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. Tonight’s is the fourth instalment of the first novel in this series and features the first section of Book 2 (of three) of a novel by literary author, poet and interviewee Rose Mary Boehm.
For shorter pieces I would run the story then talk more about it afterwards but because this is a longer post (9,173 words), here is an introduction to Rose then the fourth 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, Part 2, Part 3. 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.
I am in love! I know I am! Wilfried is the oldest boy in my new class. He is 14! He is in our class because he had to repeat several times. He is very handsome, with dark hair that’s cut less short than other boys’ and sometimes it falls into his eyes. I sit in the middle of the class towards the back, and Wilfried sits further to the front in one of the right-hand side benches by the wall.
Whenever I look in his direction, he seems to be watching me. He has big, shiny brown eyes and a quick and naughty smile. From time to time he ‘sends’ me coveted swaps on the back of which he writes ‘Ich liebe Dich’. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I am also excited. The swaps are passed from desk to desk until they arrive in my hands which means that everyone knows and giggles.
When we are in the school yard during breaks, Wilfried catches me more often than any of the other girls and holds my arm just a bit longer, and when we go back inside for our next lesson, he hangs around just close enough to make it obvious. Once he even pushes one of the other boys out of the way. This must be love, and I have a funny fluttery feeling inside that makes me giggle a lot.
We didn’t know it then, but while we were in what was East Germany (to become the GDR, the German Democratic Republic), even though we went hungry more often than not, we had been relatively well off; we were spared the results of the Morgenthau Plan (Program to Prevent Germany from Starting World War III) which didn’t remain active for many years, but while it was being implemented, things were dire.
Letters had kept us somewhat up to date about family, friends and neighbours in the Western Allies’ occupation zones: many had either frozen or starved to death during the worst winter in living memory, and armies of half-starved, skinny kids dressed in rags had been seen scavenging through rubbish bins for anything at all to eat – discarded potato peels being about the only thing left to ‘recycle’. Then we received the sad news that Father’s mother, Grossmama Becker, had died of hypothermia, facilitated by acute starvation. Grossmama had been a proud woman and must have been either too embarrassed to ask for help, or those she did ask couldn’t give it. She died in the spring of 1948 – just a few months before we would return.
Even though the original plan proposed by American Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. had been somewhat softened before it was implemented, it still had every intention to turn Germany into ‘a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in character’ and was agreed to, and signed by, Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Second Quebec Conference in September 1944. The first ‘level of industry’ plan from 1946 foresaw to lower German heavy industry to 50% of its 1938 levels by laying waste to 1,500 of its manufacturing plants.
Soon it became only too apparent that these policies not only devastated Germany, but created a chain reaction. They put the brakes on a general European recovery, thus resulting in huge expenses for the occupying powers who had to make up the most glaring shortfalls through a relief programme.
It also became soon obvious that something had to be done – and not only for humanitarian reasons: with the onset of the Cold War, the Allies got very worried about Europe’s political leaning, fearing that the lethal combination of abject poverty and famine would drive especially the Germans into the arms of Communism and, since the long-term economic health and continued prosperity of the US depended on trade, export markets had to be either revived or created.
Enter the Marshall Plan. Secretary of State George Marshall’s ‘European Recovery Program’ was to take the form of easy loans. In 1949, the plan was extended to include the newly created Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany, aka West Germany), the idea being that the Europeans would use Marshall Plan aid chiefly to buy manufactured goods and raw materials from the United States.
But that was later, and even then it didn’t solve the immediate need of the German people in the US and British occupied zones who, in two of the most severe winters on record, were either starving or freezing to death. In the winter of 1946, after touring the American occupied zone of Germany, ex US President Herbert C Hoover was not only extremely critical of US occupation policy, but what he saw made him despair.
He addressed all North Americans: “Millions of mothers are today watching their children wilt before their eyes.” Infant mortality rates in some German cities stood at over 20 per cent per year when he asked for mercy for the German people: “I can only appeal to your pity and your mercy…Will you not take to your table an invisible guest?”
And the ‘invisible guests’ were welcomed. Hoover’s initiative helped to avert what might well have been the most serious famine in European history and, in April 1947, a school-meals programme was implemented in the US and British Occupied Zones. With the Hooverspeisungen (Hoover Meals), Canada and the US made a total of around 40,000 tons of food available, feeding 3.5 million children aged between six and 18, and probably saving around 800 million lives.
So I went to school carrying my Henkelmann. This word has no translation as such; Henkelmann was a light-hearted reference to a pot with a lid and a handle (directly translated it would be ‘the man with a handle’ or ‘handleman’) – easy to carry, not too big. In Germany, this was not yet a time of Tupperware – quite apart from the fact that there were no leftovers. Each one of us had a similar pot and, come lunchtime, we’d be standing in a queue, ready to receive whatever the Hoover Meal offered that day. There was nothing particularly exciting about Hoover Meals for us kids but, being always hungry, we received them gratefully.
Our Physical Education teacher is ill and we have two free hours at the start of the school day. It’s a late autumn day, cool but sunny, and after a short discussion some of us decide to spend these two hours in the Stadtpark (town park) which starts just behind the school. We move out, schoolbags on our backs and Henkelmann in hand. Some have their pots tied to their schoolbags. They rattle as we walk.
