The war was going badly for us Germans. Not that we boys understood the implications, but we heard the news that the Russians were getting closer. But Christmas was approaching faster than the Red Army and that was much more important to us boys who lived in boys home, run by the Lutheran Church in Upper Silesia. The Hausvater, the manager of the home, had recently returned from a stint of digging tank barriers and told us all about it. Before he went he wore his party badge with pride. After he returned, he did not wear it anymore. The experience must have changed his mind.
December in Silesia means Winter, while back home in Berlin it could be still Autumn. We knew it was Winter because when we were running across the snow-covered yard to the toilet it was like an expedition to Siberia. Two giant lime trees, devoid of any leaves at this time of the year, stood silently on guard. We were afraid, we would catch a chill and not see our families again. Ever! Sitting on the toilet seat was no fun either. In Summer the big, fat, horrible flies would circle us. In Winter, we were horrified by the thought that our little pecker would freeze and break off. There were rumours among the boys that this little attachment would come handy one day.
‘Don’t sit there for too long,’ someone said, ‘or the water rats in the sewerage will jump up and take a tasty bite out of you.’ Nobody in his right mind would want that to happen. So we hurried.
That December, Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday. We boys felt cheated because it meant the Fourth of Advent fell on the same day and we had to go to church twice. In the morning for the Sunday sermon and in the evening for the Christmas Eve celebration. In the morning the pastor promised us that Christ would come and we would find him in the manger the same evening. We were not so much interested in Christ as in Father Christmas. We were about forty boys and were wondering how big his bag with presents would be. Quite a big one. But the older boys laughed about our naivety and assured us that there would be no Weihnachtsmann at all.
‘Never seen him in this neck of the woods!’ someone said.
We German kids were really lucky because Father Christmas only comes after dark and since it was Winter, the night was coming early. Shortly after four, it was pitch black outside. If Christmas would be in Summer, darkness would set in long after 10 pm and children would be in bed. No chance of catching the old fella. And on top of that, could anybody imagine Father Christmas without his heavy red winter coat?
After breakfast, we went to church and prayed once again for the ultimate victory and got the promise of Jesus’ birth in return. Good deal, we thought.
You will have noticed that I always refer to us or we, that is because any individuality was discouraged. We were all treated equally: as a bunch of troublemakers. The only time I was treated as an individual was at my birthday when I received a wreath cake made from plaited pastry covered with almonds and raisins. I got the cake on my own at a different location, so nobody could beg or steal any from me. The only other time was when my mother came to visit. A couple of days before her arrival Sister Elizabeth, the head sister of the home put a chair in the middle of the room and placed a suitcase with my belongings on it. She proceeded to inspect my clothing; piece by piece. If she found anything wrong, a hole in a sock or a button missing on a shirt I would get a big slap on my cheek.
‘You lazy boy, what do you think your mother will say when she sees this mess?’
Another smack was forthcoming. She was a big woman with hands the size of dinner plates. She was not one-sided either and so both my cheeks got a good work over. At the end of this procedure, I was glowing like an overripe tomato. Never looked healthier. This was Christian charity for us. Mama never asked to see my clothing.
That was in October this was December. After we came back from church we had lunch and then began the long wait to the opening of the presents. Earlier in December, I had received a letter from my mother in which she told me that she had sent off a small parcel with some underwear, a book and some sweets. I hoped it had arrived on time.
It was my first Christmas away from home and I had never experienced a Christmas Eve together with so many people. Shortly after sunset, we all walked to church again. The Lutherans were a minority in Silesia, but you would not have known this by the size of the church with its mighty steeple. We children always sat in the gallery and could look down onto the congregation. On Christmas Eve churches are packed in Germany. After five years of war, people needed Christ more than ever and the big, fat pastor knew how to dish out the message. He pronounced, in his booming voice, the story of Emperor Augustus calling all people to be counted. Joseph and Mary walked through the snow, as we did this evening. Suddenly there was Baby Jesus in the manger and the three wise men followed the star to find them in that barn. We sang, “A Rose from a tender stem has sprung” and “From the Heavens above I have come down”. And then, we walked back to the home in anticipation of all the goodies that were awaiting us, extra food, parcels from home and more. The boys walked quicker than usual and jostled each other and talked animatedly. Nobody mentioned the war.
When we returned to the home we found the staff had transformed the usual mundane dining room into a wonderful looking festive room. There was a Christmas tree with candles and extra ones flickering on the tables. Colourful chains of paper were hanging
from the ceiling to the walls and big, three dinensional stars made of paper turned the dining room into something out of this world.
Walking through the winter night had given us an extra appetite. We thought we were starving. Each one of us received a Frankfurt, but we called them Viennas, and obligatory potato salad. Almost like home. The electric lights were switched off and all was bathed in the shimmering light of dozens of candles. For the first time I was happy in this place.
After the meal a sister brought out a big bag and started to hand out the parcels that had come from our parents. When I was called I could not run fast enough to receive my parcel my Mama had sent. It was open, as all mail was for us. They had to know what we were up to. I unpacked it as quickly as I could. There were sweets and a book, but no underwear. I was shocked, someone must have stolen it. I knew the Manager had children my age and they could wear it.
