Chapter 4: SERVITUDE
Although father’s body was removed from the apartment the night he died, it never felt like he was completely gone until last night. I didn’t even try to sleep. I knew it was nearly impossible. My mind wouldn’t allow me to rest. It was full of teasing thoughts. Imaginary ideas that tricked me into believing there was still a future for me, to thoughts that laid out the bleak reality. I couldn’t turn them off. It was a miserable night of seesawing as my outlook seemed as imbalanced as the childish beam itself.
Before I knew it, the doors on the clock opened, and the dancing figurines appeared with a warning. It was 7 o’clock, and I realized life as I knew it had vanished. Today would start my subjection in the home of strangers. That is, until I could somehow find an alternate path.
I pulled my key from the rusted, brass lock and paused anxiously in the dark hallway. My eyes lingered on the large brick barrier before me. It had recently been constructed into the frame of the main door of the building. Similar obstacles had been compiled in each of the apartment windows which faced Bernauer. Additionally, rolls of barbed wire were placed along the edges of the roof. From my bedroom window, I could no longer see the sun shining or the rain falling. It was like a prison was being assembled around me, right before my eyes.
“They are trying to discourage escape.” Frau Ingobert stepped out of her apartment across from me and called for her cat. She was an older woman who lived alone. I didn’t speak as she continued, “I think they’re trying to force us out.”
I gaped at her in shock. “They wouldn’t do that, . . . would they?”
She shuffled past me in her cotton robe and slippers. Her face twisted in a frown. Dotzi, her unfriendly cat, cowered in the corner. She must know something we don’t. “They can do anything they want, dear,” she said as she bent over to pick her up.
I glanced back at the barrier then towards Frau Ingobert. Her words resonated in my mind; they can do anything they want. I solemnly slipped out the back entry and buried the threat. I had other things on my mind today. I couldn’t be late as I ran through the alleys towards the bus stop.
So much unknown lay before me. I didn’t mind working to pay off the debt on my father’s casket, even if it was for a wealthy family like the Frankes. My apprehension now was more out of inadequacy and doubt. I wasn’t sure I was truly qualified for the job. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if I messed up and did something wrong? I cared for our little home without a problem after Mama passed away, but it was just that . . . little.
I’d never been in the actual residence of the Frankes. I’d only seen the outside cemetery yard. Even from that angle their home was enormous. It was a formal estate located on the Schönhausen Palace grounds. Many Berliners knew the palace to be the former residence of East German Government Elite. This was before they moved their business to Wandlitz last year, thus, the Frankes’ close alliance with powerful authority was not imagined.
I arrived ten minutes early. A butler ushered me into a drawing room off the main entrance before I could pause long enough to scan the intricate, elaborate detail of prosperity.
“Frau Franke will arrive shortly.” His head lowered slightly, while his mouth sulked. I wasn’t sure if this was a response or a habit. I gazed around. The quaint room was beautiful. It was small enough to entertain privately, but large enough to make a statement about Herr Franke’s success in the business of death. Gold and crystal lamps adorned glass tables. Gilded mirrors hung in succession, and spotless white cushions topped handsomely carved wooden mounts. I was afraid to sit. My dress would surely leave a stain on such a perfect piece of furniture.
A woman entered the room with a sigh. “I am Frau Franke,” she announced. Her auburn hair was pulled up in a tight bun, which made her appear older than she probably was, but her high angled cheekbones and porcelain skin revealed a flawlessness I’d never seen. I could not take my eyes off her. She did not seem pleased with the arrangement her husband had made to accommodate me. “You are the new girl?”
I nodded. Frau Franke did not hide the surprise of her first impression. It was one I’d seen hundreds of times, yet it no longer affected me. Her eyes went from my face to my feet.
“You are Fräulein Kühn?” Her face became clearly rigid and stern.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I responded confidently. I’d chosen my best working dress, pulled my dark locks into an immaculate braid, and washed my face three times. Yet, somehow, I still felt inadequately presentable under her scowl.
“Ella. You may call me Ella,” I continued, respectfully.
“I will not,” she snapped. “Much too informal.” She handed me the apron she was holding and advised me to put it on. “You will arrive precisely at eight o’clock each morning and not leave until five each evening. Work days are Monday thru Saturday unless told otherwise. You will receive seven Mark per day in living wage, and the remainder will apply to your debt for the next twenty-four months. If you are so much as late or absent, any day, you will not be given a warning nor will you be released of your debt. However, you will be reported to the authorities on your delinquencies and face severe consequences. Do you understand?” “Yes, Ma’am.” I acknowledged.
“Fräulein Kerner?” Frau Franke called to an adjacent room as a young woman approached very quickly.
“Please see that Fräulein Kühn is shown to her duties immediately.” Then she turned back to me. “Lunchtime will be directly at 12 o’clock for thirty minutes in the staff kitchen. Bring your own food. If you are caught taking anything from our home, even the least bit of scrap from the table, you will be released and arrested. I will not tolerate duff.”
