Welcome to the newest slot on my blog, the Sunday night Novel Nights In where I bring you guests’ novels in their entirety over a maximum of ten weeks.
And now I’ve added Saturday nights with the serialisation of my chick lit novel The Serial Dater’s Shopping List!
For shorter pieces I would run the story then talk more about it afterwards but because this is a longer post (8,360 words), here is an introduction to Rose then the third part of her novel…
A German-born UK national, Rose Mary Boehm now lives and works in Lima, Peru. Two novels (‘Coming Up For Air’ and the follow-up ‘The Telling’) have been published in the UK, as well as a poetry collection (‘Tangents’). Her latest poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in US poetry reviews. Among others: Toe Good Poetry, Poetry Breakfast, Burning Word, Muddy River Review, Pale Horse Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Other Rooms, Requiem Magazine, Full of Crow, Poetry Quarterly, Punchnel’s, Verse Wisconsin, Naugatuck Poetry Review (contest semi-finalist), Avatar…
Her poem ‘Miss Worthington’ won third price in the coveted Margaret Reid Poetry Contest: http://winningwriters.com/contests/margaret/2009/ma09_epaminondas.php
You can find out more about Rose and her writing at her blog: http://houseboathouse.blogspot.com, and you can also read one of Rose’s short stories on http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/short-story-for-critique-003-mrs-boffa-by-rose-mary-boehm.
Coming Up For Air
A young girl’s struggle to take control of her life – click to read: Book I: Part 1 and then Part 2. If you don’t want to wait the 10 weeks for the whole story, you can purchase Coming Up for Air at Amazon.com (just $2.95) Amazon.co.uk (only £1.87). The rest of the ‘adventures of Annie’ can be read in THE TELLING.
On 30 April, 1945, in his bunker under the devastated city of Berlin, Adolf Hitler blew his brains out while the whole of Germany lay in ruins, with every major city destroyed by Allied bombs. Bridges had been blown up, train tracks had been bombed and every road was clogged with refugees. Thousands of women in eastern Germany drowned themselves rather than submit to rape by the Russian soldiers who were advancing rapidly towards Berlin. Boys of 14 and younger, and old men of 60 and older had been forced to fight the advancing Allies in a hopeless, last-ditch effort. German soldiers who had survived and returned from the eastern front stripped off their uniforms and swam naked across the river Elbe to surrender to the Americans. The Germans were terrified of the Red Army who already had gained a reputation during their advance for committing unspeakable atrocities.
People cowered in their underground bomb shelters in the cities or waved white flags of surrender from their windows in the smaller towns and villages. Thousands of homeless people had taken shelter in the bombed-out shells of churches and were cooking over open fires in the streets. Refugees trying to flee from the war zone sat for days beside the railroad tracks waiting for trains which never came. Others tried to escape on foot with their meagre possessions but had nowhere to go, and Allied planes were strafing everything that moved.
Subways were flooded, phone lines and electricity cut. The water supply in the bombed cities was either contaminated or non-existent, and there was no food, clothing, or medicines… Thousands of dead civilians were still buried under the destroyed buildings in every large city, adding the stench of decomposing flesh to the general confusion and misery.
On 27 April, 1945, American troops advanced eastward across Germany to link up with their Russian allies. The Russians had been marching west, across Poland, towards Berlin and beyond.
The American tanks had lined up on one side of the village by the upper woods; the German remainders were digging in on the other side, by the lower woods. Our village lay stretched out between the two fronts. Sporadic exchange of fire would send us scuttling down to the shelter. Many houses and farms were burning now, hand-to-hand fighting had begun in the streets. I had also seen some youths ducking down along the road carrying bazookas.
We heard the crackling sound of burning wood just after the explosion and raced upstairs to put the fire out, each one of us armed with one of the buckets filled with water that had been strategically placed on each landing. Before we reached the attic, we saw water trickling down the stairs. In the attic stood a zinc bathtub filled with water for just such an occasion. The shot from one of the tanks had ripped through the roof on its way to the opposing army, and shrapnel had hit the bathtub. What we’d heard was the water dripping down the stone stairs.
It’s over. Our white sheet hangs from the window but Adelheid’s father is furious.
“Germans do not capitulate!”
“Oh, do be quiet once and for all. What do you think will happen to you? We don’t ‘capitulate’ you silly man, we are being liberated, especially from people like you!
This sheet will probably save even your mean neck!”
As the American planes, jeeps and tanks rolled over our fields to ‘park’ behind the house, I watched with alarm the damage they did to the growing corn. It was still green and very young. For me, this was the obscenity, the blasphemy, this was the ultimate disregard for life, for growing food. In my small world this was worse than killing people… after all, the dead had been with me as long as I could remember.
Mother was relieved that the Americans had reached us first.
“Gott sei Dank! I prayed so hard that the Americans would get to us before the Bolsheviks!”
My brother had come into the kitchen from his nightly radio listening.
“They said on the radio that the Americans are about to take Berlin!”
