Chapter 3: FORGET ME NOT
My hand skimmed the edges of the simple pine box that housed Papa’s body. The dismal clouds that weighed heavily above seemed to parallel the gloom in my heart. Darkness appeared to overpower any light, and like the absence of rain, my tears no longer stained my cheeks.
It had only been sixteen days since Josef and Anton left. Now as I stood here alone near a shallow gravesite burying the last remaining person I cared for, I had very little reason to go on and lacked the strength to say goodbye to yet another.
“Ruhe in Frieden.” The priest’s hollow words of peace moments earlier produced a sour taste in my mouth as I fought the urge to insult an ordained man of the cloth. I knew he spoke more from obligation than attachment. It was part of the “deal” I fashioned with the mortuary near the Frieden-Himmelfahrt cemetery, but despite not having any money for a proper burial, I could not bring myself to have Papa cremated.
Herr Krzinsky had used the relationship of an old military comrade to make the arrangements for me. He put me in touch with Herr Koen Franke of Berlin-Niederschönhausen. His family’s fourth generation mortuary in the borough of Pankow had been passed down to him. He had been unwilling at first, claiming his clientele came strictly from the Government, only Herr Krzinsky can be quite persuasive. Consequently, with Herr Franke’s change of heart and my own will, I agreed to work off my casket debt as a servant in his family home for the next two years.
As I contemplated this decision, I picked a small blue flower bunch sprouting near my feet. I lifted it to my nose to inhale a memory and laid it lovingly on Papa’s casket. Appropriately so, the blossom was called “Forget-Me-Not”. Despite our short time together, he was the only father I’d ever known. I had no recollection of my birth father. It was inferred I could possibly be one of many unintended results of war passion, abandoned as an infant. If it weren’t for the Kühn’s infertility, I would still be in that rat-infested orphanage to this day.
My fingers trembled as I blew one last kiss.
“I love you, Papa,” I whispered and then turned my back. My entire soul wanted to crumble and be buried with him. I clutched Anton’s tinnie pin through my fabric top. It had remained next to my heart continuously since its discovery. Its constant presence had crafted a welt with identical design marks barely above my left breast. To me, this was more of a gift than a discomfort; Anton could never leave me.
I squeezed my eyes shut only to open them to an audience across the acreage behind the vast estate. I flinched. A young man leaned quietly against the brick siding. He pulled a drag on his cigarette and watched me intently. My eyes were blurred and my head felt light, but I stood upright across the yard. I didn’t want anyone to think I was broken. The man with light-blond hair and a tall, lanky form simply stared, emotionless and cold like the rest of this place. My wavy, black strands whipped wildly across my face until I twisted their disobedience into a tight braid. The angry glare I shot towards the innocent bystander was filled with vengeance as if he was personally responsible for my father’s death.
“You can bury him now,” I cried heatedly, “. . . and tell Herr Franke I will be here as determined tomorrow at eight.” He didn’t say a word. I didn’t expect him to. I stumbled clumsily behind the large stone crematorium that anchored the building and disappeared in a rush down the street. I boarded bus B109 towards Mitte but got off much earlier than the stop closest to my home near Bernauer and Ackerstraße.
I deliberately walked towards the Brandenburg Tor. It was not a common path, though one developed as of late. I watched angrily as soldiers worked diligently to reinforce the segregated cage that now cut Berlin in half. The barbed wire that had originally been rolled out the night the boys left proved to not be strong enough to keep people in. Efforts for a crueler bind were being developed, but nothing—not even concrete blocks or wire—could stop some people from trying . . . thus the steady sound of gunshots from day one and nearly every day since.
I paused briefly near the recently closed checkpoint; the red-and white access gate heavily guarded. Two large water-cannon tanks held their threatening positions dead center. I watched as mobs of desperate people still gathered with very little hope to cross. It was now possibly more about catching a glimpse of a loved one no longer within arm’s reach than it was about actually crossing the border. I’d passed here often but never saw my familiar faces. I didn’t even know if they were on the free side or in the only other place worse than the city of East Berlin . . . a Stasi labor camp.
The stories on the street say the DDR’s secret police, more commonly known as the Stasi, Staatssicherheit (state security), were dispatched to do their dirty work. Only once again, the powers-that-be denied it publicly. All the Stasi really seemed to be was a network of commissioned thugs and spies. They answered to no one, made their own rules, and cast a very dark shadow on a crippled and dying city.
The superintendent to my building said in the last week, Stasi arrived twice in the middle of the night and seized multiple residents without any explanation at all. He also claimed his friends in other buildings near the wall had seen the same strange occurrences. This would have been a more frightening thought if I felt I had something to live for.
