I remember, Sister Marie, that Mother held her finger to her lips, like this. ‘Soldaten,’ she whispered. I wanted to tell her how hungry I was, since we’d not eaten a thing since the day before, and that had only been the stale bread made of sawdust that you got at those roadside charity kitchens during the war. Maybe you don’t know those places because you only came after Germany surrendered. The bread was meant to go with cabbage soup, but that ran out before we got to the front of the line, so we were starving by the time Mother shooed us off the road and into the ditch. I could just make out the soldaten’s boots. Their shadows tumbled over the side of the road and marched upside down on the snow.
I guess Mother used the German word for soldiers because she thought they were German, but they might have been Russian. We were still too close to home for them to be British or American. You shouldn’t really use soldaten for anyone except Germans, though. It’s such a serious and orderly word, like it could march right out of my mouth and straight out onto the battlefield.
Not that it mattered whose soldaten they were. Mother’s rules were simple: avoid the cities, be wary of men in uniform, stick together and keep moving west. The soldiers were marching the other way. East. Homewards. Tētis-wards. My real Tētis that is, not the man Mother married here in the camp after the war. Perhaps the soldiers were going to join real Tētis, I thought. I hoped they weren’t going to fight him. If they were, we should get up and try to distract them somehow. I stood up to see what we could do, but Mother pulled me back down and gave me her cross look. Like the one she has when she’s using those little strips of wood shavings to burn away bed bugs in our room in D barrack. You should see them scurry, all fat and red with the blood of everyone who’s passed through the camps: Germans, Jews, Poles and now us. Mother calls them Hitler’s little ironies.
Ouch, that’s cold, Sister!
I got a better look at the soldiers though, and saw that Mother was right. German. It’s the uniforms that give them away. Theirs were brown and green, like the colors of the ground in the forest in autumn when you go picking for mushrooms. You know, it’s funny that you can’t say ‘picking for mushrooms’ in one word in English. Where I grew up, before Germany that is, it’s just one word, like in German, but for some reason English speakers explain the whole thing in several words. To me, that’s like saying ‘putting the pen on paper’ instead of ‘writing’ or ‘I stepped and stepped on the road’ instead of ‘I traveled.’ Maybe they don’t pick mushrooms in Britain or America. Or Canada even, which is where we’re going, if we pass our medical exams.
New Tētis works for the British Army here in the camp — they’re in the brick building — and only speaks English and he says our school on the Canadian prairies will be entirely in English, so it’s good I’m learning English here. Sometimes we teach him bits of our language, but he muddles it all up, and we laugh, and he laughs and calls our words strange. He says I’m learning English very quickly and if I stick to it, I’ll grow up like any Canadian girl, without any accent, not even a trace. I can’t wait to get on the boat to Canada and to see the Statue of Liberty. My brother says he read all about Canada in one of the magazines that new Tētis’ family sent to us and that there’s no Statue of Liberty in Canada, but I’m not so sure since Mother says it’s the land of milk and honey and that it’s easy to get shoes in Canada and there are no men without arms and legs begging on the streets. A place like that should have a statue. By the time we got to our first camp, all we had for shoes were newspapers held tight around our ankles with strings. Our own shoes had rotted away. I bet in Canada ‘getting new shoes’ will be one word.
When the soldiers were gone, we stood up and stretched. I told Mother how hungry I was. We all were, but Mother insisted we first get to the nearest train station and then look for food. When we found a station, there was a train but no engine. It’d been blown up by an American plane the day before. I know that the Americans are our friends now — the camp gets its condensed milk from America, my brother’s favorite treat — but during the war, they were always bombing us, and in some places the Germans didn’t seem too happy when we ran into their bomb shelters. But better German scowls than American bombs, I thought. The station itself wasn’t damaged so we waited there, huddled on a bench at the end of the platform. Mother said the Germans would send another engine, that it was just a matter of time, because that’s how Germans were, and sure enough one did come the next day. By then, lots of other refugees were sitting and lying on the platform. Not all of them got up when the train came. Some just lay there until sheets were pulled over them. On the train, we were very hungry, but a German family shared some bread with us. They even had cheese.
I’ve been bow-legged for a while now, Sister. Mother says I need more vitamins.
When our train pulled into Hamburg’s shattered station, with all the glass missing in the ceiling, like the skeleton of a giant mammoth, skin burned off, the smoke from the trains swirling out into the open sky, snaking around the steel frame, we’d only the clothes we were wearing and two cardboard suitcases with spare clothes. Everything else we had when we started west we’d lost, buried, thrown away, eaten. Some things we managed to trade, like real Tētis’ old watch and Mother’s wedding ring. Always for food. We ate all the bread, apples and potatoes we took from home much more quickly than we thought we would. I think Mother forgot that you need a lot more food when you’re walking for hours every day than when you’re just hiding in the cellar of an abandoned farmhouse. That’s where we hid once, early in our trip. The rain came down hard, too hard for walking, so we slept in a cellar for two days. When the weather cleared, we found a German soldier sleeping in the barn above us! I thought he’d arrest us — there were signs posted everywhere that people weren’t allowed to move about — but the soldier said ‘good luck to you’ in our language and walked away into the cold sun.
All our things gone somewhere between there and here. Nothing but each other and our strange words by the time the war ended. And Mother says that first Tētis — she doesn’t like it when I call him real Tētis — first Tētis is almost certainly buried somewhere in Russia, and if by some miracle he’s still alive, he’ll be in a prison camp in Siberia, and we’ll actually be closer to him in Canada than we are here in Germany because the world is round, you see?
But I think Tētis might’ve escaped and be even now walking to our old home by the sea. You never know. Maybe he’s living off what he can forage in the forest, like berries and mushrooms.
When I was little, Sister, my real Tētis taught me a whole word just for mushroom picking. In the sounds of that word, I can hear him laughing as he holds the yellowed stems in the bowl of his hands. I stretch my arm up to shoulder height so we can swing the wicker basket full of mushrooms between us as we walk home in the early morning mist. He uses a knife to show me how to cut the pores from the underside of the caps and then he takes my hands into his so I can learn how to gently wash off the mud and dirt. When I am in the prairies of Canada and new Tētis puts me on his shoulders and teaches me about wheat and tractors and flatness going on forever and ever, I will whisper something in our strange words that maybe the wind or a bird or a cloud will carry all the way to the shore near our old home where it’ll curl up into a sea shell that real Tētis will find and gather up in his palms and press to his ear.
Tētis, here where I live, in the land of milk and honey, mushroom picking is two words.
Māris Leja is the pen name of a practicing lawyer.
Photography by Shelby King.