to introduction; chap. 5, chapter 9; UCSB Hist 133c homepage; Hist 133q homepage
note: Prof. Mahlendorf was born in October 1929, so she was 15 years old at this time
When I reported to the military hospital at the beginning of March 1945, the melting snow made the streets of Habelschwerdt slippery. The local HY office assigned me a space at the town youth hostel that housed refugees. I shared the dormitory with ever-new sets of families in transit but kept my bed and a locker in a corner next to a window. I took my meals at the hostel and since I made friends with one of the cooks, I had enough to eat even when I missed mealtimes because of the arrival of too many casualties from the front. She was a short, bony, older woman from East Prussia who spoke with the droll singsong accent typical of East Prussians. She reminded me of Oma as she calmly moved about helping now this, now that refugee. Monika, who reported to the hospital the same day I did and who was a Habelschwerdt native, lived at home.
A two-minute walk took me from the hostel to the hospital, a former school that was housed on the grounds of a convent and staffed mainly by, as I remember, Franciscan nuns. A number of Red Cross nurses, a group of orderlies, several surgeons and a tenth semester medical student completed the personnel. The head nurse, Sister Prudentia, a tall even majestic middle aged nun in black habit , the white band of her head dress framing her severe, pale face , assigned me as an assistant to two wards on the second floor; Monika to another two wards downstairs. Our duties were to serve meals, to take temperatures, to fetch and empty bedpans and urinals, and to help wash those patients who could not wash themselves. Some days, when too many cases came in from the Breslau front for the nuns to handle by themselves, both Monika and I helped with washing the worst dirt and blood off the new cases before they went to the operating room. I found those the most exhausting days because I tensed up when any of the young soldiers cried out in pain at the mere sight of our approaching them. Bespattered with blood that had dried, their HY uniforms encrusted with dirt, they smelled of shit, urine and bitter sweat.
Most evenings, even when we had worked overtime, Monika and I accompanied each other home as we talked and meandered back and forth between our two homes. Her father had a carpenter shop and her family lived in the house above the shop. Her father was a WWI veteran who had lost a leg and had fashioned his own prosthesis, as Monika proudly told me.
"He hates war," she said and I was shocked by what seemed heresy to me. War, after all I had learned in my HY training, is the master of all things, hardens you and makes you courageous. Sometimes our meanderings would take several hours. Just as she had at the infant ward, Monika expressed her distress more openly than I did about the torn limbs, the oozing wounds, the penetrating, sweet smell of iodine and puss, the groaning of the wounded men.
"They are just like the boys I go to school with," she cried as the tears ran down her face. I was embarrassed by what I thought of as her weakness and nothing occurred to me that I could say to console her. Indeed, about half of the soldiers were our age or a little older. When you went through some wards, you thought you were going through a youth hostel dormitory. The other half of the wounded were older men in their forties or fifties, members of the Volksturm (Home front Defense), much like my uncle Kurt, called up just like the boys in a last effort to hold off the Russians. Both of us feared that we might see badly disfigured boys we knew.
One of the wards I worked in was occupied by boys; the other by the older men. I liked working at the hospital; I felt I was finally useful and some days I tried talking Monika into seeing the carnage and misery we witnessed this way.
"We are doing something useful; we are helping them, " I countered her distress. She cried harder and got angry with me.
"Donít you see how horrible, how senseless it is?"
I did see that it was horrible, but I automatically started again on my litany of being useful in the defense of our country as we continued walking back and forth between our houses.
The hospital was short on everything, pain medication, ether, hypodermics, dressings, bandages--even those made from paper--and sulfa drugs to stem infections. The operating room was downstairs from the two wards where I worked regularly. The muffled shouts coming from behind double doors disturbed even me if I was sweeping the hallway and made me work faster. The soldiers called me Ďgirl,í when they wanted me for something and soon the hospital staff followed suit. I wanted to learn about the different kinds of wounds. At first, the nuns kept me away from daily rounds by one pretext or another, when the staff removed the dressings and examined the wounds. One day, as I tried to see what the seam of a leg amputated at the knee looked like, Paul, the medical student, noticed my curiosity. "Come on and look, girl. Find out what this is all about." I did not know how to respond to his angry challenge but moved closer. He sounded furious and his critical tone stung. After rounds, he confronted me in the hall, his almost balding high forehead creased with an angry scowl,
"How old are you, girl?"
Surprised by the attention, I said, "Fifteen," and then did not know what else to say.
"You want to be a nurse when you grow up?"
I felt insulted; I was grown up after all.
"No," I improvised, "Iíd like to study medicine and become a doctor."
Actually, I had never thought about becoming a doctor, but at this point I felt sure that I wanted to do just that.
From then on, the staff tolerated my joining them on rounds. I got used to seeing flesh wounds to arms and legs laced with puss. Harder to tolerate were shot wounds where the bone had been shattered, and worst were belly shots. Invariably, there was not much that the surgeon could do but remove the bullet and flush it with sulfa solutions. Men with bowel shots screamed when they were moved for washing or re-bandaging. Invariably, they ran high temperatures. Most died within a few days.
The first man I saw die was a pale-skinned, freckled, red haired eighteen-year old. He ran a high fever from the time he arrived at the ward. Sometimes he shouted and raved in delirium, at other times he lay quietly, unconscious, and then began crying. Quickly, it seemed to me, his voice got weaker and the periods of unconsciousness longer. Sister Prudentia called a priest to administer last rites to him. Just as the priest entered, the red head woke up. Wide-eyed he stared as the priest approached his bed.
"I donít want the sacrament, I donít want to die, I donít want to die." His face convulsed with sobs as he cried out again and again, "I donít want to die." Not deterred by the protest, the priest began to chant his prayers even as his acolyte swung the incense vessel back and forth. The smell of incense filled the room as the boy mercifully lost consciousness. I was furious with Sister Prudentia and with the priest. Why could they not just let the boy die without his knowing what was happening to him? I turned away from the ritual and stared out the window resting my forehead against the soothing cool glass of the window pane. I had never seen anyone die before. The men in the ward behind me seemed to hold their breaths. There was no sound except for the priestís murmering his prayers. Death behind me--and outside a glorious, warm spring day and trees leafing out with tiny yellow-green fingers. And I, cut off from their fresh, tickling fragrance by a wall of glass. Next morning, when I came back to the ward, the red-haired soldierís bed had been stripped and remade afresh. "He died last night, " Sister Prudentia told me, "The Good Lord took him into His merciful arms."
A few days into our beginning to work in the hospital both Monika and I were called to the townís HY office and presented with troupe leadership twisted silk cords in green and white. "You are getting these in recognition of having passed the Red Cross training," the local HY leader said as she fastened the cords over our black kerchiefs and pressed a small white cotton oval embroidered with a red caduceus into our hands. "Sew these on the pocket of your blouses." A few weeks earlier I would have given almost anything for these insignia. Now like Monika I glared at the older HY girl, feeling a sneer pass over my face. Just like Monika, I attached the cotton embroidered caduceus to my uniform blouse but never wore the cord again.
I gradually lost my initial distrust and anger at the nuns as I got to know how devoted they were to easing the menís pain and making them comfortable. They started every day with early mass and by six oíclock they relieved the nuns on nightshift. Except for half an hour for the noon meal and a prayer at the convent, they stayed on duty till nine at night. At any hour of the day you saw the swift swirl of their black and white habits scurry through the hallways. Highly skilled in nursing, most of them were gentle when they removed bandages or moved a patient. They knew every patientís name. They cheered the men by asking about their families, inquired how they had been wounded, where they were from, and even helped them write letters when they had a free moment. They donated blood if their blood group was needed. They made toddies of wine, eggs and sugar, which they brought from convent supplies for those soldiers who needed more energy to fight for their lives than the gruel from the hospital kitchen provided. They stayed on duty when the front moved closer during the next two months and remained when physicians, orderlies and one Red Cross nurse after the other left for the West. The nuns took up the slack without complaint. Their images in my memory blend into each other except for sister Prudentia.
The nuns had been distrustful of me when I first started to work, most likely because I still wore my HY uniform. Actually, aside from my ski pants and my brotherís heavy jacket it was the only outfit I owned after we lost one of our suitcases--a few changes of white blouses, two dark blue skirts, and a dark blue blazer. After a few weeks of working at the ward, the nuns began to trust me and assigned me special tasks like handing out medications. They spoke to me in just as friendly a way as they used with the soldiers and with Paul, the medical student. During my frequent nosebleeds, Sister Prudentia put an icepack on the back of my neck to stop the bleeding and let me rest on quieter afternoons. By the time I left, I admired all of them for their kindness and calm devotion to service. This admiration began to take the place of my former awe of rank and title. I wanted to be devoted to the soldiers like they were.
