by Ute Carson
Firstwriter Magazine, UK, Issue 28, Winter 2015/16

As I sit drinking coffee this morning, the hot dark liquid energizing me, the sun washing over my skin, gloriously alive and well lived-in, I watch my grandchildren laugh and play among the flowers with reckless abandon. I think back to a tiny girl, my four year-old self, forced from my home, unaware that such a carefree destination might someday be mine. I recall being hoisted aboard a train crammed with wounded and dying soldiers from the front and exclaiming, "It stinks here," and my grandmother hastily hushing me by placing a hand over my mouth as she would do on many occasions during our frightful exodus.

I had an idyllic early childhood. I was born into a cocoon of familial love, desired by my young parents, adored by my paternal grandparents and spoiled by my maternal grandmother. We lived on a wide-roaming estate in Silesia complete with all the amenities of an aristocratic household. Troubles seemed far removed until World War II trampled our comforts and dreams.

Although the worries of my elders for my father and uncles serving on the Russian front cast a shadow over my peaceful existence, I was isolated from the terrible losses my family suffered and spared the worst.

Everything changed once the German army was defeated and Soviet troops moved westward, burning and plundering. We escaped from our castle at the last minute in a horse-drawn wagon. The neighboring villages were up in flames. February 1945 was bitter cold and I was bundled up in furs.

Then good fortune played its hand. Stranded on an icy railway platform in Hirschberg, the nearest town, a train passed through, stopping only long enough for an announcement to be broadcast over the loudspeaker asking for doctors and other medical personnel. My mother, a trained nurse, her identification card held high, was approached by an officer. She, my grandmother and I were lifted onto the train which moved very slowly out of the station.

From the interior of the transport I heard moaning. It took my eyes a while to adjust to the dimness in the long corridor. There were bunks three high on either side of the aisle. I was startled by the many white turbans and bloody wrappings around dangling arms and legs. The air was very stuffy and foul-smelling. Almost immediately, my mother was whisked away and from then on was on nonstop duty while my grandmother and I were pushed into something resembling a lawn chair. I seldom saw my mother except when she flitted by, stopping momentarily to wet my face with kisses. Once she ran through the corridor, halted at a bed, lit a cigarette, and gently placed it between the lips of a soldier, only to be reprimanded by an orderly rushing up behind her and scolding, "No smoking. Fire hazard!" When I asked, "What are we doing in this dark place?" grandmother whispered, "Hush!" and repeated her hand-over mouth gesture every time I complained, "I'm hungry" or "Let's go back home."

We were served watery milk soup in tin cups which were so different from my white bowls at home with painted flowers trailing along the rims. When it became clear that no other food was forthcoming, I greedily slurped down my soup. I slept on my grandmother's lap, startled awake whenever one of the men cried out. The latrine, located outside the corridor next to the buffers between train cars, was a stink hole. My grandmother held me above it, while burying her nose in her crocheted shawl.

After a day and a night on the rumbling train I started to recognize some of the occupants. When I walked from bed to bed, some of the men would try to grab my arm or long braids. One soldier smiled when I pointed to his red bandage and wanted to know, "Are you hurt?" Puzzled by the silent ones, I asked my grandmother, "Why don't they answer me?" "They are sleeping," she replied, which made sense since the blinds were all drawn.

During the second night we were shaken from our sleep by an ear-piercing cry, "Mutti! Help me!" In the bunk across from our chair a man had started to thrash, tearing at his sheets and throwing them off. A nurse hurried to his side and pushed a needle into his arm which quieted him down. From then on he lay very still. Death was still unknown to me and I would have fallen back into my slumbers were it not for what happened next. The locomotive let out a loud hoot and the train slowed to a crawl. Several men moved from bed to bed wrapping motionless bodies in soiled bed sheets and knotting the ends together.

