Geography of my Life
Becker, Heinrich. "Geography of my Life." Volk auf dem Weg, May 2009, 38-39.
This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado
Continued from issue Volk auf dem Weg, April 2009, 40 - 41
Back at the children's home, we were assigned to age groupings. Alexander and I were to be in a specific group, and Ella, Waldemar, Peter and Mina in another. One again we were to be separated! Our younger siblings resisted and cried and howled terribly. A staff member asked for assistance and led our siblings away. I would not see them again until 1957, after the major restrictions on Germans had been lifted.
Alexander and I were assigned to a group of adolescents. While we were living without any parents in Novoroszhdestvenskoye, we really had only one enemy, hunger, but here in the children's home we were facing an entire group of hostile children, for whom we were merely those "fascists."
There began for us a period of fistfights. We tried to protect ourselves without attacking first. When we were attacked, the staff never got involved. In fact, they looked the other way. Alexander was more skilled in fistfights than I, but together we were usually able to prevail. This life was very strenuous, because one had to be on one's toes at all times. And due to the continuing fights we were often unable to sleep through the night. Already during the first night our belts were stolen. Often we slept without covers, which were taken from us when we did get so sleep.
The one who looked for a fight the most was a 15-year-old mute boy, who was physically stronger than Alexander or I. "Fa" was the only sound he was able to make, and that's why the children called him that. He worked in the kitchen of the children's home and was responsible for transporting water. He hauled water daily in a wagon pulled by an ox. Fa was a real power in the children's home. Whenever the staff lost control over a particular group among which fighting had broken out, they would simply call out, "Fa, go and take care of it!"
Somehow he had come into possession of a piece of metal, which he sharpened on one side. One of his threatening moves was a mock attack on us with this sharp piece of metal. For Fa there were many reasons to start a fight. As early as breakfast, the fighting would begin, especially when we would refuse to give him our bread. If he saw us sitting on a bench in the yard, he would approach us, breathing hard and waving his knife in front of us.
In this atmosphere, the behavior of most of the other children in the home was also unusual and characterized my mistrust and aggression.
In the interior yard of the children's home there was a spot from which, through a thin strip of forest, we were able to observe trains passing by. We stood there often, looking at the trains, and one day the idea came to us to leave the children's home and ride the train back to Tugan. At the time we did not know how much time it might take to get to the train.
One day the bell rang for the noon meal. We went to the gathering place, lined up, and marched to the mess hall as usual. In front of the hall, one of Fa's friends approached us and demanded that we smuggle our mid-day bread outside and give it to him. I kept quiet, but Alexander, who was a little more courageous than I, told him, "I am going to eat my bread myself. You won't get anything from me." The boy was much bigger and older than Alexander and I. In contrast to my brother, I became afraid and ate my soup without bread that day, hiding the bread in my shirt while planning to give it to the guy after the meal as he had demanded. But things happened differently. After we left the hall following the noon meal and our line passed into the yard, Alexander said to me that the two us of together could overwhelm the other boy, and he tried to talk me into helping him. After a brief hesitation I agreed, even though I was scared.. Everything after that happened very fast. Alexander left our line and threw himself onto the other boy, grabbed him at the throat and dragged him to the ground. Just as he was trying to get up, I threw myself on him, and together we were able to overwhelm him. And we got our belts back.
We had barely recovered from that fight when Fa ran at us waving his knife. He jumped on my back, took me by the throat, and pressed his sharp piece of metal against it. Normally I should have been lamed just from fear, but I suddenly felt nothing but plain anger, I grabbed the hand he held the knife with and threw him to the ground, causing the knife to drop on the ground so that Alexander was able to pick it up. The other boys, who had been standing around, screeched and ran away. Fa was lying on the ground. Several older adolescents in tow, three staff members ran toward us.
At just that moment, a freight train passed the point behind the woods. We heard the whistle and the noises of the train quite well. Alexander said, "Let's run to the train, we won't stay here!" Hoping to reach this train, we ran in the direction of the railroad station. But as we arrived there, the local police was already awaiting us and took us back to the children's home.
Our punishment was harsh. We were given a thorough beating and put into detention for three days, and the whole time we were allowed nothing but a glass of tea each morning, noon, and evening. The room was about three meters long and a meter and a half wide [about ten by 5 feet]. Water was running on the floor, and there was no bed, only a small ottoman, no toilet, and only a hole in the corner of the concrete floor.
Having been released from detention, we were going to our noon meal, as usual, along with the others. Afterwards we first made sure that no one was watching us, and then we walked through the thin strip of forest directly to the railroad station. This time, we were well hidden while waiting for the next train, and when a passenger train stopped, we asked where it was going. It was headed toward Asino. Nobody checked us as we boarded the train.
Chapter 8 Escape
As the train was leaving the station, a conductor came and asked for out tickets. Of course we had none. The conductor engaged us in a long conversation. We did not mention that we had escaped from the children's home, but told him we wanted to reach our house near the Tugan station. We also told him that our father was in a forced labor brigade, and that our mother had been sentenced to two and a half years of forced labor for taking 2.5 kilos of grain from a collective. He kept asking us for more information, but then, constantly looking around, he asked us to speak quietly, and when the train suddenly came to a stop, we saw a sign with the word "Tugan" on it. We left the train, and it took off.
Standing in front of the locked building, we were reminded of that fall when we were placed there. At that time we still had parents caring for us, but now we could expect help from no one.
We decided simply to follow a path through the woods. On the way we caught up to two women, and we began to talk with them when one of the women recognized us: "Are you Henirich Becker's children?" It turned out that one of the women was Nastya, for whom our father had worked at one time. I told her we wanted to go back to Novoroszhdestvenskoye. She said, "I must disappoint you -- you're on the wrong road." We learned from Nastya that Novoroszhdestvenskoye was forty kilometers [about 24 miles] from there, but in the opposite direction.
Nastya let us stay in her house overnight and gave us something to eat. On the fourth day, as we began the long walk, she gave us a bucketful of potatoes, some salt, and a few matches. "God bless you," she said as we said our good-byes.
On our journey we stopped in the woods twice to bake potatoes over a fire. At the edge of the forest we reached a small village. The late summer air was moist, but not cold. We did not want to spend the night in the forest and decided to spend it in a hay loft next to a garden, making sure not to awaken the village dogs.
We were awakened by familiar sounds -- roosters crowing, calves and cows mooing. The rising sun lit up the horizon. Nearby a woman was milking the cows, and we heard milk flowing into buckets. Birds greeted the new day with their singing. The village was waking up. Dogs barked, and nearby a cat meowed. A horse-drawn wagon passed by, and a woman was hauling water from a nearby well. We heard the rhythmically repeating sound of the well wheel. A herder was driving the cows along the street to the meadow. Chickens and geese were coming outside again. The atmosphere was peaceful, and for a few moments we felt taken back to the time near the Volga when we still had a place we could call home.
To be continued in the next issue ...
Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.