cover Chapter 2
Danzig, January 1945
As heavy gray clouds gathered over the medieval towers and cathedrals of Danzig I relentlessly paced the length of my living room, my thoughts and emotions in a whirl: should I stay or flee? Face the Russian hordes or go into the unknown with my child leaving everything behind? Just turned twenty, and facing the possibility of death, I had to answer the question: where was the greater chance of survival for myself, my 14-month-old daughter, Lilo, and my parents?
My eyes focused on the white grand piano. Music had always calmed me. Stepping to the keyboard I began playing a somber Bach fugue, hoping Bach's orderly music would help me make the decision that would shape the rest of my life. Suddenly, my fingers faltered on the keys. I got up and closed the lid of the piano. What should I do?
Irritated, I went into the entrance hall and in the long mirror saw my tense face—pleasant, not beautiful and today sorrowful. Staring into my eyes with their disorderly mixture of green and brown, I remembered my husband's voice teasing me, "Your eyes always show your inner chaos."
I'd laughed at Manfred. "Do you mean I'm all mixed up?"
"No, but you have so many incompatible interests," he said pulling me to him, kissing me. "I think that's why I love you so much, Little Bear." He stroked my mop of brown hair.
How much I missed him! He was so far away now, like most of the men, far away from their wives and scattered all over Europe. How handsome he had looked in his Navy uniform the day he'd left, a lieutenant in the German Navy! How long it had been! Now, the days of dancing and laughing were over. I hadn't seen him for a year. If I fled—how would he find me? Suddenly, the telephone rang in the entrance hall. I quickly picked it up. "Hello?"
"This is Helmut Kalmbach," the faint voice said. Although I knew Helmut was calling from the Navy barracks only ten kilometers from my house, the connection was so bad I had to press the earpiece hard against my ear to understand him.
Helmut was Manfred's long-time friend from college and the Navy—I felt as close to him as if he were my brother. I wondered if he had news about his wife, Irene, and their baby in the country outside Danzig.
His message came in fragments. "Last night, Irene called from the country—she and the baby left—for the West—today I got a permit for a mother and child on the ocean liner Deutschland—you can use it—Eva, you must leave Danzig immediately!"
"But where is the Deutschland?" I yelled back.
The phone crackled.
"...on the ship Deutschland..."
Oh my God, he couldn't hear me. "The Deutschland...where is it?"
"...the Russians have..."
Only the crackling noise and then silence.
Confused and alarmed, I wondered what Helmut had tried to say about the Russians. Had the SS tapped the phone? Or the Gestapo? Each of those damned Party organizations usually tried to outdo the other.
The doorbell rang. On the front step was a very tall army lieutenant in a crumpled field-gray uniform, his black hair disheveled, his unsmiling mouth lost in a ragged black beard. As he pushed his dark-rimmed glasses up higher, I realized he was my girlfriend, Erika's, husband, Dr. Fritz Moldenhauer. I threw open the door. "Fritz! Where did you come from? Come in! "
In spite of his rumpled condition he stepped in with his customary dignity. "I come straight from the Russian front and have orders to go to Berlin." He put down his small suitcase. "I understand there's a train to Berlin tonight. May I wash up and spend the afternoon here?"
"What a question! Stay as long as you can. We haven't seen each other for a year." And we hadn't argued for a year either. Quarreling had become part of our friendship. I showed him the bathroom—complete with sunken tub, bidet and sun lamp—and went to the kitchen for coffee and cake.
After his bath Fritz looked poised and lofty again.
"That's how I remember you," I kidded.
"I hardly remember myself." The bitterness in his voice was most certainly due to his hardships at the Eastern front.
I led him into my living room, a world of playful daintiness with Louis XIV style furniture, richly ornate Dresden figures and paintings of royal chamber musicians in powdered wigs, playing ancient instruments. Although Fritz had seen my rococo room quite often, he stood there, startled. "This is unreal—after coming out of hell—I'd forgotten civilization—" His face had lost its arrogant mask and I suspected he was still haunted by the cruelties of the fierce war in the East. He had seen first hand the burnings, famine, and dismembered bodies that I had seen only on the newsreels.