Nobody liked the SS man in the ward of the older men. He teased me mercilessly, "Come on, girl, you have fucked your boyfriend just last night, I can see it in your eyes!" He leered at me and I, to my embarrassment, turned scarlet with anger.
"Leave her be, you swine," one of the other men took him on trying to shut him up. But the SS man gave up teasing me only when he saw me blushing with embarrassment. Whenever I left the room of the older men, the SS man called for me, called even louder when I came running and sent me to get this or that. I did and then he did not want what I brought, no matter what it was. The entire ward of fourteen men--seven beds on each side of the door--seethed with anger at him. Most of the men in his ward were Volkssturm men (Home Front Defense) in their fifties and sixties who had been wounded at their very first enemy encounter. He occupied the third bed to the left from the door. One of his legs had been amputated. At around age forty, he spoke with a sharp nasal rasp that grated against your ear drums. You could hear his loud voice out in the hallway when he talked to his bed-neighbor, another older man who had been in the military police at the Eastern front.
It was late one evening when we a new contingent had arrived from the front. I had helped wash the incoming cases down in the front-hall. Ready to leave, I had gone upstairs to my two wards just to check if everyone was ok for the night. Even from the stairway I could hear the SS man and his neighbor talking. I stopped and did not want to go into the ward.
"We must have shot the entire village when one of ours got a bullet from a partisan; old men, women, and even the kids. They screamed like crazy, I can still hear them. But we didnít have any choice in the matter. They all were involved in the resistance. We burnt down the village after that." This was the military policeman, I realized. "We killed a lot of civilians. Particularly the Jews." "Donít tell me you couldnít take it, you didnít have the balls, " the SS man sneered, "You guys were harmless idiots. Now we had some fun with Ö" I did not want to hear more. I was afraid to have the tales of atrocities by the SS confirmed that Motherís customers and her officer-cousin had whispered about when I was home after my operation.
"What are you going to do, "I heard the military policeman say to his neighbor another time when I worked late, "When the Russians come? You can play the ordinary soldier but theyíll know from your tattoo, that you were in the SS. " That was the first time I heard that SS soldiers had their blood-group tattooed on their upper inner arms. "They wonít know I am SS. I asked the surgeon to cut it out and itíll look just like the other shrapnel scars I have, " the SS man laughed. "And they arenít going to get me. Iíll disappear. I have connections."
At night the SS man had nightmares and night walked, the other soldiers said, when he hopped out of the room on his crutches cursing and screaming, " I got to get out of here." Sometimes he was delirious and the others said that they heard him rave about what the SS unit he belonged to had done in the Russian hinterland of the front. Even unflappable Sister Prudentia snapped at him when she lost patience with his obnoxious remarks and constant demands. I was afraid of him and had difficulty not showing it.
One day, standing in a corner of the hallway, I overheard Sister Prudentia talk to Paul in the room that served as nursesí station. I had seen Paul go in dressed in his army corporalís tunic as if he were going out.
"You arenít leaving?" Sister Prudentia said with a worried intonation that made my heart beat faster.
"No, of course not! I just need to take a break," Paul replied. "IĎve been on duty too long and I need to clear my head."
"How far did you get in your studies?" she inquired.
"Iím in my tenth semester. I started at Breslau University Winter semester of 1937 and finished my pre-clinical exams then. They drafted me right after the Polish campaign and sent me to Norway after basic training. I served during the first Winter of the Russian campaign at the front. I was lucky that I got frost bites and was sent home. They reassigned me to continue medical training and recalled me for hospital duties as an orderly just a few months ago."
Listening to them, I realized that I had almost overlooked that Paul limped. That must be because of the frostbite. Feeling ashamed for listening in on their confidences, I slunk away.
Usually I avoided going into the operating room. But one day Sister Prudentia needed some dressings and sent me to get them. One of the orderlies opened the door to let me in after I knocked. They had just finished with an operation; the soldier still lay on the operating table under bright lights, covered by a sheet. Suddenly I froze and stared at the refuse can next to the table. From among bloody paper bandages and swabs a leg stuck out, a brilliantly white leg with dark, short stubble, a leg with a foot, toes with yellowed toenails and still dirty with mud. I steadied myself at the door, and swallowed hard, trying to control my vagus reflex and the spinning of my head. Sister Prudentia, noticing my paleness when I handed her the dressings, offered me some of the toddy she had just finished making for one of the soldiers. I took it gratefully.
I was on duty with Sister Gisela, a young, blond, energetic Red Cross nurse, in late April or early May, when the radio announced Hitlerís death. " Our beloved Fűhrer died a heroís death in the defense of Berlin, " the announcer intoned. A heroic mourning march followed. I must have flinched as if from a blow at the news because Sister Gisela, the Red Cross operating nurse, said, " Why donít you take off for a few hours. Iíll stay around till you come back. We havenít got any new cases today." I was glad to be allowed to get out, go for a hike, be by myself and Ö I did not know what I was going to do. As I walked up Floriansberg, I considered going back and asking Monika to come with me and hurried back to the hospital. But Monika had the day off and I went for the hike by myself. I found out the next day that Monika and her family had left for the West. I never saw her again.
It was a clear spring day, the winter lindens on Floriansberg were just showing little redish-green buds against the sky, and snowdrops and crocus peeped out from grass still dead from winter frost in the few gardens I passed. It had rained at night and the air was still cool, a slight breeze cooled my hot face. I found a dirt road out into the meadows lined with blooming cherry trees. As I walked on I looked up into a sea of white and pink against a deep, brilliantly blue sky. I could not think. I felt nothing. But I was keenly aware that I just saw pink, white, against dark radiant blue. In a trance, I repeated the words to myself, "White, pink, deep blue, the Führer died, " as I continued walking, walking fast and driving the news into my head. The movement and speaking the words gave me relief, I did not know from what. I just wanted to keep moving and speaking aloud to the blooming trees above me. Then again, I felt unpleasantly numb as if I had been anaesthetized. I hoped that the fast movement and the speaking might help me come to myself. Suddenly and for just the briefest second, I began to feel a keen, sharp stab of an onrush of joy that flashed by as quickly as a bolt of lightning; then dullness again. Then, "I am alive." Then nothing.
I donít know how long I hiked that day, but I returned exhausted to the hospital by nightfall. Sister Gisela was waiting for me; she had taken care of my duties by herself. I wanted to get right to work but she stopped me.
"You are upset because Hitler killed himself." That was news.
The radio announcer had said that he died a soldierís death for the Fatherland. I did not want to believe that he had died a cowardís death. Despite myself, I listened to her.
"I only know that he shot himself and that he appointed Field Marshall Dönitz as successor," she continued. I briefly wondered what had happened to loyal party followers like Göring, or Goebbles, and then shrugged off further talk. I did not really want to know more. We only found out about Eva Braun and his marriage when we came to West Germany in 1946.
"Life will go on," Sister Gisela insisted. "In fact, I know many people who are glad that he is dead and gone for good." That seemed strange to me. I had always figured that if Hitler died, weíd all die.
"Many people who are glad?" I asked.
"Maybe you should come and visit with my family and our friends. Youíll see that they are loyal Germans but relieved he is dead. Germany wonít cease to exist just because Hitler committed suicide. We will be defeated and thatís good, because defeat will destroy the party. Dönitz is a navy man, not a party boss. We have a chance with him to rebuild a better Germany."
I felt bewildered and confused. The Führer had died and I was alive, we were alive. Hitler had committed suicide, deserted us, and here Sister Gisela told of people who were happy about it. The contradictory words still ran through my mind, ran on when, automatically, I resumed work on the ward for a few more hours. I did not want to stop. Most of the men on the wards slept soundly; a few groaned; no one except me seemed upset that Hitler had died. When I walked back to the hostel after midnight, I thought, "I like Sister Gisela; is she right that some Germans are glad he died? These people she talked of, could they be traitors like the men of the 20. of July last year? Why is nobody as troubled and sad as I am? Everybody used to revere the Führer. Where are they? Maybe I should go visit Sister Gisela to find out more."
