This is the first instalment to a page I’m creating and it is called
“My Year in “Friedland” (Land of Peace)”
My year in “Friedland” started with my first railway journey in nineteen-forty-four one early January morning. The good thing about the morning was, that we had been able to sleep through the night, without being disturbed by the air raid sirens. The RAF stayed at home that night. They probably did not like loading bombs into their planes during the Winter weather.
The bad news was that I was sent away from Berlin and from my beloved mother. I was freezing and shivering while my mother helped me getting dressed.
“Hurry up and don’t muck around”, she said. ” The train will not wait for you!”
I was still sleepy and had no plans to muck around at all and asked her, while still yawning: “Do I really have to go?”
“What silly question is that? They have searched long enough for a place were they would send you to,” said my Mum as she put a shawl around my neck. “You know quite well that all the children are being sent away. The girls are in East-Prussia and you are going into a home in Silesia.”
“But I don’t want to go into a home!” I tried to say it defiantly.
“What you want will not be debated,” said my Mum firmly, ending all discussion about it. For breakfast I had a slice of bread with “ersatz” honey and a cup of “ersatz” coffee.
“Why do we call it ‘ersatz coffee’? What then is proper coffee?”
“Don’t ask silly questions. It is bean coffee, of course.”
“What is bean coffee?”
“Coffee we could buy during peace time.”
While I was busy chewing my sandwich, I decided that I really liked “ersatz” honey. Peace time did not need to be explained to me. It was the time before the air planes came and dropped bombs on us. The whole building would be shaking. Next morning, on the way to school, the air would smell of burnt paper and wood. One could find shrapnel from the Flak and incendiary bombs the “Pommies” had dropped.
Then I heard the voice of my mother:
“Don’t day dream. We have to leave shortly. It is already 6 o’clock!”
Mum had packed my suitcase the evening before. Everything was ready. We could go. I put on a winter coat and gloves against the biting cold. Mum took the suitcase and soon we were on the street. It was still pitch dark and bitter cold. But what could we expect in January.
There was no snow which I yearned for in winter. It wasn’t far to the subway station “Flughafen” (Airport). Walking down the stairs I loved the smell from the subway tunnel that wafted towards us. A long tunnel, in a quarter circle, led to another staircase. I could see one train departing and quickly disappearing in the tunnel. Mum bought tickets for us which we handed to an employee who in a disgruntled mood punched holes into them. We then walked down the second set of stairs.
The station platform today, as seen from the top of the stairs
“You watch where you’re going,” Mum called out as I stumbled a bit. “If you keep this up you might end up in hospital instead of Silesia.”
Wouldn’t that be better, I thought. Mum would visit me there and bring me presents and sweets. I was once in a hospital with Scarlet Fever and could observe the passing of trains from my bed all day. In the evening for super I was given sandwiches with liverwurst and sweet peppermint tea. I liked that very much.
“Watch out, the train is coming,” I heard my mother say. A stream of air, pushed by the train into the station cavern, engulfed everyone at the station. Like a monster, with two enormous oval eyes, the yellow train swept out of the tunnel and came suddenly to a full stop. We opened the two doors and and entered the carriage. The station attendant called out with a mighty voice: “Stand back!”. Hearing this, nobody would dare rushing the train. The door shut immediately and the train accelerated to a high speed while disappearing into the dark tunnel.
We had found two seats and sat down side by side. I looked around and noticed that nobody looked up to take any notice of us. Nobody spoke, it must have been too early for that. Even though they had been able to sleep through the night without an air raid they seemed nevertheless happy to continue their night rest here on the underground train.
I was thinking of yesterday, when one of my godmothers came to help with the necessary formalities with the authorities. First they went to the police to report my change of address.
The white building used to be the police station in 1944
It had to be done as the police always wanted to know were people were residing. Then we had to go to the office where the ration cards were issued. My mother would not be allowed to receive the ration cards when I was not living with her in Berlin any more. Everywhere people made remarks that I would now go on a long journey. Perhaps they would have liked to go away themselves from the grey and dark city.
“Well, you will be able to sleep through the nights,” they all said with a sigh. In the end we went to the Jugendamt (office for Children’s Affairs) to get to know Frau Fischer, the lady who would accompany me on my long train trip.
“We will get along fine with, Peter, won’t we?” she asked me. I did not dare saying anything and only nodded. To me she looked like an old dragon or a teacher. Which was very much the same to me anyway. And who would take the fight up to a dragon. Only Siegfried (a legendary hero) would dare.
