Read The City in Flames Online

Authors: Elisabeth von Berrinberg

Tags: #History, #Europe, #Germany, #Military, #World War II, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages)

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BOOK: The City in Flames
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Chapter Twelve
Village Life

Standing in line in Würzburg was a tiring experience, but here it was even more exhausting. The village was not prepared for the sudden rise in population, and more and more refugees arrived seeking shelter. This situation affected everyone. The bakers could not keep up with the demand for bread, and many times a long wait, often in a line the entire length of the main street, was in vain.

Rules made by the shopkeepers were grudgingly obeyed by the villagers. One such rule allowed only one loaf of bread per family. Everyone knew each other, and no one was able to break this rule. But we were strangers, and we hoped that might be an advantage for us. We arrived at the bakery at different times. We stood at reasonable distances from each other and by no means let it be known we were related. With this plan we hoped to buy three loaves in one day. But the woman behind the counter noticed a certain resemblance between my sister and me. Identical twins. Of course! We should have known better. Well, we got two loaves among the three of us, and in only two hours of waiting, which was more than we hoped for.

The next trip, however, was again in vain. After four and a half hours of waiting, my mother, together with the rest of the people in line, was told to come back the next day. Choked with tears, she walked back to her bicycle. But as she rounded the corner of the building, the unmistakable smell of freshly baked bread wafted toward her. Tracing the aroma, she found herself in the storage room of the bakery, surrounded by shelves, all of them filled with still-steaming loaves of bread.

“Hallo, ist jemand da?”
she called out.

My mother was determined not to return home empty-handed. If she could persuade the baker to make an exception and sell her a loaf of bread, she would at least not have to fear being turned away again the next day.

She called again, “Hello, anybody here?” Still no answer. She was about to give up when an idea struck her.
I’ll just take a loaf and leave the money for it on the shelf,
she thought. Quickly she grabbed a loaf. As she searched for her billfold, she heard footsteps coming from the basement stairs. Now that she had the bread in her possession, it could be a nasty situation if she got caught. She left the room in haste. It was not until she was pedaling her bike along the country road that she realized what she had done.

“May God forgive me for what I have done,” my mother muttered when she set the bread before us.

“What happened?” my sister asked.

“Not a word to Papa!” she said and made us promise; she told us what happened.

Having become a thief bothered her so much that she confessed her misdeed to the baker—though not until a long time after the incident. He just laughed and, instead of taking the money she offered him as a belated payment, rewarded her for her honesty by presenting her with another loaf of bread, which was just as fresh and aromatic as the one she stole.

One time the rain set in and lasted for four days. We gave up our daily trip to the village while it rained and instead set up every available pot and pail, which left us with plenty of water. But bread, unfortunately, did not fall from the sky.

In hopes of a shorter wait in line because of the unpleasant weather, my mother left for the village. Wrapped in my father’s raincoat and holding an umbrella, she swung herself onto her bicycle. We watched her pass the ravine. Only the black dome of her umbrella was visible now, but we knew she would soon come into sight again after she reached the other side of the hill. But the road remained empty. There was no way we could have missed her. Fearing that something happened to her, we prepared to leave for the ravine. Without any proper clothing to shield ourselves from the rain, we wrapped bedsheets around ourselves. By now we were certain something happened to our mother because her figure never appeared on the ascending road.

To shorten the walk to the spot where we suspected her to be, we crossed through the fields rather than following the road. The ground was soaked, and we sank ankle-deep into the mud. It slowed us down, but it was too late to take the road.

When we spotted my mother we knew she was hurt. Her bicycle lay on the side of the road. Her umbrella drifted into a field, blown further away each time a gust of wind caught its frame.

“Mutti!” my sister and I called to let her know we were near. We could hear her sobs as she lay in the mud, unable to raise herself. Mud and tears covered her face. She looked at us with a strange expression.

“Are you all right?” we asked.

“My children?” asked my mother, wiping her face with the back of her hand.

“Ja,” I answered, wondering at her strange question.

“Who did you think we were?” my sister asked. “A couple of ghosts?”

In a weary gesture my mother motioned toward us as we stood there, enveloped in white bedsheets—well, they were white when we started out—but her movement brought back the pain in her hip. She cried out when she tried to shift her position.

I unwrapped myself from the sheet, and together we tried to slip it underneath our mother. It was a painful procedure for her, and watching her suffer, we, too, were about to cry.

“All right now,” I said comfortingly and covered her with my sister’s sheet.

“You just lie still, and we will carry you back,” I told my mother.

“You can’t,” she cried, trying to discourage us. “I’m too heavy for you!”

“We can’t leave you lying here,” my sister said, determined, and we lifted up the ends of the sheet beneath her.

With the hundred and fifty pounds we now held between us, our footsteps sank even deeper into the muddy ground. After a few meters we stumbled and lost our balance and with it, our grip on the load we carried. My mother fell to the ground, and a glimpse at her face assured me she was in great pain.

