The Days... Content
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The Days of Unleavened Bread


We walked down a gravel path and approached a big wrought-iron gate with an inscription in Gothic lettering, in large brass letters: KASTANIENHOF. There was a smaller gate for pedestrians, with a plate bearing the inscription: Robert Meyer, Architect.
.... After ringing the bell, we heard a pleasant baritone saying over the entryphone, "Please come in", and the buzzing of the electric lock roused us from our reverie. The door closed slowly behind us with a quiet click. The path wound first to the left, then to the right, in the shape of the letter S, so that at first the view was hidden by tall ornamental shrubs and trees. After the second turning the view opened up and we could see the whole estate in front of us. It was as if the outside world had disappeared, as if nothing existed except this handsome building in the middle of a spacious green lawn, dotted with shrubs and trees of various sizes and colours. Around the house the shrubs were smaller and grew more sparsely, becoming bigger and growing more densely around the borders of the estate. The green branches were intermingled with clusters of red cotoneaster and rowan berries, japonica, and the gentle, beautiful poinsettias mingled with magnolia shrubs and trees covered with beautiful bell-shaped blossoms - scarlet, orange, and white. On the lawn to the south of the house there was a swimming pool bordered with large round stones. Our gaze wandered back to the single-storey building. It was a half-timbered house, its criss-cross beams painted a dark colour and harmoniously combined with bricks.
.... A man and a woman appeared at the door, smiling. Holding hands, they came down the steps and advanced to meet us. We recognized Robert, although many years had passed since our last meeting. We didn't know her, but we soon felt like old friends, because she was so unaffected and frank, with a smile that invited intimacy and showed she was glad to see us.
.... Robert asked us to call him by his first name, as we had done back in the old country. Our young hostess asked us to call her by her first name, too:
.... "Call me Karla."
.... Besides her cheerful smile, we noticed her long blonde hair, falling down to her shoulders in soft waves, with the ends turned in towards her slender white neck. Her round face seemed tiny, and her big blue eyes were restless like sapphire rings on the hands of a pianist playing a prelude.
.... "How are things back in the old country? We hear all sorts of rumours here, often contradictory ones, so sometimes it's hard to know what the truth is," Robert said.
.... "Things are not going too well, Robert, we fear the worst. On the one hand there are people who have got used to power, to privileges, and on the other hand there are people who want to be free, who dream of democracy and of deciding their own fate. Some people here in the West don't understand the tragic predicament of small nations in the East, suffering in near-colonial servitude. Some people here think things should stay as they are for the sake of peace, when in fact it's the other way round. Unless changes are made and small nations become free, the danger of a conflict will grow. Still, we all hope reason will triumph and that everything will be settled peacefully."
.... "Mother's room is upstairs. The furniture is arranged the way we found it in her flat, where she had moved from the estate where she used to work. The cupboard is full of her souvenirs and notes."
.... Lisa's Diary was there, her notes and newspaper cuttings. The newspaper articles were marked in different colours, and some passages had been underlined. In the margins there were notes written in neat handwriting. There were also several advertisements cut out of newspapers: "How to beat fear with hypnosis", "Greater self-confidence through hypnosis", "Gypsy tells fortunes by means of cards and palmistry, makes house calls", "Meditation teacher treats insomnia". There were also two tickets for the Kalnik cinema, on the backs of which was written "'One Day in a Life', end of August 54", and two tickets for the Zagreb cinema with the note: "'Gone with the Wind', 15th September 1954".
