Selection 3: Scars of War // Sara Wolf

soup. She sat beside him as he swallowed spoonful after spoonful, ignoring the two slices of bread she had placed on the plate. Surely that wasn’t enough. A grown man could hardly gain strength from a few blended vegetables.
Minna cleared her throat. “Would you like some more? Or a little butter on the bread? I’m doing the shopping later and we still have 30 grams or so left.”
He shook his head. “I want to sleep.”
She sighed. The doctors had prescribed lots of rest. Freddie had been doing nothing but sleep for several weeks. “Freddie, maybe you should get up. The girls—”
“I need to sleep.”
Minna nodded. She turned to leave, hesitating near the light switch. There was no point in wasting electricity on someone who didn’t use it. She closed the light. Freddie whimpered and crept under the covers. Another battle lost.

* * *

The queues were shorter this time of day, but so was the stock of supplies.
Minna hurried up the road, barely noticing the pleasant breeze. She stood behind a woman in a black hat and frantically searched in her handbag for her ration book. Oh, where was that precious little item? She placed her basket on the ground and the woman turned around and tut-tutted loudly, “No ration book, no food.”
Minna blushed deeply and fumbled some more. She finally located the book and opened to the month of May, her heart in her mouth. She should have written a list; now she was going to hold up the whole queue. But there hadn’t been any time. Lily and Esther had refused the brown bread again, and then they’d fought over the last bowl of porridge. And the baby… She needed little Gerald to get better.
“Ah, Mrs. Hansen. How is Mr. Hansen?”
Minna gave a tight smile. “Good afternoon, Mr. Woodhill. Freddie will get better, with G-d’s help.” She hated how hollow the words sounded.
“He’s a special man, your husband. Now, let’s see your ration book.”
She handed it over and he placed a small, wrapped item on the scales. “Two pounds of sugar, same as always. A pound of margarine, four eggs… What will we be baking this week?”
Minna bit her lip. “I was hoping…if I have enough coupons… It’s my Esther’s birthday. Could I have a bit of cocoa?”
She held her breath, expecting to be disappointed. Cocoa wasn’t cheap, but she’d been dreaming about making a chocolate cake. They would have to do without biscuits this week and pudding would be only for Shabbos. But it was Esther’s birthday. The girl deserved some normalcy in her life.
Mr. Woodhill beamed. “Of course! Sweet little Esther. I happen to have a very small parcel of cocoa right here.” He placed the package on the counter and leaned forward. “You don’t need to use any precious coupons for this. Just take it.”
Minna protested feebly but he shook his head. “Any daughter of Mr. Hansen deserves the best. Your husband is a brave man.”
She nodded weakly and stuffed the items into her basket, ignoring the sour looks of the women standing behind her. Minna selected a few more items and the grocer stamped her ration book.
“That will be 12 shillings and six pence.”
She gathered the coins from her handbag and handed them over. “Thank you, Mr. Woodhill.”
“Don’t thank me, Mrs. Hansen. Thank your husband.”

* * *

Minna lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. She’d finally gotten Gerald settled in, but sleep eluded her. At least her husband wasn’t tossing and turning tonight. She couldn’t believe that Mr. Woodhill had told her to thank Freddie. Ha!
Who watched the kids all day, wanting to tear her hair out in frustration? Who agonized and calculated and divided up and portioned to make their meager rations last an entire week? Who was up all night with a feverish baby? Who trekked across town at the crack of dawn for her shift at the munitions factory to earn a few pennies?
Everyone said that she should be grateful. Her husband was alive and uninjured. Others were less fortunate, like the butcher’s son and Jack Epstein from down the road, who had left a wife and five kids. Then there was her brother-in-law Sammy, whose whereabouts were still unknown.
Minna shuddered. She was grateful, if only a little. She was thankful that she knew where her husband was and didn’t have to live with the unknown, dreading the arrival of bad news.
Six months ago, Freddie had been conscripted and gone off to battle. She had lived with fear in her heart every single day. She had tried to prepare herself to grieve; she had spoken to the girls about what might happen. But a woman whose husband was alive couldn’t grieve. She wasn’t allowed to mourn for what could have been or what used to be. She shouldn’t complain that Freddie never got out of bed, or that the girls would soon forget that they had once had fun digging for vegetables with their father.
During the First World War, they had called it “shell shock.” These days, the doctors called it “battle fatigue.” All she knew was that something terrible had happened to her husband and he had changed.
A sudden scream made Minna jump. Freddie sat up abruptly, eyes wide and fearful, sweat dripping from his forehead. “Get me out of here!” he yelled in the darkness.
Minna pulled the blanket up to her chin and shivered. She didn’t recognize this person; a demon had stolen her husband.
“It’s okay, Freddie. You’re home. Nothing is—”
“No! NOOO! Get me out of here! We’re all going to die!”
“I don’t want to die! Help me! Help me!”
This happened every night. He barely uttered a word all day, no matter how much she begged him. He wouldn’t explain what had scared him, what had changed him. But this wasn’t her husband talking; it was the demon inside of him.
Freddie screamed again and Gerald woke up whimpering. Minna heaved her weary body out of bed and dragged herself to the Moses basket. She picked the baby up and rocked him in her arms. His forehead was burning up again.
“Freddie, please. The baby…” She looked at the window. Despite the blackout curtains, she was sure that it was almost dawn. “I need to leave in an hour.”
But her husband had quieted down and curled himself into a ball. If not for Gerald stopping to take a breath, Minna might have missed Freddie’s next words, spoken in a whisper: “Why him and not me?”

