Tilli's Story: My Thoughts Are Free, by Tilli Schulze and Lorna Collier, is the memoir of a young German farm girl growing up during World War II and the Russian occupation that followed the end of the war. The book was first published by iUniverse Publishing in August 2004, then became an iUniverse Star book in October 2005, with a new edition published that month. It was excerpted in the Rockford Register Star from July 4, 2004, through Aug. 22, 2004.

What follows are the Author's Note, Prologue, first chapter and 20th chapter of the book, which is copyrighted material and cannot be reprinted without the authors' consent.

Author’s Note

I am not a hero.

I did not suffer more than other German children did during World War II and the Russian takeover of East Germany. In fact, I’m sure I suffered less than some. There were certainly quite a few children who underwent even more horrible ordeals than I did.

I didn’t save anybody’s life; I didn’t perform any dramatic rescues, other than my own. Nobody in my family died.

Why, then, should you read my story?

Because what I went through is typical not only of what many German children experienced during World War II and its aftermath, but also of what all children endure during any war—a suffering that is unforgivable but also, unfortunately, often overlooked and shrugged aside as an unavoidable cost of war.

I first began this project in 1991, two years after the Berlin Wall came down. Once that happened—once Germany ceased to be split into West and East, free and not free—I was able to go home again.

For the first time in 40 years, I saw the small farming village where I grew up. I saw old friends and neighbors and relatives who had not been able to escape, as I had. I visited my brother’s grave. I stepped inside my old house. I walked through the park which had been such a refuge for me as a child.

And I remembered.

I remembered what was done to my family and to countless innocent families throughout my country. We suffered under both Hitler and Stalin. Neither of these rulers believed we should have the right to think freely, to act freely, to travel and work and write and worship and live as we wished.

I remembered also what was done to me. My innocence was taken. My childhood was taken. My life was almost taken.

I never shared with my children and with even my closest friends much of what happened to me during the war and the Russian takeover. I kept it buried. I moved on with my life. I tried to forget.

But the memories wouldn’t die—and I’ve realized I can’t let them.

I want my family to know the truth. I want the world to know. Maybe it’s naive to think that telling stories like mine will make a difference, but I hope this will be the case.

We need to never forget the importance of freedom, which is sometimes taken for granted in America. We need to realize that war makes everyone its victim, that real people on both sides, including innocent children, suffer the battles their leaders plan.

I didn’t want to write a political book. I am not out to defend all Germans for their actions during World War II, nor to castigate all Russians for the inhumane behavior some Russian soldiers displayed towards me. I most certainly am not trying to downplay or diminish in any way the appalling sufferings of the Jews and other Holocaust victims.

I simply want to tell my story, my personal story: to relay to you what I saw as a child in Germany, as a child of war, and to try to convey the lessons, the truths, that I learned through that experience.

Although this story contains a lot of sad and terrible things, I don’t want this to be a depressing book. I see my story as being about survival and the triumph of the human spirit, about the way we can overcome anything if we keep fighting, even if our battles can only be waged within our thoughts.

That’s the way my mother fought. This book is named for her, for her softly humming resistance to those who would try to take control of her mind.

In writing this book, I tried to reconstruct what happened to me from the war’s beginning in 1939 through the first five years of the Russian occupation. As best as I could, I tried to remember conversations and feelings that I had. Some of these conversations, of necessity, have been recreated. I could not always remember word for word what people said, but I could remember the gist of an encounter, the mood of a moment, the force of a meeting. All of the major events in this book happened, and they happened to me.

This is my story.

— Tilli Horn Schulze

Prologue: Fall 1944

It is night and they are back. Enemy planes, growling in the distance: thunder that does not stop, but grows closer, closer, until it invades my sleep, until I jump up in bed, my dreams crashing away into broken bits of terror.

My mother stirs next to me. She pats my arm; she is awake, too, but we don’t say anything. I struggle to breathe normally. She is silent.

I curl into a ball, my comforter tight to my chin in the blackness. The thunder booms louder, louder, and there is nothing to do but wait for whatever is going to happen next.

Now the window glass is rattling. The floor is vibrating. The roar is so near—I can hear it, feel it, all around me; I just can’t see it. I wish I could scream and I wish I could cry but I’ve done that before and I know it’s no use.