We arrive in the park and aren’t quite sure what to do. Some of us sit down in the park’s central pavilion, some of the boys wander about outside, idly kicking some stones around, producing a dust cloud that wafts over to those of us – mostly the girls – who sit under the roofed but open pavilion. We tell them to stop making us eat dirt. That gives them an idea. Instead of kicking stones, they start to pick them up and throw them at us, first gently and in good fun, then using bigger ones, throwing them harder.
Wilfried is one of the boys throwing stones and he aims them at me. First I feel flattered, but slowly I get angry. Suddenly, one of Wilfried’s bigger stones hits my Henkelmann, chips the enamel and leaves a dent. My first thought is Mother. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was responsible for the pot and that there wasn’t another one if it got damaged.
“Look after it, it cost me a lot of persuasion and money and it was the last one!”
My fear of Mother wins the day and break up my first love affair. I shoulder my school bag, pick up my damaged Henkelmann and walk off.
By 1948, the Western Allies began moving towards consolidating their occupation zones in Western Germany by creating a single, independent German state which, in May 1949, was to become the Bundesrepublik Deutschland. As part of that process, the US, France and Britain reformed the currency in ‘their’ parts of Germany, introducing the new Deutsche Mark (DM) on 21 June 1948. The first 600 Reichsmark (the old German currency) were exchanged at a rate of 1:1, and anything above 600 Reichsmark was exchanged at a rate of 10:1, while each person received an allowance of 40 DM. This necessary but painful move intended to aid economic recovery and stop the uncontrollable black market where the currency was mostly American cigarettes; but PX food stuffs and Nylon stockings were also exchanged – often for the attentions of young (and not so young) German women.
Germans with modest savings left over from before the War – the category into which fell my parents – lost most in the currency reform and found it tough going to start from point zero. They were no longer as young as they had been, the War had taken its physical, psychological and emotional toll; the lack of industry and commerce translated into widespread unemployment, homes were either completely or partly destroyed, and the children depended on Hoover meals in order not to develop severe malnutrition.
The doorbell rings and I open the flat’s front door. The postman shouts from downstairs. “Parcel for Becker.” I go down and receive an impressively large and heavy parcel with Finnish stamps saying ‘Suomi’. Apart from ‘Family Becker’ and our address, it’s full of rubber stamps in various colours and there are also some ticks and crosses made with thick crayon in black and red. The grey wrapping paper hangs off it in tatters.
It looks mysterious and very, very promising. I can’t wait to know what’s in it and stick my nose close to where I suspect are small holes in the carton, but discover nothing. Mother is waiting by the open door upstairs and takes the parcel from me. We go into the kitchen where she puts it on the kitchen table. “It’s from Helsinki, from the Finns,” she says with some awe. I bring her the scissors to cut the string, but Mother puts it on the table and begins to unpick the knots of the string. “We don’t cut the string, Anne, we keep it and use it again.” That makes the process very slow and I almost hurt from anticipation.
When the parcel is finally open, Mother first unfolds the letter that lies on top of all the wondrous things contained in the cardboard box. “It’s from Eeva, your Aunt Eeva in Finland.” I look up at Mother’s face as she is reading the letter. I see tears falling on the page she’s holding, smudging the words written in blue ink.
Now she puts the letter to one side. “You can read it later, let’s have a look at what she sent.” It’s about time. How on earth can grown-ups be so un-curious; I am shivering with excitement.
Mother takes out many wonderful things one by one. They look exotic and of real interest only to mothers. But there, stashed away behind some tins is a huge bar of chocolate and here, next to a bag with sugar is a jar with a red screw-on top containing something dark brown. I take it out and show it to Mother. She reads the label. “I am not sure of the language. Let’s have a look.” She unscrews the lid, dips a finger into that wonderful brown smoothness and licks it. “Oh, alright, have a go,” she nods her permission with her chin. I put my finger into the jar, pull out a lovely, soft lump of whatever-it-is and stick my finger into my mouth.
When, by chance – many, many years later – I discover that heavenly taste again, it comes in plastic jars and is called ‘Nutella’.
The new currency also was to become legal tender in the Western sectors of Berlin, and the Soviets, who had no control over the process, felt betrayed and regarded the reform as a threat, responding by cutting off all road, rail and canal links between the three Western ‘mainland’ zones and West Berlin. West Berlin was on its own, an island in the sea of the Soviet-occupied East-German territories.
2,500,000 people in West Berlin were thus effectively cut off from supplies of fresh food until the Allies organised a massive airlift which, by the autumn of 1948, was bringing in an average of 5,000 tons of supplies each day via the small airport of Berlin Tempelhof. The transport planes would often be referred to as Rosinenbomber (raisin bombers) by the irreverent Berliners who had never lost their sense of humour, because they also carried sweets for the kids, not just the bare essentials necessary for survival.
In this way the blockade of Berlin turned out not only to be totally ineffective, but backfiring on the Soviets by provoking genuine fears of Soviet aggression. Instead of preventing the establishment of an independent West Germany it accelerated it as well as laying the foundations for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). By May 1949, Stalin no longer had a choice and lifted the blockade.