Back at the hostel some of the refugees were still awake talking. That day the army had opened their local supply depot to the town population and they had all gone and brought back food stuffs, cartons of cigarettes, even whole bars of chocolate, blankets, shoes and boots from the depot. They were excited and happy. No one even mentioned Hitlerís suicide.
The following day when I returned to the hospital, Sister Prudentia told me that the last surgeon and even Sister Gisela, the operating room nurse, had left. Paul and she would have to take over the surgery and operate emergency cases. I and the other nuns would have to assume her duties and the older men would help me take care of the more severely wounded men on my wardsósince Monika had left, I had taken on hers. With his perennial scowl of angry intense concentration, Paul seemed very capable to me. I was fascinated by and awed by him. I could not tell if he liked me. Yet, whenever I met him in the hallway, I was conscious of his noticing me and acknowledging my presence with a curt, "Hallo, girl." Once, when I had one of my heavy nosebleeds, he showed me how to cope with them by compressing my nose for minutes on end and breathing through my mouth. Later that day, when a new contingent of wounded arrived from the front, I heard Paul and Sister Prudentia talking in the down stairs hallway as I was washing the new cases while Sister Prudentia was giving them shots to calm them down. Paul was cursorily looking over the men he could take into surgery. Both of them were tense.
"Have you done an amputation?" Sister Prudentia asked.
"No, but Iíve assisted at plenty."
"I did a stint as operating nurse," Sister Prudentia said, "but that was a few years ago."
"We havenít any choice, " Paul replied. "We have the Russian with the shattered knee in the operating room and that leg over there", he pointed at a man whom I had washed as I choked back gagging because he emitted a nauseating smell, "that has to come off mid-thigh or heíll die."
When I finished washing, Sister Prudentia sent me to fetch some dressings for her from the operating room. As I walked by its open door, I saw two orderlies preparing a man for surgery. They had swiped his bluish-red leg and bloodied knee up to his thigh with iodine and its strong smell permeated the room. They motioned for me to come in and have a closer look. I took a few steps forward and they saw me.
"Heís Russian, a prisoner of war, the dog," one of the orderlies said.
"Wonder how many German women he has raped, the swine, " the other added. "You know, donít you, Girl, that the Russians are rapists?"
"What do you think, Girl," he turned to me, "should he be allowed to live?"
"Should we kill him? Just say the word. Weíll give him enough ether to send him to the great beyond," cajoled the other as he took up the ether mask from a metal tray and placed it over the Russianís face.
I stood motionless. A wave of hatred swept over me. I wanted that man to die; he had raped, killed. I felt hot with fury. Blood went to my head, I was about to cry out, "Do it, do it!" when Paul came in from the scrub room in back of the operating room. He had heard us and spit his words at us.
"What the hell do you think you are doing? Kill him? This is a hospital; we donít kill; we heal them, friend and foe alike, ours and theirs."
And turning to me, "Remember that, girl. Doctors take an oath: Never do harm!"
The angry blood lust I felt just a second ago gave way to a rush of shame and remorse. How could I feel that way, wanting to kill? Why did I feel that? I was hateful, Aunt Helene was right. Whenever later in my life I got into discussions about what crimes and acts of inhumanity humans are capable of, I remembered Paul. I knew that I could have killed that Russian. I was lucky that Paul came in just at that minute and stopped us. I could have killed. I was just fortunate that Nazi time was running out.
As hard as we worked the first few days after the new contingent of wounded arrived, a few days later there was a lull. No new cases from the front. Sister Prudentia one afternoon sent me home.
"Go get some sleep. You look like you need a rest. Youíll need your strength soon enough."
"You donít look too chipper yourself," I thought, though I would not have dared being that familiar with her. I went back to the hostel and asked the East Prussian cook if she knew whose bike I could borrow. I felt like riding fast out into the spring. One of the hostellers lent me his bike. By this time in full spring, all the trees had leafed out, cherry blossom time had passed, the air stayed warm even after sundown. Out on the meadows, wild primroses bloomed in great profusion covering the fields with a yellow golden bright carpet. "Death so close," I was aware, "Thatís why the colors are so intense, why the sky radiates so brilliant a blue, why the wind in my hair feels so comforting." I pedaled more quickly and the meadow sped by, "I am alive, alive, alive." The sense of exhilaration was gone when I returned to the hospital.
Every day I had been more afraid to go into the older menís ward. "Girl, you better leave soon like the Red Cross nurses," was the SS manís constant refrain during my last days at the hospital. "They know enough not to wait for the Russians to get here to rape them. They are leaving to be safe on the American side."
One of the men shouted him down, "If it hadnít been for guys like you, our women wouldnít need to be afraid. If you hadnít killed civilians like there was no day of reckoning and behaved like swine they would be fine, invasion or no."
Though the SS manís talk frightened me, because he was much more believable than the propaganda we had heard for weeks, I was determined not to run as the other staff members had and to stick it out with the nuns and Paul. At this point, a few retired nuns in their seventies from the convent came over to help us out. Yet we were still short of staff and any one of us leaving was unimaginable. As it was, Sister Prudentia recruited every last man on the wards who could even hobble about to fetch bedpans, clean floors, and distribute food while I was advanced to change dressings and even give shots. Most evenings I went back to the hostel past midnight, by myself, too tired to know what hour it was.
I donít remember who told me that the hospital would be moved by train to the West a few days later and that I should get ready to go too. By this time, everyone had heard rumors that being invaded by the Russians would be catastrophic. Just like in my home town, none of the town administrators had made plans for the evacuation of the population or given any kind of direction on what to do, where to go, or what to avoid so as to stay alive during the coming invasion. To the end of the war, all officials acted as if the Russians were not overrunning us. After what I had heard the SS man say, I did not think that I would live to the end of the week. The Russians would seek revenge for their country, their cities and towns having been devastated, and their people forced into slave labor or killed. Almost everyone sought to get to the American side because we had heard that the Western Powers did not allow their soldiers to kill civilians or rape the women.
I asked Paul if I could bring along my mother and kid brother to come with me on the train. I received permission and set out that night to Lomnitz on a borrowed bike. The eight or so kilometers from Habelschwerdt to Lomnitz led uphill almost all the way so that I had to push the bike except for a stretch here and there. As I struggled against the wind that blew through my threadbare jacket, it started to rain in torrents. I worried that the creek, which roared with snow-melt alongside the road, might flood my path and not let me pass. Drenched to the skin, I arrived at the farm where Mother and Werner lived. Everyone had gone to bed and it took me a while to wake them.
I argued with Mother, "Come along. It is our only chance to escape the Russians. Weíll have a place on the train."
She started packing a few things, and soon both she and Werner were ready to go. As I opened the door to the rain outside and she heard the fierceness of the storm that still raged, she stopped.
"This is madness. Not tonight in this weather. Letís wait till the storm stops."
"We cannot wait, " I countered. "The train is leaving in the morning." But she would not budge.
"Go ahead," she urged me, "We will leave with Herr B."--her present friendó"tomorrow. We will be able to get a place on his truck". I found out later that she had received no such promise.
I finally left. In a few places the creek had flooded the road but I biked right through, hardly noticing the water sloshing against my pedals. I felt defeated and angry that mother had not come along with me, that my mission to save the family had failed; but it did not even occur to me to stay with her and not to go back to the hospital. It was Frau Dunisch, I think, who later asked Mother the reasonable question about that night. "Why did you let her go? A girl alone on the road had almost no chance to escape rape. And you knew it was madness to try to flee at this point."
"I could not have stopped her," mother replied.
She had the same reply when asked why she had not kept my sixteen year old brother with her on his last furlough a week earlier, "I could not have stopped him." Her refusal to take responsibility as a parent cost him four years as a Czech prisoner of war. It almost cost me my life.
Returned to the hostel after midnight, I dozed for a few hours till daylight and then went over to the hospital. Everyone was gone, the wards empty, in disarray, and littered with refuse, old blankets, sheeting, socks and discarded slippers. The high iron gate that gave access to the convent next door to the hospital remained closed as much as I rang the bell and called. I hurried back to the hostel but nobody could tell me what had happened. My friend, the cook said, "Come along with us. We are all leaving to try to get to the Americans. We will have to walk; we will have a cart and a horse to load on baggage and the smaller children. We will cross over into Czechoslovakia, and then head towards the West."
I joined them with the hope that on the way I might find the hospital train. I dressed in my brotherís pants and boots and, since my hair was still short from last yearís operation, I thought, "I can pass for a boy if need be."
