by Eric Dupont
Marchand de feuilles, 2012
Dreadful news reached us that October. The Russians had broken through the frontline, coming into East Prussia by the village of Nemmersdorf, where the Wehrmacht managed to beat them back a few days later. Villagers were found massacred, their bodies mutilated. All the women had been raped, some finished off with bayonets. People were restless, but nobody dared leave.
The Neumanns didn’t hold out much longer. One night in November, they left without saying a word to anyone. Only to come back again three hours later. After a bridge, they had come across three hanged men. One had a sign around his neck: “I tried to flee.”
Wolfgang didn’t come home until Christmas. He assured us that the Wehrmacht was preparing—in the event of an emergency, we shouldn’t talk about it—a mass evacuation by way of the Baltic Sea. That if the Russians came, if we heard artillery, we should leave for Gotenhafen. The order to evacuate would come eventually. He seemed very calm. All of East Prussia was absurdly calm in December 1944. He even decorated a Christmas tree for the Neumann children and his own. He looked relieved. Neumann explained to me later that Wolfgang must have understood that the war was almost at an end, that he would be able to go back to his normal life again, in his own home. Little Helga was already talking. Hans was eight years old. The two eldest were able to sleep, but the youngest would often be woken by nightmares. They would dream of the zebra galloping beneath the bombs, you see. You’re smiling, Kapriel? Do you think it’s funny? Would you like me to stop there?
[Here, Michel, she stood up. Went into the kitchen, where I heard her sniff once. Blew her nose. Came back standing quite straight.]
Wolfgang left again for Gotenhafen on January 6, the feast of the Three Kings. Before he left, there was of course a scene or two with Clara. I would hear them through the wall shouting at each other. “When it’s all over, I’ll have you locked up! You’ll go back to the institution, you crazy bitch!” And he left, at last. Anja pointed out to me that there were no SS families left in Königsberg. Unlike most, they had been given permission to travel. All people wanted was to find refuge in the Reich, in Berlin or Dresden, not to stay there, waiting to be torn to shreds by the Bolsheviks. Anja found it strange, and I did too, that Wolfgang hadn’t wangled us permission to travel. Before he left, he said to me again: “When the Russians come, leave with the Neumanns. Come meet me in Gotenhafen and we’ll all leave by sea.”
A thick snow began to fall, Kapriel. A real winter like none East Prussia had seen for a very long time. A Soviet winter. Fifteen, eighteen degrees below zero. What? You’re not impressed? On January 12, 1945, the Russians marched across the German border and news spread like wildfire across the city. People now openly ignored the travel ban, hitched up their oxen, their horses, put together makeshift carts. A whole people took to the roads.
The Neumanns had prepared a cart. It even had a roof. Frau Neumann in particular was in a rush to leave: she had three girls, all younger than I was, who had been sharing the same room since August with their parents, our old living room. In the meantime, we had had to put other people up, so many homes had been bombarded.
We left on January 22. I led the procession. Two carts and four horses for four families. Just the one man, Herr Neumann, who had never led anything in his life. All these people had become my whole world. My mission was to bring them to Gotenhafen, or further west, ideally as far as Berlin.
“We’re not waiting any longer. We’ll have to walk to Elbing. There will definitely be a train after that.”
Clara refused to leave. She clung to her piano, wouldn’t hear of leaving the music room. It was too cold, she cried. The Neumann guy had a wooden leg, that’s why he was still in Königsberg and not with the Wehrmacht. We had buried the china and silverware in the garden again, not too far from where the Neumanns had buried the zebra, by an apple tree. Because we were sure we would be coming back. It would only be for a while. I put the children in the cart with a suitcase, then went back into the house to tear Clara away from her piano.
“We have to leave right away.”
“I’m not going anywhere without my piano.”
Then she wanted to bring all her scores. I let her bring just the one book. You know what she wanted to keep? The Magic Flute. “To sing with the children along the way,” she said.
Alongside the cart, we walked toward Elbing. How far? At least one hundred kilometres. The temperature had fallen again to around -25. We each walked in silence. A long, unending line of people. Only the old, the children, and the sick sat in the carts; the others walked. A little while after Königsberg, shouts and cries from behind us. “Get a move on!” It was the Wehrmacht, our own army, arriving by truck, fleeing the same danger we were, only they had gas! And they were knocking down the carts, knocking people out of their way to save their own skin. How many kilometres did we walk the first day? Twenty? No. Fewer. We had to find somewhere to sleep. In the homes abandoned by people who had to be further on, we even found a few potatoes. The second night, we slept in the home of a countess. I don’t remember which one, but she let us sleep in her heated anteroom. Otherwise everyone would have died of cold. She said, I remember, “We have to get past Elbing as quickly as we can. We need to hurry before they surround us.” That very night, the countess left with her people, in the shadows. We needed to sleep. But the rest proved fatal. There must have been twenty-odd families on Mozart Street. Some had stayed behind, like Anja, who didn’t want to come with us. It’s funny, it wasn’t until a few days after we left that I started to wonder what had happened to her. What would become of her? What would the Russians do to her? She didn’t want to come to Germany. She preferred to try her luck with the Russians. Go figure… To do that, Kapriel, to do that, she really had to find the Germans… Anyway… A little more white wine? Where’s the corkscrew? How old would Anja be today?
