42 Im Dol Strasse (Part 2)

The following Monday morning an Army bus picked Eleanor and me up right outside our front gate and took us to our new school, the Thomas A. Roberts School on Im Gehege Strasse. Before the war it had been a German girls’ school, but now it served 107 American kids ranging in age from kindergarten through high school.

Once inside, a lady with a clipboard asked us our names, then led us into her office, asked more questions, and made some notes in a file. Another lady arrived and led Eleanor away. Then the first lady walked me down the hall to the second grade classroom, where eight other kids were already seated at their desks. “This is Patricia Murphy,” she said. “Patricia has come to us all the way from California. Please give her a warm welcome to our school.”

“Hello, Patricia,” they all said in singsong voices, eyeing me up and down.
My stomach churned. I was so nervous I could only give a little wave and try to smile. I walked quickly to the empty desk the teacher pointed out in the front row, trying my best to ignore the whispering going on behind me. Oh how I wish Cyntha Ellerby was here, I thought, twisting the little gold birthstone ring ’round and ’round on my finger.

At noon, we were each served a hot meal on a metal tray in the lunchroom. Another second-grader sat down next to me. “I’m the best reader in our class,” she announced.

We’ll see about that, I thought to myself.

This is a picture of the lunchroom. You can see Eleanor’s long, light grown hair at the second table from the front, facing away from the camera. I’m barely visible on the left side way at the back, looking up at the man.

After school each day, the same Army bus dropped Eleanor and me off directly across the street from our house. Skippy was always waiting for us at the gate.

Skippy and I explored up and down our street. Most of the homes had been destroyed, only the landscaping giving a hint of how grand they’d once been. One in particular had a magnificent garden. A thirty-foot-long formal reflecting pool extended from the pile of rubble that had once been a mansion to a vine-covered arbor, beneath which stood a life-sized marble copy of Michelangelo’s David. I loved to explore that garden, dreaming up stories about who had lived there. Although the pool was empty except for rainwater and debris, the nude David stood, unscathed, a reminder of what life had been like there in better days.

We were in school only a week before classes adjourned for Christmas vacation. As a special holiday treat, Daddy took us to the opera to see “Hansel and Gretel.” The Berlin Opera House had been damaged during the bombings, and though by late 1947 most repairs were complete, the building still had no heat. Undaunted, we bundled up in woolen trousers, coats, hats, and mittens. Frau Erdmann packed us a basket of cookies and thermos bottles of hot coffee and cocoa, and off we went, joining throngs of equally bundled-up German citizens crowding into the opera house for this welcome bit of Christmas tradition. The roles of Hansel and Gretel were sung by children not much older than Eleanor, but adults made up the rest of the cast. It was a good thing we already knew the story, because the singing was in German and we could understand only a few words. The music was lovely, though, and filled the old building all the way up to its ceiling.

Our live Christmas tree that year was small enough to squeeze into a corner of the music room. Instead of hanging tinsel one strand at a time—as had been our tradition back on Spaulding Avenue—Frau Erdmann popped corn for us. Using a needle and thread, we strung long garlands and draped them between the branches. For ornaments, Gertrude showed us how to make yarn dolls by wrapping colored yarn around a small book, carefully removing it, then tying bunches off with thread to form arms and legs and heads. With narrow red ribbon, we tied bows onto sterling silver coffee spoons, cocktail forks, and tiny individual salt spoons from the butler’s pantry and hung them on the tree, where they twinkled in the flickering firelight. Then we went to bed to await the arrival of der Weihnachtsmann, the German Santa Claus.

Christmas morning was both happy and sad. For the first time, there were only four of us. Skippy danced excitedly from one to another, and Frau Erdmann and Gertrude popped in to serve coffee and hot chocolate as we opened our presents. But I missed Grammy and all the aunts and uncles and cousins and the noise and chaos of our past family holidays. This celebration was much more formal, almost too quiet, too controlled, as though we were actors on a stage.

