Vienna 2, Castellez Gasse 12. That’s where I spent the first twelve years of my life. I see before me the painfully shy little girl, with thin arms and legs, her nose always buried in a book. Home was a safe and cozy place, very small and crowded. The outside was threatening and I was easily scared, although I tried hard to overcome it. Since I was often sent on errands from the time I was six, I had a lot of practice. I remember going to the little grocery store across the street from our building and wishing it would be empty. When other people were in the shop, I would wait around till the owner noticed me and asked me what I wanted. I would blush and wish I could disappear. It never occurred to me to tell my family how difficult it was for me to enter a place by myself. They knew I was shy, but they never found out what an ordeal it really was for me. I was an obedient child and I did what I was told.

I did well in school, but even there my shyness caused me pain. I had no problems with the other children, I made friends easily – my problem was with grown ups. When the teacher called on me to answer a question, the blood would rush to my face and I would stammer, even though I usually knew the answer. I found blushing to be a curse. It was so embarrassing to get all hot and look like a beetroot at the slightest occasion.

One day, when I was about seven, my grandfather took me to our favourite place, the Automat. It was a self-service restaurant. You had to put in a coin and select your sandwich, cake or drink from a machine. As usual, I had to go to the toilet and even that was automated. I threw in a coin, but wanting to make sure that the door would open again, I tried it and it worked. When I wanted to leave, the door wouldn’t open, being set only for opening twice. I was trapped! In a panic, but afraid to make a noise, I called out quietly for help, and when nobody heard me I started to cry louder and louder. Finally, somebody came and rescued me with a coin. The worst thing, though, was walking back to our table. I, who hated any kind of attention, had to walk through the whole place, every eye on me, or at least that’s what I imagined, because I never lifted my eyes. And as soon as I came to our table I dragged my Grandfather away. It took me years to get over the fear of being locked in, and during my whole childhood I never again went to any coin-operated toilet.

I loved clothes, but since there wasn’t much money, my mother made nice things for us, mostly from second hand garments, which were passed on to us from well-to-do relatives. She could sew beautifully, and I was happiest when I could dress up in the costumes she made for me. There was never a shortage of opportunities to dress up: Purim, a school play, some children’s party or a performance in my dancing class. One such party I remember in detail, because I won a prize as a Hungarian peasant girl. My mother made me a bright green dress with a full skirt, decorated with coloured ribbons, and I couldn’t stop twirling around so my skirt would fly. I was only seven or eight, but I can’t forget the feeling of being pretty. I was even allowed to wear lipstick! Strange how I recall certain clothes, they bring back memories of different periods in my life and the yearning for my lost childhood.

I often wonder why I was such a timid child. I had a happy childhood and received a lot of love from my big family. But as soon as I left the warm cocoon of my home, I felt unsure of myself. I saw myself as plain, although everybody told me I had beautiful eyes, and when I grew older, I received many compliments about my figure, especially my legs. Still, I never believed that I was good looking. I felt my nose was too big, I was too thin (in spite of eating a lot) and my hair was too straight.

I have absolutely no recollection of my kindergarten days and any friends I might have had there. I think I met most of my friends in school, which was practically next door. We all lived in the same neighbourhood. On my first school day I headed straight for the last row and there I found another refugee from the crowd, a girl who was just as shy as I was. Her name was Ilse, and from that day on we became close friends. When she invited me to her home for the first time, I was shocked by its condition. We were poor, like many of the people I knew, but I had never seen such poverty and neglect before. Ilse’s father was not around. Her mother had four children and they all lived in one room without any facilities. It was messy and filthy. There was no food, the children were always crying and Ilse’s mother was unable to cope. Ilse never complained. She was not ashamed to take me home, and I think she was quite oblivious to her surroundings. She spent many hours in my home but she never accepted any food from us because we didn’t keep a kosher home. It killed my grandmother, who was a wonderful cook, that somebody could resist her offerings!

Grete was another good friend. She came from a devout Catholic family and every Christmas I was invited to admire their Christmas tree and stuff myself with cookies and sweets. I even went to mass with them! I loved churches, and there was no shortage of the most magnificent cathedrals in Vienna. I was very attracted to the beautiful interiors, the stained glass windows which cast a mysterious light on everything and the smell of incense. Above all, I loved the organ music and the beautiful voices of the choirs. It was very impressive.

I sometimes brought Grete her homework because she missed a lot of classes. She had T.B. and was often very ill. Some years later, when contact with all our Christian friends was no longer possible, I was told that she had died. Although I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I was very sad.

