I was awakened by screaming and shouts. My aunt and uncle came rushing into the room, holding a candle that just went out.
“Catherine, come here.”
“What is wrong? What is it? I don’t understand?”
It had been dark, but there was suddenly a great light shining in the window. I could see my aunt’s pale scared face, and my uncle’s angry looks.
“Its them…”she stuttered, “…th-they’re l-l-l-look-k-king f-f-f-f-or Jews. D-d-don’t look guilty or avoid them…”
“What do you mean? What are you talking about? Who are they?”
I stood up and clutched the blanket around me.
“Hitler’s men.” She sounded a little exasperated with me. “Now come downstairs. They want to make sure there aren’t any Jews hiding.”
“What is that light?” I asked, and then turned to the window. I saw my answer. The houses across the street were burning. I could hear those inside crying out. There were soldiers standing and watching, but not helping.
“Why don’t they rescue the people stuck inside? They are going to die!” I was shocked that no one did anything. “Can’t we do something?”
“No, no,” my uncle shouted, “Catherine, don’t you dare say anything like that again. You’ll get us killed.”
My aunt grabbed uncle’s arm, as we heard loud footsteps below.
“They locked the people in the houses on purpose, don’t you understand, girl?” He said in a low voice, “They mean to kill them. They argued, and perhaps were Jews. Come along, don’t start crying or fainting, either of you.”
He pulled on my makeshift shawl and led us downstairs. As we walked out of the room I glanced back, through the window, and saw a woman reaching out the window of the burning house. I almost screamed, but uncle shoved me in front of him. We reached the bottom of the stairs, a miracle indeed, and there were about a dozen men roaming the house. They demanded our names. I hardly spoke mine; my mouth didn’t seem to work very well. Three of them pushed past us and went to look around upstairs. We had to go sit in the kitchen while they searched every nook and corner. It was terribly cold, and the doors and windows were thrown wide open. There was a strong wind blowing through and I couldn’t stop myself from shaking. At last they said we were allowed to get up, but to make sure we didn’t do anything against Hitler’s commands. I thought that was rather hard because I had no idea what Hitler said we shouldn’t do.
By this time it was nearly four o’clock. I was exhausted, when I closed my eyes all I saw was the face of the woman burning to death…her look of utter despair and agony…it was how I imagined Jesus looked when Judas betrayed Him…her shock and disbelief that that they would do such a horrible thing.
After a futile attempt at sleep I went back downstairs, where my aunt was sitting, and drinking warm water as a poor substitute for tea.
“No, not really.”
“In the nunnery, did you hear any news of the world?”
“Some of the nuns bribed the milkman, and all that, but I didn’t really hear anything. The nunnery really was its one little world.”
“Do you know anything about our history? Do you know who Hitler is?”
I shook my head.
“Here’s a cup of water. It might calm you down. Pretend it is hot cocoa or something like that.” She handed me a mug and continued, “You weren’t around to remember the Great War. It was horror beyond imagination. It was just a big fight between everyone. But we lost. The winners made us pay for everything. They made us give them our factories, our food, our money, they forced us to kneel down before them, like nasty sniveling little creatures begging for their lives. I watched everyone around us die. I watched Chloe die, all because of it. We all withered away, just barely clinging to life. All because of them…they ground us into the dust. It was humiliation and shame you can’t imagine. Then Hitler rose up, he came to save his people. He promised freedom, life, and happiness. And look at us now…” she laughed a little wildly, “we can’t speak our thoughts to any other living being. We can’t whisper rebellion to our pillow at night without being thrown in prison. People are dying like flies, all over, everywhere. And this is happiness. If this is happiness I don’t want to see unhappiness. So that’s why we are here.”
Uncle Heinrich came into the room, and aunt cut off her lecture. I had a feeling he preferred not to speak anymore than necessary and wanted everyone to follow his habit too.
We didn’t go outside that day. It started snowing a little, and the streets were littered with soldiers, and people –dead and alive. I walked all over the house, trying to stay a little warm and trying to keep my mind off the terror of the night. It didn’t help very much.
