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June 2011 - Nr. 6

Springtime came and with it hard work. Feeding the animals before sunrise, help digging the fields, run to school which started at 800 AM. Being late there, clobbered again. The chickens found more food in the fields and laid more eggs. Very seldom the farmer would share one egg with his wife; I never got a taste. One day I could not resist anymore. In the chicken nesting boxes were six eggs. Five I delivered to the kitchen, with one I sneaked into the darkest corner in the barn and drank it. Shortly after I was confronted and asked about the sixth egg; there were only five I lied. The farmer gave me a grimacing smile and held the shells from the sixth egg right under my nose. I had done a very poor job of hiding the shells in the manure-pile and was ashamed of myself for having been so stupid.

For theft and lying I had to be punished, punished the German way! He stripped off my clothes and tied me down to a bench. With a heavy leather belt he began beating me savagely, from my shoulders down to my ankles and back to my buttocks where he hammered away at me until exhaustion. The pain was more than severe and so must have been my screaming. Crawling into my sleeping corner in the barn, I noticed a marked unrest among the animals, the only friends I had. A long sleepless night in blistering pain. If the Polit-Kommissar had made me choose being either Russian or German, I definitely would have chosen rather being an animal instead!

Next morning the class rose to greet our teacher. Ordered to sit down, I lowered myself on forearms and elbows. The rear was too painful to sit on. Pointing at me he repeated the order.

I tried to comply – to no avail. Upset, he grabbed the bamboo stick, pulled me out of the bench and let me have it on my sore rear end. Strangely, the more he beat me, the more the pain subsided somewhat. I felt something warm running down my legs. When the teacher saw the blood he stopped, I then was able to conform. But soon the agony flared up again. The blood had dried and crusted, glued the pants to my wounds and made walking extremely painful. On the way “home” I stopped by the river to wash the pants and sooth my rear. The following day in school someone complained about my smelly wet pants. I had to sit on the last bench by myself right next to a large map of this world. Never mind school, fascinated and inspired by the map I began to dream about the Unknown far, far away. Somewhere in that big world there was a better place for me, that enticing map made me believe. Amazingly, that piece of paper on the wall did to me, what nobody was able to do – infuse a little hope for a better future.

Summer with long hours of fieldwork ended and harvesting began. After the daily duties, large baskets of apples had to be peeled, cored and strung up to dry, mountains of peas and beans shelled. When the wind blew newspaper across the fields, I had to fetch and read from it to the farmers by candlelight; there was no electricity and their eyes were failing. Every time I stuttered or could not pronounce a word correctly, they slapped me. My reading improved very fast.

During winter the barn was very cold. One night I carefully opened the door to the kitchen just a crack to let a little warmth into the barn. Some mice must have gotten into the house.

My morning bread was more than half-gone and so was some other food for the couple. Punishment would be very severe again, so I gathered everything edible in sight, put on my extra pair of pants, said farewell to each of the animals and was on my way to school.

It was not the school that I needed that day, but the soup and the bun. At lunchtime I was the very first to receive the meal. Then I spotted that fellow who earlier liked to call me “dirty Russian”. I wrestled and beat him repeatedly until he ran away, enjoyed his soup very much and pocketed the bun. Be there hell or high water, I was ready. I didn’t want to see those new “parents” again. That big world I wanted to see!

But I needed my sister and soon was on the run to Halle 35 km away to look for her. At night I continued through the fields always wary of patrol cars on the road. I reached Halle early afternoon, it was a big city. I became excited seeing a school. My sister had to be there, I was convinced. Little did I know that there were many more schools in that large city.

When I had become a nuisance, two policemen came and took me away. For stealing food from the farmers and the boy at school I would have to go to jail; I prepared myself. And so it happened. But what a wonderful experience that was! My fingernails and toenails were cleaned and cut. I got a haircut, a bath with real soap in warm water, and food so good and so plentiful I never had since mother’s time. “Wolf” the police people called me, for my appetite I guess. They commented how good I smelled and looked and even took a picture of me, which I autographed. It was hard for me to understand why people feared the police and jail. I really liked being in jail, the only thing missing there was my sister. With a machine I learned to type my name, sorted paper clips and sharpened pencils. All easy work. Santa Claus spoke to me through a telephone. He asked if I had a wish. Yes, I wanted to live with those nice people at the police station. He hung up on me. I got a candy. Should have asked for my sister instead. After only three days the picnic was over, when the door to my nicely heated cell opened, and there in all his ugliness the farmer stood!

While sitting in the train beside him, I looked out the window and imagined travelling to some far away warm place, where people were happy and lived in comfort – maybe America. I had seen it on the map and heard people speaking very quietly about that place with all its riches. I did not want riches, just a little bit more to eat and a warm bed would have made me very happy. Looking to the floor, I recognized those boots that had delivered so many pains to my rear end and realized I was on the way to Weiβenfels, not America. Indeed, arriving at the farm, the wife stood in the door, that heavy leather belt in her hand and I got it again. I took it in stride. The taste of good life in the big world had cheered me up and made me more resilient.

Having escaped repeatedly, I became a case for the authorities and ended up at the orphanage “Fritz Schellbach” on 23 Novalis Straβe in Weiβenfels. A place crammed with children picked off the streets and out of ruins. Nowhere else during my life have I encountered true equality among humans, but there. We had no shoes, no fear and no God. But we had each other, the will to live, and Mrs. Klitschmüller. A big round no-nonsense woman who had the absolute authority in that home. In old teutonic fashion we were drilled: order, discipline and working for the daily bread. Only up we could go, there was nothing more to lose. It was rough but rewarding. When the first snow fell, I owned shoes; one high, one low, one brown, one black. I was so proud of my pair of honestly earned shoes. And there was more to it: Mrs. Klitschmüller! For the first time as orphan, I had someone not to fear, but to look up to for guidance and inspiration.

That I still today bow my head for other people, hold doors open for them, vacate my seat on public transit and have great respect for females, all that and much more I attribute to that fine lady! Oh yes, she clobbered me too sometimes; once she even broke the handle of a rake over my back, but that was well deserved. Always very disciplinary, but never abusive she was.

I attended a new school with many classmates from the orphanage. Life became much easier and pleasant. But there was one problem. It was Skrentny who gave me a beating or black eye sometimes, and constantly threatened me. The bell rings at 18:00 h sharp, time for supper at long tables, no loud conversations allowed. I sit at 44 opposite 56. He is bigger and stronger than the rest of us, Skrentny the bully. My name sounds Russian he remarks. The fellow before me with 44 also sounded Russian. That person had died recently from a disease, maybe I follow soon he hopes. The underlings next to him chuckle dutifully. “Dirty Russian” he calls me and I receive a painful blow to the shinbone under the table. As I recover, I notice my ration of bread missing, but Skrentny now has two, much to his delight. That bread will be back, I warn! He only laughs devilishly. I had enough, he has to come down from his high horse!

To be continued…

To start from the beginning

Werner Bogdahn, WW II, second world war, orphan, orphans, orphanage, Germany, Poland, Siberia, Russians, Russia, Canada

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