Prof. Mahlendorf's memoir, Chapter 9
to introduction; chap. 5, chapter 8; UCSB Hist 133c homepage
note: Prof. Mahlendorf was born in October 1929, so she was 15-16 years old at this time
A few weeks after the Russian invasion army moved out during the late summer of 1945,we heard that trucks were bringing in Polish families and Polish militia. The Russian town commander had stayed at his local headquarters on Railroad Street together with a small contingent of Russian occupation soldiers. At the time, we, the German population who had returned to Strehlen from the Silesian Mountains, did not know what the Allies had discussed at Yalta in February 1945, namely that all territories on the right side of the Neisse/ Oder rivers, that is all of Silesia, parts of Brandenburg, all of Pomerania, and most of East Prussia were to be promised to Poland— the Russians laid claim to some East Prussian harbors on the Baltic. We also had no idea that the Potsdam treaty, in the summer of 1945, gave these German territories to Poland while Poland lost the Polish Ukraine that Stalin had won from Hitler after the German victory over Poland in 1939. We did not know that Sudenten Silesia , that Hitler had occupied in 1938, returned to Czechoslovakia. We also did not know that with Article XIII of the Allies at Potsdam had decided, that in the following months the German population of some six and a half million people was to be removed from these territories to the Western and Eastern Zones of Germany.
The transfer of the German population was to assure that the border conflicts that had led to WWII would never again recur. The eviction was to be "effected in an orderly and humane manner." The evicted 6.5 to 7 million Germans were to join the 4 or so million Germans who had fled these German territories ahead of the Russian invasion to destinations West of the Oder and Elbe Rivers of Germany in January to April 1945. The transferred German population was to be distributed evenly over "old Germany," that is the Allied occupation zones.
In the late summer of 1945, we gradually found out that the Poles who came into our home town were not former forced laborers who had stayed after German defeat and taken over, with the consent of the Russian occupation forces, whatever in businesses was left in town. The Polish families that now arrived hailed from Poland itself. Many of them, we found out gradually, had lost their homes in the Polish Ukraine. We heard the rumor that we were to live under Polish occupation in a Polish administered zone and the Polish newcomers were to settle in Silesia. But we were far to busy with mere survival to pay much attention to what the future might hold. Since the town center with its shops, other places of business, administrative offices and savings banks had burnt down, the few remaining businesses like a grocery store and a bakery on Linden Street, formerly Adolf Hitler Street, and the tax collector’s office close to the railroad station were taken over by Poles. A Polish town militia commander had moved into a house down by the railroad station, and militia began to police the streets. The German population tried to keep out of their way because the militia picked up any German they found out in the street and herded them off to work to clean the streets, to unload trucks, or to clear rubble.
But all of the changes, for the time being, remained rumors for us because all public announcements that began to be displayed in the town’s public information kiosks were in Russian or Polish. And at least in our house, the Baronie, the only house still standing on Promenade Street, no one read Polish or Russian. In late Summer and Fall 1945, the Baronie was still quarantined. All families in the house had lost one or more family members to the typhoid epidemic. One entire family, the wife. her husband who had returned from the front and their three year old daughter died within a week just after I got back from the hospital. In all, thirty of the ninety house occupants who had crowded into the Baronie after our return died during the epidemic. Most of those who died during the epidemic that swept through town as well as through our house were older residents and young children. Werner and I were the only young persons left in the Baronie. Since we knew few of the newly moved in families well, their deaths did not affect us as it might have had they been our former neighbors. All we could really think about was that the yellow typhoid sign in Polish and Russian that had been posted at the front door protected us from the militia and from plundering former forced laborers. The sign had appeared shortly after the Russian invasion troops had left.
One late October afternoon, after the yellow typhoid sign had been removed from our apartment house, several militiamen herded us, Mother, my brother, my two aunts and me, at gun point from our kitchen and living room into our bedroom and Father’s former office. We had just been preparing dinner. The militia men nailed shut and sealed with tape the doors from bedroom and office to kitchen and living room. They did not allow us to remove any of our possessions. All of it happened so unexpectedly and so fast, that we just withdrew from the threatening rifles into the bedroom without even crying out. At the same time, other militia evicted the Gurns’ from their kitchen, living room and bedrooms and restricted them to their former office, a storeroom without windows and a former guestroom. I don’t know from where we acquired a stove, kitchen utensils, and sewing machines to turn Father’s old office into a kitchen and sewing room. Nor do I know how the Gurns managed to obtain kitchen and bedroom equipment. Both of our families had lost access to water with our kitchens. We were lucky that by this time the town had running water and that we could get it from an outlet in Herr Gurns’ now unused stable in the back yard—his horses as well as the beer trucks had disappeared during the invasion. The eviction from part of our apartments brought about one change that was advantageous to us: the entire apartment house was connected to the electric grid that had been repaired some time ago. We had lived without electricity since our arrival and with winter coming up having electric light was almost a compensation for our loss.
A few days later after our eviction, a Polish couple, a man and a woman, moved into our kitchen and living room. The husband was the driver of the Polish militia commander, and soon the backyard filled with various militia vehicles, that the driver took care of from Herr Gurns’ former backyard auto workshop. Another Polish family, a woman pianist with a boy my younger brother’s age and two daughters about my age, moved into the Gurn’s kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. Gradually, Polish families took over several rooms from every family in the Baronie as the Germans moved closer together. Polish customers began replacing the few Russians that still came occasionally. At first, neither Aunt Lene nor Mother dared demand payment for their dress making services. The first few customers paid whatever they felt like paying in produce, cigarettes, or a few zlotys. The two dressmakers established a going rate only gradually.
But whatever the two of them made from sewing did not suffice to feed us. Throughout the period we lived among the Polish population, from fall 1945 to August 1946, we, the German population, lived a shadow existence. We did not receive rationing cards nor could we earn zlotys nor buy food. German Reich marks could not be exchanged for zlotys, nor did we have access to savings or accounts as the town bank had been buried under City Hall tower. If we left the house, the militia was liable to round us up, women, adolescents, as well as children to clear away rubble or to scrub militia headquarters.
Only a few of the older soldiers drafted in January for the Home Defense had returned and they soon found out that they could only survive if they stayed hidden. The bicycle and radio shop owner, Herr Ernst, who had sold us our bikes and who had moved in with a family upstairs was one of these men who never left the house. He was a bald and taciturn man, handy with any tool. He managed to make a living by doing repairs of anything and everything for every one in the house in exchange for a meal. Mother and Aunt Lene employed him to keep the barely functional replacement sewing machines running. Other house members had him make them carts and hand wagons from parts they found in the ruins. Everyone needed such wagons for fetching food stuff from the countryside and for bringing home the firewood that we picked up from the ruins of dynamited houses or from the gardens and parks. In the course of the winter of 1945/46, we cut down any and all trees in gardens and parks small enough to be hauled away fast because any such firewood collecting had to be accomplished without being caught by the militia.
Rumor had it that it was dangerous to speak German aloud in public because we could be robbed, beaten or taken away to the militia prison. Since we had no access to either a radio or a newspaper or any other source of news but rumor, we lived off hearsay. There was no way to tell, if what we heard was true or if it contained a kernel of actuality. Did the Poles beat civilians they picked up or heard speak German? I only know what I actually saw or experienced. Even at the time, however, I became very cautious, just in case the hearsay happened to be true, and sought to never attract anybody’s attention. I still dressed as a boy which was easy because I had lost my hair again during the typhoid fever. I avoided the neighborhood of the railroad station where the Russian and Polish authorities lived, and if I had to go anywhere through town, I cut through the ruins and bypassed the main thoroughfares.
Food became our constant preoccupation. I never again was as ravenously hungry as I was after the typhoid fever. The few valuables we had left after our flight from home and the invasion, Aunt Lene, who was good at such dealings, bartered for butter, cheese, and raw bacon from the Russians and a few Poles we got to know through the dressmaking shop. The potatoes stored in our cellar had run out by July. Till the end of August 1945 Mother fed all of us from fruit and produce she received from her friend, the miller on Mill Street. This source of food dried up when he was evicted by a Polish miller from his property. Early that fall, we harvested some apples from Oma’s community gardens, but by the time we got to the trees, the owners of neighboring garden had helped themselves to our fruit. By that time, notions of stealing and property for all of us had become quite flexible. You did not take anything away from the people who lived in your apartment house. But picking up food, clothing, shoes, essentials for survival, from gardens, fields or deserted, unoccupied or demolished houses we called "organizing." Everybody did it, in fact, how skillful you were at "organizing" became a matter of prideful boasting.