This was the background music to our arrival in our old home in the month of August of 1949. We sat in our kitchen and talked. One of the decisions taken that day was to ‘farm’ me out for a few weeks to my father’s brother and his wife who had no children and lived in nearby Düsseldorf. Apparently Uncle Martin and Aunt Lieselotte had offered to take me in for a while because Mother insisted on returning to East Germany and take care of the loose ends left by our secret and sudden departure.
Even though I was a bit fearful and didn’t want to go and stay with people I had never seen before, the following Sunday we were on the tram to Düsseldorf. We walked from the tram stop to the building where my uncle and aunt’s flat occupied the sixth floor. I looked around and was impressed and not a little intimidated. I had never known much outside the small village in which I’d spent my childhood and, of course, our own neighbourhood with modest houses and apartment blocks of perhaps three or, at the most, four storeys of small flats. We now passed buildings that seemed to reach into the sky, built on a wide, tree-lined avenue. There was very little bomb damage, but Father explained that this part of town had escaped the worst damage because the bombers had concentrated on the centre, the adjacent industrial area and the port. When we approached the river I gasped in astonishment: it was huge! From where we stood I could barely see the other side. I wanted to stay and take it all in, but Mother pulled me away.
Uncle Martin was a huge man and looked very different from the people I had known until then. He wasn’t thin. He wore a grey suit and a bow tie. Mother had already explained to me that Uncle Martin was a very important lawyer and before the War he’d owned big offices somewhere downtown. Aunt Lieselotte was small and delicate. She looked like a picture in one of those old fashion magazines I’d studied so intensively when I used to visit Frau Neuhaus.
I now know that Aunt Lieselotte’s clothes were, by the nature of the beast, a few years out of date compared with what the rest of the world was wearing by then – most Germans still lived in a time bubble as far as the more frivolous side of life was concerned. But my aunt had always been an extremely elegant woman, and the War had not affected her wardrobe much except by not adding anything new. I immediately saw in her the embodiment of everything I wanted to be one day. I was determined that this ugly duckling would grow up to be a beautiful swan no less, and I’d do whatever it took to achieve my dream.
At the right side of my plate Aunt Lieselotte places a silver knife and a fork at the left. Across the top lies a silver spoon. On my plate is a small piece of meat, potatoes covered by a brown sauce, and peas. I pick up the fork, put it in my right hand and wonder how I’ll cut and eat the meat. I am not even sure I’ll like it. When I begin to hack at the meat with the knife without much success, Uncle Martin looks at me with disgust and Aunt Lieselotte gets up, stands behind me and, holding my hands, directs the process of cutting a small piece of the meat, adding a bit of potato, sauce and a couple of peas, then helps me to balance the whole thing and awkwardly put it into my mouth.
“Has nobody taught you how to eat with a knife and fork?”
Implying somehow Mother’s ‘guilt’: “Well I suppose your mother had other worries…”
“Auntie, we had nothing to cut.”
“What did you eat?”
“Carrots, potatoes and water.”
My stay with my uncle and aunt was relatively uneventful, but thanks to Aunt Lieselotte it opened the door to a world I may otherwise never have discovered. While my uncle tried very much just about to tolerate my presence, my aunt enjoyed my obvious admiration. There I was in my smock, my hair cut almost pudding basin, an incongruous big bow tying some of my hair on the side of my head, my tired knitted stockings held up by elastic bands that descended somewhere from above my waist and an awkward German equivalent of a liberty bodice, trying my aunt’s precious last drops of Arpège so that I would smell like her, and putting on her lipstick. Often I stood quietly by a window or on the terrace looking out at the enormous grey river wondering who may be living on the other side where I could just make out small houses.
When Aunt Liesel and I went out for walks, she always put on her gloves and one of her hats, pulling the lace veil coquettish over her eyes and nose, ending just above her heavily painted upper lip. We often walked along the partly damaged promenade down by the river bank towards a small shop, a secret oasis in the middle of not much, where they sold sweet whipped fresh cream in something resembling today’s ice cream cones. The cones were called Schillerlocken (literally: Schiller’s curls – Friedrich von Schiller was an eighteenth-century German writer, playwright and poet).
I ask for permission, and Aunt Liesel allows me to go down to the promenade all by myself. I have put on just a tiny bit of her dark-red lipstick and hope she doesn’t notice. She smiles and makes me promise not to go anywhere else except the Rhine promenade where she can keep an eye on me from her window.
As I walk towards the river, I imagine being a young, sophisticated woman, with make-up, a hat, gloves and high heels. There aren’t many people about but the few I pass I imagine looking at me and thinking ‘what a pretty young thing, and so elegant’. The fantasy remains intact until some boys come towards me. As they approach they look at me and elbow each other, laughing. “Look at her, she’s got lipstick all over her face. What a twat.” They pass, still laughing, and my face grows hot with shame.
Uncle Martin must have thanked God more than once for having spared him the doubtful joy of children of his own. He became increasingly unwilling to have me anywhere near him. When I accidentally stained his tie with a tiny speck of sauce from my food, he took it as a personal insult added to injury. Next morning my brother came to fetch me home.
