originally posted online at the Purple Hearts website in Jan 2000 under the pen name Anzio Annie
(Dedicated to the memory of Dick Peabody 1925-1999)
I remember the day the war came to Zweibrucken. And I remember the day peace came too. Memories are funny things. Sometimes, a memory is really a lie. But even then, deep inside, there is a hidden truth.
There are four of us left now - Mutti, my younger sister Gretchen, my little brother Karl, and me, Erika. Our father is gone. Gretchen says she remembers him, and she loves to tell our little brother about him, but she is really thinking of someone else, not Vati.
Some days are like a book you read over and over as a child - every picture anticipated in vibrant color before you even turn the page, the text so engraved on your mind that you can recite every word. The day the war came to Zweibrucken has become like that for me. I remember every detail as if I had written the pages of that day in my mind and read them again and again.
I knew that Vati was a soldier and he was far away. So, the war seemed far away. Until one crisp winter day, when Mutti sent me with the ration cards to get the milk and sugar. I was happy, thinking of the delicious soup that she would make us later. She would heat up a big pot of the milk and melt a whole cube of butter in it, and add lots of sugar too. I licked my lips, practically tasting the soup. I was not thinking of anything else. And then, I heard a deep humming overhead. Looking up, I saw a wedge of airplanes, like big silver geese, soaring through the cloudless sky toward the Zweibrucken train depot. I was mesmerized, not afraid, and began to count them. Eine, zwei, drei … and then the air was suddenly filled with the deafening scream of the air raid siren. Mutti burst out of the house with Gretchen balanced on one hip and grabbed my arm and dragged me down the street to the public bomb shelter.
It was so dark inside! Mutti set Gretchen down and went to the corner, to light the stubby little candles that she called "Hindenburg lights". The building above us rocked and shook. Dust and bits of mortar fell all over us, making us choke. I could feel Gretchen trembling.
Before Vati went off to be a soldier, he had told me to take care of my little sister always. I was proud that he trusted me like that, and I tried to think what he would do if he were here. When Gretchen was still a baby and would cry, Vati would lift her out of her cradle and put her on his shoulder and slowly stroke her hair until she quieted. I couldn't pick her up - the shelter was so crowded, we were almost sitting in Frau Selle's lap. But I patted Gretchen's silky baby-fine hair and softly crooned to her, like Vati. It seemed to help. She began to suck her thumb and stopped trembling.
Finally, the building quit shaking and then it grew deathly quiet. I was anxious to go outside, into the sunlight again, but Frau Selle grabbed my arm and stooped low to give me a warning. It wasn't just bombs the Americans would drop on us, she said, but even little packages of toys and candy. These treats were mined. If a child found one and opened it, it would explode! Frau Selle said that because the Vaterland was winning the war, the Americans wanted to kill all the German children.
Mutti slapped her for saying it! "I don't care if it's true or not," she said. "The children are already frightened enough!"
When we finally emerged, it was as though we were no longer in Zweibrucken, but some strange new place. Flames crackled nearby in the wreckage of buildings I no longer recognized. Broken glass crunched underfoot. Just beyond the entrance to the bomb shelter lay a charred and twisted tree trunk - but how could a tree be growing in the middle of the road? I tugged at Mutti's apron to point to it and ask her how it could be?
She put her hand to her mouth in dismay, and then gathered up Gretchen and turned her face away so she wouldn't see. "Those are people," she told me, her voice shaking. "A family…. They were clinging to each other, there, when the bomb fell." She took my hand and tried to hurry us past, but I was riveted to the sight, staring until I could make out the shapes of hands, and then ribs. When I saw human eyes in the burnt tangle of limbs, my stomach lurched and I allowed Mutti to drag us toward our home.
That was how I learned what war was.
Ash floated all around us, making it hard to see. I was lost, but Mutti found our house. I didn't believe it. The upstairs was gone! My clothes, my books - they were all ruined. Gretchen's doll Anke had lost a leg. But we stayed there and lived mostly in the cellar after that, because Mutti said Vati would come home one day and he wouldn't be able to find us if we left. And anyway, where would we go?
So we stayed in Zweibrucken. Before the bombs came, I sometimes played that Gretchen and I were prisoners in an enchanted castle and I would imagine that a prince would ride up and rescue us. But that was the pastime of a child. Now the bombed-out rubble became my playground. I pretended that I was a soldier like Vati and when the Americans came to kill the German children, like Frau Selle said, I would rise up and defend the village and be the hero.
