Lilly: May 1940
For me the war began, not with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, but with my father’s lie. I was seven at the time, a skinny thing with pigtails and bony knees, dressed in my mother’s lumpy hand-knitted sweaters, a girl who loved her father more than anything.
It was May of 1940, my favorite time of year when the air is filled with the smell of cut grass and lilacs, promising excursions to town and the cafes in the hilly land I called home.
Like any other weekend, my father came home that Friday carrying a heavy briefcase of folders. Only this time, he flung his case in the corner of the hallway like it was a bag of garbage. You have to understand. My father is a neat freak, a man who keeps himself and everything he touches in absolute order. And so even at seven—even before he said those fateful words—I knew something was different.
My father had been named after the German emperor, Wilhelm, and Mutti called him Willi, but to me he was always Vati.
Ignoring me, he hurried into the kitchen, his eyes bright with excitement. “I’ve been drafted.”
At the sink, Mutti abruptly dropped her sponge and stared at him. Her mouth opened, then closed without a sound.
I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I didn’t understand the meaning of a lie, yet I felt it even then. Like others detect an oncoming thunderstorm, pressure builds behind my forehead, a heaviness in my bones. There is something in the way the liar moves, his limbs hang stiffly on the body as if his soul cringes. His look at me is fleeting and there is something artificial in his voice.
At that moment I knew Vati was hiding something from us.
“They want me there Monday. I’ll be a captain.” His voice trembled as he sank into a chair, still wearing his coat and hat.
“But that’s in three days.” Mutti picked up Burkhart, my little brother who was a just a toddler and had begun to whine. “It’s fine,” she soothed as she paced the length of the kitchen, the click-click of her heels like an accusation.
I frowned and moved closer to my father. Since my brother’s birth, Mutti had been spending every minute with the baby. No matter how well I behaved, how I did what she asked, I rarely succeeded drawing her eyes away from my brother. It annoyed me to no end that I couldn’t stop myself from trying.
“Vati, where are you going?” I asked, secure in the knowledge that my little brother wouldn’t draw away his attention.
My father’s cheeks glowed with excitement. As if he hadn’t heard me, he rushed back into the hallway and knelt in front of the wardrobe. I followed.
One door gaped open, revealing a gray military uniform. He was rummaging below.
“What are you looking for?”
“Just a minute.” He emerged with a pair of shiny black boots.
He knelt at my level and to this day I remember smelling the cologne he used every morning, a mix of spice and citrus.
“I am packing.”
“Where are you going?” Vati had never been away, not even for one night. In fact, he and Mutti had strict routines, and these were dictated by the clock. We ate every night at six thirty sharp. Even on Sundays. Breakfast was at seven in the morning. Clothes never ever lay on the floor, each item brushed and aired and returned to its spot in the closet. Life was laid out in rules, washing hands before dinner, carrying a clean handkerchief at all times and always, always looking spotless when leaving the house.
He smoothed the pants of his uniform. “I’ll be helping out in the war.”
“Will you be back for my birthday?” My birthday was on June fourth and I worried about our customary visits to town. In the window of Wiesner, our local toy store, I’d discovered a Schildkröt doll. Her name was Inge and I wanted her badly. Vati said she looked just like me, with blond hair and this pretty red-checkered dress with a white apron and white patent shoes you could take off.
As Vati lifted me in the air and turned in a circle, I shrieked in surprise and delight. I was flying.
“They want me after all! With all my experience, they should be glad.”