© Jasper Dorgan
YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
A Good War
Papa had a good war. This I can see now.
But for many in Regensburg the war was not so kind.
It was kind in the beginning. In the early days. Then it was all fine like a happy party and the people were always laughing and excited with the new cheeses and the fine clothes and gold topped bottles of champagne and bright coloured bicycles that appeared in the streets as if by magic. They came from countries far away, like France and Holland. I looked them up in my geography prepper. I read the sing-song names of the towns and cities and learned of the peoples who now shared with us their silver-buckled shoes of the most supple leather and fine linen scarves that kissed at the neck like soft air and the cream cakes that you could mine with your tongue until your cheeks drowned in sweet berried jam. In the good times there was always music in the houses and the fields were heavy with beet and the orchards sagged with fruit and there was always beer in the cellars of Hoffenstrasse.
Every morning at twenty past eight Herr Hinkelmann would stride past our house on his way to his work at the brewery. It was his brewery. He had a big moustache like a squirrel's tail and wore a fur-collared coat and a horn-handled walking stick which he swung to the pavement before him as if it was a third leg. He would lift his green feathered hat in cheery greeting to my Papa who always stood at our door waiting for him out of courtesy.
“A fine business day for beer, Herr Gunther,” Herr Hinkelmann would say. “And good business for you too, eh!” he would add with a laugh that roared.
Papa would always smile and nod but he never replied. He knew business would be good. It always was. When Herr Hinkelmann had disappeared from view Papa would clutch his sleeve in his lifted fist and with a couple of pants like a steam train he would rub a shine on the small brass plate at the door. Etched on the plate in curled writing were the words, Herr Dieter Gunther, the finest mortician in Regensburg.
My Papa was a quiet man. Frau Hindendorf said that this was because he was respectful. You had to be respectful to be the finest mortician in Regensburg. Even when you were burying poor people. Burial was a respectful business and my Papa was always thoughtful of others. Even if the others were dead. Or if they had no money and no family. My Papa would still bury them respectfully. With Herr Braberg at his side in his top hat. But Papa also buried all the rich and important people in Regensburg. This was because he had four Daimlers and four black plumed horses and a shiny ebony carriage and because he was the finest mortician in the city. Frau Hindendorf knew these things. She was very clever. She could make fine meals from bacon and cabbage and kept our house very clean although I hardly ever saw her dusting or polishing or beating the carpets over the yard wall. She had a room on the top floor above mine but I never heard her radio playing although I know she listened to it at night. And I never heard her floorboards creak like mine did even though she was bigger than Herr Braberg who drove the Daimler hearse and could lift it off its wheels with his bare hands. Frau Hindendorf came to live with us after my mother had died trying to bring my brother into the world. Papa buried them both with great respect.
“Did you help Mama and baby to heaven?” I had asked Papa.
Papa smiled in his sad way and took my hand.
“No, Gretchen” he said. “I just made them tidy. Like putting a book back on its shelf after you have read it. Mama and baby are not in heaven. They are closer than that. They are here on our shelves. We can get them down whenever we want.”
“But what happens to people when they die?” I asked.
“They just die,” said Papa. “There is no more. And there is nothing you or anyone can do to help them anymore. Except to remember them.”
“Like all the tombstones and epitaphs and flowers?”
“They are only stones and words. The only meaningful epitaph is how you have lived your life. What you have done. Who you have helped,” said Papa.
“Frau Hindendorf says you are the best mortician in Regensburg,” I said.
“Well, you know Gretchen, I think I must be,” said Papa. “because I have never once had any complaints from my customers.”
Papa could be very funny sometimes.
Although the war was good Papa still lost all his workers. They left to become soldiers, except Herr Braberg who was too big for the uniforms and because his lungs were still sick from the last war. It was hard to find new workers because the war was good and exciting and being a mortician’s help wasn’t, because you had to have so much respect. So Papa and Herr Braberg worked alone for a while.
