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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 19

The train moved on slowly; it seemed as if it had stopped, and it was the railway station that was moving closer to us, along with a sign that grew bigger and bigger: HAUPTBANHOF MUNCHEN.
.... We had passed through towns and villages. The sky was clear and the sun was pleasantly warm. The houses gleamed white, as if they were brand-new. Surrounding the houses were lawns, shrubs and flowers. There were lots of flowers everywhere. Flowers hung from the balconies, crept over lawns, climbed up pillars. Everything was clean, as if it has just been swept, just as it used to be at home in the spring long ago, when people cleaned everything and the houses gleamed white in preparation for Easter.
.... We arrived at the Transit Camp in Friedland in the late afternoon. On a hill overlooking the town there were several tall obelisks, pointing up at the sky like forefingers raised in warning. The inscriptions on these tall stone slabs spoke of the tragedy of the German people. Prisoners of war had arrived in Friedland on their way home. Had Alfred passed this way?
.... Perhaps there is no place on earth where there have been so many embraces, so many tears as in Friedland. Some people who had long since been given up for dead had suddenly turned up here, as if they had risen from the grave. Many people felt born again on this spot. Children were given their first real toy here, because every child that arrived was given a doll, a little horse, a toy car, or a teddy bear.
.... People arrived by train, in old cars, Trabants, Shkodas or Wartburgs, with worn-out tyres, rickety steering and no silencers, their rusty old exhaust pipes having fallen off along the way. They had leaped over barbed wire, fled across mine fields, climbed over the Berlin wall, where many of them had stayed, stopped by the guards' bullets, they had swum across rivers, where many had been lost in the water, because the longing for freedom was stronger than the fear of death.
.... Opposite the entrance to the Transit Camp there was a monument to those who had come home: a man was climbing over a barbed wire fence and seemed to be setting off towards the camp. Every year the bell of Friedland summoned thousands of people who laid flowers at the foot of this monument as a token of gratitude for their deliverance from travail and sorrow.
.... We got up early, because by eight o'clock we had to join the queue in front of one of the reception offices. We were clutching the forms we had filled in and a pocket dictionary. The clerks were very patient with us. I was especially impressed by the fact that they often addressed me as "Frau Muller", something I wasn't used to. Back in the old country we had avoided addressing people directly because you never knew how to address a person, "Mister so-and-so" or "Comrade". And it's nice to be addressed. They asked us where we would like to live. I didn't have to think long before replying quickly, "Somewhere on the Rhine, a little to the north." If Alfred had come back, perhaps he was in his native region.
.... I was given a prayer-book along with a note of welcome from the parish priest, which ended with the words: Home is where God is - God is where there is love.
.... I approached the altar, I knelt down and made the sign of the cross; my gaze fell on the open Bible. An old woman next to me said, "The Bible is always open at this page. Psalm 116: I love the Lord because he hears my prayers and answers them."
.... My thoughts strayed back to the past: long ago, in the last century, or even earlier, I seemed to see lines of people and loaded waggons on the move. The Muller family was among them. They had set out for the promised land, where the fields stretched away as far as the eye could see, flat and endless like the sea, and the soil was black, loose, and fertile - Slavonia, Baranya, Sriyem, Banat and Bachka. They settled on these fertile plains and worked miracles. Farms and villages sprang up with large new whitewashed houses. The orchards were covered with blossom every spring and filled with ripe fruit every autumn. Wedding processions passed by, new generations were born. Ploughs made furrows and fields of wheat sprang up: a vast green sea, turning to golden-yellow. Barns were filled with grain and countless waggons full of it were sent off to other countries. All this had been done by industrious human hands with the help of ploughs and horses. There were no tractors then. And then the war came. The ethnic Germans were too frightened to wait for those who were coming. Perhaps they would find shelter in the homeland of their ancestors where they could spend the rest of their days in peace, hoping that their descendants would also find peace here and live in dignity. And so their genes returned to where they had once come from. This, then, was a return to my ancestral home. This idea comforted me and filled me with joy; because of it the bitterness of our departure started to fade away, and a new light illuminated my soul.
.... If only Robert could succeed, it didn't matter about me, because his success would be my success, too. And perhaps I would meet Alfred, even if only for a moment, just to see him and touch him.
.... * * *
.... "Dear Aunt Maria,
.... Perhaps we should have written before, perhaps we should have said good-bye to you before we went. I feel so bad when I think of you standing at the door of our flat, with no-one there to open it, and the bell ringing in the empty flat.
.... I didn't dare come to say good-bye. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to bear the parting and that I would be unable to leave. That's why we left like this, like a bather diving into the water, not like one wading into the water slowly, or even turning back because the water is too cold.
