Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Renate 29 January 1939

They made their way into one of the already crowded lounges. People were sitting on top of suitcases, on the floor, or squashed three to a seat on the uncomfortable wooden benches.
“You could go and have a look around the boat if you want,” said Fräulein Gottlieb. “Put your things in your cabin first. But I want you in bed within an hour.”
Renate was sharing a cabin with Adelinde, Christa and Irmgard. Jakob and Erich were sharing with two other boys.  
“I’m tired,” wailed Christa.
“Me too,” said Adelinde. “Shall we go straight to bed, girls?”
Christa nodded. Irmgard didn’t say anything. She placed her hand into Adelinde’s and stuck her thumb in her mouth.
Renate felt wide awake, now though. “I’d like to have a look around,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Give me your things, then,” said Adelinde. “I’ll put them in the cabin.” 
Renate waved to the three other girls and then she set off across the crowded inner deck. She didn’t think she had ever seen so many people crammed into one space. Warm body odour and sea air made for a strange mixture of smells. She had never been on a boat as big as this – should she call it a ship?  This ferry that was going to take her to England. People were still getting on. Would this - ferry - be able to hold them all?
It was hard to breathe in here. A slight breeze drifted from above her head. She noticed a staircase – well it was almost more of a ladder, the steps were so steep and only had air between them - which led to an opening in the roof above her. She made her way up the rungs.
Outside it was cold. The shore looked close. She shivered. It wasn’t just the cold, though. She would not see her own country for a long time and now she was going somewhere she didn’t understand. She still didn’t really understand either why she was going there or what being Jewish meant.  
The boat started to judder. There was a loud creaking and groaning, the sound of chains clanking and shouts from the men working at the side of the harbour. The town began to move backwards away from them. The breeze now became proper wind. Renate could hardly keep her balance. The boat rolled from side to side and then as it turned out of the harbour, it started to go up and down like a seesaw. One moment the line where the sea and the sky met seemed to be up above her head, the next minute she was looking down at it. She couldn’t work out where she was. She began to feel dizzy. Perhaps it would be better if she went and sat down.
She made her way carefully down the steep staircase. The steps kept falling away from her and then rushing up to meet her feet. Once she slipped and banged her hip into the rail at the side.
The warmth flooded over her as she arrived on the lower deck. For just a few seconds it felt good. Then the smell of the closely packed passengers made her feel slightly sick. Yes, she should go to the cabin now. Perhaps if she lay down she would feel better.
She tried to push her way through the crowds. It was even more difficult now, as the boat was now moving up and down and from side to side at the same time. She struggled to keep her balance.
“Watch what you’re doing,” shouted one man angrily as she accidentally trod on his foot.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to mutter as she then almost fell on woman who was trying to feed a baby.
The boat lurched to one side and then rose up in the air, crashing down suddenly, and then juddering for a few seconds before once more springing up. She saw a small door in front of her. She hoped that that was what it looked like. And even if it wasn’t, at least she might be on her own in there so no-one could see what she was about to do. The boat lurched to the other side. She pushed the door open and just made it in time into one of the toilet cubicles. She vomited straight into the pan. Perhaps that would make it better now.
It didn’t. Time and time again, the acid yellow fluid came out of her mouth. Still the boat moved around in every direction. Then it got worse. And finally there was no more yellow fluid to come out of her stomach into her mouth but still her whole body went into spasm and she retched with every movement of the boat. This journey was going to take forever. Twelve hours, Fräulein Gottlieb had said. Twelve hours of this.  The boat rocked. Her stomach retched. Over and over again. She wasn’t alone, she could hear. Then she could smell other people’s vomit. That made her feel even worse. Finally not able to hold herself up straight, she sank to the floor, hardly able to move.  She propped her chin over the side of the toilet basin. Even as the retching continued, she felt her eyelids close.                
She must have fallen asleep. There was a different sort of rocking. Somebody was shaking her.
“Renate! Renate!” she heard a voice cry. “Oh, you poor child. Why didn’t you come and find me?”
Renate looked up to see Fräulein Gottlieb’s bright eyes looking into hers.
“Too sick,” murmured Renate. “Had to stay by the toilet.”
“My dear, I’m so sorry,” said Fräulein Gottlieb, helping Renate to her feet. “My poor, poor girl.  Just look at you. Let me help you get cleaned up.”  She tried to tug the creases out of Renate’s crumpled dress and coat. “When Adelinde wished me goodnight from the cabin, I’d assumed you were all there. Then I was busy with one or two others who were also feeling sick. On my break I only meant to close my eyes for a moment … then the rocking motion of the boat, you know … it always sends me to sleep. Adelinde came to find me because you hadn’t got back to the cabin. She was worried.”
Renate noticed the boat was not moving so violently now. It was just rocking gently, like a cradle. That would be soothing. And she felt so tired, oh so tired. She would love to curl up now and be in a soft, cosy bed. But Fräulein Gottlieb was now working at a vomit stain on the skirt of her dress. And actually, the smell of other people’s vomit would have put her off sleeping.
“You should have come to get me,” said Fräulein Gottlieb, “if you felt so poorly. I’m supposed to be looking after you.”
The boat was moving really slowly now.
“Come on, let’s go and get some fresh air,” said Fräulein Gottlieb. “We ought to be able to see some land now.”    
Renate had stopped feeling sick at least. But she was so weak, and her legs were wobbly. The ferry was going really slowly now, and the rocking from side to side had almost gone completely. Just a gentle seesaw pushed them up and down. Even so, she had to lean on Fräulein Gottlieb as they made their way across the deck. Other white faces looked at her and she was at least glad that she wasn’t the only one who had felt so bad. But even the faces which didn’t look white looked strained. Were they all dreading arriving in England as much as she was?
“You go up first,” said Fräulein Gottlieb, when they arrived at the staircase. “Then I can catch you if you fall.”
It took Renate all of her strength to haul herself up to the last step of the steep stairway. The cool wind took her breath away at first, but then she realized that it also made her feel better. The sun was shining now and there were no clouds at all in the sky. Perhaps this would be all right, after all. It was hard to believe it had been so grey and cold when they’d set out.
They really were not far from land now. The first bit of the harbour wall was just in front of them. Renate could see some big cargo ships moored there. Cranes were loading huge crates on to their big decks. Beyond that, black shiny roofs and white buildings were gleaming in the sun. She had to shade her eyes to stop the glare.
“Well,” said Fräulein Gottlieb. “Here we are. Your new home. England.”
“Home?” said Renate. That sounded a bit final.
“Your uncles will be there to meet you,” whispered Fräulein Gottlieb, “once we’re in London. They’ll know how to keep you safe.”
Renate looked again at the town. It seemed to offer her no welcome.