Even though the war was good the people of Regensburg continued to die and Papa and Herr Braberg worked very long days and nights. There were many funerals for soldiers who had died even though the war was good because even good wars have casualties. And even though the war was far away the world didn’t forget Regensburg because its old people still died and its sick sometimes did not get better. And sometimes even children died. Papa was respectful to them all and Herr Hinkelmann would salute his good business with a cheery waved stick at twenty past eight every morning.
Sometimes the people of Regensburg stopped dying long enough for Papa to walk with me to school or to sit by my side in the parlour and read together or to take afternoon walks in the park where we would often see the boy soldiers marching and the army trucks parading with field-guns on shiny black tyres. He liked to walk with me or to read and he would become quite happy and playful but he was always quiet and far away when we watched the soldiers. He would put his arm around my shoulders and pull me inside his warm coat.
We were watching the soldiers in the park one day when there were two sudden bangs and the sound of a waterfall of glass and the streets became full of young men in smart uniforms running and whooping. We could see black smoke clouds rising from Lindenstrasse where the diamond shops were and where Herr Franks had his tailoring shop where Papa bought all his finest mortician clothes. Papa hurried me away home and we sat and read together in the parlour. Although Papa didn’t really read at all. He listened while I read and forgot to correct me when I made a mistake. But I did not make many mistakes. I am a good reader.
Late that evening while I lay in bed I heard the telephone ring loud in the hallway and after a whispered talk that I couldn’t hear Papa left the house by the side door. I tiptoed my special silent path over the solid bedroom boards to my window and saw him walking in a hurry away down the alley with Herr Braberg at his side and with his special top hat case in his hand. Papa did not return until dawn.
Herr Danzer taught us history and civilisation at school. He had grey hair that swept long behind his ears and had elbow patches on his jacket that were of different colours. Wolfgang Becker said that Herr Danzer was too old to teach history because real history was all happening now. Wolfgang’s father was a soldier with the Afrika Corps and had won two medals. He told us that gypsies were putting sand in the diesel tanks of our Panzers and that is why our army had stopped advancing. Wolfgang is a very handsome boy but he is not very clever. I am not a pretty girl, not like Hetta and Stephie, but I am clever. I think that is why Herr Danzer likes me. One day I am going to be a musician. Or a mortician. I haven’t decided yet.
Herr Danzer liked to teach us about the times and civilisations of the Greeks and ancient Rome and of the Renaissance and the abolition of the slavery in England. But the Principal had come into the class one day with two men wearing long overcoats even though it was summer and they took our books of Rome and African slaves away and gave Herr Danzer new books to teach. So we learned about how Germany was going to be an empire for a thousand years and how we could be good and loyal citizens. Herr Danzer did not like the new teaching but he did it because he was told to by the Principal and because he was only a teacher.
But Herr Danzer would still sometimes tell us stories about Roman times and Greek heroes because he thought they were interesting. Wolfgang said that Herr Danzer was being a spy.
And then one day the police arrived at our school and came into the class and took Herr Danzer away. He did not even have time to put his jacket on and it hung on the back of his chair the next day until the Principal removed it and gave it to the janitor to put in the furnace of the school boiler.
Even though the war was not bad, it was not so good either because our army had stopped advancing and winning battles. But the map on the school wall still showed how big Germany had become and we still had cheeses and cakes of jam and wind up music cabinets in the streets. And Papa was still very busy.
But he was never busy on Thursday evenings because that was the time that Herr Willy and Professor Baum would visit Papa and they would play cards together in the private office. Frau Hindendorf would prepare a tray of cold meats and bread and glasses of schnapps and the door would be locked so that the men could be private. Frau Hindendorf said it was because they were talking men talk and it was not for the ears of ladies and young girls. But I never heard Papa ever say anything that I should not hear. He was always respectful.
Frau Hindendorf did not like Herr Willy because she had bought a machine from him for cleaning the carpets that didn’t work and he would not give the money back but gave her a book of vouchers for Hellman’s Fashion House instead. But the vouchers were forged and Frau Hindendorf had to pay for the corsets herself.