In addition to candy and other little toys in our stockings, Eleanor and I each received a doll, but found it hard to mask our disappointment. They were not the cuddly, pink-cheeked baby dolls with ruffled dresses, lacy bonnets, and their own bottles and diapers that we had asked Santa for. Instead, they were lifelike girl dolls with cloth bodies and real human hair and somber, hand-painted faces. Eleanor’s was taller, with long, light-colored braids, like Eleanor’s own hair. Mine had short, flaxen-blonde pigtails just like mine—except mine wasn’t long enough for pigtails—and a red dress with tiny white polka dots. Both had real leather shoes, white cotton socks, and one-piece cotton underwear with buttoned, drop-down flaps in the back to go to the bathroom through, the same kind that real German children wore.

Frau Erdmann explained that these were very special dolls, handmade by a German mother named Käthe Kruse, who before the war had created dolls for her own children and then, after the war was over, expanded her business in an effort to keep food on the table for her family. Frau Erdmann said the reason the dolls didn’t smile was that life in Germany was very hard now because of the war, and real children didn’t smile when their bellies were cramping from hunger.

We felt guilty. After our Christmas dinner, we left plenty of turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and buttered rolls for the night visitors.

Years later, I learned Mommy had purchased these dolls from a woman who came to the back door and offered them for sale. Maybe it was Käthe Kruse herself. The price paid: a pound of coffee and six eggs.

The “off limits” upstairs continued to pique our interest. There was a second, narrower stairway at the back of the house, but the door at the bottom was kept locked. Eleanor and I eventually discovered where the key was kept—in the back of a drawer in the butler’s pantry—and one lazy afternoon during Christmas vacation we decided to see for ourselves what was so special up there. Gertrude and Frau Erdmann had retired to their basement rooms for an afternoon nap, so we grabbed the key, carefully unlocked the forbidden door, and crept up the creaky wooden steps.

Along both sides of the upstairs hallway, larger rooms had been partitioned into smaller cubicles, each furnished with rusty iron cots. Ticking-striped mattresses, stained and dirty, were still rolled up on a few of them. There were two bare-bones bathrooms—nothing like the fancy one downstairs—rust-ringed toilet bowls now dry and stuffed with excelsior. A few odds and ends lay scattered about on the floor, and we examined each one: a stack of yellowed German-language newspapers; a ratty brown wool jacket with wooden buttons down the front and one arm ripped off at the shoulder; a pair of rusty scissors; a chipped earthenware bowl. One room had penciled numbers scrawled in vertical lines on the wall next to a cot, as though a soldier had recuperated there, counting the number of days until he could return to the battlefront—or until he died.

The room at the end of the long hallway was much larger than the others. Its big window allowed enough daylight in to illuminate dark crimson spots and spatters on the wooden floor. An operating room? Eleanor and I conjured up visions of torture and mayhem and whispered about arms and legs being chopped off. Frightened by our own imaginings, we raced back down the hall, down the stairs, locked the door behind us, and returned the key to its drawer. We never went up there again, nor did we confess our forbidden adventure to anyone. I never forgot it, though, and sometimes I wondered how many Russian soldiers had suffered, bled, and perhaps died in the upstairs rooms of the beautiful mansion on Im Dol Strasse.

42 Im Dol Strasse (Part 3)

In March, Daddy unexpectedly got new orders transferring him from Berlin to the Free Territory of Trieste, situated between Italy and Yugoslavia, where he would become part of another joint occupation force—British and American—charged with administering that defeated territory until the Allies could decide on its future. He left for Trieste in March, and we were to follow in late summer, once our new quarters there were completed and ready for occupancy.

