The Furher's Story

    April 2009 Passover Edition            
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Dancing Mouse

By D.M. Schwartz

The London Heathrow airport customs inspector tapped his finger on the sleek metal skin of the electronic device I'd just removed from its carry-on bag. "What is this?"

We had to be at the gate for our flight to Vienna in five minutes. "It's an audio computer," I said. "The first one -- maybe you saw it on the BBC last night? `Tomorrow's World?'" Standing there in my Saville Row suit alongside a tall blonde draped in a fur coat, I couldn't imagine the inspector thought me a candidate for 1984's Terrorist of the Year. Elaine fixed her pale blue eyes on the man and smiled. She tended to have a positive effect.

He frowned. "Open it, please."

I hoped the insides wouldn't raise even more suspicion. With my pocket knife, I quickly unscrewed the DSP-1000's shell. The inspector stared into the tangle of multicolored ribbon cables and circuit boards. If he asked me to power it up, I'd be screwed. This prototype needed the external power supply that was in the suitcase I'd already checked as baggage. I held my breath.

"Very good, sir," he said. "You may proceed."

With no time to savor my release, I slid the housing on the computer and sprinted for the gate. There was no way Elaine could keep up with me in her four-inch spike heels. "I'll tell them you're coming!" I yelled over my shoulder.

Two minutes and a quarter mile later, I was relieved to see a long line of people snaking out of the departure area. Boarding passes in hand, I paced back and forth for what felt like an hour. They were about to close the gate when Elaine finally strolled into the lounge.

"I told you to check that thing." Elaine's clipped tones made it clear I'd better be contrite.

"You're right, babe. But you know, my deal with Siemens depends on this machine. I doubt it would survive baggage handlers."

Elaine sighed. "Are we going to have some fun in Vienna, or is this going to be all business?"

"Mostly business. But I promise we'll have some fun too."

Not very likely. Vienna in the winter is a cold, dreary place. I was beginning to wonder why I'd brought my girlfriend, who resented standing on the sidelines while I put the machine through its paces for the press and TV. I understood she wanted the cameras on her lovely face, hoping to get her acting career off dead center. When I spent the day out on business without her, Elaine wasn't inclined to romance even after a make-it-up-to-her dinner in a fancy restaurant.

In the Vienna airport, I braced myself for customs inspection. The Austrians were notoriously by-the-book types. Surprisingly, the crisply uniformed examiner didn't open any of our bags. He took his time studying Elaine's passport, then mine.

"Aha!" He gave me a significant look. "Schwartz!" He said it in German, with the letter W making a `V' sound. "But, you are white!" He narrowed his eyes.

I stood there, mute. Then I got it. "Oh, yes. Sometimes black is white." I forced out a chuckle.

Laughing hard, he handed me my passport and waved us through.

"What the hell was that about?" Elaine asked.

"Stinking Nazi." I explained the slang word `Schwarze' meant black in German.

"Oh." Elaine was genuinely taken aback. "That's not funny."

"No shit. I'm just glad he didn't get into the Jewish thing or the fun might have gone on and on."

After checking into the city center Hilton, we headed for the nearby historic market and cathedral square district. Within minutes, the icy cobblestones numbed my toes. Snow flurried lightly, making it difficult to see more than a hundred yards. Granite below, overcast above, soot-blackened medieval buildings surrounded us.

"Look!" I pointed to a sign over the elaborately carved doorway ahead. "The Hotel Sacher!"

"So?" Elaine was unimpressed by yet another gloomy edifice.

"It's the home of the Sacher Torte."

Elaine gave me a `huh?' look.

"It's a dense chocolate cake with raspberry jam between the layers and a kind of hard chocolate icing. That's where they invented it."

I took Elaine's hand and led her to the entrance. The tiny, baroque lobby was steamy and crammed with overstuffed, gilded furniture. While checking our coats, I inhaled the thick aroma of Viennese coffee and pastries wafting from the café. The hostess seated us in the middle of the room. Elaine and I felt the concentrated focus of two-dozen elderly ladies at the surrounding tables. Except for three ancient gentlemen, I was the only man there. We were certainly the sole couple under the age of sixty. Yet, I didn't think the attention was due to the fact that I was thirty-six and Elaine twenty-seven.

We ordered coffee and Sacher Torte with whipped cream. As soon as the waitress was out of earshot, and taking care not to be overheard by our nosy neighbors, I voiced my theory to Elaine.

"I think they're looking at us because my black hair and five o'clock shadow makes me obviously Mediterranean and you look like a Scandinavian goddess. Race mixing is unpopular in these parts."

"Wow, you really are paranoid," Elaine whispered.

"Hitler started around here, and--"

"Oh, please, David, don't be ridiculous."

The cake and coffee arrived. I hoisted a heavy forkful of torte and chewed it slowly. "You know, they may be Aryan supremacists, but their baked goods are fantastic." I tasted the scalding liquid. "American coffee's better though."

"I can't believe it. One bad joke at the airport and you're going nuts."

"Look, most of my relatives were murdered by the Nazis in World War Two, and not far from here either. That makes me a little sensitive."

"I'm sorry." Elaine nodded. "Let's leave. I can't eat with everybody watching us anyway."