[With that, Michel, she got up again, pretending she couldn’t find the corkscrew she had left on the little table beside her. She disappeared into the kitchen. I heard her blow her nose again, once or twice. Then she came back in with another corkscrew.]
This will do the job! Look, Konsum’s finest! Made in the GDR! Ha! Ha! Now where was I? Oh, yes! We lose all notion of time, you know. I know we left Königsberg on the 22nd, I remember that the countess was the second night and that Clara wanted to play her piano. There must have been a hundred of us watching her play The Magic Flute in the music room of that grand old home.
It would be the last time she would ever play the piano. Then she wanted me to sing “Ach, ich fühl’s.” I got through half of it. How they applauded! I had never been applauded like that. Just to please them, I finished the song. The next day, the shit really hit the fan because, until that point, the heavens had been with us. First, old Meisel, the cook I had been holding by the arm as we walked beside the cart, sat down on the side of the road. She never got back up. She died right there and then, Kapriel. It was cold enough to kill you standing there with your boots on, you can tell them that back in Canada. And that’s what happened her, along with thousands of others who never picked themselves back up again from the side of the road as they tried to flee. Then, just before Elbing—we must have been a little after Heiligenbeil—a Wehrmacht convoy appeared right in front of us.
“Turn back,” they shouted. “They’re at Elbing!”
There were a million and a half of them, Russians hell bent on revenge, pouring into Germany. They had taken Elbing, which meant that East Prussia had been surrounded. All the carts pulled off to the side and the Wehrmacht trucks raced past. Some were only half full. They didn’t think to stop to pick up the sick or the children. We needed to turn around, but to go where? The sea was our only means of escaping Ivan, to the north, above the Vistula Lagoon. We had to reach the small strip of land, the Vistula Isthmus, that links Gdansk to East Prussia. Ivan hadn’t gotten that far yet. The cold that had taken so many children and old people now gave us the ice that would save us from the Russians. Thousands of families waited, not daring to venture out onto the ice. Far off in the distance, we could hear the artillery. I had to take Clara by the arm; she was liable to collapse at any minute. She climbed onto the cart with the children, then Herr Neumann made the decision.
“We need to cross. Otherwise Ivan will take us here on the shoreline.”
And like a colony of ants making its way across the white tiles on a bathroom floor, we advanced. In silence so we could hear the sound the ice made when it cracked. The clanking of the harnesses, the children sobbing in the carts, the wailing of the oldest among us. Then a cry rang out:
“Planes!” It was already too late to take cover on the shore. Three times they swooped down at us. Whole families were swallowed up with each explosion. There was nothing we could do for them. We had to walk around the holes and keep on walking. How can I describe the scene to you? We were walking across the frozen Vistula Lagoon to reach Gdansk when the planes arrived. We could hear them long before we saw them, the sinister din announcing it would all be over for us soon. The whistling sound draws nearer, won’t take no for an answer, grabs your attention and won’t let go.
But you run, there’s no time. The harnesses clank even harder, the horses whinny in fright. Then the planes swoop down. You pray to the heavens. Not me! Have pity, not me! I’m a good girl! I went to Sophie Charlotte Schule! I learned French! I don’t deserve these bombs! And twenty metres ahead of us, the ice opens wide, swallows two carts. An old woman stands at the edge, peering into the icy hole her family has just fallen into. Keep going. Walk on. And the music of Mozart going around and around in your head, because after three nights without sleep, you’re starting to go mad. You can hear voices. And the overture to The Magic Flute banging away at your eardrums. Ach! When it wasn’t the Russian bombs—dropped on civilians, Kapriel!—it was the sometimes too-thin ice that gave way beneath the weight of the carts. Shouts. The sound of the water, lapping. Then nothing. Go on. Walk around. Be quiet. I remember, from the other side of the lagoon we walked a few kilometres across the ice that covered the land. There was a woman tugging on the arm of an old lady, her mother. People were just falling stone dead at the side of the road. No time to bury them, no time to say goodbye. Anyone who sat down stayed down. Frozen in two minutes flat. When we got to the other side, we realized: Helga. You know, children don’t stand up to the cold as well. We had to leave her by the side of the road too. Without a word.
Translation by Peter McCambridge
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