After Easter vacation, Eleanor and I returned to school on a Monday, but I remember only sudden and awful heartbreak. That afternoon the school bus stopped in its usual spot, across the street from our house. Eleanor was first off the bus, and she ran across the street and opened the gate. Skippy had been waiting. He streaked out through the gate to greet me as I exited the bus. At that very second, a military jeep approaching from the opposite direction screeched as the driver slammed on his brakes. But it was too late. The jeep hit Skippy squarely and flung him toward me. He landed at my feet, his ear-splitting cries filling the air. Instinctively, I dropped to my knees and tried to take him in my arms, but, in mortal pain, he sank his sharp teeth into my wrist just above my left thumb. My blood spurted and mixed with his as he went limp and his short life ended. Franz buried him by the rose bushes in the backyard.

I was inconsolable. I cried and cried, my heart broken in a thousand pieces.
Frau Erdmann began making phone calls. Three days later, she accompanied Mommy and Eleanor and me out into the country to inspect a litter of boxer puppies. We chose a fawn-colored male, promptly named him Bozo, and in two weeks we went back to pick him up.

His tail and ears had been cropped, and his ears were still taped together on top of his head so they would stand up straight and tall once they healed. I hugged him and kissed him and played with him and shared my bed with him, and after a while my broken heart began to heal.

Several weeks later, Mommy got an unexpected phone call from a former Army colleague of Daddy’s, warning that the Russian communists, increasingly incensed with the rapid progress America and the other Allies were making toward democratic government in Germany, were threatening to close down Berlin. He told Mommy it would be wise for us to get out of the city and the Russian zone while we still could and to travel late at night, if possible, when the checkpoints would be more lightly garrisoned.

Mommy wasted no time. First, she called friends in Munich. Then, aided by Frau Erdmann, Gertrude, and Franz, she hurriedly packed our things and crammed them clear to the roof of the Standard Vanguard, leaving only enough room for a wiggling, barely housebroken boxer puppy and two young sisters who’d come to love Berlin.

“But what about my birthday party?” Eleanor wailed. “We already sent out the invitations, and everyone in my class is coming.”

“I’m sorry about your party, honey, but it can’t be helped. We have to go.”

The following evening, we were ready. Just as they had when we first arrived, Frau Erdmann, Gertrude, and Franz lined up along the front walk to tell us good-bye and wish us well. Gertrude and Franz showed little emotion, but Frau Erdmann hugged us tightly and dabbed at her eyes with her hanky as we climbed into the car.

Without further fanfare, we locked the doors and Mommy pulled away from the curb into the darkness, leaving behind forever the grand fairy castle at 42 Im Dol Strasse.

In less than an hour, we came to the gate separating the American sector of Berlin and the Russian zone of Germany. Guards on both sides examined our papers for twenty minutes before allowing us to pass. Once we entered the Russian zone, Mommy drove as fast as she dared, and at each checkpoint we came to, she waited—white-knuckled hands clutching the steering wheel—while heavily armed Soviet soldiers peered into our car windows, inspected our papers, and muttered among themselves in words we couldn’t understand. Mommy heaved a sigh of relief each time the guards raised their gates and allowed us to continue.

Once through the Russian zone and into the U.S. zone, she drove non-stop to Munich, to the home of family friends, where we all could finally relax. We were safe. A day later, Daddy came in from Trieste on a bus and drove us the rest of the way to our next new home.

We escaped from Berlin only two weeks before Eleanor’s tenth birthday—and only two weeks before Russian dictator, Josef Stalin, cut off all rail, road, and water communications to the city, with the aim of driving the Allies—the Americans, British, and French—out of the Russian zone of Germany. The Americans answered with a mission that came to be called the Berlin Airlift. For 318 days, hundreds of thousands of U.S. planes ferried more than two million tons of food and supplies—a flight landing every three minutes—to the Tempelhof Airport in the American sector and carried out German industrial exports. Finally, after nearly a year of privation and hardship, Stalin lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949.

Trieste (Part 1)

As we approached the city from the north, to our right stretched the Gulf of Trieste, blue and serene as far as the eye could see, while on our left bare limestone hills rose to meet an azure sky. The people of Trieste considered them mountains. We were from California, though, and had camped at Yosemite. We had also just driven through the majestic Alps of Germany and Switzerland. We knew better. These were hills, and not especially tall ones at that.

