On Leav­ing Home


MY EYES OPEN WIDE. I lift my head off the pil­low, hold my breath and listen. What is it that woke me? Was Franz mum­bling again? He does that a lot in his sleep. Broth­ers, they’re so dumb.

Wait. There it is again. A low rum­ble. Thun­der? No. It can’t be. It’s Fe­bru­ary. We haven’t even planted the crops yet.

There’s a knock at the front door.

What in the world is go­ing on? It’s the mid­dle of the night.

I pull the edge of my feather tick to my chin. The light goes on in Momma’s room across the hall and then she hur­ries by our door. Her slip­pers flip flop on the linoleum.

The front door squeaks.

“Frau… leave…the Kin­der… you must hurry.”

I rec­og­nize the voice. It’s the mayor from Crossen, the vil­lage on the other side of the river. A few weeks ago he came to talk to the farm­ers. Since Papa wasn’t here, he ex­plained to Momma and me how we should get ready to leave. He said we al­ways had to be ready.

The door closes and Momma rushes into our bedroom.

“Yutta,” she whis­pers. “Wake Franz. Get dressed. Sch­nell sein.” “Yes, Momma.” I push my cov­ers off and get up.

“Be a braves Mäd­chen.” She taps me un­der the chin and goes back to her bedroom.

Momma told us when this hap­pens, when it’s time to leave, we must listen to her and not ask any ques­tions. I go over to Franz and tug his arm. He moans.

“Wake up,” I say.

He pulls his blan­ket over his head.

“Get up.” I poke him in the shoul­der and re­peat Momma’s in­struc­tions.

He grum­bles so I yank off all his cov­ers.

“Jetzt,” I hiss. “We have to go.”

“I want to stay here,” Franz whines.

“You know we can’t. Don’t be such a baby.” I tip­toe across the cold floor to the closet and pull out my sweater, then Strumpfho­sen and my wool skirt. “We have to hurry.”

Momma thought Papa and our sol­diers would be able to stop the Rus­sians, but I guess they couldn’t. I sure hope Papa is okay. He’s been gone for so long. Some­times I can’t re­mem­ber what he looks like and I have to ask Momma to see his picture. It’s faded and crin­kled but it helps me to re­mem­ber his face.

I pull on a pair of Franz’s pants and tuck my skirt in­side. It’s un­com­fort­able but it will keep me warm. Franz mut­ters as he dresses. Momma spoils him so much be­cause he’s Papa’s favourite. She says I need to be more pa­tient since he’s younger but he makes me cross when he acts like a cry­baby.

I wrap our feather bed­ding up in a sheet and tie a knot to hold it to­gether. Then I stuff the rest of our clothes in a potato sack, grab my coat and carry it all to the kitchen.

Our lit­tle sis­ter, Pe­tra, leans against the wall. She is only two years old. Momma put so many clothes on her that she looks like an over­stuffed scare­crow. I pick Pe­tra up and sit her on a chair. She claps her hands and smiles.

The wood cov­ers on all the win­dows and the lan­tern in the cor­ner make the room look scary. I shiver even though I’m al­ready get­ting too hot.

Momma gives us each a salami sand­wich and a cup of milk.

“We eat first, then we go.” She cleans up the ta­ble and puts the rest of the food in a satchel.

I take a bite and stare around the al­most-empty kitchen. Fresh bread and smoked ba­con smells are still here along with the big wood ta­ble, three old chairs and Momma’s shiny stove.

Ev­ery­thing else, ev­ery­thing that was worth sav­ing, we buried be­hind the wood­shed last week. Franz and I stacked fire­wood on top of the fresh dirt so the Rus­sians wouldn’t no­tice.

It broke Momma’s heart that we couldn’t move the stove to hide it. She loves that stove. Ev­ery Sun­day she pol­ishes it till the sil­ver han­dles shine. She told me, when I get older, it would be my job to clean it. Now I don’t think I will ever get to.

