Through My Eyes. Again
Copyright© 2020 by Iskander
On Monday morning as we walked down the aisle of the bus towards Lili, she stood up and waved a newspaper. Before we even sat down, she blurted out, “Willi, you’re in the local newspaper.”
Lili handed me the paper, folded to an inside page. There was that photo of me again and a short article that basically repeated what the Polish newspaper had said, except it added that I was the son of Dr Johnstone, a local doctor in Herne Bay.
It felt like everyone was conspiring to force me to take the trip. I shook my head and sighed.
“I have to reply to the letter tomorrow, telling them if I accept the award or not.”
Neither Col nor Lili said a word, but Col surreptitiously squeezed my hand in sympathy.
At school, Mr Sturr was on my case about it, too. The feeling that I was being hemmed in grew ever stronger.
On the bus home, my impending decision was the elephant in the room, stifling most normal conversation and it got more stifling at Lili’s house as Mrs Wiśniewski was home early and pushed her view strongly until I insisted we needed to get on with our homework.
Mutti Frida was later than usual meeting us at Lili’s house.
She apologised to Mrs Wiśniewski, “I’m sorry I’m late, Daria. I was delayed at the shop for a while.”
“Nothing serious, I hope?”
I noticed Col giving her mother an intense look.
“No, just a mix up in the stock list that took a while to sort out.” She turned to Col and me. “Come on children, we need to let these good people have their supper.”
We hustled out of the house and once we were a few yards along the road, Col grabbed her mother’s hand. “What’s going on, Mutti?”
Mutti Frida shook her head. “When we get home, Col.”
So, we walked home mostly in silence.
Col pounced as the front door closed behind us.
“What’s going on?”
Mutti Frida hung up her coat. “Come and sit down you two.”
Col grabbed my hand and pulled me into a seat.
Mutti Frida pulled out a chair and sat down. “Herr Watling was waiting for me when we closed up the shop.” She paused and gave me a strange look.
“It seems that the Polish community has tentacles that reach even into MI6 – and then there’s the article in the local newspaper today.” Another pause...
“Willi, they now think it would be suspicious if you did not go.”
Col sat bolt upright in her chair. “What?”
“It seems that you have become a bit of a cause celebre for the awarding committee. Your tardiness in replying is seen as a reluctance to go, yet there is a cheer squad pushing for you to go and ‘see through’ the front the DDR will put up for you.” She gave me an apologetic look. “All of this has made you rather visible.”
“If it was just you ... I mean if it were not for your fears about our safety, would you go?” Col asked.
“Ummm ... I don’t know, that’s something I haven’t considered. Your safety is the most important thing to me.”
“Herr Watling doesn’t think there is any risk to us if you go. In fact, they think that you must go now. That if you don’t, the Stasi, my husband, will wonder why and they may send someone to investigate you, which would be dangerous for us.”
Good grief. Now even Mutti Frida is pushing me to go. All this ran through my head as we ate supper and sat reading afterwards – rather distractedly on my part.
My mother and sister were in the lounge room when I arrived home. My sister looked up briefly and then returned to her book, but my mother put down her newspaper and patted the settee, inviting me to sit beside her.
“Hello, Will. You’re becoming a bit of a local star.” She smiled as I sat down beside her. “So, are you any closer to deciding what to do?”
My sister looked up, frowning. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Surely it can’t matter what some random boy does?”
My mother ignored the remark and gave me a questioning look.
“I don’t have to make up my mind until tomorrow.”
“That’s true. So... ?”
“So, I want to sleep on it tonight.”
“OK, Will.” My mother paused. “I want you to know that it is your decision. You’ve heard my views...” she paused and gave a humourless laugh. “ ... and those of lots of other people, too. But it’s your life and you should decide for yourself.”
I nodded. If only it was that easy. It wasn’t just my life that would be affected, whichever way I decided.
“I’m going to bed. Perhaps it will be clearer for me in the morning.”
My mother smiled gently. “Goodnight, Will. Sleep well.”
Surprisingly, sleep came quickly, but when I woke in the morning confusing shards of dreams afflicted me. I lay there, pushing them aside for a while, but I now realised that I had to take up the offer. It seemed too problematic for Col and Mutti Frida if I did not go. That everyone else and their dogs wanted me to go for their own reason did not carry any weight.
I dressed and headed down to breakfast, where I told my mother of my decision.
“OK, Will. I’ll pick up a passport application for you and make an appointment for you to get a passport photo late one afternoon this week.”
I wandered down to our front gate. Col arrived shortly after and we set off for the bus and joined Lili on the back seat.
I looked at the two girls. “I’ve decided I have to go.”
Col looked at me. “But you don’t want to?”
I sighed in frustration. “It’s almost like I’ve been pushed into deciding this way.” I could see Col frowning.
“Not by you and Mutti Frida, Col, but by everyone else. All this stuff in the newspapers has made it difficult and it now seems that you will be safer if I do go.” I let out a frustrated breath. “Even though I find that hard to believe.”
“Oh, Willi. I’m so sorry things have turned out this way.”
I snorted. “It’s not your fault, Col. I should never have entered this wretched competition.”
