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.