The church bell sounded; it had survived the bombs. The rest of the village had not been quite so lucky. Bees buzzed the blooms in the May sunshine. Katrin heard the English truck grinding up the road to the village square.
Yesterday the Bürgermeister had come to Frau Steiner full of apologies, ‘You will have to go again tomorrow, Frau Schimmel is not well enough.’ Karin’s mother wearily agreed. The Commander’s quota had to be maintained. How long could she stand it? Katrin had said, ‘Let me go Mutti, I’m taller than you now and at least as strong. If Papa were here he’d let me.’ ‘But he isn’t,’ Frau Steiner had replied, ‘he is still in Russia.’ Katrin wanted to spare her mother – she saw every evening when the English truck brought the exhausted women back how she dragged herself the last few steps home to their little cottage. Katrin secretly wondered if she would see that tall dark handsome Tommy driver who smiled his big white smile at her and without fail called out, ‘Hello Blondie’ every time he saw her. She didn’t know that he had a Scottish accent.
The truck came for the women next morning, taking four from their village, and Katrin waved goodbye. The joyful soldier wasn’t driving today – it was the grim sergeant with the pot belly, the little ‘Schmierbauch’, who spoke German with a Bavarian accent. Someone had said that his name was Sergeant Silberman. Katrin puzzled about this, English uniform, German name?
She went inside to do the household chores and by midday she was sitting outside under the apple tree admiring the profusion of delicate blossom. Was it only last year – before they had fled the oncoming Russians – that she and her school friends had been working in the potato fields, hurrying to keep two rows ahead of the Ruskies, the Russian prisoners, teasing them in broken German. At least they were better off here in the British Zone. No raping, no molesting, even a bar of chocolate once.
The afternoon drew on. Katrin went indoors to prepare supper for her mother and herself. She thought, ‘Soon Papa and Helmut will be here too now the fighting is over.’ The whining of the overworked Ford engine and the crashing of the threeton truck’s gears brought her back from her reverie. She put a light green pullover loosely over her bare shoulders and ran to the square, arriving just as the women were getting down. Her mother, greyfaced, grey all over, was last. She was helped down by the Tommy driver. ‘HER’ Tommy but he didn’t sing out ‘Hello Blondie’ this time. He just said, ‘Here, help your Ma, she’s had enough.’ Katrin slowly supported Frau Steiner home and sat her down with a glass of cool raspberry cordial. ‘Mutti’, she said, ‘you must tell me where it is that you go and what you have to do there. I’m old enough, I’m nearly seventeen. It’s killing you. I should take my turn like the rest.’ ‘No, no, no, not you, Liebchen. It’s
only a cleaning job in the camp for the soldiers. I shall be alright, please.’ That evening Frau Steiner hardly ate any supper and soon fell into a deep sleep, the sleep of the totally exhausted. Katrin covered her with a blanket, the one they had tied their kitchen things in when they had run from the advancing Red Army, and lay down herself, sleeping fitfully through the cool night.
At six thirty the next morning there was a gentle tap on the back door. Katrin awoke while her mother slept on, nose twitching, bosom rising and falling as she lay on her back, a smiling hint of pleasant dreams on her lips. Katrin pulled on the old dressing gown, the Schlafrock, and tiptoeing across the stone floor she opened the door. It was Herr Schimmel, the Bürgermeister, ‘I am so sorry, so very sorry, but the Quota. It’s the Quota. I must ask your mother again. We need two more from the village as it is.’ ‘Hush – she’s sleeping. I want to let her sleep. I shall come instead. She deserves a rest,’ Katrin said. She did a quick cat wash, dressed and munching a piece of black bread took her mother’s broom and bucket and followed the Bürgermeister, closing the door softly behind her.
In the village square the green army truck was already waiting. She didn’t recognise the driver as she was hurriedly bundled onto the back. There were three women from her village and five more from the surrounding area. As the truck jolted into gear one of them said, ‘Hold onto the bars overhead, it bumps a lot near the end. It’s your first time, girl, isn’t it?’