They were tall, strong, handsome men and I’d watch them washing at the pump in the yard. They had soap that lathered. The only soap I knew was what we called ‘swim soap’: some greenish, sickly looking stuff which would always swim on top of the water and definitely never lathered. The American soldiers brushed their teeth with white paste they squeezed from tubes and which made white foam in their mouths. We had pink little rectangles, much like dry mascara today, which we rubbed with a wet toothbrush until we’d worked up an unappetising pink moist, powdery solution.
They were very friendly and one of them even spoke German. He told us that he was from Berlin. When he was still very small, he’d gone to America with his parents. He grinned somewhat sadly.
Back where the blackberries grew we looked in on some young soldiers who had made that barn their sleeping place. We must have looked to them like thin, dirty, ragged, alien little urchins. We were staring. One of them pulled something out of his pocket, something wrapped in silver. He peeled off the silver and underneath there was something dark, brown, and smooth. He broke a piece off for each one of us and put one into his own mouth while gesturing that we should do the same. We looked at each other, feeling very shy and very bold, very curious and apprehensive. Then we each put one of those pieces into our mouths, and that little piece of hard and brown began to melt in my mouth and tasted like heaven and God and the stars and everything that is good and wonderful – all wrapped into one tiny piece of brown. I had to walk away and experience this magic fully, all by myself. How could any one thing be so delicious. I kept it in my mouth, just moving my tongue from time to time to touch the wonder. Slowly it melted and disappeared. My brother said it was chocolate, he remembered it from before the War. He also gave us the latest news he’d received on his cigar box: “The Americans will be gone soon. They have orders to make way for the Russians.”
“How can that be? The Americans are here, aren’t they on their way to Berlin? Who would order such a thing? Will they leave Germany to the Bolsheviks?” Even though Mother at first couldn’t believe it, soon we had to accept the inevitable. The Americans were back in their tanks, jeeps and planes. The first Russian troops marched in. For a while the Americans still patrolled the road. Then they were gone.
Mother stood by the window, one arm around each of us, her face expressionless, and I lived through her.
We watched the Red Army marching. There were so many – a never-ending stream of soldiers. While they marched they sang. There were very deep and very high voices, melodies from far away, from the steppes and beyond… the Volga, the Urals, Siberia. They sang harmonies of exquisite beauty, melancholic and jubilant, occasionally one bright tenor bursting out, the basses creating a rhythmic wave on which the other voices could climb.
The voices make me see the places were those songs were born. I am filled with longing, pain, fear and joy. The Russians march and sing, march and sing, marching with strange steps. They are mostly small men and wear different uniforms to those familiar to us.
The Americans had finally left and the Russians marched. Tanks kept rolling.
From time to time, when they stopped marching, we would go to the pump in the yard and fetch water in buckets. The soldiers would take a flask from their belt, fill it with water r and drink, then march on.
After a day or so, gaps began to appear in the long chain of marching soldiers. Little carts, pulled by shaggy ponies would sometimes intersperse with less ordered marching units. In these carts were wild-looking, slant-eyed men with long, black, greasy hair and long moustaches. Some of these men came on horseback. They wore long, dirty sheepskin coats, some belted, some open. When they stopped for water, we brought out the buckets which they took and lifted to their mouths, water streaming down their moustaches, their chins, their coats. They wiped their mouths with the back of their dirty hands or with the sleeves of their coats. They reeked. But I watched and wondered, longing to discover a world about which I was so curious, almost grateful that some of it had come to me.
The troops stopped marching. Mother barricaded the door. We were no longer allowed to go outside. She hid my brother in the wardrobe, me under her bed and shut the door. She herself took up position behind the front door, an axe in her hands. Her voice was almost inaudible. “The first one through this door will be dead. The next one has to kill me first.”
We waited. Boots clanked up the stairs, down the stairs… stopped outside our door. The seconds became eternity. I could hear my heart pounding. I was sure it could be heard by the monster on the other side of the door. Then the sound of the boots turned away from us and slowly faded. We heard voices downstairs, doors banged, there was a shot.
At night, Mother would fetch us water and we’d have some dry bread. Booted steps passed our door many times. We became convinced that an angel stood outside and hid our door. Not one knock, not one. After three days we felt the change. We moved cautiously, totally exhausted from fear, lack of sleep and hunger. Our bodies were stiff and drained. Mother opened the door, listened, and slipped downstairs. She came back and said: “It’s over. They’ve had their three days.” We began to pick up our lives.
Someone explained to us much later that the ‘three days’ referred to three days of looting and raping unofficially/officially granted to the Russian soldiers as a ‘perk’ for having achieved victory. What do you give a Siberian peasant who often doesn’t even know exactly where he is fighting or whom? Drafted into a war he doesn’t want to take part in, hungry, aching for his own family back home… where is home? After three days of mayhem the officers took charge and restored order, often shooting – as a warning to others – those who disobeyed and, apparently, there were no questions asked.
