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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 6

The day before Christmas Eve, aunt Maria came to visit. Over her left arm she carried a wicker basket covered with a white cloth, and her head was covered by a dark-coloured headscarf drawn over her face.
.... "Good day, Lisa."
.... "Heavens, aunt, what brings you here in this weather?"
.... "He asked me to come and see you. Here, put this away so no-one will see it. He told me not to mention his name."
.... We entered the house. I took my aunt to the kitchen, where my mother was, and rushed to my room. Silently I locked the door, sat down on my bed and looked at the white envelope. There was no writing on it, it was just a blank piece of paper folded over and stuck together with flour and water.
.... "Dear Lisa, I thought leaving would make it easier for me. But the more time and space there is between us, the worse I feel. I think I would not have been able to stand it much longer, I might have done something rash. I would have left in any case, but perhaps much later, since I was needed there, too. But I asked the comrades to take me to the woods.
.... I know that I cannot change the course of events with these few words. I am not angry with you. I won't advise you to take care because I don't think I have to do that. But, whatever happens, I forgive you in advance. A person can't always do what's best, even what's best for them, because circumstances often carry us along like a flood against which it is futile to struggle.
.... We are having a hard time here. It's cold, food is scarce, and often there is no food at all. I can't write more about that. It's hard now, but when the spring comes, when we heal our chilblains, which make it more and more difficult to move along in the snow, then we'll attack the enemy strongholds. And it will be easier to get food, there will be the young grass, which can save us from famine at a pinch. What keeps us going is the hope that we shall soon be victorious. We get news from the Eastern front here. The Germans are surrounded at Stalingrad, they've been dealt a fatal blow. There is nothing they can do but run back where they came from, those of them who still can.
.... When it's hardest, I am buoyed up by the hope of coming back home and walking with you once more in the shade of our chestnuts.
.... I would be glad if you could send me a message, if only briefly, by word of mouth. Please let me know whether you are glad to have heard from me. A "yes" from you would give me renewed hope..."
.... Was I to blame for what he was going through?
.... The frozen snow crunched under the footsteps of passers-by. Dusk was falling, and I had hardly noticed how quickly the afternoon had flown by.
.... I heard footsteps in the corridor, and then my mother's quiet voice saying, "She might have fallen asleep. Last night they sat up rather late playing cards."
.... "I'm not asleep, mother. Here I am!"
.... Aunt Maria stood there with her basket on her arm and her headscarf on her head, now pushed back a little, so that the light fell on her face. She was looking at me with a questioning gaze.
.... "Aunt, just tell him 'yes'."
.... She smiled, nodded, and went off down the street, towards the railway station. Her step was lighter than usual, livelier and happier, or so it seemed to me. When she disappeared from view, I was still gazing after her, listening to the crunch her shoes made in the snow. I seemed to hear the word "yes" repeated over and over again: "Yes", "Yes", "Yes", "Yes"...
.... * * *
.... "Boris should have come back from his grandmother's by now," my mother said.
.... "In wartime, the less one knows about some things, the better," my father interrupted the conversation. He took his paper, sat down by the stove and dozed off.
.... The paper started to slip from his grasp, then it fell on to the floor. My mother, startled, said angrily, "Ah, what on earth..."
.... "What's that?" said my father, waking up with a start.
.... "You fell asleep again. First put the paper away, then sleep as much as you like. You give me a fright every time."
.... "But I don't go to sleep, I just doze off a bit," said my father, picking up the paper.
.... "So, even worse, you throw the paper down on purpose," my mother said with a sarcastic smile.
.... As soon as the conversation was over, father nodded off again, and the paper started slipping once more. I made to take it from him, but mother stopped me.
.... "Don't, you'll wake him up. Let him have his nap."
.... I couldn't concentrate on the card game. My thoughts strayed and I didn't say much.
.... When we were left alone for a moment, Alfred took my hand in his.
.... "Lisa, I'd like to know, if I may, why you're so moody?"
.... I gathered my wits about me and said, "Alfred, I know you won't stay here forever. When you find out when you're leaving, will you tell me?"
.... "That's something you find out at the last moment, Lisa. But as soon as I know something, I'll let you know. Let's not spoil this beautiful evening. Even if I have to leave, I'll always be with you in my thoughts, and when all this is over, nothing will ever tear us apart again."
.... He spoke more and more rarely of victory and the imminent end of the war. He seemed very thoughtful. Could what Boris had written to me be true, that the Germans had suffered a terrible defeat at Stalingrad, and that there was nothing they could do but run back where they had come from? What if they were pursued and attacked even in their own country, if revenge was taken on them? What if the Russians won? No, that mustn't happen, that would be the end, not only of Alfred but of all of us ethnic Germans. I was horrified by the idea of Russian tanks rumbling down our street, of Russian trucks stopping under our chestnuts, of Russian soldiers jumping out of them, crashing into our homes and ... oh, no, I couldn't bear to think of it.
