The International Writers Magazine: Family
Pictures in Dreamscapes
Oma, a stout matronly woman, her hair pinned in a gray bun, responds to my knock.
I got to visit my Great Grandma, my Oma, on our shared birthday
in April. She is 85 and I am 17. She has a little house on the
outskirts of town. Her home is surrounded by petunias and begonias,
which she tends so lovingly.
“Hello, Liebchen” she says, with a huge hug.
“Happy Birthday Oma,” I say, handing her an assortment of cut flowers, as she ushers me in and just as quickly runs to take the streusel apple pie that we both love so well out of the oven.
“Ooo Oma, that cinnamon is heavenly,” I call out to her.
I look around at her neat little living room. Worn but comfy chairs with matching pillows are all put carefully in their places. A painting of a winter scene in Germany hangs on the wall. The familiar miniature cactus garden adorns the window sill.
“Come schatze, my treasure,” Omas says ushering me into the dining room, which is her pride and joy. A beautiful, cherrywood table is covered with a lace tablecloth. Facing me, as I sit down, is a formal buffet with all of Oma’s favorite pieces brought over from Germany.
I sit down at the table and notice several pictures of our family members lying there.
“Grandma, Papa Gus, Mommy and Uncle Erwin!” I exclaim. They all look so happy and young in a garden behind a house.
“Oma, Is this Grandma and Papa’s house in Germany?” I ask her. They never talk about their former life.
“Ja, ja” she answers simply.
“Where did these pictures come from?”
“I was going through some old photo albums I had stored away. I thought you might like to see them, she answers.
Then there’s another picture of Oma on a snow- laden mountain.
“Where is this mountain?” I ask picking it up as Oma comes into the room with the warm apple pie.
“That mountain goes across the Russian border. The neighbors in Germany couldn’t hide me any longer.”
Another story that neither my mother nor grandmother had ever mentioned to me about the war.
“And the Russians let you through?” I ask, examining the photo closely.
“Well,” she laughs, slicing the pie, “I was their guest for a time … in Siberia.”
“Siberia?” Wasn’t that a prison?”
“Ja, ja,” she answers. One country didn’t recognize me as a German. The other one arrested me because I was one. That was the only time that I can remember feeling scared that my life would end, when they arrested me on the Russian border. But you know, I still had hope,” she says putting the plate in front of me.
“What gave you hope?” I ask, flicking my long blonde hair behind my back, out of my way.
“It wasn’t anything that anyone did or said,” she tells me. “I was just a stubborn woman, who thought that hope meant survival. Without hope, there couldn‘t be a chance.”
“What did you do there? Were there other people in Siberia?”
“But of course,” she says, sitting down. “Siberia was very overcrowded at one time. But it didn’t last for long. The clothing we wore, ahh, they turned to rags very quickly. And of course it was so cold, sehr sehr kalt all the time,” she says, lapsing into some German. “People died from freezing to death.”
I form a picture in my mind of poor Oma, her stark body covered in tattered rags. It was hard to picture that Oma though I had a good imagination. The one who sat before me now was fingering her favorite garnet necklace, wearing a pretty flowered dress. Oma seemed very comfortable now. I wonder what hardships living in Siberia had brought to her. What could she have been feeling at the time?
“Did they have you just sitting around all day?” I ask innocently.
“Of course not!” Oma declares, placing a dollop of whipped cream on the plate with my pie. “There was work to be done there. Some women needed to cook. Others did the heavier work, helping the men to build the railroads and the canals. I was just about to be assigned to kitchen duty, to scaling that stinking fish,” she wrinkles her nose in disgust. “People died from that rotten fish too you know. Then a miracle happened. God saved me!”
“How?” I ask, my fork poised in the air.
“A Russian commander came into the barracks one day. I can still hear the clip-clop of his heavy boots, and see his austere, unsmiling face,” she says, clenching her fist.
“Oma, don’t upset yourself,” I say. “It all happened a long time ago, and this is your birthday!” I declare, coming around and putting my arm around her shoulder.