We left during the afternoon. The hostel manager assigned me the role of nurse to the hostel group and handed me a satchel filled with first aid supplies. Quitting town, we joined a steady stream of refugees that covered the entire width of the road. We adapted our speed to its slow and halting forward movement. An hour or so after we started, the children in the mass of refugees began to complain of blisters on their feet. As we could not stop, I lifted each child onto the baggage cart and dealt with the blisters while walking. I kept busy with applying iodine and band-aids through most of the night. Nobody stopped to sleep. I lost track of the hours, and I believe that we walked all through the next day. During the middle of the next night, dragging myself along behind the baggage cart, I had a temper tantrum.
"Damn, shit, why cannot we stop? Why cannot we just drive the people in the next village out, take over their beds and go to sleep?" I lashed out. I donít know whose voice it was who yelled at me through the darkness,
"Get used to it! You cannot just take over a village! The days of the master race are gone forever. The Czechs will beat you up if you donít shut up." That sobered me. I went back on automatic and put one foot in front of the other. We never stopped anywhere. We heard shouts and curses, outcries, screams and moans. Occasionally a shot rang out in the darkness, an explosion; a sudden glare of headlights illuminated white faces, huge eyes, gaping mouths. Black again, motors roared, heavy trucks rumbled in the distance, horses neighed. Screaming, cursing, shouting, praying, weeping, wave after wave. A robot, I no longer knew if I was moaning and screaming too.
Later that same night or the next, people ahead of us began shouting in panic through the pitch-black darkness, "The Russians are coming!" We tried to run and could not because the dense crowd just went on moving at its slow pace. But the panic spread. Some people praying, others cursing, others groaning or crying, louder and louder. In the grey of daybreak, we realized that German soldiers had joined us. Most had already torn off the insignia on their uniforms. Some of the refugees screamed at them,
"Why are you not back at the front? You cowards."
"What front?" came the grim reply; "Everybody is running for their life."
I have no idea where exactly the Russians overtook us. Sometime in the chaos of the night, I had heard several voices behind me talk about committing suicide. At daybreak, as the owners of these voices tried to pass us, I recognized them by their impeccable uniforms even though they had already removed their leadership insignia. They were several high-ranking HY leaders, several men and a few women, all in their mid to end twenties. One of them looked vaguely like Marga, my first HY leader, but this woman was older and mousy-haired. Then the crowdís screaming, "They are coming!" reached us again. The group of HY leaders and one or two of the soldiers jumped across the roadside ditch and headed uphill away from the roadbed jammed with refugees, over a meadow. I ran after them in a mad dash up the meadow, down a small ravine and up again. I caught up to the group that was still running, and I knew that like them I did not want to live. Here was a way out, away from the Russians.
I came to myself, gasping for air and out of breath, as we arrived at the forestís edge and threw ourselves down. The mousy-haired HY leader whom I had trusted instinctively, sat next to me. She trembled, her face grey with fear. I heard the men talk about suicide again. "Letís make it fast. Weíll be killed anywayÖ.The Russians will take it out on us after what we did to them at the Eastern front. Theyíll will torture and kill us when they find out who we are." The rest of the words trailed off. With my blood pounding in my ears, I only heard fragments. The words of the SS man at the hospital came back to me, "what we didÖ rape. Shoot the swine. Kill. Fast, come on, do it!"
As I regained my breath, I felt far away, and their voices grew faint. I realized that I did not know any of the six people I was with at the forestís edge. The mousey haired woman with her pointed nose suddenly no longer looked familiar and trustworthy. I disliked her. It was light now, the sun shone into the meadow that sloped down toward the highway we had left. We could not see the road because it lay behind a rise in the meadow. I looked over at the black-haired, sallow-faced soldier who held a pistol in his hand. He had taken off his belt and fumbled in his holster for something. Bullets, I recognized. "I have enough for all of us," he said aloud. "Seven." I looked, and they were six. So they included me. I watched him as with slim fingers, he flipped the cylinder and loaded his pistol. My panic faded away.
My feet firmly planted on the earth of the path that ran along the forestís edge and sitting on the rise formed by needles, brown leaves, and small brush, I looked away into the valley. Leaning back against a tree and feeling the rough bark through my jacket, I heard the group as if from far away. My palms on the soft bed of moss and leaves I felt the full sun on my hands now, I looked down at a few early dandelions in the grass by the path. Fully awake now, everyone of my senses keenly awake, I gazed into the spring world, into the valley with distant mountain ranges shrouded in a pale morning haze and fading into ever fainter bluish grays. My eyes marveled at the yellow sea of flowers in the meadow. "Himmelsschlüssel," I said to myself, wild primroses, keys to heaven in German, savoring the mms and the rounded labial lű sound. A lark soared into the blue sky with a jubilant burst of trills. A bird chirped and wrenched my gut. The world suddenly was still except for the insistent murmuring of my companions. I felt alive, my heart started to race, a surge of love for this morning valley rose up in me, "I want to live," had I shouted it? Fear. My heart started pounding. "I donít want to die!" I donít think I screamed it. "I donít belong with them. I havenít done anything why I should be shot!" I found myself running, ducking down for fear they would shoot me in the back. Was that a shot I heard? No. Falling, scrambling up again, running for my life. Nothing could be as bad as the death I left behind me.
After the first shock, the entire suicide episode seemed as if I had imagined it. I am sure it happened, though, because I met the gray-faced HY woman with her pointed nose again, three years later in West Germany, at the Bremen railroad station, in winter 1948. The group had not gone through with their suicide plan, after all, she said.
"We dispersed once you broke the spell by running off."
My escape from this destructive group fantasy became a source of my later refusal to participate in anything resembling a group. For many years, I prided myself on not belonging to anythingó not to a family, not to a group of friends, not to a professional organization even, not to anything that would bind me to anyone. Since that day in May and for some years after, I felt invulnerable. Nothing would harm me. I would come through any experience unscathed, untouched, unhurt. Other people might commit suicide, not me. Other people could be shot, not me. Other women could be raped, not me. Other people might fail, not me. I trusted my mental and physical resources of endurance, of getting through whatever danger there was, of knowing instinctively what to do, how to survive. Fear did not even occur to me. I felt protected by an almost magical conviction of being invulnerable. I was always going to be a survivor. This conviction sustained me for the next twenty years.
I returned to the road and melted into the crowd. The invading army had ordered the refugees off the road. Unit after unit of the invaders went past us and none even gave us a look. Most of the fleeing German soldiers had changed into civilian clothes grabbed from possessions that the refugees had thrown into the ditches overnight. Others hid in the forest up the hill from where I had just come. Now and again, once the first units had passed, a Russian soldier broke rank either to ask for a watch or some jewelry from a refugee by the side of the road or picked up an object that he fancied. Once we even laughed at a Russian soldier as he pushed the tenth or eleventh watch up his arm. He grinned back at us.
From the time of escaping the suicide group till I reached home sometime in late Mayor early June, my memory holds only a whirl of images and brief scenes. While for every other time of this year, I have a clear idea of the sequence of events and some memory of what I saw and experienced, I lack a point of orientation for these days. My memory reflects, I believe, the chaos I experienced within myself and outside of myself. Part of the time no doubt I was in shock and numb with terror. I do not believe that during that time, except with the suicide group, I was ever actually in danger for my life, nor was raped nor otherwise harmed. But for the first time since beginning this account, I feel reluctant to continue writing. I donít want re-experience the chaos I lived through then.
One vivid image stayed with me of a dead white horse among the heaps of suitcases, torn bedding, discarded uniforms, thrown away foodstuffs and other debris in the roadside ditches on both sides of the road. Its head on its side, a leaden, white, silvery open eye stared at the sky as if accusing someone. The accusing eye stayed with me for months. Another scene shows me a slim twelve-year old baby-faced boy picking up a pistol which German soldiers had thrown away. A heavy, older woman in black peasant clothing wrests it from him, hitting him. "Put that down, Karlchen. Do you want to get shot?" A Russian soldier walks up to them. My heart skips a beat. Will he shoot? No. The boy throws away the pistol and the soldier picks it up.
