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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 11

How was I to tell my mother I was pregnant? What would our friends and family say? They would say I was a soldier's whore. I could hear them saying, "Surely not Lisa, so well brought up, with such strict views?" I was afraid of meeting Aunt Maria. And how Marishka would sneer! I could hear her saying, "Never mind about them, Lisa, let them gossip. They gossip about me, too, but, it's true, it doesn't show in my case."
.... I often thought of the worst. There was no word from Alfred. If only he would drop me a line!
.... I was roused from my thoughts by a procession of people passing by my window. They were mostly women and girls. Some were coming from the direction of the railway station, others were on their way there. I opened my window a crack to hear what they were saying.
.... "Poor thing, she was so young and pretty!"
.... Alma, my classmate, had thrown herself under the train. One evening she had been ambushed by two Circassians, who had dragged her off to the barn and raped her there. She was pregnant.
.... I wished I could see Alma once more. But then I wished I hadn't gone to see her! I recognized her dress and her hair from far off... I stopped short, put my hands over my face, and hurried back home. Afterwards I was troubled by a recurring mental image of the event, as if I had been there when the train drew in...
.... "A girl should never choose suicide as a way out," my mother interrupted my thoughts, startling me. "It happens to lots of girls, and later they make good wives and mothers," my mother went on. "If some little tart goes to bed with one man after another, people stop taking notice, as if it were normal, but if a respectable girl does it just once, because she's in love, then it's a scandal."
.... Did mother know something? I longed to confide in her, but I didn't dare. How relieved I would be if I could tell her! She was my mother, and she knew I loved Alfred and hoped he would come back some day. I had his firm promise he would.
.... "Mother, I'd like to talk to you."
.... We sat down on the bed. My mother was watching me, I thought she had cocked her head a little to one side and was smiling at me, but I didn't dare look her straight in the face. I stared at the floor, struggling with my tears. I felt a tear gliding down my cheek, I wiped it away with my forefinger, careful not to let mother see. But another tear followed it, and then another; I couldn't help it. My mother put her arm round my shoulders, and said kindly and comfortingly, "He'll come back."
.... I could no longer hold back my tears, I threw myself on to my mother's bosom and wept convulsively.
.... "You don't have to tell me anything, Lisa. I know everything. Mothers always do." Then, to cheer me up, she said, "You know that parents have eyes in the heads of their children."
.... I smiled through my tears, feeling the joy of a child forgiven for a mistake. I remembered the fairy tale about parents' eyes; how, as a little girl, I had believed in it, how my belief had gradually faded away and remained just a pleasant childhood memory. Our parents know about our mistakes, but they often forgive us without saying anything. I embraced my mother and said, "Thank you, mum."
.... I don't know when mother told father. He never mentioned anything to me, but I sensed he knew about the baby.
.... "Don't strain yourself, Lisa, I'll do it."
.... He was especially careful to bring the water from the well whenever the bucket was empty.
.... I was secretly looking forward to the little human being I was carrying inside me. I wanted it to be a boy.
.... Every day father brought some new piece of news. Different things were being said on each side. The Partisans spoke of the defeat of the 6th German Army at Stalingrad. They said Hitler's forces had suffered a mortal blow, from which they would never recover. The Germans were talking about a new secret weapon, which was supposed to turn the situation round in their favour. People believed less and less in these stories, but there were some who still hoped the Germans would win.
.... The Partisans enlarged the area under their control. Some men went to the woods as volunteers, others were mobilized, in the growing belief that Hitler would lose the war. Entire units of the Domobrani surrendered to the Partisans together with all their equipment. Many Domobrani and their officers stayed in the villages, and the armoured train would return to the city at twilight with no more than a handful of soldiers inside.
.... They were still talking of a final mopping-up of Partisans from the woods. They kept on repeating everything they had said during previous offensives: this was to be the final blow against the bands in the woods.