I lowered my head. It was hard to appear grateful under the circumstances, although I was. I could not live with myself if I sent Papa to the chimney, something Germans cringed about since the horrors of Hitler’s death camps were exposed. It was a dark history for Germany regardless of whether we believed in the regime or not. It was a scar the world would never let us forget.
I followed Fräulein Kerner, who introduced herself to me as Lena, to the laundry room. She was—thankfully—very kind in her instructions and thorough in her training, nevertheless, she aptly warned me not to consort with the family or guests. With the type of work Herr Franke did, along with his connections, his home became a central point for entertaining many political leaders and the elite. As hired help, Lena insisted, we stayed out of their business.
I never perceived this to be a problem. I was much more skilled at avoiding than interfering. The business Herr Franke conducted in his home was of little concern to me; my only focus now was to complete my obligation then find my family. Nothing else mattered.
When five o’clock came, I was more exhausted than I imagined I would be. I’d scarcely untied my apron and folded it in the back room when a young woman came floating by. She stopped and looked at me curiously.
“Who are you?” she asked inquisitively.
I hesitated as I recalled the strict warning.
“It’s OK,” she laughed. “I know you are told not to talk to me, although, if you don’t, then it’s considered rude.” She appeared smug in her calculation.
“I’d rather be rude than without work,” I whispered flatly as I placed the apron on a shelf, which had been recently labeled with my name.
She smiled warmly. “Welcome to our home.” And she was gone nearly as quickly as she appeared. She had to have been around my same age, maybe a bit younger—although her countenance seemed so light and free of burdens. She left a twinge of jealousy in her wake. How would it be to have everything? I wondered as I stepped out the side door into the glow of a descending sun. To never fear poverty, loss, or loneliness . . .
something I would never know.
I fell into my daily routine easily. It was not a hard trade. Somewhat physically demanding from what I was accustomed to, but I wasn’t in the factory assembly line or even the unemployment line, which seemed to grow each subsequent day. My greatest challenge seemed to be the adjustment of being around such enormous wealth while the vast majority of the city was slowly starving to death.
By the time I reached my flat late Saturday night, I was quite fatigued. My thoughts lingered so heavily on Sunday, my first day off, that I almost didn’t see the notification nailed to my front door. Gazing around, similar papers were secured to every door down the hall. The deep-black lettering was titled “BITTE BEACHTEN”. It demanded its occupants to vacate immediately. Mere days were provided before entry would be restricted. I heatedly snatched it down and slammed my door shut behind me.
How could this be? I collapsed weakly on the couch; the same couch Papa had taken his last breath on only a week earlier. The salty scent of sweat and anguish still lingered on the pillow. I gripped the paper tighter and tried hard to read the fine print. “By order of the Deutsch Democratic Republic, all homes next to the border must be evacuated for reasons of high security. Evictions will be enforced through People’s Police in three days”.
Three days! Where will I go? I don’t know anything beyond the Waisenhaus and here. Frau Ingobert was right. They will do anything they want. I gripped the paper and read it again as if the words could somehow change in a matter of minutes.
I knew there would not be money to relocate until the end of next week. With Papa sick, I’d used the last of our savings to live on for over a month. I sunk to the floor, devastated. The minute strength that seemed to hold my body together leaked through my pores and left me completely defenseless.
Why couldn’t I be more like Anton? He was so resourceful. He had an answer for everything. Suddenly, I recalled the earlier time in my and Anton’s life, when our home and security had been threatened.
“Beweg dich!” Nurse Margret clapped her hands together and rushed frantically into the playroom. All of us children were circled on the floor for leisure time. It was 1955, and I’d just been presented an
Apfeltasche for my birthday. Since I didn’t really know my true birth day, I picked a different day every year. The nurses didn’t mind as long as it wasn’t celebrated twice in one year, and this time I chose 9 Februar. I was turning nine and didn’t expect much. Only to cut my celebration short— well, I wasn’t going to stand for it.
“Beweg dich!” she repeated, and the children all jumped up properly, except me. It wasn’t meal time, why was she taking this away from me? She clapped again, more urgently than before. Anton reached for my hand and pulled me reluctantly to my feet. We followed the others and took our place along the floor crack in our day room. I quickly shoved the whole tart in my mouth as apple jelly dripped loosely down my chin. Nurse Margret didn’t appear to see this, looking nervously at the door then back to us as she moved swiftly down the line.
“Oh mein Gott, . . .” she would whisper as she ran her finger against her tongue and then brush it against dirty cheeks in a desperate attempt to clean them. Thankfully, a noise drew her towards the door before she got to me.
“Willkommen.” She clasped both hands together as Nurse Gitta entered the room followed closely by two men. Instantly, gasps rippled down the row of indigent little bodies, and I peered at Anton with frightened eyes. I’d seen many soldiers outside, although, not as decorated as these men and never inside our home. Each removed their perfect hats as they shook the nurses’ hands and nodded their heads. My eyes widened at the dazzling coins that gleamed on their front jackets. One man had three long silver chains that draped from his shoulder to his buttons.