Many years later, my mother told me a little about her journey back into the hell of her own fears. Father urged her to leave things and stay. But Mother being Mother, she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself unless she had put as much order into her life – even into the life she was leaving (had left) behind – as was possible under the circumstances.
As soon as I was safely farmed out, Mother had set off. At the time (1949) things were still a bit chaotic. A few years later Mother’s stunt would have been impossible. German thoroughness was not yet cranked up back to full steam again.
She didn’t take much on her journey – just a few basic personal necessities shoved into a large shopping bag. She took the train to Helmstedt, the same border crossing where our miracle return began, and from there she walked to one of the small villages that had been cut in half by the new border, banking on the fact that locals were still allowed to move reasonably freely between the ‘two Germanys’.
It was autumn. Mother walked and walked in the direction of the border between Germany and Germany. When she got to the first small houses in a village it was already late afternoon. She put down her shopping bag and, needing a moment’s rest, she sat down on a large stone by the road thinking she’d eat her sandwich now, wondering when it would be dark enough to attempt the crossing into East Germany. Mother had planned to wait until evening and walk across the border at dusk, ask someone for the nearest train station and take it from there. As she sat and planned her next move, she could see a man approaching on a bike. The man stopped and wiped his forehead.
“Guten Tag. You’re not from here …?”
Not trusting: “No.”
“On your way home?”
Mother was very nervous by now and didn’t quite know where this meeting would lead.
“You are a long way from home, aren’t you … Why don’t you come with me, I am just going home for supper. The wife always has enough to feed another hungry mouth. Don’t worry. In these days we all depend on each other. Come on, woman.”
He reached out with one hand to help her get up. She picked up her shopping bag which the man took from her to hang it on one of the handle bars of his bike and walked alongside her. For a moment he stopped and held out his hand.
“By the way, I am Hermann Veichtner. My house is just over there, the one with the green fence.”
Mother took his hand, shook it and offered her name. She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, stay or run. They soon reached the house with the green fence. Hermann Veichtner left his bike chained to a fence post and before he had time to knock on the door, it was opened by his wife.
“Hilde, I found her sitting on the big stone.”
The women sighed, “Whatever will you be bringing home next…” then she turned to Mother and extended both hands with a big smile: “Welcome my dear; Hermann is a magnet for strays. You don’t look like a stray, just a stranger. Come in. Make yourself comfortable and tell us how we can help.”
During the next hour, while they ate and talked, Mother found out that she was in East Germany. Without knowing it and without meeting a soul, she’d walked right across the border.
When the Veichtners heard where she was going, they insisted she’d stay the night. There was only one train a day and it stopped in the next village at 12 o’clock midday.
In the morning, Hermann Veichtner took Mother to the train station on the back of his bike. When they shook hands and Mother thanked him once more, he looked away into the distance and said, “Soon it’ll all change again. But they can only do to us what we let them do. For the last thousand years I have tried to stay human. Hilde doesn’t always see it that way, she gets scared. But she’s a good woman, my Hilde, and she’s always there when I need her. Be careful, Ilse Becker, don’t trust anyone. And drop in on your way back.”
Mother somehow managed to sort out her left-behind life without being given away, the new system had not yet managed to take hold completely. Everything ‘portable’ she packed into parcels of 20 kg each (the limit of a parcel you could send by post) and sent us one each day. Everything else she gave away to family and friends, burned the rest, and put a few precious possessions into her shopping bag. Again, Mother being Mother, the last thing on her list of ‘to dos’ was to go to the local mayor’s office and give notice of her departure. The new post-Nazi mayor, a communist who’d just returned from a concentration camp, looked up at her and then down at his papers. Quietly he said, “Frau Becker, get lost. Just disappear. You haven’t been here and I haven’t seen you. Good luck!”
Suddenly very aware of her situation and exceedingly grateful, she left, took her bike, pedalled to the station and boarded the train. A couple of stops before the not yet quite impassable ‘Iron Curtain’ she left the train, received her bike from the mail and goods carriage, and slowly biked the rest of the way, her shopping bag tied to the baggage rack on the back of her bike, a headscarf knotted under her chin.
This time the border village was full of people and Volkspolizei. Mother’s heart was beating so hard, she thought everyone would be able to hear it. Her legs turned to jelly and her hands nearly slipped off the handle bars. She repeated prayers like mantras and, despite her fear and panic, she somehow managed to wend her way slowly through the throng, apparently unconcerned and looking to probing eyes like any other local farmer’s wife on her way home.
After what seemed hours, days, weeks – Mother knew she must be ‘on the other side’, in West Germany. When she spotted someone by the side of the road she stopped and first asked where was ‘here’ and then the way to the nearest train station. She was indeed back in West Germany and arrived home a day later, dishevelled and totally exhausted. The next day Mother sent my brother to fetch me home from Düsseldorf.
Father was only a shadow of his former self. He wasn’t sure how he had survived, but now, reunited with his family, he was glad he had. He told us more about his internment as an American prisoner of war in France, about his return, and how he’d given up one day, ready to just fade away. Life had become too heavy a burden, especially when he was told how his mother had died. She had been completely alone, her seven sons and daughters either dead or unable to come to their mother’s aid. His beloved wife and children were far away and seemed more out of reach than ever, especially when Stalin began effectively to fence in the Soviet-occupied zone.