Adelheid had had a little brother. Peter was now three years old, and he and I had become firm friends. When he’d just been born and his mother had been breast feeding him, I had often watched, marvelling at his little hands on her large, white breast, his mouth sucking, his eyes closed, a small human animal, unaware. Occasionally, when he took his mouth away, some milk sprayed into my face.
Peter and I were together often and I felt responsible for him. On day – we were playing in the yard – we heard some soldiers approaching. Instinctively we hid in the ladder shed and peeped through a hole in the wood. One of them held a bottle. They all swayed a little and talked very loudly in their guttural voices and laughed. They went into the house. We heard a woman scream. When they came back outside, two of them were holding the woman who had just arrived (a refugee from East Prussia who’d been given a room on the ground floor). She was young, blonde and I thought her beautiful. She cried and struggled.
“Please, please, no, please…!”
One of the soldiers hit her hard. Her face flew to one side. She was whimpering now. When I realised they were coming towards the shed in which we were hiding, I grabbed Peter’s hand, and we scampered to the very back of the shed, both of us squatting, trying to be even smaller than we were. I am no longer quite sure what frightened us more, the dark, the rats, or the moving shadows against the light near the far-away entrance.
It must be the woman they throw down now. Two of the soldiers hold her down. A third, standing, lets down his trousers – I cannot see very clearly, but their figures are silhouetted dark against the sky. Now he lies on top of the woman. She screams again. I can see him move. Up, down, up, down. Faster. Then he howls like a wolf, gets up, kicks the shape which must be the woman and pulls up his pants. We hear a shot, then another one, then the sound of breaking glass. Another uniformed figure appears in the entrance, a gun in his hand. The two who were holding the woman down slink away. We can’t see any of them now, but we hear the sound of their boots on gravel… receding until we don’t hear them at all. The woman gets up. She is sobbing. Her hands smooth down her skirt and then she slowly walks away, moving like an old, old woman, her head fallen forward. For a while we can’t move. After hours, days, years, centuries, Mother calls me. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you. These are no times for children to disappear!”
Mother is very angry with me for having been out for so long without letting her know where I would be. As we walk past the woman’s door, I can hear her cry. I never see her again.
Tanks are huge. The wheels inside those caterpillar bands are much bigger than I am, and when they move the earth shakes and crunches. Some soldiers give us rides on their tanks, some show us pictures of their families in Russia, some sing Russian songs for us and ask us to sing German ones for them, some speak a little German. Mostly we communicate with a kind of sign language. In the evenings, they occasionally make a bonfire just outside the village hall, and one plays a triangular instrument. I hear them call it a balalaika.
First he plays some sad, longing songs and one or two soldiers add their voices – more a melodious moan. Now the balalaika picks up speed. The beat becomes harder, driving, and my feet begin to tap. Two officers are dancing, arms around each other’s shoulders, their heads held high. They whirl, they jump, they separate, arms on their hips, come together, arms around each other. The others clap in rhythm, their faces shine red and golden in the flickering firelight. Now the dancers squat, and yet their booted legs keep the rhythm – faster, faster, faster… It is all the living I still want to do, great and wonderful things I want to see, it’s in my blood, in my ears, in my very flesh, and time stands still.
School has started again. The pictures of Hitler, Göhring and Göbbels have been replaced by Stalin, Lenin, Marx and Engels. We have a different teacher. He wears a constant, big-toothed grin and a big, black fur hat; he speaks with a hard accent and does some strange things with the German grammar telling us that he comes from Bessarabia. He writes it on the blackboard as Bessarabiya, and we look it up on the map. It’s far away, somewhere in Russia – or is it Rumania? We don’t say ‘Heil Hitler’ any more. He teaches us to read, to write, to do sums and the beginnings of the Cyrillic alphabet. Instead of ‘For the Führer and Vaterland‘ we now learn ‘for Stalin and the Revolution’. Our new teacher is a huge man. Sometimes, when one of the boys annoys him, he picks up one of our schoolbags from the hooks at the side of the desks and throws it in his direction, with books, rulers, pens, sandwiches raining over all of us. We protect ourselves as best we can with our hands and arms over our heads but can’t help giggling. One day he picks up the worst troublemaker, opens the door and throws him down the stone stairs. The boy is away from school for some weeks.
The Upper Village Street is now Karl-Marx-Strasse, the Lower Village Street becomes Street-of-the-Revolution, but only on the brand-new street signs that are being put up.
The first snow is falling and looks as though it’s going to stay. The snowflakes are small and firm, and it’s very cold. The local cartwright made us skis. They are long (we had to hold up one arm and he would make the skis for each of us as long as the distance from the floor to the tops of the stretched out fingers) and rigid, and we tie our winter boots with string to metal eyelets that have been fastened to the top of the skis. We also have an old sleigh, and we skate on the frozen pond, but not before the farmer tells us that the ice will hold. We have snowball fights and ‘make angels’ by lying down on the snow and moving our arms up and down.
