Translator’s Note: Natascha Wodin was born at the end of the war in 1944, when her family was living for a few years in a shed on the premises of a factory owner near Nuremberg. Sie kam aus Mariupol, based on Wodin’s memories of her early childhood, is a memoir of the author’s mother, a Ukrainian born in 1920 in Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, and deported with her Russian husband in 1943 to Nazi Germany to work as a slave labourer in a Flick factory in Leipzig.
The Zyganenkos, who live with us, have the sense to realise they’ve got no chance of a visa for America. They put in an immigration application for Brazil and receive their visa shortly afterwards. I remember feeling overwhelmed with a wild, uncontrollable grief when the rattling Goliath leaves the factory yard with the Zyganenkos and their possessions, and I have to face up to the fact that what I’ve been thinking of as a game has become serious. Someone who belongs to me, someone who’s been part of my familiar and unchangeable world can go, can leave me forever, whether I want it or not. I want to die, and I squeeze myself into the dark gap between our shed and the factory where the rats are, where I can feel everything vibrating, though it’s just the pounding of the machines. For hours my mother runs around the yard looking for me. It’s only in the evening, by which time she’s thinking of calling the German police, that she shines a torch into the gap and finds me. Though she’s thin, she’s not thin enough to force herself into the gap. There’s just enough room for a child’s body. She has to beg me, to implore me, to come out by myself. And I’ve hardly been out for a minute, dirty, smeared with tears and stiff with cold, when the blows from my father start raining down on me. My mother tears at his jacket and shouts at him to stop, but he hits me till I’m lying on the ground with warm blood dripping from my nose. My mother throws herself on top of me and screams. She’s still screaming when my father’s sitting back in the shed drinking. He’s doing that more and more these days.
The Zyganenkos have promised to write to us, but we never hear from them again. This seems to confirm all my mother’s premonitions of disaster: the ship, which was to bring them, her fellow sufferers, to Brazil, must have sunk. Later we hear from somewhere that they died in an even more dreadful manner – that Brazilian cannibals killed them and devoured their flesh. This was probably a product of the violent fantasies, induced by fear, which the Russians dreamed up and which I was to come across so often later.
My mother stays behind, alone with her husband and child in the shed. She’s lost the only people who were a refuge for her in this foreign country, her little Ukraine in Germany. Perhaps there was a moment of dreadful awakening for her when she suddenly grasped, deep down inside her, that she really was forever separated from Ukraine; that the only place in the world for her now was this shed, and she only had this thanks to the kindness of the German factory owner; that she was forever damned to live in a country where she’d always be a foreigner, always be ostracised and at the mercy of a husband who seemed to hate her. I was probably aware even then that she couldn’t take much more, that she was hovering on the verge of leaving me, of slipping away from me. By then we’d probably already swapped roles. I was probably carrying her on my shoulders even as a four-year-old, in the constant fear that I’d lose her, a fear I’d had since birth.
I spend most of my time outside in the factory yard. I play with scrap iron or sit on the step of our hut and watch the trains go by, trying to imagine where they’ve come from and where they’re going. My mother suffers from homesickness and I’m sick with longing for the world out there. The whole time I’m thinking about what the world is like beyond the factory yard, which I’m not allowed to leave because the dangerous main road, the Leyher Straße, begins right behind it. Whenever someone walks across the yard, I take the opportunity to show off a few of the German words I know. I say, “Grüß Gott” and “auf Wiedersehen,” one straight after the other: “Grüß Gott” to greet people, “auf Wiedersehen” to say goodbye, and I don’t understand why the Germans laugh.
Sometimes I can’t stand it any longer and I run out onto the main highway, which I reach via a narrow, unpaved road. I stand there and I look. I look at the German houses: proper, big houses made of stone, marvelling at them as if they were palaces. The Germans have white curtains at the windows and behind the window panes there are leathery green plants in plant pots. I look longingly at the sugary foreign cakes in the window of the baker’s, where my mother buys dark German bread when we’ve got the money, bread that tastes quite different from the airy white American bread. I look at the German faces, their glasses, their hair, their bags, their umbrellas, their hats. What most surprises me is the fact there are also German children. They draw squares with chalk on the pavement and jump from square to square. Greedily I listen in to the foreign language, to the different, incomprehensible sounds that I guess are the key to the German world – the world of taps and electricity.
Usually I pay a high price for my outings. When my mother catches me on one of my adventures, which she usually does, I get ten strokes of the strap on my bare bottom. It’s a deal between her and me. I’ve got the choice between pain and abstinence. My mother doesn’t tell me off, she’s not angry, she’s just carrying out her part of the deal. I’ve opted for the pain and I get it. The strokes of the strap burn like fire, but even though I may have screamed the place down as a baby, I’ve learned in the meantime to play dead. I never give as much as one twitch or gasp of pain. I never show my mother that her punishment has got to me, that she can hurt me.
