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A Broken Childhood

Schefner, Maria. "A Broken Childhood." Volk auf dem Weg, November 2011, 27.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO. Editing by Dr. Nancy A. Herzog.


It’s been seventy years, but she continues to experience the same bad dream over and over. It’s about the bombing attack on the train in which she and her mother and her brother Waldi are being deported to Siberia. Mother is dragging both children further away from the train, everything is in flames, and everyone around her is moaning and shouting, and it is raining heavily. Waldi gets stuck in the mud, and mother drags him out of his boot because she can’t free him any other way, and he’ll have to move along on one bare foot. Everything is wet and cold, and he is freezing and crying. Katya looks around. She can still see the small boot and wants to get it back for him, but mother quickly pulls her toward herself, presses her down to the ground with her pregnant stomach, and the final thing Katya can still see is the explosion, exactly at the place where the small boot was still sticking in the mud. Deafening noise, flames reaching high into the sky, a curiously sour smell, Waldi’s wide open eyes, Mama’s heavy stomach – everything has happened so fast, she can hardly breathe, she wants to cry out, but she simply can’t get enough air, and suddenly everything is gone.

Then she finds herself floating in the blue sky that seems to be crisscrossed with sunrays. The stillness is so intense that her ears are humming, and the air seems unbelievably clean, in fact, as clean as she had never experienced it. She breathes it in, she literally drinks this air that tastes so exquisite. And then she hears a voice, at first from afar, but coming closer and closer: “Katya, my child, wake up!” Mama, it must be Mama! Katya is glad and she wants to say how she loves to breathe in this pure air, and she wants to share it with Mama so that she, too, her dearest Mama, can experience it as well! And Waldi, too. Where are they, why are they hiding from her, why can’t she see them way up high? “Come here,” she wants to say. But her lips seem frozen shut, they do not want to move, and then someone shakes her strongly, and the air at once becomes wet and dusty again, heavy, sour, and still she can hear Mama’s voice very clearly. Mama is crying and shouts out so loudly that Katya cannot bear it. She wants to comfort Mama and she opens her eyes. Mama presses her close to herself and is crying bitterly! “Why? Mama, what’s the matter with you?” asks Katya with astonishment. But her voice sounds so weak she can hardly hear herself. She is getting dizzy, and she wants to sleep. And somehow, deeply within herself, she longs for the bright, blue sky, for the sweet, pure air, for the breadth and height she had never experienced before. But not without Mama! Not without Waldi, who has lost his little boot and is standing in the mud with one bare foot, is shivering with the cold and is crying quietly as if to say, “Katya, stay here, I need you. With whom can I play and laugh if you’re gone?” And Katya smiles at him, and then Mama as well. She pats Mama’s back with her small hand and whispers, “Don’t cry, everything is fine, and Papa will surely come back to us soon, right, Mama?” And Mama sighs deeply: “Yes, my dear, smart little girl. It’s true, the war will soon be over, and we’ll all get together again, and everything will be good. Now go to sleep. Sleep!” Katya closes her eyes, feels the warmth of Mama’s body and of her hands caressing her tenderly and rocking her gently. She falls asleep. She smiles. Everything will be fine.

It’s been seventy years. They survived it all, everything—Siberia, the war, and the NKVD surveillance. She found Papa again or, rather, Mama found him or, rather, what was left of him. With her own hands she took him home, saying “He’s as light as a straw. But they got him back on his feet. It took a while, but they managed it. They got their life back, and their parents, even though part of everything had been torn away--her childhood, for example, that of Waldi, and that of so many children of the war. Well, childhood is the kind of thing that can’t just wait until the war is over.

And how about exile? It, too, is finally gone.  As a mere five-year-old, you lose your little boot in the mud, and right before your eyes it is blown smack into the air. But you do grow up, and so does your little sister. It’s simply her first memory, the very first one of her entire life. And throughout her life, that memory comes to haunt her as a nightmare, again and again. For seventy years now, even now when not only her parents, but Waldi, too, are no longer alive. But she also knows where they are now, namely, in that bright blue sky threaded throughout with sunrays, there where she once had floated. Then, too, she has fulfilled her most audacious dream of living in Germany, for years by now. She has a home again. She is happy. For everyone. The only thing missing for her, is Waldi’s little boot. Everyone has his or her own milestone marking a broken childhood.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translating and to Dr. Nancy A. Herzog for editing the article.

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