In the winter, the girls wore skirts over old-fashioned ski pants (trousers for girls were too daring), and boys, not being allowed long trousers until they were 14, wore woollen stockings under their (longish) shorts. Once the snow was lying deep enough, we skied to school.
This is the time when the wild hares come all the way to the fence by the barn, where we stand well back after having cleared away a bit of snow and put down some cabbage or carrots. There are loads of tracks in the snow – we can even make out where some deer have passed.
My toes and hands are frozen and I go into the kitchen, the only warm place in the flat, where Mother takes my coat off and removes the newspaper which she’d stuffed under the old sweater which I inherited from my brother. Sitting for a while near the stove, my fingers and toes throb and hurt. Soon I feel hot and sleepy.
I stand by the window melting holes into the ‘frost flowers’ on the glass, with hot pennies which I heat up on the stove, and look out through the holes to watch the hares some more. I can hear a motorbike on the road. The hares are zigzagging almost playfully across the field, somehow seeming to know when it’s open season and when it’s closed. The bike comes into view, and two uniformed Russian soldiers get off quickly, pull out their handguns and fire several shots. Two hares fall into the snow. The soldiers wade into the field, grab the dead hares by their ears and ride off. I cry well into the night.
It’s Christmas, and we’ve still had no news from Father.
We sit down to dumplings. Potato dumplings boiled in water. Inside each dumpling is a small bit of meat. I forget everything else. Someone rings the bell. It’s Adelheid’s father: “Happy Christmas!” He looks at me and grins. “Did you like Max?” he asks. I look at him, not understanding at first. The only Max I know is one of the rabbits in one of the cages in the rabbit shed. He is the black and white one with a funny spot on his nose and one black ear. Adelheid’s father winks at me. “Of course I like Max”, I answer. “That’s good,” he says, “I am glad you like your Christmas lunch.” I begin to understand and throw up.
Whenever I have time, I go and see Frau Neuhaus who lives down the road. She has two sons, twins. They are a little bit older than my brother and are very ugly, with large, yellow teeth. I ask them whether they brush them regularly. They say that brushing teeth is a waste of time, instead they recommend eating a piece of dry bread before going to bed. “That cleans them beautifully,” they say, and bend down and smile at me. I try not to turn my nose away because Mother always taught me not to hurt people’s feelings, but their breath smells rank.
The twins play the piano and Frau Neuhaus’ attractions for me are her piano and her collection of old fashion magazines. I spend many afternoons tinkering on the piano, trying out different sounds, finding tunes, or sitting at the big table in her living room, copying drawings from the fashion magazines, delighting in the lovely clothes, elegant women, fur hats, silk scarves. Frau Neuhaus, the village dressmaker, has kept these magazines from before the war and still uses them. Each magazine contains an attachment: a huge piece of thin paper, folded tightly to match the size of the magazine, with a maze of lines and dots of different designs criss-crossing each other, and a mass of numbers in circles. Frau Neuhaus explains that each line with its design let’s her copy out a pattern for one of the dresses in a particular section of the magazines. It looks so complicated.
Mother doesn’t sew bras any more. Every so often – I haven’t managed yet to get the rhythm of these deliveries – someone brings huge packages of fabric to our flat, and she explains that she now sews underpants for the Russian army for five pennies a piece.
Because Mother is busy, I often go shopping for her. Most of the time she sends me to the local grocery store. Today I have to go again and give Frau Krämer Mother’s shopping list and the ration card, and Frau Krämer puts everything into my string bag and cuts out the squares from the ration card.
I look around while I wait, and I see something I have to buy for Mother to make her happy and pretty. It’s a little bunch of violets with a safety pin to wear on the lapel of a jacket, a coat or on a hat. I have never seen anything quite so exquisite and I just know how lovely Mother will look. I ask Frau Krämer whether I have enough money to buy the violets. She says, “Yes, you do,” and puts the violets into the string bag on top of the groceries. Running home, I’m excited about the wonderful present I have for Mother and can’t wait to see her face. Mother takes the string bag from me and looks at the violets. Her face is one big question. “Mum, they are for you! I saw them in Frau Krämer’s and they’ll make you look so pretty! Aren’t they beautiful?” She smacks me hard. “You stupid girl, we have no money for such nonsense! What on earth got into you? Take these silly things and go immediately and get the money back. How could this woman sell you something like this? And you should know better! Of all the useless…”
I don’t wait for her to finish. I walk back to the grocery store, the violets in my hand, tears are streaming down my cheeks. When I arrive in the shop, I offer the violets wordlessly to Frau Krämer who only says, “Oh …” and gives me what I suppose is the money I paid. I put the money into the pocket of my apron and slowly return home to hand it wordlessly to Mother. When she tries to put her arms around me I can’t bear her touch.
Uncle Fred comes to visit us. He is on his way to Chemnitz and I take him to the railway station. He asks the man behind the counter for a ticket to Chemnitz.
“You can’t go to Chemnitz”
“Because now you can only go to Karl-Marx-Stadt.”
