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Born Erika Anna Bendl 1925 Vienna Austria

This is me when I lived in ViennThe name Bendl comes from Holland. It was my paternal grandfather's, grandfather's name. He came from Schevingen, Holland. My grandfather hailed from the German part of the Czech Republic. The Bendls came to Czech during the Napoleonic wars. We think he was either wounded or had deserted and ended up in the tiny village near Carlsbad, in the Czech Republic.

My grandfather and his family arrived in Vienna on the turn of the 20th century. I am an only child. I had a very happy childhood. My father worked in the theatre on the technical side, making and painting scenery, operating the lights etc. I am Austrian. I was proud to be Austrian until the end of the war. My mother worked seasonally in a factory. They used to make rubber things like hot water bottles, raincoats and during the war it was gas masks. When I was a year old my grandparents, parents and my father’s sister and her husband moved to a new estate on the outskirts of Vienna in 1926, surrounded by market gardens. They were terraced houses. There was a sitting room and a big kitchen with a concrete floor. There was a toilet but no bath. My father made all his own furniture for the house. He made his own lampshade with figures of people drinking mugs of beer. Upstairs there were three rooms. Then came the depression. Money was tight and my father could not afford to pay rent. If you paid enough rent in those days, the house then became your own.Enjoying life in Austria We gave up the house and moved in with my grandparents. My father started an expansion programme with the house. He took the wall down and made a great big kitchen. In the yard he built a veranda and a new utility room. I had a room of my own that stretched the whole length of the house. We had ivy on the wall. One time a spider built a nest on the window. I poked the little ball and hundreds of spiders came running out everywhere. I have had an aversion to them ever since. I had a bedside lamp and I used to read in bed under the blanket. I loved it. My grandparents died in the thirties, but we stayed until the end of the war, then we 1936 moved into the city. My best memories are when I lived in my grandparents’ house. There was a quarry on one side of the field and on the other side there were old fortifications from the Napoleonic wars.

My father mother and me hiking in AustriaThe annexing was in 1938 (Hitler moved in). My parents got permanent work because of this and for the first time we had money and went on holidays. We thought it was okay at first. My grandfather’s sister was house keeper to a Jewish professor and she had a child by him, but he committed suicide. He knew what was coming. The German soldiers came not with tanks but with soup kitchens. They thought we were starving but we had plenty of food. It did not feel like an invasion. It was the same sort of tension between the English and the Scots.

I was very enthusiastic to start with. The first thing that happened was that I went to a camp. We lived in tents and there was a lot of camaraderie, singing and sports. I was 13 at that time. It was a bit like the scouts. Then came 1939 and nobody was happy. The enthusiasm had disappeared. My parents had been through the First World War and had suffered. They knew what it was like.

At the end of the war with some friendsI started teachers’ college and was only interested in my own education. School was Nazi orientated and we got a basic education. We got to learn musical instruments but I never liked it. Things happened gradually. Food got tighter. My cousin was in a funny position. He had his mother’s name and he fought for the Germans, remember his father was Jewish. He could not produce a certificate of full German origin because his birth certificate said his father was unknown, so he was asked to leave the army. He got a job in a factory. I was at teachers’ college from the age of 14 to 19. The theatres closed down and my father was conscripted in the pioneer core, cleaning up after air raids. He was in his late forties. Food became really tight. The air raids did not really start till 1944. A sewing machine landed on the veranda roof of our house during one air raid. We had a big cellar to go to. They were very safe. A neighbour's house was hit, but they survived in their cellar.

 

Stepping out after the warThe compartment was full of men who used to work in the cigarette factories in Krakow. They made room for me after they moaned a bit. This was 21st January 1945. By the time we reached Vienna we were great friends. They gave me a big hug and a thousand cigarettes. When we arrived there was an air raid on. I was standing and one of the conscripted workers took me to my friend’s house for my carton of cigarettes. I left my stuff there and walked home. It was winter and snowing and it took a good hour to get home. I was conscripted into a factory to sew buttons on tents. I did that for three days then I wangled a transfer to a food office. It was purely for self-interest as it was nearer my house, but I landed with a supervisor who was a violent Nazi. She made us burn millions of ration cards even though there was no food. We had chickens and vegetables in our garden.