Professor Baum was a small and elderly man with kind eyes and always had a smile somewhere nearby, even though his wife and son had died when the war was still good. He liked to talk with me before they settled to cards and the door was locked. His son had played the violin and he was pleased that I wanted to be a musician too because the world could never have music enough. When I told him about Herr Danzer he was very sad. When he arrived the very next Thursday and I had met him as usual in the hallway to help hang up his coat he pulled a small book out of his pocket and gave it to me with a smile and a secret wink. It was a book about Plato.
“Let us remember Herr Danzer, eh Gretchen?” he said. Professor Baum would bring me little books every Thursday. After I had read them I would keep them in a lock box under my bed. So they could be still be around me and I could pull them out whenever I wanted.
There was great excitement when the trucks full of wood and wire and soldiers came to Regensburg and Wolfgang said that the city was going to be made into a castle but Papa told me it was so that a special camp could be built beyond the Schaffenfell woods.
“What camp?” I had asked.
Papa had looked at me with sad eyes and pulled me to his chest.
“It is a camp for foreign nationals, Gretchen. To see that they don’t come to any harm.”
“Why would we harm them when they give us their cheeses?” I asked.
“War makes people forgetful.” Papa said. “That is why we must try and remember.”
One day three men in fur-collared overcoats and a long hooded car with flags at the windows came to call on Papa. I opened the door to them and one of them bent down and ruffled my hair.
“Is Herr Gunther the mortician in?” he asked. “And you must be his little Gretchen.”
Papa took them into the private office and Frau Hindendorf rushed away to prepare a tray of iced tea and schnapps for the guests. When she took them in the glasses were tinkling hard on the tray and her face was pale. I was nervous too because the man had known my name.
So I crept down the side corridor and hid behind the curtain where the top window in the side office door was open and I could hear. But it was nothing. The three men were from the City Council and they talked to Papa about business. They wanted him to provide his services at the new camp. They told him it was because he was the finest mortician in Regensburg. Papa told them that he was very busy but they would not give way and told him that it was work of national importance. So Papa had to agree and I heard the glasses chink and then the men got back in their big car.
When I heard the front door clunk at night I would creep to my window to see Papa and Herr Braberg walk down the short drive and get into a car with flags on the hood and drive away for the camp. I heard the night door clunk two or three times a week. Sometimes Papa was not back in time to nod to Herr Hinkelmann. So I would wave to him instead from the doorstep and tell him that Papa was doing work of national importance. Herr Hinkelmann would roar his laugh and swing his stick.
“Good business, indeed!” he would say. And when he had gone I would huff on the brass plate like Papa and make it shine.
The war was still good because one day Papa came home and gave me a violin and a bow and told me it was because I was his special girl. It was a violin that belonged to a boy called Simon who couldn’t play it any more because he was dead but he had wanted me to have it.
“It’s like his tombstone,” Papa had said.
I was very happy to have a violin and I practised every day in my room. Frau Hindendorf said it was like living in a house full of alley cats but I did get better and Simon would have been pleased I think.
It was also a good war because it brought us Mark and Stephan to help Papa with the business and Fraulein Hoven to help with all the paperwork. The war made dying complicated and there were now lots more forms and certificates for dead people to fill in. Many people visited our house to arrange funerals and sign papers and Fraulein Hoven would see them in the private office. She was very efficient and kind and gentle. The people would usually call in the evening after they had finished their work and Papa and Fraulein Hoven would meet them at the side door under the big hedge because they were sad and didn’t want everyone to know that they might cry. When they left they were not so sad any more and would thank Papa with hugs and tears of happiness. Because he had been so respectful.
Mark and Stephan were soldiers who had come to Regensburg because the guns had made their heads hurt and they could no longer be soldiers. But they were also useful because Mark once worked as a blacksmith and Stephan knew about carpentry and Papa told me that he was going to convert one of the back outhouses to a smithy so that they could make shoes for the horses and build coffins, instead of buying them from Herr Finkel. Herr Finkel and Frau Finkel and Gustav their son who played the piano at our school concert had all been taken away by train because they were Jews and therefore spies. So making our own shoes and coffins would be good for business. But I would not be allowed to go in the smithy because it would be a hot and dangerous place for little girls.