I shut my eyes, put my hands to my ears, trying to silence the sounds, trying to find a peaceful place in the darkness of my mind, and somehow the minutes pass and then finally the grinding and rumbling and roaring begins to fade. I let out a breath and start to relax. Maybe I will be able to get back to sleep before dawn, before my chores, before the two-mile walk to school.

Bang! Crash!

The house shakes, the sounds blast—above me, behind me, below me. Again, again, again. Horrible thuds like giants falling, the earth opening, splitting, dear Lord please help me help me help me.

Bombs. These are the sounds of bombs falling, exploding. I have heard these sounds before, but always they have been quieter, from a greater distance. Now they sound like they are right next to us, and moving closer.

Again I try to block from my ears, my mind, this terrible noise, try not to think where the bombs are falling—on empty fields or deserted businesses or vacant school buildings? Or on homes, where people are sleeping, where children—children like me—are hiding in their beds, perhaps still shaking off the fragments of their dreams?

I am ten years old. I have been living with this war since I was five. When the airplanes started flying over us, everyone said they would never bomb us, that our little farm village in northeastern Germany was too small for them to care about. We would be safe, everybody said. Even my mother said it, holding me against her, telling me to hush and not worry.

Now she lies still in bed, frozen just as I am frozen. We have no bomb shelter to protect us, like the people in the cities have. We don’t even have a basement. We have nowhere to hide.

On the wall beside me is a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross. I can barely make it out in the darkness. Because of the war, we have to keep black shades on the windows at night and aren’t allowed to use electricity or candles. But my eyes are used to darkness by now and besides, I know this picture so well. I have stared at it so often during the past few years, ever since I began sleeping downstairs with my mother in her bedroom.

I’ve always been unsettled by this picture—by the blood dripping down Jesus’ wrists, but mostly by the sorrow in His eyes. I used to wonder what it would feel like to be nailed to a cross, trapped and helpless for the world to see.

“I am sweet and pure and my heart belongs to Jesus alone,” I whisper, repeating the prayer I have been saying every night, for as long as I can remember.

I hope it will help; that Jesus, somewhere, is listening.

And still the bombs fall. Over and over, on and on, death free-falling from the sky. I start to shake, my teeth to chatter, and I know that I can’t stay here, in this moment. I force myself to stop listening, stop thinking, worrying, picturing what is happening outside. Instead, I create places in my mind, beautiful safe places where I can laugh and play until the bombs stop and I can go home again.

Sometimes I visit a house made entirely of the sweetest candy, a house I can eat my way through. Other times, I am in the meadow, riding Max, one of our two horses, the other hors, Moritz, running free beside me, all muscles and mane and joy. I take the horses into the pond for a glorious cooling splash, then lie in the long grass, surrounded by weeds and wildflowers, trying to taste the warm breeze with my tongue, as happy as it is possible to be.

My dreams mix with memories – of the days before war came, of the early days of the war when my life was still more or less normal – and I wonder if will ever be safe and happy again.

Chapter One: September 1939

The first time I heard about the war, I was making sand castles in the schoolyard. It was a bright fall day, sunshine left over from summer warming the top of my head as I mounded the damp brown sand beside me into a grand palace. A princess lived inside, a gentle, golden-haired princess in an emerald gown. All around the castle lurked evil, fire-breathing dragons, but my princess was safe, because the walls of my fortress were so strong.

Hans ran up to me, panting.

“Guess what, Tilli!” he yelled. “Germany is at war!”

I stared at him. I didn’t know exactly what a war was, though I had an idea it had something to do with soldiers and guns.

“Really?” I said, not sure whether to believe Hans, who liked to tell stories.

“My cousin might go fight in it,” Hans said. “My aunt is home now crying.”

That scared me. I’d never seen an adult cry before.

Hans ran off to tell the others. I went back to pouring sand on my castle, making it taller, wider, stronger, until it was perfect. Soon I’d forgotten what Hans had said.