A few miles from our destination, on a rugged point jutting out into the gulf, Daddy pointed out the beautiful Miramare castle, shimmering in the sunshine. He explained it had once been the private residence of Austrian-born Archduke Maximilian and his wife Carlota, who in 1864 had been sent by Napoleon III, Emperor of France, to rule Mexico. Since the end of World War II, the castle had been serving as the headquarters of the American occupation forces in Trieste.

Now this was something interesting! Eleanor and I begged to stop and explore, but Daddy said we needed to check in at the hotel where we’d be living until August, when construction of our new quarters was complete. Miramare would have to wait.

The plain, boxlike Grande hotel, five stories tall and built of quarried limestone, filled a corner along Riva Tre Novembre, the busy avenue separating the hotel from the sprawling Trieste waterfront, where commercial ships from international ports were tethered at half a dozen ancient piers, spreading like fingers out into the sea. Again, Eleanor and I exchanged knowing glances, for only six months earlier we had crossed the vast Atlantic Ocean aboard a converted American troop ship just as big as any of these.

Our family occupied two adjoining rooms on the second floor of the hotel, toward the back. The rooms were drab and had no view, only the windowless wall of another boxlike building across the side street. But Daddy had chosen these rooms on purpose. The Grande didn’t allow pets, so we had to keep Bozo a secret and sneak him in under our coats through a side door and up a narrow stairway to the second floor. Eleanor and I had the smaller room, but it had two fluffy beds, plenty of room for us, and for Bozo too.

Mommy and Daddy fibbed their way out of any questions raised by his occasional noises: “A dog? Oh no, that was just the children playing!” or “Oh no, that was only the radio you heard.” But it was an iffy undertaking. We had to make certain we had Bozo out of the hotel before the maids came to clean each day, and that any evidence of his presence—food, bowls, a leash—was hidden away. The hotel personnel never caught on, or, if they did, they decided against making a fuss. After all, we were Americans, the victorious occupiers of their city, it was just a puppy, and the whole pesky lot of us would be gone soon.

On our very first weekend, Daddy hired a small launch to take us on an hour-long tour of the Gulf of Trieste. The day was windy and quite chilly, so Eleanor and I wore our brown coats with the zip-out linings that Mommy had sewn for us back in Berkeley, and we all—all except Daddy, of course—wrapped our hair in scarves. We motored north as far as Miramar castle and then circled back past the waterfront and beyond. Daddy kept shouting and pointing to indicate important landmarks, but the wind was so loud that we didn’t hear a word. We couldn’t keep from giggling at him moving his lips and waving his arms, like a silent scarecrow buffeted about in a hurricane .

During the six weeks we lived in the Grande hotel, downtown Trieste became our neighborhood. We explored every nook and cranny.

A block north of the hotel, the Canal Grande—just about everything in Trieste, it seemed, was called Grande something-or-other—cut its way inland for several blocks, ending abruptly at an impressive domed cathedral. The buildings housed cafés and shops below the homes of Trieste’s more well-to-do. Along both sides of the canal, brightly colored small boats bobbed gently on their mooring lines in the late afternoon, packed as tightly as sardines in a can, for protection from larger ships and the sometimes ferocious waves that slammed the waterfront when high winds—the Bora—blew in off the Gulf of Trieste.

A couple of blocks in the opposite direction was the Piazza Unità d’Italia, the horseshoe-shaped main square of Trieste, its north end open to Riva Tre Novembre, the waterfront, and the sea. A pyramid-shaped fountain, covered all over with strange carved stone figures, rose at its center. Water trickled from the top of the pyramid into a shallow pool below, where in the late afternoons the locals sometimes removed their shoes and soothed their feet in its coolness while their children played nearby.