One day I discover a little girl behind the green bushes in front of the factory owner’s house –the first living being my age in the factory yard. I’ve been strictly forbidden to go near the German factory owner’s house, but the stranger standing behind the garden gate, waving to me to come over, exerts a powerful pull on me which I can’t resist. We stand facing one another, each scrutinizing the other. The girl is wearing a brightly coloured dress with cap sleeves and has a mop of curly brown hair. She smiles and opens the garden gate for me. For the first time I walk into the terra incognita behind the fence, the realm belonging to our lord and master on whom our very existence depends. The girl shows me a doll, a living doll, one that can open and close her eyes and say ‘Mama’ too. When she lets me take the doll and hold it, I get dizzy with excitement. The girl also has a scooter. She shows me how to ride it and asks if I want to try that out as well. But I don’t get as far as that. My mother grabs me by the collar and pulls me out of the garden. I can’t keep pace with her. I fall over and am dragged right across the factory yard, over scrap iron and glass shards. My knees oozed pus for weeks after. I never see that other girl from behind the fence again, however much I look out for her, but I do have a scar on my right knee which reminds me of her to this day.
Finally the day comes which we’d anticipated, the day my mother has dreaded from the start. We don’t know how it’s come about, but the German authorities order us to be transferred to the Valka camp. The factory owner can’t do anything for us. He’s tried every avenue. As a farewell present he gives my mother a valuable antique brooch: a golden salamander with tiny emeralds flashing green on its back.
For some reason or other my parents never converted this piece of jewellery into cash, despite the very hard times we went through, and I wore it myself for a long time after the death of my mother, until at some point I lost it. But even today I still wonder who that brave German factory owner was, who broke the law by letting us live on his premises for almost five years. It was as if the precious brooch he gave my mother represented the compensation which should have been given by Friedrich Flick to the forced labourers who’d slaved away in his factories. I’ve forgotten the name of our mysterious benefactor if I ever knew it. When I set off on one occasion to search for clues and went to the place on the city boundary between Nuremberg and Fürth where our shed must once have stood, I found nothing left. The factory had disappeared. I saw only wholesale markets and dual carriageways, though the railway embankment from those days was still there, with trains rushing over it as they’d done back then.
The Valka camp was situated in the Nuremberg suburb of Langwasser and its barracks were used until 1938 as accommodation for participants at the Nazi party rallies with their great parades and flag consecration ceremonies. Later on, Soviet prisoners of war were also temporarily housed there. When we move in, the huts make up a small town with four thousand Displaced Persons, or DP’s, from thirty nations packed into it. Most of them have been there since the end of the war – four thousand people who don’t know what to do with their lives now that they’ve been saved. A few dozen languages are buzzing around, all mixed up together, and hardly anyone can speak German. There’s only one thing which everyone has in common here: their experience of forced labour in Hitler’s empire. The slave labourers, who’d been once so in demand, are now unemployed, the tiresome remnants of a war that’s been lost.
The American camp is named after Valka, the town on the border between Latvia and Estonia, but the Russians put an ‘S’ in front of the name and called it Svalka; in German: Müllhalde, rubbish tip. Like the Baltic Valka, the camp was divided in two until shortly before we arrived: up to 1949 important officials of the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, were interned in the eastern half, while the western half was used for DP’s. Victims and perpetrators lived almost next door to each other, in the shadow of the Nazi party rally grounds, now falling into disrepair, and like us, no longer needed. In the stone wasteland, beneath the gigantic tribune where Hitler had once held his speeches, American GI’s play rugby.
The Allies expected the freed slave labourers to be grateful and obedient, but that turned out to be a mistake. The work camp has robbed the DP’s of any belief in law and order in Germany, so they’re demoralised and still seen as aggressive and hard to control. The Valka camp is widely known and feared for its levels of anarchy and crime. It’s a melting pot of allied and enemy nations, a Sodom and Gomorrah, and has probably the worst reputation in the world. Everyone is on the hunt for a job, for some earnings, for a living. Every business you can think of, and some you may not want to think of, goes on there. Some comb through rubbish tips looking for scrap iron and other usable waste material, others smuggle duty free cigarettes, deal in pornographic pictures, in insulin or other medicines, break into sales kiosks at night, earn money as card sharps, make a living from theft and deception. There are constant arguments and fights, there are stabbings, murders, and suicides. All the German prejudices about the Slavs as savages are confirmed. The Nazi propaganda machine represented them as dangerous wild animals, sometimes with horns and tails. The Germans still fear that they’ll take revenge, though such acts rarely happen. The camp dwellers keep themselves to themselves in their own world, cut off from the Germans, apart from the police who are on 24-hour standby and carry out raids on an almost daily basis. Even my father is involved in some murky business which we’re not allowed to talk about. My mother lives in permanent fear of the police coming for us.
The DP’s receive three meals a day, which are served up in individual bowls and have to be collected from one of the distribution points. On top of that they receive a monthly sum of 12.50 DM as camp pocket money. They have electricity every two days, alternating between the wooden and stone huts. Each hut houses approximately thirty people and is fitted out with one toilet and one tap.