"Sit down," I urged my friend. "Have some good fresh coffee and Bienenstich." These were slices of "bee sting," a sweet, Eastern German, honey-golden cake. I saw him breathe in the aroma of coffee and pastry. He eagerly took a slice of the cake. "You live here like in peacetime," he said between bites. "Where does all this food come from?"
"Poland, Hungary, Rumania. Whatever country the German troops have conquered." In a flash, I saw the defeated people of other countries working and providing food for the Germans, for me and my family.
Calmly Fritz reached for another piece of Bienenstich. "Have you heard from Manfred?" he asked.
Ten times a day people asked me the same thing. "He—he's in St. Nazaire, on the French Atlantic coast. They're encircled by the Americans. I haven't had a letter for six months. He directs the repair of submarines."
Fritz nodded, chewing his cake with obvious delight. Eager to hear about his wife, my chum for years, I asked, "Tell me, how's Erika? How's the baby?"
He adjusted his glasses, which he always did when he had an uneasy thought. "They are still in the country. I'm afraid it's about as safe there as a shoal before high tide."
I quickly got up to pour him more coffee. "Do you think the Russians will get any closer?"
He adjusted his glasses, then looked at me directly. "Yes."
"And if they come in, do you think it will be...bad?"
His lips curved in a bitter smile. "Do you think there'll be any sanity left when drunken Mongols overrun the city? Remember Nemmersdorf!"
The name of the village, 250 kilometers east of Danzig, had shocked the nation four months ago when the German forces recaptured Nemmersdorf from the Russians. Every woman and girl had been raped. Then, the entire population of seventy-four had been murdered. The nation's outcry had whipped up the German soldiers' last energies as they tried to beat back the Red Army and prevent a repetition of Nemmersdorf.
"Can't the German troops stop the Russians?" I asked.
"Our battered troops against those hordes? The army is beaten, Eva. Tired, exhausted and without weapons."
"But we hear only victory news from the East."
Fritz hit the table with his fist. "You're blind as a mole! Don't believe that crap! You'd better get out of Danzig while you can!" He pushed back his hair. "And that is why I really came here. To tell you just that."
"You're an incorrigible pessimist," I said.
"And you are an optimist to the point of feeblemindedness," he retorted.
He is a pessimist, I thought. Should I believe his warning? "No matter what the Russians have done in Nemmersdorf," I said, "that was months ago and far away. It won't happen here in Danzig, it won't!"
His voice was almost inaudible, "I know Danzig has had no air raids during all these years. And you people believe your wonderful city will be spared."
Danzig is a treasure of art and beauty," I insisted. "It couldn't possibly be destroyed."
Fritz slammed his cup down on the table. "The Russians don't give a damn about Danzig's beauty. And bombs have already fallen on the most precious art monuments—as you know. In Dresden. In Cologne. In Berlin. Don't be a fool, Eva."
"So, fleeing is the only solution?"
He looked at me, annoyed. "What are you waiting for? Believe me, if you're caught by the Russians, you'll find out how the people in Nemmersdorf felt."
"Thank you," I said after a while. "Thank you for warning me."
***After Fritz left to catch his evening train to Berlin, I walked back and forth in my rococo sanctuary. Suddenly, I stopped. The angry cries of women and children, so loud they penetrated the double thickness of the storm windows, came up from the street two floors below.
St. Katharine's Gothic brick cathedral, magnificent and powerful, stood tranquilly in the drifting snow—a symbol of steadfastness and eternity. But below, at the cathedral's feet, were hundreds of women in heavy winter clothes and woolen turbans, with their children trying to squeeze into an already overcrowded brick school building. Oh God, refugees. Fleeing from the Russians. I ran to the entrance hall, pulled my coat on and hurried down the stairs.