After kindergarten, I ran home through the meadow to my street, then turned onto the road and walked the rest of the way under the cool canopy of the linden trees, which arched across the road like a lacy green rainbow, their leaves like hundreds of tiny hearts. I hurried down the path past our gate, skipped through my mother’s flower garden, which filled our front yard, and went inside to the kitchen.

At this time of day, my mother usually would be getting dinner ready. When she’d see me, she’d give me a hug and kiss and sometimes had a special snack ready for me. But that afternoon, she wasn’t there. The great stove was cold and silent. The long wooden table stood empty and bare.

I ran outside to the barnyard. “Mami! Mami!” I called.

A yellow barn cat streaked across the yard and shot up at tree. We had so many barn cats I never bothered to name them. Bello, our big outdoor dog, ran up to me, his tongue hanging out and his tail wagging. I patted his thick, solid head. There was no sign of my mother or father anywhere.

I walked back into the kitchen. “Mami?” I called again into the stillness.

Then I heard my mother’s footsteps, coming from the living room in the back of the house, which we never used during the daytime. Following close behind were the clicking toenails of Fanni, Mami’s pet dog, who was always nearby.

“Hello, Tilli, did you have a good day?” Mami said, holding out her arms to me.

“Where were you?” I asked, hugging her, then reaching down to pet Fanni.

“Just listening to the radio.”

I noticed, then, the very faint scratchy sounds of crackling men’s voices. My parents kept a big radio in the living room, which we only listened to at night, when music came on.

“That idiot Hitler!” my father shouted from the living room. That was also odd, that my father should be home this early and not at work in the fields. I was used to him yelling about Hitler, who had been ruling Germany ever since I could remember. My father hated Hitler, and often said so, which seemed to terrify my mother. “Hush now!” she would hiss at him, looking over her shoulder as though she expected Hitler himself to come bursting through our door to punish my father for his words.

I began helping my mother set the table for supper, putting out plates for my parents; Wilhelm, our farmhand, who lived with us; my brothers, Heinz and Helmut, who were eleven and twelve and still in school—the elementary school, not the kindergarten that I went to; Paula, my older sister, who was fifteen and finished with school; and for myself, Tilli, age five, youngest child in the Horn family.

As my mother handed me the dishes, she began singing softly. It was a song she had been singing a lot lately. “My thoughts are free, who can guess them? They fly by, like nightly shadows.”

Sunlight filtered through the delicate lace curtains at the window and glinted off the silverware, casting prisms of fiery color—orange and yellow and red—about the room, onto my mother’s face. I suddenly remembered what Hans had told me in the sandbox.

“Mami, Hans said that Germany is in a war.”

My mother stopped singing. She set down her spatula, then lowered herself beside me, frowning deeply. “Tilli, some people have crazy ideas. They think they can go to another country and take the land and make it theirs again.”

I didn’t understand.

My mother tried again. “Yes, Germany is in a war. We invaded Poland. But it will be over very soon.”

“Hans says his cousin might go fight,” I said. “Will Helmut and Heinz and Hugo go fight, too?”

My brother Hugo, who was thirteen, was deaf and didn’t live with us, except for holidays and other breaks from his special school, which was in another city several hours away by train.

“No, we don’t need to worry about the boys,” my mother said. “They’re much too young. The war will be over long before they would have to fight in it.”

My mother went back to the stove. I wandered into the living room, where I was surprised to see not only my father but also Wilhelm in the room, both of them hunched next to the radio.

I tried to sit on my father’s lap, but he pushed me away. “Not now!” he snapped, waving me away with his hand.

“We’re busy listening to some very important news,” whispered Wilhelm, more gently.

Besides being our field hand, Wilhelm was also my godfather. When I was two, he had given me a doll and stroller. They were the only toys I had ever had. The doll had porcelain skin, long brown hair the same color as mine, gold-and-brown flecked eyes with real human eyelashes, and a blue-and-white dirndl dress. I named her Doris. My mother said Doris and her brown leather stroller were much too fine to play with or even touch, so I kept her propped in the corner of my bedroom, which I shared with Paula. Sometimes I liked to lie on my stomach on the wooden floor and imagine what Doris might be thinking and whisper secrets to her. Paula laughed at me for that.