By mid September I had recovered enough strength to go with Mother and Werner to ask relatives who had returned and who lived close to town to help us put in supplies for the oncoming winter. Since many of the farmers had not been able to plant crops either the previous November or in the spring, the harvest was sparse. And no one knew if the planted fields were mined. Therefore there was no help for it but bring in the harvest even from mined fields. Fortunately none of us ever stepped on a mine. Mother and Werner, who had not contracted typhoid fever, had gone on mined fields close to town during late summer to harvest wheat, barley, and raps for all of us, and were lucky. Harvesting potatoes was no problem, because they had been planted in late spring after the invasion. If no one had been blown up during planting, it was safe to harvest in early October. We got permission from various relatives to dig for potatoes, and spent several weeks hauling hand wagons full of potatoes home. By late November, when we went to dig up sugar beets, everyone knew which fields were mined and avoided them.
Our trips to the country also served to find out what had happened to Mother’s extended family. Most of the women had returned to their farms. All of the men were dead or missing. Uncle Kurt, Mother’s brother, we found out, had last been seen when he was given an anti-tank gun. For years Mother was haunted by the idea that he had died as he had often imagined he would be in his nightmares, run over--run over not by a tractor as he had feared but by a tank. The farm women told us that they found many a shallow grave in their fields and that they reburied the bodies after searching for identifications to notify relatives. Neither Mother nor the woman Uncle Kurt had worked for ever learned what happened to him, or how he died or where.
Harvesting and hauling potatoes or sugar beets, though hard labor, were not the only difficulty in putting in winter supplies. We also had to get our yield past the militia sentries who set up several and always changing control points around town. If they caught us, they confiscated what we brought home. At my first outing after my illness, a militiaman stopped us at one such control point. Every time when held up on the road—and this was not the only time--I noticed that I started trembling, froze, and then could not move even a foot. Werner, ten years old, panicked and started to run away from us. Both mother and I, frightened that the militia man might shoot him, yelled after Werner to come back. The militiaman approached us, pulled the cover from our load, saw the potatoes and motioned us to unload them. Having no choice in the matter, we did so with shaking hands and were glad that he had not shot Werner. Still frightened and aggrieved by our loss, Werner cried all the way home. I wished I could have cried as well but felt that as the older one I had to keep face. Werner was pitifully thin then, and in the torn and soiled pants and shirt that he had almost outgrown, he looked like a small scarecrow. Yet he always came along with us and helped push the cart filled with whatever we had harvested.
Usually we met a few other families on our expeditions, townspeople like us on their way home, with hand wagons like ours. Sometimes at the first houses of town, someone from an upstairs window would call down to us: "There’s a control table up ahead at the corner of Breslauer and Kuschlau Roads." Then we would turn around, and back a ways follow a footpath, first through fields high with weeds, then past the garbage dumps, and from there into Promenade Street by the cemeteries.
At our next excursion to get potatoes from the same relative’s field, we started back on an unpaved back road to home to avoid the militia. We did not know if it was mined or not since none of the tracks in the dirt were new. We were lucky and made it home safely. Happy about our success, Mother triumphantly announced to Aunt Lene that we had brought back over a hundred kilos. Aunt Lene failed to be impressed.
"Fine and good. But what will we eat when these are gone?" she said, dampening our enthusiasm.
Every time we brought back potatoes for winter storage and sugar beets for making syrup, Mother and I, looking at each other and laughing, echoed her insatiable plaint, "And what will we eat when these are gone?" While the cooperation in our family left much to be desired, everyone in the house community of the Baronie cooperated in the tasks that none of us could have accomplished on our own. Everyone pitched in.
All families in the apartment house had gone to the country to harvest grains, raps seeds, potatoes, and sugar beets. Frau Gurn taught everybody how to make syrup from sugar beets and oil from raps. Herr Gurn and the bike shop owner, Herr Ernst, the only adult males in an apartment house full of women and us two children, constructed a press from bits and pieces of metal and wood in Herr Gurn’s auto workshop for squeezing the juice from boiled beets. They devised another press for extracting oil from boiled raps. All of the women living in the house worked together sewing sacking and sheets into the bags for the presses. The women took turns to boil the beets and the raps in the boilers of the cellar washroom—the Baronie had an old-fashioned basement washroom for common use with several boilers that used to be used to boil sheets, towels and linens on wash day. All of us had collected firewood for the boilers. They filled the steaming boiled beets or the heated raps into the bags they had made. Everyone took turns working the presses. Finally, each family took their share of beet juice and raw oil. And within each family everyone participated in boiling the beet juice into syrup, and heated the raps oil to purify it. Both the syrup and the oil had a raw and bitter taste. None of us cared much for it but together with potatoes, our products stilled our hunger. After having proudly finished making a liter of syrup or oil for the winter, I turned to Mother as we both laughed and said uno voce, "And what will we eat when this is gone?" The saying became our motto whenever Aunt Lene complained.
The entire process of syrup and oil making took us about two weeks and yielded for each family enough oil and molasses for the oncoming winter. Working together welded us into a community and undid the isolation of the families from each other that the typhoid and the many deaths had imposed on us. The adults became companionable and on evenings, now that we had light, gathered in the upstairs apartments where the crowding was not yet too great. They played skat, or whiled the evenings away with gossiping and joking. Werner and I, the only youngsters in that group of adults, drew closer together since neither the adults’ talk nor their games held much interest for us. We played card games like rommè and I made up stories for him about what Jochen’s and my life had been like when we were little.
Looking back, I realize that, despite my grudges against my aunts, I was content. All of us thought only of food and of keeping out of the way of Russians and Poles. Every step I took when relearning to walk was a triumph; every cartful of food stuffs we brought home from the fields and every liter of oil or syrup we produced gave us a rewarding sense of accomplishment. Most of the time we felt little need to look back at what we had participated in and what had happened to us. Attention to mere survival kept reflection, recollection, emotion and thought at bay.
On and off all through the rest of 1945, the militia went from house to house to round up people for work crews. At one of the roundups in late October, I was detailed to help clean up the high school on Breslauer Street. I managed to get myself assigned to cleaning up the library, the natural science and map collections, and the teachers’ lounge. Since grenades had hit the building and the plaster had fallen off the ceilings, every room was covered with dust and all books had fallen off the shelves. The Polish school that had started in some of the classrooms could use the natural history objects and the maps, the German- speaking militia man told me. "Dump the books into the garbage," he added contemptuously.
Needless to say I did not get rid of all of the books. I "organized " quite a few for myself. Every day when I left work, I hid a few books under my coat. I selected purposefully, and within a few days I had acquired some of the basic high school textbooks for English, Latin, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. In addition I helped myself to the book of poetry I had used at the teachers’ seminary and, of course, any of the novels I could carry off.
On a rubble clearing round up in late autumn, I met my friend Erika again and also Lotte, the middle school teacher who had led the Strehlen HY for girls. Talking with both of them as we worked in the ruins and passed bricks along and stacked them, I mentioned in passing that somehow I still wanted to get back to school. At the time, of course, the very idea was preposterous. We had no idea what the future held in store for us. We knew that the Polish authorities would never allow a German into their schools. I understood that their children during the German occupation had been deprived of an education. Now it was our turn. Revenge was the order of the day. Rumor had it that even taking private lessons was forbidden.
All through the days when I was working with various clean-up crews, I kept thinking of Wanda, who had befriended me in Zülzendorf. I had never asked her what she felt about doing forced labor, in fact, at the time I did not think about who she really was or where she was from. Now I was in her shoes. She had never complained, as most of my family and present companions did. I did not really mind the physical work as it left me time to daydream and to plan what I might do. Besides it got me out of the house and away from Aunt Lene and her mother, Aunt Martha, who nagged me continually. But I resented not having a choice about the work and felt humiliated at being picked up by the militia at any time and herded about.
Erika and her sister, who had lost track of their parents, lived in a room in an apartment house on Linden Street, close to the county hospital where both my father and Oma had died. Lotte and her mother, who had been a prompter in a Breslau theater, occupied a room in the attic of the same house. Erika’s sister had worked for the Russian commander, and now held a job in the Polish militia commander’s kitchen. Erika’s ambition was to be taken on where her sister worked and she soon managed to do so. I understood from fellow-workers that the sister was the administrator’s mistress. I asked Erika, when I visited her after she left our work crews if that was true.
"Sure," she said to my bewilderment. "That is the way we’ll get through this time. I am going to find myself a militiaman and then I won’t have to clear rubble or scrub floors. And we do have plenty to eat." Everyone I talked to in our apartment house despised those Germans who had collaborated with the Russians and now were collaborating with the Poles. Here was my friend from a year ago and she had no compunction about such collaboration. Yet I did not want to drop her, understood that she had little choice in the matter, and continued to see her all through this time.
"Look, if you want to," she went on, "my sister can get you a job at the commander’s too. Don’t be stupid," she continued on noticing my disapproval, "Stop dreaming, the sooner you give up your hopes of becoming a teacher, the better off you’ll be." I, for my part, by this time felt sure of one thing: you could lose your home, your possessions. Your property could be confiscated like that of my farming relatives. Your house could be bombed and burn down. Your loved ones could die or be killed. The only thing that you could keep was what you had learned, what you knew. Your knowledge and your brain were the only things that remained. Learning and education protected against loss.