* * *

“Happy birthday to yoouuuu!” Minna tried to inject as much enthusiasm as possible into her voice. She seemed to be doing a good job; Esther was beaming and Lily had uncharacteristically offered to keep changing the damp cloth on the baby’s forehead.
She looked at the cake she’d baked last night. True, it was small and didn’t have the rich chocolatey look she’d hoped for, but it had been made with love.
“May I blow out the candle?”
Minna nodded and Esther squealed in delight. She closed her eyes and whispered, “I wish…we could go back to school.”
“That’s a rubbish wish,” said Lily.
“Yeah? Well, what would you wish for?” Esther challenged her.
“Let’s cut the cake!” Minna trilled.
“But I didn’t even blow out the candle yet!”
Suddenly, Minna heard footsteps. “Freddie?” This would be the first time her husband had left his room. “Where are you going?”
He looked at her, then turned and looked at the baby. “Gerald,” he said. Emotionless.
“You promised me, Daddy! You said you’d be back when I started school and you would bring me there on the first day!”
He looked at his daughter, an unreadable expression on his face. Say something! Minna wanted to scream. What’s going on in your head? Who are you?
A second later, a siren pierced the air. Freddie froze, a look of pure terror in his eyes. Minna leapt into action. She grabbed the baby with one arm and Esther’s hand with the other.
Lily didn’t move. “Are you going to come to the air raid shelter with us, Daddy?”
Freddie bolted to his room with his hands over his ears. Minna knew she would find him hours later trembling in bed with the light on.
Esther burst into tears. “Why isn’t Daddy coming?”
“Lily, we need to go!” Minna said.
The girl ignored her mother and banged on her father’s door. “There’s going to be a bomb!”
“I don’t want a bomb to fall!” Esther wailed.
Lily was close to tears. “Please, Daddy! I don’t want you to die.”
Minna gritted her teeth. “Daddy’s not coming with us.”
Lily broke down and ran into her own room.
Minna ran a hand over her face. “Lily, Daddy can look after himself. We need to go!”
“I’m not going anywhere!”
She had to make a decision. Should she leave Lily at home? What about her husband? But before Minna could move, the front door opened. A woman carrying several large parcels walked in. She rapped on the bedroom door and barked, “Lily, you come out right now.”
Minna gulped. “Mother.”
Her mother-in-law didn’t look at her. “I was passing by and I heard shouting. I’ll take the girls. You take Gerald.”
They hurried down the road to the nearest shelter. Several families were already huddled together in the damp room, worried looks on their faces. A toddler wailed and his mother held him close, singing soft songs. A few boys sat cross-legged on the floor, playing with marbles.
Minna and her children stood near the door as the air raid siren continued to wail. After a minute of tense silence, her mother-in-law turned to her. “Where is he?” she asked.
Minna closed her eyes. She knew where this was headed. “He went to a different shelter.” She hated lying. She hated that it had become a habit.
“Aha. So now he’s abandoning his family.”
Minna looked at Lily, who was staring back at her defiantly. “He’s…” What could she say? She didn’t want to make excuses for her husband, but she also didn’t want her children to think ill of their father. “He’s finding it…difficult at the moment.”
“Difficult? Ha!” her mother-in-law cackled without humor. “Frederick has it hard? With his health and his family intact? Oh, please!”
The shelter was silent as everyone in the room watched the exchange with fascination and horror. Minna felt her face heating up. She shifted the baby to her other hip and lowered her voice. “This is not a good time.”
“It’s as good a time as any!” her mother-in-law said, making a sweeping gesture. “We’re not going anywhere!” She walked up to Minna, eyes shooting daggers. “I’ll tell you who has it hard. My Sammy has it hard. Olivia has it hard. The poor woman still doesn’t know where her husband is, whether he’s wandering around injured somewhere or…” Her voice trailed off and she seemed to lose steam. “Your husband is alive, but he is weak and cowardly,” she said, wagging a finger. “He has to move on instead of setting a bad example for his kids. I know what’s going to happen next week. He’s not going to turn up for our anniversary party, never mind that we’ve been planning it since before the Blitz. He’ll probably gripe about being too tired from the war.”
“Stop it already!”
Minna knew that she shouldn’t aggravate the older woman. After all, her son was missing in action. But she was hot and tired and starting to see red. “You’ve always given Freddie a hard time. Everyone knows that you favor Sammy! Freddie was never good enough for you. It didn’t matter that he was a loving husband and father, that he provided for his family, that he was G-d-fearing…”
Minna’s voice grew faint, seeing her husband dressed in a starched white shirt leaving for the Friday evening prayers in her mind’s eye. They’d never had much money, but Freddie had insisted on dressing properly for Shabbos. But that Freddie was gone; the new Freddie never prayed. Would Gerald grow up never going to the synagogue and sitting next to his father during the rabbi’s sermon?
Minna retreated to the corner of the shelter, away from Freddie’s mother and her harsh criticism. She hated to admit that her mother-in-law’s assessment of the situation was almost understandable, more so than the admiration and accolades of her husband’s friends. But Minna couldn’t feel anger. All she felt was despair and fear. What kind of future was in store for her family?

