Written By Leanne Esposito
Mother of God my mother, Queen of Peace, ask your Son Jesus to give me the gift of peace. Give peace to my nation, and to all nations, peace among all peoples, peace in the world.
A string rosary fell between chaffed fingers as appeals for peace rose up from Anna’s lips. Ivana applied pressure to her shoulder with a soft palm.
‘You shouldn’t be out here. Come inside.’
Anna sat on the top step. A cold concrete slab warmed her seat. The skirt of her uniform, the capital letters ‘OST’ embroidered onto her left breast pocket, bunched around her ample thighs, the length of her sturdy legs exposed. She was oblivious to her disarray. Didn’t care. Decorum was not a thing she practised anymore.
Ivanna’s nudge successfully ended Anna’s vigil. Slowly she shed the skin of a religious trance, returning to the reality of the Munich Base hospital and the nightmare of war.
‘Nein!’ Anna’s eyes still focused somewhere off into the distance where palls of smoke rose, each one an exclamation mark to the demise of another building.
Ivanna sighed. Anna could be a stubborn girl.
‘Look Anna I’m just worried about you. I told your Sestra I’d look after you.’
‘Do I look like I need your help?’
‘No, but yes.’ Ivanna always felt intimidated by Anna despite being three years older. ‘You know you’re supposed to come with us to the shelter. You’ll get in trouble.’
‘You will get us all into trouble. Sergi is doing us a big favour. He wants to protect us. He could get into a lot of trouble for allowing us into the bomb shelter.’
‘Not my problem.’
‘Anna you make a problem for all of us.’
‘If I get into trouble so be it. I just can’t go down there.’
‘You can if you want to.’
‘I told you before.’ Anna sighed. They’d had this conversation many times before. ‘I can’t breathe down there.’
The foundations of the Munich Hospital were built around a reinforced steel bunker. The girls called it the ‘bowels of hell.’ There was no real ventilation, only what air they tracked in behind before closing the heavy metal doors. Once inside perspiration rolled down their chins, their backs and breasts, soaking blouses. They’d always emerge damp after confinement, blinking, their eyes adjusting to a change in light.
‘I’d rather die up here than in that Nazi coffin.’ She spat on the ground. Her spittle camouflaged between the bird droppings.
Ivanna sat down beside her friend their knees touching. Her outstretched legs were longer and more slender than Anna’s. The heels of her leather shoes were pressed upon a lower step; tattered brown socks collared their ankles. The girls were a complete contrast. Everything about Ivanna appeared translucent; Anna opaque. She had the sturdy physic of the Ukrainian. Ivanna was from the north of Poland; her parent’s cottage overlooked the Baltic Sea. The people there were more refined, in body and soul, with fair skin and pale eyes. Perhaps it was the nutrients of the Black Sea, far to the south of Ukraine, which gave Anna’s body it’s substance, her mind it’s fortitude and her dark brown eyes that deep well of knowing. Ivanna pushed her knee against Anna.
‘It’s will be four months tomorrow.’
‘Don’t you remember?’
‘Why should you choose to remind me?’ Anna’s shut her down.
Ivanna was tentative. ‘We, we came on your onomastic.’
Anna spoke with force. ‘And I expect to be home on my next.’
Ivanna’s eyes welled. They were moist with disillusion.
A stillness grew as Ivanna tried to compose herself. She couldn’t contain the emotions which were rising up as she looked out at the devastation surrounding the hospital. Her shoulders rose and fell to the jerking of her stifled breaths. Soon the rest of her body joined in the staccato rhythm. Anna’s broad arms circled her friend in a soothing embrace.
‘I will be home next year and so will you.’ The girls communicated with each other in broken German. ‘We will both go to church, but not together.’ Ivanna nodded as she settled into Anna’s shoulder. ‘I will pick a poppy and place it in my hat. It will remind me of your lovely red lips.’ Anna’s eyes glazed a little as she hummed a little tune. A gentle melody to which she rocked her weeping friend.
