Chapter 2: DISBELIEF
The moment the sun’s rays hit the rift in the curtains—the exact location the military truck headlights lit only hours before—my eyes flashed open, red and enflamed. Bouts of tears bounced between head bobs as the screams and chaos robbed my silence and left me with little comfort in the form of a thin blanket overhead.
Even with the daylight, I feared what I might witness beyond our front window, although I dreaded even more the fate of Anton and Josef.
Had they made it to the west? Would I ever see them again?
I looked at Papa who remained completely still. He had weakened in the last forty-eight hours, and while he had moments of consciousness, like last night, they were short.
A flash across the room caught the incoming light at just the right angle. I stood up and walked to the desk. Right where the handkerchief had rested the night before was a small round object. My heart instantly sank. I reached for the piece. My thumb traced the front where a series of small raised dots surrounded a tiny red jewel. It was Anton’s tinnie pin. The ornament’s shape was that of a shield representing his Germanic history. It was the only thing he owned of his father’s, . . . and he left it to me. I wrapped my fingers tightly around it as if it was Anton himself. I pulled my fist to my mouth and squeezed harder as I fought my desire to scream. Everyone I loved was slipping away from me, and I couldn’t stop it.
I pinned the shield to the inside of my dress. Its cold surface pressed against my skin as I bent over to buckle my shoes. In a way it helped me feel as though Anton was still a part of me; strengthening me . . . knowing hard times were still to come.
Despite the images my mind conjured up from the constant noise throughout the night, I was not prepared for what I was about to experience when I stepped out our front door. Stunned by the eerie silence within the halls, I hesitated. Our large apartment building housed over twenty families on five floors, but not one could be heard within. I had a single Mark in my pocket, and without father’s wages, we were nearly destitute. I knew food was the priority, but I was undoubtedly tempted by Anton’s discovery. Behren and Mack were nowhere near Krzinsky’s, it would have to wait.
I pushed the main door open but remained frozen in place. The street was filled with confusion as everyone was attempting to flee. I jumped as a man dropped his suitcase in front of me, its contents scattering about on the brick. As he looked up, his eyes briefly locked on mine. The fear was evident, splattered across his pale countenance. He reached for a fistful of clothing with one hand and his sobbing child with the other and then disappeared in a sea of similar sights. The road had turned into a footpath. Cars could no longer drive along Bernauer Straße.
My eyes darted about until they reached the other side of the street. There, in a meticulous line, stood multitudes of soldiers in every direction along a razor wire fence. Each soldier faced the crowd, their hands gripped tightly around a weapon.
Onlookers stumbled in disbelief. Women cried for mercy and freedom. Some of the men chanted, “Schweine!” and raised their fists angrily to the soldiers. The young squaddies seemed mostly unaffected by the insults but clutched their long rifles carefully across their chests, ready to use if the command ever came.
A similar scene developed across the newly formed border. Parents, children, siblings, cousins, friends, and lovers separated by a mere moment. Simple choices made one day resulted in life-altering effects the next.
As the road curved nearby, a row of apartment buildings had actually become the border line overnight. Absolute desperation drove people to tie linens together and make a rope as their only means of escape. A couple slid down with only the clothes on their back. Towards the opposite end, a family took turns as they leapt from a second-floor window and into the arms of firemen on the west side. A young girl, frightened to jump, clung desperately to the window sill as her feet flapped wildly beneath her. I watched as her fingers lost grip one by one.
My ears rang with her screams as she disappeared from my sight.
My throat strained as if it were on fire. I choked sharply and turned back towards my own building to catch myself from collapsing. One hand pressed weightily up against the rough surface while the other shook uncontrollably. I should have listened to Anton months ago. He warned of the gossip developing, but Papa and I didn’t want to believe it. Life in East Berlin was difficult but not hopeless. After all, the Deutche Democratic
Republic, our own government, denied the possibility of such a separation.
Even Herr Ulbricht, the council chair, publicly stated, “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!” No one has the intention of erecting a wall! And we wanted to believe him, this was our home.
Now it was too late. This was not one of those horrible nightmares I used to have in the orphanage, the type that would jolt me awake, feeling as though the torment and anguish I experienced was way too real. No, this was in fact very real, only Anton wasn’t here to comfort me. Time after time, Anton was the only one who could calm my fears. Before he arrived at the home for unwanted children, the nurses would lock me in a closet at night. This was the only means to silence my terrifying screams from those around me. Tears started to sting as a recollection of those dreadful times resurfaced, triggered as the cries from the street intensified.
I scolded myself for my earlier selfish thoughts. Anton’s “find” would have to wait. I needed to get to the shop quickly and back to Papa. I took a deep breath and steadied myself. My small-brimmed hat was pulled low over my dark curls as if that could block out the noise. Truthfully, nothing could. I kept my eyes downcast and took a step forward. The sound of a single gunshot stopped me cold. One soldier along the fence had blasted a warning shot into the air as people pressured him. The sound amplified the fear tenfold, if that were even possible.
I wrapped my light sweater tighter around me and fought my desire to merely return home and curl up under my bed. Once I mustered the strength, I ran the three streets to Krzinsky’s Geschäft in a matter of minutes.