We live in one of the wooden huts together with mice and bedbugs, which torment us all night long. Whenever it rains, the water comes in through the leaking roof and we have to rush to find all the containers we can lay our hands on and put them beneath the leak. The window frame is warped so the window won’t shut properly, the oven doesn’t draw and gives off clouds of smoke. We’re cold and we cough all winter. I come down with most of my childhood illnesses during this time, from measles to mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough.
One image I have from the spotlight shining onto those days is that of my mother, pregnant. She’s not much more than thirty, but in my memory she seems old, faded and ill, with her hair parted in the middle and scraped back into a bun. She wears a green and white patterned dress, its uneven hem rising up in the front, raised up by her domed belly which looks like an outsized ball stuck on to her thin body. When I ask why she’s got such a big belly, I see her exchange a tiny conspiratorial smile with my father – a moment of intimacy between my parents and just about the only one that’s stayed in my memory. I’m not aware of ever having seen them put their arms round each other or exchange a kiss or any other show of affection. Since I slept in the same room with them throughout my childhood, I must usually have been there when they made what can hardly be called love in their case. But either they did it in such a way that I saw and heard nothing, or I found the goings on in the darkness of my parents’ bed so unnerving that my child’s brain immediately repressed it.
The noise in the Valka Camp is a daily torture for my mother. She can’t get used to it. In the work camp where my parents first lived on their arrival in Germany, the acoustics were probably kinder since everyone fell onto their bunks after an exhausting day’s work and went to sleep. In our Valka huts the people whose noisy lives we hear are those who have nothing to do all day and for the most part are suffering from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: insomnia, nightmares, anxiety attacks, irritability, depression, delusions, uncontrolled aggression, and many other things including all kinds of physical ailments, which quite a few DP’s died from even after the liberation. The small rooms in the huts hum with tension. There’s no such thing as speaking quietly: everyone has to shout in order to be heard above the pervasive, crashing waves of noise. There are constant arguments, loud wailing gives way to raucous laughter, you hear every word, every sneeze and sigh from your neighbour, the noises merge together into one huge, never-ending cacophony. Especially in winter and bad weather the long dark corridor is a children’s playground. They’re always being shooed away by someone on their way to the toilet or someone who has to fight their way through with their bucket to the only tap at the end of the corridor.
The noise makes my mother feel the lack of home even more deeply than she already does. She puts her hands over her ears, jumps up and runs out of the hut, where on top of the tortuous noise she’s assaulted by a constant stream of superstitious insults in Russian from a paranoid neighbour, an old Estonian woman shouting through the thin partition wall. For some reason this confused woman has projected all her images of the enemy on to my mother of all people, calling her a Communist, a Jewish whore, an American spy, a Nazi tart. My mother can’t stand up for herself, sometimes she cries all day, in fact she’s always crying. Her most serious illness is homesickness. It’s a constant torment, it seems to be like a thirst which never lets up but gets worse and worse, until one day you die of it.
For me the Valka camp is, above all, the place where I start German school. A photo of the first day at school marks the occasion: twenty–nine children standing in three rows with the shabby huts in the background. Two rows of girls, a row of boys in front, sitting cross legged in front of the girls. The children each have a Schultüte, a large card cone filled with sweets and given to German children on their first day at school – except for four of us, that is. One of them is me. The blondest of all, beaming in spite of the missing Schultüte.
It’s a camp school for camp children whose very first priority is to learn German. Because I was taught by my mother in the shed in the factory yard, I can read and write Russian when I start German school. I know the fables of Iwan Krylow and Samuil Marshak’s enchanting stories for children. I can recite at least a dozen poems by Alexander Pushkin and Alexei Tolstoy, but German is still a kind of background noise for me. That changes overnight when I start German school. The German words start lighting up for me, like sheet lightning – as if all these words had been slumbering somewhere inside me just waiting for the moment of awakening. The German language becomes a strong rope, which I grasp straightaway in order to swing myself onto the other side, into the German world. It’s out of my reach for the moment, but I know that it’s waiting for me, that one day I’ll be a part of it.
A language war breaks out between me and my parents. They refuse to understand my German. My father really doesn’t understand it, he’ll spend the rest of his days not understanding it, and my mother, who speaks German better than anyone else around me, doesn’t want to understand it. And I don’t want to understand her Russian, I want to have nothing more to do with her. There are constant arguments, she tries to hit me, but I get away and anyway her hands are much too feeble to hurt me. She has no power over me because I’m not afraid of her, I’m only afraid of my father’s hands. He rarely hits me and only does so as a last resort, when my mother hands me over to him. It’s the only weapon she’s got, the one threat which puts fear into me: I’ll tell your father. Sometimes she grants me a reprieve, if I ask in Russian, weeping, for my bad behaviour and lies to be pardoned, but usually the sentence is carried out in the evening when my father comes home – drunk as usual, after his clandestine activities. He’s a person who gets aggressive after drinking alcohol, so he’s happy to act on my mother’s grievance. He calls me cholera, parasitka, kretinka, and holds me fast with one hand while the other comes down on me like an axe. My mother is the judge and he is the executioner, the enforcer of the law.
Excerpted from Natasha Wodin, Sie kam aus Mariupol. Reinbek Verlag, Reinbek/Hamburg/Berlin, 2017.