My eyes tore away from the sad images at the checkpoint before me, yet I still had no moisture to wipe away. I hadn’t cried since I said goodbye to Herr Krzinsky and his family four days ago. He had been evicted from his shop and their livelihood when the DDR closed all the businesses along his street for undisclosed State reasons. He came to bid farewell to Papa right before he passed. It was tormenting to watch their final goodbye. Papa never woke again after that and took his last breath less than an hour later.
Anger stirred inside me as my thoughts instantly went back to Anton and Josef. I walked slowly in a trance as I recalled the last moment we shared. Josef’s quivering voice and trembling hand, then Anton’s intense mixture of fire and fear. I’d only seen that look on Anton’s face once before, many years ago. I had nearly forgotten where I’d seen it . . .
that first day . . . the day we met.
It was an unusually early morning as Nurse Margret rubbed the rough rag against my dirty cheek hard enough to make me believe that if she pressed any firmer, the color might come out of my skin as well.
“Owww!” I screamed.
“How do you do it, kleine Maus?” Nurse Margret complained of my inability to stay clean as she referred to my nickname of the “little mouse”. She said I could find trouble in all the farthest corners of the orphanage.
Normally, this wouldn’t matter because we never left the building, except something seemed different. Even at the age of six, I sensed an urgency in her touch and noticed her eyebrows didn’t meet in the middle when she spoke. I knew today had to be special.
I only had three dresses, two for everyday wear and one I’d only seen twice. It was packed away for special occasions. So when she pulled my day dress up over my head, ready to replace it with the pale one that had only one small tear, I knew for sure we would be going outside.
However, before she could get it over me, I bounced from bed to bed with excitement until I came face to face with the quiet boy who stood motionless at the door. My squirrely frame froze in place. I’d never seen his color of eyes before. It was difficult to describe. My life was as colorless as it could be with white walls and white clothes and white mush. The thought of anything that shade of green actually stunned me. His reaction, I later learned, was not the shock of a little girl standing only in her underpants. But that he had never seen anyone with brown skin before, and he found it fascinating.
A whack on my butt brought me to remember where I was. Nurse Margret grabbed my small arm and held me tightly between her thighs as she pulled my dress on. I didn’t fight. I was still moved by what I’d just seen.
“One more move like that kleine Maus, and we will lock you in the closet while we all go out to the youth festival without you!”
I did not know what a youth festival was; I merely wanted to get out more than anything. I wanted to see something other than the damp, smelly walls and broken toys. Being in the closet was worse than that, and
I spent enough nights in there to know. Thus, I behaved.
When I trailed through the front door to the steps below, we were threatened to remain in a single file line. Nurse Gitta led the way while Nurse Margret took the back. With the addition of the new boy, we numbered nineteen; the three babies remained with Nurse Irma.
I inhaled long as I stayed in step behind Frederick. The smell tickled my nose, and my brow crinkled at the unpleasant odor. A lot like the stench of our own toilet. I was disappointed that the odors were nothing more than what I smelled inside day after day, with an added ingredient of unwanted smoke and other things I could not identify. I pinched my nose as we marched past piles of broken concrete and scattered rubble.
The view from our single bedroom window was limited. Much of the destruction I was used to seeing, only not on this grand of a scale. The fallen buildings multiplied the farther we walked away from our two-story home. Despite my nose being discouraged, my eyes and ears were not. Sights beyond anything I’d ever seen ignited a fire within me. Each step we took drew us closer to music and laughter and crowds of people. More than I’d experienced in my whole life.
“Stop.” Nurse Gitta raised her hand. I was so distracted that I bumped directly into Frederick. He, in turn, pushed me roughly to the ground as if I’d done this on purpose. My fists curled as I scrambled back up to hit him, but I was too late. The new boy, hardly bigger than me, had already pounced and had Frederick down flat. His fists landing blows in Frederick’s face and chest until both nurses took hold and grabbed the little, scrawny fighter to his feet.
Nurse Margret was a large buxom woman and used her size often. She heaved the boy up close to her face and gripped his arms tightly to his side. Her face turned a deep red, and she spat when she shouted. I counted to ten, three times in my head, as I watched. Once she was finished, she set him down on the closest partition. There was such a great deal of noise around us that our little congestion was most likely not heard or seen.
“All of you, up. Get up on that wall.” Nurse Gitta set us all on the same block barrier. “Watch the parade and don’t move,” she warned.
We stared in awe as all of Berlin had marched in the streets that summer day in 1951. They carried signs and played music, laughed, and danced. It finally occurred to me that this must be a celebration of sorts. I was only beginning to learn the alphabet—I could not read the signs—but I smiled at the excitement I felt. Once again, I saw color and happiness like never before.
