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.”