.... ***
.... My mother's cousin Martin had returned from America before the war started. He had been a stevedore there, and then he had found out somehow that here, in the old country, his wife had been put in the family way by his neighbour Viktor. This news had induced Martin to come back. He had made a lot of money over there and had had a good time, in keeping with his philosophy that a man should enjoy himself while he had the chance, since everything passes, and life is short. He had made the rounds of the dockside bars in Pittsburgh, spending his hard-earned dollars on women and booze. But when he heard that his wife had been unfaithful and was pregnant, he couldn't stand it and returned home at once. Soon after his return Lina had given birth to a child, but "God mercifully took the child to Himself," as my mother used to say.
.... They were lodging with us. I had never seen them talk pleasantly to each other. They lived modestly; in fact, they were poor. The dollars had been left behind in the American dockside bars. Now they were struggling to make ends meet, cooking mostly beans and potatoes. If, on a Sunday or on a holiday, there was a scrap of meat, Lina would not so much as taste it; this was the penance she had imposed on herself in expiation of her sin. The same scene was enacted over and over again: Martin with his son and daughter sitting at the table, some potatoes and a piece of meat on a plate in front of each of them, and Lina sitting on the little bench beside the stove, with a plateful of nothing but boiled potatoes on her lap.
.... When the dollars had rustled in the American dockside bars, along with the silk dresses of the cheap women sitting on Martin's lap, everything had been, in Martin's view, as it should be. Lina had made a mistake only once, in a moment of loneliness, in a moment of weakness towards her persistent neighbour, Viktor.
.... "While you were clutching women in the dirty beds of those Pittsburgh whores, you never remembered you had a wife in the old country, longing for the touch of your hand and a loving word," my mother said to him.
.... After peeling her boiled potatoes, Lina would break off small pieces and slowly lift them to her mouth. At the end of her Sunday meal, when she thought no-one was looking, she would wipe her moist eyes, get up, put away her plate and patiently clear the table.
.... Martin didn't get on well with my parents. He looked at us askance, because we had a nice new house, and they were homeless. He would often quarrel with my mother, and then she would upbraid him for spending all his money on whores in America. One day they moved away to a village over the hill and there they joined the Partisans. As he left, he said to my mother, "We'll meet again, only you'll hold your tongue then."
.... ***
.... A few days after Robert was born, Boris's father came to see us. He put a letter on the table.
.... "This is for Lisa from Boris; there's no need to reply, we've already explained everything to him in our letter."
.... I read and re-read the ending of the letter:
.... "Dear Lisa, I hope you've been a good little girl. I am sorry we were so far away when you were in Kozine. After your message, your "yes" to me, all this has been easier to bear. I believe in ultimate victory. My greatest wish will come true - to see you again.
.... When I have a moment's rest I spend my time in the best possible way: thinking about you.
.... Boris"
.... In the next room, father was tuning the radio with the volume turned down. You had to be careful because people were sent to concentration camps for listening to the BBC The sound of the news being read reached me, barely audible. I was unable to understand the muffled sounds, but I strained my ears because I was terrified that someone would hear the radio outside, and it was only when I realized that I couldn't make anything out, even at this close range, that I dropped off to sleep in peace.
.... The following day father told me that Tito's Partisans had been internationally recognized by the three great powers. What would become of us Germans when the Partisans came?
.... Groups of people from German minority communities arrived as refugees from the east. They talked of persecution, harassment, and even murders of ethnic Germans. No-one knew precisely who had been murdered and why, and whether it was just those who had been active enemies of the Partisans. No-one could be sure whether he would be pronounced guilty or not.
.... In mid-1944, the borders of Fortress Europe began to shrink. The Germans were leaving Rome. The Allied invasion of Normandy began. The Red Army was penetrating deep into Poland; Warsaw had fallen. There were rumours of an attempted assassination of Hitler. In late July the Allies broke through the front in Normandy, and in August they liberated Paris. Several weeks later they reached the frontier of the Reich. Hitler's last attempt at an offensive in the west, in the Ardennes, failed. News reached us of events in the east of Yugoslavia, where fierce battles were raging between German troops and the Partisans, who were aided by the Red Army. In October 1944 there were rumours of fierce fighting in the vicinity of Belgrade, and then news arrived that Belgrade had fallen into the hands of the Partisans.
