By Kendall Franz
Otto Franz stood at his window on the morning of Feb. 14, watery blue eyes staring out at a world iced over. It was his 90th birthday. He felt the bitter coldness creep through the glass, and watched as the millions of tiny icicles covering the trees glittered in the gentle morning glow. Franz had not seen ice formations like this for a long time — not since his childhood in Austria.
The snow itself did not impress him all that much. But the aftermath, which brought many Texas cities to a standstill, did.
The 2021 North American winter storm settled over Austin, Texas, on Feb. 13 and lasted for roughly a week. With it came below-freezing temperatures, a record 6.4 inches of snowfall and 0.25 inches of ice coverage that led an unprepared city into widespread catastrophe. Texans suffered from power outages, burst pipes, no running water, dangerous roads and food shortages for days — even weeks — after the snow melted.
For Franz, a brief but serious power outage, a limited food supply and no water were a nuisance, but nothing he hadn’t lived through before.
“I was used to pretty rough conditions,” he said. After all, he’d lived under Hitler.
Franz was born in Eggenburg, Austria, in 1931, a medieval town of about 3,300 people, approximately 50 miles northwest of Vienna. He lived there for about 10 years with his mother, father and older brother. In 1938, after Germany invaded Austria, the government transferred Franz’s father to a hardship post in Czechoslovakia — now the Czech Republic — as punishment for being anti-Nazi. Two years later, they granted him a transfer to Gmünd, Austria, and the family moved into a small apartment there.
Winters in Gmünd were severe.
Nine months winter, three months cold, was the city’s proverbial saying.
Days were bleak and dreary since the sun hardly ever came out. Ice and frost often accumulated on the roads and tree limbs.
Usually, Franz and his brother biked to their high school, which was about 2 miles away on the other side of town. When it snowed, they walked. A 10-minute bike ride turned into a hike of up to an hour, trudging and stomping through mostly untraveled snow.
Clothes were not of much help. Everyone had essentially one outfit. During World War II, everything was rationed to serve the German war effort and not the population, even shoes. Every two years, Franz got a new pair of shoes, but he had to buy them big enough to grow into. He shoved newspapers above his toes to fill the empty space.
“It was not a life of luxury by a long shot,” Franz said.
The war frequently interrupted food supplies, which meant the general grocery store often ran out of necessities. People stood in long, winding lines outside the store, morning after morning, hours before it opened. Not for toilet paper or cases of water, but for things like flour, sugar, salt and oil. Half the line would get what they came for, the other half wouldn’t.
Mostly, they ate cabbage and potatoes. Nothing else could grow in Gmünd’s climate.
Those were rationed too, but three village farmers outside of Gmünd sold them illegally at reasonable prices. Franz, his father and brother usually took turns biking to the villages in the pitch-black evenings, hauling the heavy produce in backpacks through dense pine forests. Sometimes they’d go in convoys, but that was risky.
The trips left an 11- to 13-year-old Franz petrified. He never knew who he’d run into.
Rumors were currency during the war. The Nazi regime used them to intimidate and frighten people into staying home. Franz often heard whispers about being mugged, murdered and even cannibalized. Over 75 years later, being in the open darkness of night still makes him feel uneasy.
“It sticks with you. I’m tainted by that,” he said.
The family spent a lot of time in their kitchen, huddled around a small, wooden table. Their apartment didn’t have central heating, but the wood-burning stove emitted decent warmth. They collected water in buckets from a faucet in the hallway, and boiled it for cooking, bathing and laundry. Baths occurred on Fridays in a small tub his father carried up from the basement to the kitchen — the process took about two hours and not everyone got clean water. They didn’t have a sink, so they had to pour the water down the toilets located in the hall.
A small coke stove warmed the living room where his parents slept. They left the door open to the even tinier bedroom, so the warmth could slowly creep in to Franz and his brother during the night.
A radio sat against the wall next to the coke stove. In the evenings, they listened to foreign broadcasts. But they had to be careful. Listening to programs like Voice of America and BBC London was, theoretically, punishable by death. And on the other side of the paper-thin walls lived dangerous, devout Nazi sympathizers, waiting to report them.
“They were nasty,” Franz said. “The time of day was the only thing we ever exchanged with them.”
Between 1938 and 1945, there were only a handful of people Franz spoke openly to about the political situation. Informers lurked about quietly, always listening. Back then, everyone spied on everyone.
There were close calls, of course. Like the air raid on his town in 1945. The years of Russian occupation after the war. Or the stray bullet that almost hit him.
Yes, he’d seen much worse.
The frost settled in. Franz snapped some pictures of the trees with his iPhone. The icicles blinked back at him from another life. He was much younger then. A fall on the ice at this age would be too serious.
I’d better stay indoors.
Franz turned around and prepared for the week ahead, not knowing what the weather would bring, but knowing he would survive.