‘The girl is collecting poppies,
She’s tormented by a wicked love,
She is crying over red poppies,
She’s crying over the unrequited love.
Anna’s Mama sang this song whenever she saw Anna choose the poppies over any other flower in the garden. It was a lifetime ago. Another world, where from the safety of her home, just outside of Rivki, Anna would put on her best dress, gloves and a straw hat every Sunday for mass. Sometimes she would thread a fresh flower, picked from her Tato’s garden, and weave its stem through the maleable fibres of the crown. She particularly liked the rich red mak – poppies – brighter in colour than any ripe tomato she’d ever picked.
‘They are so very delicate,’ her Tato instructed, ‘be careful kohannja.’ She was mindful when handling them. ‘Only the stem. The blooms are so tender. They wilt quickly like a woman’s beauty.’
Mama would scold him and he would shy away back to the barn with a mischievous smile playing on his lips.
‘Don’t tell her such nonsense.’
At this he would only hurumph, his smile giving way to a wide grin.
‘He can’t speak of women’s business.’ Mama threaded the middle of the flower’s black eye conscientious of the blooms. Joining ovary to stamin, over and over, stitching a wreath.
‘This ring is a symbol of your virginity. See how easily these petals bruise?’ Her thumb and index finger rubbing gently together across the petal’s skin; the coloured membrane like a fragile moth’s wing sticking to her tips.
‘Remember to be chaste Anna, your innocence can be stained, your virginity can also be lost as easily as these petals are bruised.’
Not since the Nazi’s had stormed into her home and taken her away had she cared about anything except returning home. Anna was still sixteen.
Normally Anna ignored the other girl’s words, the gentle nudge, the request to come back inside to the safety of the hospital. Today was different. Ivanna was at breaking point. Anna no longer cried in public. She’d learnt to control her emotions. Her baby tears had long since dried up but her hope of returning home survived. It was all that she had. Anna too rocked her friend as she stared across at the smoking hole in the ground where once the Luthern Church had stood.
She first caught sight of its dour façade on a bitterly cold day on the 13th of February, 1941. Yes, it was her Onomastic. She had been counting the minutes and days since. Anna prayed to the saints to deliver her home. Away from the stench of death and disease. Anna and three other girls, including Ivanna, had travelled the 40 miles from Erding to the Munich Hospital on the tray of a farmer’s truck; all huddled together like newly shorn lambs exchanging body heat so they didn’t freeze to death. Their only protection, a canvass sheet draped over the tray’s iron frame guarding against the moisture of the night. Between the flaps of canvass she saw the sun announce a new day. The church’s spire rose up into the sky surrounded by a radiating halo of light. Even then, under the sun’s great spotlight, its austere façade looked hard and surly like the soldiers who’d brought them here. The block work was so dark and foreboding. It was without embellishments. It had no character and did not compare to the Orthodox Church of her hometown.
She took in a disappointed breath of thick air and coughed a little as she the released the memory. How beautiful it was; tall and grand – its stone segmented with gothic stained glass windows. In her imagination they were the colorful eyes of the Saints, each one’s sanctified beatification radiating with the colours of a rainbow.
Now all she could see amongst the smoke was the spire’s cross. It was bent towards her in a crumpled bow of humility. The church’s foundations, the turret and the rest of the building, had acquiesced to the impact of the bomb. A substantial building was now obliterated to a mass of stone rubble like a dry riverbed whose fluids had long ago forgotten where to run. The crucifix survived. An act of defiance by God.
‘Good,’ she thought, ‘Even their God hasn’t entirely forgotten us.’
Dirty smoke spiralled high up into the air and was propelled towards the centre of Munich by a strong southerly wind. She could count at least seven more soot stained sprawling clouds – all rising up and arcing off across the horizon. The smell of cordite was tinged with a fresh earthy odour. It was blood. She was familiar with the stench of death, nearly dead and dying.
‘Too much blood, too much blood,’ she left the mantra hanging in the air just above the odour.