You’re welcome to them, the filth. Haven’t even got sea-legs. A proper German would know how to sail. A proper Englishman would know how to sail. Not you.    

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The House on Schellberg Street: Renate 22 December 2.30 p.m.

What on earth was the matter with Mutti? She hadn’t had any breakfast. Then she said they’d be going after lunch instead. She didn’t turn up for lunch. Neither did Vati. It had just been her and Wilma. And now Wilma was checking the contents of her suitcase for the hundredth time.
“What’s going on, Wilma?” said Renate. “There’s something wrong. Why was Mutti crying this morning?”
“I expect she’s just worrying about the packing,” said Wilma. “You know what a tizzy she gets into when she has to pack.”
Well, yes, that was true. “I suppose so,” said Renate.
“And I expect she’s a bit bothered about leaving your father on his own,” said Wilma.  “It’s not very nice, families being split up at Christmas.”
“Vati’s not coming to Stuttgart?” said Renate, alarmed. She had been looking forward to spending time in Oma’s rambling house on Schellberg Street, and the few days before staying with Hani. But Christmas without Vati?
Before Wilma could answer the door opened. It was Mutti.     
 “Renate, I need to talk to you,” she said.
There was something about the tone of Mutti’s voice that Renate didn’t like.
“You may have wondered, perhaps,” her mother began. “You may have noticed ….”  She folded her hands and closed her eyes and then started again. “Have you ever wondered if we might have Jewish connections?”
Renate couldn’t believe what she was hearing. What did Mutti mean? They couldn’t possibly have anything to do with Jews could they? That would mean … that would mean they would have to give up all sorts of things.  
“Yes, my dear, I’m afraid it’s true,” her mother continued. “I am Jewish, and so is Oma – but not your father. You and I and your Oma will have to leave Germany after Christmas and go and live in England.  A lot of very kind people have done all sorts of things to make it possible for us to go there. You will have to go first.”
“What? On my own?” cried Renate.
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” her mother replied. “But I shall be following very soon. Your uncles are waiting for you in England and will take care of you. But Vati won’t be able to come too – he won’t be allowed to leave Germany.” Her mother’s voice broke and she added almost in a whisper. “Go and think it over in your room. I… I want to be alone for a bit.”
Renate couldn’t move. She stared at her mother. They were Jewish? She and Mutti were Jewish? She knew that it was very difficult for Jewish people living in Germany and was getting worse all the time. Everything had been just the same as normal for her. Except perhaps Mutti’s strange moods. But they didn’t look at all like the Jews they’d seen down in town. Those men with the big hats and the long sideburns and the women always dressed in black. Mutti just looked like any other German woman.       
“Renate, I told you to go,” said Mutti. “I need to be on my own.”
Somehow she managed to will her feet to move. She left the lounge and set off for her room. As she crossed the hallway she caught her reflection in the long mirror. She could see nothing different.  She was not a racial disgrace or a contamination. That’s what they said the Jews were, didn’t they?  She pushed her shoulders back and held her head up. “I’m just the same as ever. I am not a disgrace. I am going to England and I shall like it,” she whispered.      
Her father came out of his study and stood beside her.  He put his arm around her shoulders. “It’s for the best,” he said.
“But I can’t speak any English,” said Renate.    

