A Writing on the Net SM
Click here for home page

The War Came to Me and My Family
By Hans Kyzivat
Copyright 2001 Hans Kyzivat
About the writer's experiences, as a young man living with his family in Vienna, Austria during World War II.


It was the spring of 1945. I was 16 years old, living with my parents and siblings in Vienna, Austria. World War II was in its sixth year and the air raids continued night and day, food rations got smaller and smaller, and the stores were empty. All the able bodied men had been drafted by the Nazis and sent into battle for Hitler's armies. But even the most fanatic Nazis realized that it was only a question of time before they would lose the war. My father had been listening clandestinely to BBC radio - it was very dangerous. You could have gone to jail or even lost your life if you were caught -and so we knew that, contrary to all their propaganda, the Nazis would soon be defeated.

Because of my age I didn't have to go to war. Instead, the war came to me and to my family. in early April we started hearing the noise of cannon fire coming from the outskirts of Vienna. Our apartment house was near the center of town and the sound of cannons kept coming closer and closer. We realized it was no longer safe to stay in our large apartment on the second floor and so we all moved down into the deep basement of an adjoining building that also served as an air raid shelter.

We had very limited supplies of food and water. Someone had a small radio that had to be plugged into an AC outlet - portable battery radios did not yet exist for civilians - and so we could hear what was happening outside, even though it was the official party line broadcast by the Nazis. Soon even that ended when the electricity stopped; the last news we had heard before our radio went dead, was that Roosevelt had died in Warm Springs, Georgia - thus I know that it was April 12, 1945.

The street fighting in our neighborhood could be heard even down into the basement we were hiding in. That same night Russian soldiers with automatic weapons came down to us, rounding up any males that could walk. They grabbed my father (who was too old to have been drafted for military duty) and me, together with other men hiding with us. At gunpoint we were then marched to a nearby railroad terminal where Russian engineers had dismantled the steel rails from the tracks. About twenty men were lined up along one such heavy rail and the officer in charge barked his commands, making us hoist the rail onto our shoulders. While the dark night was lit up by burning buildings, and Russian and Nazi artillery were exchanging cannon fire above our heads, we men were carrying the one long rail several blocks to the banks of the Danube Canal where the retreating SS troops had blown up all bridges. After dumping our load, we were marched back in the midst of this inferno to the terminal for more rails. After repeating this several times, we had brought enough rails for the Russian engineers to build substitute bridges over the Danube Canal.

When we finally came back to our basement, father and I were hugged by mother and sisters with tears of joy. They had almost given up hope of seeing us again. During the next days we survived similar chores under Russian command. One such event sticks in my memory - an army truck had gotten lost on the way to their unit and when I tried to give the Russians directions to a location six miles away, the soldiers didn't understand and pulled me into their truck as a guide. After arriving at the destination, they just kicked me out on the highway and I had to walk back almost two hours through a landscape scarred by two weeks of fighting, past dead horses, broken down vehicles and even some dead soldiers who had yet to be buried.

Another episode took place during one of the first nights of our hiding in the basement. We somehow found out that our own building next door had been looted and vandalized. With another young man I went there to try and prevent more damage by the next group of soldiers. It got dark, and without electricity, we had to light some candles. When more of the Russians came, drunk and angry that they couldn't find any valuables, they put their guns to my head and to the head of my companion so that we would tell them where the gold and jewelry were hidden. It was a hair-raising situation, but we survived that too. When the drunken soldiers were gone from the large apartment, they left burning candles in some rooms close to flammable things. By a stroke of luck my friend and I discovered that in time. Otherwise, it would all have burnt down.

Finally, my family and I could move from the basement back to our badly damaged and ransacked apartment. Outside it was spring; flowers and trees were in bloom and nature helped us to have new hope after the terrible experience of the war and its ending.