by Anne Arthur
Short story, a memoir. Klara, WWII refugee from Silesia becoming the center of new life.
A woman from the East
Grandma Ida’s house was not really that large. But too big for a widow living by herself, decided the mayor.
“Sorry, Madam, but you must take some of them.”
“How many?” she asked, fully knowing there’s nothing much she could do. The ending war just swept a wave of refugees from the East into the village and local authorities were trying to figure out what to do with them. Ida kept the living- and her bedroom. She divided the rest of the house between five families who needed shelter.
“What’s your name?”
“Klara.” The diminutive, dark-haired woman replied, steadying her frail body against her father.
“Stefan,” he presented himself to Ida, “we come from Silesia. Had to flee before the Russians got to us. Left all we owned behind. My daughter had Polio from she was little. Where she goes, I go.”
“You get the larger bedroom upstairs. Two beds will fit nicely. But there’s only one stove in this house. We all need to figure out how to cook for so many people…and…”
“Don’t worry,” Stefan reassured, “I’ll help you get organized, and keep the outhouse clean too.” Stroking his thick, black mustache with his slim sun-browned hands, he nodded.
Looking at his tall frame, his smiling face with dark eyes that kept their friendliness despite a long, dangerous trek escaping the horrors of this war, Ida sighed with relief. Someone, after all, would help her through this mess.
Three years later, when my father returned from a French POW camp, he found his childhood home changed. Although some refugees found dwellings elsewhere to forge their new lives, Klara and Stefan were still in the house. Along with an old couple from East Prussia, staunch Lutheran church goers like everyone else around here. The husband attributing his healthy old age to the fact that he was drinking a glass of East Prussian Bärenfang, bear hunter’s liquor every morning. Whereas Klara and Stefan were Catholics, like the other refugees. A novelty in Ida’s lower-Saxony village.
They knew me from the day I was born.
“Opa, push. Push me some more,” I beg, sitting in pajamas in my doll’s push cart, nudging Stefan on to push me back and forth while he is talking to Klara. She prepares breakfast at the bulky white iron stove whose fires Stefan just kindled, embers flying, with a thick iron stick. The stove keeps us cozy and warm while waiting for breakfast. Silesian flour-soup with big chunks of fresh brown bread crumbs, dipped in, is so much more interesting than my Pomeranian mother’s meal. I spend my mornings and evenings in Klara’s kitchen. My cat too.
Dad rearranged the rooms in the house to make it comfortable for everyone, including his own little family. I adopted Stefan as my “Opa” to take the place of the grandfathers I never knew. Klara has become my nanny-friend-confidante-cry shoulder-always there-safe haven…my everything.
“You live more with them than with us. Remember, we are your parents,” Mom complained.
“At least eat dinner with us today,” Dad begged.
The last piece of their bread eaten, I dash across the hall. Gone off again, to them.
“The commander called me out to meet him every night…I…if only…it was…,” Lena lowered her eyes, swallowing hard, cheeks twitching. Her worn hands keep stripping the feathers, still. Of German-Polish origins, dark-haired with sad brown eyes she still is a beautiful woman. I observe the hard lines and the frowns in her face as she repeatedly tells the horrors of her Russian war prison camp. Opa Stefan glances at me. Cuddled up in a corner of their small sofa I listen. The Catholic refugees who took root in our village meet regularly at Klara’s kitchen table. Today, to split the goose feathers that pile high on the table top. Always flying off and around everywhere as soon as someone causes a drift when opening the door. “Shuttttt the door,” they all scream, trying to keep the feathers from flying. The kitchen looks like a goose shed, jam-packed with feather splitters whose hands diligently work while recounting the stories they’ve told each other a hundred times. Hot chocolate is kept on the stove. For me, the only child in this room, Klara has bell apples in the oven, melting with sugar and cinnamon. The smells are divine.
Later into the night, they would make new bedding for everyone with these feathers. Winter is coming…
“I remember going to school with my cousins. You see, it was far. I loved to learn and therefore they took me in so young, I was four. We had to walk into the next village, but we ran across the fields, it was fun, unless there was too much snow. After I got sick I could never go to school again. I missed it so much. My mother taught me some more, but she didn’t know much herself.” Klara changes the conversation. She caught a crippling Polio when she was barely over six. With a bent spine, thin arms, and crippled legs she shuffles slowly through the house. Grateful that her kitchen is small enough to have everything right at hand.
But, what Klara’s body cannot do, her heart fills in abundance. She not only is my confidante, she is everyone’s. There’s no need to go out. Her kitchen is always ready for the steady stream of visitors. Daily, they come. Never through the front door of our house. They all know the back door, which we keep open day and night. Total trust.
I am still little, but they are used to me sitting quietly in a corner when refugee women and men pour out their war-torn hearts. In Klara’s kitchen, I learn about cruelty and horror, about trekking, leaving home and possessions behind, of dangers and rape, death and despair, grief over war-killed relatives long before I learn my grandmother was killed by a Russian soldier, too. But most of all, I learn about survival and compassion, about forgiveness and an unwavering faith.
“If it wasn’t for the Lord, I would’ve killed myself every night, after returning to the barracks.” Lena’s words always stuck in my mind. A broken woman, filled with so much sadness, but her spirituality was intact. She bore the cross, but it didn’t break her.
Whenever their tears subside, Klara, the master-listener prays with them. Short, simple prayers. Prayers of the soul. I listen too, amazed that their smiles return, their hope revives. A lesson in resilience and love.
My parents admire her endlessly. Entrusting Klara their most precious possession: their only child.
“I am afraid of this…,” I seek her face. Her loving eyes with the many creases that come from too much smiling. “Don’t be. There’s no reason,” she pads my hand. Pulling me close into her embrace she begins to sing in her beautiful voice. The yellow canary in his cage joins in.
If all else fails, or nightmares keep me awake, I hold out until she goes to bed. Leaving my room on tiptoes, I slowly open their door. Stefan is snoring up a storm, but she heard me already. Lifts her huge feather bed to invite me in. We nearly disappear under these covers but it’s warm and welcoming. I rub my small, cold feet on her warm legs, she pulls me close to her tiny Polio-damaged body. I fall asleep instantly, feeling completely safe in her muscle-less, frail, thin arms.
The phone call is not unexpected. In my mother’s voice I hear the sad news.
“She passed peacefully. Finally, she’s at rest. Who would have thought she’d live up to 91? Remember, how she used to moan all her life during the night? We could hear it all over the house. So much pain…she always was in so much pain. And still smiled every day…,” Mom is trying to console me, “and always lived in peace, never a dispute…even when there were five families with Oma Ida, one stove, one outhouse, and Klara smiles…”
I’ve been holding my breath. Letting go of the air in my lungs…
“Yes, she always was in joint pain and took several Spalt tablets every day, as far back as I can remember,” I reply.
Life without Klara.
Missing her frail arms that kept me safe for 52 years. Missing these loving eyes. Missing her unschooled, amazing wisdom, and her quiet, never-frazzled advice. All is well with her soul. Mine too.