Mark and Stephan were very quiet and thin and shared the top attic room like brothers and made their hair straw coloured with a pot of dye they kept in the scullery. Mark told me that straw hair was the latest fashion, but it hadn’t reached Regensburg yet. He swore me to keep it a secret. So I did.
Papa’s night time visits to the camp kept him very tired. He had stopped taking his special top hat case with him and had bought himself a smart leather case with locks to take with him instead. One night when he had returned home just after midnight I crept down to the parlour and snuggled up with him on the big chair.
“I am sorry Gretchen. I am just too tired to read tonight,” he said. He wrapped me to him under his arm. His breath smelled of schnapps and his jacket of hospitals. He rested his cheek on my head.
“You are very busy at the camp,” I said.
Papa did not say anything
“War is good for making business.” I said.
“No, Gretchen,” said Papa “War is only good for making orphans.”
“If business is good Papa, why do we not have much money? You could get a horn-topped cane like Herr Hinkelmann. And I could get a small piano and play you music for when you are tired.”
“We have money enough for our needs,” said Papa. “It is selfish to take more.”
Papa fell asleep in the chair. It was only later when I was lying in my bed that I found that the top of my head was all wet.
The next morning I got up early, even before Frau Hindendorf. I had decided I would help Papa by making him his favourite salami sandwich for his lunch and put it in his case as a surprise. While Papa slept in his chair I opened his new leather case. There was no flattened top hat inside. The case was full of odd things. A pair of rubber handled pliers. A muslin face mask. A small but very sharp-toothed saw. A little eyepiece magnifying glass and several pairs of thin rubber gloves wrapped in a roll.
I closed the case and decided to take the salami sandwich back to my room.
Mark and Stephan worked late into the night making horseshoes in the smithy. From my bedroom window I could see the glow of the furnace ooze orange under the big heavy metal doors and hear the sounds of clanking hammers and the hiss of hot metals in water. Papa would return from his busy day burying people and, if there were no people to meet at the side door, would often help Mark and Stephan in their work. Sometimes Herr Willy would come and leave with a small sack of horseshoes to sell to farmers. Papa would even visit the smithy after he had been to the camp. But all he ever carried was his leather case.
And then the war was not so good because the gypsies had put rocks in the guns and Zionists had taken all the marks from the banks and our armies could not fight properly. Regensburg became full of wounded soldiers and the music boxes were sold for diesel and bread and the beer was expensive in the Hoffenstrasse.
The flow of people to our door increased and Fraulien Hoven tried to be kind and efficient but she was often tired and she cried a lot when she thought that no one was watching.
After school one day I was followed home along the Billenstrasse by a tall man in a bright black leather jacket. He stopped me and asked if I knew the way to Herr Gunther’s house. I laughed and told I did and he bought me a cream cake for telling him. He was a kind man and said he had a daughter just like me and asked me all about Papa and I told him that Papa was the finest mortician in Regensburg. And when he bought me lemonade I told him about all the people who came to our house just so that he knew how fine a mortician Papa was. When I told Papa of the man he was cross in a quiet way and told me I was not to talk to strangers and that Frau Hindendorf would walk to school with me everyday.
Then one day we knew that the war was bad because we saw the American planes flying high and silent in the sky like lazy faraway geese and the orchards were ploughed up for potatoes and nobody listened to music on the radio any more. Papa told me that the war was going badly. But he said all wars go badly because that is what wars do. Papa and I and Stephan and Mark would watch the night-time skies from the top attic room window. Every night it seemed that the sky flickered with orange and red balls of light and the air smelled of wet clay and bonfires. We could hear the far away booms and cracks of bombs from invisible planes.
“It is closing in,” said Papa. “Our war is coming home.”
It came home to Regensburg late one afternoon when Papa and everyone else was out of the house. It was a sunny afternoon and I was practising my violin when a bomb exploded in Munchstrasse which was the next street along. The windows in my bedroom snapped back on the blast and I was pushed onto my bed and sat on my violin. The violin broke into pieces. I looked out of the window to see a huge tower of smoke rising from over the roofs and saw that part of the smithy roof had collapsed and the metal door had been buckled. I could hear people screaming and crying a long way away. I went down to check the smithy. The furnace was not lit and the tools had been thrown over the floor from the walls. I started to tidy up and opened a drawer of a large metal cabinet and it was full of golden rings. Hundreds of golden rings. Rings with the precious stones taken out. And when I opened another drawer I found it was full of silver chains and lockets and bracelets. In another larger drawer a crystal lake of diamond and ruby and green stones sparkled on my gaze.