I couldn't wait to turn ten years old, and be allowed to wear the proud uniform of the Hitler jungvolk.
Finally my birthday came. I received the brown jacket, the white blouse and dark blue skirt I longed for. Now, I could learn to march, to sing the anthems. "Today Germany belongs to us. Tomorrow the whole world!"
One night, several bombing raids flew over Zweibrucken, one after another. We stumbled sleepily to the shelter, to cower in cold misery before trudging back home. A second time and then a third time the alarm sounded and we fled our house. The water mains had frozen and the old men who were left could not put out the fires. Finally, we returned home for the last time, very late. Mutti tucked us in, snug in our little nest of scratchy wool blankets on the mattress in the corner of the cellar. Gretchen fell asleep right away, sucking her thumb. She hugged her broken doll tightly to her chest.
I fell asleep too, but then, something woke me and I lay awake, not moving. Hours of shivering and fear had made me so tired that my body felt as heavy as Mutti's iron cooking pots. Even my eyelids were so heavy I could barely open them. But I had heard the sound of boots in the street, when no one should be walking about. The steps had stopped outside our door.
Someone unexpected coming to your door was NEVER good news in the war years.
How could I sleep? I put my arm around Gretchen, ready to hold her still and quiet if she should stir, and so she would not be afraid if she woke up.
I heard a thin cry from Mutti and then nothing.
A soft amber light spread across the walls, coming closer. It was bobbing in time to the boot steps on the cellar stairs. I hugged Gretchen tighter and closed my eyes, pretending to be asleep.
"See?" Mutti's voice didn't sound afraid. "The children are safe."
The footsteps came nearer. I could feel the heat from the lantern and then a rough hand gently cupped my face.
"They are so precious!" a man's voice said.
Something about that voice sounded familiar. Whatever it was made me feel safe. My eyes flew open but he had already turned away and was making his way, with painstaking stiffness, back up the stairs, where my mother waited. I saw only his silhouette.
At the top, he reached into his coat and gave Mutti something. It was a grenade! "How can you take such a risk," Mutti asked, "coming here without permission? Bringing this to us?" She didn't want him to leave it with us, but he insisted, and told her how to use it. "In case the Russians come," he said. Mutti began to cry. And that is all I remember.
I longed to fly up the stairs after them, but my body would not obey. It dragged me back into the abyss of sleep. The next thing I knew, it was no longer dark in the cellar. And the soldier was gone.
He never came back.
For a few moments, he had stood in the light at the top of the stairs. His uniform hung on him loosely and he seemed stooped, no taller than my mother was, when he stood beside her. His hair was shaggy and needed trimming. I have tried so hard to remember whether it was blond or gray, but in that light I really couldn't be sure.
I try so hard to remember because I am sure that must have been my father.
But that is not the man Gretchen is thinking of.
Gretchen's memory comes from another night. A night when everything changed again, forever.
Months later, Mutti gave birth to Karl, and we didn't live in a cellar any more. We had to move in with Frau Selle. By then, times were harder. Our clothes were always patched. There was no more milk soup with sugar. My stomach always ached with hunger. And then, one evening, enemy soldiers marched into town.
I was in the fields, scavenging with slim but desperate hope for any overlooked potatoes or turnips, when I first heard the convoy of trucks. They were not German trucks! I ran home so fast my lungs were burning and I could hardly speak. When I managed to stammer what I had seen, Frau Selle dissolved into a weeping puddle on the floor, wringing her hands. I remembered then what she had warned me about the Americans. Mutti yelled at me to find my sister, and she ran upstairs to get the baby.
I did as she told me. But before I went back outside, I took Vati's grenade from the hiding place.
Gretchen was playing in the rubble next door, her blond hair shining in the headlights of the enemy trucks. She looked up, and it seemed as though she was in a trance. A column of soldiers marched past along the shadows of the buildings, like ghosts. Only ghosts don't carry guns. They moved stealthily, watching the windows for any threat. And then, the tallest one turned his head and looked directly at my little sister.
"Gretchen!" I tried to shout but I was still short of breath. It was loud enough though. She heard, and turned toward me. And then she stumbled.