I did not tell Erika, for fear she would give us away, that I had talked to Lotte about giving me private lessons in math, science and English. Lotte had agreed, although I had nothing to pay her with. We started the lessons immediately, and since I had appropriated several math textbooks from the high school, Lotte could proceed to test me on what I knew and where to start. Our very first lesson told her that I needed to start from the beginning of the basic high school math book. After several lessons at her place, Lotte did not think that it was safe for her to see pupils there. She was afraid, no doubt, that someone might report her to the Polish authorities. Having been a prominent Nazi in town, she did not want to give anyone an opening for denunciation, particularly as the Polish authorities had begun to put those Nazis who had returned into prison.
Mother readily agreed that it was safer to have the lessons in the bedroom we shared with the two aunts. Lotte’s regular visits would be less noticeable as a "customer" of the dressmaking business than mine at her place. Mother also asked Lotte to teach Werner, whose schooling had stopped last December. At age ten, Werner was less than enthusiastic about lessons. Both my aunts heartily disapproved of our undertaking and constantly harped on our endangering everyone with the forbidden lessons. As I am writing this, I wonder if there ever was any danger of being reported. Suffice it to say that everyone thought so. We paid Lotte by including her in the oil and syrup production as well as in our ongoing expeditions for food supplies from our relatives and from fields and gardens around town. In this way, she became an almost regular member of the family.
I felt ambivalent about her from the start. I was grateful to be taught and worked hard to learn what she offered. I resented her comparing my work to that of other students she had taught. She called me undisciplined, a daydreamer, and that was true enough. I escaped her frequent reproofs through daydreaming. I felt I was never quite good enough. I could never relax and enjoy what I learned. She still supported Hitler’s ideas avidly and denied that concentration camps had existed; and if they had, she asserted, that Hitler knew nothing about them. I listened to her and wished she would talk about something else. I was embarrassed and worried that the other adults might think her crazy. I felt too dependent on her as a teacher to contradict her with what I knew: that I had seen released concentration camp inmates, and that their very looks confirmed the horrifying stories most other adults in my work-crews and in our house occasionally told with averted eyes, stories of mass shootings, of deliberate starvation, of beatings of inmates. Lotte assumed that I thought as she did and invited me when she held memorial services for Hitler or remembered former Nazi holidays with a ceremony. She usually conducted these when the two of us went scrounging for food supplies like for mushrooms in the town woods or sugar beet greens that Mother made into a spinach-like vegetable puree. Next to her at the edge of a ditch by a deserted roadside, I sat silently and morosely as she sermonized, and felt mortified about my hypocrisy.
Early in the fall, water service in town had been reestablish and electricity shortly thereafter. At least for the oncoming winter we did not have to carry water over icy streets or spend long hours in darkness. But since the gas works still supplied no gas and coal for heating cost zloty we did not have, we needed to collect fuel for cooking and heating. The house next door, the Eisenberg’s property, having been partly demolished by a bomb, contained masses of lumber, beams, wainscoting, doors, broken furniture, and books. For months we had gotten the fuel we needed from other sources as we waited for the Eisenberg’s return. We chased off people who wanted to loot what was left of the house. I picked through the rubble and rescued a number of books Frau Eisenberg had lent me years earlier thinking that I would return them, when they came back. Someone in the Baronie, however, started dismantling the heap of bricks and wood by removing half-buried clothing and suitcases, as well as small pieces of furniture. Next wooden scaffolding from Herr Eisenberg’s showroom and shop disappeared. Once the demolition started, there was no stopping it, and family after family in our apartment house sawed away on beams, freed buried, broken furniture from brick and plaster, braved a standing façade in the back of the house and pried loose window frames and doors. By December, everything usable and burnable had disappeared and only a mountain of rubble remained. I worked getting wood from the house as much as anyone but as I did so I thought of Frau Eisenberg’s kindly brown eyes, and felt saddened and remorseful for tearing her house apart. The Eisenbergs’ house kept us warm the entire winter. I never found out what happened to the Eisenbergs, as with almost all of the people I knew as a child--those whom I loved like Hanne and Rita and her aunt, and those whom I hated like the girls of the lawyer next door to the Eisenberg’s.
At another work party that fall at the town commander’s house, I met Frau Dunisch again. She told me that she and a friend of hers, Sister Gisela, were employed as Red Cross community nurses. I told her about my Red Cross training during the last months of the war and my work at the military hospital. After listening to me attentively , she asked, "Do you want to work for me? I supervise the community nurses in the villages close to town. We need more nurses. Too many left in January before the invasion." There was nothing I wanted more than work for her, but I doubted if I had enough experience.
"You have enough for what is needed," she countered my doubts. "You have learned to dress cuts and minor injuries. You know how to give injections. And you can always get help from me if you run into something you cannot handle, " I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
"You won’t be paid, but the villagers will give you foodstuffs for helping them. I‘ll also get you an identification card in Polish so that you can move around safely and won’t be picked up by the militia for cleaning crews." And true enough, my identification card saved me from further work crews.
Much about Frau Dunisch’ role in the town at this time is unclear to me now, and I am amazed how little I knew about it or even questioned it. As I report it now, I can only give the perspective of the mouse in the maze I was then. I do not know from whom she had the authority to assign me, at sixteen, as community nurse to the village of Krippitz or what relationship she had to the Polish authorities that she could get me an identification card. Nevertheless, a few days after our conversation, I was on the way to Krippitz, five kilometers from Strehlen, to introduce myself to the Polish mayor. Frau Dunisch had equipped me with a black doctor’s satchel, that belonged to her missing husband, and filled it with first aid supplies as well as with the promised identification card decorated with a large official seal.
"Ursula Mahlendorf is community nurse in Krzepice, Strzelin. Please give her what assistance you can," it read in Polish.
After presenting my newly acquired identification to the mayor, a large, friendly man who greeted me with many exclamations that I failed to understand, I was ushered next door to a house that served as his office. Realizing that I had no Polish, he led me by inviting gestures to a small room off the hallway that had been the last nurse’s dispensary. I managed to mutter the few words of thanks in Polish that I remembered from Wanda. They sufficed, at any rate, to put me on a cordial footing with him from then on.
Frau Dunisch had told me to go to the next village after my introduction to the mayor for instructions from the nurse who had taken care of Krippitz to date. I have no idea, if or how Nurse Klara had been informed of my coming to see her since there still was no telephone contact to anywhere. She lived a twenty minutes’ walk from Krippitz through the Ohle meadows close to where Agatha and I had picked snowdrops years earlier. A tight-lipped, grey haired woman with grey eyes in a sallow face, she questioned me with some skepticism and then welcomed me as a helper." I suppose you’ll have to do." I never knew if she was reassured by what I told her or if she needed my help so badly that my meager qualifications did not bother her. At any rate, she gave me a list of the village people she had seen recently, and told me what ailed them.
"Visit these patients first," she instructed me. "Send someone to get me if you cannot not handle the situation. I went over twice a week," she concluded, "That should be enough." I promised to visit Krippitz twice a week as she had done and assured her I would send someone if I needed help.
For the next eight months I went to Krippitz twice a week. I am not sure if I helped anyone, but the ten-mile walk twice weekly, reciting poems or English vocabulary to myself, helped me to overcome the last vestiges of weakness from typhoid fever. Moreover, while trudging along, I memorized the entire volume of lyrics that I had taken from the high school. Luckily it was an excellent collection for it gave me a sample of every meter and rhythm of German poetry from the middle ages to the 1930s. I could still recite poem after poem by heart from this treasury when I taught lyric poetry many years later.
Fortunately I did not run into difficulties with my nursing duties too often. For the most part, I visited with households headed by women, talked to them, bandaged a few cuts, and provided ointments to fight the scabies that plagued almost all children and many adults as a result of poor hygiene. Most of the German villagers were day laborers from the one large estate whose owner had been relocated. Horses and cattle, even chickens and geese, had been appropriated by the troops some months ago. The Polish authorities were planning to convert the farming operation into a state owned enterprise. For the time being, the women individually harvested for their own use the few plots that they had been able to plant in late spring and sometimes offered me produce for my help. An unknown number of fields were still mined.
We had one major accident when three teenagers stepped on a tank mine and set it off. I arrived at the scene when the families had already loaded the boys on the mayor’s horse-drawn wagon to transport them to the hospital. I only needed to deal with one boy’s leg that had almost been severed at the knee. I steadied the leg with a splint and applied pressure to an artery that was spurting blood. Fortunately, the boy was unconscious. Together with the distraught mothers, and frightened out of my wits about the responsibility I had taken on, I delivered the children to the hospital.