“Let’s go.” Momma picks up Pe­tra, moves her onto her hip and grabs the suit­case. “Yutta, turn off the lamp. Franz, you open the door.”

I but­ton up my coat, grab the bed­ding and sack of clothes, and swing them over my shoul­der. Franz grabs the smaller suit­case and the food. “Ready?” I ask.

Franz’s hand is on the door­knob. Momma and Pe­tra stand be­hind him. I cup my hand around the globe and blow out the light. It takes a few blinks to get my eyes to work in the now-black room. The door opens. It’s not as dark out­side.

Three weeks af­ter my tenth birth­day, which was on Jan­uary 30th, 1945, I fol­low them out into the win­ter’s dawn. It hurts my heart to have to leave our farm.

There’s a quiet boom. And then a rum­ble. The porch shakes un­der my boots. We all stand still. I bite down on my bot­tom lip.

“It’s okay,” Momma whis­pers. “It’s far away.”

All week, the man on the ra­dio said they would hold the Rus­sian sol­diers on the other side of the river, miles from Crossen. If they got closer, our sol­diers would blow up the bridge so we would have more time to get away. We have to make it to the train sta­tion. Momma told us the Red Cross train will take us to Guben, then to Cot­tbus. Places I’ve never been be­fore.

We have to go quickly be­fore the sol­diers catch us. I heard Momma whis­per to a neigh­bour that terrible things hap­pen to peo­ple who don’t leave when they’re sup­posed to. When the neigh­bour left, I asked Momma what those things were. She looked crossly at me and told me it was not nice to eaves­drop. She didn’t say any­thing else for the whole af­ter­noon. I think the aw­ful terrible things that hap­pen to peo­ple make Momma cry at night when she’s in bed. I have never met any, but I don’t think I would like a Rus­sian sol­dier.

At the bot­tom of the stairs Momma puts Pe­tra and the food in the baby car­riage and pushes it along the path be­side the house. At the wood­shed she stops and puts her hand up.

“Wait here.” Her long skirt swooshes as she hur­ries to the barn. Momma slides open the big door and dis­ap­pears in­side. I hear my chick­ens cluck and flumpft their wings. I can tell they are an­gry. They prob­a­bly won’t lay any eggs to­day. Then the pigs start to squeal and their short, dark shapes rush out the door. They run around in cir­cles and make so much noise. It wor­ries me, all their noise. I take a slow look around our farm yard but I don’t see any­thing.

The Milch cow comes out of the barn with Momma right be­hind her. We hear a smack and a long moooo. Then she shoos Helga and the pigs away with her hands. Momma waits till they all head for the pasture be­fore she comes back to us.

“Now we go,” she says. Momma picks up the suit­case again and pushes the baby buggy along the dirt road that goes through the woods. Franz is be­side her. I fol­low. There is another far­away boom. We walk faster. My heart pounds in my ears. The buggy squeaks. It seems so loud. I look over my shoul­der but still there is no one there.

I know the road and these woods so well. We play hide-and-seek here all the time af­ter chores are done. I’m never afraid and I’m usu­ally the best hider. I can climb high into the trees and they hardly ever find me. But now, in the grey morn­ing light, my favourite hid­ing places give me goose­bumps.

When we get to the clear­ing, we see the roof out­lines of Un­cle Paul’s farm. We hurry to­wards the shad­ows that move about in front of his house. The adults talk with their hands over their mouths. Men stack

suit­cases and boxes into the back of a wagon. Onkel Paul, Tante Marta, and our cousins, they’re all here. They are the ones I know the best. The other peo­ple, I rec­og­nize their faces, but I can never find the courage to talk with them.

We’re lucky Un­cle Paul’s brother still has a horse. No one else does and our cow is not smart enough to pull any­thing. I watch them hitch the mare to the wagon. Momma helps their Gross­mut­ter up onto the seat next to the driver. She gets to ride up there be­cause she has a bad hip and can’t walk very well. She’s mean. Some­times she swats at us when we’re too noisy. That’s when Franz sticks his tongue out at her but only if she’s not watch­ing.