Four months now she had been toiling in the hospital laundry. Never had she seen so much blood. It was everywhere. It’s colour was not what she imagined. Not fresh and bright like a slaughtered piglet, it’s flesh all pink and new. She had helped her father to prepare the meat on special occasions like Easter and Christmas when her mother made the Buzhenyna. This blood, the stains on the sheets, were brown as if it had been infused with a Black Plague. Perhaps the men who leached the blood were purging the ugliness from their souls right at their very last gasp. There was so much death surrounding her. No one could tell her why it was so. Why the fresh and wet or dry and crusted blood looked this way. The Black Plague was a story she concocted to explain the aberrant colour. No one explained anything to her anymore; just work harder, faster, longer. At first she had picked her way around the blood stains careful not to disturb its soiling. But she got in trouble for being too slow. Desensitised now, often she would be up to her elbows in tepid water the colour of burnt crimson. It was her responsibility, along with seven other girls taken from Poland and the Ukraine to clean the mountains of blood soaked surgical gowns, sheets and bedclothes.
When the mournful cries of the air raid sirens began to wail she felt called as a witness to the carnage. What could they possibly do to her? If the English wanted to kill the Germans then so be it. Just get it over with so I can go home. Every day she prayed and every evening, in the silence of the night, she cried to be returned to her Tato and Mama. But never in public. Not anymore. She’d learnt not to show her weaknesses. Wherever her Sestra – who had been taken three months before Anna, she prayed even more that she was alive.
Anna should have run screaming with the other girls to the reinforced steel bowels of the hospital, but she could not. It was accepted now that Anna wouldn’t join them. The act of self-preservation wasn’t physically possible. She just couldn’t sit still in that place with the walls pressing in on her. She’d feel sick. Couldn’t breathe. Shaking and sweating. They called it claustrophobia. This concrete stoop became a platform where she’d offer up more prayers in the hope that this war would end. That whatever argument these countries had with each other would be over soon. If she had the power she would summon the leaders, the moustached one they called Hitler (his portrait dominated the Reich), and bash his head against the Englishman’s head – like her Tato would with her brothers when they had a fight they couldn’t resolve. He called it ‘bashing sense into them’. Perhaps the force of the collision melded their minds so they could get along better. A diffusion of thoughts. Again it was beyond her comprehension why these countries had to fight. Just why they wanted to kill so many people. Innocents. Was it worth the sacrifice of so many lives? Whatever the problem was, Anna wondered, was it really worth it? She was desperate to return home. Her heart ached a constant pressing pain inside her chest, right where they said her heart belonged.
Anna recalled that first home to which she had been sent as a domestic. It was nice enough but the family was German. They thought she was dumb because she couldn’t understand them. Keeping up the guise of an imbecile she never responded to them. Nervous and shy, she cooked, cleaned and looked after the little children, Gerda and Audwin. They were delightful children with the whitest heads of hair and the most intense blue eyes. Angels from her Holy Bible. Anna performed her chores diligently. She was a capable girl who had learned many things in her sixteen years but she had never left home before. Had never spent a night away from her own bed. So she cried. So many tears that she would wake to find her pillow cold and wet. Anna cried even when she wasn’t peeling onions. Over potatoes and peas she would cry. Tears were her company but the Frau, who was decent enough to her in the beginning complained that she was frightening the children. Gerda and Audwin kept their distance. She wanted Anna to care for the children. To do all the work.
‘Anna stop that awful sniveling all the time. You’re not a baby anymore. You could be a mother. You could have your own baby. So what would you do then? Cry at the baby? No!’ She still didn’t respond even though she now understood every word.
The Frau wanted her gone. She wanted a replacement, a Ukranian girl who didn’t cry. So Anna was moved to the hospital. She was warned. It could have been much worse for her, they told her.
In the beginning she thought if she cried enough they would send her home but that never happened. Her tears were wasted. No one cared in the Reich. Gone forever was the security of her home. Of the loving arms of her Mama. The gentle words of her father. The playful teasing of her Brats. No Babushka and no Dedushka to teach her the old ways. She was totally alone, except for Ivanna, in a sea of displaced girls all waiting for this war to end.
