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Grandfather, Walter U. MAG
Wearing only their prep school uniforms and carrying the few provisions that fit in their knapsacks, my grandfather, Walter U., and two classmates, Bernard and Erwin, fled the city of Langdenfeld, Austria, one snowy afternoon in March 1938. They headed east; knowing that their only chance for freedom lay over the Alps mountain range, 120 miles away. They knew it would be a hard journey, but their resolve to evade the Nazi army ravaging their homeland far outweighed their fear of what lay ahead.
No one had anticipated the German invasion of Vienna, but once it happened, everyone knew Austria would never be the same. German soldiers were stationed all over the country, reminding everyone that this land was no longer theirs.
The boys escaped through a bathroom window of their boarding school to avoid the watchful eyes of soldiers patrolling the streets. Now, their thoughts rested on the task ahead. Walter gingerly fingered the small, ivory crucifix his mother had given him before he left his home in Vienna. She had said, “Walter, I know it will be hard. But if you are faithful, the Lord will protect you in all things. Never forget where you came from.”
“I’ll never forget, Mother,” Walter whispered to himself as he watched the last rays of snow-fogged sun disappear behind the mountain.
After three days of cautiously marching during the day, avoiding Nazi patrols, and depending on the hospitality of villagers for a place to sleep each night, the boys finally stood at the foot of an ominous mountain. All three heaved heavy sighs.
“We’ll never make it over,” said Erwin.
“Maybe we should turn back while we are still alive,” continued Bernard.
“No,” declared my grandfather emphatically. “We’ve come this far and there is no turning back. Better to die in the wilderness than fight for the Nazis.” Walter’s intrepid spirit buoyed the others.
After a slight pause, Erwin said, “If we’re really doing the right thing, then there will be a way.”
With hope anew, the boys began the next leg of their journey – up the mountain. They had been hiking for hours when the sun began to go down and the chill set in. They knew it would be a long, cold night and they needed to find shelter soon.
“Let’s go a bit farther. I think there is a clearing ahead,” said Walter. As he spoke, he saw a utility vehicle in the distance, painted with the motto of the German army: Kraft durch freude.
“Strength through joy,” Walter read aloud. Frightened by the impending danger, all three instinctively retreated. They watched from a distance for some time until they were completely sure that no one was in the vehicle. Walter eventually worked up the courage to approach it, and found a rifle, rope, and skis in the back. Footprints in the snow headed north, up the ridge of the mountain, but it was clear they were several hours old.
“The soldiers must be out hunting or patrolling,” said Walter. “It’s safe – don’t worry!” The others approached the vehicle and peered inside.
“Hey!” said Erwin, “The key! There – it’s still in the ignition!”
“Hop in!” said Walter, “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a ride up the mountain.” Without another word, Walter jumped in the driver’s seat, turned the key, and off they went. Erwin and Bernard looked cautiously out the window for any sign of the owner.
The utility vehicle chugged up the icy pathway unimpeded. It wasn’t until the boys reached the top of the mountain that they finally ran out of gas. “Well, I guess this is our stop,” said Bernard as he hopped out, ready to begin the steep descent down the west side of the mountain.
“Wait a second,” said Walter. “Weren’t there skis in the back?” Sure enough, three pairs of skis.
“Thank God. It’s a miracle,” said Erwin. Then the boys strapped them on and took off down the mountain, eager and determined to make it to France, where they believed they would be free from danger.