As I watched from my safe perch on my grandmother's lap, several blinds sprang up and windows were pushed down. Snowflakes whistled in along with steely gusts of wind. Two men grabbed the ends of each sheet, lifted it high and then "... one... two... three..." and the bundle was heaved through the window. They repeated this frightful spectacle all along the corridor. Then the windows were closed again and darkness descended, illuminated only by the dim yellow light from dangling bulbs. Anxiously I asked grandmother, "What are they doing?" "They are taking the soldiers to a place to sleep." "Where though?" "In the soft snow."

Now that the bunk across from our chair was empty my grandmother was invited to take it. She collapsed from exhaustion onto the stripped mattress and tried to pull me in next to her. I screamed and kicked free of her grasp. I could not be coaxed into that terrifying bed. Instead I crouched on the floor with my back against a low iron railing, hanging on to my grandmother's hand for dear life.

That night grandmother had a premonition of impending danger. When the train stopped to take on coal, the three of us got off and made our way westward by whatever movable means turned up. We later learned that the train was destroyed in an air attack as it sped toward a tunnel for protection.

By nightfall we reached a well-kept farmhouse and were kindly offered shelter. After a soothing bath mouse-like bits of scrambled eggs and a few scraps of chicken were served. It was a real feast. My mother even complained of a stomach ache after eating edible food for the first time in days. Snuggling under clean, downy bedding and about to doze off, I spotted a stuffed black cat on the shelf above my bed. Suddenly wide awake, I reached for the toy, elated at my discovery. The old farmwoman watched my excitement and told me that I could sleep with the black kitten. "It's yours," she pronounced. Drowsily I clutched the little creature in my arms. Of course it was mine. It was my toy kitten from home!

The next morning I woke up to familiar kitchen aromas and soon sat with my mother and grandmother drinking fresh milk from the farm's cow. But then I wondered, where was the kitten? I jumped up and ran back to my bed. It was gone! With bated breath I returned to the kitchen and asked, "Where is the kitten?" Furtive looks flitted between my mother and the farmwoman. "The kitten has left," the woman explained. "It belonged to my son." "But you promised me," I screamed. "Just for the night," the woman replied resolutely. I pushed over my mug of milk and ran to my mother, burying my face against her breasts. "It's MY kitten," I howled and was inconsolable, despite assurances that we would find another kitten later on. I felt betrayed and refused to shake hands with our hosts when we left.

We reached western Germany safely shortly before the war ended and began weathering its aftermath. A few months later I contracted diphtheria. The Allies quarantined all children with infectious diseases. On a snowy night, I was forcibly disentangled from my mother's gentle arms and taken to a former school house which had been converted into a makeshift children's hospital. I had a very high fever. I still hear my mother sobbing, "Have a heart! We have never been apart." Delirious, I remember cold wraps being applied to my hot body. I shivered and then perspired profusely.

It was the large room I recall best. Rows of beds lined the walls and a blackboard from former days hung in plain view. The hospitalized children's names were written on the blackboard and then erased when they died. Many of them died. I owe my survival to the fact that my grandmother sold her valuable diamond on the black market for precious penicillin, a commodity most difficult to obtain in those post-war days. Thanks to the medication, I lived through the critical phase of diphtheria as well as other childhood diseases making the round of the ward -- scarlet fever, measles, typhus, and mumps.

By now I knew that if someone pulled a bed sheet over your head you were dead and would soon be rolled out. Parents were not allowed in the big room except to pick up a child who was recovering or, as was more often the case, their child's body. I watched fathers with their hats drawn deep over their foreheads and mothers sinking next to a bed and weeping, only to be gently led out alongside a covered bed. Later the same bed would be rolled back in, prepared for another ailing child.

There were no visitation days. But parents were permitted to bring presents. Food items were always in short supply. Notes and toys were also highly valued. Because I could not read, a nurse read to me. Grandmother wrote daily and her encouragements always ended with the same message, "Every sunrise you are in my thoughts and before I fall asleep I think of you again." My mother knitted booties which I happily distributed among my fellow sick compatriots. She also crocheted slipcovers for the hot water bottles.

The greatest relief from my constant homesickness came on days when it was my turn to sit on one of the broad windowsills spanning above the clanking, steaming radiators. There I crouched next to other children who were able to leave their beds. Faithfully, my mother and grandmother took turns walking back and forth along the frosty sidewalk and waving. They continued their vigil into the greening season. My stay seemed endless.

