The prologue of Twenty-Three Years: Childhood, War, Escape highlights a number of the main themes that run throughout the memoir. Namely, these include:
- the importance of family
- the atrocities committed by the Nazis
- the evolution of an adolescent girl from living an idyllic life to a woman transformed by the travesties of war
Her experiences in this excerpt are similar to those of Kristallnacht, though they did not occur on the same night. The memories are horrific and set the stage for what one can expect in the remainder of the memoir.
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A Night of Shattered Naïveté: Neu Bentschen, October 1938
Klomp! Klomp! Klomp!
Klomp! Klomp! Klomp!
“What’s that noise? What can it be?”
Klomp! Klomp! Klomp!
“It sounds like marching.”
“At 9 o’clock at night?”
This is October.
Who would be marching at this time of night, on this dreary night? The day had been gray and hazy, the cold penetrating. We were all sitting in the living room as we did most evenings. Mutti (mother) was reading a book – she liked Theodor Storm’s novellas – but as usual, she had already nodded off and was entertaining us with her snoring and comical jerking. We always made fun of her when she was in that state. Katë, my sister, and I were knitting our sweaters and talking to Vater (Dad) about school. The blue Dutch tile stove that stood in the corner was giving off its last warmth for the day.
Klomp! Klomp! Klomp!
“Shsh! Quiet!” Vater said. “Listen! Can you hear? It’s very close – must be right outside. Käte, go look out the dining room window and see what’s going on!”
Vater continued, as if in deep thought, “I can’t imagine anything happening here tonight. Haven’t heard anything at school or in town.”
Some light from the railroad track area not far from the house peeked through the curtains. As Käte was straining her eyes, she could perceive dark masses moving on Bahnhofstraße. The masses were coming from the railroad station and proceeding toward the cemetery down the road. Käte rushed in. “Come quickly! There are lots of people walking out there! Mutti, wake up! Something is going on outside. Let’s go and see!”
Nobody needed to remind Käte and me to put on a warm coat and a hat. We were anxious and fearful. I was scared. Stepping outside into the fresh autumn night felt like walking into a wet cave. The slight drizzle and fog enveloped us. I felt like crawling deeper into myself to be protected from the eeriness that surrounded me.
We now heard voices, shouting and moaning, crying out. Nothing stood between our house on Hermann Göring Straße and Bahnhofstraße, less than one hundred feet away.
As we walked slowly toward the moving masses, we noticed other townfolk alongside Bahnhofstraße. Enough light was shed from streetlamps and the rail network that lay just beyond the fence on the other side of the street to recognize people.
We all stared in disbelief, speechless, our mouths gaping. Is this real? Are we all dreaming? Who are these people? Where did they come from? Where were they going?
The big-mouth boy from school was standing not far from us, shouting and laughing gleefully: “Look at the big noses! Look at those hook noses!”
But there was nothing to laugh about or to laugh at.
It was heartbreaking.
Along the street lay suitcases and bags, the contents often spilled out on the wet pavement: shoes, scarves, hats. Yes, those were someone’s belongings, too heavy to carry on the long march, dropped in despair or abandoned in order to carry an exhausted toddler.
A middle-aged man with two heavy suitcases stopped. He put one down, trying to get a better grip, but his hands were wet and it slipped away and was kicked to the side of the road by one of the men in uniform. One last desperate attempt to reach it – no use! A blow with the Billy club on his back moved him along. One more begging, longing glance, and his last treasure was gone forever. Stooped over, resigned to his fate, he shuffled along.
A man not many steps behind him seemed smarter; he used a large handkerchief and tied his two suitcases together, slinging them over his shoulder. Plonk! Plonk! Both fell to the ground. Quickly he picked them up, moved a few paces. I heard some folks laughing – laughing! I felt tears rush to my eyes. Can his tie that he took off work? Yes! He doubled it, and it should hold. I wondered how long and how far it would last.
And over on the other side of the street, an old man could hardly get his legs to move anymore. He sank down by the curb. A kick from a cruel SS (Schutzstaffel, literally “protection squadron”, the paramilitary organization) soldier in spit-shined black boots sent the man sprawling. “Move!” the soldier yelled. The old man could not move, and he was left by the side of the street.
Screaming, moaning, crying, an unimaginable sight of people – humans – herded like cattle to Hell. Another Billy club whacked down on another innocent soul. “Keep moving! Leave the shit! Move! Move!”
I hated those uniformed men with their black knee boots and breeches. They were despicable, a disgrace. My heart bled. My parents were too shocked to utter a sound. “Come” was all they could utter, and we went home crying.
Long did I lie sleepless that night, crying, unable to comprehend what I had seen. The klomp klomp klomp droned on and on.
The horrors of that night in the fall of 1938 are forever vivid in my mind. It could have happened today. At age ten it was the first psyche-shattering experience of my life. And as I lay in my bed crying that night, the memories of my happy childhood began moving like a film in front of my eyes, a small comfort that did not last.
Back to the Beginning – Discussing the Prologue of Twenty-Three Years: Childhood, War, Escape
In the excerpt, you certainly noticed a couple of telling things.
- Even during one of the most harrowing periods of history my grandmother’s family remained steadfastly together. Their strength as a unit is something that stretches throughout the memoir.
- Not all Germans saw the Nazi terror coming and even fewer supported it. The SS and their shiny boots were evil, but one had to be constantly wary of what a neighbor might hear or do. You could be turned in to the authorities for any number of things – even listening to BBC radio at 2 am.
- The tone of the book is written as the memories of a young girl matured by the waging of war. Eve Monk was able to slip back to the memories of her adolescent self and recall the atrocities she witnessed with surprising clarity. You will be constantly questioning whether what you’re reading is written by a ten-year-old girl or a ninety-two-year-old woman.
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