As they shook and rattled through the ruts up the next hill the sky clouded over with a yellowish hue.
Katrin sensed a tenseness in the other women. Then downhill, round another bend, the soldier crashing through the gears to the next rise, where he stopped at a checkpoint in a barbed wire fence. ‘Alle raus, alle raus,’ a British sergeant called out, his misplaced sense of humour not appreciated.
Katrin was helped off the truck and looked up to read the sign over the entrance. ‘Camp Bergen Belsen’ it stated in bold letters. ‘Is this where we go to clean?’ ‘Ya, ya, you will get used to it, so terrible, terrible,’ an older woman murmured. A soldier escorted them to a central hut among a long line of wooden barracks where they were issued with cleaning materials. They were to clean out the dormitories, most of which were still inhabited. Katrin and a young woman, a war widow from the next village, started off to the one furthest away. Two cleaners to each hut, the sergeant had ordered.
On entering a terrible, indescribable smell overcame them. ‘Why don’t they open the windows?’ Katrin asked. ‘We do but they shut them again, to spite us,’ the young woman replied. ‘My name is Ursula, how are you called?’ ‘Katrin,’ she whispered in reply. The hut was lined with wooden bunks in two tiers, half of which were occupied by blanketwrapped, withered, skeletal figures bearing a vague resemblance to human beings. Shaven heads and sunken eyes, fleshless arms dangling down. Katrin thought she had arrived in Hell. ‘Who are these, these people?’ she asked. ‘Juden – Jews, they are Jews.’ ‘Not prisoners, criminals?’ ‘No, just Jews,’ Ursula whispered. ‘Come on, the latrine first.’
At the last bunk a skinny hand stretched out with two fingers up in the Churchill ‘V’ sign and a voice croaked, ‘Nazis, filthy German Nazis.’ This started a general hissing from the other bunks. Katrin now realized what it was her mother had been protecting her from. In shock she recalled that throughout the War there had been one subject that whenever raised had reduced the conversation to whispers and mumbling and someone saying, ‘Well, they must have done something wrong or they wouldn’t send them away.
Having recovered sufficiently to help Ursula to clean the latrine, sweep the floors and wipe the windows where the glass had survived, they ran the gauntlet of hisses and abuse and returned to the central point of the camp for a fifteen-minute break for sandwiches and a drink. Katrin could not eat anything but she took a sip from Ursula’s flask. Meanwhile some English soldiers and nurses went round the ‘liberated” inmates distributing food and medicines and kind words. ‘You were lucky, Katrin,’ Ursula said. ‘You got the easy job. The hospital and the mortuary are the worst.’ Katrin could only gape. She couldn’t believe what was happening, what she was witnessing.
After their rest they were detached to a group with big brooms and told to sweep the ‘streets’ between the barracks. Inmates had now come out to sit in the sun, on the ground and on the steps, some still wearing the striped pyjama camp uniforms. As the young women passed by they were stared at, a curse or two following in their wake. Katrin worked as in a dream, sweeping up and filling bags and loading wheelbarrows. She dared not look at these people, look them in the eye.
By the last hut there sat a withered woman, her bright eyes young in an old body. She might have been Katrin’s age, she couldn’t tell. She was nibbling at a biscuit from a packet in her bony hand. Katrin stopped dead in her tracks. Something came over her. She had to look up, to stop avoiding, to accept this reality, this situation. She looked into the eyes of the ‘creature’ sitting before her, fearfully, for she did not know what to expect. Would she be spat at again, another curse hurled from a dry throat? The woman facing her pursed her thin lips and, holding out a biscuit, croaked, ‘Hier Mädchen, eat, eat with me.’ Katrin threw down her broom and ran, ran to the exit, sobbing uncontrollably. This was too much, this act of kindness. She could take the hatred but not this.
As she climbed back into the truck, sobbing softly, the driver, standing by the front, smoking a cigarette, noticed her and said, ‘HELLO BLONDIE, so they’ve got you at it too now!!’