Germany calls you! Go to Beautiful Germany! 100,000 Ukrainians are already working in free Germany. What about you?
It was September 3, 1940. Anna returned home from the market in the small village of Rassow. In her basket was a portion of cheese, two spatchooks and the weekly Kiev newspaper. Stooping low she entered through the front door. The family lived in a stone farm cottage. Her mother had been born here. Right now the house felt empty. All of her siblings had already departed for Germany. German Labour Recruitment Drives, The Ostarbeiter, were occurring more frequently due to a shortage of workers needed to support Hitler’s huge war industry. Anna was the youngest so she’d been kept securely hidden during the first recruitment rounds. They were not voluntary.
She peeled off her woollen gloves, the ones her Mama had knitted for her last winter, and stuffed them into her coat pockets. She placed the coat onto a hook in the drying room and shook the moisture from her hair. Outside the rain gently tickled the fir of the pines as the branches danced an unctuous jig. Anna crossed the room in three paces, handed her Tato the newspaper and picked up the fire poker. Once she’d turned the logs like a basting pig she turned to him.
‘Do you want me to read it to you?’
‘No thank you. I think I can manage today.’ He had broken his glasses. Since the war had started all resources were funnelled to Germany. People were moving there too. Optometrists, or any other professionals did not exist in the Ukraine. ‘Your mother needs you in the kitchen.’ Anna kissed her Tato’s cheek. She called out to her mother.
‘Anna did you bring the spatchooks?’ Sophia Radons was a small woman of about fifty years of age with soft creamy skin. She had given birth to nine children. Stubborn plumpness collected around her waist which was sashed by wide apron strings. Most days she would find herself indoors cooking and cleaning for the family. Nowadays as the family decreased in size she still claimed the kitchen from the early hours until the night time, but found that she had very little need to produce anything much at all. It was sat this loosing your family.
‘This war had already taken so many lives,’ she thought.
Even though most of her children were still alive, or at least she hoped they were, she thanked God for their safety every day. Still they may as well have been dead as she missed them and wanted them with her to keep them safe.
‘Thank God for Anna. What would I do without her?’ Sophia was glad that she still had Anna to help with the chore se. Just last month Greta had started a job in a village some two miles north still in the province of Piotrkow. Sophia missed her older daughter terribly. She missed them all being together in the kitchen singing and working, kneading dough and learning all the domestic things that she could teach them. But then everything had changed so much yet she still couldn’t comprehend anything much larger than beyond her own village. Sophia, a good orthodox girl hadn’t ventured any further than the middle of Rassow since her own birth.
Her husband Nickoli had come from the much larger city of Czernowitz in Bukovina province and was happy to settle in Rassow with his new wife. They had a small farm let and a good life and just enough produce to feed the family. Then the Germans had begun the war, invaded their country and treated them all like Untermensch!
‘Damn them!’ Nickoli spoke to the headlines in the newspaper. ‘Why do they kick and beat and terrorise and kill my people? We are not inferior, sub-humans. God will come a day of reckoning on their supremacist the attitude!’ He was breaking the law. Newspapers were illegal now. A friend in the village supported an underground publishing house in Kiev. The papers were smuggled in as packaging for produce boxes. It was up to the reader to put the pages back in order.
He turned the page and settled into reading. The article was entitled Does Hitler Love Ukraine?
‘An interesting title.’ Nickoli pondered. ‘Considering how the Germans are treating my countrymen.’ The article posited that Hitler believed there was a Germanic strain in Ukraine because of the Ostro-Goths and Visi-Goths who had lived in southern Ukraine 1,800 years earlier. It warned that although he hated Eastern Europeans, especially Russians and treated them savagely, ‘Less than dogs’ he mumbled to the fire. It went on to say that Hitler actually coveted the chaste peasant virtues of Ukrainian women. The article finished with a warning. Protect your daughters!