Still another scene of the chaos after the Russian army came. I am looking for my hostel companions, keep at the road side as I search the faces of the refugees. My eyes scan for them among wrecked horse-drawn wagons and overturned hand carts, cast away featherbeds and boxes, but I cannot find them. I look up at the road just as the first wave of the Russians has passed. A small group of men in striped prison outfits drag themselves after the Russians. Followed by women in lose, dirty dresses, in rags and girls my age. They drag dirty blankets. Emaciated, weary, hair shorn, they stagger along, sometimes stopping to stare at us by the roadside. But they donít see us, their huge, dead eyes are glazed over. I sit down till they pass. "Concentration camp inmates," the woman next to me says under her breath. "We must be close to a camp here. Those women havenít eaten anything for weeks." I had heard of camps in the East, in occupied Poland, but this horror? My mind stopped and refused to take in the full extent of what I saw as I continued to look for my hostel companions.
Finally I flung myself down next to a group of girls and boys and stayed with them at the roadside. As we waited for the next wave of Russian soldiers to pass on the road, we began to talk. The boys, all sturdy and fearless at fourteen years of age, had been drafted by the HY in January to dig trenches. In the confusion of the flight, they had lost contact with their families and were looking to find them. Of the girls only one stands out to me: Ellen. Like the boys, she was younger than I, fourteen; unlike them she was frail and terrified. With long, straight hair the color of dark honey that she gathered in a pony tail, and with huge, anxious, amber-colored eyes, she looked like a waif lost in the wilderness. She could not remember how she had been separated from her mother during the turmoil of the flight from her hometown, Ohlau, not far from my own. Probably during the last night when the Russians approached. She did not know what had happened to her father. He had been drafted just before they left. As she talked in a soft, dialect free voice, we all began to feel protective of her.
I donít remember if it was the first day of the invasion or the next, when the advance of the Red Army had passed us and we could use the road again. Two of the boys in our group went ahead to scout out our location. They came back and reported that a railroad station with several trains waiting was just two miles ahead. Even as some of the refugees turned around and went back the road we had come from, our small group of five or six kids decided we would try to get to the railroad station and see if we could stay overnight in a freight car at the station.
We reached the train tracks just before nightfall and following them, we arrived at a train yard. There a number of trains were parked, some freight trains, some passenger trains, all of them without locomotives. We pounded at the doors of the freight train asking if there were room for a few of us. We went along two of the passenger trains without anyone rolling back their windows or opening their doors. In the middle of a passenger train, at a mail and baggage wagon, a man in an undershirt missing an arm, obviously a German soldier who had thrown away his tunic, stood looking out the open door.
"Well, in back of the baggage and parcel section," he said," there are shelves and pigeonholes for letters and cabinets where the mail crew kept their provisions and personal stuff. We could probably fit you in there. You are small enough."
They were four of them, all of them wounded, all dressed in various pieces of uniforms, who had come this far in a hospital train. The wounded that could walk had left the train before the Russians overtook it. Three of the men, one whose leg was amputated, two with belly shots, were bedded down on straw and blankets on the floor of the baggage section. The fourth, the man at the door, missing an arm, had stayed with his buddies because they had no one else to look after them. It was not the hospital train I still hoped to find. But at this point any shelter would do. Ellen and I promised the one-armed man, "Weíll help you to take care of the three wounded men." The boys added, "Weíll scout for food and water tomorrow."
Ellen, the boys, the other girl and I climbed into the back of the baggage section and soon were fast asleep. I donít remember who gave us blankets but we had some from somewhere. I fell asleep even though I was hungry. I woke up several times with my stomach growling and cries and shouts coming from the other wagons. I was too exhausted to care what it was all about. I do not remember how long we were parked together with the other trains in this train yard nor even the name of the station; it was somewhere in the neighborhood of Gablonz, on the Czech side of the Silesian mountains.
In the mornings, as long as the supply lasted, the soldiers shared their breakfast with us, leftovers from the hospital provisions, some hard bread and a canister full of artificial marmalade. Then Ellen and I went to look for bathrooms and for water to bring back to sponge bathe Ďour patientsí. A long queue stood waiting at the filthy station bathrooms and it took ages to get in. " The Russians searched the trains last night and took all the men away," an elderly woman said. So thatís what last nightís commotion had been about. "They are taking them to prisoner-of-war camps, even the older men." Finally, after an hour or so of waiting, we made it to the sinks. Having neither soap nor towels, we rinsed off face and hands in cold water. We filled several empty marmalade canisters the soldiers had given us with water and lugged them back with us. We repeated the washing and water fetching ritual every morning. Afterwards Ellenówho learned fast--and I washed the three wounded men, emptied their one bedpan as well as the urinal, and I changed their dressings. Fortunately they still had a supply of sterile dressings and bandages in a metal case.
Right on the first day in the mail-car, the one-armed man asked me how old I was. "I am eighteen," I lied, hoping that way he would trust me with the care of his buddies. "I served as a Red Cross nurse in Habelschwerdt hospital. I left there when they shipped the wounded to the West." He accepted my story without questions. From then on, I kept to the age I had told the soldier, thinking that being taken for an adult would give me greater freedom to move about and authority.
After wash-up, several of the boys went foraging for food. Most of the time the boys returned empty handed and we went hungry. Once they went into town and returned beaten up; they had been recognized as HY members because they still wore parts of their uniforms even though without insignia. After that we restricted all sorties to the industrial sheds around the station. In one of them, the boys discovered some discarded German army supplies. They returned surreptitiously from the shed with tins of dried milk, egg powder, and bags of dried vegetables. A later haul brought us several sides of bacon. Since we had no means to cook anything, we chewed dried vegetables together with bites of bacon and mixed egg and milk powders in water. Food dominated our thoughts and conversations. The first few days, we went along the trains to see if we recognized anyone we knew. One of the boys found his grandmother among the refugees in our train and happily left us for her. The other girl departed for a boy friend. I donít know how long we lived in the mail wagon. Was it two weeks or three? Most days I spent lying on my blanket dozing and being hungry. After we told the soldiers our stories, there was not much to talk about except food.
One of the first nights, the Russian soldiers stationed in barracks not far from the station were celebrating. Several came knocking at the wagons filled with refugees looking for German soldiers, but also calling out, "Come, Frau", and dragging screaming women with them into the woods by the station. We had anticipated such visits and, every night, the soldier with the amputated leg moved himself next to the door, blocking it with his body. Ellen and I crawled into a space below the cabinets, and the boys bedded down wrapped in their blankets in front of us. When several of the Russians rolled back our door that night and shone in a flashlight, they only saw the wounded soldiers and the boys. Motioning the one-legged man by the door to move, so that they could investigate more, he stretched his stump toward them signaling that he could not move by himself. The Russians left it at that. All through the night, we heard women crying out, men cursing, children screaming, and wagon doors rolling open and shut. I held on to Ellen and covered her mouth so that her sobs would not give us away.
My understanding about the reality of being raped changed over the years since 1945. Then I was terrified of the Russian soldiers, as a precaution dressed as a boy, and was firmly convinced that our fear was not based on Nazi propaganda, rumor or our overwrought imaginations. During the after-war years, as I came to understand how Nazi racist propaganda had portrayed the Russian population, namely as lewd, rapacious Mongolian hordes, worse than beasts, Untermenschenómen lower than animalsóI began to doubt that the danger of rape had actually been that great. To be sure, I had heard the women scream but I had escaped it. Some of my and motherís friends, some of the women in my home town had not. It was in the 1990s when studies began to appear about the women and girls raped at the fall of Berlin from April 1945 to June 1945 I began to realize that my fear had been real enough and that my precautions had protected me. In Berlin, seven point one percent (7.1 %) of women of child-bearing age had been seen in clinics after one or several rapes by Russian soldiers. How many did not report or did not seek medical help is not known. The numbers of rapes that contemporaries in 1945 cited, namely 60 to 70 percent of women, were exaggerated but the documented numbers of rapes, pregnancies and health consequences researchers in the 1990s documented were still considerable. No one knows how likely rape was for the refugee populations wandering like us in the countryside or living in temporary shelters where it was difficult to hide. At any rate, all through our stay at the rail road station we heard marauding Russians search the trains and take away the women. The fear of rape did not leave me until we got to Western Germany in August of 1946.
Rumors spread like wild fire among the refugees waiting in the trains: that this or that woman from this or that train had been killed during a rape; that the Americans would advance into Czechoslovakia; that the water in the washrooms was contaminated; that the international Red Cross would distribute food; that the trains would go to the border and everybody would be told to return to their homes; that the wounded soldiers would be taken to a hospital. The latter two rumors happened to be true because one day a locomotive appeared. Our train was connected to it and without warning it began to pull out of the yard. It gained speed rapidly, while to our right and our left, thick forests sped past us. Looking out of the open door of the wagon, I felt reassured by the changing greens of the woods, the dark green of crowded firs alternating with reddish green spruce, with yellowish green birches, and with deep green oaks and maples. The woods turning by filled me with a sense of tranquility. A few years later, when I read Mörickeís tale of Mozartís journey to Prague, I recalled these forests and the peace their sight had given me. As suddenly as it had begun to move, the train stopped at a small yellow-brick stationhouse. Czech militia appeared from the stationmasterís office and a voice bellowed in German,
"Everybody who can move, get off the train!"
