by Karin M. Gertsch
The rhythm of my early childhood was as regulated as the Swiss clock chiming on the wall in our foyer in Cologne. Then one day, when I was six years old, my grandmother was forced to change the course of our lives.
That day had started normally. Mutti washed me in the large kitchen sink and then took a warm towel from the rod that ran across the front of the coal-fired cooking stove. As I held up my arms, she slipped the Forget-me-not blue dress, with the covered buttons, over my head; she slid on a clean pinafore and tied it behind my back. My waist-length flaxen hair she brushed one hundred gentle strokes, then gathered it with her hands to form two smooth braids on either side of my head, and finally tied on the freshly-ironed red satin ribbons.
Together we ate hot oatmeal cooked with milk. Afterwards, she packed my satchel properly: she checked that I had a clean, crocheted rag to wipe my personal slate; my stylus was sharpened; and my reader was inside. For lunch she had spread two thick slices of rye bread with bacon fat and dusted them with salt. Again she polished the red apple with a corner of her apron to be sure it shined.
Mutti took me by the hand, and held our schnauzer Butchie’s leash in the other, as she walked me to school. We crossed Severinstrasse, a main street, which was in the process of being rebuilt; heavy wooden planks created bridges so we could walk over the construction pits. Men were laying new cobblestones; they’d spun string across the pit to make sure the rows of heavy pavers would be laid straight. There was a lot of noise and the dust rose up so we had to cover our mouths and noses.
On our way to my school, Mutti told me stories about World War II and how bombs had destroyed Cologne. She and my grandfather, who I always called “Papa”, were forced to leave the city in 1944, because the air raids were happening every day and living there had become too dangerous. Mutti, Papa, and my mother fled Cologne and went to live in a little wine town in the Odenwald near Heidelberg: the town’s name is Heppenheim an der Bergstrasse. Mutti said when she, Papa, and my mother returned to Cologne with me after the war, the only way they were able to recognize where they were was by reading the street signs which had been stuck into the rubble – Aachenerstrasse, Bonnerstrasse, or Hohestrasse. Without these signs, as far as their eyes could see, the city they had known so well had been destroyed by bombs.
Before school, my classmates and I stacked our knapsacks in the schoolyard and took turns jumping over them, until the stack became too high and too wide to jump over. At lunch we sat at long wooden tables in the basement and ate our sandwiches, along with warm milk served in individual glass bottles; chocolate was my favorite.
In class I sat at a wooden desk wide enough to share with two other girls and wrote the lessons on my slate with a stylus. I wiped the slate clean with a rag Mutti had crocheted for me. When the teacher called my name, I stood next to my seat, and recited what I’d learned.
Every day my best friend and neighbor, Marianne, walked home from school with me. After changing into our lederhosen, we’d meet outside and play in the ruins on our street. Marianne and I climbed up the stone steps of the bombed-out school building next to my house; from the second floor windowsill, we’d jump onto a huge sand pile that workers had dumped on the ground. I wasn’t afraid to jump from high places and did other daredevil stunts, too. Grownups watched me and some told Mutti stories that made her sigh. Mutti’s friend, Frau Kanka, once said: Frau Herrmann, your granddaughter will not die a normal death; today I saw the ice truck leave our street, and Moni was wearing her roller skates, and clinging to the tailgate.
Today had started out so very normal, but it took a different turn after I returned from school. Mutti called to me from the kitchen as I entered the foyer. On that old wooden kitchen table there was a big box wrapped with brown paper and tied with string. The label had our name and address on it, but there was also writing I couldn’t read. It’s from your mother, Mutti said. I thought about my mother, and wasn’t surprised when I couldn’t remember her face.
After we unpacked the hand-knit wool sweater and socks for me, a can of Hershey chocolate syrup, some Wrigley’s chewing gum, and other things I can’t remember, Mutti read the letter inside the box. From my mother’s long-ago letter, the only words I remember are, come to America.
I ran out to play in the sand pile and the ruins, and shared the gum with Marianne and other kids who’d joined us; no one had ever had chewing gum; we were amazed we could chew and chew and the gum never got smaller. As we sat in the sand pile chewing gum, I told my friends I was going to America.
Where’s America? Marianne asked. I shrugged, not knowing the answer.
How will you get there? Asked another.
Will you come back? And more questions, with my shrugs as reply.
Later that evening, Mutti tucked me into bed, and told me that life in America would be better for us. I fell asleep wondering how life could get any better than this.
Karin Gertsch has written several short articles, which appeared in the “My View” column of the Gloucester Daily Times in Massachusetts. In 1997 her travel book, Cape Ann & Vicinity: A Guide for Residents and Visitors, was published by Acorn Press, and Karin actively participated in the promotion and sales of books. Last year Austin Macauley in New York published her first children’s book, Flora Has an Adventure. Also in 2019 the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library included her short story, “Dependence Day,” in their anthology honoring the 50th anniversary of Slaughterhouse Five. Currently the author is working on a novella entitled The Safari as well as on a first novel, Five Wishes.