“Did you hear? Did you hear?” shouted Helmut, bursting into the living room, breathless and red-faced, his thick, dark hair wild and tousled.

Heinz, as always, followed close behind him; though he was a year older than Helmut, he was at least a head shorter and his legs didn’t carry him as far. Heinz was adopted and, with his curly light brown hair and crooked grin, didn’t look like anybody else in the family, but we didn’t care. I never thought of it and neither did Helmut, who spent every minute he could with Heinz.

My brothers started talking rapidly to my father and Wilhelm. I only caught snatches of what they said, most of which I didn’t understand.

“...going to take Poland...”

“...our land to begin with, after all...”

“...six weeks, tops...”

“That idiot Hitler!”

My father seemed angry, while Wilhelm and my brothers acted more excited than anything else. I didn’t know how to feel. Nobody had been crying, which was good. But I didn’t like the worried, tense expression on my mother’s face. I felt like my life was somehow changing; shifting, like dry sand, beneath my feet.

[Note: Chapter 20 occurs in May 1945, six years later, just after the war has ended. Tilli is 11 years old.]

Chapter Twenty

I am in the kitchen drying the dinner dishes. The Pommerenkes moved to the villa yesterday, so we have our living room back. Maybe I can sneak off to read in my favorite chair for awhile. Or sleep. I am so very tired. Mami looks ready to take a nap, too; she’s sitting at the table with her head drooping. She sometimes does this after dinner, resting for fifteen minutes or so before going back to work.

Paula takes the plates from me and stacks them in the cupboard. Now and then she catches spots that I didn’t dry so well. She rubs them with the corner of her apron, but she doesn’t yell at me about it, like she used to. She has been so quiet since she came back home. She is always frowning and hardly an hour goes by that she doesn’t mention Erich’s name. Erich is still missing in the war; no one has seen or heard from him in months.

“You’d think May would bring better weather than this,” says Frau Hoppe, drinking down the last of her barley coffee and handing Maria her cup to wash. “Here it is, the first of the month, and it’s so cold. Makes my bones hurt. Sometimes I can barely walk. My knees get so puffy—”

Frau Hoppe drones on. I tune her out, tune the damp dishes out. I am walking in a sunny field filled with violets. Max and Moritz are there. I am braiding Max’s mane.

“Run! Hide!”

My dream shatters. Voices are screaming, yelling, words I can’t make out, voices in the distance, terrified voices.

“What’s happening?” says my mother, jumping up.

Jan and Heinz burst into the room. “The Russians are here!” Heinz screams. “They just went through Teterow, taking everything, even the cattle! They will be here any minute!”

“Dear God,” says my mother.
“The Russians are really here?” says Paula, cradling a plate against her chest.

“Girls, get ready,” says my mother. “You’re going to have to hide.”

“Hide where?” I ask.

“The bull barn, in the hay. Where the wagon is hidden.”

“Now?” I ask. “We have to hide now?”
My mother stands at the window, peering out. A boy is running past, shouting: “Russians! Hide! Russians! Hide!”

I go to the window, too. So do Paula and Maria and Ruth. From the kitchen, we can see where the highway from Teterow ends and our road begins.

“What?” says Frau Hoppe. “What do you see? Are they coming yet? Jesus, help us. What will we do? What will they do? Can you see anything yet?”

“Look,” says Paula, pointing.

A herd of animals: pigs, bulls, horses, plodding down the road. A man in a yellow uniform is hitting them with a stick, yelling. Behind the animals are wagons. A row of wagons filled with men, all in yellow.

My mother swings into action. “Heinz, go tell Frau Oleniczak. Get the girls here!” she shouts. Heinz runs out the door. Then my mother starts throwing food together, grabbing the bread left over from dinner and wrapping it, along with some sausages and apples, in a towel.

Paula and Maria and Ruth and I stand, frozen, at the window. As the wagons grow closer, I can more clearly see the men in yellow. Some are driving the wagons. Others are crowded in the back. They are whooping and yelling and holding long rifles. Some are waving glass bottles in the air and tilting their heads back and drinking.

The wagons stop at the Brewers’ house, which is the first on our road. Some of the men jump off the front wagon and go to the door, their guns out. They shout something I can’t understand, go inside, then come out, dragging Frau Brewer, who is screaming.