Adding to this misery, Father had become aware of the unspeakable crimes committed by Hitler and his cronies and had seen pictures of the mass graves and the survivors of Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Treblinka … (He would never recover from knowing he had, however passively, been party to this horror. He would never forgive himself for not having ‘seen’, or perhaps not having wanted to see.) There was no food or anything else, the currency reform took away the little money he still had in his savings account, and in his own home he was barely tolerated by those that had sought shelter there when that was the only option.
We climb up to the attic. I carry blankets and linen, Mother and Father carry some wooden planks and bricks which Father had been allowed to take home from where he works. I don’t know where they found the old, hard mattress which was already up there, leaning against two of the wooden roof supports. Father distributes the bricks on the floor just by the attic entrance where the roof angles away from the floor and creates a kind of biggish cubbyhole. Then Mother and Father put the wooden planks over the bricks and the old mattress on top. Mother takes the linen and blankets from me and makes up what is going to be Father’s bed.
“There just isn’t enough room for the four of us in the kitchen”, says Mother vaguely in my direction. “Let’s hope it won’t be for long.” Her face is tired and worried and Father puts his arms around her, “I’ll be fine. As long as we are together … I wish I could give you back your life.”
Feeling awkward, almost indiscreet, I leave them and walk down to our flat where the door is open.
Our flat was a small one at the best of times – it had been the first flat with two bedrooms the young couple had been able to afford to rent when I, their second child, was due – but now it was crowded and claustrophobic. Fräulein Kaminski, a pale, freckled woman with a wild head of red hair had moved into what would have been our living room. She was very thin and coughed a dry cough day and night. She kept herself apart from all of us but was shyly friendly when we met. Fräulein Kaminski almost never went out, and her cough became a kind of background soundtrack to our daily lives. Soon we no longer noticed it.
A family of three, the Witeks lived in what once had been my parents’ bedroom. She was a hard-faced peroxide blonde, and he an ugly version of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. I saw him almost always wearing only a stained undershirt. The almost see-through little girl of around six was in the first year of elementary school and went to the same school opposite our house where I was in the last months of being bored to tears before I could leave after hopefully passing my entry exam for high school.
The Witek’s door is open again and they are screaming at each other. I take a furtive look, making sure I can’t be seen. Frau Witek is standing just behind the door, swinging what looks like a large piece of black hose pipe, beating down on her husband who sits at the table, protecting his head with his arms. While she beats him she screams at the top of her lungs.
“Dirty bastard, pig, arsehole, I’ll show you who’s boss here!”
Even without the open door I would have heard everything. I close our kitchen door behind me to mute the sounds and also to pretend it never happened. Slowly the noise dies down. A little later I have to go and pee and have to pass their door again which is still open, and I can’t help looking in. Little Elsbet sits at the same spot where her father just sat, a schoolbook open in front of her. Her mother stands behind her and pushes her head down, beating it against the table.
“What a stupid girl you are. Let’s teach you how to count. One… two… three…”.
Agnes Braun is a pretty, curvy young woman and usually heavily painted. I admire her tremendously. Her dark, chestnut-brown hair reaches to just above her shoulders, some of it is caught in a small comb and turned once or twice to create a fashionable roll above her forehead. Her eyebrows are thin, painted arches, her lips bright red, and she wears beautiful dresses with short skirts, and nylon stockings that have a seam down the backs of her calves, her feet in high heels. I never see her in dust coats.
Fräulein Braun is clearly very sophisticated and lives in our ‘garden’ room. Cigarette smoke tends to curl from under her door, slowly filling the hall. The garden room has a large terrace and looks out over the gardens and allotments towards the church. Fräulein Braun is almost always at home and receives many (and only male) visitors. Sometimes, when I open the door to see who rang the bell, they bend down and pinch my thigh, my bottom or my chest. I hate that and love it just a little bit, too. When I ask Mother, she makes her desperate face which becomes white with fury. “She’s a whore, that one. Leave her alone and stay away from these men… Don’t you ever again answer the door!” I can’t look up ‘whore’ anywhere, our books are in still in boxes somewhere in the basement.
The total number of refugees moving into what remained of Germany exceeded 12 million. They came from the Eastern territories that had been redistributed between the victors, and from where all ethnic Germans that either fled or had been expelled at gun point. The most serious problem for everyone was not only how to survive the next week but where to find shelter. The refugees together with the bombed out population added up to around 20 million German people who had nowhere to live.
We asked around and were told that we could get rid of our squatters as long as we found alternative accommodation for them, something that was almost impossible because the Wiederaufbau (reconstruction) of Germany was still in its infancy. Since most of the young men had either died in the War or came home badly wounded, it was left to the women and the older men to clean up the rubble and to help rebuild the country. These women were known as the Trümmerfrauen (rubble women). My father had also been cleaning rubble after his return home from his PoW years.
Old Mr Hagmann on the first floor welcomes us back ‘from the Russians’ and cries when he sees us. His wife had starved to death.
