These village streets hold memories, some bittersweet, some buried, too painful to recall.
Old men hunched over their drinks in the Biergarten. Do they remember? Old women sitting beneath golden chestnut trees. Do they see ghosts?
Your father’s store still stands in the market square, Josef. It was boarded up for many years after the windows were smashed and the jewellery looted. It’s a souvenir shop now.
Tourists come from all over the world to visit the castle and walk in the mountains. American voices echo through the beer halls. Their laughter reminds me of the day they rolled through the village in army jeeps, and I hid behind a gravestone. I thought they’d shoot all the villagers because we were the enemy, but they set up their headquarters in the castle, gave us chocolate and silk stockings, and helped us to rebuild our shattered lives.
You wouldn't recognise the village now. There are fine restaurants, expensive hotels and new houses on the edge of the pine forest where we used to play.
But some things haven't changed. Children still collect acorns in the schoolyard, and sweethearts still carve their names into the bark of the ancient oak near the river bank.
Our names are entwined in a heart.
Josef & Liesl
We were 15 years old.
You stepped back to admire your handiwork. The November wind whipped through my hair and froze my cheeks, so you pulled me close.
“I heard my father talking to Mama this morning.” I leant my head against your shoulder. “They smashed windows in the Jewish quarter during the night.”
“Don't worry, Liesl. It could never happen here. The villagers are my father's customers. My
mother teaches their children to play the piano. They are our friends and neighbours.”
The church clock chimed eight. You took my hand and we raced over the bridge to the schoolyard.
Herr Schmidt, the headmaster, stood on the steps near the main doors, looking at his watch.
You kissed my cheek and darted up the steps to the boys’ entrance, then turned to smile before disappearing inside.
Anger blazed in Herr Schmidt’s eyes. “Your father will hear of this, Liesl. Get to class, girl.”
My father liked you, Josef. Punished for the stance he took, he was sent to the Russian front. He never returned. People today don't know these things. To them, we were all the enemy.
Throughout that morning, Frau Weber struggled to control the class. Whispers circulated: riots in the city, windows shattered, arrests and looting. Little Netti, who sat next to me, clutched my hand.
“Don't worry,” I told her. “It won't happen here. They are stupid city people.”
Towards the end of morning classes, a boy delivered a note to Frau Weber. Her pretty face grew pale. “Zara, Johanna, Netti – remain seated. The rest of you may leave now.”
I squeezed her hand. “They want to talk to you about the riots. That's all. Don't worry. I'll see you tomorrow.”
Ushered out of the classroom, I followed the girls along the corridor. Your classroom door was open, and boys were filing out, but you remained seated, hastily scribbling a note.
“Josef,” I called.
You looked up and gave the note to a boy who handed it to me.
Wait for me beneath our oak tree.
Frau Weber led her class outside and told us to go straight home.
But I waited.
I waited beneath the barren branches in the icy drizzle, yet you never came. A grey bus chugged over the stone bridge and stopped outside the schoolyard, so I hurried back. Perhaps they were taking the Jewish children to safety in case the hatred spread. You were already on the bus when I arrived. No time to talk. No time to say goodbye. I reached up and put my palm to yours on the other side of the glass before the bus moved away. I followed it all along the narrow streets until it gained speed and disappeared beyond the forest road.
Where did they take you, Josef? Decades passed. People carried their secrets to the grave.
I stayed in our village and became a schoolteacher. How could I leave? There was a chance you'd come back. Day after day, I returned to our special place I could barely hobble.
Now the church bell tolls for me, and my limbs are light. The villagers no longer greet me as I hasten along the school lane and over the bridge.
You are standing beneath our oak tree, arms outstretched. I knew you would return.
© Elisabeth Moore