When the train started to move, Frau Fischer opened the compartment window and said,
“Have a look whether you can still see your mother. I’m certain she is waving.”
The war ravaged Görlitzer Bahnhof. My train left from the platform on the far right along the wall. Even from this photo one can get an idea of the beautiful architecture.
I did not see her and it saddened me. We had gone too far. People on the platform and steam from our train blocked my view. Almost without sound the train glided out of the huge station hall. From time to time there was a little jolt when the carriage went with a “clickety, clack” over a set of points. The tall yard lights were standing between the train tracks and shone onto the rails. I was wondering whether the light would stay on during an air raid. We could hear the whistle of the locomotive as the train slowly picked up speed.
We crossed a canal, passed under a bridge of the Ringbahn (Circular City Rail) and got further away from the city. I pressed my nose against the cold window to see as much as possible in the dark. Soon we were travelling beside a suburban electric train (S-Bahn) which our country train, becoming faster and faster, slowly overtook and left behind because the train had to stop at a local station. I could see sleepy passengers in the suburban train. I felt sad, as I thought, it might be the last time I would see all this. I had no idea what the future was holding for me.
Despite this, I felt peckish from all this new and unique travel experience and unwrapped a “Stulle” ( a sandwich) which my mother had given me to eat on the trrain. There was Teewurst on the sandwich, which was my favourite. I had no idea how long the train trip would take and when I would get something to eat again. Eight-year olds are not known for will power; especially when it comes to tasty food. Still, I did not eat all and saved a bit for later.
The train was heading in a south-easterly direction. The first light of the rising Sun was visible on the horizon. Shortly before Königswusterhausen I saw the last S-Bahn. From now on Berlin lay behind us and we where travelling through the Mark Brandenburg.
Whilst the night gave way to daylight the train stopped at Cottbus and Spremberg. Nowhere did the train stop for long. Doors were shut loudly and the station staff called out loud, sharp commands and soon enough the train was on the way again to the next stop. For a more seasoned traveller the journey could have been boring, but not for me. There was so much to be seen. The telegraph wires flew beside the train down from one post and swung up to the next one.
Frau Fischer did not talk much to me. She was reading in a book, looking up from time to time. She must have been happy to be away from Berlin for two days, escaping the air raids. Any other time she would have been sitting in her office, waiting for the sound of the early warning system.
“Are you looking forward to your new home and the many friends you will make?” she asked at one stage. I only shook my head, indicating, “No”. I did not feel like getting to know other children. And who knows what kind of food they would be dishing out there.
It depressed me very much, thinking I could not see my Mum any more. I thought back to a school vacation, when I stayed with the wife of a war comrade of my father. She lived in Adlershof, a suburb of Berlin. I stayed with her for a whole week and I enjoyed it tremendously as she spoilt me with beautiful food. Every day I got stewed fruit as desert. She lived in her own house with a large garden containing many fruit trees. That was heaven for a boy used to live in a courtyard building.
Our apartment was on the ground floor, in the corner, right in the centre of the picture. There was no greenery then.
In the train it was comfortable warm and I avoided, for a long time, going to the toilet, because it was outside. But the moment arrived when this could not be avoided any longer. And after the Frau Fischer showed me the way I went reluctantly. What shock I received when I lifted the cover of the toilet seat and saw straight to the track and the railway sleepers. The sleepers were passing underneath so fast that I was afraid. There was a draft and I felt I could be sucked into the toilet bowl and straight onto the track. And while peeing, the toilet bowl seemed to shift position.
“Everything all right?” asked my companion when I returned. I could only nick my head. She must have thought I’m too lazy to speak. The next larger station was Görlitz; the town after which the station in Berlin was named. The train stopped there longer than at other places.
I watched the going-ons on the platform. I could could not get enough of it. People were hurrying to their carriages or to the exit. I saw people hugging and greeting each other. Some were seeing others off. I could see a few soldiers. One was on crutches and was assisted by a Red Cross nurse.
Of course, there was a war on and I was happy that from now on my sleep would not be interrupted by the air-raid sirens.
The train continued its journey. Despite the cold outside it was pretty warm in our compartment. Suddenly we could hear the train whistle and the train hurtled into a tunnel and filling it with its steam and smoke.
For a short period it was was pitch-black. The hard working piston of the steam engine became much louder and some of the smoke filled even the compartment.
Suddenly we came out of the tunnel and bright light filled our compartment. I looked for the reason for this enormous brightness. It was snow! There was snow everywhere. It was a new experience for me. Before the tunnel there was no snow and then after the tunnel this glistening light caused by the snow. I was happy now.
What I had yearned for all winter, was suddenly here. Every morning, full of expectations, I had jumped out of bed, rushed to the window to see whether snow had fallen during the night. I decided to like Silesia after all, because it seems to have lots of snow in winter.
Immediately after the tunnel the train slowed down and came to a halt. The large signs told me we were in “Hirschberg“. Today this beautiful town is in Poland and it is called, Jelenia Góra.