Peo­ple shout. The horse whin­nies and jumps. A man yanks her by the har­ness and pulls her head down. I grab Momma’s arm.

“Was ist das?”

Un­cle Paul points to the sky. A bright or­ange-yel­low flame shoots high above the trees.

“They blew the bridge. We need to go!” he yells. “Now!”

Un­cle Paul climbs up to the driver’s seat and flicks the reins on the horse’s back. The wagon moves across the farm­yard. We all fol­low. No one talks. We walk and walk, lis­ten­ing to the clip clop, clip clop. I stick my bot­tom lip out and blow my breath to warm up my nose.

All of a sud­den there is a sound like when I climb over a fence and tear my coat on the wire. The next thing we know, Pe­tra and all the salamis and bread are on the ground un­der­neath the wheels of the baby car­riage. The bot­tom ripped open. Ev­ery­thing fell onto the frozen dirt. Momma helps Pe­tra stand up. Pe­tra laughs. Momma grabs the sausages and puts them back in the bag. I pick up two fat Würste, push them down my coat sleeves, then make my arms and legs go stiff and dance in front of Momma like a pup­pet. She smiles at me. We leave the bro­ken car­riage at the side of the road. Pe­tra walks be­tween us, but she gets tired and is scared to go in the wagon, so Momma and I take turns car­ry­ing her.

The sky gets lighter. Our quiet group moves closer to the trees. Now I can see peo­ple on the road ahead of us. A long line of them. By the time we ar­rive at the train sta­tion, there are many peo­ple but no one knows when the train will come.

Un­cle Paul hands us our things from the wagon. We put it on the ground against the wall of the sta­tion house. It feels good to sit down. I wig­gle my toes in­side my boots and lift my chin to the morn­ing sun. Pe­tra falls asleep on Momma’s lap.

A few boys un­but­ton their coats and get down on their knees to play mar­bles on the wooden plat­form next to the tracks. It re­minds me of school. I re­mem­ber how glad I was when it closed. They said it was too dan­ger­ous to walk that far and be­sides, there weren’t enough stu­dents any­more. The boys had to stay home and help on their farms.

It was nice not to wake up and worry about hav­ing to sit in class. I could never re­cite the verses prop­erly and I hated be­ing called Dummkopf.

Even Papa called me stupid once when I couldn’t fig­ure out my homework. Momma hit the ta­ble with her hand and the sugar bowl bounced. Papa stomped out of the room.

I can count and spell and I get good marks for be­hav­iour. Some stu­dents got the strap but I never did. I won­der if I will ever have to go to school again.

Momma in­ter­rupts my wor­ry­ing and points to the other kids. “Go play. Take Franz with you.”

I know bet­ter than to roll my eyes at Momma but I re­ally don’t want to take Franz.

“Geh.” Momma uses her I-mean-it voice and waves us away.

I press my lips to­gether, get up and pull on Franz’s arm. “Komm mit mir.”

An older girl draws a hop­scotch pat­tern in the dirt. When she’s done, I pick up a small stone and toss it to her. It’s her game so she gets to go first. I’m pretty good. I hardly ever miss. Ev­ery­one waits for their turn and when some­one misses, we start again.

I look over at Momma. She waves at me while she vis­its with Mrs. Hup­fauf, a lady from the vil­lage. Mrs. Hup­fauf is wear­ing her fancy blue go­ing-to-church coat. Once Papa said he would buy Momma a fancy coat too, but Momma said she didn’t want one.

Af­ter I have two turns, a big man in a sol­dier uni­form comes out of the sta­tion-house. There is a white band with a large red cross on his arm. He stops and talks to peo­ple as he walks be­side the tracks.

“Yutta, Franz,” Momma shouts. “Kommt sch­nell.”

