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Seeing Myself
I began to run, as much as my old legs would permit.
I was afraid for Thomas, who could know how cruel children could be...
Joerg Liesegang

I can still see the face of the man standing before me in the door of the train. "Kommen Sie, Herr Braunstein? Kommen Sie doch." But Mr. Samuel Braunstein didn’t want to come. At least that was what he told us children begging him not to depart from us. We had left so much behind. Now, I think, of course he wanted to come; it was the December of 1938 and who seriously wanted to go back to Germany? With hair as black as his and a nose of that shape? But that’s just me talking now, I think right there at the station in Harwich, any one of us would have been much too keen on taking the ride back to our parents.

Braunstein had accompanied us all the way from Berlin to Hook of Holland and Harwich. He had been one of the few adults on the ferry, he had been the first to dry our tears, to tell us, that now we must live for our parents. He was the first to tell us stories of the Holy Land awaiting us somewhere. Somewhere, if only man would be wise enough to find it. But it was all part of the deal. The adults taking care of the children on the trains had to return back to Germany, or no further trains would be permitted to go out. The Germans were lethal in their exactness.
I was eleven when all of that happened. We had arrived at the station in Berlin two days earlier, everything was packed with children, suitcases and parents. Brothers and sisters holding themselves in the background, they were too old or too young to go, and it seemed like they had the silhouette of an idea that something big was put between them and their sibling. The parents called it distance. I remember my father and me playing this game of staying calm. We even tried ourselves in making jokes, being merry, light hearted, like the starting of school after a long vacation. We were all just going on a trip, until things got better, and then we would come home.

We boarded. Hands were held and parted. Cheeks rubbed. Some of the other fathers were trying hard to press something out of his lips that would stay with his child forever, would have to stay forever, for it was the last thing they would say to them. My father told me to look out the window at the next station. We drove off.

A train filled with screaming, shouting children suddenly got very quiet. Very severe. Solemn. Ponderous. We glided out of the hall as if our broken hearts were cushions. The city drifted by. Crept by without a touch to it. Then we stopped, it was the next station, just a halt, and I remembered what my father had said. I went over to the window. There he was, his grey coat and hat, my mother hooked to his arm. They must have taken a taxi, coming here so fast, standing there, alone on the quay, waving their two free arms as if they wanted to shake them off. They had made the first part of my journey with me, as far as they could. Maybe that was the last thing my father said to me.

I was put into a boarding school in the western parts of Wales. Stayed there until the war was over. Went to England afterwards, lost track of my school mates who disappeared to America or Israel. I found work in a factory in the north of London. Then I opened a small shop for newspapers and anything else that people wanted to buy and I was allowed to sell. I got myself a husband. He found me. He was just standing there in my door one day. And in 1955, I was married, twenty-eight and expecting my first child, a man phoned me one evening.

Said whether I was Rebekka Krajewsky, from the Linienstrasse 146, Berlin? I said yes, and he introduced himself as Daniel Rosenstock, living at number 152 in the old times, the neighbour with the grey hat and the walking stick. He told me that he had been trying to find me for the last ten years, and that he had bad news of my parents and younger sister, that they were all killed in Riga back in 1941.

I’m seventy-five. Recently, when I saw the children of my youngest daughter playing , I often thought of myself being their age. Playing in the streets of Berlin. The Oranienburger Strasse with the big synagogue right in our neighbourhood. The pretty golden dome that you could see from the street. The horse-carts loaded with coals or potatoes or wooden boxes with proud names printed on the sides of them. The children from school running with their rucksacks dangling, the trees on the cemetery on the Grosse Hamburger Strasse, the Spree River, the big museum buildings on the island nearby.

Our wonderful evenings on Fridays, and the Sunday afternoons, when my father used to invite his three friends over to make music, string quartet music. Splendid afternoons, especially when it was getting dark outside early in the afternoon. My mother always had some cakes or pastries ready, tea and coffee was served, the living room warmed by the tiled stove in the corner, candles lit up. The lowest rack in a book shelf in the living room was empty, and I used to put a blanket there and cuddle myself into my cave and listen to the efforts of the grown up men playing, sitting in their circle. That’s all gone now.

Yes, I could see myself when I looked at my grandchildren, looked at them two developing their own worlds, their own fears and tales of wonders and abilities. Of greatness and of loosing. My father would have loved to see these children. Would have loved to see my own children as they were running around like this. Loved to hold the little ones in his hands, seeing them eyeballing their surroundings, waggling their tiny arms, their back arching and pulling and slowly rendering to their own curiosity. He would have found his own ancestors in their little faces, would have found the aunts and grandmothers and cousins that were so close to him. Would have seen something new, something exciting.

And I saw something new. Something I had tried so hard to forget. I saw them as well. Saw my family. My own sister, my mother, my aunt. Everything that I had forbidden myself to think about in my years in England. Everything that I had covered under the smoke of a great furnace of a concentration camp somewhere in the east of Europe. These children were like a wind roaming through my memory, bringing them all back, presenting them to me like clear little stenographies, one by one.