Nurse Gitta disappeared momentarily and returned with several young people. They each handed us a long candy wrapped in a paper similar in color to the new boy’s eyes, only lighter. I smiled as I held it. I never had anything that beautiful. Each child excitedly opened their wrappers and started chewing on the taffy inside.
I looked down the row beyond a handful of kids and saw the new boy’s empty hands and his head, hung very low. I hesitated, looking longingly at the rare prize in my fingers and back at the boy who weirdly fought for me. I glanced at the nurses. They swayed in rhythm, clapping and watching the parade more than us.
I slithered carefully past the others and plopped down next to the new boy with the stringy brown hair and long eyelashes. He didn’t move. I opened the wrapper, twisted half of the candy off in my dirty hands, and handed it to him. His face wrinkled in confusion, and that’s where I saw the look. His reflective green eyes revealed unexplained anxiety.
“Hier.” I said as I pushed the candy into his hands.
He didn’t say anything. His eyes finally relaxed, and his thin lips curled a little as he took a bite. We continued to watch the sights and sounds for another hour before we returned to the Waisenhaus.
Anton and I connected that day. It almost seemed as though our spirits had already known what our bodies did not. We were meant to find each other somehow, somewhere, because despite Anton’s uncertainty, he hardly left my side from that point on.
A newspaper flapped wildly across the sidewalk in front of me. It was stamped with the bold black date of 31 August 1961. It was a sad reminder of the present state I found myself in, trapped and alone. I reached for the Morgenpost as I walked. I skipped past the front pages, which were always a parade of proud military pictures, the stories of sacrifice, bravery, and risk the Volksarmee took by protecting the people of East Berlin. It was what the Government wanted us to believe. I went to the back page and scanned the published lists of detained, missing, or dead “perpetrators”. The title said it all, “Enemies of the State”. I tried to be positive when neither Anton Schulze nor Josef Kühn appeared; nevertheless, . . . I still had no answer.
“Stehen bleiben!” Angry voices echoed all around me. I squeezed my eyes shut. If I concentrated hard enough, maybe the sounds would disappear.
“Stehen bleiben!” The voices grew louder.
“Bleiben Sie stehen!” My eyes opened to the cold barrel of a rifle nudging my arm roughly. A boy similar in age to Anton screamed for me to step back. I’d wandered too close, nearly face to face with the fence. I shook my head and looked around; my sleeve touched the wire.
“Gehen Sie!” he cried sharply. I had no reason to doubt he was serious in his insistence for me to leave. I put my hands up and slowly retreated. His loud exclamations had attracted a small crowd. They all seemed to pause and watch as they anxiously anticipated something tragic happening.
“OK, mach ich.” I snapped irritated. Although I moved to leave, I deliberately dragged my feet. I have always had trouble following directions, and this was no exception. Only here, it was from someone who represented my rift.
The soldier used his rifle to briskly push me again. What this boy did not realize is that I was at a point where I didn’t care what happened next. I swung around and shoved the barrel forcibly away. I could live or I could die. Either way, it didn’t matter.
The soldier’s eyes widened like marbles. It was obvious this was unexpected. I stood my ground as his reaction grew. His face curled with disgust, and his hands started to shake. He raised his weapon up to the firing position as a bead of sweat rolled down his nose. I was not going to back down; whatever happened next was meant to be.
“Halt!” The order came from a much older officer nearby. The younger one ignored him. His hand purposely chambered a round in preparation to shoot as if we were the only two present.
I should have been scared. I should have been shaking as the long, black barrel hovered inches from my face. It was so close I could smell the scent from his most recent discharge and wondered if it was accidental or deliberate. My eyes narrowed with hatred. I was angry. Everything about this soldier epitomized loss to me . . . loss of my brother, loss of Anton, and now the loss of my father.
“Erschießen Sie mich!” I cried. The stock wobbled a little. The soldier’s staunch pose shook with surprise once again. I’m sure he had never had anyone tell him to ‘shoot’. He quickly regained his composure to continue just as the clearly higher-ranking officer smacked the rifle down. The older officer looked around and angrily pointed out the now larger crowd of spectators to his comrade.
“Nachgeben!” The officer yelled at the boy to stand down. The young soldier’s eyes narrowed with obvious disgust. His rifle aimed downward, but his finger still rested on the trigger. The officer turned to me and shoved me backwards. He pointed the opposite direction and shouted for me to leave.
I slowly backed up, although I couldn’t resist the temptation to flash a childish smirk at my assailant. Enraged by my insolence, he attempted to argue with his Commanding Officer as I walked away.
People stared at me with undeniable shock. I could see the twisted queries in all directions as I approached the walkway that led back to my home. I said nothing. I felt nothing. It was apparent they wondered why I had a death wish, yet cheated death.