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Saint Valentine's Day
Every Saturday afternoon Mama would
take me to the Lutheran Cemetery on Kaiser-Strasse. We would go to visit the
grave of my brother.
His name was Max Keppler, and so was mine.
Papa would not go with us. Papa never had time to go. He was a cabinet maker and
I can’t remember a day when Papa did not have work to do. He even worked on
Sundays. He would go to Mass in his Sunday clothes with Mama and me, then when
we came home, he would change into his overalls and go back to work in his shop.
It is not a physically hard job to be a cabinet maker, but the hours are long –
and the pay is small.
Papa finally told me that the grave in the cemetery was not mine but my
brother’s. If he had lived, Max Keppler would have been my older brother but he
died in his second year. “He looked much like you,” Papa said, “and maybe that’s
why Mama named you Max. Ach! Mama – she has never been the same since he died,”
Papa said. “Something inside ... I don’t know.” He would look at me and shrug
his broad shoulders. “I thought you would take his place.”
Mama always insisted I go with her to the graveyard. She would dress me in my
best Sunday clothes and make a bouquet for me to carry. When we got there she
would take the bouquet from me and arrange it in a holder and set it in the
ground near the headstone. Then she would open her purse and take out a glass
she had brought with her. She would give it to me and tell me to get water from
the fountain near the gate house. After that there would be nothing more for me
to do, she would kneel and pray for a long time while I stood alone and read the
names of the dead on the other head stones. It was as if I was not there. When
her prayers were said she would stand and walk away without taking my hand or
telling me to come with her. If I wasn’t paying attention she would leave and go
home without me – leaving me there, with the dead.
Until Papa explained it to me, I was sure I was buried in the Dresden Cemetery.
Why would Mama walk away and leave me there? Why would she not let me pray with
her? The stone said, “Max,” did it not? Children grow used to things as they are
and I got used to going to the cemetery with Mama. When Papa told me the name on
the stone was my brother’s I didn’t feel so bad.
Many times I wished I could stay home on Saturday and watch Papa working with
his tools and sometimes building things of my own with his left over pieces. It
was fun being with Papa, much more fun than going to the cemetery with Mama.
Papa would sing as he worked; he would talk to himself, muttering measurements.
He would make little sketches on the wall of his shop. I would wait for his face
to light up when he solved a problem in his head. He would say, “Ah Ja, Ja!
That’s the way it will go!” He would smile at me, then spit in the corner for
Mama walked through our house as though she was waiting for something to happen.
She cooked and cleaned, but it often seemed as though she were doing these
things without love, the way a servant would do them. She saw to it that I had
clean things to wear and that I ate what she put in front of me. She even cared
for me when I was sick, but she always looked past me, as though I were farther
off. She never smiled and she took no interest in the news of the war.
Papa talked about the war day and night. He kept a map on the kitchen wall of
the three fronts and he told me of the terrible things that would happen if
Germany lost. He was a veteran of the first war and wore part of his uniform
when he went out at night as an air raid warden. He told me many times not to
worry, that the war would never come to Dresden. He said they would never bomb a
But there were many soldiers in our town, Papa and I stood on the street and
watched them march eastward into Russia. How young and straight they were. We
cheered and the soldiers waved back at us and at the university girls who were
always ready to cheer them on. It was sad to watch them come back again when the
war turned bad. Papa could not bear to see them in defeat, they looked like old
men ... unshaven; older even than Papa. They wore filthy bandages, their
uniforms were dirty and torn, some of them had no rifles. They even begged at
our door for food.
Papa seemed to be sad all the time. He sat in the parlor instead of working in
his shop; he would read his afternoon paper and then move his map pins on the
kitchen wall. Mama was the same as always. She would take her ration stamps to
the food store each morning, stop at the grave of my brother and then come home.
I would spend the day in school and when I came home Papa and Mama would still
be sitting in the living room.
“What’s new out there?” Papa would ask me.
“There are soldiers in the park, Papa.”