The militiamen herded the crowd of refugees to a road and pointed toward the East: "Go home!"
We hesitated, not wanting to leave the wounded soldiers to an unknown fate. Several militiamen came over and motioned to us,
"Off, off. Wounded stay. Be ok. We take them to hospital."
We climbed down reluctantly and joined the other refugees. The militia shouted "Go! Go! " We began to move toward a guardhouse, passed a red and white barrier and realized that we were back in Germany. After another four hours of walking, we arrived at the town of Waldenburg, center of the Silesian mining industry. Someone directed us to a school building that served as a refugee center.
The school was packed and we found space in a classroom upstairs with some thirty straw sacks on the floor for bedding. We took the last five by the door, even as an older woman began shouting at us since most of us still wore pieces of HY uniforms. Her theme was "Todayís Youth"--a kind of railing against young people which I was going to hear frequently over the next few years. It was an intergenerational anger and blame game by means of which each generation tried to make the other responsible for Nazism and the defeat of Germany.
"You just push yourselves in here without a greeting, without even asking permission. The HY has completely corrupted you. Where are your parents? Show some respect for your elders." She raged and would not stop. To my own surprise, I just lost it and started yelling back.
"So now it is our fault that we donít know where our families are? You bet we donít have any respect for you. Why should we? Sure, we were HY. Sure we loved Hitler. Until a few weeks ago, you all said you did too."
I donít remember what else I said, but five minutes later I felt ashamed about my ranting. I left the room and deliberated what to do. Ellen and I hung around the school yard late into the night till everybody was asleep. During the night, I remembered that Mother had had a friend in Waldenburg, Frau Kovak, the wife of a miner, but I did not know the address. Next day, I went to City Hall and fortunately they still had an address book. I located the woman an hour later and asked if I could stay a few days until I found out what had happened to Mother and my brothers. She welcomed me, even though she and her invalid husband had little room to spare in their one bedroom apartment. They even permitted me to bring Ellen, her amber eyes still wide with fear that I had deserted her when I went off in the morning from the refugee encampment. They shared their food with us until we left.
One episode of my stay with the Kovaks stands out to me, a grotesque return to the normalcy of a Sunday dinner. Herr Kovak and their neighbors had found a dead horse in their street a few weeks earlier. They had slaughtered the animal and divided the meat among them. For Sunday dinner, Frau Kovak made the typical Silesian fare of a roast with dumplings and red cabbage. Sharing the common aversion to horsemeat, I gagged at the thought of eating it. But the delicate texture of the meat, its delicious flavor and my hunger made me dig into the hearty portion Frau Kovak put on my plate. I gorged myself with two helpings when my stomach rebelled, no longer used to fat and bulk. I made the kitchen sink just in time.
Sometime during the dinner I had a conversation with Herr Kovak. I remember it clearly because he was the first adult whose criticism of the Nazis cut through my defenses. Still mouthing what I had learned in the HY and still trying to be loyal to the Nazis, I argued that Hitlerís labor policies had ended the unemployment of the Great Depression, that workersí lives had improved and that they had supported Hitler.
"Thatís the propaganda line you were fed, " Herr Kovak replied calmly. "Our lives as minersóhe had worked in the Waldenburg coal mines--certainly did not improve. We did not support Hitler. We kept quiet because we did not want to be beaten up or sent to a camp."
Ellen and I stayed with the Kovaks three or four more days, during which we learned that it would take months to reestablish telephone contact as well as mail delivery. We had heard no news of what had happened since the Russians overtook us except for rumors. We had no idea if the war was over or what our future held in stock. But one of these days as I walked by a street display case that used to display newspapers or public announcements of the authorities, I stopped to join a crowd of people to read a proclamation by the Russian occupation authority. It said something like, ĎNow that the war is over German citizens should return to their place of origin.í I did not take in what else it said. "So this is the end," I thought, "Not death or Siberia. Just go home."
Since Ellen was from Ohlau, a small town some twelve miles from my hometown toward the Oder River, we decided to hike back home together. I promised Ellen that I would go half-way to Ohlau with her, so that she would find her way. We thanked the Kovaks and said good-by to the boys at the camp whose way home led in a direction different from ours.
We set out early in the morning . From my geography lessons I had a map of Silesia in my mind and remembered the towns and some villages we would pass. Waldenburg was to the West of Strehlen so we had to head East. I figured that road signs would guide us along and that it would be a three-day hike to reach Strehlen and another day for Ellen to reach Ohlau. If we followed the signs to the town of Reichenberg, we had to get to some signs directing us to Strehlen. I had once visited Reichenberg and thought that from there I would find signs to home. I knew the road from Strehlen to Ohlau, having passed the signs many a time on my bike. Herr Kovac took us to the Reichenberg road out of Waldenburg. As we left the town, its mineshafts and its hills behind us, Russian military vehicles overtook us several time. Therefore we decided that we would search for a back road and take detours around villages so as not to meet any Russian soldiers. We still heard in our minds the screams of the women from the trains being raped.
Once further on a back road, we saw that the countryside was deserted and that we could return to the main road. The first village we passed lay silent and empty, no people, no domestic animals even. Scattered over the road through the village we saw only straw strewn about, horse manure, clothes, uniforms, blankets, empty shells, and army mess gear, telling of the flight from the approaching enemy. Cast-off, rain-soaked boxes and old suitcases told us that the civilians had not yet returned. The seams of Ellenís shoes were torn even before we left Waldenburg. Soon she began to limp. For a while we sat by a brook on the road side so that she could bathe her sore feet. Luckily back on the road she found an old rucksack that held a pair of tennis shoes. Though a few sizes too large, the shoes were better than her own pair and she put them on.
We found and changed over to the main road to Reichenberg by afternoon, walking on like robots without talking. I knew that the Zopten, a mountain range in front of the Waldenburg Mountains should be to our left. First ahead of us and then as we got closer to Strehlen behind us. By late afternoon, the distant Zopten came into view against the Western sky.
Drawing of Zopten
What at home had been two pale blue triangles, one smaller, a larger one joined to it, I recognized here as the silhouette of one bulky mountain. Its mass felt as familiar to me as a childhood friend and, the two triangles becoming ever more distinct, itís outline accompanied us all the way home. Only once, when we heard a truck approach us from a distance, we hid in the ditch next to the road until the truck drove out of sight. By nightfall, exhausted, we came to a farm on the outskirts of a larger village, where we spotted a woman and several children. We entered a large farm-yard and asked the owner, who had returned just the previous day, if we could stay in the barn. Except for the woman and her children, the farm house, the barns and stables were empty. Not even a dog. Dirty straw, manure all over the yard. Straggling grass grew between the cobble stones.
"We found only the buildings, unspeakably filthy with despoiled food, broken crockery, ripped apart featherbeds, heaped with refuse," the woman told us. "The soldiers of both armies killed all our farm animals. We donít have much to eat, but you are welcome to stay. She gave us some bread and herb tea before we bedded down in the hay. She warned us not to drink from their well. She did not know if the passing armies had polluted it and if it was safe.
The second day we stuck to the main road and by now had left the last hills behind us. Only now and then, when we heard a vehicle some distance off, we hid, either lying flat in the roadside ditch, or if a stand of trees seemed dense enough, among the trees. The second night we reached Senitz and the farm of my relatives. I hardly recognized the yard so covered was it with broken down wagons and heaps of refuse. As we entered the farmyard, a militiaman met us and we were about to run from him, when Aunt Marianne called me to stop. The militia had no interest in us. They were Poles and had come to tell my relatives that the family would be relocated to another farm in the morning. I donít recall what my relatives said to us or what we found out about them as I was still in a daze; the only thing I took in was that they did not know anything about my mother and my brothers.