“One day she just didn’t wake up… it was so cold and she had been so weak and was so very thin, there was nothing left of her.”
“I don’t know why I kept on going… and two days after she went I got a care parcel from the Quakers in America. Why couldn’t she hold on a couple more days …”.
Mother has tears in her eyes and holds his hands in hers. Herr Hagmann looks at me. His face takes on a more urgent expression. He suddenly turns to me: “I nearly forgot… I have something for you!”
He shuffles back into his flat and soon comes out again with the china rabbit and chicken which Frau Hagmann had always brought down to the shelter for me and presses them into my hands.
“She would have loved for you to have them…” I suppose I should feel something, but the only thing I can concentrate on with fascination is Herr Hagmann’s nose which is like a huge, dark-red, misshapen potato and looks as though it had been badly molded from small pieces of coloured dough.
Above us lives a family we don’t know from before the War. Apparently they rent their flat legitimately, and they have no squatters. Anna Richter is a pretty, dark-blonde young woman, and her husband Achim a rather ordinary looking man. He has ash-blond, wispy, curly hair, is as tall as Father and always asks me embarrassing questions when we are alone for a moment and I never know where to look or what to say, so I brazen it out pretending great worldiness.
“How many boys did you kiss behind the school today?”
“Are your titties growing?”
“Next time you touch yourself will you think of me?”
Luckily I don’t really see much of him.
They have a sweet little baby, Dieter, and I go up from time to time to look after him when Frau Richter has to go out and can’t take him along.
Mother doesn’t like them very much. She calls Frau Richter ‘uppity’, and Herr Richter is definitely not her favourite person. “There is something not right about him. I don’t know what it is, but I suppose I’ll find out one day.”
The Richters have a piano, and whenever I am upstairs I ‘play’ a little. Frau Richter says she likes to have her piano come to life, she loves music, suggests I take piano lessons and invites me to come up after school whenever I like and practice.
Mother is reluctant at first, saying that she doesn’t want ‘to be beholden’ to anybody, but Frau Richter and I convince her, and soon Mother begins to enquire about piano teachers.
Herr Kirchner lives about 20 minutes walking distance from our flat. He is a Klavierlehrer (piano teacher) and even has a little sign by his front door saying so. I now go to see him once a week. He is a small, thin, grey man and his clothes and hair are the colour of mouse. Everything about him is colourless. Even his wife, his flat, his furniture and curtains are bleak, and when he plays a piece of music, it becomes grey too. But he was the cheapest, and initially I enjoyed the challenge of learning.
Herr Kirchner smokes a lot, has stained, yellow teeth and bad breath. When he sits next to me turning the pages of my sheet music, he leans over me and I gag a little. I even suspect he farts from time to time, the smell slowly creeps up and fills our space. When he corrects my fingering he gets up to stand behind me. Leaning over me he puts his hands on mine and moves my fingers into the right positions and sequences. His body pushes against my back and sometimes he seems to rub himself against it, while he almost always touches my nipples when he withdraws his hands. I daren’t say anything because I am too embarrassed; and because I can’t imagine he does it deliberately I feel I would embarrass him which would make things worse. Also, what would I say to Mother? Besides, I truly like learning to play better and better and delight in the music. I have a faint hope that I’ll be able to play jazz piano one day.
On one policy all the Allies agreed: denazification. Not only those Germans who wanted to take political office, work as public servants, teachers, judges, policemen etc, but also those who just wanted to work again in their professions needed a paper documenting that they had not been active Nazis. The Germans christened that paper Persilschein, another irreverent expression which is impossible to translate – it’s a take-off of a major German detergent brand, ‘Persil’, and the ‘whiter than white’ message, together with its tagline: ‘as clean as only Persil can make you’.
Denazification did have a certain theoretical effect, bringing home the message that the Nazis not only had been the bad guys, but were now an illegal organisation – even awakening a little hope that the worst offenders would receive some punishment. In reality, it simply meant keeping the vast majority of ordinary Germans far too long out of work, while many members of informal networks of ex-Nazis continued to have considerable economic power and political influence. Plus ça change…
Had anyone taken a closer look, they’d have found a multitude of big-shot ex Nazis back in power after the War, mostly in Germany, but also in the home countries of the Allied powers. Reinhard Gehlen was a case in point. He had been a Major General in the German Wehrmacht during World War II, with the position of chief of intelligence gathering on the Eastern front. Within a few months after the end of the War, General Reinhard Gehlen’s entire intelligence organisation was employed and protected by US intelligence. Until 1968 he ran the West German intelligence apparatus and became a legendary Cold War spymaster. He even made it to president of the German Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Bureau).
Nuremberg took care of the leaders, and in many countries formerly occupied by the Nazis, special courts took care of collaborators, the smaller fry, the ‘quizlings’, the leaders of puppet regimes – for example in Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Yugoslavia etc.
There was just one problem with general denazification: almost all Germans had been members of the Nazi party, just as almost all citizens of Communist countries are members of the Communist party. Apart from the certainly huge number of convinced and active Nazis prepared to do anything for their beloved Führer, there were those who always join the winners because that’s where the power lies, political influence and considerable financial gains, as well as those – guilty by association and silence – who knew that they didn’t stand a chance at advancement and professional careers unless they had their party-membership number.