Turning up my coat collar against the whistling wind, I rushed to the crowd which pushed and shoved in despair. I focused on a young woman and her crying baby, then approached them. "Would you like to stay in my apartment? I have space for you."
In surprise, the woman turned her pale face to me and nodded. She touched the arm of the man next to her. He had only one arm, his empty sleeve stuck in his coat pocket. They both looked to be my own age. I led them upstairs and into my bedroom.
"Oh," the refugee woman said, "how warm and bright!"
Danish-modern birch furniture, white airy lace curtains, two single beds (the usual sleeping arrangement for a couple) and a crib—heaven for people who had fled through Europe in the snow.
I brought fresh diapers. As the woman unwrapped her baby boy I was shocked to see the dried and caked feces in the old diaper, the baby's raw, inflamed bottom. "My God, when did you last change him?" I asked.
"Three days ago."
"Oh my God. Where have you come from?"
The husband, sitting on the bed, still in his overcoat, answered in a low voice. "We got the last train from Elbing. There were thousands of people, pushing and beating each other to get on the train. Sitting on top of the cars and hanging between them." He stopped, then continued. "ln the crowd I lost my grip on the suitcase. It contained all the baby things. We were lucky just to hold on to the baby."
Frantically, I pushed my fright back, converting my anxiety to activity. I prepared a bath for the baby, brought powder and ointment. for his sores, served hot chicken soup and ham sandwiches and then left my guests alone. They'd probably soon fall into their beds.
Hesitantly, I walked to my living room. Was this what was waiting for me? Or would our soldiers bring the Russians to a standstill? As so often in a crisis, I turned to Dorothea, my parents' housekeeper and my close friend. I left my own apartment and walked, as though following my umbilical cord, the few steps down the hall to my parents' flat where I went for my meals every day.
Short and slim, her blond hair braided and pinned up into a bun, the housekeeper stood at the kitchen stove, stirring soup "Dinner won't be ready for a while, Frau Eva."
I told her about the refugees and my agitated conversation with Fritz.
She looked up from her cooking. "Frau Eva, you should leave. The Russians are only 150 kilometers from here."
"How do you know?"
"I heard it on the radio," she replied, staring into her cooking pot. I was thoroughly alarmed. Had Dorothea been listening to the enemy station? A dangerous venture, high treason.
"When did you hear it?"
She put down the ladle. "If you don't leave soon it might be too late." She raised her eyes to mine. "Remember Nemmersdorf."
"Will you come with me?"
She shook her head. "I have no child. I'll never get permission to leave."
"How can I leave? I have no permit. And what about my parents?"
She shrugged. "They are too old to get a permit. You know, only women with children count."
I heard the door open, heard my parents come into the apartment.
My parents sat down at the dinner table. Surprisingly, they never looked tired after a full day's work in their factory for electric appliances.
At 62, my father was bald. His full-moon face radiated satisfaction from the work he cherished. I loved him dearly. "Where's Lilo?" he asked. His first thoughts always concerned his granddaughter.
"At Aunt Margret's," I replied. "She'll be back any minute."
He reached for the plate of open-face sandwiches, the usual evening food. The scent of egg and onions lingered over the table. "Ah, the tea is good after a long day," my mother said with a sigh. She was the chief designer and director of the factory's lamp-shade department. At 61, she was slightly overweight, but her wrinkle-free face, framed by natural black hair, denied her age. Her huge chocolate-brown eyes registered everything within 180 degrees at once. She was said to hear the grass grow. I'd always felt rebellious in her presence.
At this moment, Dorothea led Lilo in. "Guten abend," the housekeeper said for Lilo. "I'm back from Aunt Margret."
The child looked like a baby doll with a huge red bow in her silver-blond hair. Still unsteady on her little legs, she fell down on her hands and knees and began to crawl towards me. I sat her on my lap and kissed her.
"Let's go hear the news," my mother said. "It's five to seven."
