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by L.N. Loch
Author's note: My grandmother spent much of her childhood in refugee camps across Europe post WWII, and much of mine was spent listening to her accounts of this time. Now that I am an adult, the stories she tells me of the war and its aftermath are more confessional, heavy with the traumas of what was done to her and her loved ones. However, though these weigh on me as the knowledge of any loved one's pain does, I find they do not impress themselves upon my mind like the stories from my childhood. Perhaps it is just because I've heard them more, but the stories I daydream about, the stories I can recall by heart to a friend, or a coworker, or a lover, are the stories my grandmother told me first. This story is one of those. With the exception of a few added characters in the forms of Petry and Sophia, it is as she told it to me.
It is never easy to see one’s mother cry, but if your mother is a refugee, it’s best to get used to it. Helena’s mother had cried over many things before, but since they’d come to the camps, she only cried about food. For a while, she’d approached the issue with the same sternness that her husband had before he died, staring her children down with cold grey eyes over sad plates of carrots and potatoes, daring little Toni to complain. But, around the time the acrid smoke from Dachau disappeared, something new came floating down from the skies that changed everything. The day the first aid from the Americans arrived, Helena’s mother looked like a child on Christmas morning, all pretenses of sternness forgotten.
Unfortunately, once it was gone, her frigid veneer could not be summoned again, and Helena saw everything on her face when the guards moved in on the boxes like a pack of grey wolves, picking through palettes of supplies like the choicest bin outside a butcher’s shop. She’d fallen to her knees and wept openly as the last box of chocolate, which Toni had been dreaming about since they’d first fled Czechoslovakia, was carried away.
Helena had never had much tolerance for her siblings’ whining. Even in the old country, before the war, she’d supplied discipline where their father hadn’t, gobbling down cabbage and carrots and smacking Bela and Toni’s hands away from the sugar jar. Maybe a part of it was that she, unlike other children, took a comfort in discipline and rules. Rules, especially around eating one’s vegetables, kept you from getting sick, and Helena hated listening to Bela and Toni cough all night.
Her mother was another story. After the guards established the status quo around the aid boxes, she was in hysterics day in and day out, and hysterics didn’t work with discipline. Instead of kneeling in the coldest corner of the hut and saying her prayers, she wailed to the sky just like the Jewish refugees did, crying why, why did she fail to feed her children, to keep them from the terrible pain of an empty belly.
When Helena listened to her mother cry, she felt like a rabid animal. And, in her attempts to stop her mother crying, she began to behave with the rationality of one. Once, the fattest man in the camp, a Hungarian named Petry with long grey whiskers, killed one of the guard dogs with the intention of roasting it, and Helena managed to swipe a drumstick before he could catch her. She also outran the beating the dog’s owner gave him afterwards. Another time, she tried to flirt with guards like some of the older girls did, only to be teased for her skinny legs and flat chest. When she became really desperate, she even sat on cold pavement with no pants on, in an attempt to get sick like her siblings and get extra rations, but it was no good. She did not get sick, and the food in the sky remained beyond her reach, and her mother and siblings kept crying.
Helena was just beginning to consider giving the pavement another try when Petry, his eye still blackened from his beating, came up to her.
“Where is your lover, little girl?” he asked in hoarse Hungarian, referring to the guard she’d tried to seduce. Helena knew without looking at Petry that he was drunk. One of the reasons he was hungry all the time was because he used all his potatoes to make vodka.
“He prefers Jewish girls,” she said. The truth was, he preferred older girls. And there were no young Jews in the displaced persons camp.
“Perhaps if you had meat on your bones, he would like you better,” was roughly what Petry said.
“Yes, well,” Helena said slowly, struggling to conjugate her verb, “I cannot have meat on my bones without meat.”
“And this is why you steal from me,” Petry said. “Tell you what. I have nothing for you to steal today, and don’t know how you will get meat, but I do know where some food is. You see that tree?” He pointed to one which crowned a hill far beyond the barbed-wire fence.
Helena saw it. “So what?”
“It is a pear tree. Full to bursting with fruit. No one has been smart enough to give it a try yet. They are too busy fighting over chocolate bars.”
Helena squinted. She thought she saw fruit. “Okay,” she said, trusting Petry because her stomach was growling, “I will give it a try.”