.... Long columns of vehicles and German soldiers were moving westward. Along with them went horse-drawn carts with civilians. Most ethnic Germans were leaving their prosperous farms in Voyvodina and Slavonia.
.... It was hard for them to accept the fact that they would never see their fertile fields again, that they would never experience the joy of the harvest at the end of the summer and in the autumn, that they would never again go out to pick grapes in their fertile vineyards, press the grapes, pour out the young wine and prepare weddings. They had left behind the graves of their grandfathers and grandmothers. Who would deck those graves with flowers on the feast of All Saints now?
.... The columns of weary horses and sleepy people moved on slowly. Sometimes a cart would have a cow tied to it, barely able to walk after all this way, the taut rope pulling her along relentlessly. Heki would be there too, the faithful old watchdog, with his tongue hanging out, panting, thirsty. Where were they going? It was comforting to have master there, up there on the cart holding the whip and the reins. Next to him was little Franzi, with whom Heki used to play in the garden and in the yard. Sometimes Franzi would tug at his ear a little too hard, but what mattered was that he was there now. The dog's eyes would wander over the familiar old cart, the same cart underneath which he used to lie in the summer heat, or sleep under in the middle of the meadow while his masters were turning the hay. But where was the mean old cat, who used to give him a wide berth in the yard, with her hair bristling on her arched back, always ready to dig her claws into his eyes? She wasn't there. He didn't like the cat having it all her own way now, back there in the house and all over the yard. Perhaps they were going to the fair? They had sometimes travelled before, but never this far, and they would give him water to drink more often. He hadn't been given any bread for a long time, either. They would throw him a bacon rind or two or a hard piece of bread crust. But the bread was somehow different, it was not the usual white bread, thick as a man's hand, full of little holes and soft as moss, but a kind of thin bread, with a bit of soft dough in the middle between two crusts; those were unleavened cakes, good to eat while they were still warm, hard when they'd been standing for a while, but good for travelling because they kept fresh longer. If only there was no dust, biting the eyes and drying the tongue. There was a dog lying by the roadside. Heki would have liked to sniff him, but the chain around his neck stopped him. Lucky dog, lying there so peacefully, but why were his eyes full of flies, and why was he doing nothing to drive them away?
.... Detonations came from the east, and there was a flash of light like lightning. Although the column moved on further and further away, the explosions seemed nearer and nearer.
.... There was an atmosphere of haste in the neighbourhood. Crates, sacks and bundles were brought out. In our neighbour's yard there was a pile of packages, an old suitcase with battered corners and sundry boxes. We were not leaving, because we couldn't, my mother's wound was getting worse. They wanted Robert and me to go with our neighbours. What would happen if I stayed? No, I didn't want to go with a baby. We would stay and await our fate.
.... The refugees told stories that made our flesh creep. Russian soldiers struck terror into the hearts of women. The first wave was the worst. Then, they said, the Partisans shot people without trial, according to lists they had, and it was sufficient for someone to point a finger at you. And was there anyone who had no enemies? Who had never quarrelled with anyone? We got ready, too, but we were not going as far away as our people. We would hide out in a nearby village until things quietened down a little, until order was restored. Boris might be able to help us; I knew I had no right to expect it, but perhaps he would not let the worst happen.
.... The last cart disappeared over the western horizon in a cloud of dust. A gloomy silence fell, as if the whole village was deserted. The windows were curtainless, the houses emptied of furniture, and patches of white with dark edges showed on the walls where pictures had hung, with a nail in the centre of the upper edge; plaster had fallen off around it, leaving a white mark stained with rust. In the corners, cobwebs swayed in the draught, books and papers lay scattered all over the floor. The door was not locked, and why should it be? They would have broken in anyway, and it would be a pity to have the door broken down. A vestige of hope still flickered in a man's soul that one day return would be possible.

Next: Chapter 12