In an effort to break through my writer’s block, I went sifting through some older projects I had started as part of my coursework at Full Sail University.
I stumbled upon a very short piece I had begun as an exploration into the “New Historicism” literary style for my Literature Criticism and Analytical Thinking Course. This particular story was intended to be a creative non-fiction piece, as I wanted to attempt to tell the story of my grandmother’s childhood growing up in post World War II Germany. The unconventional element of the piece? It’s written from the perspective of a German child – not the Jewish outlook.
Most people, when they think of World War II, naturally focus on the horrors of the Holocaust. And I am in no way underplaying them – that genocide was one of the cruelest, most horrific incidents in the history of the world. However, a lot of people outside of Europe – outside of Germany, for that matter – forget that there were many, many innocent Germans involved in the war. Every single citizen of Germany didn’t stand behind Hitler. In fact, many non-Jews were equally traumatized by his ideals as were their Hasidic counterparts. My grandmother’s family being one of them.
While I planned to fictionalize several elements of her childhood for the sake of storytelling as well as helping myself emotionally detach from the events of the story [I cannot tell you how hard it is to write about a child that you know was dying of malnutrition when you recognize that it’s your own Oma], I wanted to remain true to my heart in telling the side of the post-war climate that many people choose to overlook.
For months, I put this piece to the side for one reason or another. Either I had too much going on with my other classwork, too much going on in my life, or too much going on in my head to take on such an emotional piece. However, in stumbling across it again today… I am beginning to think it may be time to pick up the pen again. Figuratively, of course – who uses pen and paper any more these days?
Here’s the excerpt of the assignment I turned in for class:
Staring down at her feet, Anja restlessly fidgets with a hole in her threadbare coat. A small boy tugs at the hem of her sleeve, uncomfortable to be surrounded by so many people. She takes his cold hand, gives it a reassuring squeeze, and attempts to warm it within her own.
“Don’t be scared, Connie,” she whispers to him, his blond curls billowing against the wintry breeze. “They are just hungry, like us.” She gestures to the elderly man hunched before them, holding an infant swaddled in the ruined remains of a handmade quilt. “They won’t hurt you. They can’t.”
Anja urges him forward as the queue slowly advances towards the crumbling building that once served as the proud city’s public hall. A decade prior, her mother had fallen in love within its red brick walls. Music intoxicated the soul, bodies swayed, and the world seemed fresh and promising. Now the dilapidated structure stands as a tribute to poverty, to deprivation, and as a reminder of the world’s scorn. Little more than the quiet cadence of shuffling feet moving through the line disturbs the bleak silence. Five months may have passed since the raging battle that brought down Berlin, but the inimicalness is still tangible in the smoking carcass of its streets.
“Bewegen Sie mit!” A military official with sallow cheeks and sunken gray eyes barks orders at the crowd. “Kinder, in this line.”
Despite her youth, Anja leads her small brother resolutely through the swarming crowd, weaving through the discourse of the hundreds gathered in the small square. Once in sight of the heavy wooden door, she spots a large medical scale standing ominously among more military officials and a tall doctor on the asphalt. A nurse, with snowy hair coiled tightly in a bun, holds a clipboard and takes notes hastily as the doctor signals for a child to approach the scale.
“They are weighing us?” Anja questions a teenage boy directly in front of her.
On her previous visit, food was handed out freely and openly to children. She was even able to bring back extra for her mother and two other siblings. It did not appear that generosity would be as forthcoming on this visit.
He nods quickly, returning his gaze to the gun on the shoulder of an officer lying against the wall. With his slight build and hunched shoulders, he looks closer to a child than a young man. To Anja, he seems intent on shrinking down until his frail body slips between the cracks of the broken concrete beneath his shoes.
“But why would they weigh us?” she probes on, her anxiety mounting as her attention is also drawn to the heavily armed guards patrolling the queue of weakened German youth.
“I don’t know,” he begins softly, noticing the small boy clinging to Anja’s coat as he turns to face her. “Perhaps they just want to determine who needs more than others.”
They both turn their attention to a girl with plaited hair who has been called up to the officials. She removes her jacket despite the icy December air, revealing a brown wool dress reduced to tatters and thin, spindly legs. At an unheard command from the doctor, she mounts the rusting scale and the nurse makes minor adjustments to the instrument before jotting down the results on her clipboard. With a piece of rope, the nurse then measures the child’s wrists, waist, thighs, and neck.
