny who lived next
door. I called her “aunt Resi” (Tante Resi) but she was not related to us. She should become a second mom to me
and a very important person in my life. She practically raised me, since my mom had to work a lot to support us

both. My aunt Resi was the housekeeper of the house next door and responsible for keeping the house clean and
collecting the monthly rent from all people living there. Therefore she was at home all day and everybody in the
house was my friend. I was “little Susi” and was really happy there, playing in the grass of the backyard or
accompanying when she ran errands.
However, both women had a different sociological background and upbringing and therefore different positions
towards the Nazi regime. My mom was born and raised in a wealthy Viennese family. When she was in school she
was very good in sports and mathematic so she became the leader of a sports group at her school and that was at that
time of the “Hitler Jugend” (Hitler Youth). My mom was not actively involved nor was she enthusiastic about what
Hitler said, but it was very difficult and dangerous to keep yourself out of it. When I grew older and learned more
about history this was surely a topic we talked about sometimes and when I asked her what her opinion was at this
time she said that she was very young back then. She was only seven years old when Hitler became Germany’s head
of state with the title of Fuehrer und Reichskanzler (leader and chancellor of the Reich). She said she did not have a
choice but also the people around her were not in open opposition to the ideology. Although they were not actively
involved, they also did not dare to oppose Hitler openly.
My aunt Resi on the other side was about 10 years younger and she grew up in a farmer’s family near Vienna. She
had many siblings. Farmers, she told me later, were much more independent because they grew their food
themselves and once the economy went down they were not that much influenced by it because they could become
self-sufficient and live off their land. My aunt Resi’s family opposed Hitler and the children or her parents did not
participate in any of the groups. Then again that was much easier for my aunt since she was much younger and not
yet in school and their farm and small town was not much of a focus of any of these activities of the Nazi’s.
Nevertheless they had to escape too from the Russians at the end of the war and my aunt told me that she will never
forget that people screamed: “Run, run for your life, the Russians nail people with their tongues to the doors of the
houses.” Hearing that, I also never forgot this sentence. Many people who lived around me in my house or in my
aunt Resi’s house had witnessed World War II and therefore I heard many of their stories when I grew up there. This
left a deep impression in me to hate Hitler and reject everything that had to do with him. I know that Austria and
Germany dealt very differently with their Nazi past and since I was interested in the reasons I recently read a very

comprehensive book about it: “The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria” by David Art. My father died
when I was four years old in a train accident. My parents were already divorced by then.
I went to Kindergarten and school in the nearby catholic school and the nuns tried to provide a racism-free and
peaceful environment for us kids. Nevertheless, although I was born in Vienna and had a Viennese mother, I and a
few other kids got harassed because we looked “foreign”. I had black hair and black eyes and a Yugoslavian name
which the other kids made fun of endlessly. I heard later from my husband John, who grew up in the Bronx in New
York City and had Romanian-born parents, that he suffered the same fate with his German-sounding name in his
When I was 30 years old I married a Turk. By this time, the part of Vienna where I grew up was already flooded
with immigrants from Yugoslavia, Turkey, Poland, Romania and many others. On one side it was difficult, on the
other side it was interesting too because now there were many shops and restaurants with items and food from those
countries which were much cheaper than the Austrian shops. I know there are many unsolved problems rooting in
this development but I always found that Viennese life got much more interesting and colorful with this melting pot
of cultures compared to the Vienna of my early childhood.
However, we had many difficulties related to our very different understanding of the role of a man and a woman in a
marriage and I divorced him five years later. Therefore I practically raised my two kids – which are now 21 and 23
years old and also live and study in the United States – alone. 2006 I met my husband who is an American Foreign
Service Officer and we married the same year in Switzerland where my kids and I moved from Vienna. Since then
we lived in Switzerland, Mexico City and in the United States.



Susanna S., “Susanna S.,” Historical Memory:, accessed April 13, 2024,

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