Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
December rolled on towards Christmas. Frau Schmidt found a job in a dress shop in the High Street. Final term marks were posted on the classroom noticeboard for every subject and I had made top of the class in all but one subject – French. But then, I was competing with a native French speaker in Leurmet, whose father was a diplomat of some kind. The following day I had confirmation of what I had already guessed: I was top of my class overall, but I suppose I really should be, given what was in my head.
I did not usually enjoy Christmas shopping, but this year trying to find something for Frau Schmidt and Col had provided the spice I needed. My small weekly pocket money did not give me much to work with, but after school one day I went a bit further on the number 6 bus so I could wander along the High street.
In a toy shop, I saw the perfect gift for Col – a Matchbox car model of an E-type Jaguar coupé – and it was painted British racing green. I had no idea what to give Frau Schmidt, so I meandered along, looking into the various shop windows.
I eventually spied a scarf in swirls of black and crimson that blended into one another. It was tied around a mannequin’s neck. When I asked, I was told it wasn’t for sale, but a prop used to enhance an outfit. I explained I wanted to buy it as a Christmas present for my friend’s mother as it would go with her dark hair and eyes. The owner of the shop must have been a bit surprised at a schoolboy showing such taste. Eventually, she let me buy it for five shillings, a huge sum of money to my young self. On my way back up the High street, I acquired some blue tissue paper for wrapping and then made my way up to Col’s house. I had to be a bit careful about pulling my homework books out of my satchel when I got there but managed to keep the presents secret. That night in my bedroom I wrapped the scarf and model car ready to put under their Christmas tree a few days before Christmas.
A couple of days later, Col proudly showed me a newly installed phone sitting on the hall table. I wondered how they had managed that so quickly – usually it took weeks if not months for the GPO to install a new phone line. Whatever, I noted down the number to give to my mother.
The winter term ended a week before Christmas and I knew my school report would be arriving by post any day. Because of the bullying at school and beatings at home, I knew that schoolwork had been my lowest priority – so I had continually been close to the bottom of my class. My terrible school term reports had been a cause some of my father’s most explosive rages – accompanied by beatings. In my previous life, it had seemed that nothing I did made any difference and I had struggled through school, eventually escaping from home into mindless clerical work before discovering I had a brain. At school, I would try to concentrate and might manage for perhaps a week. Then something would cause my father to explode at me and school passed me in a blur. The only thing that helped was escaping into a book. Books that allowed escape into another world were particular favourites – I dreamed of opening a door and finding my way to Narnia or through Alice’s looking glass. I knew these worlds were not real, but I needed an escape. Ultimately, they were never enough and I found myself beside the railway track baring my forearms as a train approached.
This term, this report, I hoped, topping the class and glowing reports from my teachers would make a big difference, so my anxiety when the report arrived was present but muted.
The report arrived the Monday after school broke up for the holidays. Sitting at the kitchen table when he arrived home, my father opened my report and read through it. I was watching his face and it did not soften. He flipped back to the beginning.
“I will be contacting the school to check on these results as I seriously doubt they are correct. You were at the bottom of your class last term. This report has to be a mistake – or you have somehow forged it. As a result, you are forbidden to visit your friend Col and you will stay home and study at my direction.”
I looked across at my mother, who sat there, saying nothing, her faced closed.
“No.” I could hear the anger in my voice and I fought to control it. “You cannot do this to me. I’ve done really well this term and you dismiss my success as nothing.” My father’s eyes narrowed.
Taking a very deep breath I looked my father in the eye. Although I could feel the rage blazing through me under the surface, I managed to contain it, enunciating carefully.
“You cannot keep me from seeing my friend because you cannot keep me in the house – unless you tie me to my bed.”
I could see my father’s temper rising – and I no longer cared. My anger at his injustice had carried me beyond fear.
“You are no better than the bullies at school, but they at least have the excuse of being children.”
I took another deep breath as my father stood to tower over me. “William,” he growled.
“You no longer control me because I do not fear you. I despise you and I hate you.” Finally, the truth of my feelings about him lay starkly between us.
I could see the slap coming but held myself still. He caught me a really good one that sent me sprawling across the kitchen floor, with a ringing in my head. I ended up beside the sink. Trying not to cry I pulled myself up. I could see the bone-handled carving knife lying on the drying rack.
I looked at it and then at my father.
I heard my mother’s sharp intake of breath. She had seen my pointed look at the knife. I could also see in her eyes that she had no idea who this boy was that looked like her son.
Without hurrying, I walked to the back door and out of the house.