Lili had been silent through this and I could see she was upset about her mother’s part in this.
“It’s all right, Lili. What’s happened is not your fault. Please don’t let it worry you.”
“But I do, Willi. If Mumia had not interfered and got that article published, none of this pressure on you would have happened.” Lili was almost in tears.
I reached across and held her hand until she looked up. “It’s not your fault, Lili.” I held her gaze for a few seconds until she gave me a tentative smile.
I shrugged. “It’s all water under the bridge now, anyway. My mother is arranging my passport application and a photo and I’ll tell my German teacher, Mr Sturr, today that I’m going. Things are moving along and now I have to make the best of them.”
“Do you know where you are going?” Col asked.
“Not yet. I suppose they’ll tell me that once I accept the prize.”
As usual, I got off the bus a couple of stops before the girls’ stop at the bus station and walked into school. I had time before morning assembly to write my letter of acceptance. I could pick up an envelope and stamp in Herne Bay as the post office was almost on our route to Lili’s house.
After my German class, I told Mr Sturr that I was accepting the prize and he was delighted.
“Excellent, excellent. It’s a great honour for the school and I’m sure your parents are proud of you.” He tipped his glasses forward and looked at me over them. “Hmm ... I expect you to write a report on your visit to East Germany for the school magazine.”
“Yes, sir.” I escaped quickly to avoid him from loading me with anything else. He was a pretty good teacher but could become quite pompous at times.
As planned, on the way to Lili’s house we diverted via the post office and I posted my acceptance letter. I was now committed, like Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon: Alea iacta est.
The next few days felt strange: there had been so much tension building up to the decision and so many threads had seemed to be weaving into a knot of truly Gordian proportions, that I felt almost lost and, well, empty now the decision was made. This put a strain on things with Col and Lili, who tried, without success, to lift me out of my grey mood.
I duly had my passport photo taken and my mother and I completed the passport application and took it to the post office.
On Friday evening, my mother took me up to the loft to look over the old suitcases stored there. They were all rather tatty and so we went shopping on Saturday afternoon, acquiring a new suitcase. It was eye-opening to see how primitive suitcases were compared to the strong, light and wheeled ones from my old life. I would have to carry the one we selected, but none of the suitcases I looked at had wheels. We also bought a couple of shirts and pairs of slacks. My school uniform was essentially a black suit and my mother decided that, dry cleaned and pressed, would do for formal occasions.
A few days later, a thick envelope from the International Youth Cultural Exchange Program arrived in the mail. I went through it that evening with my mother and took it with me the following day on the bus, but I did not bring it out until we arrived at Lili’s house in the afternoon.
They pored over it, asking questions which I could not answer: the documents were the sum total of the information I had. All the winners (how many, I wondered) were to meet at the Victoria Station Hotel in London on the Tuesday after Easter, 31st March by noon. There we would get to meet everyone else, staying for the night. On Wednesday morning we would go by bus to Heathrow airport to catch a BEA flight to West Berlin. We were going to spend one night in West Berlin before going by bus to East Berlin. We would stay there for four days, visiting the Staatsoper for a performance and several museums and art galleries. We were going to visit a school – a Polytechnische Oberschule, a combined primary and grammar school Col explained, and we’d spend time with members of the Freie Deutsche Jugend.
Lili looked at Col when she read that. “What’s that? Were you a member?”
“No, Lili. You have to be fourteen before you can join.” She gave Lili a hard look. “I know what you’re thinking and its nothing like the Hitler Jugend.” Then her voice softened. “I was a member of Pionierorganisation Ernst Thälmann, but then all young children were. They’re like the cubs and brownies here in England.”
We would then travel to Dresden for more of the same and then on to Leipzig before returning to Berlin, where we would visit the Volkskammer, the East German Parliament before returning via West Berlin to England.
On several occasions when Lili was asking questions, I sensed Col was holding back. We both knew she was from the DDR and specifically Leipzig, so I didn’t understand her reticence but did not push the issue.
Mutti Frida duly arrived and we walked back to their house. After tea, I gave Mutti Frida the documents.
Mutti Frida slid the papers out of what was becoming a well-worn envelope. After a while, she looked up from the papers. “You will have a busy time on this trip, Willi.”
“It certainly doesn’t look like there is much time to ourselves.”
Mutti Frida carefully folded the papers and slid them back into the envelope.
“Can you tell me more about what to expect?” I asked.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Col shake her head. “I don’t think we should do that Willi.”
“Why not – you know all about Leipzig and you must have visited East Berlin and Dresden.”
“Col’s right, Willi. We can’t tell you much or it would look suspicious. After all, how would an English boy know much about East Germany?”
“Oh, I see what you mean.” I thought for a moment. “Perhaps the library has some information, we can stop there on the way home tomorrow. Oh – and I’ll ask my German teacher, too.”
At the end of my German class, I told Mr Sturr I was looking for information about East Germany and the cities we were visiting.