At Hallesches Tor station we had to change trains. We climbed many stairs to get from the underground to the elevated train.
From the underground…
…to the elevated train station
Mum walked slowly, but steady, so she would not get out of breath. I was always afraid she would die when she beat me with the carpet beater. She would only stop when she completely run out of breath and sunk on to the bed almost unconscious. Usually it took a long time before she could breathe normally again.
“You will kill me one say,” Mum said then. I did not want that at all and felt for ever guilty. What could I do not to enrage her? I wanted to be good at all times, but something happened that made Mum angry. Soon we would have to part and her life would be much easier.
The elevated train arrived and we could continue our journey. I liked the Hochbahn (elevated train) because from above I could observe the traffic, the buildings and the people below. With a bit of luck I was able to see into the windows of some apartments to see how other people were living. This interested me a lot. I thought perhaps I could see whether other children were beaten too.
Once I saw a man hitting the table with a fist while a woman was standing beside him. But on that morning it was too early. All windows were still covered for the black out.
The train arrived at Prinzenstraße Station. I knew the street because the previous summer I had wagged school one day to see the Circus Sarrasani which was in town. I had heard so much about it.
In front of the circus tent I saw an elephant for the first time in my life. He was tethered with a heavy chain to the ground and was moving his head and trunk from side to side. On the way back I stopped at the Hertie department store to look at the latest war books in the book department.
The old pre-war Hertie store
I had started to read “proper” books only during the last year. By “proper”, I mean books that were written for adults and not particularly for children. We children were encouraged by the school to collect “Altpapier” – second hand books and old news papers – for recycling. We were told this way we would help the war effort. But I sorted the books out and kept the ones I wanted to read myself. Yes I know, this meant I was a book thief too.
Kottbusser Tor. “Next station we have to get off,” I heard my mother say. It was still dark. But soon, by seven o’clock, children would have to walk to school. No school for me on that day! Suddenly our train arrived at the station Görlitzer Bahnhof. From there it was only a short walk to the large railway station.
Elevated train station Görlitzer Bahnhof today.
Görlitzer Bahnhof during the 1920ties as seen from the elevated train
The damaged station building after the war
There it was like a mighty castle. Cars and taxis arrived bringing people who wanted to catch one of the trains. Others came with trams. There was a lot of activity in front of the station building. It was bitter cold.
Mum carried my small suitcase. I only carried my school satchel on my back. When we came closer to the pillars in front of the station building I could recognise my beloved uncle Alexander. That made me really happy when I realised that he must have got up early just to see me to say “Good bye”. I would not have expected such a gesture from anyone.
“Hi, Peter, are you looking forward to the long train trip?” And, before I could say anything, he added, “You will get a lot to see. Perhaps even mountains.” Mum and uncle shook hands.
“When will the train depart,” he wanted to know.
“Five past seven,” answered Mum. Suddenly I could see Frau Fischer from the Office for Children’s Affairs, the one I had met the previous day. I did not like her as she tried to be overly nice to me. She walked up to us and said: “There he is, our little man. We better get onto our train!” After a short exchange of words the lady took my suit case off Mum and took my hand and said: “Lets go then. We don’t want the train to leave without us. Do we?”
Oh, yes, I would have loved that very much. I did not like her artificial friendliness.
I could not remember later whether Mum gave me a kiss or not, because she surprised me by giving me ten fifty Pfennig pieces, saying: “Don’t lose them. You might want to buy something with it.”
And with that I and the lady hurried along the train. There were several platforms in which trains were waiting to depart. The steam engines hissed and snorted like impatient horses who could not wait any longer to leave the claustrophobic city behind for the the vastness of the countryside.
Mum and my uncle did not come to the train. I assumed they did not want to spend money on platform tickets. The lady from Children’s Affairs looked at the carriage numbers. The clock in the middle of the platform showed it was exactly 7 o’clock. Still the Sun had not risen. Finally we reached our carriage with our reserved compartment. The lady helped me to get into the carriage. We walked along a long narrow corridor till we reached our compartment. Our carriage was a 3rd class carriage and we had to sit on a wooden bench. Nobody else sat in the compartment and all through the long journey nobody joined us either.
It was comfortable warm in the compartment and I took off my gloves and coat. My companion stowed my things on to the luggage rack above the seat. Shortly after that we could hear an announcement over the loudspeaker. I did not understand anything. Some people hurried past our window, doors were shut and the train, after a slight jolt, started, almost imperceptibly, to move out of the huge hall into a cold winter’s morning.