I found the shop surrounded by an unruly gathering. My attempt had begun too late. His door was closed and locked as desperate, frightened citizens pounded on his small windows. I was afraid they would shatter under the strain. One mother cried for milk, her baby wailing in her arms. A man demanded liquor while the children at his side bawled in confusion.
I stood up on the bench near the streetlight. I hoped to get a better glimpse of the entry from there. My eyes squinted anxiously to read the sign he had posted. I feared his sudden closure was permanent.
Herr Krzinsky pulled the curtain back from the small window on his door and screamed, “Ich hab geschlossen!” His hand continued to wave angrily behind the glass as if that would automatically send the people away. “Geschlossen!” he cried once again.
Herr Krzinsky was a large-statured Russian with a full, heavy beard and thick eyebrows. Under normal circumstances, people would be intimidated to confront him. Only now, their desperation and numbers provided the confidence they needed. That is, until the sirens suddenly wailed to the left side of me. The Polizei vehicle, at first, could barely move down the street, but their sirens grew louder indicating their approach was only mere seconds away.
The uniformed officers pushed forward, and the people scattered. Two men clambered over the bench I was standing on, and it collapsed beneath me. Thrown to the ground, I rolled to my knees. All I could see was a frantic clutter of shoes. Someone’s leg hit me in the face while another stepped on my hand. I had to move or be trampled. I crawled towards the shop, my knees and hands layered with scrapes and bruises. Before I reached the window, another man tripped over me and knocked me flat. My hat flew off and disappeared in the crowd.
“Ella!” I heard my name called simultaneously to a loud tapping against glass but I could not focus. My head felt dizzy and light.
“Ella!” The word was repeated anxiously. I rested my head on the ground. A moment later, a large pair of hands reached under me and lifted my body so easily it was as if I weighed nothing at all. One hand held me tightly against his chest while the other physically created a path the short distance back to the shop door. Inside, I was set down quickly as Herr Krzinsky bolted and locked the door behind him once again. He carefully helped me to my feet and brushed the dirt off my dress.
Herr Krzinsky and Papa were close. They had a unique brotherhood as soldiers in the Wehrmacht, the German Armed Forces. Their involvement in the invasions of both Poland and France was rarely spoken of except in Herr Krzinsky’s gratitude to Papa for saving his life, not just once, but twice. The heroics came with a steep price though. Due to the shrapnel Papa received, he lost use of his right knee, forcing him to use a cane the rest of his life.
“Ella! Your father is he . . . ?”
“He’s still alive.” I inhaled deeply to catch my breath. This news brought a great deal of relief to his face. He reached for a cloth.
“But Anton and Josef are gone,” I continued.
Herr Krzinsky turned sharply back to face me.
“The west, I hope!” my voice cracked. The memory of our tearful goodbye remained fresh. “They left last night as the wire was going up.”
“I don’t know . . .”
“Where were they crossing?” his voice rose unexpectedly. “I don’t know . . .” I sniffled. “Anton mentioned Wedding.” Herr Krzinsky’s face lost color.
“What?” I demanded.
“The Border Guard stopped nearly three hundred people at that crossing this morning alone. Sixty-nine border crossings are completely sealed off now, and people who resist are being detained—”
“Children too?” I questioned, as tears easily slid down my cheeks. “Anyone . . . any age.”
I continued to follow Herr Krzinsky to the storeroom. I slid into a chair across from his family, huddled in silence. His wife, Greta, and their two children, thirteen-year-old Andres and eight-year-old Freddy.
They listened to the radio announcer shout the news with exasperated breath.
“The U-Bahn is closed!” The man hollered and Greta gasped. Her twin sister rode the D line weekly from the west to visit them. “Residents of the DDR are now only allowed to cross with special papers . . .”
Greta turned to me and immediately reached for the towel her husband held and moistened it. As she wiped the dried blood from my fingers, she spoke of the news that had been announced earlier.
“A woman almost died this morning . . . only a few blocks away.” Greta held up her already soaked handkerchief to her nose. “The radio said she tried jumping out her window to freedom.” My thoughts went to the images I saw prior to coming here and then shifted to Anton and Josef. I imagined the terror they must have faced.
So much to say, but no words followed. The silence was confirmation that we all began to comprehend our losses.
“You must stay here until the streets become safe again,” Herr Krzinsky insisted.
“Papa needs me. I must go now.” I stood to leave. Herr Krzinsky’s mouth was hidden by his heavy beard, but I knew it was curved into a frown.
“Ella, it’s dangerous.”
“I’ll take the back roads. I can’t leave Papa alone for long.”
Herr Krzinsky sighed. This was an argument he would not win. He pulled a small sack of flour, a bag of noodles, and a handful of chicken bouillon cubes off a shelf. He wrapped them tightly in a hand towel and showed me how to stuff it in my sweater to make it look like it was part of me.
