Inge was crying again. I knew she was just hungry, so I tried to make her forget, by pulling a funny face. It wasn’t working this time, so I just hugged her instead. I didn’t know if it made her feel better, but it muffled the sound at least. I wondered how long it would be before Mummy got home. And I was hoping she would have managed to find something to eat. When my sister finally stopped sobbing, she looked up at me expectantly.
“Manfred, will Mummy be home soon? I’m starving”.
The Russians had got to our street two days after my tenth birthday. There had been no cake of course, but Mummy had given me a scarf, wrapped in newspaper, and she had found a tiny candle to put into the large potato she had baked in the wood oven owned by Frau Winter.
The day after that, Mummy came home and told us that the war was over.
We already knew we had lost.
People put white sheets out of the windows, so they wouldn’t fire their guns into the apartment blocks. But by then we were living in the basement room, and our only window looked over the yard. Besides, it had been a long time since we had any white sheets.
Father had died so long ago, Inge didn’t remember him at all. Mummy would show her the photo of him in uniform, so she knew who he was.
I remembered him well of course, or so I imagined.
A tall man with dark hair, always smiling. He had died in a place called Tobruk, Mummy had said. But we didn’t know where that was.
Before the war, life had been good. We lived in a three bedroom apartment in a nice avenue near the Tierpark. Daddy was a floor manager in a department store, and Mummy worked as a waitress before I was born. Then came the bombing, and when news of Daddy being killed in action arrived, we had to move into two rooms with Aunt Ilse, in the eastern suburbs.
But none of that was so bad, until Auntie’s house was destroyed when we were in the shelter. She had refused to come down with us, and Mummy told us she was dead. Frau Winter let us stay in her basement room across the street, and Mummy worried it was bad for baby Inge. The damp would affect her chest, she was sure.
And we were hungry, always hungry. Mummy got work when she could, any job going. I had to stop attending school to look after my sister, and questions were asked. She told them I was ill, and hoped that would be the end of it. We had to keep as quiet as we could, and not draw any attention to ourselves. When Mummy was at home, I went out to look for wood. I walked for miles, searching out broken boxes, wrecked fences, parts of damaged carts. Anything that would burn.
When my shoes were worn out, we cut up old rugs and stuffed them inside. Frau Winter let us use her kitchen, so we could cook what we had, and wash clothes. I never complained, but as Inge got older, she didn’t understand. We slept together every night, on the one old bed. Wearing our clothes in the winter, and covered in anything we could pile on top of us. Most days, Mummy would be out from first light, queuing at shops for anything she could find, or working some job to get one day’s pay to spend on us.
She became thin, and lost her looks. We never mentioned it.
Inge had one old rag doll, and a leather toy camel that Daddy had sent her from Africa. I tried my best to make games up for her, but there was only so much I could do. She cried so much, all the time. A real Mummy’s girl. Most nights, we had only a thin soup to eat, and small squares of bread that tasted like wood shavings. Mummy would give most of it to us, and say she had already eaten upstairs with Frau Winter. I knew she was lying, but I was so hungry, I ate it anyway.
We knew things were getting worse when they came for the local boys. All of them over the age of twelve were taken for training. I was tall for my age, and it took a lot of screaming from Mummy to convince the soldiers that I was only nine. Klaus and Heinrich were both taken away. Heinrich cried a bit, but Klaus was almost fourteen, and declared he would kill some of the Ivans for me.
I never saw them again.
Inge had finally gone to sleep, so I reached under the bed to find my comics and magazines. I had read them so many times that I knew them off by heart. But anything was better than sitting staring into space.
I had dropped off when I was roused by the noise of Mummy returning. I was shocked to see her accompanied by a large man. Not just any man, a Russian soldier. I wondered what had happened. Were we to be arrested? Mummy smiled at me, and spoke formally. “Manfred, this is Gregory. He carried my shopping home for me, and he has brought us some wood too. He is an under-officer, and speaks little German. Stand up, and say hello”. I stood reluctantly, wary of the huge man. He grinned, and dropped the bundle of wood. Pointing at his chest, he spoke in a loud voice. “Me, Grigiry”. Before he could shake my hand, Inge woke up. Delighted to see Mummy, she didn’t even question the presence of the soldier.
Opening his coat, Grigiry produced a large loaf of black bread, and two fat sausages that reeked of garlic. As Inge cuddled Mummy, we watched with our mouths watering as he sliced chunks of sausage onto the pieces of bread. He passed them round, and I tried not to appear greedy as I started to eat. But it was all I could do not to cram the whole thing into my mouth at once. He ate his noisily, his mouth half-open, showing big yellow teeth. When he saw me looking at the huge pistol in a holster on his hip, he took it out and pointed it at me.
“Bang-Bang!” Then he roared with laughter, crumbs of bread falling from his mouth.
The sausages and black bread were all gone, and Mummy opened her bag to show us something. “Look what else he has given you, children”. It was a small tin of jam, and Inge squealed excitedly at the sight of it, jumping up and down, clapping her hands. Grigiry opened the tin with a small pocket-knife, and handed it back to Mummy, jerking his head to one side as he did so.
“Now you two, take this jam outside, and eat it sitting on the steps while I have a talk with Gregory, alright?”
I did as she asked, as I always did. But as I watched my sister sucking the jam from her sticky fingers, I was certain of one thing.
They were not talking.