“I’ll get Herr Hefner,” I decided.

“No, get the cart,” my sister suggested. “And some blankets,” she called after me as I pounded toward the cabin.

Before I left for the ravine with the cart and the blankets, I quickly exchanged my drenched clothes for some dry ones. As an afterthought I left a note for my father to let him know where to find us. The time passed quickly, and it was nearly evening. If I waited long enough I might see my father come home.

“The note will do,” I decided and speedily returned to the ravine. This time I took the road.

After unsuccessfully attempting to lift my mother onto the cart, my sister and I lost most of our strength. My clothes were again soaked by the rain, and my pigtails opened, letting my hair to fall loose onto my neck and shoulders, clutching against my cheeks as the wind blew past me.

Then we finally saw my father. He looked worried when he saw my mother’s condition. “You will be lucky if you don’t catch pneumonia on top of it,” he said, concerned, “all of you.”

The experience stayed with us for a while. All of us, including my father, came down with a cold. My mother’s dislocated hip kept her from doing even the smallest chores. The task of cooking and other household chores were completely in the hands of my sister and me. But with guidance and comments coming from the bunk bed in which my mother was laid up, we had nothing to worry about. Or did we?

“You’ve got to do the cooking,” my father said.

Cook with what? Dandelions tasted all right if properly prepared. But without vinegar to season them, they tasted bitter and were hard to digest. There was another edible weed, stinging nettle, but harvesting it was an itchy chore. Whenever we spotted a spread of stinging nettle, we stood clear from it by walking a big circle around it. The slightest touch caused uncomfortable itching and it even left a rash on people with more sensitive skin. It was not nearly as bad as poison ivy, but it was annoying enough. But it was edible, and that was all that mattered at the moment.

With an anticipation stimulated only by the pain of my empty stomach, I left in search for our supper.

“Only the tips,” my mother advised me. “And grab them firmly. That way they won’t sting.”

When I returned to the cabin to prepare my harvest, I felt short on hands to scratch myself.

“This stuff better be good,” I grumbled as I filled my plate.

“Hunger can bring out the genius in man,” my father said as he tasted the green mass on his plate.

“And some less admirable traits, too,” my mother finished.

Back to front

Chapter Thirteen
An Odorous Adventure at Midnight

Stealing a loaf of bread might have been my mother’s first dishonest act. As it turned out, however, it was not her last. Our never ending search for edibles became less successful from one day to the next. We needed milk, but there was none available.

“Run over to the Hefners’ cottage,” my mother urged me, “see if they can spare some goat milk today.”

“We just got some yesterday,” I reminded her, hoping she would change her mind. But she insisted I try anyway, so with a tin cup tucked into my apron pocket, I set out for our neighbors’ cottage. I loathed going near their place because every time I approached it, my childish imagination took hold. I could see myself as one of the victims in the fairy tale of Hänsel and Gretel, which still gave me shivering memories.

Wild rosebushes and tall grass surrounded the Hefners’ cottage. The stucco that once covered the bricks crumbled away, and only random patches remained. The green shutters were hinged to small, mullioned windows that were so densely coated in dirt and grime that even the curtains were no longer visible from the outside.

No one in our family—and, for all we knew, nobody else—had ever set foot inside of their cottage. Occasionally, we were invited in, but we could not accept because of the odor that greeted us every time we tried to enter. From the front door, we saw chicken droppings covering the hallway, trailing toward the kitchen, where the smell of spoiled garbage mixed with the scent of cat droppings. A menagerie of animals gathered about the cottage, which we eventually dubbed the “gas chamber.” There was a goose – her gander was no longer around, since somebody stole him – and, of course, the chickens roamed the house. A forever-pregnant cat lazily stretched out on top of a buffet, and an aging tomcat usually lay wrapped around Mrs. Hefner’s neck.

Herr Hefner, though long retired, still wore his traditional butcher’s garb, including a black-and-white-striped denim shirt with a mandarin collar. All but one of its buttons was replaced with safety pins. His once tall stature shrank from age and hard work, which gave him the appearance of a hunchback. His hands with only seven fingers remaining – the rest of them got lost in a meat grinder, as he once told us – were habitually hiding behind the bib of his ankle-length apron, which was long overdue for a laundering. There was no way of telling whether he had any hair because his head was never without the protection of a shielded cap he wore backwards whenever he milked the goat.

Frau Hefner covered her stringy gray hair with a moth-eaten wool scarf, even on hot days. The scarf matched the dingy gray skirt that reached her boots. Their laces had long ago been replaced with pieces of rope that were never tied.

“My arthritis,” she would explain. “Couldn’t get into my own shoes today, so I’m wearing my husband’s boots.”

Her gout-crippled hands were as ever tucked into her seemingly bottomless skirt pouches from which she simultaneously extracted bits of bread crumbs from one and kernels of grain from the other, to sprinkle them amongst her squawking and cackling menagerie by which she was constantly pursued.

