By: Lena Reis
Fall came, and I started third grade, which was as hard as junior high school here. It was the hardest year in school. In addition to all the regular schoolwork, which was almost overbearing, we had to learn the Greek letters known as Cirilica. On top of that, the whole learning system had changed. It was at this point that we also had to learn to read, write and speak German.
One would imagine that would have been quite easy for us German children. On the contrary, it was almost more difficult to learn than the Croatian language. Our German sounded to a proper-speaking German person, like Festus’ English to a scholar of the English language. In other words, 10% was spoken properly and the rest in pure dialect. My mother would help me as she was the only woman in town who liked to read more than any other person there. To her it was not a hobby, but an obsession. No matter how small the piece of paper, if it had any type of printing on it, she would read it.
When the teacher learned how much Mom liked to read, and because of the scarcity of reading material, she let Mom read every one of her books. After all, we had never heard of ordering a newspaper or a magazine. When the teacher’s mother came to visit and then became ill, my mother was invited to come and see her. The two women had quite a lot in common, both being widows. But in all honesty, my mother was the most knowledgeable person in our town next to the teacher.
Once a year every family received a book called the Farmer’s Calendar, something like the Farmer’s Almanac, which contained stories, cartoons and all the happenings throughout the year. I remember one cartoon in particular which Mom read to us. It seems that there was a young couple who had moved into a neighborhood where they didn’t belong. The wife would say to her husband, “Darling, why can’t we be noble like our neighbors?” The husband replied, “Darling, in order to be noble one needs a frock coat.” The wife said, “Darling, let’s just be noble, forget about the frock coat.” After that Mom would always say of someone who tried to put on airs, “Nur nobel, lieber kein frack” – Just to be noble.
Winter came and I continued to struggle very hard in school. I liked history and geography about the best of all my subjects. I would stand and gaze at a map at great length. I would discuss our history lesson and my mother would know all about it, which helped me a great deal. But when the end of the school year arrived, instead of getting an award like the two previous years, I barely made it. Many of my friends failed that year, which consequently placed me two years ahead of them.
As I said before, our teacher was very strict. We not only respected her, we feared her. But she was an organizer, the likes of which were not known before her or after her. She directed us children in school plays, which were really something. We performed one play in honor of our King Alexander’s birthday. To this day, I must say that it was quite a wonderful production. By this time our teacher was engaged to a professor from the University of Zagreb. Needless to say, he spent quite a lot of time with her. He was an extremely talented artist and designed all of our stage settings. We had a huge turnout and all the performers were given an equal share of the profits. We each added some money to our individual shares and eventually used this for a field trip.
Our teacher and her fiancé took us to Zagreb where we visited the zoo and a movie. Then we went to Susak and Bakar on the Adriatic Sea. No one had ever taken a trip like that in our town.
Before we went though, I had several heartbreaking days. I needed 18 dinars to add to my share of the profits and my mother didn’t have it. I cried and begged, but to no avail. I argued with her that I was the only child who had been in the play who couldn’t go. Her only answer was that she would borrow money for a doctor or for food in order to survive, but not for luxury. I then went to my Grandfather Muehl, Mom’s father who lived all alone. He must have been a cruel man as all of his other children had left him and had gone to America. When my mother asked him, after we children were a little bigger, if she could sharecrop his land, he let her do it under one condition. He had to be provided with a hot meal every noon and with breakfast and dinner on Sunday. So I was thrown into the bargain when I was only eight years old.
Every day, rain or shine, I had to rush home from school, eat, take the container of food and walk almost one kilometer, come back home and hurry back to school. It was all right in the summer, but quite hard in the winter. We didn’t have shoes for everyday. We wore wooden klumpen like the people in Holland. They would fill with snow, and after the snow melted from the warmth of my feet, they would slip back and forth, and walking became very difficult. Or in the spring when it was muddy, I would sink into the mire and had to pull my klumpen out with my hands in order to take the next step. The tops of my feet were as calloused as an oxen’s neck from constantly pulling a wagon with a yoke. But for eight years I bravely marched to his house, day in, and day out, known as Little Red Riding Hood to the rest of the townspeople.