We started up again early next morning and I figured that we could reach Strehlen more easily, if we did not take the road but rather went along the railroad tracks that I knew from my visits to Senitz. That was shorter and safer, as far as danger from passing Russians was concerned. We reckoned that we could get off the tracks and hide if we heard a train approaching. Most likely there would not be any, since railroad service had not been reestablished. We had a clear view of the county side as the bed of the tracks was slightly elevated over the fields surrounding it. On some of the fields we passed the winter wheat had come up and its foot high, deep green rows sparkled in the sun. Other fields lay fallow and weeds had begun to grow. We soon found walking on the tracks difficult and tiring. We either had to jump and skip a tie, or we had to walk balancing ourselves on one of the rails. At a creek, the bridge had been blown up. But the creek was low and we crossed it easily. From then on, we knew that no train could pass us and felt safe.
The first station building we passed stared at us with burnt out windows, its bricks riddled with bullet and grenade holes. We realized that we now were passing though territory where fighting had taken place recently. The church steeples and houses of the villages we saw in the distance had lost their roofs, and their blackened rafters pierced the sky. Burnt out barns and fragments of brick buildings stood as empty shells. As we entered Strehlen at the crossing close to Railroad Hill, a man signaled to us from a distance, waving both of his arms in a frenzy. As we began running to him, he frantically motioned us to the side. When we stopped and looked over to the side he pointed to, we heard him shout excitedly, "Get off the rails, off the track, the line is mined!"
We jumped and fell to the side of the tracks in fright. Shaken, we sat in the grass by the tracks for a while. I reckoned that we had been too light to set off one of the mines, but that did not lessen my feeling of shock that we had just escaped being blown up. When we finally walked on, we met a woman whom I recognized as Frau Fischer, one of motherís former customers.
"Your mother got here yesterday," she called out, "and the Baronie is still standing!."
I started crying from the double shock and did not stop crying till I reached our house, Ellen trudged behind me, weeping to keep me company.
I could see the damage to the town from up Railroad Hill. The towers of Great Church and of City Hall had disappeared. All the houses along Nimpscher Street and Münsterberg Street were heaps of rubble. Lenauís corner pub and the houses of the corner had been dynamited, leveled by tanks and cleared away. The house where Aunt Leneís apartment had been was a burnt out shell. Walking on Münsterberg Street toward City Hall Square, I saw that steel girders and beams obstructed our course. We climbed over cascades of bricks. All the houses of City Hall Square had burnt down, their blackened, bullet riddled and grenade-holed facades still standing. The dynamited City Hall covered most of the south of the square, a huge mountain of rubble that had buried St. Florianís statue as well as the townís fountain. Entering Great Church Street we found stores and houses turned into heaps of brick, concrete and half-burnt beams. The tall bell tower of Great Church with its mass had crushed the Gothic nave of the church. The lindens at the church porch had been transformed into leafless blackened stumps. Only at the end of Great Church Street one single house stood unharmed except for broken windows and bullet holes in the plaster, our house. I started running and donít remember the rest.
It was end of May when I arrived at home. Mother and Werner had hiked in from Lomnitz the day before. They had not left Lomnitz the morning after I tried to get them to come with me, as Mother had promised. Except for their hostís losing his last cow to the invaders, and the women having to hide from Russian soldiers during the first onslaught of the invasion, the arrival of the Russian army had been uneventful for them. A feeling of finally being safe came over me when I discovered that the Gurns, our landlords, were back as well. Home, finally, home.
We found our apartment in shocking shape. First German and then Russian troops had camped out in it, leaving behind on the floor food leftovers, now covered with mold, mixed in with straw and hay, even horse manure. A layer of this refuse covered the floor two to three foot high. Intermingled in this mess were rags, military camping equipment, and plaster fallen from the ceiling from the impact of grenades. All closets and cabinets had been torn open, their contents emptied unto the floor. Feathers strewn over it all from a few featherbeds we had left behind added an almost whimsical touch. In the kitchen, dishes, dry goods from the kitchen cupboard had been scattered; glass containers of preserves and molasses had been smashed, their contents poured on the wooden floor boards. The sticky mass of syrup, glass shards and bits of crockery made it difficult to sift through the mess on the floor for anything that might still prove usable.
For the first few nights we slept on top of the mountains of refuse rolled in soiled army blankets we found. Gradually, with the help of shovels and buckets, we removed the messy debris out into the sandpit in the Gurnís garden. After the first night, we realized that other, smaller inhabitants had taken up residence, rats, mice, fleas. One night I woke with a start, a mouse that had scampered over my face in my hand. Once we had moved the refuse out and set a few traps, we got rid of at least the rodent population. Neither electricity, nor gas, nor water services had been reestablished. Fortunately, the day light hours were long and the Gurn garden contained a well with a hand pump. After a few days of drinking its water, Frau Gurn, looking down into the well, discovered a dead Russian soldier in its depth. I donít know what happened to the body. I only know that from then on till two months later, everybody got their water from the town well at the corner of City Hall Square and Horst Wessel Street, which we again called Paul Ehrlich Street. Its water kept running and pouring on the pavement no matter if what the times were. As I hauled my two water buckets over four long city blocks, I had time to wonder at the speed with which Nazi names disappeared as if they had never existed. Horst Wessel Street again became Paul Ehrlich Street; Adolf Hitler Street returned to Linden Street. I thought it despicable that no one seemed to even want to acknowledge that the Nazis had existed. Going for water always meant waiting in a long queue, because this well was the only clean water source for the town. Were any of the people standing in line aware of the irony that their only famous son, the Nobel Prize winner Paul Ehrlich, now provided a necessity of life for them who had forsaken him during the Nazi years? I certainly was not.
Over the first few days after our return, a few of the other families who had lived in the Baronie, came back. On my second or third day, Aunt Lene and her mother, Aunt Martha, arrived at our door step. Their house having burned down, it was a matter of course that mother invited them to stay with us. I felt apprehensive about their moving in, as my relationship to both women had been poor all through my childhood. Gradually the apartment house filled up. Families who had lived in the house before the invasion took in those friends and relations whose residences had been destroyed. About half of the former residents never returned; strangers who had lost their homes took over their apartments and possessions. Some days, Ellen and I scouted the town to find out who had returned and which buildings were still standing, keeping well away from Rail Road Street, where the Russians had taken over a house as headquarters for the town commander.
The three storied façade of the burnt out Red School across the street from us threatened to collapse so that I hesitated to explore the one staircase still standing that led up to my old classroom. Looking at it, I had a vague sense of guilt about the schoolís having been consumed by fire because I had wished for just such an event almost all through my childhood. All the other schools of town, except the high school out on Breslauer Street, likewise had burnt down. But the outlying districts past the center of town stood intact even if their houses were pock marked by shells. All the houses on Promade Street to Woiselwitz Street, Water Street, Old Town Street to the Ohle River, and Mill Street were in ruins. Some burnt down, others, like the Eisenberg residence next door, flattened by bombs. Herr B.ís watermill still stood as one of the exceptions and the miller, as mother informed me, had returned. The chestnut trees in the school yards and the cemeteries had survived and stood in bloom. The lindens on Promenade Street had not been damaged. Occasionally on rainy June evenings, their honeyed fragrance proved stronger than the stench from burnt brick, mortar and blackened beams. I often went by the Boxhammer property looking for Rita and Hanne but their apartments were burnt out, only the staircase leading to Ritaís aunt stood leading now where. Sometimes people left chalked notices where they had gone to on burnt walls. But I never found any such writing on their walls. My usually short excursions to scout out the town left me depleted of energy and depressed. Despite later searches through the International Red Cross, I never found out what happened to either Hanne or Rita. Neither they nor their families ever surfaced.
Ellen had not left for home after a short rest as we had planned. Open sores that covered her feet after our three day walk back needed to heal first. She helped with the cleaning but as the days went by she became more and more lethargic and distraught. At night she screamed in her nightmares and when I woke her, she could not stop crying. Sometimes during the day, she talked incoherent nonsense as if she were delirious. My aunts agitated that she should leave for home to find out what had happened to her family.
"We donít have enough food for us, as it is," Aunt Lene said to me.
I felt like saying that the food we lived on was not hers. We all lived off Motherís potatoes, carrots, beets, and there preserves that had been stored as winter supplies in the cellar and not been used because we left in January.
Finally, when her feet had healed, I gave in to the pressure and told Ellen, feeling like a coward, that she should make the effort to find out what happened to her mother and father. She agreed listlessly. I had promised her, when we set out from Waldenburg, that I would accompany her halfway to Ohlau, her home town. We set out early the next morning, after a night during which she awoke crying several times. It must have been about two weeks after we had arrived in Strehlen. Both of us were silent and morose. We walked past the abandoned brickyard at the edge of town. I steered us past the village of Kuschlau, where one could miss the turn-off to the Ohlau road. A few miles after we reached the Ohlau road, I felt nauseated with a headache and sat down on the grass of the roadside ditch thinking that I could not walk another mile. We had only gone as far as a quarter of the way to Ohlau.