***

Regardless of how formidable the neighbors were, we needed milk. So I ventured over there one day. The ring of a chime became audible as I pulled on a thin wire attached to the frame of the wooden gate. Soon I could hear a voice from the inners of the cottage, then footsteps.

The first thing I saw when the door opened was Frau Hefner’s nose as she stuck her head through the door. It must have been one of those days when her arthritis troubled her, for a cane – a homemade one carved from a branch of a pear tree – now supported her frail body.

Again I noted the uncanny resemblance between her and the witch in “Hänsel and Gretel.” Instinctively I peered at the rosebushes, as if I might find an oven behind them.

When she saw the tin cup in my hands, her toothless face grimaced, and before I had a chance to air my request, she waved me off.

“Can’t spare any milk today!” she huffed and shut the door. The next day was no more successful.

“This old witch would rather feed it to her cats than let us have any!” my mother said when I returned with an empty cup.

But all was not lost, my mother decided. By now she had sufficiently recuperated from her bicycle fall and was back on her feet again. So this was a good time for what she was planning.

The night was black. Not even the stars were visible. The ground was dry, so our footsteps would leave no trace. A perfect night for our venture.

“I hope it works,” I whispered as I followed my mother, who strode along the narrow path to our neighbors’ garden.

“Look,” my mother said reassuringly. “I milked a cow once, so a goat should be easier yet.”

“Once?” I asked. “Once you milked . . .”

“Psst,” my mother interrupted. We had reached the hedge surrounding the mesh fence. We knew from prior investigation that there was an opening in it that led directly to the goat’s shed.

Having tucked the kettle under my sweater, I used both hands to separate the branches of the dense bushes. My mother slipped past me to the other side, and then my sister and I followed. My sister’s task was to stand by the opening so that if a hasty escape was necessary, we would not have to search for the exit in the dark.

A sudden fear struck me. What if Herr Hefner decided to stand watch over his domain? Recent attempts to rob him might have provoked him to sacrifice his sleep and stand guard.

“Got the kettle?” my mother whispered. I handed it to her.

The goat’s stable was about the size of a doghouse. The door was narrow, and a person could hardly stand up inside it without touching the roof. Waste saturated the straw on the floor. The wind sometimes carried the odor as far as our cabin.

Carefully, so as not to make a sound, my mother opened the slide bolt. She entered the shed. There was a thud and a splash, then a howling moan. Mother had not counted on the narrow board above the ground, part of the frame that held the door. Her fall aroused the goat, and judging from the noises, I clearly pictured what was happening.

Between my mother’s special selection of German curses and the goat’s cries of “M-a-a-ah! M-a-a-ah!” I heard my sister’s subdued giggle, which drowned out my own warning for silence.

“Shut up, you beast!” my mother shouted at the goat.

A light appeared in the distance, coming toward us from the Hefners’ cottage. My heart sank with fear.

“Hurry up!” I urged my mother, who was still fumbling around in the shack.

Her broad gluteus region came out the door first. On her hands and knees, she backed out of the byre. We slipped through the opening to the other side of the fence. With my mother leading, we ran straight ahead into a field. There was no need to cause any suspicion about who those night prowlers were. If our neighbor saw us leaving in the opposite direction, he would think we were strangers.

I could still smell manure, even after we put a considerable distance between the goat shed and ourselves. I learned the reason for this when I grabbed my mother’s dress sleeve to slow her down.

“How much farther do you want to run in this direction?” I asked. I felt a slippery substance on my fingers. One sniff confirmed my fears. In the dim light of the moon, my mother stripped off her dress.

“Where are we going?” I asked again.

“To the village!” my mother exclaimed.

I could think of no reason for us to go the village in the middle of the night, and curiously inquired, “Why?”

“There is not enough water at the cabin,” she explained impatiently, now clad in nothing more than her underwear.

I had a fairly good idea of what she was planning to do once we reached the village. The fountain stood forlorn. An unusual sight, as it was ordinarily surrounded by people at most hours of the day.

With a deep breath, my mother submerged herself in the trough by the fountain.

“Horch!” I cautioned. A sound came from the village’s main street. Dawn lit the sky, and a glance in that direction confirmed what I thought I heard. A herd of cows was approaching, and the farmer guiding them took notice of us. My mother, busily washing out the rest of her clothes, was unaware of the approaching herd until she found herself eye-to-eye with a cow.

What followed was a sight the farmer may well have talked about many times thereafter. Whether he was believed is another matter. Who wouldn’t have doubts when told of a woman bathing in the village fountain in the middle of the night who, after being interrupted by a herd of thirsty cows, ran the length of the main street in dripping-wet underwear, letting out a swarm of unintelligible sounds accompanied by the hearty laughter of two girls desperately trying to catch up with her?

Our mother bathing with the cows

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