And try she did. The next time all the guards were fighting over the latest aid drop, Helena snuck off from the commotion. Sophia, an old Greek woman who shared her family’s hut, poked her head out to ask why Helena was not helping her family push to the front of the line. Helena wished she could fire back the question, only Sophia’s last family, a granddaughter of 14, had just died in childbirth months ago with a stillborn baby forced upon her by a guard. To be rude now would be unchristian. So, instead of retaliating, Helena darted off without saying anything, which was very hard for her to do, because she loved getting the last laugh. She slipped out of a hole in the fence unseen and ran as fast as her legs would carry her to the big tree on the bigger hill, the morning air burning cold in her lungs. By the time she arrived at the skinny trunk, she was gasping, and she knelt in the shade for a moment to catch her breath. It had been a little while since she’d last run, but she was winded enough that she feared her attempts to catch Toni’s latest cold had succeeded after all.
When she lifted her head, she was pleasantly surprised to find Petry had not lied about the pears. He had not mentioned that the tree was next to a house, which she hadn’t been able to see from the bottom of the hill, but she was so hungry that she didn’t concern herself with it. As fast as she could, she began to claw her way up into its branches, leaping from limb to limb like a jumping flea until she nestled herself in a cozy little crook that might have been ideal for a bird’s nest. It was surrounded by big, fat, shiny pears on all sides, hanging like Christmas ornaments.
For the first time in a long time, Helena’s eyes filled with tears. She brushed them away, and ate a pear, then another. They were so sweet they almost hurt her tongue, after months of potatoes and black bread and dog, the juice running down her chin and onto her clothes. When she was on her fourth fruit, she began using her free hand to gather, stuffing them in her shirt, her pants, even her underpants. Somehow, however, over the ruckus of crunching and falling leaves and scratching bark, she heard a German curse word.
Helena jumped, and one of her pears fell. As her eyes followed its path to the ground, they landed on a pair of blue ones, cold in a way that didn’t compare to even her fathers’, watching from the now-open door of the house. With alarm, Helena realized that, in her eagerness, she had carved a hole straight through the tree’s canopy, completely exposing her to the man’s view.
“What the hell are you doing to my tree?” he asked.
Helena shivered as she translated; German, especially hostile German, was more familiar to her than Hungarian. His voice was scarier than that of the guards in the camp. Nonetheless, she gathered her own voice and, thinking quickly, called back, “These pears are all rotten. I’m taking them down for you.”
The man regarded her silently, and Helena’s eyes drifted upwards to the second-story window, where, through the open curtains, she could see a familiar red and black flag.
Her bloated stomach rolled and she looked from the man, to the flag, and back again, saying her prayers in Czech under her breath. She’d thought all those flags had been taken away when the war ended.
“You Czech pig, what are you saying? This is my property!”
If it weren’t for the pears weighing her down, Helena would have been shaking like a leaf on the tree. He was a Nazi, and he was going to shoot her any second. In spite of everything, in spite of all the vegetables she had swallowed to stay healthy, all of the clever ways she had swindled herself and her family extra bread, she would end up in a ditch with all the other skeletons Nazis made, unblessed and unvisited, under loose dirt. It wasn’t fair. This man didn’t even look like a Nazi, not like the whispers said they were. He wore no sharply-pressed uniform, he had no silver buttons or tinkling badges, only a sleepcap and worn slippers, a drawn face and a nightgown draped over his hunched back. He looked every bit as pathetic as someone like Petry. He didn’t even have a gun.
This last observation, or perhaps it was all the sugar, sent a surge through Helena’s thin body. He had no gun! Maybe he would not shoot her. Just as she could no longer restrain a smirk from pulling at her lips, the Nazi retreated into his house.
Helena could have danced. Quickly, she climbed back to the ground, losing a few fruits from her pants when she jumped the last foot. As she stuffed them and a few extras back into place, however, she heard a low growl.
When she raised her eyes, the door had opened again. This time, it framed not only the Nazi, but a large, black dog, with yellowish fangs and a stump tail. The Nazi yelled a command in German, and the dog lunged.
Hollering a curse word she had heard her father use once, Helena bolted for the hill. If she had had a free hand, she might have used an obscene gesture at the hunchbacked man sneering in his sleep cap, but even the two she had were hardly enough to keep the pears from falling out of her clothes. She left a trail of them down the hill, and, to her immense luck, one of them bounced as it fell and hit the dog in the face, making it yelp and stumble in the grass. It briefly resumed the chase, but as Helena neared the camp, it lost interest, perhaps catching wind of its fallen comrades being roasted by the unfed displaced persons. This left Helena free as a songbird as she sprinted down the hill, and with the fruit bouncing and jiggling in her shirt and her pants, she thought, if only that guard could see me now.
It is never easy to see one’s mother cry. It is also never easy to steal from a Nazi. But these things are worth enduring, Helena found, if only to see the looks on her mother, and Toni, and Bela’s faces when she released her clothes and dozens of pears fell out, rolling like gems across their hut’s rotting floor.