It was freezing outside and I was in just a thin jumper and pants, but I hardly felt it. I needed to regain control of my temper that was now threatening to surge through me and blank out all rational thought. I walked along the road and turned on to the cliff-top path away from the town. I knew my father would be looking for me at Col’s house. Eventually, my fury abated and I started crying. Not the wracking sobs that marked the end of a melt-down, but steady tears of endless sadness at my strange situation, my terrible father and my loveless home. Starting to feel the cold, I turned back along the cliff-top allowing me to approach Col’s house from the other direction along Sea View Road. The coast was clear: no sign of my father.
I arrived at Col’s door and knocked. The outside light flicked on and Frau Schmidt opened the door to a shivering, weeping boy.
“Willi, what are you doing here at this time of night?” Then she saw the shivers and tears and whisked me inside to sit in the kitchen. Col appeared in the doorway.
“Schnell. Hol eine Decke für deinen Freund.” (Quick. Get a blanket for your friend)
Col reappeared with the blanket that they gently tucked around me.
“What is going on, Willi? Your father was here earlier looking for you.” Frau Schmidt said softly.
I shook my head ... I couldn’t speak.
Frau Schmidt picked up a tea towel and started dabbing the tears from my face – and then she noticed the vivid red mark on my face.
“Willi, who hit you?” she asked, softly.
Col pulled up a chair beside me and clasped my hands in his, rubbing warmth into them.
Slowly, Frau Schmidt stemmed my tears. Col went to the sink and filled a glass with water and brought it to me. I took a sip and handed it back, so Col sat and again held my hands in his.
“Can you tell me what happened Willi?”
I looked at Col and Frau Schmidt and heaved a shivering sigh. I finally found my voice.
“My school report arrived and my father said I had forged it.”
“But you were doing really well. Weren’t you top of your class?” Col asked. I nodded.
“Did your father hit you?” Frau Schmidt asked, softly.
I nodded. “I told him I despised him and hated him,” I felt Frau Schmidt blanch at my vehemence, “and then he knocked me across the kitchen.”
Col wrapped his arms around me, resting his head on my shoulder. Looking at Frau Schmidt, I saw something different in her face, something I did not expect to see, something I had never seen there before: something hard and uncompromising.
There was a loud knock at the door.
“I expect that will be my father,” I said, retreating into the blanket.
Frau Schmidt looked at us. “Willi, does your father speak German?”
I shook my head.
“Well, if I need to say something just to the two of you, I will speak German.”
There were several hard thumps that rattled the door.
“Go into the lounge room but leave the door ajar so you can hear and unlock the veranda door, so you can escape quickly if you have to. Go.”
From the lounge, we heard Frau Schmidt slip on the safety chain and then open the front door. It slammed back against the chain, leaving the door open only a few inches.
“I want my son.” It was my father.
An arm reached through the gap, trying to snag the chain and release it.
“Why? So you can hit him some more?”
“You f•©king Nazi bitch – give me my son.”
Frau Schmidt gave a low, calculated laugh. “Ach so. Because I am German you think I am a Nazi?” Her voice slowed, dripping with derision. “You have no idea how wrong you are.” She rolled up her left sleeve, baring her forearm.
“Look at my arm. See the numbers? I expect even you know what they signify.” She paused.
Her voice was low but intense enough for us to hear. “Amongst other things, it means you cannot scare me. I had Elfriede Muller and the rest of the SS scum at Ravensbrück at me for five years and you think you can scare me?” Her voice was contemptuous. “You are a mere bag of wind. Go home.”
“John. John.” My mother had arrived behind my father, panting for breath. “Please stop this and come home.” Her voice cracked. “Please John, come home. You’re making a spectacle of yourself. We can deal with this in the morning when things will be clearer.”
Frau Schmidt stood there. “Yes, go home. I will come tomorrow to your house and we will talk. Tonight, Willi stays here.”
My father’s arm retreated and Frau Schmidt stood there looking out. After a minute she closed the door, walked into the kitchen and sat down, taking a very deep breath. Col and I came out and sat down with her at the table. Her eyes were closed and I could see her fingers trembling slightly.
“They have gone,” Frau Schmidt said, opening her eyes.
I looked at her left forearm, still bared. In blue dye, six slightly blurred numbers were tattooed there. From my seventy-year-old perspective, I knew what they meant, but not Frau Schmidt’s story.
“What does that mean?” I asked, pointing at her forearm.
Frau Schmidt looked at her forearm. She brushed her sleeve down, covering the tattoo and inhaled deeply. Her eyes closed as she looked through the walls to a different time and a place of humiliation, brutality and death. Finally, she turned to Col and me.
“Col knows a little of this, but Willi, have you heard about the death camps the Nazis set up?”
I shook my head. Col’s right hand snuck into my left and he leaned against my shoulder. He knew that I was about to hear something terrible.