“Now!” yells my mother. “Go! Quickly!” She shoves the towel filled with food at Paula. Paula is paralyzed. I can’t move, either. “Come on!” My mother pushes us away from the window.

Klara, Trudy, Wanda and Marie Oleniczak come running in, led by Heinz. Klara comes over to me. “Tilli, I’m so scared,” she says, her voice breaking.

“Me, too.”

We rush outside to the bull barn, the farthest barn from the house. Jan meets us there. He pushes us behind the bales and boxes, into the corner where the wagon had been hiding. It is no longer there; I don’t know where it is.

“Cover yourselves with hay,” he orders. “Be quiet. No noise at all.”

Jan drags bales of hay in front of us, stacking them into a wall. Heinz helps, his breath harsh and fast.

Paula and Ruth and the Oleniczak girls and I pull bunches of hay onto our legs, then try to cover each other as best we can. Pieces of hay scratch my neck and tickle my cheeks. I can see golden light above me, through the bits of straw on top of my head.

“They’re going to run us through with their swords,” Trudy says, her voice strangely calm, almost matter-of-fact. “They take their long swords and go sticking through the straw trying to find bodies.”

“Quiet!” Jan yells, his voice faraway and muffled. “Stay quiet!”

Ruth sniffles. Paula moans. I bite my lips together so no sound comes out. I hadn’t heard this story before, about the swords. I imagine the men in yellow slashing away at the bales of straw until they catch skin and flesh and blood.

The barn door creaks shut and the golden light goes away and it is dark. I strain my ears but can’t hear anything except our ragged breathing.

“How long do we have to be here?” I whisper.

“Shhh,” hisses Marie.

There is nothing to do but close my eyes and wish I were somewhere else. I can’t worry about what might be happening outside, to Heinz, to Maria. To my mother.

Hours pass. Occasional loud sounds, yells and shrieks, erupt like bombs in the silence, before falling away into an uneasy quiet, until the next explosion.

“What’s happening?” I whisper.

Paula starts to cry. “Trudy’s right. It’s true about the swords. This is the first place they’ll look for us.”
“Would you please be quiet?” says Marie.

We burrow deeper into the straw. I try to sleep. But sleep is impossible. Wild images whirl in my mind and I jump at every strange sound. There is too much to be afraid of.

There is a sudden, loud bang, nearby. A crash. Voices, deep voices, very close, and feet, stomping in the dirt.

I try not to breathe. Male voices yell, words I don’t understand. The barn door flings open so hard it crashes against the far wall.

I try to sink further under the hay, without moving. I will myself invisible.

The men’s feet make crunching noises as they walk through the barn. I hear things being pulled off shelves. The walls sound like they are being kicked. More of those gruff voices and clinking sounds, like glass cracking, and crunching boots and a laugh, two laughs, how could they be laughing? and the creak of the barn door as it shuts.

And then there is blessed silence.

The next morning, my mother comes in, swiftly pulling back the bales of hay guarding our corner. “Mami!” Paula and I cry out.

My mother’s face is black, as if she has smeared dirt on it, and her mouth is set in a grim line. She wraps us in a quick hug, not saying anything.

“Frau Horn, is everything all right?” says Wanda.

My mother pushes Paula and I back. “We’ve got to move you,” she says briskly. “Come on. Everyone get up. You can’t stay here.”
“Where are we going?” I ask.

“The secret attic, where we’ve been hiding the surplus food. They didn’t find it last night.”

“They were in our house?” Paula says.

“They came in and took things,” my mother says slowly. “They took the radio and all the bikes. They took my watch. They had armloads of watches.”

“Did they hurt you?” Paula asks.

“No. We’re all right. But they were looking for Hitler things, to see if we were Nazis, and I forgot to take down the Hitler picture. I threw it in the woodstove right away, and they didn’t do anything to me. They seemed to be in a hurry. They went through the barns real fast but I wouldn’t be surprised if they come back tonight, for a better search. After it gets dark, I’m going to move you into the attic.”
“We have to wait here all day?” I ask. I don’t know how I can stand another day in here.

“I’m afraid so,” says my mother.