Taking his granddaughter from me, my father carried her into their living room. We sat down on leather-covered armchairs. He switched on the radio. Marching music blared forth as a prelude to the eternally victorious news. The Meissen clock struck seven with a sonorous C-sharp tone as the radio's musical interlude ended.
"This is the Greater German Radio Network with the evening news. On the Western front, our divisions repelled a heavy attack of Anglo-American troops and pushed the enemy back. They had heavy losses." "But our losses were zero," my mother quickly interjected.
"On the Eastern front, Communist troops attacked our positions in continuous waves and suffered heavy losses. German troops moved toward new fortified positions farther to the West."
"Meaning our troops are fleeing." Mother grimaced at me. To her, as to most Germans, Nazism and war were an act of God, like earthquakes. They couldn't be stopped.
"The Fuhrer, in a speech last night, expressed his confidence in the German armed forces. The long-awaited new weapons will soon be implemented. He assured the population of our imminent final victory."
As the announcer droned away, I listened with only half an ear. "In the Pacific, American bombers attacked Iwo Jima, an island south of Japan. The Americans suffered extremely high losses of men and material."
"Mass killing all over the earth," my mother said. "What will happen to us all?"
"Panic monger," my father said lightly, not even looking up from his granddaughter, who sat on his lap and had taken hold of his nose.
"But the Russians are only 200 kilometers away," she said, anxiety chilling her voice.
"They'll stop them there," father's voice boomed. He, too, believed Danzig was sacrosanct.
"Who'll stop them?" my mother asked angrily. "We're reduced to drafting children to do our fighting. I can already see Danzig destroyed."
This was the moment to announce my decision. "I must leave Father! I'll take Lilo and go to the West!"
My father took Lilo's hand from his nose and looked at me with a fearful expression. "You want to take my Lilo from me?"
"But, Father," I managed to ask, "what of Nemmersdorf?"
My father, still seated, Lilo on his knees, obviously was in control again. "The West isn't necessarily safer. There are the bomb attacks."
"But the British and the Americans are humane. They aren't beasts like the Russians."
"You don't have a permit for leaving town, do you?" He sat like a rock.
"Why don't you help me?" I blurted out in despair. "You've helped so many Jews and Poles, why not me now?"
The rock didn't move. "As long as there's no official permission for a mass evacuation you'll just risk your life and Lilo's."
"Please, listen," my mother said, getting up from the sofa. "I've heard that the district commanders give official permission to leave at the last moment. The moment may come soon..."
"How about you and Father? Would you come with me?"
Slowly my mother shook her head. "We're too old." She smiled sadly. "And we have to stay here to protect our property."
"I think I'll take Lilo to bed," I said, removing her from my father's lap. Holding Lilo tightly in my arms, I walked the few steps over to my apartment. The bedroom was dark and quiet the refugees all asleep. Since the fugitives' baby occupied Lilo's crib, I tucked her into the large streamlined wicker baby carriage, kissed her good night and wheeled her next to the grand piano. The couch would be my bed. so I lay down and switched off the small table light.
As always before I fell asleep Manfred's image rushed in from the Atlantic like a fresh breeze. I heard his stormy steps, his artistic whistling, his laughter. I saw his handsome face smiling at me, his blue eyes radiating confidence and lightheartedness. I heard his tender voice, "My Little Bear." Longingly, I sighed. He'd been away too long. Married for two years, we had only lived together for two months. Now he was with his other love—his ships. Ships, my eternal rivals.
Suddenly I heard a sound. I strained my ears. Again, a very faint knock. I tried the light switch. Nothing. The electricity was off for the night to conserve energy. Nervously, I got up in the dark and went to the apartment door. "Who's there?" I asked softly, not wanting to waken the refugees.
"It's me, Fritz."
Why wasn't he on the train to Berlin? l opened the door. An icy wind entered from the landing, making me shiver in my nightgown. "My God, what happened? Come in, quick! It's freezing."
He stumbled forward into the dark entrance hall and I closed the door behind him. "There was no train," he said gloomily. "The Russians have encircled the town and pushed on to the Baltic. All roads to the West are blocked ."