“But I don’t want to go to Karl-Marx-Stadt, I want to go to Chemnitz.”
“I can only sell you a ticket to Karl-Marx-Stadt, and don’t you be so bloody-minded!”
“Well, alright then. Have it your way. I’ll go to your fucking Karl-Marx-Stadt.”
He gets his ticket. He looks, he grins. He throws it back over the counter.
“What now?” asks the man, irritated.
“I want to go to Karl-Marx-Stadt, not to Chemnitz.”
“This ticket is issued for Chemnitz.”
“We haven’t got the new tickets yet.”
“Then write me one by hand. I am living in the German Democratic Republic and I want to go to Karl-Marx-Stadt, and you better give me a goddamn ticket to Karl-Marx-Stadt or else…”
Behind us a queue has formed. I look around, a little embarrassed, but I see people grinning, some cover their mouths with their hands, their eyes full of mirth. Uncle Fred receives a hand-written, stamped ticket for Karl-Marx-Stadt, formerly Chemnitz, but the little man can’t resist and has the last word: “When the cat is away, the mice dance on the tables.”
Every day the radio broadcasts messages from families searching for missing loved ones or from people looking for their families. We all listen every day with morbid fascination. In many places Germans could go and look at endless lists of missing people’s names and the names of the places where they were born and/or where they were last seen. There were no lists for the dead.
Instead of going back to school, my brother was working for Adelheid’s father. He had grown tremendously during the last months, and was nearly six foot two inches, and thin as a rake. The doctor said that his occasional dizzy spells were caused by his heart which had remained too small for the size of his body due to the lack of food. It couldn’t always pump the blood all the way to his brain. “He may even faint sometimes. But not to worry, a lot of rest, good food, and in a few years he’ll be as right as rain … as right as rain.”
I watched my brother mixing tar, tarring roofs, learning to cut the natural slate, balancing high up on roofs and generally doing all the difficult and dirty jobs which apprentices do, especially an apprentice with Adelheid’s father. After five years and two exams he would be a master roofer. Every night my brother came back exhausted, but after each day’s hard work he would stand in the zinc tub in the kitchen, for which Mother would have heated enough water, and scrub off the tar, clean his hands, brush his nails and wash his hair. Then he’d fall into bed and sleep immediately.
Mother had taken him out of grammar school because the Russians used the schoolboys to ‘hunt’ for unexploded bombs and mines, and many had been blown up or had lost legs or hands. Those who weren’t in school and had no job were taken to work in the uranium mines in the Erzgebirge (literally: ore mountains) from where only very few returned. That’s why my brother had become a roofer’s apprentice – any job would do to keep him safe, and this was the only one for miles around.
Mother worried constantly about her son on the roofs. Every day she waited for his safe return. With his dizzy spells high up on the gables… ‘Oh, please God…’ but he never fell.
Life returned to a certain order. I went to school. I did my homework. I went shopping. I read. I played with my friends. We pinched apples and cherries and plums from any tree that wasn’t watched over by a mean farmer. In Uncle Fred’s garden I could eat as many strawberries, raspberries, black currants, red currants and gooseberries as I liked. The rest would become preserve.
Uncle Fred had a cat, a big, black, fat cat with shiny fur. Uncle Fred and Auntie Hulda never had children and lavished their love on the cat which was called ‘Cat’. One day, Cat disappeared. After waiting for a couple of weeks, they accepted that Cat would not return, and Uncle Fred was heartbroken and very angry.
“Oh, boy, if I find out who ate Cat…”
The school outing is today. We go to town by train. We are about to see a Soviet film about the young pioneers. The cinema is dark and mysterious. It is my first time ever to see a moving picture and I am full of anxious anticipation. The loudspeakers crackle, the red velvet curtain opens, the music begins and there, on the screen, unfolds the miracle: the big, amazing, unbelievable moving picture. I’m not interested in the plot because seeing gigantic images of people moving up there on the screen is pure magic, even if there are jittery white and black spotty bits getting in the way.
On many weekends we took the train to visit Opa and Oma. I had come to love both dearly. Despite her disability, Oma was always gentle and cheerful, and her much-lined face was soft and pleasant to touch. She’d wear her beret every day, and when I played with my cousins in the garden, she would watch us from the window, and we used to look up at her and wave and be happy to know that she was, in her way, sharing our fun.
Grandfather had become my father substitute. Not just because my own father was absent, but because Gustav Hauser was an extraordinary man. Born to humble farm-worker parents, he had worked all his life in the local paper mill and, with curiosity and natural intelligence, had accumulated a wealth of knowledge. He was a naturalist, bee-keeper, a keen ‘politician’, a socialist, of course, and an especially sensitive and loving grandfather to me.
