We slept in open fields, in barns still standing. We rarely came across farm animals, once we awoke next to a horse, as emaciated as we were ourselves. Yet my mother told me that I, a child just short of seven, was cheerful during those weeks of walking, until we crossed the only bridge left across the river Rhine into Cologne, and found only her ancient cathedral left standing. Her twin towers threw long shadows across what had been bombed into Europe’s largest field of rubble. And like rats scurrying across this dumpsite of war, an unending stream of returnees, refugees, prison inmates and the insane let loose, were seeking shelter in the dark damp basements of bombed-out buildings, desperately scavenging for food and unpolluted water.
Miraculously our apartment building in a suburb of Cologne, was almost intact, except the living space was now divided in two. In the other half, already installed, was a woman my father had met during the war. My parents’ marriage started to splinter like dead wood. But what mattered most was the fight for food. Every afternoon my mother and I walked out into the country side, where in the late evening hours we stole fruit off the trees. She had rigged up a home-made still, and started making Schnapps as barter for bread and meat with the peasants, the only ones who were harboring left-over food.
Two years later my mother collapsed. She would never be the same again. I was smuggling on my own. Just before that winter I came across a Gypsy camp, next to a cemetery in walking distance from my house. I stopped to watch them cook their meals over open fires, the Gypsies looked at me, but let me be. Next time I hooked up with a gang of their boys, soon after we stole sacks of potatoes and coal off a freight train late at night. After which the Gypsy boys walked me home, carrying my booty sack across ruins where pedophiles, the insane, murderers, smugglers and war profiteers were roaming free. Dead raped children were found in ruins and bombed out houses on a daily basis. There was as yet no law and order, only the occupation troops patrolling the streets, but seeing us kids, looked the other way. I knew that within the midst of my Gypsy friends I was safe. Often before we said good-bye, I watched them share a smuggled cigarette, its tip glowing in the dark. We talked about the war, they were survivors of a Gypsy labor camp. I told them about the old Gypsy woman, and her prediction of me ‘flying alone’. They laughed and told me that Gypsies don’t read palms, they read faces, and that my face must have reminded the old romni of ‘Radni vatsa’, the wild goose of the Romani legend, the one who warns Gypsies of trouble ahead, yet always flies alone.
Some kind of order was slowly re-establishing itself. Former Nazi leaders were trickling back home from allied detention camps. Not only did everybody know who they were, ironically they left those detention camps much better fed than any of the rest of us. The Gypsies broke camp and moved on. By that time I had been going for a couple of years to a make-shift school with, the sons and daughter of a people in denial of the suffering they had caused. I must have known how to read and write before entering their school. I don’t remember learning anything, but I know I kept skipping years. By age ten, German school authorities declared me mathematically gifted, and offering financial aid ordered my parents to switch me at once to a highly desirable High School, instead of the obligatory Grade School that lasted only till age fourteen.
I had just switched over when my father informed us, he was leaving us for good. The night he packed his suitcase remains branded in my memory with more detail than the war. My mother requested the state that due to her illness, she needed me to stay home, this request was denied, but assigned financial aid. For the next two years I was allowed to escape into learning. This changed drastically, when at age twelve, unlike the other girls in my class I was fully formed, and the headmistress ordered me to tie back my long reddish hair. Shortly after, she started locking me up in the map room for hours on end. This was, she said, ”so as not to rile up the older boys when they arrive at noon.” Ours was a gender-segregated school. Feeling for the first time in my life truly trapped for hours in a narrow map room by those I still considered my enemies, sometimes forgotten for hours on end, turned me into a live hand grenade ready to explode. I was running wild, getting into physical fights with my fellow students. I had survived the war, but feared I would not survive this peace.
Years of Peace . . .
Early one spring, the bombs stopped falling. It was my first moment of remembered ecstasy, what with the forest around me exploding back to life under an eerily empty deep blue sky. Only to witness the dreamed-about peace distort into a nightmare. For where it was us who stalked the enemy before, or retreated when sighted from a distance, the victorious Russian army now flushed us out into the open like wild boar from underbrush. It was no secret that many partisans were fervent anti-communists, who now were rounded up and machine-gunned down. Women were raped, their children killed. From a dug-out shelter we witnessed a young woman get tied to a cannon before it was fired off. Clearly the war was not something you could simply switch off overnight.
My father, bartering with whatever valuable we had left, procured for himself a bicycle. He left ahead of us. My mother and I joined the long slow march of those fleeing west. “Going home,” she called it. For weeks we crossed scorched earth, demolished roads and railway tracks, across open land infested with typhus, devoid of food.