Franz was a straw-blond farm boy. His parents brought him fresh produce, sometimes milk and eggs. His bed was wheeled next to mine with just enough space left for the nurses and doctors to squeeze through. He cried so hard when his father left that his nose seemed permanently crusted. I was an old-timer by then and offered him my bedtime stories. He had never been told stories or read to. He eagerly grasped the opportunity and I was in my element. I made up stories about his pigs at home and imagined so many wonderful details that he found himself on a magic carpet, flying over a blooming meadow, watching newborn calves and lambs. After hearing a story about a baby lamb bleating for his mother, he had his mother bring him his toy lamb from home. I still see his face light up as he showed off the lamb's fluffy pink ears and movable tail. The coat was made from real lamb's wool and was so soft to the touch.

I never knew what Franz suffered from except that his skin was blotched. Bluish spots like big freckles covered his face, neck, arms and even the back of his hands. Once he had to wear gloves so he wouldn't scratch. During those tormenting days I had to redouble my storytelling efforts to keep his spirits up. When he was not miserable with itching he was fun. He made me laugh. He made funny noises by pumping his palms behind the nurses' backs and doing a grimacing imitation of a doctor's stern voice, "All these cases are severe!" He gravely shook his head, pointing at us "poor little mites."

Franz became my best friend. I worried when he couldn't keep his food down and then fell asleep during our story hour. One night I reached across the short space between us. When I found his hand, smaller than mine, it felt clammy and hung limp in my grasp. But Franz didn't withdraw his hand and from then on let me hold it whenever I reached for it. He once whispered, "Would you like to sleep with my lamb tonight?" As much as I longed to I declined, sensing his need for comfort.

One night when the moon shone pearly over our beds I slipped out and crept over to Franz, something that was strictly forbidden by the staff. I placed my ear on his chest as I had seen the doctors do and heard no breathing. Tentatively, I touched his cheek, then his forehead, sweaty and cold. Instinctively I reached for the lamb which had slipped out of his arm and lay beside him on the sheet. I took it and fled back to my own bed, and hid it under the blanket. I rolled onto my stomach and tucked the lamb where I believed my heart was, now thumping loudly and very fast. Then I tuned out all the noises in the room, pulled my pillow over my ears and cried as if there was no end to my grief. Next morning, tugging my sheets as tightly around me as I possibly could, I watched as Franz's bed was rolled out.

Weeks later I was released. The doctor who signed the form mumbled, "Like an old woman. Been here too long."

I was jubilant to be reunited with my family and soon I made new friends. But nobody knew how I secretly consoled myself. To this day I have no idea where my idea for an animal cemetery originated. It started with a dead bird which I placed into a cigar box stuffed with cotton I had snitched from my mother's meager toiletries. I found a clearing amidst a knoll of dense trees and shrubbery where nobody could spot me. I used the shovel from my sandbox to dig the first grave and later

The largest animal was a squirrel which I discovered frozen on the garden path. I was unable to spoon out its grave. Using my fingers like claws I finally loosened the hard ground. I decorated the graves with flowers in the warm season and with branches and Christmas decorations in winter. The bushes around my hidden garden were a wonderful barrier to the world beyond. There I felt secure.

Because I had missed the beginning of first grade, my mother taught me how to read. Armed with books from home and the library I would trot to my beloved hiding place, squat on a mossy stone which I had lugged there and read to my dead friends. I also sang to them, especially at Christmas when the snow decked the graves with white lacy blankets resembling doilies.

As I grew up, I spent less and less time at my cemetery but I retained a fondness for it and threw quick glances its way whenever I walked by.

Looking back I wonder how I lived through those early separations and deaths and still became a trusting person. It may be that I was fortunate to be endowed with strong survival instincts. But beyond that there is no doubt in my mind what I owe my devoted mother and grandmother who never wavered in their steadfast love and efforts to see me through. They were my bedrock.

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