Frau Panknin’s Success and Biene’s New Friend Angelika
Biene wrote this post.
Often my mother was at the point of exhaustion and desperation to give up. The bureaucracy was so overwhelming that all her efforts seemed futile. But my mother’s tenacity and indefatigable spirit finally paid off after seven years. She went to the highest government department to plead for justice as a last desperate effort. Miraculously, she was received by a representative of the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who had a sympathetic ear and got the “ball” rolling in no time. My father was finally entitled to a sizeable pension and a big back pay for the lost years. My mother had won the struggle for financial security at the expense of her health and vitality. The years of worries and deprivations had taken their toll. But my brother and I were too young and self-absorbed to notice. For us, she remained a pillar of strength and comfort. Her love for us was inexhaustible.
After this memory fragment of my mother, let’s return to my life. Shortly after our second year of high school had started, “Mecki,” our homeroom teacher, introduced a new student. He assigned her to sit beside me since I had lost my desk partner the previous year. She had failed the grade. I glanced furtively at my new companion, who looked straight ahead at Mecki. Angelika had a cute snub-nose and big blue eyes with long dark eyelashes. Her short hair curled softly around her round red cheeks. She had a nicely curved mouth and dimples. When she eventually dared to smile at me, she looked beautiful.
When I woke up from a deep sleep the following day, I could see through the big window that a clean blanket of snow had covered the drabness of the yard outside the Old House of Rocky Docky. My father had heard the famous song on the radio and aptly applied it to our new abode. It would always cheer us up to listen to our “theme song,” We would sing it with gusto to make the old house rock.
The bright morning sun made the snow crystals sparkle and dance; Despite the first signs of spring earlier, winter was not over yet. My parents were already dressed to go out. My mother told us that the manager of the refugee shelter had allocated them some funds to buy household items, utensils and other necessary equipment for everyday living. Our mother told us that before she would go shopping, she would enroll us in the nearby school called Elementary School at the Tree. Since we had missed classes for more than a month in the transition camp in Massen, we were looking forward to regular school life again.
At the end of it, there was a door leading to a small room with a large recessed window in the bare rock wall. It looked like a prison cell, except there were no bars on the window. There were two sets of bunk beds, a table with four chairs, a small table with a two-burner hotplate and a small dresser. “This is your temporary place until your apartment is completed,” the manager told us. And in response to my parent’s questioning glance, he added, “This may take up to two years. We just don’t know where to house all you people,” he grumbled, leaving us to attend to the other families.
We all stood dumbfounded until my mother’s loud sobs broke the silence for a moment. She collapsed on one of the beds and cried and cried. I had never seen my mother cry like that before, which shocked me deeply. My father looked helpless. Eventually, he started stroking my mother’s back. My brother and I climbed onto our top beds, completely bewildered.
Eventually, my mother’s crying stopped. She rallied and took us to the outhouse. She found a clean wash basin to scrub the grime off our face and hands’ long dusty truck ride. She magically produced some bread, butter, cheese and jam. She also made some weak tea on the hot plate. We were so starved; it tasted heavenly. Then she hugged us warmly and said, “With God’s help, we’ll make it through.”
The driver jumped out of the cab, opened the truck ramp, and started unloading the luggage and helping us jump out. Dazed and bewildered, numb from the cold and very hungry, we all stood speechless for a moment. “Take your belongings and follow me,” the driver told us.
He led us around the extremely long building to a courtyard with a row of several outhouses. “You can go there in a minute,” he told us, “but let me show you your quarters first. This old building used to be a pub and a bowling alley,” he continued, “now it has been converted into an emergency shelter for people like you. I’ll introduce you to the manager of this establishment.” He laughed and pointed to a man who had just stepped out of the entrance to receive us.
We were the first ones to be led to our room. We had to go through a long hall with several big sinks, laundry tubs and a wash line with a few rags drying. There were brooms, mops, pails, garbage cans and other equipment stored along the walls. The evening light coming in through oversized windows could hardly soften the drabness of this dingy hall.
One day in early spring, our mother told us that we would soon be leaving the camp in Aurich, East Frisia; we would move to Velbert, situated in the Rhineland region of West Germany. My mother sounded very excited and joyful because she was born and raised in the Rhineland, a beautiful part of Germany. It meant saying goodbye to my best friend Ingeborg and all our other playmates with whom we had shared so many exciting adventures and experiences.
However, before moving to Velbert, we first had to spend several weeks in a transitory camp in Massen, a small town near Unna, close to Dortmund, our second station in the “Golden West.” I remember from that short stay that my mom was quite upset because we had to sleep in a big dormitory again with lots of strangers. And to make things worse, we had to lie on straw mattresses. But my parents consoled themselves with the prospect that we would soon move to Velbert. That’s where apartment buildings for refugees were being constructed rapidly.
On a bright, sunny day in early Spring, we were loaded with all our luggage and several other families onto the open back of a big, old transport truck with makeshift benches. My brother and I had rarely ridden in a car. This was my first time in a vehicle. For us, it was exciting! My mom thought it was odd that we were transported like baggage. She didn’t like that we were all crammed together in this small, draughty and not too clean space. But my brother and I were laughing with the other kids and some boisterous men enjoying the cool breeze and the changing scenery. After a few hours, we were all shaken up by the bumpy ride. The increasing cool drafts, the loud noise of the motor, and the vehicle’s rattling started to make us feel sick. Suddenly the truck came to an abrupt halt beside an old, dilapidated stone building that looked almost like a dungeon, dark and foreboding.
My mother was distraught after our first night in the crowded dormitory shared with twelve strangers and other strangers passing through our room from the adjacent sickroom. She feared for our health and well-being due to the proximity of the contagious people who had to pass frequently through our door to visit the facilities or other places in the building.
After my mother voiced her concerns to the management, we were assigned to a small private room furnished with two metal bunk beds, a table with four chairs and a small wardrobe. Although this room was smaller than my father’s study in Gotha, we felt happy to have more privacy. We still had to share our door to the hallway with the occupants of the neighbouring room; a young widow and her two children. Her son was five years older than my brother and me, while her daughter was two years younger than us. But despite the age difference, we became good friends.
Rainer and Gabi’s mom always looked glamorous. She dressed like a film star. I knew what film stars looked like from pictures of American actors and actresses in the packages of chewing gum. I started collecting those pictures when staying with our friends in Dortmund. When I commented on her mom’s clothes to Gabi, she told me her mother’s secret. Her mom had found a way to contact actors’ fan clubs in the United States. She would tell them about her plight as a widowed refugee asking for charitable donations. She would receive big parcels with the most fashionable, expensive outfits, shoes and accessories, often only worn a few times by her idols. Gabi’s brother Rainer went to the Merchant Marine Corps as a cadet after he turned 14 years old and had passed grade 8. He brought me a beautiful scarf from one of his training sessions in Hamburg, the biggest harbour in Germany. My mom proudly displayed it on the wall, as you can see in the picture. I admired and adored Rainer. He would be travelling to many of the places my dad had shown us on the world map.