The doorbell rang twice in quick succession. It was Mitzi.
She looked pretty. There was more shine and depth in her eyes. Her blond hair was lighter; she held her head higher, which made her neck seem longer. Success was written all over her.
“Come in, Mitzi. Come on through.”
Her eyes darted left-right, left-right, registering everything in my sitting room.
We sat by the window, drinking coffee. Sun, blue sky. Peace. That was a lifetime ago.
“What will you do in London?” I asked. “Do you have any contacts?”
“Yes, quite a few. Customers of mine. Hat manufacturers and wholesalers. I’ve already been in touch—they seem eager to help. What about you and Walter?”
I told her about my job offer in Rotterdam. About the possibility of the United States. I told her that Walter was bitter and frustrated. And that I was unhappy and worried that I hadn’t yet found anything for him. Suddenly, I had an idea. I asked Mitzi to help.
She saved my life, Walter’s life, and the lives of our families.
She sent me three letters from English hat manufacturers. They said that they were very interested in seeing my collection of model hats. They were keen to buy. Armed with these letters, I visited the Handelskammer, the Board of Trade.
I told them I needed permission to travel abroad on business. They thought I was joking.
“Fräulein, don’t you know that we’re not Austria anymore? We’re Germany now, and Germany is boycotted. We can’t sell abroad.”
“I can,” I said quietly. “May I show you these?” I gave them the letters Mitzi had sent me. I translated them. They shook their heads, shrugged, and instructed a clerk to take me to see the head of the department.
His office didn’t seem to fit with the otherwise modern style of the Handelskammer. It was old-fashioned, solid, simple. The man behind the desk was huge. Quite old. He looked at me over his round, metal-rimmed spectacles, pointed to a chair, told me to sit, and asked the clerk to wait outside. He carried on reading the papers he had been reading when I came in. The only sound in the room was the ticking of an enormous wooden clock hanging on the wall.
He looked up. “What can I do for you, young lady?” His accent was upper-class Austrian.
I told him that I needed permission from the Handelskammer to go on a business trip to England. I knew all about the boycott, but I felt certain I could do business. I explained that most of my customers had left Austria, and I needed to replace the lost turnover. For a while he sat quite still. His fat fingers stroked his balding head, ruffling his sparse, gingery gray hair. His muddy carp’s eyes, old and wise, looked straight ahead. Five minutes, ten minutes. Why was he taking such a long time? It was yes or no. The ticking of the clock seemed to get louder. Then he lifted his heavy body off his creaking chair, clasped his hands behind his back, walked to the window and stared outside. Eternity.
“What makes you so sure you can sell?” He turned to me. “Did you export before?”
“Very little,” I said. “But I know that I can now.”
“Why should you think that? Let me tell you that there are firms who, before the boycott, did thousands of pounds’ worth of business with England, and they can do nothing now. What makes you think you are any different?”
“These, sir.” I put my letters on his desk.
I was lucky. The man spoke English, and he was very proud to be able to read them.
“Well, young lady,” he said, with a twitch of a smile. “Let’s see how many hats we used to export before the Anschluss.”
He picked up the telephone and asked for these figures. Oh, God, please let it be a lot! I bit my nails. He noticed. The twitch at the corner of his mouth reappeared. Suddenly, the old clock gathered its forces, took a deep breath, screeched, rattled, and announced the three-quarter hour with three thunderous strokes. The telephone rang.
“Yes,” he said. “Is this the figure for the last year? Thank you. Yes, that will be all.”
He looked at my letters again.
“Frau Miller. Frau?” A gallant, surprised look at me. “Frau Miller, the export figures for hats last year were excellent. But that doesn’t mean I can give you a Handelskammer permission to go to England. It is not enough. I want you to know that if I do let you go, it is against the instructions I have been given, and I am taking a great risk. Tell me, where exactly do you want to go?”
“I want to go to London with my collection, where I hope to get good orders. On my way back, I would like to stop for a few days in Paris to see the new hat shows. And from there to Holland, where I hope to get more orders.”
“That sounds rather a big undertaking.”
“No, sir, I’ve done it before.”
“All right,” he said. “In the next few days, you will receive our permit and letters to the consulates of the countries you mentioned. I have confidence in you. You see, many people would take this opportunity and never return.” He looked straight into my eyes. “Good luck, young lady,” he said, and turned away.
I was stunned.
“Don’t forget what I told you,” he said.
“No, sir, I won’t. Thank you.”
I floated through the door, past the young clerk, into the street on the way to No. 11, straight into Walter’s arms.
“That’s wonderful. Wonderful. Darling, you’re safe!” His eyes were larger, bluer. “I’m so proud of you. How did you do it?”
“I don’t know. I was just lucky. He advised me not to come back . . .”
There was one hurdle left.
Next morning, I was at the tax office as the doors opened. I went straight to the first floor to see my tax man. I liked and trusted him. I told him about the business trip I intended to take and explained why I could not possibly pay my income tax right then. He understood the circumstances, but he couldn’t help me.
“You need to speak to the man in charge of exit visas. I’ll take you over there.”
I had to wait to be called in. I had to repeat my story and show him my letters. He was small and tight-faced, withdrawn, unfriendly, bad-tempered.
“Fräulein,” the man said, “the law is the law. And the law says that an exit permit cannot be granted unless all taxes are paid in full. You haven’t paid them, have you? So, you cannot have an exit permit. Right?” He had nasty little bird’s eyes.
I collected myself, looked down, and said in the smallest, softest voice I could muster, “Please, sir. Help me.”
He gave a disagreeable smile.
I explained that, through circumstances beyond my control, I was penniless. That I would be able to pay my taxes only if I were permitted to make this trip and earn some money. My tax man and the visa man exchanged glances.
“Well,” said the visa man. “You have been warmly recommended. In the opinion of the tax office, you can be trusted. So I will take it upon myself to make an exception.” He took a form from his desk, signed it, and gave it to my savior from the tax office. Then he turned to me and said, “You will be given this form after it has been stamped. Now you have your exit permit. I hope that you will earn a lot of money. You owe us a lot of money. Good-bye.”
My friend from the tax office pulled me into an empty office and said, “Quick, before he changes his mind. Wait here.”
He was back in minutes and handed me the stamped form, a big grin on his face. It was the most important piece of paper I had ever held in my hands.
“Good luck to you,” he said. His face was serious. “Frau Miller, in case you intend not to return to Austria, I want you to think before you decide. Look”—he turned over his lapel and showed me his swastika pin—“I have been a member of the Party for a long time. Our arrangement with the Germans is as follows: they come in to establish a National Socialist state. Having done so, they will leave again. Austria will be run by us. By Austrians. We will have our own version of National Socialism. I want you to know that Jewish people like yourself will not be affected. You, your parents, and your grandparents were born in this country. You are Austrians and have nothing to fear.”
I tried to hide my tears and turned to the window. A group of girls marched by. Sharp steps, one-two. Heads high, one-two. Hair short, practical. Uniforms practical. White knee socks. Heil Hitler.
“Look at them,” he said. “They call themselves women.”
The rest was easy. With the letters from the Handelskammer, I had only to gather the English and French visas. I had the letter from Bijenkorf to the Dutch border authorities requesting permission for my entry into Holland. The Czech visa was easily added. The greatest task still lay ahead. I had to find a way to get a visa for Walter.