Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Trains and Home

The railroad tracks are less than a half a mile down the road from us. Today, as I was driving to the dentist, the train was once again stopped just on the other side of the crossing. Two railroad workers were walking toward the engine. I decided a random act of kindness was in order and let them cross over before crossing with the car. All of a sudden memories started flooding back from when I was a small kid in postwar (WWII) Germany.

The railroad (besides my uncle's semi) was the primary transportation for us. In order to get to my mother's folks, we got on the train early in the morning while it was still dark, rode a while and then the train would stop in the middle of nowhere. We would get off the train, walk for a while, suitcase in hand, and when the railroad tracks started up again, got on another train, and the process was repeated until we arrived at our destination. You see the tracks had been bombed and not yet repaired. To a child, it was an adventure, to my mother, I would assume, a tremendous headache. Against my mother's advice, I would stick my head out the train window, trying to catch the wind. Sometimes with the wind came a bit of soot since in those days, the train's power came from coal. If the bit of soot got caught in my eye, then, of course, I would run crying to mother who would remind me of her warning not to stick my head out. But catching the wind and getting ever closer to my aunts, uncles, and cousins was more important.

Another important chapter in my life and connection to trains was my cousin being smuggled from the French Zone to the American Zone on a railroad engine. He was a young man when he was forced to enlist and still a young man when he was taken prisoner of war in France and eventually escaped with another fellow from Berlin, making his way back to Germany Unfortunately, my mother and I lived in the French Zone. Unbeknown to us there was an "underground railroad" that smuggled our men from one zone to another; i.e. if the French caught you, they would transport you to the American Zone and visa versa. Luckily my cousin and my mother's family, except for the two of us, all lived in the American Zone.

I remember the fear when one night someone knocked on our window. Usually this was not good news, but this time it was a villager who wanted to know if my mother had a nephew named Rolf. Knowing that we lived in the area, after escaping from a French Prisoner's of War Camp, my cousin and his buddy had made their way to our village and knocked on the door of a house with lights on. Fortuitously, they were only a few houses away from where we lived. When the two finally arrived at our place, the fear became even more palpable since the neighbor had seen them. My mother ever fearful of being betrayed was extremely anxious, but still took Rolf and his buddy in. But she should not have feared, for soon the neighbor knocked on our door, bringing food and telling us that the two could hide out in his daughter's bed room, for my mother and I lived in one giant room which served as kitchen, living room, and bedroom. Bread and other precious food magically appeared each night between our window and the shutters until mother was told that transportation to the American Zone had been arranged for the boys. Overcoats were provided and big floppy hats to hide their shaven heads were provided and once again in the middle of the night, we were awakened and my cousin Rolf and his buddy were taken to the train station. There they were made very temporary railroad workers and hidden on the engine. The train stopped once it arrived at the Rhein river, the two were then disguised as construction workers working on one of the bridges being built across the Rhein and thus crossed over to the American Zone. From their my cousin made it to his home in the Black Forest and his buddy was on his way to Berlin. We never heard again from Rolf's buddy.

As the times became safer and the railroad tracks were fixed and I was a little older, my mother would put me on the train, and I would make my own way to my aunts, uncles and cousins during summer vacations. The window seats were still important to me for catching the wind and thus the knowledge that I was going home to my beloved Black Forest.
By the way the middle house in the photo was "home." My mother's family owned a "Konditorei", a restaurant where pastries and cakes were king.

No comments:

Post a Comment