One of my best friends was Herta. Her grandfather had a little stationary store where we bought all our school supplies as well as anything that was collectible, cheap, and could be traded. Coloured pictures, mostly of angels and flowers, which we pasted in copybooks, were very desirable. Stamps and foreign postcards were good too, but the best of all were movie programs with pictures of our favourite stars.

Herta lived alone with her mother (there seemed to be very few fathers around) and we spent many happy hours together. I loved being invited to her Friday night dinners, where I became acquainted with Polish-Jewish cuisine. My favourite dish was a kind of egg salad, which was made with grated onions and radishes. I have tried a few times to recreate it, but it never tasted the same. Herta too wouldn’t eat in our house, to my grandmother’s chagrin who loved to feed everybody. Most of the Jewish children in our school were from religious backgrounds. Their parents had come from Poland to find a better life, but very few succeeded. The poverty amongst the Jews in Vienna was appalling.

But I had rich friends too. Erika lived in a sumptuous apartment in a beautiful building not far from me. I remember that, when she invited me for the first time, all I could do was count the number of rooms. They even had a room for the maid! And a music room with a grand piano! I was really impressed. Not that I hadn’t seen beautiful places before. After all, we had wealthy relatives and were sometimes invited to visit them, but there I was too bashful to investigate and count the number of bedrooms or bathrooms! With Erica I could roam around and enjoy myself to my heart’s content.

I don’t remember any snobbishness or division between rich and poor children, Jewish or Catholics, religious or secular. Our school, like our neighbourhood, was a real melting pot. The children all spoke German, but their parents still spoke Polish, Yiddish, Czech or Hungarian at home. We played together in the park, did homework in each other’s home and went to the movies whenever we scratched together enough pocket money. In the summer we went to one of the free swimming baths, which were very popular, or to the shores of the Danube.

I loved the changing of the seasons. Autumn was beautiful, with the scattered leaves covering our park like a multicoloured carpet, and then came the first snow, usually at night. When I woke up in the morning everything was white and still, the noise of the traffic was muted, and only the bells of the streetcars were audible. I couldn’t wait to go outside, wrapped up in a warm coat, knitted scarf and mittens. The first frost painted wonderful ice shapes on our windows, which melted all too soon when the rooms were heated. In the park and in the schoolyard snowballs were flying and snowmen were built, and our parents were nagged and cajoled into dragging us around on sleds. Winter was great, in spite of sore throats, running noses and mild frostbite, but after a few months of it we were ready for spring. Suddenly the air was soft and warm, fragrant with the scent of lilac, and our whole family was ready, rucksack on our backs, to invade the Vienna Woods again. All of us were enthusiastic hikers and we took advantage of the beautiful countryside as often as we could. In the summer, when it got hot enough to swim, we spent every free moment in one of the many outdoor pools or by the Danube. I shared the love of water with my father, who taught me to swim when I was a little girl.

In July, when our school vacation began, we travelled to the town of Znaim in Czechoslovakia to stay with my mother’s family for two whole months. The night before Evy and I were so excited, we couldn’t fall asleep. In the morning, the whole family accompanied my mother, Evy and me as we marched off to the nearby railway station, burdened with suitcases and packages of food, so we wouldn’t starve on the three-hour journey! We actually ate non-stop on the train. My grandmother always prepared the most delicious sandwiches and cakes.

The train ride was an adventure. We stopped at every little village and the crossing of the border was the highlight of our trip. Suddenly the language changed from German to Czech and stern looking policemen came to check our passports. We felt like real world travellers. The remarkable thing is, it never paled for us. We were not very sophisticated and enjoyed all the small things in our lives.

Arrival in Znaim was an event. Welcoming us was the other side of the family in full force. There was Martha who lived with her husband Albert and the twins Kitty and Kurt, with whom my sister Evy and I spent all our summers. We stayed with my grandparents and my two unmarried aunts Else and Louise in an old apartment above a restaurant. The mouthwatering smells from the restaurant used to mingle with the smell of horses. There was an enormous yard, which was used for a weekly meeting of horse and cattle traders. Among the people who came to buy and sell animals were many Gypsies, and we were told to stay away from them because the rumour went around that they were stealing children. I could not imagine why, since they certainly had plenty children of their own! They might have stolen horses or other things, but only because they were poor and persecuted wherever they went. Needless to say we were fascinated by their colourful appearance and their caravans, in front of which they repaired pots and pans. And in good Gypsy tradition some of the women were reading palms. We would have loved to go nearer, but since we had no money, they chased us away. And of course we were a little scared!