Looking inland from the sea, the ornate white building that housed Daddy’s office was located on the right side of the square. Inset on the far corners of the front façade, arched alcoves protected marble statues of ten-foot-tall, bare-breasted women. Eleanor and I were already familiar with the replica of Michelangelo’s David that stood in the bombed-out rubble across the street from our house in Berlin, but at least that naked man had a fig leaf you couldn’t peek under. These women were completely bare from the waist up. We first gawked at their perfect marble breasts, then giggled, then finally looked away, embarrassed.

On the opposite side of Piazza Unità sat another huge limestone building, and at the back of the square Trieste’s municipal offices occupied the most ornate building of all. In between were a fancy hotel, more shops, and several sidewalk cafés, where Daddy often bought us gelato to enjoy as we sat at wrought-iron tables and watched the people and the pigeons. I always shared the last of my cone with Bozo.

The piazza itself was paved in twenty-foot-square concrete sections set on the diagonal. Watching the Italian kids playing, Eleanor and I quickly picked up on their game. Groups of a dozen or more would trot closely behind one another, their arms spread wide like soaring eagles as they zigzagged their way across the piazza, scattering pigeons, careful that every footfall landed on a crack separating the paving sections. If you missed the crack and got caught, you had to go back to the end. Being first in line when you reached the far side of the piazza meant winning! Bozo always whined and strained at his leash. He wanted to play too, so before long we’d join in. Bozo always had a great time, but he wasn’t very good at keeping his feet on the cracks.

Mommy became a regular at the fascinating antique shops tucked away on side streets and down the narrow alleys of Trieste. Her favorite was Milazzi’s, where she bought the nineteenth century Capo di Monte porcelain trinket box that would sit centered on her dresser for the next half century. I loved Milazzi’s so I sometimes went along, but the lady in charge always watched me like a hawk to be sure I didn’t break anything. Or maybe she thought I’d slip something into my pocket without paying.

One day, after a snack and a good romp at the Piazza Unità, Daddy led us up the hill to San Giusto, the ruins of a castle dating back to the Roman Empire. Rows of once-grand marble columns marched across the terrace in front of the main ruin, but they were now jagged, of different heights, as though a diabolical giant had stormed through, swinging his destructive mallet in all directions. We inspected the beautiful gold mosaics inside the cathedral and the ancient stone artifacts inside the castle museum—Daddy droning on and on like a teacher, telling us all about the Romans. In the coming months, we sometimes returned to hear operatic arias at the outdoor amphitheater next to San Giusto.

Back down the hill, Daddy decided to show us another ancient cathedral that was supposed to house some famous paintings. Mommy tied Bozo’s leash to an iron bench near the front entrance, and we stepped inside the dark foyer. But immediately he began to whimper, then yip, and finally to howl at the top of his puppy lungs. Soon people were staring and clucking among themselves. It was a very short tour, and we left in a hurry, without seeing a single painting.

After trudging the six long blocks back to the Grande hotel, Mommy wrapped Bozo in her jacket and we sneaked up the narrow back stairs to our rooms. He didn’t make a peep. I gave him a drink of water from the sink in the corner, boosted him up onto my bed, and we all settled down for an afternoon nap, Bozo snoring his soft puppy snores.

When we awoke, we showered, dressed for dinner, sneaked Bozo back down the stairs, and walked a couple of blocks to our favorite restaurant. Leaving him alone in our room was out of the question. He would have made a terrible ruckus. And besides, this was Europe! Well-trained doggies may not have been allowed in hotels or cathedrals, but they were welcome in all but the fanciest restaurants. Bozo generally behaved himself, and after a half dozen choice tidbits from my plate, he’d snooze peacefully under the table until we finished our meal.

After dinner each evening, we’d stroll up and down the waterfront until well after dark, watching as the moon rose, a million stars appeared, and the lights from the piers and the tethered ships danced on the inky water.

At the end of six weeks, Trieste truly felt like home, but we were tired of sneaking in and out of the Grande hotel and were anxious to move into our own house.