Chapter 1: NIGHTMARE
The wood floor creaked under pressure at the same time a cold hand swiftly shot across my mouth. Shock prevented me from screaming. Despite sudden awareness, fear paralyzed my eyes and they remained shut. My first thought should have been about my safety, but my concern instantly fixated on the couch next to me. Papa’s labored breath remained consistent. He had not awakened. I then feared for myself until I heard a familiar whisper in the dark.
“Ella, it’s me.”
I took a breath. My arm stretched to turn the nearby lamp on, but Anton’s touch warned me not to. “It’s too dangerous. The soldiers are coming.”
“Why?” My voice was a bit too anxious. In the shadows of a streetlight that seeped through a nearby crevice, I could see his face cringe with fear, a fear I had rarely seen. Anton had been my constant, the only reason I lived to see my fifteenth year.
“It’s happening,” Anton whispered as he wiped his forehead. Possibly from the August heat wave or from running, but he seemed nearly out of breath as he continued, “They’re closing off Bernauer as we speak.”
I gasped as I moved swiftly to my feet and separated the thin curtains from the frame. Looking past the decorative bars that covered our main window, I saw the military trucks humming slowly down the cobblestone street less than a kilometer away. Soldiers dragged something like wire rolls from the beds. Immediately my eyes shot toward the door of the connecting room where Josef, my eleven-year-old brother, slept. Anton seemed to perceive my thoughts.
“So the rumors are true?” My face dropped simultaneously with my heart. I had remained by Papa’s side since he fell ill a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, the disturbing news Anton delivered from the shadows revealed that the Soviet sector of the city was getting desperate. People were leaving East Berlin by the thousands.
“I’ve found a route to the west side, but we must leave now.” Anton took his turn at the window. He surveyed the street carefully as it filled with soldiers. Their voices rose steadily as they demanded that the curious people who had wandered out go back inside. I pressed my lips together and forced the tears back. I stared poignantly at the frail body nearby.
“I can’t leave him, Anton,” I whispered weakly. I couldn’t imagine abandoning the only father I’d ever known, the man who rescued me from a lifetime of loneliness and the cruel fate of being an orphan.
“He won’t make the journey, Ella.” Anton reached for my hand. He tenderly caressed it, but I could still feel his anxiousness. “If we hurry, we can get to Wedding before they get the blocks up, but the construction has already begun.”
A tear fell on our conjoined hands and pooled on my dark skin. Anton let go and wiped the steady stream clumsily from my face with his sleeve. A stray curl stuck to my cheek from the building moisture. Anton twisted the long strand in his fingers before he tucked it behind my ear.
For one moment, we were children again.
“You must go.” I gently brushed his hand away despite my desire to linger. I quickly reached into the nearest cupboard and grabbed the remains of the dinner loaf, wrapping it in a thin towel. I knew this would be Anton’s first meal of the day even though it was after midnight. He hadn’t been as lucky in finding a family and turned to the streets. This was how he always knew what was happening before any of us, but it was a hard life. Papa tried to help; only we had little to give after Mama passed.
“I can’t leave you, El,” his voice cracked. I stood still. Visions of a young boy surfaced. I’d forgotten how small and sickly Anton appeared when he first arrived at the orphanage. Especially the way he emerged now, so tall and strong. His confidence, like many youth, arose from the streets. With the many pressures weighing on the people of Germany since the end of the war, survival was a priority. Our pride was all we had left, as the world cut up our country like a Zwiebelkuchen. Only, our slice of the onion pie was dished to Soviet Russia.
I reached out for him. Anton’s hands found their way to my shoulders, and he pulled me in. The strength of his arms had always brought comfort, and they didn’t fail now. We had never been apart, and as he held me, we trembled with the idea and fear of the unknown.
“Please . . .” I whimpered. “Please go. You’ll get caught if you don’t, Anton!” I looked once more toward the adjacent room then begged, “. . . and please take Josef with you.”
Anton’s lips brushed my cheek. We were motionless, neither one of us ready to let go. “I found it, El.” Anton’s whisper forced my face to whip backward just enough to see his eyes. I knew Anton had no reason to lie to me.
“I saw it last night off Behren and Mack.” Anton looked as though he failed me. “I couldn’t get it.” My grip tightened with the news.
The noisy commotion nearby rocked us back to reality. His body shuddered as he pulled away.
“They’re getting closer!” I choked.
