It was the terrible winter of 1945/46.
Sissy walked through the darkness. It was raining and she was walking through dirty snow that had already lain on the ground for several weeks. Every day for weeks now she had been looking for food, or to find work in exchange for food, from the farmers. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not. She was fourteen.
In the first years after the death of her father, the army had tried to help and protect the family. Now there was no german army any more. Of the men who had survived only the old men were not in prison.
The family was only surviving from the food that Sissy could earn or beg. For a while her mother had taken in washing, but now no one in the village had any money, and there was, in any case, nothing to buy in the village shop.
Sissy was shivering from the cold. Apart from her own footsteps, there was no other sound from the forest that surrounded her. She paused a moment to rest. Today she had a definite destination in mind. She had tried for days now to avoid the need to go there. But she knew there was now no choice. No birds were singing. Still two hours she guessed until sunrise. She walked on.
Despite the hunger and cold, she was happy to be home again in the countyside and in her village.
A month ago, her mother had asked her if she was willing to go to Münster.
“Maybe there, there´ll be work, money and more food, Frances. “
It had been a long time since her mother had called her by her real name.
When she arrived in Münster, she had been amazed. The city, as she had known it, didn´t really exist anymore. It had been flattened. As a ´trümmerfrau´, she was able to start work immediately. Hundreds of other women in long rows, all over Germany, removed the rubble of the former towns and cities, stone by stone, from dawn to dusk. As Frances passed on the heavy weight of yet another stone, she thought of all the people who had lost their lives as their homes collapsed on them. Her skin lined with dust, sweat and dirt, she could not help herself from asking of God,
„Why had Hitler survived for so long while so many innocent people were being killed? “
Frances was paid with food and a place to stay. But there was nothing for her to take back to her family at the weekends. After a few weeks she came back to the village.
Frances stopped again to gather her strength. The path seemed to be narrowing now and it was slowly rising. She looked at the tall, bare, black shapes of the trees around her.
She remembered the time before the war when many in the conservative village believed in their leader. His Brown sisters were very active in the village. Girls and young women who wanted to do something to help others and to help the Fatherland. They carried bags of coal for the old people and made dolls from old rags and string for the little children. Because they seemed to want only to help people it was only natural for Sissy to want to join.
The leader of the troop specially sought Sissy out.
“The Führer would be particularly pleased to have such a pretty, blonde girl as you in his troop“
But later, at home, Mother took Sissy aside and spoke to her in a whisper.
“Think carefully Sissy. Think of all the new prisons, and how the SS men rant and rave.“
Sadly, and in a kind of confession before God in the darkness of the forest, and as if, although she had not been aware of it, she had been talking to God for some time, she said aloud.
“Because we all knew what was happening. It was only spoken about behind closed doors but we all knew it.”
She had finally arrived at the top of the hill. On the horizon above the far side of the valley she could see the first faint glow of the hidden, but rising, son. Now it was gently downhill and she would soon have the forest behind her.
She smiled as she thought about Anna. Anna was a new child, and a new joy in the family. A few months ago at Sunday mass, the priest had explained to the villagers.
“Our orphanage is full to bursting. Is there a family who could a new home to one of our children?”
Wilhemina had not hesitated. Anna was only two. She was cute, very quiet but always alert. But when there was a storm then she would cower in the corner of the room, frightened and inconsolable. Frances thought about the others who were also now sitting around the kitchen table at home. They were three elderly relatives who had been bombed out of their homes. They mostly just sat, silent and ashen faced, as if their empty eyes were still seeing the destruction of their homes.
It had stopped raining and Frances could, with each step, make out more clearly her destination in the valley below. A slaughterhouse. She knew the work would be very hard. And the place stank of blood and death. The blood streamed along the gutters of the yards. Very few people would or could stand working there for long.
Frances stopped a last time on the path. She turned and looked back to the forest. Had she left something behind her? Despite the growing light, a silence still reigned in the night.
She remembered the words of her father´s sister, a Franciscan Sister, at his funeral.
“When fate deals us such a terrible blow, then we have to accept it and still, despite everything, continue trying to help others. “
Frances suddenly, momentarily, felt and saw, the warmth of her father´s smile. She turned as the first fragment of the sun appeared over the far horizon, not yet disturbing the darkness of the valley below.