The New Boy (from Landnahme)
It was the middle of September—the new school year had just begun—when Miss Nitzschke brought a new boy to our third-period class. Miss Nitzschke was our class advisor; she also taught us grammar and spelling and German history. She was in her late forties, unmarried, and insisted on being addressed as Miss. Whenever parents called her Mrs. Nitzschke during a conference, she would correct them with a gentle but insistent smile, as if she attached particular significance to the fact she wasn’t married. She was a gaunt woman, flat as a board front and back was what the older kids said on the playground, and her cheeks were always heavily powdered, which was very unusual and got the grownups in town talking. People suspected she had bad skin or some kind of disease, but no one knew for certain. When she walked among the school benches and leaned over one of the pupils, we could smell her sweet-scented makeup.
Miss Nitzschke led the new boy up to the teacher’s desk, took her seat, and then waited until the class had quieted down and everyone was looking at her, or rather at the boy standing next to her, and staring grimly ahead.
“We have a new boy joining us,” she said at last. “And I’m sure he’d like to introduce himself.”
She looked encouragingly at the boy, who kept eyeing the class, sizing us up.
“Please tell us your name.”
The new boy shot her a brief glance and mumbled something without looking anyone in the eye.
At that point the class began to fidget. The boy had said his name so quietly and lackadaisically that hardly anyone could understand him. Someone shouted out, “Louder!” and the others laughed. But the minute he opened his mouth we realized that his German was different, that he spoke one of the raw eastern dialects. And that he was another refugee who’d been sent to our school because his family had been driven out of Pomerania or Silesia.
Just after the war, our town had been flooded with them. They’d been housed with people who had to be pressed by the local authorities and sometimes even the police into clearing out one or two rooms and handing them over to the strangers. Everyone hoped they would either soon move on or that the housing office would assign them apartments of their own. Even if Bad Guldenberg had suffered less damage from the fighting and the bombers than the district seat and three neighboring villages, there was still much to be rebuilt, and neither the town nor its inhabitants had money for putting up new houses. Moreover, since materials were scarce, even the most pressing repairs took a long time to complete.
Now, five years after the war, it became clear that a good number of these DPs had decided to settle in Guldenberg for good. The new eastern border had been recognized as permanent, so that the once-German provinces on the other side of the Oder River were now Polish, and there was no chance of the expellees ever being able to return to their former homes. As a result, our school had more than its share of their children. By third grade most of them had learned to speak our dialect, though every now and then some odd word or usage would give them away, or the fact that their pronunciation was a little throatier. But no matter how they spoke, you could easily spot them because they were more poorly dressed than the local children, with darned stockings and mended sweaters, and round leather patches stitched to the elbows of their jackets. Their shoes were always old and cracked.
Miss Nitzschke was unfazed by the commotion in the classroom. “That’s right, Bernhard Haber,” she said, carefully enunciating the name. Then she turned to the newcomer: “Come see me during recess, Bernhard, and I’ll put you down in the class register. But now go and take your seat.”
Bernhard Haber searched the rows of double desks for a place to sit. The others also turned around, just to check what they knew already—that every one of the flip-up seats was taken. When the teacher realized this, she stood up and shoved her own chair to the side of her desk.
“You can use mine for the moment, Bernhard. And we’ll straighten things out during recess. The custodian will bring a chair in for you.”
She turned to the class. “Bernhard is a year older than you. He comes from Poland and wasn’t able to attend school very regularly over the past few years. So he’s missed a thing or two, and I think it’s better for him to join the third grade, at least for the time being. We’ll see how much he knows, and I expect all of you to do whatever you can to support him.”
“A Pollack,” said a boy from one of the back rows, in a low voice.
The new boy had stepped over to the chair the teacher had provided; he now turned to face the class. Without raising his arm, he clenched his hand into a fist and held it for a moment in front of his stomach, searching for the boy who had made the remark.
“That was a very, very ugly thing to say,” said Miss Nitzschke. “I don’t want to hear that word ever again. Never! Do you understand? And Bernhard isn’t Polish; he’s German, just like you.”
After recess we found an extra chair had been brought to the classroom; still, the new pupil had to share a desk with two girls who squeezed together to make room.
When Mr. Voigt walked in to teach arithmetic, everyone stood up while he made his way to the blackboard, where he said hello to the class and took his place at the teacher’s desk. Then we sat back down, flipping our seats with a loud bang. As always, Mr. Voigt scanned the classroom like a raptor in search of prey. When he caught sight of the new boy he looked him over from head to toe, amused.
“So I see we have a new boy with us,” he said with obvious scorn. “And what’s your name?” Without waiting for an answer, he opened the class register and read out loud what Miss Nitzschke had written about Bernhard Haber.
“Hmmm, it says here you’re ten years old. Well if they’ve stuck you in the third grade, I’m guessing you’re not exactly a whiz at numbers, am I right?”
The whole class laughed. The new pupil had placed both hands on his desk. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead and said nothing.
“Stand up when I talk to you. And look at me. Did you come here with your parents?”
“Well, at least you’re not an orphan. They don’t cause anything but trouble. Does your family have an apartment? Or a room somewhere?”
“Good. And does your father have work?”
“No. Not yet.”
“So he’s living at the town’s expense. What’s his profession?”
“He’s a carpenter.”
“Good. Carpenter is good. If he knows how to knuckle down and doesn’t have two left hands then he’ll find something soon enough. There’s plenty need for carpenters.”
He paused for a second and then went on, with a malicious smile, “Or maybe your father doesn’t really like to work? We’ve seen that kind before too.”
The new boy stood by his seat with his head downcast, his hands gripping the slanted desktop. His face was bright red as he replied, “No. My father doesn’t have two left hands. He has one left hand.”
“And where are you from? Where were you born, boy?”
“What did you say?”
“We come from Breslau.”
Mr. Voigt shook his head and looked at the class with open-mouthed indignation. He raised his arm and pointed at one girl: “Kathrin, what’s the name of the city this new boy comes from?”
“Wrocùaw,” said the girl, standing up quickly, so that her seat flipped back up.
Mr. Voigt nodded, satisfied. Then he turned again to face the new pupil: “Or do you think Italy is still inhabited by the Romans? From here on you better remember that it’s the Italians. And what about Istanbul—I bet you people from Outer Pomerania still call it Constantinople or Byzantium, right? So, you come from Wroc³aw, in the Polish People’s Republic. Understand?”
Bernhard Haber stood completely still and looked Mr. Voigt straight in the eye.
“One more time, then. Where are you from?”
“I come from Wrocùaw.”
“Right. Now sit down. We want to start our lesson.”
Bernhard Haber stood defiantly next to his desk a moment longer. Before he sat down, he blurted out: “But I was born in Breslau.”