“Sit, sit,” she orders me. “It’s time for you to know, mein kindt.”
When the Commander came into the room, he asked in a booming voice, “Anyone here play the piano?”
“I can!” I told him boldly. “His stern demeanor didn’t frighten me. If the Lord meant for me to live, then I would.”
"Why did you volunteer Oma? I don’t know if I could have. I would have been scared. I knew the Commander could have been bluffing. He could have been taking me to be killed somewhere … but if it was true that he needed a piano teacher, maybe … just maybe I could endure the war a little easier.”
“Can you teach it to my daughter?” asked the man.
“Yes, I taught my own children when they were young,” Oma answers, looking back at the other women. “What about Helga, Frieda and Inge? What would become of them?” I worried, “but I couldn’t pass up this chance.”
“Come, come then,” he said.
“And that my dear was the best thing that happened to me in the war,” she says, taking a bite of her pie. "For not only did I teach Nina, his daughter, the piano but I became a sort of governess to her. She loved me,” she says smiling.
“And do you think that the Commander would allow his governess to teach his daughter in tattered rags?” she asks me.
“Madame gave me clothes from a former servant, not the best clothes, but better than walking around in rags. And I had shoes, shoes on my feet!” she exclaims. “I thought of my friends then too.”
“How did they treat you?”
Ahh, for once I could get away from the odor of the stinking fish that pervaded the camp in Western Kazakhstan. Cook liked to make this dish, let me think what it is called … Ja, Besh barmak,” Oma recalled. A kind of meat and noodle stew. It helped me to get my strength back.”
My Oma has always been a survivor.
“I didn’t hate it there,” Oma continued. “Little Nina, so sweet, with her long golden hair. I enjoyed combing it every night. The child was starved for affection and I gave it to her willingly.”
"How could she not love you?"
“And as I promised the Commander, I taught her the piano. We started with the scales at first,” Oma told me. “Then we graduated to actual songs. The fact that I couldn’t speak Russian didn’t matter. I could point, I could demonstrate.”
“Then it was Nina’s ninth birthday,” Oma remembers. “We were planning to give a concert of simple songs that I had taught her at the party. I remember the dress Nina wore. It was beautiful,” she says wistfully. “Pink organdy with a satin bow. Ahh, she was beautiful,” Oma recalls.
The guests were assembled in the parlor. The Commander and his wife, other officers with their companions and a few other children were all there. I stood in the background, behind a curtain,” Oma tells me. Nina began to play the opening chords of Du Schones Madchen. As she continued playing, the Commander jumped up.
“What is the meaning of this, this German music?” he demanded. “Where is the piano teacher?”
“I am here,” and I stepped forward.
“You teach my Nina the German music?” he screamed. “Don’t you realize that it’s the music of our enemies?”
“But … but it’s the only music I know.”
“Tomorrow,” he says, “you go back to the camp" and he raises his hand as if to slap me. Then, just as suddenly he puts it down. “Go to your room now!”
“I thought all hope was gone that night. I’d go back to the camp and die there but fate intervened once more on my behalf.”
“What happened?” I asked, not able to imagine.
“That night, the Commander’s wife came to my room. She only handed me a train ticket. A ticket for Japanese Shanghai, and she whispered thank you before she left.”
“Were you scared of what you would find in Shanghai, Oma?”
“Of course, I was scared,” she answers, her fingers trembling a little. “But what choice did I have but to go? And that is another story.”
“My god Oma,” I say.
“Come, let’s enjoy our coffee, mein schatze,” she says finally.
“Oma,” I say, smiling. “I’m glad you survived against so many odds. I feel fortunate that I always share my birthday with you.”
Oma smiled back in return.
“Will you play Du Schones Madchen for me, Oma?
“Of course,” she says getting up a little stiffly.
The two of us sit down at the piano bench together. Oma closes her blue eyes in concentration remembering the melody and her past. I put my arm around Oma’s shoulders as she plays out her beautiful song.
© Debralynn Fein February 2006
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