As I was munching on a biscuit and considering my situation I was called again to the bag of goodies. ‘For me a second package?’ I was wondering. There it was, not very big and not even opened. Maybe because the sender was given only as a field postal code number of a soldier. It could only be from Papa. What a surprise! I ripped it open and out came a mouth organ. A big fat one with a double layer of holes and a bright picture of Napoli on it. It was beautiful. I had never owned anything so precious. I would never let it out of my hands. I couldn’t play it yet, but was determined to learn to play it. We boys were all happy and we showed our presents to each other. Time past quickly and then it was time for bed. We were talking for quite a while in the dark.
Next morning, we were off to church again. This was a never ending duty at the home. God seemed to be everywhere. We prayed a lot to Lord Jesus and believed that God loved all people. That belief was shaken when we saw, just after Christmas, columns of prisoners shuffling, rather then walking, on the country road that passed the home. We rushed outside to see who they were. They were people in striped uniforms. We were told by the staff that they were criminals. But by the look of it, they were not. Criminals were tough looking people, so we thought. Those here in front of us were poor people who could hardly walk. We had no idea who they really were. Those columns walked past us for hours. It was terrible. That was, when I heard the word Concentration Camp for the first time.
A few days after that we were told one evening to get ready for a long walk to a village nearby. Still today I have no idea what its purpose was. It was bitter cold and dark. Had it anything to do with the war? As we walked for many kilometres we could see what
seemed to be the flickering lights of an electrical storm. In winter? There was a constant rumbling in the air and we realised that was no thunder either. One of the staff told us in response to our questioning,
‘Those are cannons in a big battle and the Russians are not far away.’
We were in the home so we would be away from the air raids in the cities. We were supposed to be safe, but the war was coming to us. Soon came the instruction to return to the home, which we did. The whole episode remains a mystery to me. Our days in Friedland, the name of the small town, meaning Land of Peace, came to an end suddenly. Only a couple of days into January, one late afternoon, we were told to get ready to go back to Berlin. The Berliner children would go back home and the children from Silesia would go to Moravia. Beside our home there was also a girls home. Sometimes we had outings together with them or they performed a play for us. The girls were older than we boys and they seemed almost adults to us.
In no time a couple of buses arrived to take us to a railway junction at Neisse. We Berliner children got into one and the others into another. Some of the staff would follow in a car. We had no time to think. We clutched our few belongings to our bodies. I held my mouth organ in my hand and was happy that I was able to take it with me. Even so the Silesian boys were so different from us Berliners we had become all friends with a common destiny. It was a sad moment in our lives.
As the bus rumbled through the dark country site the bigger girls started to sing, mostly hiking songs. One of the girls walked up and down the aisle in the bus to encourage us boys to sing too. In a curve she nearly fell on me and discovered that I was holding my
beautiful mouth organ.
‘ Na Kleiner – hi little one,’ she said, ‘will you lend me your mouth organ. I can play it and we can all sing even better.’ She smiled at me like no girl ever had in my life. I held the mouth organ close to my chest.
‘Bitte, bitte,’ she begged, ‘I will give it back to you when we arrive in Neisse.’ I could not resist any more. I was even proud that my mouth organ was of use to all. And she played it well. The mood in the bus turned and we were all happy till she started to play Lehar’s song from the brave soldier who kept a watch on the River Volga for his motherland. It was ironic because he was Russian and we Germans had invaded Russia in this war. I loved this haunting song as I knew it from home because my mother loved it too and the girls of the home had sung it in one of their concerts.
Suddenly, the bus turned off the country road and we were in front of the railway station.
‘Out, out – quick, quick!’ came the order from the sister. The girl who had my mouth organ was in the front and off the bus before me. She was not able to hand the mouth organ back to me. I could not see her in the dark and we had to run into the station. There was a train, with large red crosses painted on its side, waiting for us.
‘Schnell, schnell – hop on. We have no time to waste,’ someone said. I never saw the girl or my mouth organ ever again.
We climbed quickly onto the train. Inside the carriage it was dark but for a very dim blue light. Red Cross nurses were rushing about. I heard babies crying but could see nothing. On both sides of the carriage were triple story bunk beds and we were told to get one each.
I climbed on a top bunk and tried to catch my breath. Slowly my sight adjusted to the darkness in the carriage. On the other side were the babies. Four across to each bunk. Forty-eight babies in all and some of them were crying all the time. The nurses had all their hands full and demanded from us absolute obedience or we would be thrown off the train. No running around in the carriage, only the walk to the toilet would be allowed. This was our world for the next three weeks, not across Europe or even Germany, but for a journey of just 175 km. A trip that should have taken not more than three hours. We did not know that will happen, but we were looking forward to see Berlin and our families again.
The sister that had stayed back and followed in a car told us later that only minutes after our buses had left German troops occupied the home and set up a command post at the home. She heard machine gun fire in the town. We had escaped just in time.
Berlin was beckoning.