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July 2011 - Nr. 7
A short distance away from the orphanage was a sketch of rubble and ruins, once a four-storey apartment building. That was our famous place to explore and play war games. The bravest of us would climb the remaining free standing brick walls to claim one. Skrentny had claimed the highest for himself, which everyone had to avoid. When he was on kitchen-duty one day, I climbed up his wall. I noticed it swaying. Looking down I saw and heard some mortar crumbing and some bricks loosening. Carefully I backed down, found a wedge shaped stone and poked the mortar out between the bricks, which were then quite loose in one section. By pushing I could see the wall swaying even more. I drove the wedge in between the solid wall and the loose bricks.

It took a few days and we played war again, the only game we knew. Skrentny, sure of victory, approached “his” wall, on which he had sat so many times like a little triumphant Napoleon. But on that fateful day I was the first up the wall, on the side with the loose bricks. When he saw his most hated enemy heading for “his” place, he put in all he had to come up first from his side. I slowed down and watched him reaching the top. When he tried to pry off some bricks to throw at me, I kicked the loose bricks out and pushed and pushed the swaying wall. At first a crackling, then grinding crunching sound that vibrated throughout the remaining structure, when many square metres of brick wall with Skrentny on top thundered down onto the rubble. A huge cloud of dust covered the scene. The bully had no chance. He was gone and so were two of his roommates who had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

At suppertime, uniformed men came and spoke to us about that “tragic accident” while I enjoyed two rations of bread. There came some smiles from left and right. Phooey, I did not need hollow friends like that! After the meal, authorities questioned us “warriors”. All they could establish was that it had been an “accident”, and we were banned from that property . . . or else.

When they had left, Mrs. Klitschmüller wanted to see me “under four eyes”. She must have known or suspected something as she received me with a very short “So?”, and looked and looked at me. It was much easier to fool and deceive a policeman than her eyes of undisputed authority. As I had nothing positive to say about Skrentny or myself, I chose to be silent just as he had done during the previous inquest. That dealt with our disastrous “River Cruise”. He had lured some of his opponents onto a huge wooden door that we had stolen from a construction site and wrestled into the river. Once in deep and faster water, the struggle to survive ensued on that over-loaded raft. When all was over, the river had taken four of us.

As I stood there before that towering lady, worrying and shaking but determined not to disclose any details about the new “accident”, the suspense eased a bit when she asked if I had problems with anyone in the home. “Not anymore,” I answered too hastily, and knew right after, having indirectly admitted to something when the question pertaining to had not even been asked. And then the impossible happened: Instead of the anticipated beating, she came closer to me, stroked my head, and in an unusually soft voice advised me, to seek her assistance if and whenever help was needed. That broke the ice. In disbelief I had to look up; by doing so, our eyes met. My fear of her and punishment began to vanish; I even sensed something like understanding or trust in her. Overwhelmed by relief, gratitude and admiration for that lady, I began to melt like a little snowman under the equatorial sun. Though my eyes a little wet, I looked and looked into her eyes, perhaps reversing roles. With her mighty arm pointing to the door she shouted “RAUS!”

In bed that night I swore to myself, that I would never even try lie to Mrs. Klitschmüller again, and would stop stealing food from the kitchen. Also, I erased the Polit-Kommissar from my memory and installed her instead. She was much more than a Polit-Kommissar, she was Mrs. Klitschmüller! Something new, so wunderbar, had enriched my young soul: Respect!

Seat No. 56 had been vacant for a few days when a girl named Monika came to fill it. Monika had survived a camp in Poland, while I had lived in Russia. She had trouble with the German language. She spoke little Russian, and I spoke very little Polish. But putting everything together we could master, there was an instant bond between us, especially as she was the “dumb Pollack” and I the “dirty Russian”. I was even more pleased when she came into my class at school. Together we did our homework. On kitchen-duty I did take over much of her workload. When I went on my little trips stealing fruits in the neighbourhood, I always brought back some for Monika, a deserving warm soul so appreciative.

She was kind and polite to everyone, regardless how they spoke about her. I developed a great respect for females. We learned ethics and manners in school. There was no one better to practice with than Monika. I waited at doors to open them for her, carried her books to and from school and lent her my precious shoes on special occasions. She became a worthy replacement for my sister who had been adopted. One day I was introduced to Mrs. Markgraf, a refined and well-dressed lady wishing to adopt a boy. I was picked and agreed to go through a probation period, because I liked her name. It was really German and I would have the opportunity to shed that Russian image. Werner Markgraf. Wow! A real German! But it was not to be. War, supposedly, had made us all victims and losers. But Mrs. Markgraf definitely had been an exception to that. Her apartment on Nikolai Straße was well stocked with foods, luxurious traditional furniture and plenty of splendors everywhere. No sign or trace of war, I felt misplaced there and highly uncomfortable among all that sudden “comfort”. I had only crossed the Saale River in Weißenfels and already found out, that comfort has to be earned first, to be appreciated. America across the ocean, if I ever made it to there, would have to wait.

She placed me in front of her large piano, where I watched in amazement her tiny fingers, lavishly decorated with gold and glitter, working the keys that extracted such beautiful music, which touched my inner core. When asked to repeat a few simple notes by me, I just froze.

My priorities had been food and shelter at the time. The shock of such beauty coming out of that box on command gave me such a complex, that I felt like running away. My fingers had been used to gather fieldstones, chop firewood and perform all kinds of farm and fieldwork.

I was certainly not another Beethoven that Mrs. Markgraf had hoped to recreate. But unknowingly she had planted a seed in me; later in life I became a great fan of classical music.

She asked me if I could sing. What I could sing was all in Russian, and soon she had enough of that. Next, if I had learned anything in life, and if so, what it was. I stated that I could slaughter rabbits and chickens, milk goats and help build an outhouse. Mrs. Markgraf became very quiet. Later she told me that it was uncivilized to eat at the table without a prayer and asked whom I relied on for food and strength. On myself I answered, and the need and virtue of working the land because food is not produced by praying. I informed her that I had no desire to pray, as I had observed enough praying people whose naked, stiff bodies shortly after had been disposed of through the ice into the Dnjeper River. With big rolling eyes she subsequently asked if I missed my friends back at the orphanage. Very much so, I replied, especially remembering Monika.

With a few candies for Monika I returned to the orphanage to be No. 44 again. But the homecoming to my old rusty and squeaking bed with that smelly seaweed mattress was not as expected. My roommates met me with suspicion and uncomfortable questions about my stay with Mrs. Markgraf. And that was not easy. Out of fear of being portrayed as a traitor or getting “moved” out of the room, I dared not to disclose that I had lived in sheer luxury. I could not admit, that I had some quite often, once I even ate a whole egg all by myself, and that the nights I spent in a large fancy bed with all white sheets under a warm goosedown.

So I lied very hard trying to convince my buddies – that life outside the orphanage had not been any better. To emphasize my allegiance to the home and to distance myself from Mrs. Markgraf, I stressed the point, that good connections to the ruling class during the war had sheltered and protected her from becoming victim or loser. When I mentioned that we had been labeled “The Scum” that the waves of war had washed onto the shores of her privileged society, then all was calm. And I was kind of home again, at the receiving end of the war where I belonged.

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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