Chapter 9: FORCED ENTRY
The next day, a constant commotion filled the halls. Movement echoed up and down the stairs, out the back door, even outside my bricked windows. I knew the residents were on the move, at least those who had remained after the wall went up. I wasn’t close to Frau Ingobert, but it was still difficult to say goodbye. I would not miss Dotzi much.
I went out to the street and watched mothers, fathers, and children carry what little belongings they had and leave their lives behind on Bernauer. Some loaded their furniture into trucks, others carried a simple suitcase each. I knew I would be one of them soon. The heavy burden of ambiguity resonated; I had no place to go.
It was only a matter of time before the soldiers would be here. They were everywhere. I couldn’t take a step in any direction of the city without catching sight of the typical green tunic, matching pants, and the visor service cap of a uniformed soldier in front of me. Young, old, officers, conscripted, trucks, and tanks—my whole world had become a military zone.
With no current possibilities, I formulated a plan. My front door was kept locked and bolted at all times. I broke the last two of Mama’s wine glasses and littered the glass both in the hall and near my entry way. If I happened to be sleeping when they came, I would at least have enough notice from the noise to get to my kitchen window. The plan was to be out in the alley before they reached the inside. I kept my coin purse tucked into a spare dress in a tasche by the window so I could grab it on my way out if I needed to leave quickly
Two days passed. I fought hard to stay undetected. Even though I’d monitored and documented the People’s Police rounds near my building, I feared discovery with each step. Every movement weighed heavily on my heart. My entry and exit daily through the window occurred under a shroud of darkness. Once inside the flat, the only illumination came from a small handheld flashlight. I also rarely slept. Unaware if anyone else in my building attempted anything similar, I heard and saw nothing. It was like living in a tomb.
By day four, nothing had transpired with Lena and Christoph’s friend. I grew weary. Lack of sleep and constant fear affected me deeply, both at home and at work. I didn’t know how much longer I could survive this way.
Each night, I deliberately slept in my clothes. The word “sleeping” was an overstatement. It was never a restful sleep. I was terrified. At night, when I lay in bed, I often thought about Josef and Anton. I thought about the life Anton lived on the streets and the choices he had to make because of me.
My adjustment with the Kühns was difficult. It wasn’t for lack of affection or love. It was trust. Nine months had passed since the adoption, and I still snuck out of the apartment to see Anton. I was afraid if they knew about him, they would stop me. Especially since he was Straßenkind now, a street kid.
“Anton,” I whispered from behind a post. It was low enough to not alert the group, yet loud enough to get his attention. He turned and smiled broadly. I did not recognize his new friends.
“Ella.” Anton came to me. He hugged me longer this time. It was nice. “Come join us.” He kept one arm wrapped snuggly around me. At fifteen, Anton now appeared old enough to join the military. He even wore some of the clothing they did.
“Anton, no.” I shook my head, my body trembling. I didn’t want him to know I was scared.
“I . . . I’m not sure.”
“You will like my friends, Ella.” He held me tight, but we still moved in their direction down a dark alley lit by the bright flame that filled a metal can in the center. There were only three people. One I realized I had met before, the other two were strangers.
“Dirk, you remember Ella?”
The one familiar face peered up and nodded.
“Erich, Franz, . . . this is my friend Ella.” The exchange between the two was not as subtle as they thought. Anton didn’t seem to notice. I did.
“Ella, come sit down.” Anton pointed to a wooden box. I sat, but the hair on my skin still tickled with unease. The darkness outside of our small circle produced shadows and noises I wasn’t accustomed to. Anton, sitting on the dirt next to me, picked up a long stick and poked the fire.
Nobody spoke. The heavy sound of footsteps approached us from behind. I jumped at the sight of two more boys who ran anxiously toward us. They slowed to a stop when they reached the group but continued to gaze back at the direction they had come. It appeared as if they expected to be followed. Both had short hair like Anton. As the light from the fire shone upon one boy’s face, most of his cheek and neck appeared disfigured with scars. I didn’t hide my surprise very well. “Oh,” I gasped. Anton grabbed my hand.
“Ella, it’s OK. It’s only Willy and Jurek.”
“It’s my face, Anton,” the scarred boy said disgusted. He sat on the ground to join us.
“No, it’s not, Jurek!” Anton defended. “She hasn’t been to this part of town before.”
“What is she doing here anyway?” The boy Anton called Jurek gave me a nasty look and added, “She doesn’t belong here.” It was obvious he was in charge. The other boys silently watched the exchange.
Anton put the stick down but still held my hand. “Why shouldn’t she be here? She’s with me.” He stared hard at Jurek.
“Are you joking, Anton?” Jurek sniggered with revulsion in his voice. “You’re stupid and blind,” he mumbled.
Anton shot up before I even realized he was no longer next to me.
His hands went straight for Jurek’s throat.
“Anton!” I cried. I reached for him, but Willy pushed me back, and I stumbled over a pile of bricks. I didn’t get up. Anton and Jurek rolled across the ground as they threw punches back and forth. Nobody else joined the fight.