I grab Franz’s hand and run back to her. We pick up our be­long­ings, go onto the plat­form and wait be­side Un­cle Paul. Peo­ple push and shove. I move as close to Momma as I can without step­ping on her feet. The black smoke from the train spouts out above the trees and the chuff-chuff

of the en­gine gets louder.

When the train stops, men in uni­forms open the doors. Peo­ple rush to get in­side. I al­most drop ev­ery­thing be­cause Franz pulls so hard on my coat. I fol­low Momma. We only get one bench for all of us. Franz and I stand close to the black win­dow so Momma can sit with Pe­tra on her knees.

I see Un­cle Paul stand­ing a few rows away. I smile and wave at him. He winks back. When the train starts, I al­most tip over, but Momma grabs me.

The train rocks as it clu-clunks down the track. The air starts to smell like Papa does af­ter he works in the field all day and falls asleep be­fore he has a bath. Lots of lit­tle kids cry, but not Pe­tra. She plays with Franz’s fin­gers and laughs when he hides his thumbs.

It takes a long time but we fi­nally get to another sta­tion. The men in uni­forms tell us to take all our be­long­ings off the train. This time we pile our things at the edge of the plat­form so we are ready when it’s time to get on again. Dark smoke puffs out the stack. The train chaufs as it moves ahead to the gi­ant wa­ter tower. The last three cars sit on the tracks in front of us.

A big fat man in a uni­form marches along the plat­form and makes peo­ple move away from the edge. Franz copies his walk. Momma smacks Franz on the head. He starts to cry. I try not to smile be­cause I do not want Momma to hit me.

All of a sud­den we hear planes. Ev­ery­one looks up.

The Fat Man yells and pushes peo­ple to­wards the last cars. There is a lot of shout­ing. Some peo­ple run away from him.

Momma picks up Pe­tra, then reaches over Franz and my shoul­ders to pull us close to her. The Fat Man points un­der the train and shoves peo­ple to the ground. Many peo­ple hurry back to the sta­tion house.

“Get un­der­neath!” He shouts. He yanks Momma’s arm and pulls her and Pe­tra to­wards the big black wheels. Then he pushes her head down and makes her crawl on the rocks to get un­der the train.

“Momma!” I shout.

The Fat Man comes back, grabs me and pulls me across to Momma. I cling onto Franz’s hand so he fol­lows. Sharp stones poke into my fin­gers and knees as I crouch down to get next to her. I bonk my head when I turn to look for Franz. He is right be­side me. He is cry­ing hard. I put my arm over him, grab his coat and shake him so he knows I’m here.

I’m afraid the wheels will cut my legs off when the train moves so I tuck them up close to me so they don’t stick out.

“It’s okay,” I tell Franz and pull him into me. His shoul­ders lift up and down but he quits mak­ing so much noise.

There are a lot of peo­ple un­der the train. So much shout­ing and cry­ing. Even Pe­tra is cry­ing now. Momma’s eyes are shut. I see her tears. I close my eyes.


Fast, hot air rushes into me. Metal bangs. I open my eyes. Smoke and fire shoots out the top of the sta­tion house. There is so much scream­ing.

I grab Momma’s shoul­der. She lifts her head. Her face is black. Her eyes are white and big and round.

“Momma!” I can’t hear my scream.

Momma’s mouth opens but I can’t un­der­stand her. I turn to Franz. Tears make black streaks down his face.

The rocks poke me so I roll onto my other shoul­der. That’s when I see part of the fancy blue coat hang­ing off the bro­ken plat­form. An arm sticks out of the torn sleeve. Blood runs down the fin­gers.

I scream and scream.

Some­one grabs me. It’s Momma. I cling to her and Pe­tra and Franz and bury my face in Franz’s jacket. And I cry and cry.

Chicago Tri­bune, Feb. 22, 1945—“Rus­sian troops clamped a siege arc to­day around Guben, key fortress town 51 miles south­east of Berlin, as Premier Stalin an­nounced in an or­der of the day that the Red Army had killed or cap­tured 1,500,000 Ger­mans in the great win­ter of­fen­sive.”

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