It was what the Danes still call the Hunger Winter: 1945 and 46. By April the Russians and Americans were outside of Vienna waiting for Hitler's "five minuets after midnight.” Soon Vienna, like Berlin, would be divided by the allies.
Twano Chiko (small one). Those words were part of the first day I can remember. I was standing on the side of a small hill, a few white Romany horses grazed below. My grandmother stood behind me and a great handsome man stood atop the hill alone. Even then, with 30,000 dead, the old ways lived on. It would be this man, Griengro (master of horses), Romany Kral (Gypsy king), who would decide if I would be accepted as a Rom and worthy to stand in my grandmother's place as a sapengro (master of snakes and traditions).
"Look at us," she cried an ancient cry. "A sapengro's face is not much changed from childhood. We are du pator (two kin). Our blood beats together. It has been two generations but, as with me, you will feel her presence though you never saw her a sign."
"Avali Romany chabo, avali sapengro chabo (truly a Gypsy child, surely a sapengro child)," he called back. We turned toward the city, the ritual done, the child accepted. "Be careful." The big man's voice came from behind us. "There are still hawks abroad, hot winds sweep the land. Bitchadey prawdel, we are banished, most are dead. We must guard the children; they are our immortality, they are all we have. Now they must be part of the gorgio's world. Now your little sapengro must be a child of humans as well as of spirits. Take her to the west side of the city, the Americans are coming from the west."
So my journey began. I did not understand that at the time. I also did not understand that, for the past four years, I had taken the place of the Wells family's daughter, Ingrid. They had buried their daughter in dark silence, risking their own lives to save mine. When the American entered the city I left their home and went to a refugee camp with my great grandparents and great uncle.
When we arrived at the tent city a young soldier hunkered down, smiled, and asked, "What's your name little girl?"
For the first time in as long as I could remember I could answer, "Lola." It was that moment I gave the unseen and unknown back her name. Ingrid would stay with the Wells’, Lola would go what I came to call “my soldier", the smiling American called Johnny, who gave me chocolate and chewing gum.
We settled into one of the family tents pitched in rows so long I couldn't see their end. A washbasin was set out front and a make shift living room/bedroom was created inside. The few children played games and drew in the dirt between the rows.
Johnny was a regular visitor as the tents were replaced by wooden shacks or long barracks. He would bring candy for me, or something pretty for grandma. His visits were always exciting. The ladies would call out to me, "Lola, your soldier is here, Johnny is here," and I would come running so fast I would sometimes fall down or run into anyone who got in the way. Sometimes he would sneak up behind me when I was playing and grab me under my arms. He would fling me up into the air and spin me around, leaving me breathless, laughing, and begging for more.
One day he brought us a radio. I would sit on grandpa's lap every night and listen to the Voice of America. I didn't understand much of it, but the music was happy and it was the sound of Johnny's country. I knew it was time for bed when the voice of Judy Canova said, "and a hasty banana to you, too." After that final greeting, my grandfather would carry me piggyback to my cot and tuck me in for the night. I would close my eyes and try to imagine what America must be like, and wonder what a hasty banana was.
Slowly news of aunts and uncles who, they told me, had "gone on a long trip" drifted into the camp. Everyone I knew had friends and relatives who left without saying goodbye.
At Christmas it snowed. My grandpa and I both became sick. We coughed and coughed; I never got warm. When Johnny found me huddled in my sleeping bag and coughing blood he scooped me up in his arms and carried me to the wooden hospital building. I don't know how long I stayed there, it seemed like weeks. I sat on my bed and looked out the window, watching children play in the snow.
Once home and settled into my cot, I asked, "Where is grandpa? I want to listen to the radio with grandpa."
"He has gone on a long trip and won't be back for a long time," was the only reply. I had long before discovered that if I could create enough physical pain, by biting my tongue, or pressing my fingernails into the soft flesh of my palms, I could keep from crying, but that time it didn't work.
Then came the hot day in early August, when my hands balled up and my nails cut into my hands, but all I felt was hollow and empty. No one had gone away and left me this time. My great enemy rejection had a new aspect; instead of being left behind I was being given away. I was being sent to live among the gorgios. I would truly be a stranger in a strange land.
My world immediately turned into controlled chaos. The women in our area stood me on a stool in front of our tent while they poked at my knees and tugged at my skirt. They pulled at my bodice to see if it was too tight. They yanked at my hair: pulling it down, pulling it back, pulling it up. They talked around me and over me. They talked in four languages, acting like I wasn't even there. It wasn't until they washed my hair with the grey lye soap they had made that spring that I discovered I was going to America.
Late in the morning my uncle broke into the huddle of women braiding my hair in a crown around my head. He had a treasure gathered from the Red Cross. "Shoes, new shoes! Made in America," he crowed. "All of the American girls wear them. They are called penny loafers. Everyone in America is so wealthy that they can put a coin in the slot of each one."
Americans must be just like Roms, I thought. They wear coins to show their wealth.
The shoes were too big, so my uncle stuffed the toes with paper. "You will have to wait until you get to America to be rich enough to have coins for the slots," he said.
At last I stood at the end of a line of children. Even in the late summer heat I wore my best clothes: black wool stockings and a wool jumper over a blouse with puff sleeves. Johnny was beside me. "I welcomed you," he said, "and I will see you off."
When we reached the head of the line, a thin, grim- faced woman at a table challenged us. "She's not an orphan," she said. "She lives in the family tents. It's our policy to only take orphans. We'd have the whole damn country on our hands if we did anything else."
Johnny didn't argue with her; he didn't say a word. Instead, he simply took my hand and led me behind the table and across the hot, sticky blacktop to the big silver airplane that stood there.
Hey Jim," he called. "I got another one for ya. She's got her papers in her hands. Take good care of this one, she's my kid." He reached in his pocket and took out two shiny pennies, bent down and slipped one in the slot of each of my shoes. "Now, you're a real American girl," he said and handed me up to the soldier waiting above.