In England middle-class families frequently send their children to boarding school in term time but bring them back into the bosom of the family for vacations. For us, when I grew up in Germany, it worked the other way round. I was sent to the Kinderheim (childrens’ home) Witkowsky for my vacation.
They made no fuss of me when I arrived. Why should they? I was just one of several boys newly arrived for the holiday season. I was sent to sit at one of the lower tables – an all-boys’ table. I was nine. There we boys could lark about. Food could easily be swopped. I hated fatty meat. My neighbour hated Rote Gruetze – a red fruit pudding. I liked it. We negotiated an exchange.
All that had to stop when the owner-manager of this childrens’ pension came back from her vacation. I was promoted immediately to the top table and seated right next to Miss Witkowsky herself.
“This is Margot’s son,” she announced to the assembled children. “It’s the first time we’ve had a second generation child here. His mother first came some 30 years ago and after that came back year after year. A very well-behaved girl. We all hope her son will live up to her example. Don’t we?”
“Jawohl,” they answered in unison.
“However,” she continued “I’m very very sad to see, already, that he is ‘burying’ food. Here“- and she faced me – “we eat everything on our plate!”
Having been moved to the top table I was under far too close an observation to negotiate food swops but I had, at the end of the meal, hidden fatty cut-offs under my knife and fork – to be taken away with my plate.
There are situations when it is good to avoid being noticed. I had been noticed.
Over the next two weeks she repeatedly told the assembly what an exemplary child my mother had been. The implication was I wasn’t living up to her example.
I could not cope with fat. I can’t, even now, over 80 years later. But she made me force it down. Once out of sight I made for the toilet and spat or vomited it out.
Mealtimes were agony. Fortunately other times at the Kinderheim Witkowsky could be fun.
The home was surrounded by a pine forest strewn with rocks and we used these to build enclosures and called them our castles. We split into gangs, each with its own castle.
Sometimes we went on long hikes, once even up to the Schneekoppe, 1,600 m – the highest peak in the range. Mists surprised us, but we made it to the inn at the summit and had a meal there – and nobody fussed about my having to eat up everything on my plate.
This mountain range divides what was then German Silesia from Czech Bohemia. The crest of the range is the border. It is known as the Riesengebirge – which most people will tell you means ‘giant mountains’ and it is thus translated into Czech. But I know better. My first infant school teacher, Herr Lerche, had told us “Riese” has two meanings and it is the second that gives the range its name. It is the traditional term for the crescent-shaped excavations down the side of the mountains to slide logs to sawmills in the valley. I believed implicitly what Herr Lerche taught us and I do so still.
At the Kinderheim Witkowsky I was taught other matters that I can no longer believe. One of our room-mates called Wolf informed us – and we were spellbound – how babies were created. A rubber hose was required. He had found a packet of such rubber tubes in his father’s bedside table. They were used, he explained, to transfer male urine into a female. Thus were babies created.
There were other important issues discussed in our dormitory.
“Catholic, Protestant or Jew? Which are you?” we asked each other.
One boy surprised us: “None of all these. My family are dissidents!”
He tried to explain. “We don’t believe in any of those religions.”
” You’re a heathen then?”
He denied it.
“I have a magic lantern slide at home” said another, “it shows missionaries converting the heathens. They’re all black and naked.”
“How did they manage to bleach you?” one boy quizzed him.
“Was it the missionaries who made you wear pants?”
Before long the little boy was weeping and protesting he was not at all like that magic lantern slide.
I remember feeling sorry for him but not knowing what a dissident was, could not speak in his defence. Probably I didn’t have the guts either.
When my parents came to collect me – they had been holidaying only a few miles away – I declared I wasn’t going back to Witkowsky’s and force-feeding … ever. And if they made me, I’d go on hunger strike. I would. I’d starve myself to death. Yes, I would. They’d be sorry.
That was one battle I won.