Friday, November 27, 2015
Maria Egel writes
A Young Girl's War and Peace - Part Three
Dad was the only young man in the village who was not drafted into the army. He had lost his right thumb and a bit of a finger while showing off his very own electric saw with a bit too much enthusiasm. He was a farmer in summer and a wagonwright in winter. His assignment was to keep the meager existence of the surrounding farming villages alive. That, and being unable to pull the trigger of a gun, kept him from becoming a soldier. One of his nightly duties was to walk through the village to make sure it was swallowed up by total darkness. Every bit of light that showed through the cracks of the window covers had to be reported and corrected before the enemy could find us.
I loved to accompany Dad on this job. His rough, calloused hands held mine tightly and I felt safe. We talked, and I filtered out the things that I had to forget quickly so that I would never betray him. Dad thought the “blindfolded” houses looked like “has-been movie stars” hiding behind dark glasses. He thought the best way to keep the enemy away was to show them our poverty, not to hide it.
I once asked Dad why we suddenly had so many enemies. “It is like cocks in a barn yard,” he said. “The more cornered they feel, the uglier they get. Once they have conquered a little scratching place, they want the whole yard, that is where we are now.”
He was worried about the government inspector giving the farmers a hard time, because they could never produce their quota of eggs, milk and wheat. If you had two cows, so many liters of milk had to be delivered to the “central” station. The same was true for eggs. “Hitler might have programmed us people,” he said, “but the cows still don’t give milk while carrying a calf, and the hens still stop laying eggs through the cold winter months. They continue to do their things as always– but Maria, what happened to us, what happened to us?” We were totally snowed in and Dad said the village reminded him of "a giant bear in apparent hibernation” but always, always listening.
On one of our nightly trips, Dad thanked me for helping Mama carry the books to the village square to be burned. Papa knew that Mama and I brought all the wrong books to feed the fire and that we hid a couple in the straw stuffed mattress. We had so few books, a mere armful. The young officer, in his steel gray uniform with eyes to match, told Mama, "None of your books are on the list to be burned." “Oh” mama said innocently, “we brought them all, we did not want to make a mistake,” as she quickly pocketed the slip of paper that would keep further inspection at bay for a while. Mama lied, and she trusted me with her lie. I knew that hidden under her mattress was her poetry book by Heinrich Heine, a Jew.
One afternoon, while my parents were working in the fields and I was home alone babysitting my two younger siblings, two Gestapo men came to the house, accompanied by a local man who was supposed to be our friend. Not so long ago, my sister and I would braid his beautiful long beard when he came to sit at our supper table. Now, his face was clean shaven and he brought strangers into our home, knowing that my parents were not at home. “Girl, we know that your father has hidden something, show us where,” demanded one of the strangers. I did know where, because a couple of nights before I was awakened by a noise and I peeked out the window and saw my dad bury something in the garden. “Show us the place,” he said roughly, pulling on my braids. My tongue would not co-operate to form words, until one of the men grabbed my sleeping baby brother by his feet and let him dangle upside down and I heard his piercing cry.
I showed the men the freshly worked ground and there they found a sack of seedling potatoes Dad was trying to save for planting in the spring. Dad was taken away for interrogation and held for a week. He never told us children what happened during that time, we only knew that he had great difficulty walking for a long time.
One day, an important document was delivered to our house. It said that a cargo of people was on the way to our village and Dad was to distribute them on the farms and keep a record of them.
They were from Poland, and because the German men were fighting at some front, probably their very front, they were picked up and sent here to help on the farms. Mama read the letter and said, "Please don’t bring any of them home. If they know farm work, they should be home taking care of their own fields, and if they do not, what help would they be to us? We cannot afford to feed an extra mouth."
We children fallowed Dad to see the newcomers. A truckload of people arrived, young men and women, sad looking, tired and frightened. Their heads were shaved and all wore an I.D. tag around the neck. Our shameless staring must have made them feel like they were animals in the zoo.
By evening, all but one was placed. His name tag said “Durza Domna.” He sat curled up in the corner all by himself. Even the others on the truck avoided him. Was he dead? My dad gently poked his shoulders and he lifted his face. It was full of open, seeping sores, and he was dirty and smelled awful. He went home with us. Why did Dad not pick the young lady with the pretty smile, or any one else for that matter? Mama won’t like this. Mama took one look at Durza Domna, put a large pot of water on the stove and readied the wooden bathtub in Dad’s workshop. Soon, bathed and dressed in Dad’s clean overalls and flannel shirt, he sat at the table and practically inhaled our leftover supper, potato soup and black bread, our usual fare. We called him “Domneck,” but how we got to that name, I don’t remember.
We had a tree in the garden Mama called the “balsam tree.” From its sticky blossoms and alcohol, she would make every possible healing potion. Soon, his many sores healed, and Mama said, "With a little love from us the unseen wounds will heal also." Domneck was always afraid of our dad and was happiest when he could help Mom in the kitchen. Domneck would sit in the kitchen after the outdoor chores were done and became the best babysitter. He had a voice like an angel and those haunting, Polish melodies would tear our heart apart. He could not read or write and his signature was just an “X.” When we laughed at the idea that a grown man could not read or write or sign his own name, things we all could do as children, Mama gave us this reason:. “The world and the people in it have treated him so badly, they do not deserve to know his name.” Besides, she said, "His signature is his beautiful voice.”
Our daily lives became even more secretive and shabby. Mama would encourage Dad, “Go, sit with your friends for a while” and then she would worry until she could hear the echo of his wooden shoes coming down the street. Dad and his friends had been listening to BBC, a crime punishable with life.
Slowly, the village became packed with refugees from bombed out cities all over Germany. Russian and American armies were galloping toward us from opposite directions. Domneck, who had learned a little German, would tell Mama how scared he was of the Russians, so we all hoped it would be the Americans who would reach us first .