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The House on Schellberg Street Hani, 22 December 1938 11:30.a.m.

“It looks bigger now that all that junk’s gone,” said Rikki. “I suppose there will be room for the trundle-bed. You’d better put some of the spare curtains up at the side window. You don’t want anybody looking in. And I think I know where there are some extra blankets.”
“But nothing at the sky-light,” said Hani. “Because we’ll be able to look up at the stars then. It’s going to be so great.”
“I hope you two girls won’t catch cold sleeping out here,” said Rikki, frowning slightly.
“Oh, Rikki, you worry too much.” Hani put down her pile and gave her former nanny a hug. “Nobody’s going to catch cold. We’ve got feather beds, haven’t we? And that little stove is quite efficient. It’s going to be so cosy.”
“I don’t know,” said Rikki. “You do get some funny ideas. Wanting to sleep out here when you’ve got such a lovely room.”
“Yes, but it’ll be such an adventure,” replied Hani.
“If you say so,” replied Rikki, with a sniff. “Now, I’ll just go and get young Wilhelm to clear this lot up. Then he can go and get the trundle bed.”
“Nice cosy little den you’ve got here,” said Wilhelm a few minutes later, after he’d brought in the bed and she’d helped him to straighten it out. “You two’ll be set up just fine.” He pushed his wild blond curls from his forehead and wiped the sweat from his face.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” said Hani. She’d always liked Wilhelm. He always seemed more like an older brother than one her father’s workers. But now she just wanted him to go away, so she could get on with the room.
“Anything else I can do?” he asked.
“No, no, not at all, thank you,” replied Hani, gently stroking the curtains and blankets Rikki had sent down. Why wouldn’t he just go away? She couldn’t wait to get started making the garage room the cosiest of places.
Rikki had already swept the floors clean, done away with all the dust and polished the small window and sky-light until they shone. All there was left for Hani to do now was to make the room look pretty.
In no time, the bright yellow curtains framed the little window. On top of the normal bed-rolls she stretched out two red blankets. There were so many cushions she didn’t think she would be able to use them all, so she put three on each bed and dropped the rest on the floor.
This is really comfy, she thought. We can use the cushions as seats. It’s going to be so good.
But there was nothing more she could do now. It really was perfect.
The smell of cooked chicken coming from the kitchen was making her hungry. Fantastic!
Must be about half past twelve, she thought. And she’ll be here by two. I wonder whether Rikki has made some strudel. If not we could go to Kellerman’s on the way back from the station.
She really wasn’t sure whether she could bear to wait the extra hour and a half, but at least lunch might take her mind off it.
“Your mother says you’re to eat downstairs in the kitchen with me and Wilhelm,” said Rikki as Hani came out of the bathroom from washing her hands.
“Why?” asked Hani.
“She and your father have something to discuss,” replied Rikki.
“Do you know what?” asked Hani. Why didn’t they involve her in their discussions? She wasn’t a child anymore. Besides, she wanted to find out more about what was going on,because she knew it was something not so nice.
“Now take that frown off your face, young missy,” said Rikki, frowning herself. “You know your mother and father work really hard, and they don’t often have time to sit down and talk, let alone have a meal together.”
Hani sighed. “I suppose so,” she said. “Anyway, what are we having? It smells delicious.”
“Chicken casserole and dumplings,” answered Rikki.