“Danke.” They did not smile when they spoke, yet their words sounded polite.
We stood very still as they moved about our room silently. Their crisp uniforms made little noise as they glanced at everything but us. Again, I looked at Anton. He did not return my stare. One soldier went to the window and examined the view as the other pushed on a nearby beam. Finally, the one with more gray hair than brown stared at us blankly. He turned to face Nurse Gitta.
“Sind das die Waisen?” The man pointed to us as if we were bags of flour and not children.
“Ja.” Nurse Gitta nodded her head to confirm we were discarded children.
The same man put his finger to his cheek and tapped it slowly like it helped him think better. He then walked over to the other man, and they whispered back and forth. It was very hard to stand completely still for long. I sighed loudly and shifted my weight noisily to the other foot. Nurse Margret responded quickly, putting her finger to her lips with a threatening Sshhh in my direction. I crinkled my nose.
Again, we waited as they conversed. The nurses appeared uncomfortable and confused. Even schüchtern Melania, as quiet as she is, tapped her shoe twice. The air suddenly felt like a heavy linen was pressed against my face. I just did not know why.
The soldiers then turned to the nurses and motioned for us to leave. Nurse Gitta clapped her hands together and ushered us out. I followed the others until I realized Anton remained near the outside of the door. Silently, I crouched down next to him, glancing around carefully to make sure no one had seen us. Nurse Gitta did not close the door behind her when she returned to the soldiers.
“Something is not right, Ella,” he whispered and inched his ear closer to the frame.
I stood next to him, although I could hear nothing.
Anton turned and repeated what the soldiers said to the nurses. “By order of the National Building Program in Berlin, we are seizing control of this property.” He stopped and wiped his forehead. My eyebrows scrunched, puzzled. Even though the visitors spoke German, I didn’t seem to understand their words. Anton ignored my confusion. They continued.
He whispered as quickly as he could follow, “This house has a sturdy foundation, adequate space, and little damage from the war.”
In the few times we had ventured out, even at nine years of age, I knew this was true. Anton continued, “The regierende Bürgermeister Suhr
and his family will become the new occupants here.”
My mouth flew open. “Where will we go?”
Anton put his hand gently over my lips, “Sshhh,” he whispered as the man continued.
“You have six days to relocate, Frau Dieners.”
Anton looked at me, and I mouthed the words “Six days?” My chocolate skin must’ve gone white because he instantly reached for me.
I don’t know how long there was complete silence in the day room, although it seemed like eternity before we both heard, “NEIN!” The loud refusal was a woman’s voice. We stared at each other again in complete surprise . . . it was Nurse Margret’s voice.
Anton inched up to the frame and peeked around. I tugged at his shoulder. “What’s going on?” He brushed me off. I tugged harder.
“Just a minute, El,” he said with gritted teeth and turned away. I folded my arms, frustrated.
“NEIN!” Her loud dissent was repeated and echoed the room with a stomp of her heavy foot.
Anton described Nurse Margret’s face, twisted like rotten fruit with both hands curled in fists on her hips.
“You will not put these children out! They have no place to go.” Her round face and square chin were only inches from the gray-haired man. “Find another location!”
Nurse Margret was a stern woman who spent her long days barking orders and her long nights sleeping with one eye open, only this was the first time we witnessed how she really felt. It was astonishing!
“She will be taken away, Anton.”
He agreed. We had heard the stories of how people disappeared over the years for random dissent of the Government.
“Frau! Are you resisting a direct order?” one soldier spoke, although there was no strength in his voice. He sounded as shocked as we were.
“Ja!” she demanded. Even though Nurse Gitta’s small frame trembled nearby, Nurse Margret continued, “I have worked here every day for twelve years. I have seen hundreds of children get tossed to the street by their own mothers, the very ones who should love them and protect them.” Nurse Margret stood her ground. “I won’t allow their country to do the same! You tell your foolish building program this home is no longer an option!”
She spoke quite loudly and forcefully until she had driven both men out to the hall where we had unexpectedly been discovered eavesdropping. Nevertheless, even our appearance did not shake her. Both men were stunned to silence. They fidgeted uncomfortably with their caps as they hustled in a panic straight out the main doors. Then, without missing a beat, she turned to us and cried, “Anton! Adele! Verschwindet!” On her command, we disappeared.
Anton grabbed my hand and pulled me into the adjacent room where all the children gathered, yet I could not wipe the silly grin off my face. We had clearly witnessed history. Anton proceeded to tell the story to the others—the story of Nurse Margret, . . . our savior.
From that day forth we viewed her differently. Although she never treated us as if we were special, or meant anything to her, now we knew we did.
We often wondered if the soldiers would show up one day and take her away and throw us to the streets. They never did. It was a miracle. One woman against a system, in a world where one rarely mattered.
But I was not Nurse Margret or Anton . . . I was a young girl who did not have either the strength or the belief I could stand up to anything. Doubt consumed me and shadowed any possibility I had about rising above the DDR or their evacuation order. I had so little faith.