Except for the two days I spent at Krippitz, I could now plan my days and had time to study and read. Lotte came for lessons several times a week unless she was stopped for a work crew. With five people living in two rooms, one of which we had refashioned into a kitchen and used as living and sewing room, and the other of which served as bedroom, study, and dressing room for customers, our various interests often conflicted. Worst were our conflicts over food. Aunt Lene and Mother worked together as dressmakers, but Aunt Lene, having been mother’s teacher, thought that she contributed more to the business. Therefore she claimed that the most valuable produce they received as payment, like meat, butter, eggs, sausage, and cheese belonged to her. She claimed that the potatoes, oil and syrup Mother, Werner and I provided had less value. Therefore she and her mother could have their share of our products, but she could ration out her "valuable" foods in minute amounts. Needless to say, I protested; but since mother did not support me, I could do little except sulk. Aunt Lene in turn objected ever more loudly to Lotte’s coming to give us lessons. It did not help that Mother supported me when we were on our food collection missions, and agreed with Aunt Lene when I was not there to hear it.
I don’t know exactly, but it must have been shortly after I started my duties at Krippitz when Frau Dunisch asked me if I would help her with a life-saving and possibly dangerous task.
"I am not sure," she began, "if I should involve you in this. My husband left a basement full of medical supplies that he kept as county medical officer. I don’t want these to fall in the hands of the militia. I want them used by the doctors and the village nurses in the county for whom they were originally intended. I hope that you can help me deliver them."
She stopped to look at me, and seeing my interest continued, "A few times a week, I’ll give you a knapsack filled with medical supplies. You’ll have to deliver them without telling anyone where you got them. You’ll be a great help to the people in the villages. The doctors and nurses there cannot get syringes, insulin, sulfur drugs, dressings, or any other medical supplies. They ran out of most some time ago. Some of the nurses are taking care of diabetics and I know that they need insulin urgently." She paused, looking at me questioningly. I felt proud about the trust she had in me.
"Of course, I’ll do it. When do I start?"
"I’ll provide you with the addresses, but under no circumstance tell anyone who you are or who is sending you." I was enthusiastic about this mission and about the secrecy. And suddenly, I was also apprehensive.
"What if the militia stops me?"
"You’ll need to see that they don’t. If they do, they might put you in custody overnight, but I doubt that they’d do much else," she replied, adding, "Of course, I understand if you think it is too risky and don’t want to do it."
"To whom do I go first? " I wanted to know so as to have no time to think it over.
"We’ll start with Nurse Klara. You know the way; the village militia in Krippitz knows you, so they won’t stop you. And Sister Klara knows better than to ask any questions. Come by my house early tomorrow morning. And come in by the door in back so that the doctor does not hear you. I’ll be waiting for you at the door." The doctor was a Polish physician who had taken over her apartment and her husband’s practice. She, her parents and her friend, Sister Gisela lived in the attic.
I met her at the back door shortly after daybreak after our curfew was lifted. We went down into the cellar. Behind some shelves at the back, she opened an almost invisible door into still another cellar filled with boxes. I recognized some of the boxes as similar to those from which she had filled my doctor’s satchel for my duties at Krippitz. The knapsack was ready. I left quietly and without speaking by the backdoor, crossed a footpath up to the bushes and birches bordering on Marienberg, and was out of sight.
This first mission was uneventful because part of it was my usual walk to Krippitz. Nurse Klara accepted the supplies without comment but I could see that she was happy. Her sallow face flushed with relief as she smiled.
"I was running very low, you saved my life."
The reactions of the doctors and nurses made the long walks--often with a heavy rucksack and one or two buckets of sulfur salve for scabies--worth my effort. My next trip a few days later, took me to Striege, my mother’s birthplace. I knew a backway, a footpath along the Ohle River to the village on which there was no danger of meeting anyone. I hoped that it had not been mined. Once again, the nurse received me with open arms once she saw what I brought.
Over the next eight months, sometimes twice weekly, I delivered knapsacks full of supplies and buckets of sulfa ointments. Neither Mother nor Aunt Lene knew what I was doing. I told them right at the start that Frau Dunisch had offered me space at her house and I would be studying there. My knowledge of the county and its byways and alleys from my biking days made my missions easier. Usually, I took a detour around the villages I had to pass. From my "customers" I found out the locations of the village militia posts so that I could avoid them at other trips. No militiaman ever stopped me, except once. At the time I had no comprehension that I was playing a game of cops and robbers. I felt elated, a real heroine, on a secret mission. It was the perfect realization of the fantasized games Jochen and I as pre-teens had played riding our bikes as spies and explorers. I don’t think I ever again experienced a similar thrill. The game seemed dangerous and exhilarating and it probably was. I loved the surprised, relieved, and then happy look I received from doctors and nurses as I asked them to empty the knapsack. I never said where I came from, or who had sent me, or who I was. I proudly turned them down if they wanted to reward me with anything but a sandwich or some water. As I think about it now, most of them probably knew who had sent me, and who had given me their address. None of them questioned me much or wanted to know anything specific. I believe they felt it was safer for them and for me not to know. I never stayed long, partly because I often had to cover some ten to fifteen miles to get home before curfew at nightfall and partly for safety reasons. Occasionally my visit to a nurse’s aroused the curiosity of the villagers who directed me to her dispensary. Then I felt it imperative to leave before the news of a stranger visiting spread through the village and reached the local militia.
Over the months, we extended our reach to the outlying villages of the county. I loved the hikes over the fields, along the Ohle river beyond Krippitz, or up the hills South of town and through the town woods. I got to know the villages West of town where we had never gone before on our bikes, a region of the county with large estates. On some of the back roads there, I came through the moors that Frau Gurn had talked out when I listened to her tales in her kitchen. Walking along past the reeds and brackish meadows, I remembered how afraid I had been then of the will-o’-the-wisps that lived in the moor and that tempted travelers off their course so that they were sucked into the moor and drowned. I ventured off the road now on returning home and collected a few of the meadow saffron or other late moor flowers for Lotte to identify for me. From everywhere I went, I could orient myself by the silhouette of the Zopten Mountain in the West. On most of my deliveries, I took a book along and on lonely stretches of the roads and byways, I memorized English vocabulary or learned by heart more poetry. Reciting poems helped against my anxiety about being picked up by the militia. Between my deliveries and my regular trips to Krippitz I got sufficient exercise that my health improved and my heart strengthened so that my typhoid physician’s warning that I my heart would never quite recover did not come true.
There was only one problem: I was wearing down my brother’s boots. The soles were worn through, and the seams had come apart in several places. I had no other shoes. I stitched some of the seams and Herr Gurn resoled the boots for me. But not being a shoemaker, and not having glue, he used nails and the nails soon stuck into my feet. Finding out my dilemma, Frau D. gave me a pair of boots that had belonged to her husband. Though they were too big and I got blisters, they were better than going barefoot. I used up several pairs of men’s shoes donated by her. Sore feet and blisters were a constant annoyance and the price of my feeling adventurous.
After each delivery, I went by Frau Dunisch’s house to return the knapsack, to report on the mission, and to visit with her and her parents. I felt welcome with them and we often talked. They encouraged my taking lessons and being intellectually curious. They lent me books and discussed them with me. While we at home lived from one day to the next, worrying only about the next meal, Frau Dunisch and her family conversed and bantered with each other on any conceivable subject. They made plans. They could conceive of a future for themselves and for me. They were committed to service to the community, whether it be as a nurse, a doctor, an organizer of the Olympics—as her father had been--or a teacher. They modeled for me the kind of life I wanted to lead.
After the New Year, I received a letter from Frau Scherzer in Breslau, who had been my mentor at the teacher’s seminary. She wrote that she had survived the siege of Breslau and asked me how I had fared and if I knew the where-a- bouts of any of the other students. It was the first time that we received any mail, even though we still did not have public transportation. Train service to Breslau had not been restored yet, because many of the rail bridges that had been blown up during the last fighting had still not been rebuilt. The letter, at any rate, seemed like a message from another world. I did what no adult would even consider, namely hike all the way to Breslau, some 30 miles away, to visit her. I left at daybreak the day after I received the letter and arrived at the address she had given me shortly after dark.
I was used to hiking long distances, but the villages all around Breslau frightened me; they were a fearful sight of destruction, still empty of people and of animals; a few emaciated, stray cats meowed at me; facades of blackened farm houses, barns and outbuilding in ruins with parts of roofs blown off by grenades stood along desolate village streets. Since it was winter and no snow had fallen yet to hide the devastation, I understood the starkness of defeat for the first time. I did not meet anyone, not even militia, all the way to the suburbs of Breslau so that the world I encountered felt eerie, unearthly. I was afraid but I kept thinking about a poem I wanted to write about this dead world and about my brother Jochen who, we thought at the time, had died in the last days of the war.