He had been in the trenches of World War I, where he had been gassed. He was a passionately peaceful man. In the many hours we spent together, Opa taught me German history, especially the bits that concerned him more than any other: that by 1871 Germany was a new nation, and that by 1878 the Social Democrats called for a gradual evolution of the capitalist system towards a state socialist one. He said that the Social Democrats offered to work within the system to advance the needs of workers through welfare legislation, trade union power, economic regulation, and nationalisation or regulation of industry. The then German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, but by 1890 the Social Democrats controlled over twenty per cent of the electorate and had thirty-five seats in the Reichstag. By 1914 they were the largest single party in German politics.
On many days grandfather and I would walk hand-in-hand to his allotment where he kept his bees. I never saw him handle the bees with a special suit, gloves or face protection and, to my knowledge, he was hardly ever stung. We would perhaps pick some vegetables or salad for lunch or supper, or check on some of the more exotic varieties of vegetables he tried to grow.
On the way there and back he would stop from time to time to tell me the name of a tree, make me aware of birds we saw, teaching me to listen to their sounds, picked up fallen feathers and told me which bird had lost them. We delighted in the beauty of butterflies, dragonflies and other insects and, depending on the season, he would show me their larvae and tell me what these would become.
He knew the secret places of mushrooms, woodruff and blueberries, and he taught me how to find them. We would collect mushrooms and he showed me how to distinguish the edible from the poisonous ones. We smelled them out the same way pigs hunt for truffles. Often we’d simply sit in silence at ‘our’ little brook, listening to the burbling water. The pines enveloped us with their fragrance, the wood pigeon called, and we’d often hear a near-by cuckoo, the manic rattle of a woodpecker or the hoarse cry of a jay.
These days will stay with me forever. They were healing wounds I didn’t know I had.
Opa cannot get up any more. I look at his face and see a skull. His skin is yellow, his eyes sunken. Oma is quietly crying most of the time. Mother says that Opa is dying of stomach cancer. The German word for cancer also means ‘crab’, and I imagine crabs eating grandfather up from the inside. I sit on his bed and stroke his bony fingers.
His pipe lay idle by his bedside. He didn’t smoke any more. Day by day he became the ghost of the man who used to decorate the most beautiful Christmas tree with hand-made adornments, crafted and collected over many years, the man who always found paper for me to draw on, who taught me how to talk to plants, bees and animals and who, for the benefit of a little girl, elaborated the need for social justice.
Grandfather has died in the night. I look at his dear, mummified face. During the last weeks he suffered most horribly and his death seems like a blessing. His face is peaceful. There is a faint, faint smile.
I walk to our favourite spot by the brook, the place where he showed me how to build a dam from stones, mud and twigs. We sit in silence, as we always did.
Every day the radio brought more reports of missing persons. Everyone seemed to be looking for somebody: mothers for sons, daughters; sons and daughters for their mothers, fathers; wives for their husbands… we were hoping to hear from Father.
Radio Berlin began to send again, and my brother requested to hear one of the jazz tunes we had listened to secretly on his home-made radio. Surprisingly, it was played and to his delight he received a letter from another young man who had also listened to the American Forces Network. They corresponded for a long time.
Eventually we received a printed card from a prisoner-of-war camp in or near Cherbourg, telling us that Father was alive, and that he was an American prisoner of war. The card was two years old. What on earth was Father doing in a PoW camp? He had been far too old to be a soldier.
During the final days of the War, between 3.4 and 5 million German men ended up in US prison camps. Thousands died of hunger, exposure, and general neglect, and millions were still imprisoned many months after the war had ended.
It is an assumption, but there were signs that Geneva Convention was being ignored, especially in the light of the fact that there was no longer a German government able to negotiate with the Red Cross, and the Soviet Union had never signed it in the first place.
According to the Geneva Convention, German prisoners of war should have received the same food rations as their Allied captors. Instead, the German prisoners got as much (or less) as was available to German civilians at the time. This meant starvation rations, especially during the first six months of 1945. Hundreds of thousands of PoWs were kept for many weeks in open, barbed-wire ‘cages’, with no shelter and nothing to sit or lie on apart from their own helmets and greatcoats if they were lucky enough to have one.
Overcrowded, poorly-managed railroad transport also was a problem, however temporary. On 16 March 1945, at Mailly le Camp, 104 German prisoners were dead on arrival. A further 27 were found dead at the Atichy PoW camp. Eisenhower reluctantly apologised publicly.
My father was one of the older men who were called up to ‘defend the Vaterland’ against the Allied troops during the last days of the War. The Volkssturm (the people’s storm) was supposed to turn the tide for Germany. Father was given command of a motley group of children and old men, and their weapons were pitchforks, sticks and whatever else they could find, their transport mostly bicycles. Father took his ‘command’ seriously and decided to take everyone home, making sure they were all safe. “There were only four of us left, Herbert, Dieter, Klaus and I. We had taken the kids back to whatever was left of their homes and were about to disband completely and disappear. You can’t imagine the chaos…” American troops picked them up somewhere near Bochum and decided that these pitchfork musketeers had to be taken in and shipped off as PoWs. Father ended up in Cherbourg and remained there for about two years.
