Children of War

by Marie Sadro
Illustrations by Barbara Pollack

Our races to the bunkers became a nightly event. The darkness of the streets, the hectic surge of people, mostly women and children, through tortuous streets, the dive of planes with unmuffled engines, and the sequential explosion of incendiary bombs which, according to my aunt, lit up the Berlin skies like giant Christmas trees, remain confused events in my memory. I believe I closed my eyes as I hung on to my aunt's harsh, knuckled hand and ran mutely along with her down the Kurfurstendam and other streets. I remember no air raids although I am told that I experienced them almost every night until I was four years old.
What I remember is the frenzy of adults whenever the sirens began to howl. My father's aunt, whom we called Tante, said the sound made her dentures rattle. My little brother, I am told, shrieked uncontrollably. And my young mother, with blond tendrils clinging to her forehead and her blue eyes enormous with fright, searched about frantically for things she could not find. I do not remember my father, although he was with us at the time, but his stoic manly terror was lost in the frenzy of women trying to salvage this or that in case our dwelling would be struck that night. What I remember very clearly is our exit from the bunkers the morning after, the grey, often rainy dawns, when all was quiet and when lone women crept about like shadows with frozen souls, staring vacantly at the ruin.
But I was not afraid in the mornings. I was brave and even amused. I had survived the night. It was going to be another fine day with toys and games. I teased my little brother in anticipation. Our father's aunt walked us back to our apartment while my parents with my twin baby sisters went home by another route. I observed the strange appearance of houses deprived of outer walls. "Look, Tante, at the sofa hanging over the wall," I laughed and pointed at the third floor of a damaged building. "We can even see their bedroom and the bed with blankets and pillows. Tante, are the people going to sleep in it when they come back?"
"You are silly," she said. "People can't sleep in houses without walls!"
"Why not? All their furniture is in it. There is the kitchen with a table and chairs. Can we come back at noon and watch them eat their dinner?"
"I don't think so," she said. "They'll come and get their furniture and move somewhere else."
"But they're not here now! Can we go inside?"
"No!" she said again. But I kept on babbling. It seemed to me that a building without a facade should be great fun. This building did not look black and charred like the other houses. It looked normal except that its outer walls had crumpled away.
"We could go and get the toys. They won't mind if we take the dolls. Maybe their children are dead and won't need them anymore. There may be a train for Josef!"
Josef heard the word "train," got excited. "I want a train!" he screamed and stomped his feet.
Tante hesitated. The door was blown away, leaving an empty entrance. The building looked solid enough with stairs and railings. Only the outer wall was ripped off, and one side of an upper floor was slanted. The roof was gone so that the stairs led to nowhere. "Couldn't we just go in a little bit?" I begged.
"I don't think it is safe for children," she said. "But if you stay on the sidewalk where I can see you, I may just check if someone needs help."
I saw that curiosity had gotten the better of her. She asked me to hold Josef's hand and not budge until she came back. "Remember the song I sing you at night, Guten Abend?" she asked. "You sing that song softly and I'll be back before you are finished."
She told me not to sing too fast. So I stayed on the sidewalk and held Josef's hand and sang Schubert's "Lullaby" while my aunt disappeared through the door frame. I saw her try the staircase with one foot, then go up the steps slowly and disappear around the landing.
I was finished with the song and waited for her to come down the stairs, but she did not appear. I looked up at the naked building but could not see her in any room. Maybe she was looking for dolls for me and a train for Josef. Time passed.
A woman in black was coming up the sidewalk towards us. I began to freeze. I was sure that this woman would ask us questions if my aunt did not return at once. The building swallowed my aunt. She was not in the bedroom or the kitchen. The woman was coming closer. I could see her dark circled eyes in her ashen face.
"Where is your mother?" she asked.
"My mother's not here," I said and tightened my grip on my little brother's hand. Frightened, Josef started to whimper.
The woman looked disturbed. "Who left you here?" she asked.
I said nothing.
"Come with me," said the woman. She pulled at my hand. "I will find your mother!"
"I don't want to go with you," I said.
"Oh, there are so many little ones separated from their parents," she insisted. "I'm looking for my little boy. I lost him in the terrible raid last night." She grabbed Josef's hand.
"No, no!" I cried. Josef started to howl.
"I won't hurt you, children," she said. "Come along! My house is not far away. You come with me!"
With terror in my soul, I followed her. I remembered the story of Hansel and Gretel and the witch. Perhaps she was the witch.
I looked back and saw my aunt come out of the building and stand on the sidewalk looking for us. '
The woman let us go. "I lost my little boy last night. Did you see him?" she asked in a pitiful voice.
"I saw no child," replied my aunt.
The woman made a sound like the moan of a wounded beast. "I must search again," she said. "I lost him somewhere near here last night." She stumbled away on the sidewalk as if she was about to fall.
My aunt's hand was still shaking as she took the opposite direction to our apartment. "People go crazy in the war," she mumbled.
"Did you find a doll for me and a train for Josef?" I asked.
"Hush, honey," she said gently. "I didn't have the heart to take anything. There was a dead little boy in the stairwell." And I saw tears run down her cheeks.

About the author: Marie Sadro was born in Berlin in 1939, and lived there until 1944, when her family escaped to Austria. She now lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her husband, and teaches French and German at a private college. She has published a book of poems, To Canada With Love, and several articles within anthologies.