Fear Not
by Ute Carson
Lilly Press/River Poets, 2016 Volume 10, issue 2

It is nap time. Through the slats of our blinds sunrays caper across the tousled brown hair of two year-old Lucas. He is wrapped in a green crocheted blanket and both of us are stretched out on my wide bed facing each other. I squint through my half-shut eyes watching him as his eyes slowly close. "Hand, Omi," he murmurs. I take his little one into my palm and hold it until I feel his fingers relaxing, his body twitching, and him sinking into restful slumber. A current of warmth and security has just passed from me to him. I am transported back seventy years to a time when my grandmother's aged hand held mine.

The end of World War II was near in the late spring of 1945 but the bombardment continued. I would turn five in July and in previous months I had heard a lot about the war but not experienced it. Just after Christmas I was shaken from my family cocoon in Silesia by Red Army tanks approaching our castle. My grandmother and mother had been watching their movements from a turret as neighboring villages went up in flames. I was fascinated by the sight. It reminded me of a bonfire I had seen in a nearby field last spring. A few days later, in the darkness of night we were rushed in a covered horse-drawn wagon through snow-laden forests to the Hirschberg train station. Bundled up in fur coats and with bread from home we survived on the icy platform surrounded by hundreds of people, many starving or freezing to death. When an occasional transport moved slowly through the station people tried to jump onto the freight cars, only to lose their grip and fall back onto the frozen pavement.

Good fortune was with us when a train carrying wounded soldiers westward from the front stopped briefly and a call went out for medical personnel. My mother, a nurse, was hoisted up with my grandmother and me in tow. In the foul smelling interior I encountered fear emanating from the soldiers' bloodstained bodies. The men seemed like scary characters in a storybook to me. But the fairytales I knew ended well. I believed that the moaning men would get better and that the people who had collapsed at the train station would get up and go on. Besides, my grandmother was with me.

We arrived in the west near Kassel and found shelter on the estate of family friends. The cellar was used as an air raid shelter when a warning was sounded. It was spacious, had dangling lightbulbs, and was a place for us children to play. Only when the rumbling hum of a bomber was heard did the adults join us. Once a bomb destroyed an adjacent building and the walls of the basement began to shake as cement dust drizzled onto our heads. When we children were barred from a certain room in the main house I learned about sorrow. One adult after another, clutching handkerchiefs, would enter and depart, their eyes wet and red, shutting the door behind them. An older girl whispered, "In there they read the letter that someone has died."

I was in the care of my grandmother when my mother, pregnant with my sister, was called to join her husband in a town farther south where he found work. My grandmother soon left the crowded estate and found refuge in an attic room on a nearby farm. There I experienced the most joyful days of my childhood, gathering firewood and twigs for our small wrought iron stove, scooping dried elderberries from frozen branches and rejoicing in the green tips of nettles poking through the melting snow which we gathered for a nourishing soup. We were even fortunate to find some wrinkled potatoes stored in a crate in a barn loft. At night I snuggled on a straw mattress under piles of fur coats savoring the comfort of my grandmother's body. She was a fantastic storyteller and the lives of the animals in the fields, the chirping birds and the numerous squirrels unearthing nuts, came alive in her telling.

Then came the time for me to be reunited with my parents and meet my new sister. My grandmother and I shouldered our backpacks with provisions and started our trek south. Because few trains were running, we had to rely mostly on helpful farmers to give us a ride in their carts. We also walked a lot. Kindly strangers took us in the first two nights. On the third day we were given a lift on a tractor hauling a load of manure. At the edge of a village the farmer pointed the way to a community shelter about half an hour away. It was getting dark as we spotted a grass-covered mound which resembled an icehouse. Foreseeing that there would be no toilets or water in the shelter, my grandmother urged me to relieve myself behind a bush and insisted that we take several sips from our water bottle. As we entered the bowel of this well constructed bunker, it felt like the depth of winter. The steps were slippery and even though we heard a chorus of voices we could barely make out shapes. As our eyes adjusted to the dimness we saw how crowded the interior was. From one end to the other people were squeezed together. A small potbellied pipe stove stood in the middle of the room which gave out a little light and even less warmth. The fumes made my grandmother cough. Otherwise there was only candlelight, and the ceiling was marked with circles and swirls from the candle smoke. Like my crayon drawings, I thought. My grandmother detected an empty corner where we unrolled our brown horse blanket. We were dressed in several layers of clothing and didn't shed a single item. We bedded down using a lighter blanket as cover. We curled up close, our breaths mingling in the frigid air. Suddenly I began to shiver. A black shovel and a huge spiky rake leaning against the adjacent wall loomed like stick figures and a spider web swung back and forth like a net about to entrap me. It was so spooky. There were monsters here! We needed to flee right away! I reached out and murmured haltingly, "Hand, Omi, hand." Holding on tight, I drifted off to sleep and I did not wake from restful slumber until my grandmother roused me the next morning for the last stretch of our journey.

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