The darkness shrouded Mama’s cuckoo clock on the wall, although I could hear the chains clink slowly against the pendulum. It was a deafening reminder that the longer we waited, the less chance they had at freedom. I rushed to my little brother’s side and shook him awake.
“Josef! Josef!” He awoke frightened. “Quickly . . .get up. You’re leaving with Anton.” They were like brothers. I knew he would be safe, but where they were going was a mystery to us all.
We had heard life with the Allies was much better. Food and resources were abundant, and one did not live in constant fear. The boys simply had to get there first.
I found Josef’s worn tasche and stashed a few clothes and his most prized possession, his Kasperle puppet, inside. It was still dark, therefore, I packed blindly and lightly. His tiny body couldn’t be pulled down by the weight. The noise outside grew near. The sound of screams came simultaneously to doors being kicked-in or slammed-shut. Panic echoed through the neighborhood. It was hard to tell what was happening; Mitte was under attack.
Josef clung to me and cried, “You and Papa are coming too . . . right, El?”
I grabbed his hands tightly. “You must say goodbye to Papa.” I held my voice as steady as possible. “Quickly, Josef. Do it now.” I pointed to our father and then reached for the ceramic teacup on the shelf that had a crack in its handle and tipped the contents into my hand. I slipped the few coins into his sack and sealed it tightly.
Anton moved back to the curtain. Headlights glowed only a block away. People were dodging the uniformed soldiers. Cries of desperation surrounded us.
“Hurry, Josef.” Anton’s voice cracked.
The piercing squeal of brakes signaled a truck had stopped directly in front of our building.
My throat strained, fighting the lump that grew as I watched my little brother grip his father’s arm and kiss him tenderly. Josef faced me, and while the darkness still saturated our room, a streak of light from the increasing headlamps penetrated through the slit in the curtains. It unwittingly created a boundary line of illumination between us, Josef and Anton on one side . . . I on the other. The separation had become all too real.
“El?” The sound was barely a purr, but there was no doubt where it emerged from.
I glanced at Anton then down to Papa. The commotion must’ve startled him awake. I went to him but delayed my touch, knowing he would sense my uneasiness. I knelt to the side of the couch and leaned my face in until I felt his breath on my cheek.
“Go,” he mumbled.
I looked at him alarmed, although the darkness hid my face. Is he really telling me to leave? I waited for a confirmation that came within seconds.
“You . . . must . . . go,” he gasped with very little strength.
I placed my trembling hand on the side of his face. “Please, Papa. Don’t make me choose.” My eyes stung from the strain. I looked back at Anton, my heart emotionally torn between the people I loved the most.
“Please come, kleine Maus,” Anton whispered.
My throat was too dry to even speak. I looked at Papa once more, his body frail and limp. How could I desert him now, knowing his life hung in the balance? I peered back at Anton’s pleading green eyes and lowered my head. I couldn’t even motion no. It was too hard.
I reached for a faded, blue cloth that rested on the nearby desk, small white marks stitched into the corner. I pressed it into Anton’s hands.
“Don’t forget me,” I cried, my voice barely audible. Anton’s fingers gripped the fabric tightly. He didn’t have to look to know what it was.
“Ella, you are coming, right?” Josef’s voice had not yet changed, and the high pitch of his cry sailed through the room. Anton quickly reached for him and pulled him towards the back of the flat. He extended open the window that led to the side alley with one hand. We were fortunate to live in a street-level apartment. With his other hand, Anton pushed Josef through the window. My heart ripped open. His little hand stretched back for me. I was motionless. Once they were both outside and pressed against the brick, I lunged for them. I wanted to memorize every possible detail I could.
“Ella?” Josef whimpered. My hand squeezed his tightly. “I love you, Josef. You will be safe with Anton. Listen to him!” I gazed at the older, wiser person Anton had grown into. The closed, quiet orphan who sat across from me every meal for many years had become a man. A man who I desperately hoped would get to the west side of Berlin in time.
“Take care of him, Anton!” I begged through a controlled sob. Anton faced me conflicted. His lips pressed urgently against mine, then vanished. The empty sensation of his touch lingered as my fingers clenched tighter to the concrete sill. Agonizing cries swelled in the alley the moment their shadows disappeared. I hardly recognized my voice as the torturous feeling of abandonment resurfaced. Only this time, the choice to separate was mine and mine alone.