Chapter 10: BERNAUER TO TREPTOW
After work, two days later, Lena and Christoph led me to an area of East Berlin that was considerably more run down than Mitte or Pankow. I had no choice but to stay positive. The woman who owned the flat was Frau Genau. Those who knew her called her Mama G. She had two adult daughters, but one recently got married, creating the vacancy.
Built in the early 1900s, the building was over sixty years old. I would have to grow accustomed to the stains and rancid smell; yet again, I did not have the luxury of time or choice on my side.
“This is quite agreeable if you will have me,” I said, half lying. I scanned past the holes and peeling paint then spoke to Frau Genau in a whisper, “I won’t have the money for rent until next week.” I didn’t want to tell her why. I already felt irresponsible about how I left my purse exposed when the soldiers broke in.
“You can move in next week,” Frau Genau declared as she took a seat in her living room chair. I was devastated. I couldn’t live much longer under my current conditions. I slept in the closet again last night and was near a breaking point.
“I’m sorry, Frau Genau.” I moved closer to her. “I was hoping I could move in tomorrow and pay next week.” I tensed slightly as my lip began to quiver. Lena took my hand, sensing my concern.
“Uhh . . . Mama G?” Lena quipped. Frau Genau eyed us carefully, but Lena had a very persuasive personality. “I can speak for her, and she is trustworthy.”
Christoph quickly agreed, although he had only met me an hour ago. “Yes, Mama, you can include me as a reference. She’s responsible.” Her daughter and Christoph were close classmates, and she had known Christoph for many years.
The silence was awkward. Finally, Frau Genau relented. “OK,” she sighed. “You may move in tomorrow, but the forty Mark is due by the
18th, then seventy-five by the third day every month following.”
“Yes! Oh yes, thank you!” I was quite relieved! I wrote her address down, and even though she did not seem like a woman who would go back on her word, I quickly said my goodbyes. I moved swiftly from the building and departed for home in case she changed her mind.
Tonight, I believed, would be my last night in Mitte.
I strategically navigated the back roads and alleys on my final trek to the apartment. I was a young woman walking after dark, alone, in a city filled to the seams with fear. This thought should have been terrifying in itself, but instead, I found a bizarre sense of freedom. A release from the heavy burdens this place shouldered.
In a strange way, it was almost like the evacuation was doing me a favor. I no longer had to feel the weight of the depressing concrete barrier in front of me every morning and every night nor hear the cries of empty hearts and hands when I saw the tears of children or relive my own painful separation. Yes, I would miss the good times, but the good times were embedded in my mind and not in the cold walls of an empty room.
I located Papa’s old suitcase from when he was a shoe salesman. Its hinges had been slightly bent when it had been tossed across the front room. Despite the damage, if pushed tightly, the clasps would keep its contents quite secure. I placed my limited belongings inside. Mama’s brown angora sweater—the one she used to wear on Sunday walks—was found in the closet next to her dresses. I pressed the soft material against my face. Years later, the sweet scent of jasmine still lingered. Her bright smile came alive in my mind as I carefully folded it and placed it next to her wooden hairbrush.
A pile of shattered wood lay in a corner, the small cuckoo bird silenced. I sifted through the wreckage until I located the two small figurines who danced on the hour and lovingly tucked them in the corner.
Josef’s Chatterwell storybook and his pouch of marbles went into the case next. Then I retrieved papa’s ivory pipe and Iron Cross medal. Luckily, I’d hidden them in a ripped seam in my mattress before the break-in. A couple dresses later, I sealed the case tightly and set it in the closet.
Even with our few remaining possessions in the apartment, the home still appeared lived in. The phonograph I tried hard to keep safe was nowhere to be found. Only the cover remained, but I refused to let it discourage me. I took one last glance around my home for the last time on Bernauer Straße. It was a full look, retaining as much as I could by sight, then letting it all go to a special place in my heart. I found my way back to the closet, then dimmed the flashlight. I curled up on the floor, silent and numb, and waited for the sun to rise.