“Is there room in that attic for all of us?” Paula asks. “It’s just a crawlspace.”

“I think you’ll fit. I’m putting bags of straw up there for beds. And I’ll have food for you. But you’ll have to be very quiet.”

“For how long?” I ask. “How long is this going to go on?”

“Tilli, don’t whine!” my mother snaps. Then she reaches for me. “I’m sorry. I know you’re scared. I just don’t know how long this will keep up, or what to expect.”
She gives me a hug and some of the black on her face rubs off onto mine. She wipes my cheek and smiles.

“What is that stuff?” I ask.

“Ashes,” she says. “We’re all doing it, all of the women. We rub ashes on our faces so the Russians will think we’re old, too old for them. Then maybe they will leave us alone.”

My mother leaves. We spend the rest of the day trying not to move and speaking only occasionally, in whispers. Heinz brings in more food and tells us he hasn’t seen any Russians all day but he’s heard that they’ve taken over the villa and kicked out the refugees that were there, except for the ones—the women—that they wanted to keep.

Finally it is dark. My mother comes in and we stand up, stiff and sore, then hurry with her across the barnyard to the house. As I rush through our house to the stairs, I see the gray, empty spot on the living room wall where the Hitler picture had been. Now there is nothing left on that wall but a shadow.

We run up the stairs, passing Heinz and Helmut’s bedroom. Where is Helmut sleeping tonight? Is he alive? We hurry past sacks of rye and wheat, past my old bedroom, to a ladder propped against the wall. It leads up to a dark opening cut into the wooden ceiling: the door to the secret attic, raised like a hidden altar over the rest of the house.

We scurry up the ladder, squeezing ourselves into the dim, dusty space. As she had promised, my mother has put burlap sacks filled with straw on top of the wooden planks, so we have something to sit on. A plate with sandwiches is in the middle of the space, a water pitcher beside it. In a corner is a chamberpot, a black bucket which we all must share.

Sitting on my knees in the straw, the roof scrapes the top of my head. From ceiling to floor there is about a four-foot space, except for the point where the roof peaks, where I can almost stand up.  There is no light, no window. The air is stuffy and thick. I am in a coffin. Panic surges through me.

“When I need you, I’ll bang with this broomstick,” my mother calls from below. She points to an old broom, resting in the corner next to the ladder. “If I bang twice, that means be quiet. They said we can’t lock our doors any more. The Russians can come in any time they want. There won’t be any knocking on the front door to let you know they’re here. You will have to always listen for their footsteps and their voices because I don’t know if I will always be able to warn you.”

Paula and Ruth lift the ladder into the secret attic, laying it on its side near the opening. We call good-bye to my mother, then Paula slides a square piece of wood with rope handles across the opening. It slips down neatly into the hole, sealing it tightly, casting us into darkness.

We go back to our silent waiting, huddling together. I find myself wondering what it was like when the soldiers, the Russian soldiers, came through our house last night. Did they open our cupboards? Did they touch our china? My books? Doris? Did they touch Doris?

Can they really just walk into my house whenever they feel like it?

I picture my mother tossing the Hitler picture into the fire, Hitler’s stern face licked by flames, eaten away into nothingness, and that makes me happy. I feel sorry for the pretty girl in the painting. I wonder who she was and what she is doing now.

I want to talk to Klara, but I’m afraid even to whisper. I hug my knees tightly to my chest. We are all breathing so loudly. My ears fill with our sounds; how can the Russians not hear us? And what about the lines in the upstairs ceiling, where Jan cut out the secret door. What if the Russians notice those lines?

What about Maria? Maria isn’t hiding with us. She said the Russians were her people and wouldn’t hurt her and since she spoke their language, she could maybe help protect us. But what if they hurt her anyway?

Mami isn’t hiding, either. Is she really safe? What if they hurt her, too? Why do the Russians hate us so much?

As I strain my ears, trying to hear if they are any closer to our house, my fears circle my head like vultures, swooping around, around, over, lower, perching on my shoulder, whispering in my ear. Finally I am so exhausted that I fall asleep, lying down on my burlap sack between Klara and Paula, all of us curled together like sausages in a row.