Of course, Frau Scherzer was surprised at my spontaneous visit. Fortunately I had had the sense to bring along two days of food supplies for myself. She put me up in her one room flat in Breslau’s North. Electricity in her neighborhood had not yet been restored and so we spent the evening talking in the darkness. She told me that she had stayed through the siege of Breslau, helping out as an aide in a hospital for shelter because thought she would be safer there.
"It was curious," she explained, "You would think that when a city surrenders to the enemy, the invaders come in en masse and start burning, looting, and raping. That’s not the way it happened. As the city’s commander negotiated the surrender, small Russian convoys infiltrated every night and gradually the city was taken over. When the surrender was finally declared, the Russian troops were everywhere. A few days later, we were thrown out of the hospital, everyone who could walk. Out on the street, I looked for a place to stay. Some women took me in. A few days later, trying to see what had happened to my neighborhood, I found out that our apartment house had been flattened by artillery fire. Afterwards I ran into a Russian convoy. I scrambled through some of the ruins but one of the soldiers caught me, threw me down and raped me. If you cannot run, don’t fight back once he throws you down. Remember that," she concluded.
"What did you do after that, " I asked, grateful that she told me frankly what had happened. Mother had clammed up about rape or what to do. Any time since my typhoid fever, when I talked to Mother or my aunts about rape, or about what had happened to Ellen, or even about the women at the infant ward where I had worked, they had made me feel as if there were something wrong with me for being preoccupied with sex and rape.
"I went to the next hospital to be examined and treated," she replied. "The doctor flushed out my uterus with a saline solution so that I wouldn’t get pregnant." Her answer was detailed and specific about the procedure she had undergone to make sure that she did not contract gonorrhea.
"The Russian commanding officers," she continued, "for twenty-four hours after the Germans surrendered gave their troops leeway to rape the German women they found. After that, soldiers who were reported for rape, could be court-martialed. That’s why I went to the Russsian Kommandantur after the hospital and filed a report. I don’t know what happened. I do know from the doctor at the hospital that other women were raped as I was."
Next day, I went t to look what the siege had done to the city. To my surprise, Breslau was actually less devastated than my hometown. I went by the red brick polyclinic that was close by Frau Scherzer’s and found it still standing in all its ugliness. I searched for the houses of our relatives and of Adelheid’s parents. Both of them had burnt down to the ground without any indication where their inhabitants had gone. I arrived back at Frau Scherzer’s room depressed and discouraged. Once again we talked into the night. Generalizing from my own situation at the teacher seminary, I maintained that bad as the Nazis had been, they had furthered women’s education.
"No, that is what the HY told you," she corrected me. "You know better than that. It was education for motherhood only. They decreased the number of admissions for women to the universities significantly. I was fortunate that I could finish my degree. They founded the teacher seminaries only when they ran out of male teachers. You would never have had a chance to study."
"Stay with your lessons, even if you don’t like everything that Lotte represents or says. You can learn from her. And somehow our lives will return to some kind of normalcy and you will be able to go on with your schooling," she encouraged me. I left her strengthened in my resolve to persist with the lessons despite my friend’s ridicule, my relatives’ nagging and my own resistance to Lotte’s discipline. I left early the next day and was home by nightfall.
My sudden departure for Breslau had made me miss one of my weekly visits to Krippitz. I had justified my omission to myself by thinking that I would go three times the following week. My only important case in the village was a mother who rejected her infant. The baby had been born a few weeks earlier with Sister Klara’s assistance. When first seeing mother and child, I felt as if I was revisiting the infant ward where I had trained the year before. The baby boy, listless and pitifully thin, with a stone-hard swollen belly, lay in soggy rag diapers that had not been changed for at least a day. The mother had no milk, and paid no attention to the child. It was her sister who lived with mother and infant who had asked me to come and help her with the baby. Neither cow nor goat milk were to be had in the village and therefore the sister fed the infant a flour and water mixture. At this first visit, the sister and I bathed the baby and found some old cotton sheeting for diapers. I left some cotton swabs and baby oil to wipe the baby’s bottom, and told the sister that I would try to get more cotton sheeting for diapers.
I asked Frau Dunisch .if she could obtain canned milk or milk powder for us. Two days later, I had several tins of canned milk and a few old sheets that I took out to Krippitz with me. Frau Dunisch had promised to get me dried milk for the following week. I left for Breslau on Tuesday of the week I had promised to deliver the dried milk. I returned Thursday night and delivered the milk powder late Friday morning. When I arrived at the sisters’ apartment, the mother had left and her sister told me that the baby had died the day before. Looking at the shriveled small body covered by a piece of sheeting in its dirty hamper, I felt heartsick. I had been so sure that I could make a difference in the baby’s survival. In my missionary zeal, I had fantasized that this time, unlike at the infant ward, I had control over the situation; I could help this infant. And I had failed! I was struck forcibly by the fragility of human life; you miss a few days and it is all over! I felt guilty whenever I remembered that I had been neglectful, followed my inclination, and not kept my promise. Unfortunately I did not trust any adult sufficiently to speak about my failure and express my oppressive guilt feelings. Because I could not, I did not gain a less omnipotent perspective on my role in the infant’s death and guilt feelings continued to haunt me. My remorse had the effect, however, of my taking commitments in the village very seriously and becoming thoughtful about any future promises I made.
On my next visit to Breslau that Spring, I stopped to ask for a glass of water at a house in a suburb. With some hesitation, I recognized the woman who answered the door. She was Frau Friedrich, a woman of about 35 to 40, whom Mother had met at one of her holidays in the mountains and who had visited us a few times during my teens from Breslau where she and her husband lived. I had always looked forward to her visits because, unlike my aunts, she inquired about my interests and listened to my answers. She had been a lively brunette, radiant, well dressed, with a ready smile and a sense of fun. The face of the woman I saw now seemed swollen, its formerly clear features blurred and pasty, her dress hung on her, her figure looked ungainly. But she greeted me with the same cordiality she had a few years earlier.
"My god, child, what are you doing out on the road!" she asked as she drew me into a darkened room. As in most houses at the time, the windows had been bashed out during the fighting and the panes replaced by cardboard or planks. "You shouldn’t be here. We just had Russians come through. It’s not safe here. Where is your mother?" She calmed down after I told her my story. From then on, the few more times I went to Breslau, I stayed one night with her and gradually found out what had happened to her. She too had survived the Breslau siege. She had not for the West because she was waiting for her husband to return and she had no address anywhere else where he might have found her after the war.
"Our apartment burnt down. I moved out into the suburb after the siege because I thought I’d be able to feed myself better being close to the country. I came from here and I have relatives here. But they don’t talk to me now."
"Why not?" It took her a while to answer me. And then she decided to talk and the story rushed out of her. "They think that it’s my fault; that I wasn’t careful enough. That I didn’t hide well enough, that I didn’t make myself ugly to drive away the Russian. I am pregnant, in the seventh month. I was raped. I tried to abort the baby but I couldn’t. I know that my husband like the relatives won’t believe me. He’ll think that it was my fault. That I had intercourse with the Russian because I wanted to."
I was too young and too inexperienced to understand the extent of her desperation, of her passivity—she had never tried to see a doctor or report the rape—of her fatalism, and of her fear of rejection. I did understand that she would be stuck with having to bring up a child she did not want. That her husband, if he returned would reject her just like her relatives did. All I felt was sympathy and outrage that no one could or would help her. I went to see her every time I went to Breslau, talked to her as the baby’s birth came closer. But once I no longer went to Breslau, I forgot her. Mother and I did find out later in West Germany that she did have the child and that she brought it up by herself.
I visited Frau Scherzer several more times in an unconscious effort to regain a relationship that had helped me and supported me during the collapse of my HY identity and beliefs. But that effort turned flat over several visits. The everyday realities of Frau Scherzer’ life could not sustain my fantasy of her. It was during a casual interchange when my disillusionment got the better of me. We had been discussing what the future held for Germany when she remarked about the young people she observed in her neighborhood:
"I worry what will happen to German youth after their seduction by the HY, and the turmoil and defeat they have experienced during these last few months." From a mature perspective, hers was the reasonable concern of a caring teacher. Personalizing her remark, I asked if she also worried about me.
"No, I don’t worry about you. You will be fine," she replied. I could have seen her answer as an expression of confidence in me. But her remark hurt and continued to rankle over several weeks because I felt far from fine or confident about myself. How could she assume how I felt without asking me? As usual at all occasions when an adult expressed ‘concern’ for my generation, I thought resentfully, "You should have thought about your worry about young people when the Nazis taught us." I felt too awed by her to express my anger at her and therefore did not give her a chance to continue our discussion and to clarify her position.
