Sliding Off the Alps

Benjamin B. Ferencz

In the early postwar years in battered Germany, private transportation was practically nonexistent. During the periods that the Court was in recess, it was possible for Gertrude and I to take some time off so that I could fulfill my promise of a honeymoon vacation. It was more than a subtle reminder when, even though she could not yet drive, she acquired for us a new, practically unused, Mercedes sedan of about 1938 vintage. That was a very good year. I learned that the vehicle had been found in a Berlin garage where it had been stored on blocks during the war years when gas was unobtainable. It had been “liberated” by a G.I. who, being the usual honest American, paid the Nazi owner with a pair of slightly used paratrooper boots. The U.S. soldier then resold the war booty to my wife for $1,400 cash. I suspect he was raised in Hell’s Kitchen in New York. For our vacations, everything under communist control was “Off Limits,” but we did a pretty good job of seeing the rest of Europe.

One of our early goals was to pay our respects to the memory of those who had been killed in combat. We visited U.S. Military cemeteries whenever we could. In Belgium we paused at the grave of General George Patton, who had been my commander during the race from the beaches of Normandy across the Rhine on to the final battle at Bastogne. We visited many war monuments during our travels, but always came away wondering why we didn’t put a sign at every gate or memorial asking, “Was This Really Necessary?”

In 1947, as winter approached, we drove our faithful Mercedes to various army resorts around Bavaria where lodging cost one dollar per day. We could afford that. Private accommodations in Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and Italy cost a little more. The dollar was king. We checked out of our hotel in Merano, Italy, heading toward Munich in Germany. There was one little difficulty. The Italian Alps were between us and our destination, and the Brenner pass through the mountain was closed. Now, I am not a man to be daunted by a little obstacle like the Alps. My military map clearly showed a very thin red line leading from where we were to where we wanted to go. The topography was not indicated. Demonstrating my true grit, determination and leadership qualities, I declared, “No problem!” We drove off merrily into the wild blue yonder.

The view was magnificent as we headed for the village of San Leonardo, the last Italian town marked on the map. We stopped to take photographs of the dense forests that covered the mountains. As we continued our climb, the road kept getting narrower. We began to encounter foresters who shouted at us, “Retournato! Retournato!” which I took to be cowardly Italian remonstrances that underestimated the power of the American spirit to stay the course. We pushed our trusted Mercedes onward, despite Gertrude’s repeated pleas to turn back. Soon, patches of snow began to appear on the ever-narrowing path. We had almost reached the pinnacle when the car suddenly skidded toward the edge of the road. A few more inches, and it would have gone over the side; it might have been found years later in the forests 10,000 feet below—if we were lucky. Fortunately, the vehicle became mired in the snow.

Gertrude, peering down into the abyss, was speechless and trembling, with tears in her eyes. There was no way that we could make the top of the ridge. The weather was getting colder. The nearest town was at least 20 miles behind us. We would probably freeze if we tried to walk back. No person and no lights were in sight. Our only hope was to get the car out of the snow and get back to town.

In the darkness, Gertrude slipped out of the car to act as my guide. I put the car in reverse and carefully edged it away from the cliff, fearing all the while that it might slide over the side. Just as it returned to the safety of the roadway, it skidded further into a ditch alongside the mountain wall. My efforts to rock the car out of its trap were in vain.

I concluded that it would take a magician to get us out. As a teenager I had studied magic and was familiar with the tricks a young Hungarian Jewish boy named Harry Weiss from Budapest. He went by the name of Houdini, and gained world renown with his ability to escape from any locked box. The trick was performed by concealing a small jack on his person and using the jack to press the nails out of the side of the box to make his escape. I recalled that the Mercedes had a small jack that could lift the car to repair flat tires. I slid under the car and placed one side of the jack against the mountain and the other against the hubcap. By slithering under the car from front to back for about two hours, jacking it inch by inch, I was able to move the car back on to the road. Hocus Pocus!

The rest was relatively easy. After some time, I was able to swing the car around so that we were facing forward rather than rolling backward. In due course, we reached the foot of the mountain and were able to limp back to the hotel in Merano that we had left about 12 hours earlier. The room clerk was frightened to see this apparition covered with mud from head to toe asking if he could get his room back. We got a good night’s sleep, had the car repaired, and then continued our journey, via the Gotthard pass, that was a much longer but a much safer ride. We were glad to get back home alive. We had learned an important lesson. Even at the risk of seeming irresolute or lacking in leadership, if you find that you are on the wrong road, it is better to turn back. A persistent driver that ignores the truth and continues doggedly in the wrong direction may take you over the cliff.