I mentioned earlier in my grandfather’s story that I would also include some stories about his sisters and brothers. Today I want to tell a story about my Tante Lisa. When I talk to other people in my family about her I am told that she was my Opa’s second mother. She fed him, changed him and was there to scold him when he stole farmer’s produce or was lippy as I am told he was. Tante Lisa was born in 1914 and was a librarian before the war. Her experiences were very different then my Opa’s for the very fact that she was 14 years older then my grandfather.
The story I want to tell I briefly mentioned in an earlier episode (train tracks). It takes place in Poland in a village called Stanislavov. She married a Russian soldier who was in charge of teaching new military technology to other officers. This assignment took the newly married couple to the small town of Stanislavov. The city is very close to the Ukrainian border, and over the last hundred years it has been traded back and forth between Poland and Ukraine. At the time of the war it belonged to Poland. This story tells of the German’s invasion in September 1939. I realize that I am going out of order from my grandfather’s story (we are currently in fall of 1943). But her story is key for it gives a voice to the arrival of the war. For my grandfather the war didn’t start until 1941. For me, it makes the date of September of 1939 real; it gives me something I can connect with, it isn’t just a date in history. I will also mention that it is written a little differently; it is not written as a conversation. I kept from writing it until now, for I wanted you to understand my family a little better and see first where they came from.
So here it is…
It is early in the morning and this woman has been up for a while. She was up to see her husband off. She walks back and forth in their one bedroom apartment. She goes from the sink to the dressing mirror, brushing her hair. Her thick curls are something she likes about herself. She hums a melody that she remembers from her days of singing in her church choir back in Licthenau. The sun comes through the window next to the bed and stains the dark brown dresser. She is quite pretty and it seems is quite efficient and meticulous in preparing herself for the day. From a small tin on top of the dresser she takes a few bobbins and buttons her brown hair up off her shoulders. She returns to the tin and takes out a small clothes pin and removes a few strands of clumping makeup from her eye lashes. Still she continues to hum. The melody is uninterrupted, much like her routine as if the events of weeks prior have not shaken her. She gets up and goes back to the sink where she retrieves the dress that was hanging. Fully dressed and books in hand she is off on her way.
There is a buzz in the air this morning, as a combination of horses and trucks navigate the streets. The air is chilled and the mud in the street has hardened. Two streets over from her apartment, she reaches her destination. As she enters, a tiny bell above the door rings. Once one enters the building it is evident that it is a library. There is a desk that is immediately to the left, stacked with books waiting to be returned to the shelves. For the size of the city it is quite an impressive collection of books. There are four large shelves at least ten feet high that stand in the centre of the room. Along the back wall stand three more shelves almost as tall. The two side walls also carry two shelves each, but not quite as large.
“Good Morning, Lisa,” says a voice, coming from the right side of the room, hidden behind the shelves.
She smiles, “good morning David.” The woman responds.
“How is your husband this morning?” Continues the voice.
Again the woman smiles, “Very well and how is your mother?” replies the woman. She takes off her coat and places it on the main desk counter. Not waiting for a response, she heads off in the opposite direction of the voice. In her hands are the books she carried in with her.
“Ah, she wants me to find a wife. Every day ‘David, when am I going to have a daughter in law and little grand children.’” Says the man.
Lisa smiles as she scans the shelf, looking for the correct resting place for the books in hand. “She is right, you know David you are not getting any younger.” Says Lisa.
“I know but when and where will I find someone as perfect as you.” David says.
“This is true.” Lisa responds smiling.
“Can you help me with something?” David says breaking from their banter.
“Yes I will be right there.” Replies Lisa. She places her last borrowed book in its correct place and walks down the aisle searching for where the voice originated.
“I am here,” says the voice once more.
Lisa turns the corner and sees David high up on the step ladder, placing a handful of books back on the top shelf.
“David, what are you doing up there? You could fall,” Lisa says. Every time she uses this tone she can hear her older sister’s voice within her head.
David ignores the scold and says, “Can you pass me those books?” He points to a stack on the floor next to the ladder. The man appears to be in his late twenties. He is quite thin. He has rolled the sleeves of his white buttoned shirt to his elbows. A grey stripe runs through the shirt. A grey sleeveless vest is pulled tight over his chest and torso. A red tie is tight around the collar and tucked very neatly underneath the vest. David’s brown hair is slicked back causing his curls to poof up at the top. His face is clean shaven. Lisa passes a book to David, straightening his wire framed glasses to read the title he places it in its proper place.
Lisa picks up another book, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” she says aloud. She reaches up and hands the book to David.