Walking back to the hotel in the late afternoon darkness, the bright Christmas displays in the shop windows tried to cheer me up. The old city bustled with shoppers. Sparkling holiday lights reflected off a shiny Mercedes that inched along the curb. The car's tires made sticky noises in the slush. A city bus's diesel fumes stung my nose for a moment, then blew away in the dank air.

The next morning, I left Elaine to shop on her own and drove to Siemens audio division's main factory for a half day of presentations about CompuSonics technology. My prototype performed flawlessly. The engineers were enthusiastic about the potential of digital audio disk recording and transmission over telephone lines. While the tech staff took the afternoon to do their reports, I picked up Elaine for a little tourism.

Our drive under a low, smoke-colored sky through the barren countryside to one of the historic estates near Vienna was tiresome. The radio seemed to offer only two choices: opera or talk. By the time we pulled into the grand schloss' gravel-paved carriageway we were ready to forget about sightseeing and return to our room with its cable TV and mini bar. Persevering, we got out of the car and rang the doorbell. There was no answer. I saw a little sign through the door's side window. It read, `Winter hours: 10:00 to 16:00, Saturday and Sunday.'

"Damn it," Elaine said. "I can't believe you dragged me all the way out here."

"Sorry, I should have checked. Let's just walk the grounds."

We hiked from one walled garden of frozen dirt to another and another. The estate was a still and silent testament to the olden days of Austrian aristocracy. I couldn't shake the feeling that it was some kind of prison. I felt a chill sweep through me.

Elaine shivered. "This place gives me the creeps."

"Yeah, me too. Let's split."

That evening, Johann Hoffman, the senior vice president of Siemens audio, took us to dinner at a traditional Austrian tavern. The Gypsy violinist's serenades made conversation difficult. Elaine picked at her meal of venison, boar, potatoes and sauerkraut, casting dubious glances at the trophy heads of wild pigs and deer staring from the walls. Speaking loudly over the music, Johann briefed me on the `big day' coming up.

Despite his obsession with organizing everything down to the smallest detail, I was beginning to like Johann. Come to think of it, most Austrians were probably fine people, not xenophobes or bigots. After all, hadn't Austria supported Israel and paid reparations after the war?

The next morning went precisely according to Johann's plan. The executives signed off on the deal and handed me the check. Johann and I rode the private elevator to the top floor of the sleek, glass-sheathed office tower. In sharp contrast to the elegant but minimalist décor of the offices, the boardroom was magnificently decorated; carved walnut paneling, frescoed ceiling, and rich burgundy carpeting. A mammoth crystal chandelier illuminated a table set for twelve with fine china, silver, and crystal stemware. Four white-gloved waiters stood ready.

Seated in the middle chair, looking to the president at the head of the table, I was somewhat intimidated by the lavish display of wealth and power. Herr Doctor Strauss was as regal a chief executive officer as I'd ever met. His mane of white hair swept back from a high forehead, above a straight aquiline nose leading to thin lips and a sharp chin. Doctor Strauss' eyes were surprisingly dark blue and intense for an old man. I figured he must have been in his eighties.

Through six superb courses of French cuisine, we made small talk about Austria, the USA, skiing, American football versus soccer, and music. Finally, the speechmaking began with one of the vice presidents thanking me for making the long trek to Vienna. He was followed by a series of VPs, each making one point about Siemens and the future of digital audio. Johann wrapped up the presentations with an extravagant introduction of me. According to him, I was a gentleman, scholar, patron of the arts, and a world leader in engineering. The unexpected excessiveness of his praise left me wondering how to respond.

Doctor Strauss prompted me. "And so, Herr Doctor Schwartz, our joint endeavor will be breaking new ground, yes?"

"Well," I swallowed hard and tried to get my tongue untied, confused because Strauss called me 'Doctor,' which I wasn't. My rehearsed lines suddenly came to mind. "Yes, we will break new ground together. I'm impressed with your facilities, the quality of your engineers, management and executive staff. Of course, all of us need to understand that my company is very, very tiny compared to yours, so some difficulties should be expected in--"

"Ach, no!" Strauss interjected. "That problem will not occur. You remind me of a wonderful story about the time a mouse and an elephant danced together that Der Furher told me when I was in the--"

Johann leaned over and whispered into the president's ear. Strauss' face turned a shade of red similar to the carpet. How could he have not known I was a Jew until that moment?

I was so stunned that this guy had been buddy-buddy with Hitler that I couldn't speak. After taking a deep drink of wine, Strauss changed the topic to the glowing future of Siemens audio products. I plastered a tight-lipped smile on my face and kept it there until he finished speaking and dessert was served. Everyone gratefully returned to small talk.   

After lunch, Strauss and I shook hands and avoided eye contact. Johann accompanied me down to the garage. He talked about Strauss' good intentions, doing his best to cover for his boss. As I got into my car, Johann patted my shoulder and told me not to worry, but I did. I worried about selling out and about rationalizing the deal.

Back at the hotel, I showed Elaine the Siemens check.

Her eyebrows shot up. "Holy cow! That's a lot of money."

"Yes, it's what mice get paid for dancing with elephants."


from the April 2009 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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