No way could the Allies hope to sort cleanly through that mess. The Americans started the denazification process with the best intentions as well as considerable righteousness, whereas the English, in an effort to speed up the rebuilding of the destroyed economy, allowed many former Nazis to hold important positions after deciding that anyone familiar with the area and the task should take on public responsibilities. The French wanted to take some form of revenge on their former enemy and used Nazi professionals to rebuild France’s destroyed economy, while the Soviets remade their zone into a Communist society, and all those former Nazis willing to turn remained in public life.
By 1946, the Allies had classified former Nazis into five categories: Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Followers and Persons Exonerated. Those in the first four groups were to be punished. Germans were made to fill out a questionnaire and classify themselves, but most true major offenders – unless they were already on a wanted list – naturally lied about their activities and, on the whole, got away with it. By the beginning of the Cold War, denazification was turned over to German authorities and many more Nazis returned to important positions.
One day, Father came home showing us his Persilschein. Without it he had been unemployable and trying to get it had been a major obstacle course. By now the denazification process had almost become a witch hunt, comparable to McCarthyism in the US a little later. If somebody didn’t like you, had old grievances, wanted your job, your house – all he had to do was report you to the denazification authorities as a hardened former Nazi, and your life would become a Kafkaesque absurdity.
Father had managed to make one enemy. In his ‘previous life’ as safety engineer in one of the huge steel concerns, his responsibility had been the safety of all workers and therefore making safe all installations and machinery. Should an accident occur, Father would close down the section until he had found the cause, would redesign the part at fault, have the workshop make it up, fit it, and, after trials, sign it off as safe. One section boss, Otto Brenner, a very well-connected and active Nazi at the time, had been particularly unhelpful. Too costly, too much time wasted, falling behind with production for the war effort and pointing out that in that section most of the workers were Poles – so why bother?
That day, Father, a peaceful man who rarely lost his temper but, when he did, lost it big time, had a major (and public) fight with the man and won the day. When Father finally had the strength to approach the authorities for his denazification paper, he found that Otto Brenner was one of the men in charge. When Otto saw Father, he looked up from his desk and slowly smiled a big, satisfied smile. “Well, Julius, what a pleasure to see you here. See you in hell!” It took Father over two years to defend himself against unfounded accusations. He had to try and find character witnesses amongst his former colleagues, neighbours and friends in a country in such chaos that it continued with regular radio broadcasts trying to locate the missing.
While all around us people began to find their feet, Father got more and more depressed. He was still condemned to cleaning rubble and recondition bricks when those of his ex-colleagues who were still alive slowly drifted back from wherever they had been blown by the winds of war and found jobs that were slowly being created in the first timid attempts at a the revival of German industry. Even though he had found great peace in God, this new twist of not quite fate found him brittle and vulnerable.
One day, working in the yard of an almost pulverised factory, he heard someone call his name. When he looked up and walked towards the road, he found himself face to face with his old boss and good friend Herbert Stetten. They embraced, almost dancing in the street, barely able to believe that they were both alive. Herbert soon made sure that Father’s denazification paper came through and offered him a job.
One morning, Fräulein Kaminski doesn’t appear. We can’t hear her cough. By now we know she suffers from active pulmonary tuberculosis, and we have all been a bit worried. Mother was particular concerned about my brother and me. Passing her door, I somehow know she’s dead.
Mother called our family doctor who had remained in town and had continued his praxis throughout the War. Too old to be drafted, too much needed to be harassed, Dr Waldmann had become far more important than a parish priest.
When I come home from school, I find Mother on her hands and knees cleaning our old living room floor. I smell disinfectant. Standing by the door I try to remember what it looked like during the time when I was little and when my brother ‘taught’ me to march. I remember an opening connecting this room with the other one where the Witeks now live. Mother confirms that I my memory hasn’t let me down. The opening has been closed with hardwood to create two separate rooms. She also says that Father will stay in the attic for the moment, but that I’ll have a bed of my own in the kitchen because this room will be my brother’s.
In August 1949, after the first post-war elections, West Germany became the Federal Republic of Germany, and in 1950 Germany slowly turned the economic corner. The Allies finally stopped dismantling the West German coal and steel industry, and we all felt the touch of a wave of optimism.
The Germans went back to work and to life in a big way. Although the four-year Marshall Plan had helped Germany’s reconstruction, its main driving force were the Germans themselves. With a tremendous capacity and will, the German people worked long hours and reinvented and recreated their industries, determined to lift themselves ‘out of the bog by their own hair’ like the Baron von Münchhausen and ‘The Times’ coined the expression Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle).
Even though Great Britain and France had received far more economic aid than Germany under the Plan, they did not experience the same upturn; and the aid Germany received was almost offset by the war reparations the Germans had to pay back. Not only were they charged about $2.4 billion per year to cover the ongoing cost of occupation – which seems obscene from today’s perspective – but from 1953 (the Marshall Plan ended in 1952), Germany had to repay a total of $1.1 billion of the aid it had received (the last payment was made in June 1971).
One of the natural by-products of this unparalleled economic upswing was new housing, and the last of our ‘tenants’ soon moved out. We redecorated, cleaned and were grateful.
