Alex, Maus and I passed the Bruckmuehle (mill) and turned onto Schulstrasse (School Street). The mill got its name because it was built directly on top of the bridge. The rushing water of the river Woernitz turned the big wheel of the mill and ground weeds into flour.
As soon as I entered Schulstrasse I thought about the many times I was late for school, for different reasons. Sometimes I didn’t finish my chores at home, other times I was too ashamed to go. Sometimes I didn’t know which excuse to use. I loved school but I always struggled with it. My parents forced me to work at the gas station leaving little time for homework.
I flashed back to 1961. That morning I hurt all over and walked slowly. I don’t remember why my father beat me again with the water hose. But he gave all of us our so called ‘deserved lesson’. My legs, head and hands were swollen. The beating left open scars forcing me to carry my schoolbag in my hand instead of on my back.
Mr. Fielechner, the director of the school, was upset with me for being late. He’d been grumpy since the day the new teacher quit right after school started. That meant he had to take over the class. He always let us know how fortunate we were that he, the principal, taught our class.
“Sit properly.” He grumbled at me.
I tried to sit properly but the pain ripped through me, especially on my right side. I could not concentrate. The open scars demanded all my attention. Why did my right side get all the beatings? I wondered. Every time my father beat me with the hose he forced me to lie over the wash house. This was my so called punishment just so he could keep his version of law and order.
He always used his left hand to hold me down and his right to beat me. There were always new bruises from my shoulders down to my calves before the old ones had a chance to heal.
One day while in class I thought I’d found a solution to my problem. I’d have to make sure my father had an accident and break his right hand. That would force him to use his left for a change.
I didn’t have a chance to complete my fantasy before Mr. Fielechner hit me on my back. “You are daydreaming again, sit up straight and pay attention.”
I closed my eyes and ground my teeth from the piercing sharp pain. Most of the time I sat on the left side of the chair. When I tried to slide to my right I heard Werner, who sat directly behind me, scream:
“Mr. Fielechner, she’s bleeding!”
The principal seemed shocked when he saw the blood on the back of my blouse. I was totally embarrassed. He apologized for hitting me too hard and sent me to his office. He asked one of my classmates to get a female teacher. I was glad when Mrs. Boehm, my favorite teacher, came to help me.
I was asked to take off my blouse. She wanted to know why and where I was bleeding. I tried to make all kinds of excuses not to take the blouse off and told her it was nothing. She insisted I do as she said. I knew when she saw my back she would confront my father and I would be in even bigger trouble. He had an unwritten law, do not drag family matters out of the house. More teachers came into the room and when our family doctor arrived, I fainted.
When I opened my eyes I was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. I panicked. “Please, stop, I’m fine.” I insisted and begged the nurse. She tried to calm me down and didn’t understand why I wanted to get out.
What was I going to say when I got home? How could I convince my parents I couldn’t stop what happened?
The ambulance brought me to the same hospital where the chief of medicine was my mother’s boss in World War II. For two years they worked together at the military hospital on the Russian front in Riga. He gave me a shot and told the nurse to call my parents. I was too tired to tell them not to call them.
I don’t know how long I slept, but when I woke up I was in a room by myself. I knew I had to leave before one of my parents got there. I prayed the hospital hadn’t been able to reach them. I wasn’t going to get out of there easily with nurses coming and going and I didn’t even know where they’d put my clothes. Dizzy, I dragged myself to the closet to find my clothes.
A young doctor walked in on me and asked, “What are you doing?” Patiently he explained how serious my injuries were and why I had passed out. “You have to stay here for a few days.” Then he said he needed to ask me some questions.
After three days in the hospital and neither parent showed up I felt abandoned and relieved at the same time. The doctors and nurses seemed concerned and were kind. It was kind of like a vacation for me. I didn’t have to work and I could sleep as long and as much as I liked. On the fourth day after breakfast, I was told I would be going home that day. After I got dressed the nurse walked me to the office of the chief of medicine. When she opened the door I saw my mother.
The conversation immediately ceased. All of a sudden she was in a big hurry and excused herself with “important” business to attend to. Somehow I had the feeling, for the first time, she was not in the mood to yell at me.
On our way home she told me what her ex-boss had told her. “First, you have to take medicine, undergo a cure and eat more. Your father talked to the doctor a few days ago on the phone. He was very upset because the doctor got involved in family affairs.” She looked directly at me and asked, “What did you tell them?”
“Nothing.” I murmured.
“It’s nobody’s business what goes on in our house,” she said. I could see she was getting herself worked up. “This young doctor had the nerve to tell me you work too much and should not lift anything heavy. What does he know about life? He never got his fingers dirty doing real work. I also told him if you would eat more your back would be stronger. A 60-pound weight should not hurt your back. It didn’t bother me when I was your age. But how you got a stomach edema is a real puzzle to me.”
I remembered the questions the doctor had asked. How much and how often did I eat? If I had friends to play with? Where did we usually play? At the time I didn’t feel like answering all his questions. All I told him was that my mother said “Only lazy kids play, we have to work”.
When he asked me if I went to church I gave him my mother’s favorite speech. “Church goers are nothing but hypocrites, who are too lazy to work on Sundays. They bring all their money to the pastor and he tells the fools some rubbish for two hours.”
When mother said, “Your father is not at home for a few days, he has to work on his invention,” it got my attention. Thank god, I thought, he could stay forever or go to hell, I didn’t care.
I remember the plan to get rid of him and I wanted to talk to Nigg about it again. I really didn’t understand why all the people who hated my father didn’t do something, or at least defend themselves, against him. I hoped that one day someone else would have enough of his demanding attitude to beat the daylights out of him.
When I got home Nigg said that the old man acted completely insane when the hospital called. “He kept on saying he will teach you a lesson. Don’t worry,” Nigg said, “one day, when I’m grown up, I’ll make him pay for everything.”
“I know,” I said, “but what are we going to do until then?”
A week later the same teachers who had been so concerned about me now tried to avoid me. Only a few classmates asked what they did to me in the hospital. Apparently my father had intimidated the teachers and the principal. I then doubted myself and wondered if everything had been my fault. What was wrong with me? Why was I alone in my misery? That night I prayed: “Dear Lord, Jesus said ‘let all children come to me’. How much longer do I have to wait?”