“Now that sounds good,” said Wilhelm as he came through the back door.
“Yes, but not until you’ve washed that muck off your hands, it won’t be,” said Rikki.
“Look, I’m sorry if I was a bit impatient earlier,” said Hani. “Only, you know, I wanted to … well.”
“No problem,” replied Wilhelm. “I had work to do in the garden, anyway. Look.” He held up two muddy hands.
“Bathroom. Now!” hissed Rikki.
“Heil Rikki!” cried Wilhelm, raising his right arm stiffly out in front.
Hani shuddered. Rikki looked as if she was about to faint. Her face had gone quite white.
“Don’t you joke about that, young man,” she said quietly.
“No, sorry,” replied Wilhelm, darting out of the kitchen before Rikki could say anything else.
They ate in silence, all three of them looking down at their food. Hani felt strange. December was such a lovely time. The weather was just as it always was at this time of year – cold, but clean and fresh. Everything seemed so normal. Yet it wasn’t. There was something about to happen and Hani couldn’t be sure exactly what.
“That was great,” said Wilhelm as he wiped his plate clean with a slice of bread.
“Yes, there’s seconds,” said Rikki. “Though I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to say that.”
Wilhelm looked at Hani and winked.
“She’s coming round,” he whispered. “She likes me really.”
Hani watched Rikki ladle more of the sauce on to Wilhelm’s plate. She would have loved some more herself but she didn’t have Wilhelm’s excuse. He’d been working in the garden all day. She’s done very little – unless you counted the prettying up of the garage room, although Wilhelm and Rikki had done all the heavy work. If she didn’t lose a bit of weight soon, she would get another lecture from her mother.
The doorbell rang.
“I’d better go and get that,” said Wilhelm. “They won’t want disturbing.”
Rikki sat very still, just staring into space. Hani didn’t know whether she should say anything.
“It was the telegram boy,” said Wilhelm ten minutes later. “A telegram for upstairs.”
Rikki flinched.
“I don’t think it was anything too important,” said Wilhelm. “They didn’t look very worried when I gave it to them.”
“Ah, well, we’ll see,” said Rikki.
Hani hoped it wasn’t to do with Renate. Perhaps she was sick? That would be awful.
Oh, stop worrying, she told herself. It’s probably only something to do with one of their meetings. But the uncomfortable feeling would not go away. It was no good pretending things were all right. Things were just not all right at the moment.
She saw Rikki and Wilhelm exchange a look.
“What’s the matter?” she said. “Do you think there’s something wrong?”
They didn’t have time to answer before they heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Hani’s mother came in, holding the telegram in her hands.
“I’m sorry, darling,” she said. “Renate won’t be coming.” There were tears in Frau Gödde’s eyes.
Hani’s heart sank. “What is it?” she cried. “What’s the matter with her?”
“It’s ... it’s nothing too serious,” her mother stammered. “She’s perfectly safe. Just come on upstairs, will you? Vati and I need to talk to you.”
If it’s not too serious, why is she crying? thought Hani.
It seemed to take forever to walk up the stairs to the main lounge. Her mother didn’t look back once, and it reminded Hani a bit of being shown into the dentist by Herr Schröder’s assistant. She never looked at you nor did she ever smile. At least mother smiled occasionally, but obviously not today.
“Sit down, Hani,” said Herr Gödde. “We need to talk to you about Renate.”
“She’s not ill, is she?” cried Hani. “What does the telegram say?”
Her mother raised her eyebrows and mouthed something at Hani’s father. He nodded. Frau Gödde put her hand to her mouth and handed Hani the telegram.