I answered a card from her a few weeks later by returning an empty envelope, an angry gesture I was ashamed of even as I put the envelope into the postbox. I knew it was evasively provocative—provocative because we believed that we lived under censorship and receiving an empty envelope could mean any number of worrisome things. I decided that I would never return to Breslau for a visit, and I never found out what happened to her. I deeply regret that I lost touch with her, for she was, after all, the teacher who inspired me and helped me the most when I needed it most.
I feel sad now that I was unable to tell her how I had interpreted her remark, how desperately I wanted her or any adult to care about me. I realize that the adults who knew me at the time did not understand that I was still very much of a child and did not have the perspective of an adult. I needed reassurance constantly and I got little of it because almost everybody, including Frau Scherzer, expected me to be an adult.
Sometime in the spring of 1946 Aunt Lene wanted Mother, my brother and me to move our beds into the kitchen/living room/sewing room. She and Herr Ernst, the bald bike dealer had gotten engaged. Over the last few months, they had become close as the adults in the apartment house played skat together. Herr Ernst had begun to repair radios for Polish customers, no longer needed to be in hiding, and made a good living. They wanted to live together but there was no room where he lived for both of them. I was happy for them as Aunt Lene’s attention was off me. But we refused to move, and could not see how the kitchen/living room/sewing room could also accommodate out beds. Then I thought of a way out that satisfied everybody. I fancied--in vain-- that our move out of our apartment would also make everybody in the house see how difficult Aunt Lene made our lives. In the back yard, Herr Gurn had a stable and an auto shop. Rickety steps led from the yard up to a hayloft over the stable and to a room for the groom. Even though the Polish chauffeur used the workshop and the stable for his car, neither hayloft nor groom’s quarters had been used nor, for that matter, had they been cleaned since the invasion. Werner and I set to work, and within a few days we hoisted our beds up and took a few of our pieces of furniture from the two rooms at the house. The three of us moved into the groom’s quarters as Aunt Lene’s fiancée took up our space. We now had lessons in our quarters without constant reproof; I could read and study as much as I liked. And with all of us happier at last some of our conflicts lessened.
Several times in the course of winter and spring of 1946, militiamen for whom Mother and Aunt Lene made alterations, returned and confiscated their sewing machines. Twice, relatives and friends lent them their old sewing machines as replacements and Herr Ernst put them in working order. At the third such occasion, my ten-year old brother—much to our surprise--began addressing the men in Polish. With his Polish, he made enough of an impression on them that they left without the machines. Unlike all of us, and not handicapped by resentment and prejudice against Poles, he had learned the language while playing with the son of the Polish pianist who lived in the Gurns’ apartment. From then on, I also made an effort to learn at least enough Polish to carry on a conversation and understand the Poles with whom I dealt in Krippitz as a nurse.
What helped me overcome my prejudice against Poles, which I had acquired through Nazi indoctrination, through all of our resentment against the militia and my ignorance of Polish culture, were not only my memory of Wanda but also my daily experiences with Polish civilians, with the ever-friendly mayor of Krippitz and the pianist who lived in the Gurns’ apartment. For the most part, the Polish families who lived in our apartment house ignored us and we them. I liked the looks of the Polish pianist. Her poise, her beautifully cut chestnut hair, her finely chiseled, pale and sensitive face intrigued me. I first heard her play the piano from the hallway of the apartment house. Deprived of any source of music--our piano had been confiscated shortly after we returned--I was thrilled by her playing, particularly by her duets with a young violinist. Wanting to hear better, I requested permission from Frau Gurn to listen to their playing from their former storeroom, separated from the music in the living room by only a thin wall.
From then on, if I had any free time on the afternoons when the violinist and the pianist practiced, I went to the Gurn’s backroom and listened. Sitting on a discarded beer keg in the windowless room, I heard sonatas I did not know by whom, but later recognized as works of Beethoven and Chopin. It was the first live classical music I was exposed to. The intimate and subtle sound of their chamber playing stirred and moved me. Their duets created in my mind a passionate and heart-rending antithesis to the aggressive blare of symphonic and martial music transmitted by the radio during the Nazi period. It took me almost a lifetime to dissociate the connection between symphonic music and the violence of Nazism. The pianist and her violin accompanist sensitized me to the intimacy and expressive power of chamber music.
In May Mother received a letter from Grandfather Mahlendorf’s second wife in Neisse. Grandfather, the letter told us, was mortally ill with pneumonia and if she wanted to see him alive, she should come soon. Grandmother sent the letter on the chance that it might reach us at our old address. Their apartment in Neisse had burnt down during the fighting and she gave us their new address. I volunteered immediately to go as the family’s emissary but this time I notified Nurse Klara that I could not go to Krippitz for a week and asked Frau Dunisch if she could provide me with medications that might save Grandfather’s life. By this time, train service going south, at least part of the way, had been re-established. Rumors among Germans about being beaten or ejected from public transport were rife, and therefore I was apprehensive about traveling by train or being searched. But since I had to get to Neisse fast, and since we did not know how risky it was carry medication on me, Frau Dunisch put a heavy plaster cast on my left arm in which she embedded the medication for Grandfather. She also gave me the money for the ticket. Thanks to the cast and my arm in a sling, everybody on the train was helpful and friendly. Instead of the hostility I expected of my Polish traveling companions, I was asked solicitously how I had broken my arm. I stuttered a few sentences in the little Polish I knew, and nobody minded my being German or questioned my using the train.
I had visited Grandfather in Neisse just before setting out for Obernik and he had been pleased that I was entering the teacher’s seminary. The city I arrived at two years later was as devastated as my hometown because the battle for the town had waged back and forth several times. Nobody was at home when I knocked at the attic door of the address I had been given. I fell asleep on the stairs as I was waiting for my relatives because I had walked the last ten miles into the city. The railroad bridges over the Neisse River had been blown up. I woke up with a start of apprehension as I heard steps approaching on the dark staircase. It was Grandmother Mahlendorf, her daughter Elfie and Elfie’s eight year old daughter. As we entered the twilight of their kitchen I gathered from the expressions on their faces that I had come too late. Grandmother confirmed that Grandfather had died the day before. They were returning from the cemetery where they arranged for a plot for his grave.
During the following two days they told me their story. In early 1945, they had waited too long to escape from the approaching frontline and stayed in their cellar as the city was overrun by the Russian army. A week later, German troops retook the city and made them leave the town. On the road, Russians again overtook them. They got caught in the back and forth of the battle for the city several times. Every time they were out on the road, however, they knew of nothing else to do but to return to the city, even after their apartment had burnt down. They moved from one apartment to another during the next months as the Polish population moved in because the militia requisitioned every new place they found in the ruins of the town. They received permission to stay in their present, rather spacious attic apartment, because Grandfather had found work at the municipal waterworks to restore water service to the city.
A few weeks ago, water service had been disrupted and Grandfather was to repair the pipes. He caught a bad cold during the repairs and refused to go to work. The waterworks’ overseer sent the militia to fetch him in an open truck. Grandfather had no choice but go along. A few days ago, after he had worked on the pipes all day, he returned home delirious with a high fever. Next day, the militiamen returned to force him to go to work. Being delirious, he resisted them. They beat him until he collapsed. That is when Grandmother decided to write to us. She managed to find a doctor who examined him and told her that there was little hope for Grandfather’s life because one of his lungs had detached from his chest wall. He remained unable to move, delirious, and often unconscious until he died. The militiamen had returned every day during the period of unconsciousness, to see if he was awake and able to go back to work.
Even as they were telling me the story, we heard the militiamen come up the stairs. They were four or five young men, hardly different from the young German soldiers of the Habelschwerdt hospital ward. They pushed us aside and went into the next room where Grandfather’s body still lay on his bed. I followed them into the room. I was awed by the stillness of his large, familiar frame lying on the bed, face haggard and gray, cheeks fallen in, nose pointed, a dark red scabbed-over cut running diagonally across his high forehead. The militiamen stopped by the bed and one pushed his head off the pillow and examined the pillow as if he was hoping to find something. I stood at the headboard as if frozen, livid with fury that they would not even leave his dead body alone but continued checking for something under the sheet on which he lay. It seemed an eternity until they left. Their callousness made no sense to me. What were they looking for? What did they believe was hidden under the dead man? I seethed with anger.
That night I slept in the room next to where Grandfather lay dead. Electricity had been cut off and Grandmother gave me a candle to light my room. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I took the candle and went to stand by his bed. Gazing down at him, a faint high humming in my head, I felt only a kind of solemn awe. Suddenly, Rilke’s poem Autumn came to my mind and slowly, under my breath, I recited it, its sadness wrenching my chest with a few dry sobs but bringing no tears to my dry, burning eyes.
In the morning I accompanied Grandmother on several errands related to the burial: to get a death certificate from a municipal office, to check on a coffin she had ordered built from a wardrobe that they had found in the apartment, to solicit a Protestant clergyman to conduct a funeral service. Though a Catholic herself, she wanted the right kind of preacher for the burial. I took an immediate dislike to the man and protested, after we left him, that grandfather had been an atheist and would not want the lugubrious sermon I was sure he would, and did, give. I was too young to know that the sermon was to console her and her daughter, both of whom were genuinely grieving. I felt self-righteously that my service for him of the night before would have been more to his liking.