After three years of apprenticeship my brother passed his first exam as a roofer. He was now a ‘journeyman roofer’. But as soon as a local engine-repair workshop offered him an apprenticeship as a mechanic he took it eagerly. At least he was now able to work with engines, and engines he’d always loved above everything else. “You wait, little Hen, one day I’ll be an engineer!”
The history of the Leipzig trade fairs goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. A fair held at Leipzig was mentioned as early as 1165. In 1946, the first spring fair, the Messe des Friedens (peace fair) was organised. When the German Democratic Republic (GDR) joined the Comecon in 1950, the fair was used to present the production of the ‘fellow socialist countries’.
In 1936, the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend – FDJ) was founded in opposition to the Nazi regime. The underground communist youth movement was headquartered in exile in various cities, first in Paris in 1936 and in 1938 in Prague. After Hitler annexed much of Europe, the FDJ was forced to settle in London, and after Hitler’s defeat in 1945, the FDJ headquarters moved to the Russian Occupied Zone of Germany and became once again active in German politics. When Germany was partitioned into the eastern German Democratic Republic and the western Federal Republic of Germany, the FDJ’s role in the GDR was similar to the Soviet Komsomol.
My brother comes back from the Leipzig Spring Fair with his friends from the FDJ. He is holding something behind his back, and I am excited because I know it’s something he brought back for me. He whips out his hand from behind his back and offers me something red and floppy as he would a bunch of flowers. I am disappointed.
“What is it?”
“It’s a balloon.”
“I show you.”
He takes one part of the thing, the bit that’s got an opening, and blows and, as he blows, the other bit, the one that looks more like a floppy round bag, begins to grow. He lets out the air again and gives it back to me.
“Go on, you try it!”
I try and blow, but can’t make it grow.
“Harder, Hen, harder!”
Now I blow with all my might and, all of a sudden, I can feel it grow in my hands. As it grows, blowing it up more becomes easier and easier. It’s huge! My brother snatches it from my lips and quickly ties a knot at the end. “If you blow it up too much it bursts!” he explains, then gives me back the red ‘balloon’. I hold it … ooh, it’s so light! My brother flicks it with his fingers and it wafts upwards. I catch it again and scratch it – it makes drum-like noises. I throw it to my brother, he flicks it back but so high that I can’t catch it. It falls on the floor and tumbles towards the corner. I run after it and grab it hard so that it can’t escape. There is sharp, loud sound, and in my hands I hold the bit with the knot in it and not much more. The crash from delight to despair is immediate and total. My brother holds me in his arms until I stop sobbing.
The Young Pioneers were founded in December 1948, and soon nearly all schoolchildren between ages six and 14 were organised into Young Pioneer or Thälmann Pioneer groups. In the Young Pioneers, the children were being prepared for the FDJ. Afternoons at the Pioneers consisted of a mixture of adventure, games and myth-like socialist teaching – in other words, the same old wolf but wearing a different fur. In the summer, children usually went to pioneer camps similar to the Scouts.
I felt proud when I became ‘best of class’ and was presented with the blue scarf. I was now leader of a group of Young Pioneers and swore allegiance to Stalin and the Soviet Republic.
Many young men had to join the Volkspolizei (the people’s police) and served the new German Democratic Republic. Travelling outside our borders was verboten (not allowed). The boys of the Volkspolizei were being trained to keep us in. We began to see Russian soldiers and the young German policemen patrol the towns and villages together, the Germans in their new crisp, dark-blue uniforms.
For Mother my becoming a Young Pioneer was the last straw and, also, Father had written. Apparently he had been released from the PoW camp for some time now. At least he was alive. His writing was not as strong and beautiful as it once had been, looking more like the writing of an old and very tired man, but it was unmistakably his. He wrote that he slept in the kitchen of our old flat. “You can’t imagine what it was like. When I got back, every room was occupied by squatters. Everyone just slept and lived where they found shelter. Most of the houses had been bombed. I begged them to let me into my own flat and they finally relented and let me have the kitchen. I even have a job.” He was part of the new army of rubble clearers. “Well”, he wrote, “It’s a living. Some people have nothing at all.”
At that moment he accepted everything because he needed to perform some form of atonement for the part he’d played, however passively, in helping to sustain a regime to ‘whose vileness he had been blind when he could have seen, and deaf when he should have listened’. Now that the full horror of Hitler’s Germany had been revealed, he had nearly taken his own life. Thinking of us had pulled him back from the brink. He wrote that he had been near starvation when he was caught in mid-fall by kindly people who helped him on the road to physical and mental recovery, and that he was now a member of a small, truly Evangelical Christian community. “Another party to join”, Mother mumbled irreverently.
One bright, warm summer morning we left. We took little. In my schoolbag I carried Teddy which I had finally inherited from my brother. There were guides who took people across secret, infrequently-guarded border points, but many stories told of people who had given these guides all their money, only to be abandoned and more than likely suffer arrest and transportation to labour camps – or even death. So Mother decided that we’d take the risk and go it alone.