* * *
The challah rolls smelled heavenly. Minna placed the hot tray next to a container of fish soaking in brine. Gerald had been fever-free for three days, thank G-d, and she’d sent the kids off early to their grandparents for their anniversary celebration. Minna had been puttering around ever since, procrastinating. Should she turn up alone, or not at all?
She’d asked Freddie again last night if he would accompany her. He’d sighed almost wistfully and replied, “I can’t.”
Sensing an opening, she’d prodded him. “Your father really wants you there. And your mother… Please go. For my sake.”
He’d looked at her, and she’d seen the pain in his eyes. “They don’t need me there. I’m sorry. I can’t. Not even for your sake.”
It had almost been a full conversation! But hardly a fruitful one. She just wished she knew why her husband “couldn’t.”
Minna tripped over a shoe on the floor; it was scuffed and torn. She sighed. Lily had been complaining for weeks, but they simply didn’t have enough coupons for a new pair. Maybe Olivia would have some old shoes from her Emmy. No, she couldn’t ask her. The poor woman still hadn’t received word about her husband, and they hadn’t spoken since Freddie came back. Minna felt too guilty. Guilty that her husband wasn’t missing. Guilty for feeling frustrated.
She would ask Freddie just one more time. Minna tapped lightly on the door and walked in. Her husband’s bed was empty. She stood there in shock. How hadn’t she noticed that he’d left the house? Minna tossed the bedsheets to the floor, frantically searching for some sort of note. He couldn’t have left. Freddie wouldn’t do that.
It was a letter, not a note, that she found under Freddie’s pillow. It was addressed to Lance Corporal Hansen. Minna hesitated for a second before sliding it out of the envelope.

To Lance Corporal Hansen:
I am writing to you from the battlefield, where our soldiers are still fighting strong. We are currently stationed in Libya, anticipating great resistance from the Germans.
I wish to inform you that I have recommended you for a medal in recognition of your bravery. I saw how you acted when the shelling was at its worst, as you heroically ventured out of the trenches to try to save your brother, although you were unsuccessful. We were able to retrieve Sergeant Hansen’s body, but this letter may reach you before his death is officially registered and the notification is sent to his widow. Your brother’s remains will be brought back to England as soon as transportation is available, as per his request on religious grounds. Your family will be able to mourn at his grave. Your brother fought valiantly and you should be proud of him.
You will no doubt hear very shortly from the proper authorities that you have been approved for the medal. Let us pray together that this nightmare will soon end.
—Major Charles Robinson

Minna sat on the bed with a trembling hand on her heart. When had this letter been sent? The date said April 14, just days after Freddie’s discharge, but it could have taken weeks for it to reach England. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks. Poor Olivia. She still didn’t know that she was a widow.
Minna stood up and smoothed her dress. She was suddenly seeing Freddie in a new light. She had to find her husband, and she had a good idea where he might be.

* * *
There was a lot of noise coming from her in-laws’ house. They were clearly trying to mask all the tension with a party. Minna shrugged; she wasn’t going to interfere with their choices. Freddie stood outside, rubbing the toe of his shoe in the dirt.
He startled. “Sorry, Minna. I tried.”
She nodded, searching for the right words. There was so much she needed to say. Her poor husband deserved to be understood.
“I cannot imagine what you went through,” she began. “The sights and sounds of death, the bodies, the smell.” She shuddered. “I read the letter, about how you tried to find Sammy.” Her voice broke but she continued. “You’re suffering right now, but I want you to know that inside you are still a wonderful husband and a loving father. You’re angry at yourself that you can’t bounce back just yet and simply return to the way things were, but that’s okay. Your children will one day know that their father is a very brave man. A selfless man who risked his life trying to save their uncle. Gerald will see your medal and understand what a special person you are. One day, everything will be all right. But right now, what you need the most is time to heal. Please know that I am here to support you in any way I can.”
Minna wiped a tear from her eye and took a deep breath. She would have to break the news to the family about Sammy’s death. She would have to do it for Freddie. She didn’t need him to respond. Not today, maybe not ever. But before she closed the door, she heard him whisper two words.
“Thank you.”

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