.... "Soon after I had mailed mother's letter, to which I had added a post-script saying that mother had died, I received a reply signed: 'Your father, Alfred Meyer'... We met here on this estate, in the house that had belonged to father's parents. We pulled down the old house and built this one, exactly like the sketch father had made for my mother long ago in forty-three. Father would stay in mother's room long into the night, reading her Diary and talking to her, as he used to say; or the two of us would have long talks about those times. In forty-three things got steadily worse on the Russian front. One Russian offensive followed another. The cold gnawed at your bones, shells exploded day and night, the wounded screamed, your comrades were killed. Father was captured as he lay in the snow, wounded; he had almost been smothered in the snow. In the hospital they amputated his leg. There followed long and painful interrogations about the movements of the German army. 'That's the only reason they saved my life,' father would add. During the long nights in Russia father would often think about my mother. Sometimes he would talk to her, as if she was there with him and he could see her, and she would reply. He came back from captivity in fifty-five. Then he tried to find mother. He discovered that she was married and that she had a son... Late in the evening, when the fire in the fireplace had burned low, we would still be talking, absorbed in a subject I never tired of asking him about. How had Hitler managed to drag the Germans into such a catastrophe? 'Nobody then imagined that it would all end so tragically,' father said. 'After that crisis in the thirties, when the catastrophe was imminent, when we had to choose between Communism and National-Socialism, the side that seemed to offer the most hope won. People believed that they would put right the injustice that had been done to the German people by the Treaty of Versailles, which had been forced on us, and under which German territory had been handed over to neighbouring countries, while the Germans were the only nation blamed for the outbreak of the First World War. When Hitler came to power unemployment vanished and there was an economic boom. The most powerful and up-to-date army in the world was created, we started to believe that we were the strongest nation, that we were invincible.'... Father was keen on Western democracy, where the people make decisions and choose whom they want to lead them. He was against both totalitarian systems, Fascism and Communism. Sometimes his old warrior spirit would emerge. His eyes would sparkle as he talked about the battles on the Eastern front, when he believed he was fighting for the welfare, not only of Germany but of the whole of humanity, because the world was threatened by Bolshevism. He had spent twelve years in Russia, he had learned the Russian language and made his way slowly into the pores of their society. He talked of their abject post-war poverty and the people's hopelessness, of the ruthless persecutions of innocent people. And how hard it was to be a German prisoner of war! Father remembered how he used to stay awake for much of the night, curled up on a hard bed, with his clothes on and wrapped in a threadbare blanket. He was so cold and hungry that he couldn't get to sleep... There were easier moments, especially in late summer and autumn, when they went to work in the collective farms. The people there thought every German was a mechanic and could repair a tractor. 'Often all we had to do was change a sparking plug or clean a jet. Then, in the evening, they would sometimes offer us a glass of vodka along with the borscht.' Father would talk about the cheerful character of the Russian people, their warm-hearted and good-natured Slav temperament, and how the Russians, warmed by vodka, would sing 'Shiraka strana maya radnaya' or 'Tamnaya noch', and then they, the prisoners, would join in. He would sit there for a while, lost in thought, and then he would say, 'It's a shame about those people.' The fire would be burning itself out on the hearth, father would nod off to sleep, and I would cover him with a blanket and let him sleep. After a while he would give a start, and then he would go on talking, as if what he was saying followed from the dream he had just had: 'You know, Robert, it was hard being a German after the war. Wherever we went, we felt people were looking at us with hatred and the desire for revenge. But what could the man in the street have done? There were attempts to change the course of events. But you know yourself how the attempt to assassinate Hitler ended.... We knew only what the people in power wanted us to know. People spoke and wrote about labour camps, but it wasn't until the end of the war that we learned about the atrocities and the gas chambers. It will take time for the stains to fade, but you'll see, Robert, history will not judge us as harshly as many people did after the war.'... Every evening, at five minutes to seven o'clock, the wooden steps would creak. You may have noticed that nothing in this house is built of concrete. 'Reinforced concrete is uncongenial and cold, but wood is warm and much healthier,' father would say. He would come down to supper at exactly the same time every day. One evening, when I saw it was ten past seven and father hadn't come down yet, I hurried upstairs to his room. He was leaning back in his armchair, and his head had fallen forward on to his chest, as if he was asleep. He passed away so suddenly and so quietly that I still feel as if he has gone on a journey and will come back."
.... The family dinner was nearly over. It was the first week of April, the anniversary of their arrival in the land of their ancestors. Memories of the journey came rushing back, of the days when the ethnic Germans fled along with the retreating German army, when unleavened bread was baked in desperate haste.
.... "Those were the days of unleavened bread, like those in the Bible," Robert said, and went on: "I remember, I can still see Mother bending over the basin. 'It would be a pity to leave this flour behind,' she said, kneading the dough vigorously. The following day we set off." Robert paused, and then said, "I'm sorry mother didn't live to see this." He looked out of the window, at the view of the park with its line of chestnut trees. "'The only thing I want is for you to succeed,' mother would say, 'That would be my success, too.' And then she would go on, 'If only I could meet your father, if I could see him just once more and touch him.' We followed mother's wishes, as she wrote them down in the last paragraph of her letter to my father:
.... '...Oh, how wonderful it would be, dear Alfred, if our ashes could be mingled, so that the particles of our bodies could stay together, touching, and the atoms from our bodies, in their eternal movement, could be close to each other! Perhaps the eternity of their movements could make up a little for this transient moment of our earthly life, which, as it draws to a close, seems like a brief illusion or a dream that is soon over...
.... Your Lisa'"