“Stop them!” I yelled at the other boys. Their snickers told me they had no intention of complying.
Suddenly, Jurek’s head hit a concrete block. Both their bodies went still. I could hear Anton’s heavy breath slightly above Jurek’s moans. Willy and Erich rushed to Jurek’s side as Anton weakly rose to his feet. His hands and face were covered in blood. I reached for him, but he rejected my help, his eyes intently focused in Jurek’s direction.
“Get out of here!” Willy hissed. “Take your Müll with you!” Anton’s anger reignited as he lunged towards Willy and shoved him hard.
Willy pushed back.
“Anton, let’s go!” I shrieked. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Anton’s face was enflamed. He turned from the others and grabbed my arm before we darted around the corner and down a couple streets only to stop inside an abandoned building. I surveyed Anton. He had cuts along his jaw and chin, and a deep bruise had started to swell at the edge of his right eye. Sweat dripped down his neck. I took out a handkerchief from my skirt pocket and held it up to stop the blood. Anton pushed it away, his breath heavy and labored. He dropped to a squat with his head in his hands. We both knew why his friends didn’t accept me, but we also knew if we talked about it out loud, it would become real. Anton never saw me as different. He only saw me as Ella. This was part of the reason I felt safe around him, only now I knew it came with a cost. I stepped in front of him.
“Anton, let me help you.”
“No, Ella, I’m fine.”
“Stop it! You’re bleeding.”
He covered his face as he let out a string of curse words. I knelt down and grabbed his arms. Even when he struggled to pull away, I held on.
“Anton, please stop.” I squeezed tighter. “Come home with me.” Anton’s face was sickened.
“To the Kühn’s?” He shot up and paced the floor. “That’s your world, Ella, not mine!” I stood and grabbed the front of his jacket firmly in my grip. Anton was nearly twice my size. I got in his face and forced him to look at me.
“You are my world, Anton!”
Anton stared at me long and hard, then his eyes dropped to the ground. “OK.” He wiped his face with his sleeve. “OK, I’ll come.”
Bam! Bam! Bam! The heavy pounding launched me flat to the floor. Face down, I realized I’d done exactly what I had meant not to do— fall asleep. I rubbed my eyes and attempted to comprehend what was happening. They were blurry and strained. I heard another loud thud splinter the door as someone busted through. I leapt to my feet the very moment I heard the crunch of glass under heavy boots. They came in like I imagine a herd of wild animals would, how many I did not know. I no longer had time to get to the kitchen window as planned.
Their inability to be discreet allowed enough coverage for my brazen dash to the bedroom closet. It was the only place I’d possibly have a chance to hide. I maneuvered to the far corner with only a few of Mama’s dresses for cover. I smashed against the wall as closely as possible and pulled a long trench coat in front to make it appear as if it was the last item on the rack. A pair of winter boots was pushed forward to hide my feet. My toes curled tightly in the confined space behind them.
The brutes did not seem to mind that their audacious duty came without restraint or consideration for anyone or anything. The sound of furniture upheaved, and dishes broken amplified with each passing second.
I was fully awake now, struggling to calm my surging breath. I cringed at the thought they would find my small collection of belongings near the back window. This included all the Mark I had, yet I knew right now the money was the least of my problems. If they found me, I could be arrested or face far worse consequences. I’d heard stories of young women found at the hands of crazed, irrational soldiers. I had risked everything by staying in the flat.
Someone entered the bedroom and proceeded to flip the bed. If he touched it, he would have felt the warmth my body heat left against the blanket. It didn’t sound as though he had. Another man entered, and they talked about possible hiding places for valuables. The harder I pressed against the inner wall, the more I lost feeling in my limbs. I prayed they would not come over to the closet. It was useless. I knew they would check even before I heard the footsteps turn my direction.
My breath seemed loud and unsteady, and I was sure it would give me away. The door flung open. The bright beam of a flashlight bounced all over inside. The hat boxes on the top shelf were thrown to the ground and opened with incessant grunts of disappointment.
Beads of sweat rolled down my face, the moisture making my skin itch. If I moved my hands to scratch, the coat would move, so I squeezed my lips and eyes shut. The soldier hit his long flashlight against the dresses, pulled them aside, and smacked the coat. It didn’t move much. He hit it again. I could sense his hesitation. He lifted the coat at the hem and saw the boots. His cries echoed through the whole apartment, “Kommt! Ich habe jemanden gefunden!” I kept my eyes sealed shut. He had alerted his comrades to having found someone. It was over. My face flushed with terror.
As the man reached for the boots, which he believed housed hidden feet, he shot backwards with surprise. They moved too easily. The fellow soldiers who had gathered at the door, ready to attack, doubled over in laughter, harassing the man’s foolish discovery. I twisted my toes up as tightly as possible, the deformity caused immense pain. In humiliation, the soldier slammed the closet door shut.
I knew if he had inspected further, he would have seen the real feet exposed. In a matter of seconds, the soldiers were gone. I collapsed to the floor of the small space, my body immersed in sweat and tears, weakened from fear and anxiety. I was completely shaken, yet too afraid to leave the closet until morning.