.... Dear aunt, I wish you were here, I wish we were together. I would be sorry to have died without seeing and experiencing all this.
.... Recently I got a job, too. Robert has a good salary and he wasn't pleased when I accepted a job as housekeeper, but I wanted to work and to be independent. My employers are elderly people. The master is the proprietor of a big company.
.... Every morning at exactly half past eight you can hear footsteps on the wooden staircase. That's the master and missus coming down to breakfast. I find this pedantic precision a little strange, I'm not used to it. They are never, never late.
.... The house is full of expensive things. When I opened the bathroom door, I was dazzled by the glitter of gold. Even the smallest metal fitting is gilded: the taps, the soap dishes, the pegs on which to hang clothes, even the wash-basin drainpipes.
.... As I said, Robert has got a job. It was hard for him to start with. The language barrier was still there, and not all his colleagues took to him at first. After several months he managed to prove himself, and everything would have been fine, if the firm hadn't moved to another town. Because he had good references, Robert quickly found another job. Working hours are laid down by law and the regulations are probably respected in most cases, but in this firm the employees stay on after hours every day, and the owners of the firm consider this quite normal. A man can't long stand working ten, twelve, and more hours, day in, day out. I feel bad when I see Robert coming home from work sometimes totally worn out.
.... The phone rings almost every other day, and I'm glad to hear it. That's Robert phoning me. I can tell by his voice what sort of mood he's in, and then I feel either better or worse, depending on his voice. I can tell when he's pretending, and I know it can't always be easy for him, but I hope things will get better, in fact, I believe he'll make it in this country.
.... I often think of our line of chestnuts, the green and blue of the vineyards, the benches on Zrinyevats* and the old plane-trees in the shade of which we used to sit in the summer waiting for the train. I can still see in my mind's eye the old Stone Gate* with its countless lighted candles, where we used to kneel and pray before an exam. I also remember our walks on the Upper Town** . At dusk we would stand there and watch the lights being turned on, a myriad of bright points flaring up all over the city. When I shut my eyes and breathe deeply, I seem to feel the fresh air of Slyeme*** . I can still hear the waterfalls of the Plitvitse Lakes**** and the waterfalls on the River Krka. Sometimes I daydream about walking along a beach by the most beautiful sea in the world - the blue Adriatic. We like it in Germany, and here we'll stay, but you can't wipe out the past with a sponge.
.... ----------
.... * A park in Zagreb.
.... ----------
.... * The remaining city gate of Gradets (the Upper Town) in Zagreb. Gradets was fortified in 1266, but the earliest mention of the gate dates back to 1492. It acquired in 1760. Within the gate there is a shrine containing a votive painting of Our Lady by an unknown 17th-century artist. The shrine was erected and the picture placed there after a fire in the town in the night between 30th and 31st May 1731, in which the painting remained intact, although the fire consumed everything else around it.
.... **The medieval town of Gradets, a free royal city since 1242, which together with the episcopal Kaptol, makes up the historical centre of the city of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
.... *** A mountain overlooking Zagreb, a favourite spot oh hikers and picknickers.
.... **** A string of sixteen lakes connected by waterfalls in a valley between high forested mountains in Croatia. The Plitvitse Lakes are a National Park listed in the register of the worlds natural and cultural heritage and protected by UNESCO.
.... I know you're interested in what the people are like here and how we are getting on. Well, I'll try to tell you. They say the Germans are cold, sometimes even harsh. Well, they may be a little reticent, but when you turn to them and ask for something, you're surprised to discover how much warmth and kindness there is behind those seemingly chilly faces. Some people think they're too disciplined and that they're too fond of hard work, order and tidiness, but, when you think about it, can one ever be too orderly? It all depends on who the observer is; those who don't care for hard work think the Germans work too hard, while a foreigner who is used to hard work and good order will notice oversights and shoddy work even here. That's why one should not generalize too much.
.... You should see them on holidays, sitting under marquees, with their rows of tables, when the brass band starts playing and the plump waitresses rush up carrying mugs of beer, when they all join hands, sitting at the tables, and sing with all their might, swaying left and right in time to the music, as if the whole marquee was dancing. It reminds me of the fairs at home before the war, and the firemen's balls, that long row of tents stretching from the centre of the village to beyond the church, with gingerbread, mead, and fizzy drinks, and the merry-go-round on Godmother Kovachka's plot of land. After the war it all vanished, fairs on church feast days were banned, and many lovely customs were lost. This seems to me like a return to the good old times, as if I had come back home, to my childhood home, from a foreign land. I'm proud to belong to this nation, and I'm proud that my descendants will live here.
.... That's all for now. When we're more settled I'll write again. Don't worry about us, we're fine here, just take care of yourself, and write, write a lot.
.... Love,
.... Lisa."

Next: Chapter 20