"Ellen, I donít not think I have the strength to take you half-way and get myself back home again," I said, gagged and threw up. She did not answer me and I rationalized away my worry about her. She acted alert, and surely she now could not fail to reach her destination if she just followed the main road with its signs. To my relief she said after a while of silence, sitting with me by the side of the road, "Iíll be fine. Donít worry, Iíll get there. Iíll let you know somehow that I got there once I am home."
All the way back, I reproached myself that I had not kept my promise to her. I arrived at home exhausted with my head hurting worse than it ever had the year before.
When I still could hardly move two days later, Mother consulted with Frau Dunisch who had returned home at about the same time as we had. They took me to the old Catholic Hospital on Cloister Street, where Frau Dunisch knew the head nurse, Sister Anna. None of the local physicians had returned to town. In fact, almost the entire middle and upper middle class had left for West German destinations in January and February. Anyone who had relatives beyond the Elbe River and had had either means to leave or the imagination of what might happen in a Russian invasion had left. Catholic priests as well as the nuns of the local convent had stayed with their congregations. Sister Anna knew that a physician for the town was expected from Breslau in the next few days. Meanwhile, the staff would have me under observation. Aside from an incapacitating headache, I had the diarrhea all of us suffered from and a below normal temperature.
Sister Bertha, the floor nurse, thought I was taking up space better used for someone in greater need. After about three or four days, my temperature suddenly shot up to 104. Sister Bertha, who measured it, thinking I had cheated, measured again. For ten days, my temperature stayed at 104-105. During that time, the physician arrived and diagnosed typhoid fever, having taken one look at my blackened oral mucous membranes and swollen neck glands. The other patients who had shared my room were moved as soon as the staff knew what ailed me. Since the hospital did not have sufficient staff, Mother came in daily and took over most of my care. I lost consciousness after the third day of the high fever and regained it only a few times. I remember once when I woke up struggling for breath, my heart racing, afraid I was going to die. I breathed more easily when Mother held me up in a sitting position.
"You have pneumonia and a kidney inflammation in addition to the typhoid fever," she told me.
Another time, a sharp pain on my neck roused me. My doctor stood over me, having just lanced a huge boil below my ear. I sank back into unconsciousness as the pulsing ache of the boil and its pressure subsided.
Suddenly, my temperature came down to below normal in the mornings; it shot up again to 104 late in the afternoon. During that phase of four to five days, I was delirious most of the time; the most colorful and vivid hallucinations taunted me. I strolled through an exotic garden with brilliantly green fruit trees laden with tropical fruit, costly, rare delicacies for a child raised in a Northern clime: Oranges, mandarins, bananas, apricots, mangoes; but again and again oranges, huge oranges of glorious color. I just needed to stretch out my hand, and I could almost reach them. But every time when I just about touched an orange, the scene changed; frustrated, crying with thirst, I found myself in my hospital bed again, my throat sore, burning, wanting something to drink.
At first, Mother brought me fruit and juices from Herr B.ís garden. But as my diarrhea got worse, the doctor did not allow me to have fruit or anything to drink. Mother swabbed my mouth with a wet washcloth but that did not assuage the thirst. Driven by my thirst, when no one held me down, hallucinations of orange trees in Africa made me get out of bed to reach the fruit.
One day, Sister Bertha found me collapsed on the floor after I had tried to climb on a high closet shelf to take down my suitcase. Furious at my unruly behavior, she only calmed down when the doctor explained to her that I was not conscious of what I was doing. I had dreamt that my Uncle Willi had invited me to come to Africa and that the ship was going to take me there. I had the ship hallucination a number of times because just when I was about to board and looked up the gangway, the ceiling of my hospital room, coved with scalloped moldings, came into view again. Several times, I tried to bribe the doctor and Sister Bertha that I would send them coffee, real African coffee from Kenya, if they just let me board the ship. Then the world steadied, my fever leveled off. I was so exhausted that I could hardly lift a hand and simply dozed waiting for Mother to come.
At the end of my hospital stay, I was half asleep when Mother came in with a letter. It was from a woman whose name we did not recognize, from Ohlau. Mother read it aloud to me. The woman introduced herself as a neighbor of Ellenís family. Ellen stayed with her because neither her mother or her father had returned to Ohlau. Shortly after her arrival, going out one morning to see if she could find relatives, Ellen ran into a group of Russian soldiers. Sculpture of Ellen running from Russian soldiers. They gang-raped her. A few days later, she fell ill. High fever, typhoid. The neighbor took her to the typhoid ward. She died a week later. I did not cry then, I only felt terribly guilty for not having accompanied her and protected her. As I am writing her story now, I am crying. A girl alone and on her own had no chance of surviving. Without Mother nursing me through typhoid fever, I felt for years, I would not have survived either.
Mother took me home on a stretcher and a hand drawn cart a few days later. Shortly after I came back from the hospital, both my aunts fell ill with typhoid fever. Fortunately for Mother, both of their cases were lighter than mine and they were up and about two weeks later. In the course of the summer, many of the residents of our apartment house fell ill with typhoid fever. Several died and the occupation authorities put up a large yellow warning sign: Caution, Typhoid! We were grateful for the sign because it protected us, at least for a while, from the marauding and revenge seeking bands of former slave laborers the Nazis had brought to Silesia. Mother thought she had brought me home to die, as the doctor held out little hope that I would get well. At the very least I would be left with damaged heart valves unless I grew a lot. I had to relearn walking but gradually, as late summer turned into fall, I regained strength.
Mother and Aunt Lene, so as to earn food supplies, started sewing for the Russian soldiers. They made alterations to their uniforms, fixed buttons, or made dresses for a few of the women soldiers in exchange for butter, meat rations, bread and cigarettes. In September, the Russian invading army, except for a small command post, marched back to Russia. Some of the men for whom they had just finished alterations returned and, threatening us with rifle buts, confiscated both sewing machines. Fortunately, some of motherís and Aunt Leneís German customers, having kept their machines, lent them theirs so that they resumed work a few days later.
For days, the departing Russian army divisions paraded down Great Church Street, turned right into Promenade Street and marched out of town on Woiselwitz Street. I heard them sing from my bed and was fascinated and frightened. It was dangerous, we felt, to draw their attention by looking at the marching columns out the window. Werner finally found a solution to satisfy my curiosity. A high, thick wall separated the Gurn property from the Eisenbergs, the stonemasonís property. In back, close to our bedroom window, it was easy to climb the wall. The wall terminated in a kind of triangle-shaped riser that allowed us to hide behind it and that overlooked the intersection of Great Church and Promenade streets. Lying on my belly, peeking over the riser, I watched as unit after unit of troops passed beneath my perch. Music bands with triangles, flutes and hornpipes preceded some units. I knew them as Cossacks from encyclopedia illustrations. Some groups wore colorful native costumes instead of uniforms. Some were led by a small group of singers with sonorous bass voices. Indoors, I had been afraid of their singing and of the rhythmic stomp of their boots on the pavement; now in the open air, seeing them march by, I was entranced by the festive spectacle of a victorious army.
I never mourned till writing this account the destruction of my childhood world and the loss of my childhood friends. I never understood until I wrote of Ellen that she represented my teenage self without the shell of numbness and toughness I had assumed. Instead of mourning, the dread of approaching catastrophe, the horror of bleeding, mangled and dying bodies, the sense of being abandoned, the fear of raping soldiers, and the helplessness of being caught in social chaos haunted me in my nightmares for years. The safer my environment and the better my personal situation became, the worse the nightmares got. I dreaded two repetitive nightmares more than others. In one, I walk through a desolate village of burnt-out houses. It is winter, the straggling trees at the roadside are dead. I am cold, something sinister and catastrophic looms ahead in distant icy fog. I donít know what it is but I feel an unspeakable dread. I want to scream, I struggle to call out, but I cannot. In another dream I jump from railroad tie to tie. I sense danger and know that the line is mined, but I donít know where the mines are. A man, a soldier in black uniform, suddenly comes up from behind me out of nowhere. I try to run but my legs will not obey me. I wake up as he grabs me. The nightmares receded only when, with time and supported by friends, I could accept how terrified and how helpless I had actually been.