In the train, approaching the border, everyone discussed the merits of various systems of ‘getting out’, that is, crossing the border without papers into West Germany. One young man warned us against taking the train to the last station before the border crossing. We’d be stopped immediately and, at best, sent back. “They’ll probably send this young lad here to the uranium mines,” he said, pointing at my brother. “Besides, you look guilty already… doing it for the first time?” He assured us that there was one crossing he knew very well. “Best thing you can do is leave the train at the next station and walk away from it towards the woods and the open fields. After that you get to a copse and then you’ll soon see a road with one row of trees. That’s the East German side. Parallel to the road with one row of trees you’ll see a road with two rows. That’s the West German side, that’s where you want to be.”
Mother looked worried and sighed. “Well, children, we might as well. Let’s go!”
We stood at the beginning of a lonely stretch of dirt road, the few people who had left the train were on their way to the village and were walking in the opposite direction. By now it was late afternoon, and my brother and I trailed after Mother, who had resolutely taken the lead, trying to follow the young man’s directions. We walked for what seemed hours. It was evening and getting dark when we arrived at a copse. Mother’s shoulders slumped. “Just a little further, children. We’ll cross the copse and wait for night on the other side. There we’ll rest a while and eat something before going on.”
As we approached the far side of the copse we saw a forlorn figure sitting on a tree stump. We were apprehensive at first but soon realised that it was a bent little old woman with a small suitcase at her side, a holdall in her lap. She looked up at us. Her eyes were red and swollen. On her head she wore a black scarf.
After greeting her we sat down and Mother asked her what she was doing there all by herself and why she was crying. Still sobbing she told us, “I want to go to the West. My daughter is in the West, I want to see my grandchildren before I die.”
“And how did you end up here?”
“I’d joined a group and a guide. I gave the guide everything I had, and last night they left me behind because I was too slow. Are you going across too?”
“Yes, we want to cross tonight. Don’t worry and stop crying. You come with us, someone told us how we must go.”
Mother shared the bread and apples we’d brought; we drank some water.
I lie on the forest floor. The evening is warm and the ground is like a soft, springy mattress. I tuck my schoolbag under my head and look up. Between the waving fingers of the trees, the sky is becoming darker. The particular smell of Waldmeister (literally ‘master of the woods’ – woodruff) is strong, and when I get up to brush myself down, some of its little green seeds are sticking to my skirt.
Very soon it was completely dark, and Mother decided it was time to go. Very carefully, hiding behind the tall, ripening cornfields, we made our way into the unknown. Mother straightened up every so often to look for the road with one row of trees. We were sure we had to cross it to reach the other road – the man had said ‘parallel’. Suddenly Mother stopped and said, “There it is.” We could just make out the one straight line of trees against the night sky and scrambled up the slope to emerge on the side of the road.
“Halt! Wer da?” (Stop! Who is there?)
Two safety catches clicked in succession. A sound we knew so well.
I feel a warm trickle running down my legs, into my boots. My brother tries to stay in the dark, out of reach of the two torch lights. Mother and the old woman plead. Desperate voices. My pants and legs feel cold. They take the Personalausweise (identity cards). I see Mother’s hands pushing money into the hands of one of the two young police man. The old woman’s hands seem to produce endless packets of cigarettes. The two men walk away into the dark. They talk in low voices. After an eternity they are back with us.
I pee some more. They shoulder their guns and move us along the road. A barrier opens.
“Auf wiedersehen, have a good journey.”
We are on the West-German side. This part of the road has two rows of trees and is not ‘parallel’ to the other, but the continuation. We stumble towards the different uniforms and are bundled into a small, warm hut. We drink something hot. The old woman says: “I did pray hard to Saint Antonius!”
I, too, feel as though I had just witnessed a miracle. Mother sits in a corner, silent and very straight. Her face is still, but tears are streaming down her cheeks. She looks into the distance, far, far away. And still there flow those quiet tears.
We walked to Helmstedt where my cousin gave us shelter. I suppose the little old lady somehow got in touch with her daughter. When we took the train for the last leg of our journey, she was no longer with us.
We are home and walk from the station through streets I have never forgotten. They look exactly as I saw them in my dreams. It’s just that everything is much smaller than I remember. Here is the wall which used to be far higher than I was – now I can look over it. The streets are less wide, many houses are missing. Now we turn the same corner which Father used to turn before he would catch my running figure. We walk into the house. There is no front door. We ring the bell outside our flat. Father opens. He is in his night shirt. He stares, startled, and nearly shuts the door again.
We arrived home in the summer of 1949, early in the morning of the very same day for which Father had an entry visa to East Germany. He was about to leave and try and fetch us.
I am now going to the school across the road, just as my brother used to do. The children laugh at my funny accent and call me a refugee.
***End of Book I of Coming up for Air***
Thank you, Rose, a wonderful conclusion to the first Book. I look forward to posting the first part of Book 2 next week. The rest of the ‘adventures of Annie’ can be read in THE TELLING.
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