Suddenly I jolt awake, my heart racing. It must be a cloudy night, because there is no moonlight or starlight coming through the cracks in the roof above me. For a moment, I can’t think where I am, why I am so uncomfortable. Why I can’t stand up.

Then I hear voices beneath me. They’re back. Glass crashing. Shouting. Fanni barking, then squealing in pain. Laughing, harsh laughter.

Where are Mami and Maria and Frau Hoppe? I don’t hear them, only the men.

The other girls sit up, too. Ruth starts to cry again. Wanda puts her hand lightly over her mouth, a cautioning look on her face. Ruth nods silently: she will be quiet. Klara squeezes my hand.

I hear Maria’s voice, from somewhere below us. She is yelling something. More thuds, as if people are falling down. Chairs scraping on wood, doors slamming. Why can’t I hear my mother? It is only men’s voices, yelling, hooting, laughing.

On and on, for hours, the voices rise and fall. What do they want? Why are they staying so long?

Then, suddenly, it is silent again.

Even though they must be gone, we don’t talk to each other or move. We are like statues, kneeling statues, frozen in our fear. Klara’s fist is in her mouth. Her cheeks look wet and she is blinking furiously. I wish there were something I could do or say to help her. But there is nothing.

We sit like this for seconds, minutes, hours. Paula silently passes the sandwiches and water. I drink some of the water, but have no appetite for food.

Trudy crawls over to the chamberpot. I try not to look or hear. The rest of us use the pot, taking turns. It is awkward and messy and smelly and so embarrassing, but we have no choice.

The darkness begins to lighten. Pinpricks of rosy dawn find their way through the holes in the roof-tiles. I hear the rooster crowing, Fox neighing, Bello barking. The light turns golden bright. It must be sunny outside. I wonder when I will see the sun again.

Somehow I sleep. Dreamless, deep sleep. When I open my eyes it is warm and stuffy and feels like afternoon.

Everyone else is awake. Klara and Trudy are holding hands; Ruth is stroking Paula’s hair; Marie’s fingers run across the top of her rosary beads, making the slightest of clicking sounds.

Thump, thump. “It’s me!” my mother calls softly, tapping on our floor with the broom she left propped against the wall downstairs.

Paula, who is closest to the opening, pulls on the handles and lifts the piece of wood from the opening. Then she and Marie pass down the ladder. My mother climbs up, carrying a bundle of food.

Her face is still dark with ashes. I crawl to her and wrap myself in her arms. She kisses the top of my head and for a moment nobody says anything.

“How are you all doing?” my mother asks, turning to look at each of us as best as she can in the shadows.

“Fine,” I lie, echoing the others.

“I wish I had more food for you,” my mother says. “If I can get back up here tonight, I’ll bring more. Or Heinz will. But this may have to last you until tomorrow.”

There’s an edge to my mother’s voice.

“What is it?” Paula asks. “What’s wrong?”
“Jan left today. The Russians said he had to go with them. He is free now.”

I don’t know whether to be happy or sad about this—I never really liked Jan, but I don’t like the idea of no man around the farm during the day to help my mother. To protect her.

“And that’s not all,” says my mother.  She pauses, her face grim.
“Mami, what? What is it?” asks Paula.

“The burgermeister came by this morning. There’s going to be a dance at the villa tonight for the Russians. Our new friends, he called them. Can you believe that? Friends! We’re supposed to be welcoming them to Doelitz. All the women in Doelitz are invited.”

“What?” says Paula. “You’re not going, are you?”

“If we don’t go, the Russians—our new friends—say they will burn Doelitz to the ground.”

“Oh my God,” says Wanda.

My mother laughs bitterly. I have never heard her laugh like this before. “Who could refuse such a polite invitation from such charming gentlemen?”

“Can’t you stay here?” says Paula. “Can’t you hide with us? Don’t go!”

“I’ll be all right,” my mother says. She waves at her face. “We’re all going like this, with as much ashes and dirt on us as we can, and we’re wearing our oldest and smelliest clothes. They won’t want us.”

“Is my mother going, too?” asks Trudy, her voice small.

“Yes, dear. We all have to go. We can’t risk not showing up. I did want to warn you, though, that I won’t be here tonight. In case anything happens.”