“Soon,” Papa said, “soon there will be no one between us and the Russians.” He
looked at Mama and spoke more to himself than her. “I think we should prepare
ourselves, Mama. The war has come to us now.”
Mama sat rocking and looking out the window. She rarely spoke any more.
“Our history teacher told us there would be bombing, Papa.”
“What does he know?” Papa grumbled. “The war will soon be over ... there will be
a settlement, you’ll see.” He stood up and stepped between Mama and the living
room window. “It is Saint Valentine’s Day tomorrow ... remember Mama?” When Mama
found her view of the street obstructed she realized it was time to begin
supper. She got up and walked to the kitchen leaving Papa standing by the living
room window. He stared out at the empty street and shook his head, “Ach, that
Mama,” he murmured, “it is like we are not here, Max.”
It was during the middle of supper that the sirens began. Papa stood and went to
the closet for his coat with the yellow stripes, then he put on his helmet and
returned to the table. “Come on you two,” he shouted. “Have you forgotten what
you must do? The shelter is in the cathedral basement.” He looked at Mama
nervously, then turned to me. “Max, you must watch over your mother. You know
where the cathedral is, take her there, mach schnell! I will come for you when
it is over.” He got a coat for Mama and the three of us left together.
I said goodbye to Papa in the street and Mama and me started for the cathedral.
I turned and waved to Papa at the corner just as the first bright bombs fell on
the outskirts of the town. I never saw Papa again.
I found a place on the end of a bench for Mama to sit. Next to her was an old
blind man who kept shouting, “What’s happening? Please, will somebody tell me
what’s happening.” Nobody knew, Dresden was not a target, everybody said. It was
probably a mistake.
The bombs kept falling. They fell in great bunches, like coal being unloaded
into a chute. They would stop for a moment, only to fall again. Sometimes
closer, sometimes farther off. I wondered what it must be like to be outside and
I asked a man who wore a warden’s uniform like Papa if it would be over soon. He
shook his head as though he didn’t understand me.
I think I grew up on that Valentine’s Eve. I was a little boy until the first
bombs fell, but the awesome power of the war, the strength of it was beyond the
capacity of a man or a woman to endure. It was a force a simple human could not
stand up to, let alone a little boy.
There was no clearing signal. The men in the basement decided for themselves
that the bombing was over. They came to Mama and me and told us we could stay
there in the basement of the cathedral if we wanted because there was nothing
outside but fire and smoke and a howling wind. But Mama wanted to go home. “The
city is gone,” one man cried, “Dresden is burning!” ... and so it was. Mama and
me picked our way through the littered street to find our house had already
burned to the ground. It was like being in a strange city. She turned to me and
took my hand.
We found our way to the cemetery. The smoke was thick and from time to time
there would be the crash of a falling wall. Dust and ashes would fill the air
and it seemed to me the fire would last forever. Even the trees had burned, they
stood like skeletons at the curbside clutching at the sky. There was a poisonous
smell of gasoline everywhere.
The stones were toppled in the cemetery. Even the old elaborate monuments and
statues had fallen over and it was impossible for Mama to find the grave of my
brother. She kneeled to pray where she thought he was, leaving me standing there
wondering what happened to Papa. Finally men came and told us to leave the
cemetery and go back to a shelter; they looked at mama carefully and then at me.
Mama was on her knees rocking, her eyes were shut tight but above the noise of
the fire and wind her shrill voice could be heard praying. The men asked me who
we were and where we lived. I told them our names and where we lived and asked
them if they had seen my father.
Mama died that afternoon on a bench in the basement of the First Lutheran Church
of Dresden. A man I did not know asked me if the woman on the bench was my
mother. “I saw you come in together,” he said. “Ihre Mutter ist tot." Do you
realize what I say to you, young man? I said your mother is dead.”
There were thirty three children who sat alone in the basement of the First
Lutheran Church on that St. Valentine’s Day. We did not know we were orphans and
we were too young to cry.
©Harry Buschman 2003
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