Renate unable to come stop chicken pox stop

Hani felt the relief as a great stone being lifted from her chest as she read the telegram. Renate was ill, but it was nothing much. So she would be coming soon – when the spots had gone. She couldn’t very well go on a train all covered in spots.
“Well, she will come when she’s better, won’t she?”
Her parents didn’t answer. They just frowned. Why were they so bothered? It was just chicken pox, wasn’t it?
It was only later, when she was back in the garage room turning the telegram over in her hand and looking sadly at her cosy den, that she remembered. They’d both already had chicken pox. Here, when they were seven. You were only supposed to have chicken pox once.
Suddenly the winter had lost all its charm.

Friday, 30 June 2017

The House on Schellberg Steet: Renate, 22 December 1938 6.30 a.m.

Renate touched the water-colour of the Christmas rose she had made the evening before. It was meant for the inside cover of the exercise book. Was it dry enough yet to be stuck in yet?  It was so clever of Anika to think of this Rundbrief. Now that their school had to close, each girl was going to write a letter in the book and post it on to the next girl on the list. That way they could stay in touch. Renate had volunteered to start it off and had chosen a pretty little note book yesterday.
The painting was dry but she wasn’t too happy about the stem on the flower. She opened her paint box, dipped her brush into the jam jar of water on her desk and then into the green paint, and added a little more to her picture. There. That was better.
She opened the window and placed the painting on the sill, weighting it down with the candlestick she always kept there. The sun was just about rising. She stared out at the garden and the woods beyond. They still looked black. One of the dark days before Christmas, she supposed.
She reread the letter while she waited for the paint to dry. 
22 December 1938 

Dear All,
This is such an exciting idea! I’m really glad you asked me to be the first. I had thought of waiting a week or two, until I’d got something to report about the Christmas holiday and the new school. But in the end I couldn’t wait. The sooner I send it on to Anika, the sooner it will go round to the rest of you. And the sooner I’ll get it back to read all of your news.
It’s going to be a glorious Christmas this year, anyway. Two weeks of snow, in Stuttgart, they say.  We are off to stay there with Oma for Christmas as usual.  I’m looking forward to those walks through the hills again- it’ll be such fun in the snow.  And I’ll be seeing my cousins and my friend Hanna.
We lit the Adventskranz at coffee time yesterday afternoon. Wilma had made a really lovely one with fir branches and nice fat white candles. Mother had baked one of her famous Apfelkuchen. She makes them so nice with big chunks of apple and lots of cinnamon. My favourite.
I love this time of year.  Even father seemed in a brighter mood than usual. Both he and mother have been so serious-looking recently. There’s something wrong, I think, and they won’t tell me what. Do you remember all that fuss mother made about me going to Mostviel last summer? Well, it’s gradually got worse. Father looking more and more worried, and mother cancelling dinner-parties and refusing to go to the opera. I hope they’re not falling out or anything.  
 But yesterday they got into a bit of the Christmas mood. I almost choked, though, when the telegraph boy came round.
“Heil Hitler!” he said.
And my father replied “Heil Edler!” Thank goodness the boy didn’t notice. But I was going redder and redder with trying not to giggle. After he had gone I almost spat the whole mouthful of Apfelkuchen out.
That scene repeated itself at dinner. Father knows very well that I hate spinach. And that I just hide it in my mouth until I can get rid of it later. He kept trying to make me laugh. Then it happened. A great explosion of green all over the white table cloth. Mother made a terrible fuss and muttered something about young ladies in her day. Wilma was trying not to laugh, I could tell! Father just roared.
It’ll be funny in January, all being in different places. I’ll see you some of you at the Gymnasium, next autumn. I’m looking forward to hearing all about what the rest of you do at your new schools and about your Christmases. 
So I’ll finish now and get this in the post!
Love to you all,
Renate Edler
Yes, it was going to be a lovely Christmas. She smiled when she thought of Hani! She would have appreciated the Apfelkuchen. She liked her cake – and it showed. Renate looked down at her own thin arms and tutted. She looked so bony!  If only she could curve a bit, like Hani. Oh it was going to be such fun staying with her for the few days before Christmas.
The picture was dry now. Renate carefully glued it into the little exercise book. This was exciting. She placed the book into the brown envelope and neatly wrote Anika’s address. Then she made her way down to the kitchen.
Wilma was there, preparing the breakfast.
“Are there any stamps?” asked Renate.
“On the shelf in the hall. Why don’t you leave that, and Johann can take it when he calls?”
“Oh no!” replied Renate. “I have to take this myself. It’s special.”
“Well, don’t be long. Your mother says you have to pack. And wrap up warm. It’s bitter out there.”
“I’ve done my packing,” replied Renate. She’d decided to wear most of what she was taking. Layers that she could peel off. The train was always so cold at first, and then, usually when they were almost there, it would get unbearably hot and stuffy because by then it would be absolutely packed with people. 
 She walked quickly to the post-box at the end of the street. It was such a promising day. The sun was getting higher in the sky now. Something ran in front of her, into the nearby woods. It was much too quick for her to see what it was.
So some of you aren’t hibernating, then, she thought.
She felt like skipping but thought that perhaps she was a bit too old. Nothing could spoil this day, though. Not even the huge swastika on the fence opposite.
The house was oddly quiet when she got back. No wireless. Her father was not arguing loudly with the newspaper like he usually did and Wilma was not singing in the kitchen. She could hear her mother and father talking softly but urgently in the dining room. The usual smell of strong black coffee and warm bread greeted her as she went into the room. But the coffee cups were empty and the rolls were still in the basket. Both of them jumped when they saw her. They stared at her, then looked at each other and then back at her. Her mother looked straight into her eyes and opened her mouth to say something. Her father looked away. Her mother’s lip wobbled and tears formed in her already red eyes.