It was questions that I had punished my own children with silence for asking. It was my grandchild sitting on my lap, smiling at me and saying, "Do you have a daddy?" It was their eyes, searching, that made me wanting to tell them my story. It was their parents, my daughter and son-in-law, coming up to me and asking, "Yeah, tell us about them."
My daughter actually didn’t know that I was one of the 10,000 children on the Kindertransports, didn’t know about my time in Berlin, or anything, she had just assumed things and hadn’t wanted to touch anything that might hurt me. Didn’t want to throw me back into those horrible times. But they weren’t horrible, not all of it. Not my childhood in the Linienstrasse. Not my family. Not the years in Wales. Not even the train ride through Nazi-Germany and the coming into Holland, where friendly people greeted the wagons and had snacks and milk waiting for us. Certainly not old Samuel Braunstein telling us stories and giving us a German sort of Punch and Judy show to shorten our time.

One day, me and Thomas, the oldest son of my daughter, were out on the playground over at Wildwoods in the Whitewebbs Park. It was a fine day, and a whole bunch of other boys and girls all around the age of ten were playing a hard game of football between the trees and over the humpy field. Everything was well and they were running like a mad herd of hogs chasing the ball and flouncing the goals, until the game suddenly just stopped. They were all standing in the far corner of the field, shouting and clamouring like old market women, and the ball lay somewhere off, disregarded. I started over there like the other adults that were around, and coming nearer, I could distinctly hear the words "Nazi, Nazi, Nazi" repeated in a harsh and cruel, uniform chant. I began to run, as much as my old legs would permit. I was afraid for Thomas, who could know how cruel children could be.

What I found was a little ten or eleven year old girl clenched in their middle. They were all showing with their fingers on her, my sweet little Thomas leading the pack, putting the words in his mouth like they were a force he had awaited to get rid of. "Nazi, Nazi, Nazi." The other children were dancing, getting their fierce countenances matched to their words, marching up to that little girl as if they were throwing buckets full of water and petroleum on a fire they feared and relished at the same time.

Thomas was loud, I had never heard him that loud before, so convinced of his cause, full of righteousness when he caught my eyes, expecting well deserved admiration. He was glad to see me, as if I should top it all. "That girl is a German, Granny. I don’t want to play with her. I hate her. Make her go away, Granny." The other children were cheering, applauding, endorsing Thomas with their shrill "Nazi, Nazi" iterations. And they were looking up to me as well, Thomas had made me their accomplice, one from the big adult world, one of whom understanding and empathy for their motive was supposed.

I must have been absent. I didn’t act. Didn’t do anything. All I saw was this little eleven-year old child in the middle. I could see it, as if I was floating on some cloud and looking at it from above, unreachable and so very close. All I saw were these eyes, a plate full of tears in every one of them, carefully held straight as not to spill any. A thousand thoughts chasing behind that little brow, and really only one being thought, over and over.

I was buying flour for my mother, it was my dad’s birthday, and my mother didn’t have any flour, so she sent me, and I went down across the street to the little shop at the corner, I went in, one clean bill grasped in my hand, as I came in, a man at the door stopped me, said I couldn’t come into the shop, and they were laughing at me, but I said that I needed flour for my papa, that it was his birthday, I could see the flour standing on the counter behind the cash register, and the man laughed and said I couldn’t come in and the other people laughed, and I was trying to push the door that the man was holding closed with two fingers, but it didn’t move, and that’s when he started shouting, whether I didn’t understand, whether he had to beat it into me, and the other people stopped laughing and were all looking very serious, and I understood that they were looking at me, charging me, not that evil man, but me, and I heard the words, "Wir verkaufen nichts an dreckige Sau-Juden, sag das deiner Mutter, verschwinde und komm nicht wieder."

I must have been absent. They were all silent then, the children, looking content. Full of self-esteem. And the girl was gone. And I felt angry and so alone again. So helpless. All I wanted was the flour, for my dad, for my mother, so she could bake the cake for him. All I wanted was to find that girl. I could smell the hurt and anger and abandonment inside of her, I could feel her chest exploding with things that were just too large to stay inside, too swollen to come out, choking on her. I could hear her thinking the words, "what is wrong with me?", "what did I do wrong?", breathing them in and further in, swallowing them like bubbles of boiling air until they were as hard and real as a giant stone inside herself.

I could see her hiding in some staircase or corner, running down some street as if she could get away. I could see, but I couldn’t find her, and yet I had to. I had to tell her that she wasn’t alone. I had to tell her there was nothing wrong with her. There just isn’t. No matter what other people say. It was like I saw it for the first time in my life. So clear that I must have spoken it a thousand times before. I was still standing in the crowd of young people slowly dissolving itself. I was still being looked at. I hadn’t started to run. I hadn’t done anything. I was an old woman. I was just speaking the words that had come to me. It was a true understanding for the first time. All I could do was to speak the words. There is nothing wrong with me.
All I could do was to hope that the little girl would learn it, too.

© by Joerg Liesegang, 2001


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