Her feet, like mine, were wrapped in pieces of cardboard that were tied with twine to keep them in place. It had been a long time since we had real shoes. When Gretchen stumbled, her makeshift "boots" came untied and fell apart in the snow. She stood there, unable to take a step without sinking into the icy slush in her stocking feet.
She was only four years old. She didn't know how to tie a knot.
The soldier who had noticed her suddenly detached himself from the column. As he moved in front of the headlights, his shadow loomed bigger and bigger. I had never seen anyone so big! He was coming straight for my sister!
I couldn't let him hurt Gretchen. I had promised Vati I would always take care of her. He had even left us a way.
"Nein!" I screamed at the soldier as loud as I could and then I twisted the handle of the grenade and threw it at him with all my strength.
But I was weak from hunger and not strong enough. I watched with horror as the grenade fell far short of my target and landed in the snow a few feet from Gretchen instead. She did not know what it was, but she trusted me, and thought that I must have meant it for her. So she moved to pick it up.
Memories of a moment can overwhelm you like a sudden deluge. Or the events can flow through your thoughts as slowly and distinctly as the drip of a melting icicle. That evening haunts my memory with icy clarity.
I remember seeing the silhouette of another 'ghost' raising his rifle until it was pointed straight at me. I heard the giant shout something to him in a language I didn't know. And then he ran toward my sister.
He scooped up the grenade and threw it toward the empty turnip field, and then he dove across Gretchen, covering her completely. The blast knocked me to the ground. Clods of dirt pelted me and there was a buzzing between my ears. When the buzzing stopped, I sat up and realized I was not hurt. Then I looked around, and saw the American soldier kneeling in the frozen mud, picking my sister up and setting her on her feet again.
I thought the other soldiers might come after me, but the big man waved them away from us. So I approached him warily. He took the pieces of twine in his fingers and carefully tied Gretchen's cardboard shoes back on her feet. I saw that his hands were shaking, but he completed the task. A single tear rolled down Gretchen's cheek, her eyes round with fright. The soldier brushed it away with his thumb and then cupped her face in one of his enormous hands. She sniffled and then said, softly, "Danke."
A smile stretched across the American's face, from one ear all the way to the other. I have never seen such a big grin. It's the kind of smile that just makes you smile back - you can't help yourself. Gretchen started to giggle.
Then another soldier trotted up, and said something to him that made the giant climb unsteadily to his feet. He lingered a moment, stroking Gretchen's blond curls. "Alles gut", he mumbled to us then, in broken German. Maybe they were the only German words he knew. I never found out.
They turned away, and I saw a dark stain spreading across the soldier's broad back. Just then, he staggered, and sank to his knees. His friend knelt beside him with alarm and called out for help. There was a clatter as more Americans ran toward them.
Suddenly, Mutti was at our side and swept us out of the glare of the headlights, out of sight from our enemy.
That was four years ago.
Frau Selle says that our father died in Russia, and left us nothing. But Mutti says she is rich with his children, that we are his legacy.
We can see that it hurts Mutti to talk about the war years, or to talk about Vati, so we do not mention them to her. Karl has grown into a talkative little boy, though, who sometimes asks us to tell him about our father. And Gretchen loves to oblige. But she describes a man she only vaguely recalls. She describes a man who was as tall as a mountain, but with the most gentle hands, and with a smile so warm it made her laugh out loud.
I know her memories are mixed up. That is not our Vati.
But our father was also a man who loved children and who loved his country and who would risk his own life so that we would be safe. And Gretchen remembers that. It does not matter that she has forgotten how Vati looked. She carries a picture in her memory that helps her remember the heart of a good man. There is truth in that memory, which belongs to our father too. So I do not correct her.
And I do not forget.
The American soldier left us a legacy too. He gave us back my little sister, when I thought she was lost. Because of him, I did not break my promise to my father, to keep Gretchen safe. He made me think about the enemy in a new way too. If he was so much like Vati in his heart, if they are so much like us, then why do we have wars?
I do not play at being a soldier, hiding in the rubble to ambush the enemy and defend the Vaterland, any more. But sometimes, Gretchen and I do play that the rubble is an enchanted castle and that a prince will ride in to rescue us.
That is a child's game, I know. I guess he gave me back my childhood too.