I closed the drawers and returned to my room.
The bomb was good for business because seven people had died. Papa and Herr Braberg were very busy for many days with burials and Stephan and Mark worked every evening to get the smithy working again and the metal door repaired. The American and English planes came back every night and I slept in the cellar with Frau Hindendorf and Fraulein Hoven.
And then the war became really bad because two big men in uniforms and unbuttoned holsters came to the house and asked Papa to go with them to the police headquarters on Katenstrasse. Papa lifted me up in his arms and gave me a hug and left with the two men. He did not have time to put his overcoat on. I waited until it was dark but Papa did not come back.
I never saw my Papa again.
Fraulien Hoven was quickly on the telephone and Herr Willy and Professor Baum soon arrived by the side door and began hurriedly to clear out all the papers from Papa’s desk and to burn them in the smithy furnace. Herr Willy brought his car to the side alley and loaded it with sacks of horse shoes.
When a long hooded black car pulled up in the street Professor Baum and everyone disappeared down the side alley. Two big soldiers marched into the room and Frau Hindendorf pulled me close to her apron. More soldiers rushed in and started opening all the drawers and cupboards in the house. One came up to Frau Hindendorf and stood watching her for a while. Then he told us that Papa had been shot because he was traitor to Germany and had helped the enemies of the state. Frau Hindendorf and I did not cry. And our hands did not shake. But inside I was like my broken violin.
When the soldiers had gone the others came back to check we were all right. Professor Baum told Frau Hindendorf to pack a small case for herself and me and to get out of Regensburg. Frau Hindendorf emptied Papa’s new leather case onto the floor and packed some of my clothes into it. Professor Baum gave me a new school satchel so that I could take my books away too. While we were packing Stephan and Mark returned and Professor Baum told them that Papa had been shot. Stephan and Mark ran from the house as if they were being chased by bees.
Frau Hindendorf took me to her sister’s farm in the country which was many miles from Regensburg. There the war was also bad but it was bad everywhere. All the people were tired of the war and wanted it to end. So that they could grow beet in the fields again and plant new orchards of fruit. Everywhere there were soldiers come home from the war but they did not want to wear their uniforms and soon there were American and English soldiers with bright boots marching among them and telling us what to do and where to go. They played dance band music and passed out chewing gum and searched our houses for spies.
I read my books and tried to remember the smell and warmth of Papa’s inside coat and to forget the drawers full of jewels and the case full of pliers and sharp toothed saws. But it was hard.
And then the war was dead and Professor Baum came to visit me. He told me that I was to go to school again and that he was going to take me to be a pupil at the Regensburg School for Orphans. Frau Hindendorf was to be the school matron. Professor Baum took us in his small car back to Regensburg. The city was broken and smashed and the streets full of rubble and people pushing prams full of wood. We drove to a part of the city that had escaped ruination and pulled up in front of a large and newly rebuilt school of many windows and wide grounds of grass and trees that stretched down to the river. Professor Baum took me around the school. The desks were newly made from forest wood. There were dormitories for girls and boys with new beds and two pillows and a large hall for eating and a room for teaching music which had many violins and a large piano.
“And of course,” said Professor Baum, “no school can be complete without this!” and he pushed on a large oak door which swung open to reveal a huge room ranked high with shelves and shelves and shelves of books.
Then Professor Baum took my hand and guided me to the fireplace in the great library wall.
“But this, Gretchen, is our most prized book of all.” he said.
He raised his hand to the carved wooden board on the chimney breast.
This school is dedicated to the most respectful memory of, was written in bright gold lettering. And on the small, familiar brass plate below it read:
Herr Dieter Gunther, the finest mortician in Regensburg.
I clean the plate every morning with a huff and a fisted sleeve rub.
Papa had a good war.