It was fall 1945, and I returned to Vienna with the first American occupation troops. I had been there three months earlier as an interpreter of German for a special mission assigned to negotiate the division of the city into four allied zones, similar to what had been done in Berlin. I was fluent in German because, only six years earlier, I had emigrated to the United States from Berlin. As soon as I became eligible, I enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve my new country and was proud to wear its uniform.
One Friday night, feeling somewhat homesick, I made my way to the only remaining synagogue in Vienna to attend services. The crowd there was a pitiful sight, about fifty men and women, thin and poorly dressed. They spoke accented Yiddish, and I surmised that they were the remnants of thriving Jewish communities across Europe, now thrown together in this one place and cut off from the rest of the world. When they spotted my American uniform, they all crowded around me to see a friendly soldier in a synagogue. To their surprise, I was able to converse with them in fluent Yiddish.
As we talked, I could tell my initial assessment was correct. These people were survivors of the Holocaust who had gathered at the synagogue to see if they could find someone, anyone, who might know of a relative or friend who had also survived. Because there was no civilian mail service from Austria to the rest of the world, these gatherings were the only way the survivors could hope to hear news of their families.
One of the men timidly asked me if I would be kind enough to send a message to a relative in England that he was still alive. I knew that military mail service was not to be used for civilian letters, but how could I say no? These people, who had literally been through a living hell, needed to let worried relatives know they had survived. When I agreed, everyone wanted to send a message.
Fifty messages were a lot more than one: I had to think quickly. Standing back, I announced that I would return to services the following Friday night and accept short messages written in English, German or Yiddish and submitted in an unsealed envelope. If the letters met those requirements, I would send them by military mail.
The following week, as promised, I once again made my way to the synagogue. As I opened the door, I was shocked. The place was packed, full of people who rushed up to me, thrusting their envelopes toward me. There were so many that I had to ask someone to find me a box in which to store them. I spent the next week checking each message for security reasons, making sure it contained only the promised announcement. Then I sent mail all over the world. I felt wonderful to know that this would probably be the first news to most of these relatives that one of their loved ones had survived the horrors of the Holocaust. A good deed, I thought, a little "mitzvah."
About a month passed. The whole thing had started to fade from my mind when the military "mailboy" suddenly stumbled into my office, laden with several sacks of packages.
"What's going on?" he demanded. The parcels he set on the floor came from everywhere, addressed to the survivors I had met in the synagogue, in care of me, Corporal Arnold Geier. I had not expected this result. What was I supposed to do now?
Walter, a buddy with whom I worked as an interrogation team, also a former refugee from Germany, laughed when he saw the pile of packages. "I'll help you deliver them," he offered. What else could we do? I had kept a list of the names and addresses of the people who had given me messages, so we requisitioned a closed winterized jeep and filled it with the packages. All that evening and into the night, Walter and I drove through the rubble of Vienna, dropping off parcels to surprised and grateful survivors. Most of them lived in the Soviet zone of the city. We had to drive into that area late at night, and the Soviet patrols often stopped us, suspicious. Still, we were technically allies, so we would explain that we were delivering packages to survivors of the Nazi horror and were allowed to pass unharmed.
The packages kept on coming for another week, and the mailboy grew increasingly annoyed with us. We continued our nightly deliveries all over Vienna, but I was worried that my well?intentioned offer had grown out of control.
Finally, one morning, our commanding officer called me into his office. He demanded to know why I was receiving so many parcels. Knowing that the officer was Jewish and would understand my motivation, I decided to simply tell him the truth. I admitted that I had misused the military mail to help survivors and perform a mitzvah so desperately needed. I did not expect this simple gesture to turn into this. He admonished me sternly and then smiled. "We'll let it go this time," he said, dismissing me.
Sometimes I think back to the path my little good deed had taken. Yes, it had spun out of control, but only in the way a true mitzvah does: growing and giving back again, until it has fulfilled its purpose. I was the instrument chosen to let anxious families know of the survival of loved ones.