.... As if he had been reading my thoughts, Alfred tried to comfort me by saying, "Don't worry, it won't be long now. The way things are going at the front, it can't last much longer. When spring comes, when the winter is over, everything will be settled."
.... The spring! Boris, too, had mentioned the spring as a time of imminent victory.
.... Snowflakes were falling thick and fast. During the winter we spent our days in the largest room, the one next to the courtyard. We had what we called a drum-stove. It was a kind of wartime central heating. We would light it in the morning and it would burn long into the night, so that it would still be warm even the following morning. The stove consisted of a sheet-metal drum. Every morning father would fill it with sawdust which he bought cheap at the sawmill. The dry sawdust would quickly catch fire and would burn slowly, depending on the amount of air let in through the adjustable opening at the bottom of the stove.
.... I remember one such early winter, while I was still a small girl; a stranger, a woman, came to our door carrying a small, cloth-covered basket. She put it down on a chair and removed the cloth. Inside I saw two puppies. That was when I got my Wolfy. There was some difficulty, because I wanted both puppies and I could not choose between them. Finally, I chose the white one with black paws. He looked as if he were wearing shoes.
.... Mother said we would keep the puppy in the old wooden shack across the street, but I wanted him to stay with us and to sleep with me.
.... "We'll make him a nice little bed over there. See, he'll get this thick woollen cardigan, too," mother said.
.... The cardigan helped me agree to mother's suggestion, because I wanted to see what Wolfy would look like with mother's big cardigan on. The snow was falling thicker and faster. I was glad that Wolfy would get the cardigan and that he would be warm. I insisted that we dress him up in it, and had another argument with mother.
.... "Have you ever seen a dog wearing a cardigan?" asked mother.
.... At first I claimed I had, but wasn't quite sure, and my mother laughed. Then I laughed too, and so we agreed to put the cardigan on the ground beside the threshold so that Wolfy could lie on it and peer through the crack underneath the door to see who was passing by outside, because puppies are very curious. My joy was short-lived. As soon as we left him, Wolfy caught up the hem of the cardigan in his teeth and started jerking his head from side to side, so that the cardigan flew first to one side, then the other, and I was afraid he would tear it.
.... I liked playing with Wolfy. When he saw me coming, he would pull at his chain and whine impatiently.
.... One morning we found him dead. He was lying on his old worn-out cardigan. Someone had poisoned him. True, he would sometimes bark at night and wake us, and then we would hear our neighbour trying to calm him down from his window, especially in the summer, when it was impossible to sleep with the windows closed.
.... Father dug a hole beside the boundary and we placed Wolfy inside it. I covered him up with that cardigan of his, and father filled up the hole with earth and made a mound over it. I wanted to put a cross on the mound, but father wouldn't let me. I calmed down when he said he would put up a tombstone. He put up a broken-off piece of concrete and inscribed Wolfy's name on it.
.... The yard was already white with snow, and the well and the fence were garlanded with white, as if edged with a wreath of tiny white flowers. The cabbage-heads left in the garden wore white caps, reminding me of my first Communion, when we stood in a row like that, wearing white dresses and with white wreaths on our heads. That was when I first had my photograph taken with a flash. I shut my eyes and afterwards I was afraid the picture would show me with my eyes shut.
.... Hans came down the street carrying a big Christmas tree on his shoulder. Everything was white, and hoar-frost was gathering on the branches of the chestnuts. The snow crunched under the feet of the passers-by, and instead of carts, sleighs slid silently down the road accompanied by the jingling of bells.
.... "Guten Tag, Frau Muller, guten Tag, Fraulein Lisa," Hans greeted us.
.... "Put the tree there by the window. Here's the tree stand, and here's the little saw, if you need it."
.... The Christmas tree was far too tall, it did not fit into the space from floor to ceiling; Hans laid it down on the floor, skillfully sawed a piece off the bottom, and shortened the top a little. Then he trimmed the bottom with a knife and fitted the tree into the tripod stand. He placed it by the window, so that it could be seen from the outside as well. Alfred and I would decorate the tree that day.
.... Alfred had already brought a carp from somewhere in the morning. According to Catholic custom, no meat would be eaten that day; it was a fast. Mother was cooking the carp for dinner. She would serve it with a sauce of peppers and buttered salt potatoes.