Wiltrud lives on the other side of the railway tracks in a lonely and joyless big building. Someone said that it had been erected originally to house foreign workers who loaded river barges with goods from the nearby train depot. There is one tired tree, struggling to grow a few leaves, and no other green anywhere. The dusty yard is surrounded by a rusty wire fence.
In school, none of the other children wants to play with her. They treat her as though she were suffering from a contagious disease. When they talk about her they say with disgust, “These people are dirty and stupid and, anyway, who wants to go and play in the Karnickelburg (rabbit castle)…”
Wiltrud is two years older than I am. She, like Wilfried, has had to repeat a class. She is round, has almost see-through white skin and is very blond. Her hair, which looks like spun gold, is always braided to perfection into heavy pigtails. Her belly sticks out a bit and above it there are two small bulges which I envy her. She has very straight ‘fat’ legs.
Wiltrud was not very bright, but she was sweet and gentle and in need of a friend. That made two of us, and we drifted towards each other with the unerring instincts of the outsiders. I’d visit her in the Karnickelburg because there we normally had some privacy to play or just to talk. Whatever her building’s shortcomings, she had a room of her own. The other advantage was that both her parents worked during the day which gave us the freedom I craved. At home, Mother always hovered, sharp-eared and eagle-eyed.
Wiltrud and I are in her room, talking quietly and playing with her dolls, when she suddenly stops and, looking at me with a worried expression, pulls down her panties and says, “Look, Anne, look … down here … see those hairs? I’ll never let a man near me looking like this. What do you think I should do? Pull them out? Shave? I am getting some under my arms, too. That’s just so awful …”
At night I take a good look at myself and feel some relief because I can’t find one single hair. Perhaps not everyone grows hair down there?
I meet Ingrid. She is a year younger than I and goes to the same school. She lives just around the corner from me – in a house, not a flat. They have nice, matching furniture and a big back garden. Ingrid also has a big bedroom all to herself and a huge amount of dolls and toys. Ingrid is very pretty and always wears beautiful clothes, and I am just a little bit jealous.
For a time, Ingrid Barlow became one of my very best friends. We scootered and rollerscated – either the two of us alone or in a big local crowd, and I began to feel good about being back.
One day we found a big bowl full of blueberries in Ingrid’s kitchen. They smelled a little strange, but with loads of sugar they tasted just fine. Ingrid’s mother was out shopping and her father at work, so we couldn’t really ask for permission and cared less and less about that as we continued to eat blueberries which tasted better and better with each spoonful. We felt increasingly odd and couldn’t help laughing and singing, dancing and giggling, rolling about on the floor because life itself was just so funny. Suddenly we stopped, sat up and looked at each other and threw up almost in unison. Death would have been welcome then, but instead it was Ingrid’s mother who came in and looked at us in horror.
When we woke up – we had no idea how we got into Ingrid’s bed – Frau Barlow told us that we had been as ‘drunk as skunks’. Those blueberries had come from a bottle of Schnapps in which Frau Barlow had soaked the blueberries since the previous summer to give the alcohol that blueberry taste. Most of the alcohol always stayed in the berries, and we had scoffed the lot. Ingrid’s mother felt we’d been punished sufficiently, a point of view with which we definitely agreed.
I am off to take my entry exam for grammar school. There are loads of us, all around 11 years old. We look at each other, most of us shy, not sure what to do next. As we arrive we are sent to a big hall where more kids are waiting, some quietly, some showing off – especially the boys. After a while a teacher comes in and calls our names, and asks us to go in groups of 12 to specific class rooms.
It’s very quiet. In our class room an old teacher sits on the desk in front of the black board. He tells us to sit one to a bench and only use the two outer rows, leaving the middle one empty. “No cheating!” He looks at us sternly. “No talking!”
He gives each one of us a small stack of paper and asks us whether we all have fountain pens, pens (ink is in an ink well in the front of the desk) or whether we need a pencil. Some kids raise their hands and are given freshly sharpened pencils. The questions have already been written on the blackboard. A hush descended on the room. You can only hear the odd pen scraping, paper rustling and the teacher’s shoes on the linoleum floor, slowly pacing the aisles between the rows of desks, his hands clasped behind his back.
At the end of what seems an eternity, the teacher calls time and asks us to write our name on each one of our sheets and bring them to his desk. One by one we are traipsing out, slightly dazed, tired and wondering what’s going to happen next.
I believe we received the results in the mail about two weeks later, and I had passed. Not only had I passed, but I had high enough marks to be eligible for a grant – without which my parents wouldn’t have been able to send me to the Lyzeum (grammar school for girls). They explained that my performance would be evaluated at the end of each school year, and that I had to work hard to stay amongst the top five or I’d have to leave and find work somewhere. At that moment I wasn’t sure what it all meant for me, but I tried to take it in and take it seriously.
Book 2 continues next Sunday! Thank you, Rose. It’s a fascinating story. The rest of the ‘adventures of Annie’ can be read in THE TELLING.
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The blog interviews will return as normal tomorrow with thriller writer Bob Mayer – the six hundred and twenty-sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, biographers, agents, publishers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.
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