“Hmmm ... I was in East Berlin a few years ago.” He paused, casting his mind back to his visit. “It’s not as well developed as West Berlin – but then it’s not seeking to develop a capitalist society, but one of cooperation.” His eyes drifted away from mine as he thought. “Hmm ... perhaps I can find you some information.” His gaze returned to my face. “When are you leaving, boy?”
He knew my name well enough, his refusal to use it was an unconscious indicator of his old-fashioned attitudes. I didn’t like it but showing that would not get me what I wanted.
“Immediately after Easter, sir.”
He nodded. “Excellent, excellent. That gives us a couple of weeks. Leave it with me and I’ll see what I can do.”
That afternoon, Mrs Price was at the library desk when we arrived and gave me the evil eye as usual. I found the older librarian and asked for help, but unfortunately, there was precious little information in the library about post-war East Germany, just a few paragraphs in the Encyclopedia Britannica covering some basic information.
Col continued in her refusal to answer any questions, insisting that I could only use the information that I found out myself. But then help arrived from an unexpected source: Mrs Wiśniewski. Lili must have told her about my search for information and through her contacts turned up some copies of Neues Deutschland – the newspaper of the government of the DDR.
She sat down at the table where the three of us were doing our homework. “Now Willi, I have managed to get some information for you.” She laid the four newspapers on the table but kept her hand firmly on them. “You need to understand that this newspaper is run by and for the government of the DDR – it is propaganda aimed in part at the people of East Germany but also at the west – particularly West Germany.”
I started to reach for the papers, eager for any insight into the society I was to visit, but Mrs Wiśniewski was not finished with her admonitions. “Willi, read them very carefully – and read between the lines and behind the words, knowing that many of them are lies.”
She gave me a fierce look. “Do not be taken in by their lies, Willi.” She then pushed them across the table towards me.
“Thank you, Mrs Wiśniewski.”
The papers were from the last week in February, so they were about a week old, but I was not seeking current news from them but a feeling for the society and its culture. As today was a Polish day, I reluctantly folded the papers and put them in my satchel for later.
Once we arrived back at Col’s house, I pulled them out. Mutti Frida’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Where did you get those, Willi?”
“Mrs Wiśniewski got them for me, probably through her Polish contacts.”
Mutti Frida picked up the one on top and started looking over it. I grabbed the next one and, after watching her mother and me disappear into their folds, Col picked one up and started flicking through it in a desultory fashion, turning pages.
I was deep in an article lauding the education system when I heard Col gasp.
“Mutti, Mutti. Er ist es.” She pushed the paper across the table to her mother.
Mutti Frida looked down at the page Col had pushed across and closed her eyes, opening them after a few seconds to look across at Col. “Yes, Col, that’s him.” She picked up the paper and started reading the article.
“Who is it, Col?” I asked, although I had a pretty good idea.
Col slumped back in her chair. “My father.” Her voice held a quaver; seeing him had shaken her, so I leaned across and held her in a hug.
Mutti Frida scanned through the article. “It seems he has had a promotion to Oberstleutnant, making him the second in command of the Leipzig office.”
I didn’t understand. “Why would a secret policeman have his photo in the paper?”
Mutti Frida looked up. “The Stasi is not a secret police force. They are responsible for internal security. Whilst they have undercover police, spying on dissidents and such, their senior officers are known.” She reached across and took Col’s hand. “That’s why Col was so lonely – everyone knew her father was a Stasi officer and kept their distance.”
I nodded in understanding; Col had explained this before. I pulled the paper across and read the caption under the photo. It was taken on the steps of the Leipzig Opera house – several senior party officials had attended the gala performance to mark the end of the opera season. Herr Schmidt was in the front row, a tall, somewhat gaunt-faced man with receding, grey hair.
Mutti Frida pulled the newspaper back towards her. “He’s starting to show his age,” she mused. “But he’s still climbing the ladder inside the Stasi. My defection does not seem to have harmed his career.”
“Don’t the authorities care that he was a Nazi? “I asked.
Mutti Frida shook her head. “After the war, most bureaucrats that survived had been involved with the Nazis. But the Russians soon realised that someone had to run the country and only those people had the skills.” She looked across at me. “It was the same in West Germany too, I expect.”
“But what about the trials of war criminals?”
Mutti Frida shrugged. “Being a member of the Nazi party didn’t make you a war criminal. Only the worst of the worst went on trial. Everyone else just faded into the background and got on with rebuilding the country and their lives.”
I was confused. “So why did you have to flee if Col’s father was just a Nazi policeman?”
Mutti Frida leaned back in her chair and looked at Col. “I knew when I first met Axel that he had been an officer in the Orpo – and that meant he almost certainly was a Nazi Party member but he assured me his duties were just policing inside Germany. It was what I discovered later that showed he was a war criminal.”
I could see her pondering what to tell us. “And?”
Mutti Frida looked at Col and then me and came to a decision. “I met an Auschwitz survivor ... I told you she helped me get past my hate. Dora recognised Axel as the commander of the Orpo group that rounded up her family in June 1941 when the Nazis broke the treaty with Stalin and attacked what had been eastern Poland on the way to Russia.” She paused, a sad look on her face. “Dora was in the fields when they arrived at her village and hid in the woods, so she escaped the initial round-up.”