While we were gone, a woman and the carpenter had come to dress the body and place it into the coffin. They had left the casket open so that grandmother could place into it some of the objects grandfather prized, like his toothbrush and a ring. On a bookshelf in his room, among books on plants and birds, I found a small volume of nineteenth century poems, many of which I knew by heart. I spent the following night again at Grandfather’s side reading poems to him and to myself. They helped me through the night. We buried him the next day. In the train on the way home, I realized that I had forgotten to take off the cast containing the medications. I felt my fury over his death as well as my grief only years later.
None of us ever profited from the medical supplies that I delivered all through winter and spring. I admired Frau Dunisch’s ingenuity and courage in taking the risk of hiding the supplies from the militia, all the more as we had to be careful that the physician who lived and practiced in her house did not find out what we were doing. I always managed to evade the militia on my trips and prided myself on my endurance and skill. As I got used to walking the country side, my anxiety about the militia diminished. Particularly when I passed through the woods on the way to villages South of town like Krummendorf or Riegersdorf, I stopped in the woods for a rest, moving some distance off the side of the road. One a day early in Spring, when the trees had not yet leafed out, and patches of snow still covered the ground by the underbrush of small conifers and bushes, I noticed a strong, sweet odor that overpowered the smell of wet, dead leaves. I looked around and then spied a low, still leafless bush with several dense clusters of tiny, deep pink blossoms. Daphne, I remembered. I’d been here with Oma, an eternity ago it seemed to me. "They are very rare, grow here wild," Oma had said, "Don’t disturb them. Don’t pick them." I went closer to the bush that was almost hidden by brush and leaves. The radiant, small ,almost lilac blossom clusters with their strong sweet odor transported me out of myself into the comfort I had felt with Oma.
Only once, carrying a heavy knapsack and two buckets of sulfa ointment, was I stopped by boyish-looking militiaman who biked by me on a back road. Surprised by his silent approach and on an impulse, I produced my Polish identification as community nurse. He took the paper from me, studied it, looked long at the seal, and handed it back. Murmuring something in Polish, he motioned me to proceed without checking my knapsack. Relieved and thinking the matter over once he had passed me, I realized that he could not read and judged the situation from the impressive seal. Just to be sure not to be stopped when going by the next village, I made a large detour through the woods so as not to get caught once he had had time to think. At first I felt contemptuous of the militia man that he could not read. On second thought , I recalled that during the German occupation of Poland, Polish children had not had school. That is why he could not read. But for Lotte’s instruction, my brother, in a few years, might not be able to read either.
By June of 1946, we heard rumors that Germans in Silesia would be resettled. We knew neither of the decisions of the Potsdam Conference of the previous year, nor of any political developments anywhere. Some rumors had it that we were going to be shipped to Central Germany, some to Siberia, some to the West. We did not know that in 1945 occupied Germany had been divided into four zones, the Russian, the British, the American and the French zones. In fact, one of the most frustrating and anxiety-provoking aspects of living without news was that rumors ruled our mental lives. Sometimes they were florid exaggerations of some measure that the Polish administration planed or had ruled; sometimes they were wild fantasies about events taking place in other towns of Silesia; sometimes they were fabrications of fearful people about what had happened or might happen. Even Frau Dunisch who had some connections to the woman, a former concentration camp inmate and a communist, who had been appointed "mayor" of the Germans living in Strehlen and therefore had some access to official news, only found out that we would be resettled. She did not know when or where.
Mother, who had left some jewelry and other valuables up in the mountains when she left Lomnitz, asked me if I would go and ask her hosts for them . In May 1945 before the Russian army arrived, everybody at the farm had buried their valuables under a fieldstone wall; she gave me directions where in the wall she thought ours were. By this time, trains were running all the way to Habelschwerdt, and I had no problems going there. As on the Neisse trip, I put my left arm into a light cast and sling, taking along additional plaster bandages. I planned to hide the jewelry by embedding it in the enlarged cast. I walked all the way from Habelschwerdt to Lomnitz. I felt uneasy on the familiar unpaved uphill road to the village until I noticed that some of the doors and gates in the villages I passed stood ajar, and that I met no other pedestrians—bicycle had disappeared with the Russian invasion troops. Arrived at Lower Lomnitz, and seeing trucks and people being loaded unto them, I understood what was happening. German families were being resettled and I had just come in time.
Mother’s host family were fearful, distraught and anxious as they had packed the belongings they were allowed to take and were waiting for the truck that would pick them up.
"We dug up and packed your mother’s valuables in with ours, when she did not get in touch with us," they explained. "We did not know if she would ever come back for them. We will search for them in our baggage," one of the women added, as she left for another room. After a time while I nervously waited, she returned and produced a few pieces of jewelry; they were the least valuable pieces of the lot, I knew.
"We only have access to a few pieces," the woman said. "We lost the key to the big suitcase and we don’t want to force it open. The militia will be here any moment. We’ll get in touch with your mother when we know where we are going to be."
Even while I felt sorry for them that they had to leave their home, I left angry. I knew they were lying. Once again, as at the time when I gave my watch to the refugee woman for safekeeping, I had been taken for a sucker. We never heard from them again.
Knowing that we too would be resettled, we began to prepare after I returned home. At the time, we believed that we would be resettled until a final peace treaty and then come back. I had seen in the mountains that each person was allowed to take only what he or she could carry. Therefore we made bedrolls with sheeting to transport our feather beds with one arm. We packed our knapsacks with personal items to carry on our shoulders. Herr Ernst helped us fasten wheels to two aluminum washtubs with household and cooking essentials. My aunts did the same. Each tub had a rope tied to it for us to pull with our other hand. While we waited, packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice for the next several months, Frau Dunisch and I stepped up the distribution of medical supplies to the county’s nurses and physicians.
Early that summer, with the permission of the militia and the cooperation of the "German" mayor, Frau Dunisch and Sister Gisela inoculated the German population against typhus and typhoid. Nobody wanted a repeat of last year’s epidemic. I helped them and met the mayor for the first and only time at that occasion. Frau Dunisch had told me earlier that the mayor was the daughter of a local Communist and that both she and her father had been imprisoned in a concentration camp. He had died, she survived. Though a young woman in her late twenties, she had a presence that impressed me. She was flippant, and unlike most of us, unafraid of the militiamen present. Frau Dunisch introduced me as her "helper with the supplies." I now understood where my identification card had come from and who was likely to have provided the addresses of the community nurses. On a hunch, I asked the young mayor if she was making up the lists of names for resettlement and had some control over who would be sent with which of the several train transports from Strehlen.
"I make the lists, "she replied with a laugh. "Do you want me to make some special arrangements?" I felt ashamed for asking for a favor but made it nevertheless.
"Could you put me and my family, the Mahlendorfs, on the same list as the Dunisch family and Lotte T.? And could you put my aunts, Lene H. and Martha H., on a different list?" I found out several weeks later that she had done as I asked.
A few days later, Frau Dunisch made a request, "I need to sell some of the medical supplies we have that are for hospital use only because I need some cash for my parents’ needs. Would you go to the county hospital and sell them to the administrator, Panje X.?" I agreed even though I felt uneasy; I did not quite know why. Next morning, I picked up several syringes, some surgical instruments, a number of thermometers, and a number of vials of different serums. Since there was a lively black market in all kinds of supplies, it was likely that I would not be asked from where I had my stock. I went, talked to the man, and he indeed paid me the tidy sum I had been told to demand. When I delivered the sum to Frau Dunisch she wanted to give me a portion of the money. At first I refused, then on second thought, I took the sum and handed it over to Mother. Even as I took the money, I realized that I had lost my respect for Frau Dunisch and that I had undermined my own idealism because of this transaction. My assumption all along had been that we performed a community service for the public good, and that, of course, our motives were altruistic. Young as I was I could not comprehend that care for one’s aging parents—her mother had had several strokes—might be part of the public good. I never quite regained my old feelings for Frau Dunisch nor did I regain trust in my own altruistic motives.
As we stepped up the effort to empty Frau Dunisch’s cellar of medical supplies, we must have gotten careless. Early one morning the Polish physician surprised us in the cellar. Loudly and angrily he demanded an explanation from Frau Dunisch. "Whose are these supplies? Your husband’s and you concealed them?" When she could not satisfy him with her evasions, he threatened in his halting German.
"I report to the militia. You be sorry!"