.... I opened the cupboard and took out the boxes with the tree ornaments. There were broken strings to mend and some of the ornaments were crushed. Among the ornaments there were small crimson gingerbread hearts, several years old. The ornament for the tree top was chipped a little at the bottom, but we could turn that side towards the wall.
.... When the tree had been decorated, and we had put tinsel on it, it looked as if the branches were covered with snow.
.... "Merry Christmas, Lisa!" said Alfred, holding out a gift tied up with golden ribbon.
.... I unwrapped the little package and the first thing I saw were two small sparkling eyes, then a small brown head, and then I realized it was a little dog made of amber.
.... The dog was a family amulet. His mother had given it to him when Alfred was leaving for the war. She said the dog would protect him, so that they would both come home safely, and then the dog would go back to its place in the china cabinet among the Meissen figurines. "Don't part with it, Alfred, it will guard you always," his mother told him as they parted, "It kept grandfather safe in Africa and protected your father in the First World War."
.... I liked the gift, but I wanted to give it back to him. I asked Alfred to take it with him, so that the dog would protect him. When Alfred refused, I decided to slip it into his luggage secretly before they set off.
.... After dinner on Christmas Eve, we sat round the decorated Christmas tree by candlelight and talked of various superstitions. On Christmas Eve, during midnight Mass, one could see which women in the village were witches by means of a wooden stool made during the forty days before Christmas. The stool had to be made by hand and without nails. You had to stand on the stool behind the last row of the congregation in church during the Consecration at Mass, when all the witches would stand with their backs to the altar, so that you could see their faces from the stool. This story was always told on Christmas Eve, and we always agreed that we would be sure to make the stool in time the following year. Perhaps we would see the opanak-maker, the woman who made the traditional peasant sandals. She had a perpetual frown on her face, and there had been a lot of gossip about her in the village for years; nobody had ever seen her smile, she was always sullen, and there was a kind of dark power in her eyes, so that when she looked at you, it was best to look away. Women had even lost their milk because of her gaze. On Low Sunday all the women would get up as early as they could and keep watch on their doorsteps, because if the opanak-maker put a bad-luck charm under the threshold, all sorts of evil might befall the family.
.... At midnight on New Year's Eve, our neighbour Pepa would go to the border between fields that had been sown. She said that on the stroke of midnight she could hear the music of weddings or the weeping of women, or calls for help because of fire, and all those things would happen in the following year.
.... The New Year's Eve party was held at the officers' club. I had made over a dress of my mother's for myself; it was made of pre-war brocade the colour of old gold.
.... I can still see us going into the festively decorated ballroom. The orchestra was softly playing a tango, and the lights were shining in Chinese lanterns festooned with long coloured ribbons. The only sounds apart from the soft music were the rustling of dresses and the footsteps of guests arriving; the tables were set for dinner, and the coloured lights from the lanterns were reflected in the tall crystal glasses. The lights sparkled red, yellow, blue..., twinkling as if they were chasing each other round and round the glasses. This was my first public ball. Alfred was wearing a new uniform. He seemed to me like a young god from Greek mythology, and the New Year's Eve party like a feast on Olympus.
.... The melody of Lili Marleen resounded through the ballroom. We seemed to be floating, lifted up on the wings of the music, the ballroom whirled around us, together with the balloons and the multicoloured ribbons, and Alfred sang in a low voice:
.... Aus dem stillen Raume, aus der Erde Grund
.... hebt mich wie im Traume dein verliebter Mund...
.... At midnight the corks of the champagne bottles popped. Alfred held me in his arms and kissed me, and wished that we might see in the following New Year, 1944, and all the New Years after that, together in his homeland.
.... We stood by the window to get a better view of the fireworks. The whole western horizon, towards Zagreb, was lit up with rockets bursting in clusters against the dark background of the sky, accompanied by bursts of machine-gun fire and a louder explosion here and there.
.... The fireworks came to an end and we all went back to our tables. On the platform the instruments were still lying on the chairs, because the musicians were still standing at the further end of the ballroom, by the end window, which they had opened for a moment to get a breath of fresh air. Only the low murmur of voices could be heard as the cheerful guests proposed toasts, wishing each other joy and a speedy end to the war.
.... Alfred was approached by a senior officer, who whispered something to him. Alfred nodded, and the officer went to the platform and called for silence; the murmur of voices stopped, and the officer announced that in the break until the musicians came back, Lieutenant Alfred would play something on the piano. His announcement was greeted with enthusiastic applause. Alfred whispered to me:
.... "This is for you."
.... On the platform he turned to face the ballroom and said:
.... "Beethoven and my humble self, 'Fur Elise'."