1950 just after I left the armyWe knew the Germans were leaving as they were taking up positions outside Vienna. My neighbour came and said come with me; there are trains with food in them standing in the station. We took a cart and two shopping bags. There were lots of other people walking there. We broke into the wagons and there was sugar, coffee, lard and cigarettes so we filled up our bags with everything we could. There were still German soldiers about and some people got their bags slit by them. We managed 1947 to get away, but the Russian planes were starting to attack Vienna. They were firing quite low so we threw ourselves in the ditch. It was half dark and they shot at anything that moved. I finished up with a sack of rye flour, a tin of coffee, a tin of jam and some cigarettes. My mother started baking straight away and she made a big pan of coffee cake. We lived on this for the next fortnight in the cellar while the Russians and the Germans continued fighting. It was just my mother and me. The Russian’s had Stalin OrgansRockets mounted on the back of a truck real name is Katusyhas that shot forty pieces of munitions at one time continuously over our heads. Then all of a sudden it stopped. We heard horses’ hooves, and the Russians brought a little wagon onto the path of our house. They had Mongolian features. It was the middle of the night and we were terrified. They set up a brothel nearby and picked up local women for their own pleasure. The Russians had three days plundering rights and could do what they liked. A lot of people committed suicide that night. When they went away I went out to sweep the path but the next lot of Russians came and they saw me. They came in and took all the watches and clocks. One had six watches on his arm. He saw my guitar and said I should play something. He was on my bed. My mother knew what was coming, so she sent me downstairs to the kitchen and I escaped to my neighbour. A group of just after the warShe dressed me up like an old woman and I made my way to the village. A friend came who could speak a Slavic language. I went to a local doctor and asked to stay. He said our women were all raped through the night but I can stay if I like. I never asked my mother how she got rid of that Russian. Then the Russians got organised. They organised us into labour brigades. One person from each house was picked up at 5.00am and taken to local factories to strip them. I helped strip a whole airfield. The stuff was loaded on to lorries to be shipped to Russia, but they never got there because our railway gauges were different to theirs. So everything just sat there. They treated us like prisoners. We were Germans in their eyes. Mother and I used to come home from the working brigade and go straight to bed because there was no food. I used to ask her to talk about how she made stuffed pigeons. We used to talk about it instead of eating it!

Harry and me just lazing aboutI met my husband in 1947. Harry was a Londoner. At that time I was at university. I did odd jobs to earn money. I did German classes at the YMCA in Vienna. We had moved into the city because it was the British zone. Harry was in as part of the occupation in the Field Security service. He interviewed Austrians who were released from Russian prisons. They got a bonus for being able to speak German so he came to the YMCA. This went on for a few months until one day he said he didn’t feel like learning, and asked me out to a club. I was engaged to an Austrian at that time but we went out several times, and on my birthday he asked me to marry him. I said I couldn’t as I was engaged, but my relationship with the Austrian broke up a few weeks later. Harry was posted away from Vienna but we kept in contact. In 1949 I was at a conference in Corinthia where he was posted. After the conference we went on holiday together and he proposed again. In the summer of ‘49 his mother came to visit us. We got on okay. In March 1950 I went to England on my own which was difficult at that time and he came over on leave. We met up in London where he got a special licence and we got married. We went back to Corinthia and Harry got a rocket from his commanding officer for getting married on the sly, but we got a week’s honeymoon in a posh hotel on a beautiful lake in Corinthia. He was posted again to another part of Austria and we were given army quarters to live in. We stayed until 1952. I became pregnant 1950 so he decided to leave the army as he was going to be posted to Korea.

We came back to London and lived with his parents. His sister, her husband and their child lived there too. The situation became unbearable so we left and eventually went into the hotel business as trainees. That was 1955. Harry worked in different places before we worked in hotels. The only time I was in tears was in Dundee. We used to get a lot of the show people. My daughter has an album signed by many of the pop groups that used to stay. The Who was one of the groups. Hughie Green came one afternoon and he was disgusted because the 1952 manager was not there to greet him. He demanded something to eat but I said the kitchen is closed. That was not good enough and he complained about everything. He insisted on seeing my husband but I refused. He had me in tears which no other customer has ever done. We had a wedding booked once and the bridegroom asked what was for dinner and we said roast chicken. He wanted mince, which I thought was hilarious.

Four generation and we look look like sistersWe had a pub in Wiltshire after that and I slipped four of my disks so I had to give up my work. I then took a job as a despatch clerk and then my boss was moved to Livingston to build a new factory PYE TMC. He said I could do with you up there and they have houses. So we moved up at Christmas 1973. When the factory closed down in 1979 I worked for Burrows as an accounts clerk until I retired on my 60th birthday. Harry passed away Christmas 2004. Everything happens to me at Christmas.

My life is a bit monotonous now. I have moved 22 times in my life. The longest place I stayed was in Livingston. Beethoven said "What does not kill me makes me stronger," and this is my philosophy. I just live one day at a time. My husband used to say that the human lifespan according to the bible was 3 score years and ten and every day after that is a gift. I live by that.

Erika

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Adapted by Iain Tait