Among the four of us I was the oldest. The twins and Evy were four years younger. On the whole we were allowed to run free and amuse ourselves any way we wanted, but there were always dire warnings about certain places. Znaim was a small town and the twins lived in a big housing project with lawns and a children’s pool, so our families didn’t worry too much about us. Little did they know what we were up to: Kurt was the ringleader and we followed. Surrounding the town were beautiful mountainous forests and we would climb and creep around in the most dangerous places. It was a miracle none of us was ever hurt.

One thing we were really scared of, though, and that was the deep wells which dotted the outskirts of town and were no longer in use. People told horror stories about children who looked in too deep and either fell in or were drawn into the water by evil spirits. Of course, like most children, we had to see for ourselves, just because it was forbidden. So now and then we would remove the heavy lid of one such well and look down, while our hair stood practically on end. The wells were so deep that one could hardly see the water at the bottom. We scared each other so much, until we imagined a hand stretching up from deep down to reach for us, and then we would run away, screaming with fright. That didn’t keep us from doing it again. We just couldn’t resist, it was like a magnet.

Znaim had a beautiful valley with the river Thaya running through it, and we often went there to swim. Our favourite game was to annoy Hans, my mother’s youngest brother, who used to go there on weekends. He was very handsome and always had a different girlfriend with him. No matter where he tried to hide, we would find him and chase after him. He pretended not to know us, which of course made us torment him even more. The four of us were quite wild, so different from the way Evy and I behaved in Vienna. We felt free and unrestricted and had so much fun, being outdoors the whole day was great. My mother too was a different person – she was relaxed and enjoyed the warmth of her family. I missed my father, but I knew he had to work and couldn’t be with us. He did come sometimes for a weekend and then my happiness was complete.

Occasionally, we travelled to visit other places in Czechoslovakia. We had quite a number of relatives spread over towns and villages. Today I can’t even remember the names of thpeople or the places. One small place called Grafendorf I have never forgotten, though.

I spent a whole week there with an aunt and uncle. As I recall, they had no children, at least not my age. I was about eight at the time. They had a farm with a yard full of chicken, geese and other animals. The houses were spread out, with lots of trees in between and one street running through it. At the end of it was a big duck pond with a few beautiful swans swimming around.

Across the road from us was a house with a magical garden. There I spent most of my time with my new friend, a little girl who had come to Grafendorf for the summer with her mother. The garden seemed to me like paradise, with the most beautiful flowers everywhere. One part of the garden was covered with climbing roses which formed a fragrant and colourful pergola, with occasional patches of blue sky peeking through. Under that was a tiny pool, more like a big round bathtub where my friend and I cooled off on hot days. I can still see her beautiful mother before me, but more than that I don’t remember, not even their names.

One evening my aunt took me to the local pub, where the whole village met. I felt very grown up and when she told her friends that I had come from Vienna, a few of the younger people crowded around me and wanted to know what life was like in the big city. Feeling very important, my shyness gone for the moment, I was in my element. To tell of my beloved Vienna&xlash;could anything more exciting happen to me? I nattered away, exaggerating a little here and there, and then I really put my foot in my mouth. I said that my father was the best looking man in Vienna. Straight away a magazine appeared, and pointing out pictures of several very handsome men, somebody wanted to know whether one of them was my father. It turned out that this Viennese magazine had some kind of a beauty contest for men, and without hesitating for a moment, I pointed to a gorgeous young man and exclaimed: “that’s my Papa!” I have no idea why I did that. I was usually such a good girl and hardly ever lied, but I was so swept up in my excitement of being the center of attention, I couldn’t stop myself. I was a little ashamed afterwards, but after all, my father really was a very handsome young man, and at that time he was only twenty eight.

Coming home after two months in Czechoslovakia, I was both happy and sad. I was sorry to have to leave the family and the carefree days of summer, but glad to be together again with my father and grandparents, and glad to go back to school and see all my friends again. I really loved school. I found learning easy and most of all I loved books. From the moment I learned to read, no book was safe from me. I read anything that was laying around the house, often not very suitable for my age, sometimes without understanding what I was reading. I belonged to two libraries and changed books as often as I could. To this day books are my joy, my escape during difficult times and my consolation when I am sad.

Lucy Mandelstam