“I have been hearing some frightening rumors that the Germans are rounding up Jews and Poles alike and shooting them in the street, that the Army is going to Hospitals and throwing babies out of windows.” David says, almost cynical in voice as he reaches for a book.
“How could you repeat such things?” Lisa says.
“I know, but my friends are telling me such things.” He responds.
“Well I am telling you, that my German ancestors could never do such things. I don’t believe it.” Lisa responds.
“I don’t know, maybe I should go with mother away for a few weeks until this whole thing blows over?” David says.
“Yes this is a good idea, and you can leave me all by my lonesome, to clean up this mess you have made,” Lisa responds pointing to the pile of books strewn across the floor beneath the ladder.
David laughs and says, “This is true, knowing you, you might trade these classic books for works by Hesse, Hoffman or Mann.”
Lisa laughs. “I just might, but what is wrong with Thomas Mann?” she responds…
The bell rings once again as Lisa enters into the library.
“Good morning David,” Lisa yells.
“Good morning!” David replies popping his head from beneath the front desk counter.
Surprised, Lisa jumps back, “Oh good heavens you startled me David… How are you this morning?” Lisa asks placing her coat onto the desk.
“Oh, mother is not feeling well.” Sighs David as he picks up a few books from the counter.
“Oh I will bring her some soup tomorrow.” Lisa replies.
“I heard some more stories from the front yesterday evening.” He says, changing the subject and heading towards the nearest shelf on his right, books in hand.
“What did I tell you David, these things can’t be true.” Lisa responds.
“I don’t know, this came from my friend Jacob, you know the one that you don’t like on account of his greasy hair. His father is editor of the newspaper and these are legitimate reports.
“I won’t believe it, it doesn’t sound logical.” She replies, heading off in the opposite direction with her own collection of books. She climbs a step ladder opposite of David and skims the titles.
David climbs his own ladder and begins to organize his stack of books. “They say the Germans will be here in the next few days.” David says still atop his ladder.
“Really, they are advancing that fast?” responds Lisa dropping a book to the floor.
David turns his head. “Yes they are moving quite quickly.” He responds.
“Well soon you will see that there is nothing to worry about.” Lisa says.
“Are you sure, that I shouldn’t leave for a while.” David once again questions.
Lisa turns around and looks at David organizing his shelf. She says nothing…
It is early in the morning; Lisa has been up for a while. She has once again risen to see her husband off. She walked back and forth from the sink to the dressing mirror, brushing and doing her hair. Her thick curls are something she likes about herself. She hums another church melody as she prepares for the day. The sun comes through the window next to the bed and continues to stain the dark brown dresser. From the small tin on top of the dresser she takes a few bobbins and buttons her brown hair up off her shoulders. She returns to the tin and takes out the small clothes pin and removes a few strands of clumping makeup from her eye lashes. Still she continues to hum. The melody is uninterrupted, as she thinks about the arrival of the German forces yesterday afternoon. They marched into the city in full uniform. People gathered outside of their shops to watch the spectacle unfold. She gets up and goes back to the sink where she retrieves her dress that was hanging. Fully dressed and books in hand she is off on her way.
She enters the library and the bell above the door rings behind her. She places her coat on the counter and examines the books left on the desk, reading the first few words from the top book.
“Good morning David.” She yells, still reading the book. There is only silence in response. “David,” she yells again. Lisa looks up from the book and looks behind the desk. Finding nothing she heads to the back row of shelves. “David, that’s not funny, I am not in the mood to be frightened again.” She continues from row to row. “David?” She yells again reaching the last corner of the library. She returns to the desk and continues to read her book at the front.
Suddenly she hears what sounds like glass breaking outside. She goes to the front window and cannot see anything. Curious, she grabs her coat and heads out the front door, bell again ringing behind her. She searches the street. There is a commotion at the north end of the street and a line of six is walking down the corridor. Two German soldiers holding rifles are on either side of this marching line. With each step, the line of six gets closer. The soldiers are shouting something she cannot hear. As the line passes the library Lisa pulls her hand to cover her lips. Her eyes are unsure of what she is seeing.
A white buttoned shirt, grey vest and red tie catch her eye. The line continues to walk and he sees her standing there on the steps in front of the library. He only stares at her for an instant and then turns his eyes forward. The line continues and on the first left available to the line of six they are ordered to turn. As they disappear from sight, Lisa continues to watch the empty street, still confused at what was going on. A few moments pass. A single gunshot rings out into the air. There is a pause, and five more shots echo out in quick succession…
- Train Tracks (mikewilmser.wordpress.com)