"May I sleep here for the night? Tomorrow I'll try to find a ship in the harbor."
"Of course." I found a candle and matches. Danzig was encircled! Why had I hesitated so long? Now lt was too late.
"There's a refugee family in my bedroom," I said. "I'm sleeping on the couch in the living room. You'll have to sleep on the floor." I pulled a child's mattress from the closet. It was a foot shorter than he was. I managed a smile. "It's a little short, I'm sorry."
He didn't smile. "Anything will do." Wordlessly he carried the mattress into the living room, squeezed it between the piano and baby carriage, took off his uniform cap and belt and lay down I held the candle high over his fully clothed body. "You need a blanket. I have one in the closet."
"Come on! Keep your blanket. I have my uniform on, that's enough."
I didn't argue with him. I simply took the blanket from the closet and put it over the lieutenant, who complained in vain. Blowing out the candle I placed it on a chair now serving as my night stand and crawled back onto my couch. "What did it look like? The railway station. I mean," I asked into the darkness.
"Awful." His voice sounded horrified. "Stranded refugees. Lying on the platform half frozen. Babies crying with hunger. No trains anymore. See to it you get out of here first thing in the morning."
"By ship," came the answer from the dark. "It's the only way open. Don't wait one more day!"
The Deutschland! Helmut Kalmbach had offered me a place on it and then the phone connection had been cut. And as if the word "ship" contained magic, it touched in me a fountain of energy, bubbling over with frantic thoughts. I suddenly saw it before me: get on a ship and sail away into the Baltic! With wide open eyes, I listened to Fritz's snoring. He must have learned at the front to sleep under any circumstances. And I was awake because the fever of adventure had kindled this fire in me. Suddenly I heard a noise at the door again, someone putting a key into the lock. I sat up on the couch, staring into the dark. The intruder opened the door and came in with a flashlight. I froze.
"Frau Eva?" Dorothea's voice asked. Of course, Dorothea had a key to my apartment. "What's the matter?" I asked.
Dorothea came forward, holding the flashlight out in front of her. As the light fell on Fritz she asked in surprise, "Who's that?" "Fritz. There are no more trains. He asked to spend the night.
"Hmph." She added with bitterness, "Who knows who we'll have to sleep with in the future." Nemmersdorf and the rapes. But it didn't frighten me anymore. My decision had been made. My thoughts were on the future.
Dorothea switched off the flashlight and sat down on my couch. "Listen, I came to tell you the Russians are fighting only fifty kilometers outside of Danzig. The German resistance is breaking down."
I was amazed to find myself no longer terrified. Wondering about her knowledge I asked: "How did you find out in the middle of the night? There's no electricity, no radio."
"I have a small battery radio."
In the darkness my eyes widened. Battery radios weren't available even in my father's factory! Dorothea must have connections I'd better close my eyes to. What one didn't know couldn't harm one—the slogan of the time.
"I came to warn you," Dorothea whispered. "You must leave. At dawn take Lilo to the harbor and get on this ship." She switched on the flashlight and lit up a slip of paper. It read:
PERMIT FOR BOARDING THE SHIP PREUSSEN
ONE MOTHER AND ONE CHILD
DANZIG, JANUARY 30, 1945
Eyes and mouth wide open, I realized I had been given a helping hand on my new way to the future. And I promised myself never to ask about the origin of my permit.
"I don't know how to thank you," I whispered to my friend.
"Put enough diapers and clothes for Lilo into her buggy and leave early in the morning," she commanded. "Now go back to sleep."
As she left I was overwhelmed by my feelings of gratitude and the excitement of going into the unknown. But much more so, I felt I had at last cut my umbilical cord. I'll run! I'll run to the West. Manfred, I'll find you! Somewhere in the West we'll find each other again.
My struggle for survival had begun.
from EVA'S WAR: A TRUE STORY OF SURVIVAL|
© 1990, Eva Krutein