“Sie kann abtreten,” the doctor addresses the young girl, who jumps obediently off of the scale and clambers into her coat, timorous from the chill that has settled into her insubstantial bones. She is given a half liter of milk and a small satchel, something that gives Anja hope that she will still be able to still bring home food to her family. Her mother is incapable, unwilling, or apathetic to provide for their family, so Anja has taken over the responsibility as best as she can at ten years old.
With the doctor and nurse establishing a rhythm, the line begins to move at a quicker stride. Each child is assessed, recorded, and sent away with a vessel of rich, frothy milk and weighted sack, which Connie stares at enthusiastically.
“Do you think it will have chocolate?” he inquires, pulling Anja’s sleeve in his new haste to advance forward.
“It might,” she whispers, not wanting to disappoint him, “But if it doesn’t, I will get you some before we head back.”
Within minutes, they have reached the front of the queue and Connie is bouncing almost impatiently on his heels, prepared to strip his coat like an unwanted layer of dead skin. Anja places a mollifying hand on his shoulder, but he wriggles free to inch closer to the awaiting judgment.
“Nächste Kinder,” the doctor calls to the crowd, and Connie springs forward and removes his jacket in one fluid motion.
He mounts the scale with tangible eagerness, which brings a slight smile to the otherwise stoic face of the nurse. She adjusts the dials, clicks her tongue at the low number, and proceeds to measure his malnourished proportions. He is small for a child of three, and Anja worries that his height will be stunted as a result of his insubstantial and sporadic diet. Despite this fact, he smiles brightly at the officials, glowing with the enigmatic vivacity that only innocence can sustain in this debasing climate.
Moments later, Connie dismounts the scale toting his riches, beaming at Anja as if he has won a great prize for his peckish frame. The nurse motions for Anja to take his place, and she shuffles forward slowly, feeling at once very self-conscious of the public exhibition she’s a part of.
Divesting herself of her worn coat, Anja exposes her ripped stockings, ill-fitted skirt, and stained chemise. Immediately, she feels her cheeks flush at the thought of her mother’s reaction to this embarrassing admonition of their poverty and vows not to tell her. The nurse adjusts the weights on the scale once, then twice, and finally a third time, growing more noticeably concerned with each tweak. With a heavy sigh, the nurse jots a note down on her clipboard, then retrieves her measuring rope from her pocket.
“Stehen gerade,” the nurse orders Anja kindly, looping the rope around her neck.
Lifting her chin, Anja avoids eye contact with the nurse and instead directs her attention to Connie, who is standing less than a meter away from the remaining children in line, slurping his milk with jovial pleasure. Anja smiles at him and he beams back, the white mustache of froth framing his chapped red lips. She feels the nurse measuring her wrist, waist, and thighs, but keeps her gaze focused on her little brother, tuning out the murmurings of doubt brewing inside her.
“Sie kann abtreten,” an armed soldier standing beside the doctor orders austerely.
While Anja dismounts the scale and replaces her coat, the nurse passes her notes to the doctor for review. After just a moment’s examination, the doctor returns the clipboard and addresses a group of three uniformed men who are doling out the rations.
“Sie ist ein gesundes Gewicht. Unsere Großzügigkeit ist nicht erforderlich.”
The men, two of which are no older than nineteen or twenty, look at the doctor with confused expressions.
“But she is hungry. Look at her face – she is little more than a skeleton!” The youngest of the men, clutching a glass jar of milk, straightens from his crouched position over the crates of supplies. “We cannot deny a child food!”
“Per meine Befehle, sie ist nicht die Rationen erhalten.” The doctor reaffirms, and returns his attention to the queue. “Nächste Kinder!”
Anja stands momentarily frozen alongside the scale, unable to comprehend how she could be considered a healthy weight. She has not eaten in more than a day, and what little food she had scrounged up previously was shared among her three brothers. She debates begging for the nurse to re-measure her, but the thought of going through the humiliation a second time only to be denied again would be too much for her pride.
Connie, too young to understand the renunciation, has stopped drinking his milk and looks quizzically at Anja as she walks towards him. She takes his free hand in hers, squeezing it tightly in her palm, as she directs him away from the
“Why didn’t you get milk, like me?” he asks innocently, holding up his nearly empty jar.
“I decided I wasn’t thirsty,” she replies nonchalantly, “And I didn’t want them to waste the milk on me. Little boys like you need it much more.” She gives him a playful poke in his distended belly, and he giggles as she leads him along.
“But what about Peter and Ole?” Connie swallows the remaining mouthful of his milk and tries to shake the last clinging pearls of cream onto his tongue. “And Mutti will want some, too!”
“I’ll just have to come back, that’s all.”
Any and all feedback is welcomed and solicited.
Breaking through the writer’s block, one word at a time!
~ Victoria Elizabeth Ann