My, or should I say, Chloe’s dress was a little dirty and torn. I think it got snagged on something during the night. I apologized to Aunt Matilda about it. She didn’t mind at all. Everything else in the house was torn, why should the dress be any different? she said. It was very kind of her to say so. I felt that perhaps Chloe’s things were rather valuable to aunt, the scraps of remembrance for the daughter who faded away. I wished there was a picture of Chloe, I wanted to know what she looked like. I imagined her to be a younger, plumper Aunt Matilda, but not very plump, just a little bit more…an Aunt Matilda with perhaps blonde hair, not brown mixed with grey.
I sat at the upstairs window all afternoon. It was the only window with unbroken glass. There was nothing else to do. The weather wasn’t suitable for cleaning, if there had been anything worth cleaning or anything to scrub with, and there wasn’t any food to prepare either. I could see why auntie might go a bit insane…I could feel it too. The whole country was slowly losing its sanity. Everything and everyone were stretched taut. Nerves were tight, and no one dared say what they felt. There was an enormous pressure to act properly and say the correct things when inside the people were raging with anger and frustration. I could sense it even through the window. Danger and alertness was in the air that we all breathed. Auntie never again said things like she did on the first day. She never cried in front of me again. Her lips were thin and closed unless there was something she had to say. Uncle never spoke either. There was too much risk. Someone might overhear, they might misconstrue the words, they might report on you…so it was safer to be silent. The silence did make for a very lonely and eerie existence. The house even creaked, but we made not a sound.
For the first few days I was very hungry. I was so hungry I wanted to die, just to relieve the pain. I writhed between my blankets during the night, trying desperately to distract my mind and body from the thought of food. But then the gnawing died too, like we seemed to. I felt like a skeleton rattling around in a casket. There was no purpose to anything I did. All that remained was the struggle to survive, the battle for our very breath. But why did we want to keep on living? I questioned myself…over and over…all throughout the long days. Why should we keep on living this hellish ghost of a life? This isn’t true life…this is standing on the brink of death. This is like a statue, an example of life, but it isn’t like really living. So why keep on? Why not step down into death and get it over with? Life isn’t going to get any better…only worse…there is no reason and no purpose to keep living…
I sat at the window and thought about jumping through it. There was a long way to the ground. The stones and cobbles should do the job, I thought to myself. But no, I couldn’t do that. I was going back to the nunnery in a week. I would go live there, and perhaps the war would end. There was hope, after all. I didn’t have to stay in this haunting old house.
I could go back to the nunnery. But poor Auntie, and Uncle…how would they survive? Should I escape just to leave them in misery and lingering death? Oh…what to do? It was selfish to leave, but what else could I do? I spent the whole of one night pondering my future. When morning came, my mind was exhausted and tired of the subject. In my impatience I decided to return at once to the nunnery, it was the best thing to do. I was young, I had my life to live, Auntie’s and Uncle’s were near their end. They had lived, been happy, mourned, and now were ready to depart.
“Auntie, I have made up my mind. I feel I should go back to the nunnery. It is very important to listen when you feel you have been called by God.” I nearly started laughing, it was so hypocritical. I hadn’t heard God’s voice, I merely wanted to survive this awful war without being a skeleton by the end. “So, I shall leave today, if it is alright with you.”
“Yes, yes,” she shook her head sadly; “it is the best thing. Germany is dangerous. But perhaps there is more respect for the churches, the nuns, and those who had dedicated their lives to serving God. You have been almost like my own daughter to me, you know. I sometimes wake up, and imagine that it is Chloe I hear gently sleeping.” Her voice was dry and dull now. There was no hope, no meaning in the sounds. “But this is the best thing. I don’t think you shall ever see me again after today. I have been a wretched aunt to you, but what can I do now? Go, and God bless you.”
After a moment I asked her if I should wait for Uncle Heinrich, to tell him goodbye. She said he wouldn’t be offended, and that I should leave at once. So I did.