The modern Jelenia Góra
We had arrived at ” the mountains of the giants” (Riesengebirge). I was immediately thinking of Rübezahl, the giant of folklore and numerous tales. But I could see no giant. There was a large coke works beside the station. Not that I knew at the time what it was, but I could see the long battery of the coke oven with its many compartments in which something hot was glowing. A machine drove up and down and stopped at one compartment and hot coke fell into a wagon. Everywhere was steam and clouds of smoke. I was fascinated, as I had never seen anything like it. I had no idea what it was, what I saw. It looked pretty hellish to me.
There was not much time to wonder. After only a couple of minutes our train moved on again, soon speeding through the snow covered landscape. I started to munch on my last sandwich. At times the locomotive had to work harder when we went up some mountains. Then the pistons had to work a bit harder.
It was winter and naturally the days were not very long. Dusk was setting in. Soon it was stark dark outside. When I tried to look outside I saw nothing but the mirror image of our compartment. I even could see Frau Fischer as she read her book. She must have noted me starring at her in the window. She got up and shut the curtains over the window. She said to me in a soft voice, “We’ll get off soon and still have to walk for about an hour before we are there.”
I think she did not want to scare me, but I was alarmed. Never in my life had I been walking for a whole hour. The longest walk I could remember was the way from a suburban railway station to the beach at Wannsee. I hated that walk because it made me thirsty and my mother never stopped at the beer garden , which was right at half way, for a drink of lemonade. We were lucky that there was a water bubbler at the station. On our way back in late afternoon we rushed to it. Of course, my oldest sister always drank first. If I was able to reach the bubbler first or I came too close to her, she would give me a well directed kick, with her elbow, into my ribs.
Frau Fischer put her coat on and helped me into mine. The train stopped. She took our luggage from the rack and we walked to the door. It seemed to me we were standing in the middle of nowhere. I could see no station building or any platform. We had to climb down two steps before we reached the snow covered ground. If there was anything, I am sure I did not see it. The loco blew its whistle as if she wanted to say, “Good bye,” and the train disappeared. We were standing in the dark. Then I heard my companion say, “Well, lets start – and if we don’t hurry up we’ll miss out on supper!”
I was hungry already and for sure would not like to miss out on supper. She knew the way and had done the same trip with other children. We soon were in the middle of a forest. The snow crunched under our shoes. Slowly, I got used to the dark and was able to see where we were going. Sometimes my escort gave me a warning. Otherwise she was quiet. I did not dare saying a single syllable to her. We stomped towards our destination, which should have been somewhere beyond the dark, dense wall of trees. Slowly and softly it began to snow.
After, what appeared to me to be a long, long time, I could spot some lights through the forest. We must be getting closer to the town or village.
“This is Friedland,” (today Korfantów) I heard her voice in the dark, “It won’t be long now.”
“Lucky me,” I thought, because I was starving, thirsty and tired. Friedland was a small town with single story houses only. A few street lights were shining. We could see no other people in the streets. I was thinking of a Christmas poem, “Markt und Strassen stehen verlassen…” (in English and German)
We turned a few corners and were suddenly standing in front of a villa. The lady pushed a door bell. An old woman in a long frock opened the door.
“There you are Frau Fischer,” she said, “and the young man from Berlin you brought along. We have been worried about you and how you’ll find your way through the snowed-in forest.” She took my suit case off Frau Fischer and asked us inside.
“It is best, you come straight through to the kitchen,” said the old woman and opened a door that led from the hallway to a huge kitchen. There, a second woman was busy cleaning a large stove. The first woman turned to me and said, “The other children are all asleep and you will get to see them tomorrow. Tonight, you will sleep in here.” She pointed to a room behind a glass partition and begged me to come to a table in the kitchen.
“You must be hungry after the long train trip. You will get a Schnitte and then it is straight to bed.”
I had never heard the word “Schnitte” in my life and learnt later that it was the local term for a open sandwich. I was wondering what it could be and feared if I couldn’t eat it, I would go to bed hungry. I didn’t need to worry at all. It turned out to be a large slice of bread with liverwurst and a cup of peppermint tea. Just the same as in the hospital years ago.
Frau Fischer wished me “Good Night!” and left the kitchen. I never saw my train companion again.
When I had finished eating the old woman led me into the small room. Except for a bed there was no furniture there.
Later, when I was in bed and the lights were switched off in my room, I could see through the glass partition into the well lit kitchen. The two women were still busy cleaning. I was wondering how my life would continue here. I put my thumb into my mouth to suck on it, as I was used to, before falling asleep. But as I started to suck the thought came to me, that the time had come to stop this childish habit. I was eight years old and could imagine what the other boys would say to me if they found out I was still sucking my thumb. My mother and my great-aunt tried for a long time to rid me of this habit. The time had come and I found I could get to sleep without it. Tiredness overcame me quickly and I fell into a deep sleep. Later I dreamt of a train huffing and puffing through a white, winter landscape. The locomotive was trailing a long white cloud of steam.