Frau Dunisch did not react but sent me off with the usual load in my rucksack as the two of them were still negotiating. I was terrified for the first time, wondering where I would be picked up and when. Fortunately, the delivery was to a nurse just a few miles from home. I hurried there, left what I had, and practically raced back. Nothing had happened. Next day, I had my lessons with Lotte as I did on all free days, did my homework and waited. Nothing. The following day, I went to Krippitz and came home, nothing. A few days later, I finally dared to go to see Frau Dunisch. She said that we would stop further deliveries.
"He took the little that was left. We managed to distribute most of it anyway. We’ll all leave soon anyway."
I never told anyone during the last days we spent in Strehlen how afraid I was that the militia would pick us up and keep us in jail. With my success in delivering the medicines, I had ceased to worry that we might be at risk. For the last months under the Poles, I had known about all kinds of people who had disappeared in militia jails for all kinds of reasons: for being accused of having been a Nazi official, as was Bertel’s father; or of displeasing this or that official as had Herr S., Mother’s Singer sewing machine repairman who had appeared one day with some militiamen to confiscate our sewing machines and the next day was jailed for no reason we could tell. Sick with worry, I could hardly wait to leave. I now think that there was probably not as much reason to be as afraid as I was. The Polish physician did not follow up on his threat. For all I know, he was satisfied with getting the rest of the supplies.
During the first week of August, the militia came to our house and called on the first families to be ready within a few hours to leave for the railroad station. Among them were my aunts, Herr Ernst, my aunt’s fiancée, and several other families from our apartment house. The following morning, it was our turn. As I was getting ready, the sole on one of my boots came lose. I asked Herr Gurn, who was in the backyard, if he could nail it down. He took the boot out of my hands, and started working on it. Standing next to him, I noticed that he was crying and could hardly control his voice.
"I am sorry that we are not leaving with you. Be sure to let us know where you are. Wherever you go, the Red Cross will have lists. See that your names and addresses get on them so that we can find you again."
I was amazed. I had always thought that he hardly knew that we existed. For years, gruff and remote, he had never even acknowledged any of our daily greetings and now he wept that we were leaving!
We shouldered our knapsacks, took our bedrolls and, pulling the washtubs on their wheels on a piece of rope, we slowly made our way to the station. The militiamen guided us along Promenade Street, past the schools, through the city parks all the way to Post Office Street. I did not look right or left. By the time we reached the Post Office, many other inhabitants of the town joined us bearing similar baggage and pulling similar wheeled contrivances. Looking up I saw an emaciated, white haired woman with brown wrinkled face approach at our left. Covered by a shawl, she limped past us. Pausing for breath occasionally, she pulled a small tub with household items behind her and held a bundle of clothes in her other hand. An alley of humanity opened before her as everyone made way for her. Like a ghost, she progressed unhindered by anyone through the chaos of frightened Germans being searched and cursing Poles hassling them that filled Post Office Street.
The militia had erected a barrier at the entrance, which, one by one, we entered after the phantom of the old woman had passed into Linden Street. . The militia had put up several tables against a wall that bordered Post Office Street on which they searched our baggage. In a few tents, on the other side, everyone was patted down for articles which were illegal to take along. None of us knew what they were. At the side of each table mountains of confiscated objects rose up. Aside from my brother’s leather football about whose loss he raised a fruitless hue and cry, we went through the search without forfeiting any thing except for what I thought were worthless papers anyway, some savings books. Together with a crowd of our countrymen who had been searched, we passed the internal revenue building, and then crossed into Linden Street. Moving from there into the extension of Railroad Street, we arrived at the freight yard of the station.
Alongside the tracks in an ever-growing line-up, we waited till nightfall when an empty freight train rolled in. While waiting I waved to Lotte and her mother several families behind us in the line; further ahead, I spied Frau Dunisch, her parents, and Sister Gisela and joined them to find out if they had any news. Frau Dunisch asked ," Can you help us load several of the old people and the invalids in wheelchairs into the Red Cross compartment when the train gets here? Gisela and I will care for them during the trip."
As the train moved in, the crowd surged into compartments and freight cars. The three of us had trouble emptying a compartment that the crowd had stormed for the invalids. It was difficult and time consuming to lift them in and then to help Frau Dunisch’s parents up the steep steps and settle them down. By the time I finished, I had lost sight of Mother and Werner and the train was about to move out. I ran alongside the freight cars and called for them. Mother yelled at me and I jumped into a crowded wagon as the train started off. I was glad to have found her but to my surprise and consternation she was furious.
"Why do you always run off and help other people? " she cried.
"I helped Frau Dunisch. She is in the Red Cross car. There was no one but Gisela and me to help her load the wheelchairs!" I attempted to explain. But her set face told me that she would not talk to me.
As the train gathered speed, all the people, in every one of the wagons of the long freight train, suddenly began to sing, "At home, at home, we’ll see each other again!" They got louder and louder as they sang.
"No, you won’t," I thought, blind with tears and anger, stifling my sobs. "You are kidding yourselves. This is for good. We will never come back. We lost home." I knew with amazing clarity, "We won’t ever return." Then I felt relieved that the Polish physician had not reported us, after all. We were safe! When the crowd started the next song, with its brisk and cheerful beat, "Must I then, must I then, leave my home town, my darling!" I realized that I was still angry and still crying hard.
The train was speeding and seemed to hurl itself into the night. The wagons began swaying on the rails, and the baggage that the people had stacked up against the walls in front and back swayed and threatened to fall. Some of us stood up and leaned against the wall of baggage to hold it up. The singing had stopped a while ago; everyone was tense; we did not know in which direction we were going. With the doors closed and locked against the onrushing night, the air in the car grew heavy. It was pitch black. Suddenly a voice started mumbling and got louder. It seemed to be the dark girl whose pale, fragile and sensitive face and sad eyes I had spotted earlier. She screamed, high, intense. Screamed and screamed. The car felt as if it were going to explode. Several people began screaming and howling. I pushed them aside and bent over the girl, shouting, "Stop it." She wouldn’t. My hand went up and I smacked her, right across her face. Once, twice. She stopped as suddenly as she had started. One by one, the others quieted down and with the last fading, drawn out shriek, the din ceased. Every body sobered up, sat down and stared into the darkness as the train roared on.
Gradually, normality asserted itself. I don’t know if the train moved more slowly or if we were all tired and now ashamed of our panic. People began to talk quietly, murmering to each other. "It will be all right. We are on a train being resettled. We will know in the morning where we are going." I don’t know where I read what to do if someone becomes hysterical and threatens to cause general panic. But I knew I had done the right thing. I apologized to Agnes about having hit her. We stopped several times that night on the open tracks. When the train moved, it went fast, and seemed to race through stations. Sometime during the night, we all must have fallen asleep.
Next morning when I woke up, the train was stopped on a side track. The doors were not locked and we could roll them back. We crawled down on the tracks. We did not know where we were. Flat country all around, meadows and fields, some woods in the distance, it could be any place. Since we could not see the Zopten, we had to be some distance from town. Most of us went into the bushes at the side of the tracks to relieve ourselves. We were thirsty and no one had thought of bringing along water to drink. We were not hungry. I went up to the car where Frau Dunisch and the invalids were. They seemed to have survived the night better than our car did but one of the old men breathed heavily and looked very weak. The train stopped on the sidetrack the entire day. The sun beat down on us. It was hot in the cars. Someone discovered a creek and most of us drank from it as its water seemed reasonably clean. Sister Gisela and I took some water to the invalids. The whistle of the locomotive at nightfall warned us that the train was about to start again.
After another night of travel, this time slowly and with many stops, we woke up in the morning when the train reached a freight yard and stopped. As we opened the doors, we could not see a station sign but heard militiamen talking to men whose uniforms we recognized as German railroad men’s. The men told us that we had arrived at Görlitz, now the border town between the Russian zone of Germany and the Polish administered zone. As the train seemed to be stopped for a while, I went to see how the Red Cross car and the invalids had fared. At the door, Frau Dunisch told me that the old man who had been weak before had died early that morning.
"We will have to stop a while. They will have to take the body off the train."
The old man’s family decided to accompany the body and have him buried in Görlitz. They would join another train after the funeral. We waited and waited impatiently for our train to be cleared to move on. Several freight trains with people being evicted like us passed ours as it stood waiting on a sidetrack. Hours went by as the day got hot.
Finally, our train left Görlitz and the border of Silesia behind us. We thought that the next station we were going to come through would be Dresden. We did not know then that Dresden had been bombed but realized that our train had somehow bypassed it when it roared through the blackened ruins of Halle Station. We did not know until we reached Helmstedt and the Western zones late that afternoon that one of the trains that had passed us as we stood waiting at Görlitz had taken our place in the resettlement schedule. Two trains of resettlers went to be resettled in the less populated Eastern Zone of Germany. Every third train went to the densely populated Western Zones. Our train had originally been scheduled to be resettled in the Eastern Zone. The old man’s timely death assured our train a free ride into the West. "Our troubles are over," I thought. "We are among our fellow countrymen. Now I will be able to go to high school!"