After Mami leaves, it is a long time before I can slow my thoughts, my endless circling vulture thoughts. I fall asleep, but my sleep is broken with nightmares, filled with sirens and unseen men chasing me and flames on all sides.

“Shhh,” Wanda says, shaking my arm. “Shhh.”

I shake the dreams from my mind and listen and then I hear them, soft footsteps, the floor creaking below us.

There’s a tap on the door to our secret space and I let out my breath: it’s the sound of the broomstick; it must be my mother. Paula slides open the door and lets down the ladder. Instead of my mother, another girl climbs up. It’s Dorothea, Lori Pech’s young aunt, covered in a black shawl and scarf. Her face, like my mother’s, is smudged black.

My mother stands below, on the first few rungs of the ladder, calling up to us in a low voice. “Dorothea has come to stay with you. I’ll see you in the morning. Be careful!”

We help Dorothea find a spot in our cramped space. She blinks, trying to adjust to the darkness, and holds her arms tightly around herself.
“What’s happening out there?” whispers Paula. “Have they had the dance yet?”

“It’s starting now,” Dorothea whispers back. “Everyone is on their way to the villa. The Russians are all there. I took my chance to run. I’ve been hiding in our root cellar but that isn’t safe, so your mother said I could come up here with you.”

Dorothea slumps against the wall, looking exhausted.

Paula offers her half a sandwich. She waves it away. “I haven’t slept since they came,” Dorothea whispers. “I’m afraid to close my eyes. I’m afraid of what I’ll see.”

Dorothea starts to cry. Paula puts her arms around her and they sit together silently.

We resume our vigil, waiting, listening. I don’t hear anything for hours. No soldiers yelling. No screams. Once I hear a soft thud below, but quickly realize that it is only a cat, pouncing on a mouse. 

Finally we hear the front door open and footsteps walking slowly through the house. I smile. It’s my mother; I recognize her sounds, so  unlike the men, who burst in, the door slamming, their voices thick and loud. Her footsteps, soft and steady, continue to her bedroom, and then there is silence.

 I drift to sleep, relieved. Maybe the dance helped, somehow, and the Russians are at peace and will leave us alone and I can go back home again.

I am by myself in the park, next to my dreaming rock, gathering wildflowers. The sun is strong and hot overhead and I am going to take a nap on my rock and then I’m going to bring these flowers to my mother and life is so sweet and I am so happy.
The sun splinters and crashes out of the sky and now I am awake and it is dark, not sunny, and the crashing is real, glass is smashing, and there are voices, men’s voices. They’re back and they’re yelling. They sound so angry, running through the house, flinging open doors, breaking glass, shouting and laughing.

Ruth starts to cry, her shoulders shaking. Dorothea puts her hand over Ruth’s mouth to silence her sobs.

“No!” Maria shouts from somewhere below us, her voice rising high and sharp above the voices, the angry, laughing voices.
I freeze, my breath in my throat.

Another crash. Glass again? China? I can’t tell. A man yells harshly and something heavy bangs, thuds, against the floor, so hard the wood floor quivers beneath me.

Maria is yelling in that other language now, the men’s language. The men’s voices are high with fury, yelling back. More thuds and thumps, the sounds of struggling.

And then Maria’s voice, her scream, carrying over all the other sounds, soaring right up to us and landing helpless in our laps. I press my hands into my ears as hard as I can, but still I can hear her, still I can feel her pain and terror.

“Oh no,” Paula whispers, her eyes wide, horrified.

“Those bastards,” says Dorothea.

“Shhh,” says Wanda. “Shhh!”

I lie back down on my bed of straw. I am so useless. All we can do is nothing. That is our only function. To say nothing, to be completely still; if possible, not to be at all. At least for awhile. We have to be lifeless, we have to be wraiths, spirits in hiding, if we are to have any hope of saving ourselves.

© 2004, "Tilli's Story: My Thoughts Are Free," by Lorna Collier and Tilli Schulze

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© Copyright Oct. 2005 by Tilli Schulze and Lorna Collier, My Thoughts Are Free, P.O. Box 861, Belvidere, IL 61008