When Papa fell ill a month ago, Herr Krzinsky took on a personal responsibility to make sure our little family would not starve, even though we had very little to offer in return. He said it paled in comparison to what he owed Papa. I reached into my pocket and held out the single silver coin in my palm. Greta grasped my hand and closed it tightly as she wept. She left the Mark inside and then kissed my hand sweetly. It took all my willpower to not openly cry. Herr Krzinsky led me towards his back door.
“Do not stop for anything, Ella. Lock your doors, and do not come out until things have settled down.” He kissed the top of my head, and even though I turned my back on him, I was sure he watched me until I was out of sight.
I did exactly what he told me. My feet barely touched the ground as I sprinted home. Once there, I found Papa still motionless on the couch. His face looked as though life as he knew it had not completely turned upside down.
“Papa?” I knelt on the floor next to him and slipped my hand through his. “Papa, Herr Krzinsky sends you well wishes.”
Papa’s eyes fluttered, he took a deep breath, and exhaled. I brushed my hand across his forehead and through his light-colored hair. He was a handsome man. However, now in this condition, he looked as though he had aged twenty years in the last six months. The doctor said he never fully recovered from his combat injuries. Ultimately, it was the diagnosis of Sarcoidosis that would kill him. Papa hardly had the strength to fight it.
“El?” a faint sound emerged.
“Yes, Papa, I’m here,” I said as my face remained close to his.
“Please, rest yourself.”
“El?” he said again. My face began to burn as tears broke through.
He fought to speak. “S-sorry.”
I couldn’t hold back, and a fresh stream rolled down both my cheeks. I knew that despite his condition, he must’ve recognized the scope of my decision to stay.
“I love you, Papa.” I lay my head against his chest and felt the weak vibration of his heartbeat. His hand moved slowly towards my cheek as his finger caught my tears. His eyes closed, and he was asleep again. It had only been four short years together, but it was the best four years of my life. I could have never left him here to die alone.
It would be several days before I attempted to leave the flat again. I blamed it on Papa’s steady decline, but truthfully, I feared what I had witnessed. From our main window, I continued to watch the turmoil unravel by the hour. Not one day resembled the next.
By Sunday, Papa’s deterioration accelerated. He stopped eating, his skin appeared clammy and pale, and although I could still feel his heart beating, a shadowy sensation seemed to linger across him. Different parts of his body slowed down, some stopped. As I cleaned his waste, my thoughts went to Anton and Josef. It had now been one full week since they left. Were they safe? Were they free?
I placed clean linen under Papa’s body, his only acknowledgement was a brief flutter of an eyelash and a lingering moan. I somberly sat at his feet as the room grew darker with the setting sun. Although the silence was both encouraging and frightening, I found myself searching for the small phonograph box that remained untouched in the front corner. Memories of a happier time flooded my thoughts. I needed to find the place Anton told me about.
I placed my hand on Papa’s cheek, and his skin felt warm. He stirred, yet his eyes remained closed. This small reaction brought immense comfort to me.
“Papa, I’ll return shortly.” I expected no response as I grabbed my sweater and headed for the door. I took a deep breath before I opened it. This time there were no crowds, no cries, and no chaos. Either everyone was gone or in hiding like me. Besides the soldiers, only a few scattered people appeared. One woman held her toddler up to touch another child’s hand over the fence. They could be family or friends. Despite the unknown bond, the separation was heart-wrenching to watch. Again, I fought to keep Anton and Josef’s parting images tucked away.
Within twenty minutes I arrived on Behren. Another couple of minutes passed before I reached the cross-road of Mack. My breathing hastened at the thought of my search finally coming to an end.
As I turned the corner, I saw shattered glass spread across the ground. An ear-splitting crash continued as my eyes followed the startling sound. The boys, younger than me, turned at their sudden detection. One held a fragmented board in his hands. The other gripped a pipe. All the shop windows between us had been destroyed.
My feet seemed cemented in place. They faced me fully now and began their approach. My eyes widened with each looming step. Move, Ella! I demanded in my head. Run! My breath amplified as I willed strength into my limbs. It was completely dark now, and the vandals were only a few yards away. Finally, my feet shuffled enough to wake me up. I leapt backward and turned the corner, taking the longest strides I could render until I felt far enough and safe enough away to finally breathe. By the time I reached Acker, my heart no longer felt like it was beating out of my chest.
My ventures rarely occurred without Anton, and alone I felt vulnerable. Once inside, I quietly locked the door behind me, light enough to not alarm Papa. I sank to the floor, my knees pressed heavily against my chest. The struggle within my mind exhausted me. My head fell into my hands. I wanted to disappear. I lifted my face, looked at my empty fingers, and tried to envision how close I had come to holding the recording.
Some people would say such a search was insignificant in comparison to the madness I now faced, but the song “La Vie En Rose” always brought such peace to me. Memories of Edith Piaf’s smooth vocals swirled about me as I pictured Mama and Papa dancing around the sitting room. It was their love song. I yearned to hear that music again. Despite the heartache that could accompany it, the risk seemed worth it. This made my empty-handed return that much more painful. Anton and I had been searching for nearly a year.
I dejectedly rose to my feet and pulled the loose cover close to Papa’s chin. From the curve of his mouth, it appeared as though he had seen Mama again. I knew it wouldn’t be long before he joined her.