I’m eighty today and I hope, I have a great day with my family. I remember a few of my birthdays along the line, but none more so than my tenth birthday in May 1945.
I lived in Berlin with my mother and a great-aunt. The war in Europe had just finished and the fighting had stopped. A difficult peace was just one week old. It was springtime and all the trees were in full bloom, compensating for the destruction of the city for all to see. The month of May was always my favourite and that the war ended just in time for my birthday doubled the pleasure. Finally, we could sleep through the nights again.
Early in the morning a cousin of my mother, Aunt Hildegard, who lived only two buildings further down the same street, came for a quick visit to check on our well-being. The two women chatted and exchanged the latest news from the neighbourhood. To my disappointment, my birthday was not mentioned with one syllable.
When Aunty was on the way out in the hallway I ran after her and grabbed her by the hand and told her full of pride, that it was my birthday. She apologised and promised to come back in the afternoon with a present. I liked that idea – but not my Mum. She had overheard us and told me I had practically invited Aunty. That is what we should not do during the difficult times we were living under. There would not be anything we could offer any visitors. She was really angry.
Later, I thought, ‘Today will be the best day of my life’, as I rushed out of the family apartment. to explore the surrounding streets. I liked to watch the activities of the Russian soldiers who were everywhere. That my mother had roused on me in the morning, for something minor, as far as I was concerned, was already forgotten. The Soviets had introduced Moscow time and we had to advance our clocks by two hours. In the courtyard, I met up with a girl who lived in the same building as we did. She was the same age as I was. We went to the backyard, picked up two discarded broomsticks and started to pretend shooting at Russian warplanes that were crossing the sky. The girl soon got tired of this game and went home.
Only then, I became aware of a Russian motor lorry in one corner of the backyard. I saw two soldiers sitting in the back of the vehicle. I approached the lorry in case I could get something from the Russians, who mostly liked children. When they saw me coming they motioned me to come closer. I did not hesitate. I found them drinking something and noticed that they had a bottle in their hands.
‘Kleb – bread?’ I asked them. I was surprised when they handed me a large enamel cup filled to the brim with vodka and they indicated to me, turning their hands up at their lips, to drink.
‘Oh, no,’ I thought and told them in Russian, ‘Njet! – No!”
One Russian got out his pistol, loaded it through and held it against my right temple.
‘Dawai’ – ‘come on’, one said angrily and motioned again for me to drink.
I shook my head and refused. I thought of my mother and how she would be angry with me again. She hated me doing something silly someone else asked me to do. Surely, coming home drunk I would cop a beating from her. I had been in trouble that morning and that was enough.
‘No vodka for me, thank you very much,’ I thought.
The urging became stronger and the pressure of the pistol started to hurt as the soldier pressed it against my temple. NO WAY, would I drink that stuff.
“Njet !” I said to them again. At that moment, I was not able to discern whether they meant it or whether they wanted to pull a practical joke on me. I decided that I would rather get my brain blown out than face my mother’s fury again.
But fate took another turn and help was at hand. Just then, a Russian officer appeared and came towards the lorry. He saw at once what game was being played out. He started to shout at the two soldiers and they removed the pistol from my head. The officer, grabbed my shoulder, to comfort me. He was very angry with the others. I did not understand a word that was said.
After a while, the officer stopped arguing with the soldiers and waved to follow him. He spoke half Russian and half German and made it clear, that he would give me something as compensation for the ordeal I had just gone through. We walked into the entrance hall and went straight to the first door. The door was shut, so the officer knocked and as there was no answer he just pushed his weight against it and the door flew open. We both went inside and explored the kitchen. Nothing of value was to be seen. The people, who had lived there must have left before the fighting started and the Russians arrived.
The Russian opened the oven door of the kitchen stove. And lo and behold, there were two large trays with yeast cake. I noticed that they were old and smelled slightly stale. The Russian offered me both cakes. I took them with thanks and walked, balancing the large trays, the few meters to our apartment.
In the meantime, while I was away and nearly had my brain blown out, visitors had arrived. All women, of course. The cousin of my mother brought a jar full of nougat. One of my Godmothers had made the dangerous trip from another suburb using the underground train that was running again for the first time. A neighbour had called in as she smelled the freshly brewed coffee that had been hidden to be used on a day like this one. They were all chatting and smoking. When I entered the smoke filled kitchen with the cake a great cheer went up.
For the first time, these brave women must have felt the worst was over, and there was hope again for a better future, even if that prospect was only enhanced by stale cake. The women became animated in their conversation. I was happy that I brought that little cheer into their lives. Standing beside my mother and leaning my head on her shoulder, I was hoping for a cuddle.
I did not tell them about the threat with the pistol.