.... Many heads turned towards our table and I felt myself blushing. My cheeks were burning as if I were near a blazing stove. A feeling of joy swamped all other feelings. Almost imperceptibly, those soft notes at the beginning of the piece that I so loved spread through the ballroom, followed by the more powerful passages with greater leaps in intensity, as if something were awakening from a peaceful sleep, as if a flood of feelings had welled up, so that I felt each touch of Alfred's fingers on the piano keys as if they were touching my body, flooding my whole being with delightful warmth. I gazed at Alfred and listened to the music, enchanted, no longer caring that the people at the nearby tables were staring at me, letting the tears running down my cheeks fall into my lap. This was the crucial moment when all my dilemmas vanished. I felt that I loved Alfred, that I could no longer live without him.
.... I lay awake for a long time. I could still see Alfred at the piano, I could still hear the sounds of "Fur Elise". But then I suddenly remembered the piano. Yes, I recognized it, it was Jutta's piano. When we were alone, the two of us used to sing, letting ourselves go, choosing a tune we both liked, with Jutta playing the accompaniment on the piano. Once, around Christmas time, I had asked her to play me a Christmas carol. She said she did not know any, and that it would not be proper for the neighbours to hear a Catholic tune being played in a Jewish home. In the end I managed to persuade her. I sang "In the New Year" two or three times in a low voice, and then she played it, and we even sang it together.
.... "Your Christmas carols are lovely," Jutta said. "Sometimes I wish we could enjoy the atmosphere of your religious festivals, especially when I see a pretty Christmas tree."
.... "Well, why don't you convert to the Catholic faith? Some people have. If a Karl Marx could do it, so could you. Christ himself was a Jew, and St. John the Baptist baptized him in the river Jordan, when Jesus was already a grown man, and there were many others, some of them famous, to mention only our favourites, Heine and Schumann. And if you add to this that most of the Bible, the whole of the Old Testament, was taken over from the Jews, you see our religions have a lot in common."
.... "Our Talmud is so familiar and dear to me that nothing could take its place. It contains not just religious stories but also commentaries on many passages in the Bible, the religious and secular customs of us Jews, and sections on various branches of science and scholarship" Jutta replied, glancing at the shelf, on which several thick books bound in dark leather were displayed in a prominent place. She continued, "Perhaps this evil that is raging through Europe will pass us by, and maybe the Messiah will come in time. We Jews have been hated and persecuted for centuries, through no fault of our own. But we are sustained by the hope of salvation, because the Messiah will surely come, and we believe that no Mephistopheles, not even Samael himself, or Lucifer, as you Christians call him, will be able to overcome him."
.... That was my last conversation with Jutta.
.... I fell asleep just before dawn. I dreamed that I was walking alongside a long barbed wire fence. I had come to visit someone, but I could not remember whom and I could not find the way into that fenced-off area. In the distance, in the dusk, on the other side of the wire, I could see a crowd of people, all of them dressed in black, the men wearing black hats and the women black headscarves, caps or shawls on their heads. They were moving along slowly in a wide column. I walked alongside them towards the head of the column, and in the distance I saw a small building, hardly big enough to hold five or six people. There was an inscription on the door, but I could not see it clearly. I could hardly make out the letters, they seemed to spell out the word BATH, but then they moved and changed, spelling out the word HADES. The letters kept changing back and forth. Next to the small house there was a piano, and Alfred was sitting at the piano and playing. I recognized the tune at once: Beethoven, the Sonata in a minor, Opus 26 - the Funeral March. The slow rhythm of the melody and the sound of shoes crunching on the gravel path in time to the music made a horrible harmony. Then I noticed Jutta. She was wearing the dress she had worn at the last school dance. She was marching carefully, staring straight ahead, as if anxious not to break the rhythm of the march. The column was disappearing through the door of the small building. When they reached the door they took their clothes off and went in naked. I could not take my eyes off Jutta, I saw her unbuttoning her dress, taking it off slowly, all in time to the funeral march. She let the dress slip to the ground and marched on, stark naked. Her hair fell on to her small, nicely rounded shoulders, and two wisps of hair played over her breasts, concealing the nipples from time to time. Jutta came to the door, now I could see all of her, her beautiful little back, her slim waist, her rounded hips and thighs, her lovely long legs. I wanted to run away, but my legs refused to move. My hands were still gripping the barbed wire, and the barbs were already piercing my flesh. My gaze wandered from Alfred to Jutta and back. Alfred went on playing monotonously and Jutta approached the entrance. Then a question arose in my mind like a nightmare: could Alfred see Jutta?
.... When I awoke, the first thing I did was to feel the palms of my hands and stare at them with relief because they were whole and unmarked.

Next: Chapter 7