Frau Schmidt was looking over our heads, reliving her experience and not seeing the present. “They put people they feared, did not want or wished to punish and kill into camps. My parents were communists. They just executed my father but my mother and I were sent to other camps and finally to Ravensbrück, a camp for women. To the guards, we did not have names, just these numbers.” She paused, sliding her fingers under her sleeve, tracing the numbers on her forearm.
“The camps were bad from the start with brutal women guards, but as the war turned against the Nazis, the camps got worse.” Mutti Frida swallowed and her voice became distant. “So much worse.” For a few seconds, she was no longer in the room with us but stood again inside the wire with hundreds of emaciated women and children shuffling into rows to be counted as guards shouted and vicious dogs barked, straining against their leashes.
She rubbed her forehead and looked back at us with eyes filled with sadness and pity.
“Many prisoners were killed and many others died from beatings or sickness. Some simply gave up on life. Hundreds starved to death.” She paused, taking a breath. “My mother was one of them.”
Tears formed in the corners of her eyes.
“We had to work, to earn our food, to earn our life each day, one day at a time. I had the job of taking out the slops and carrying such food as they deemed appropriate to some special prisoners kept separately from the rest of us – English girls sent to France to act as spies and captured by the Nazis. That is where I started to learn English.” She took a shuddering breath.
“Those girls were so courageous. They had been beaten and tortured and knew they were going to die, but they befriended me and did not show me their fear. The Nazis did not seem to care if I spent time sitting on the floor outside their cells, talking with them through the meal hatches. The SS kept some of them alive for months, but eventually, the day would come and one or more of the cells was again empty. I would learn from the others that they had been shot or hanged and their bodies burned with all the others. Death was everywhere in the camp, every second of every day – a close companion to us all. As the Russians approached, the remaining English girls were all murdered.” Frau Schmidt paused; eyes closed as terrible memories rushed through her.
“And then they started on the rest of us.”
Frau Schmidt stopped, realising suddenly that this was a very harrowing story to be telling us.
Her voice lightened, “But then, for some reason, the SS released most of us German prisoners, several thousand women and children, into the spring countryside. Possibly they wanted no witnesses to the final slaughter of the others left in the camp.” She paused, perhaps remembering the sudden freedom. “I was picked up by Russian soldiers after a day or so hiding in the woods. I learned from their officer that they had been told to watch for women wearing the red triangle that the Nazis used to label communist prisoners. I turned sixteen that May.” She looked at Col. “More than half of my life had been spent in prisons and that camp.”
Frau Schmidt stood up and went to the sink, pouring herself a glass of water and then turned back to us, sipping it and looking at us over the rim of the glass.
“So, Willi, now you know something of the darkness that we all have inside of us. Those SS guards were just people like us: mothers, sisters, daughters but they let that darkness inside them take control.” Her eyes came to rest on me. “I fear your father is also losing control of the darkness inside him.”
Col and I sat, silenced by the brutal intensity of what we had heard.
Frau Schmidt put down her water, walked over and gathered us both to her in a long, fierce hug. “And now, we must eat, for I think Willi will not have eaten tonight? No?”
So the evening ended in a strange normality as we sat round the kitchen table, eating and chatting. After supper, Col and I made up the sofa with sheets and a pile of blankets so I could sleep there. Despite the high emotion of the evening, I slid rapidly into sleep, perhaps because I felt safe in this friendly house.
I was woken by Frau Schmidt clattering quietly in the kitchen. I lay in bed before summoning the courage to throw off the covers and get dressed in the cold room.
“Good morning, Willi. Would you like some hot milk?”
“Yes please.” Frau Schmidt opened the small fridge and measured two cups into a saucepan, setting it on the stove to heat.
Col appeared and joined me in sipping hot milk and spreading butter on thick slices of warm rye bread which we topped with slices of cheese. Frau Schmidt had made coffee for herself and that familiar and much-loved aroma teased my nostrils. I wondered if I could one day ask to try coffee – and what my young tastebuds would make of it.
“Now Willi, I am going to phone your mother and see if I can go and talk to her. You will stay here for now as I think it would make it more difficult if you were there.”
At that moment, the phone rang and Frau Schmidt answered it. She turned to me as she said, “Good morning Frau Doktor. I was just about to phone you.” She paused, listening to my mother.
“Yes. It is I think best if I come to your house without Willi to talk about what is to be done.” She paused again.
“That will be fine. I will walk round in about 30 minutes.”
She ended the call and sat down to finish her coffee. I could see the love for both of us as she sat there, thinking about what was to come. At that moment, I realised in wonder just how far she was prepared to go on my behalf and I understood, half guiltily, I loved her perhaps more than my mother.
“Now Willi, you and Col will stay here. I will go and speak with your mother.”