So after my arguing at the dinner table had gone to no avail with my mother, I vowed that I would still go on the field trip with the rest of the class. I cried all the way to grandpa’s house. When he opened the door and saw my tear-stained face, he put down his pipe, sat in his chair and wanted to know what happened to me. As he was sitting there, I kneeled down next to his chair and put my head on his knee and cried as hard as ever. I cried so hard that he put me on his lap, which is the only time that I ever remember him doing a thing like that.
He took great pleasure in seeing me suffer and after several of his wicked grins, he put me down and got up from his chair and said, “Well, well. You can tell all your friends that you can go on your field trip because your rich grandfather gave you the money.”
He opened the top drawer of his dresser and handed me the 18 dinars. I wanted to kiss him but he pushed me away and said, “The only reason you want to kiss me is because of the money.”
Just for an instant I wanted to hand back the money, but then, just in time, I remembered that I had sworn that I would go on the field trip no matter what. I quickly ran out of the house before he had a chance to say something more to hurt me. I took the money to school that afternoon and my name was placed on the list.
At last, June arrived and our vacation started. All the arrangements were made and six boys and six girls were to go. I was always a good sleeper, probably the world’s best, but the night before our departure I must have asked my grandma every half-hour what time it was. Finally morning arrived and we got up. I was dressed in no time flat and sat down to breakfast. It took quite a bit of doing, but I finally convinced grandma that I absolutely could not swallow one single bite.
At last, the wagon arrived to take us to the depot. Out teacher wanted to show off so she took the reins and galloped the horses through town and almost overturned the wagon in the process. After that close call, the man who was to take us to the depot took over again. When the train arrived, my body was one mass of goose bumps from sheer excitement.
We had a car all to ourselves, and once we were on the train we were given a quick lecture from our teacher concerning our manners. “Never listen to someone else’s conversation, keep your mouths shut when you do listen, stay in a group and don’t get lost,” she instructed us in a stern voice. At our first transfer point, we all promptly forgot our very recent lecture on ethics. A young couple was very affectionately saying goodbye to each other. We didn’t encircle the couple and I can’t recall whether our mouths were hanging open or not, but it certainly was fascinating to watch them exchange a kiss every now and then. Never before had we seen two grownups kissing each other in public, or any other place for that matter, and certainly not like they were doing it. Our open-mouthed curiosity met with a good deal of disapproval from our teacher.
We arrived in Zagreb and, with greatly improved manners, visited the zoo. The tour through the zoo thoroughly tired us all out. That evening we went to our very first movie. It must have been a Wild West show as there was an awful lot of shooting going on. This didn’t keep us awake though as we were all sound asleep within half an hour after the feature started.
That same night we left for Susak. We traveled through most of the night. The teacher awoke us periodically to call our attention to a tunnel and the mountains through which we traveled. To this day, my husband still remembers how one of the girls crossed herself when she saw for the very first time, boats and ships on what was known to us as the ocean. Actually this ocean turned out to be the Adriatic Sea.
We had an unforgettable time. The city’s mayor greeted us. He was a native of our town and his niece and nephew were in our group. He took us to a nice restaurant for dinner. He also bought each of us an ice cream cone and gave us a tour of the city and the city hall where he worked. In the meantime, our teacher and her professor took off on their own and went swimming. When they came back, we boarded a sightseeing boat and went to Bakar where we saw the biggest fish that we had ever seen in our whole lives. But then any fish would have seemed gigantic, as all we had ever seen up to this time were the little catfish in our ponds. We bought some oranges, which we ate with great relish and eventually ended up at a school building. Our teacher and her professor took off again and left us all alone this time. After a while we were in a real panic and thought that they had abandoned us. We were in the process of making plans for selling our clothes to get the money for our trip back home when the teacher and professor returned to take us back to Susak to start back home. Before we left on our trip, my girlfriend Theresa Hoffmann at the age of nine bought herself a pair of new shoes. Believe it or not, they were three-inch spikes. You can imagine her agonized suffering when her poor feet were pushed into those spikes, especially since we very rarely wore any kind of a shoe, much less a spiked heel. I ended up wearing them. I would have worn them even if I had died because at that time I never dreamed that I would ever own a pair of fancy dress shoes. My feet were so swollen when I came home that I could barely step on them. I was so tired that all I wanted to do was sleep. But I had to sit there and tell the family my adventures, over and over again, until finally grandma intervened and said that was enough and to let me sleep.