From My Childhood Years by Jan Arnošt Hančka

This short autobiography of Hančka’s early years was first published in the children’s magazine Raj in 1928, shortly before the author’s death. It was translated from Upper Sorbian by Gerald Stone in 2017 at the request of the Wendish Research Exchange.


As I write these lines, I have no intention of making out that I may have been something special. No, but I want my young readers to compare their experiences with mine and to learn lessons from one thing or another.

            My parents’ house was no palace; it was a thatched cottage with one storey. The cowshed was built adjoining the living quarters. The barn too was thatched. The buildings today are still exactly as they were then; only the chestnut tree, which used to stand in the middle of the yard by the pool, has been dug out and the  pool has been filled in. Otherwise everything is as it was then. I enjoy walking across the yard. Memories of childhood years come into my mind’s eye and stimulate feelings, sometimes of remorse and sometimes of joy. Oh happy times! I was still wearing a smock – it was grey – when one day I ran to meet my father who was driving from the fields with an empty dung-wagon. Father seated me beside himself on an upturned board. In the yard a front wheel went over a stone. The jolt caused me to fall onto the swingle-tree and one of the back wheels ran over me. My mother was standing in the doorway and saw the accident. She cried out in horror and came running to pick me up. I was weeping fearfully. Mother grabbed me and carried me into the front room, scolding father for not having taken better care of me. They sent for our neighbour Mrs Nowak, who was a bone-setter. She felt my back and told my parents that I had not broken anything and had not suffered any damage at all. At this news my parents were overjoyed, especially my mother.

            The next Christmas I was given my first trousers. I do not know if I wore them taking those big strides as little boys do nowadays; but surely I was no different from them. Nor can I remember how long they lasted, but I think it was until Whitsun. At Whitsun I got a new pair, with a belt. My father thought I would not wear them out quickly, because the material was of very good quality. But he forgot what three-year-old boys are capable of. Just outside the village there was a bridge over the River Lubata. Beside the bridge on both banks there were sloping piers.

            One out of a group of boys – possibly it was me, I cannot remember – had  an idea that it was possible for them to slide down these piers in a sitting position. The idea was immediately put into practice and, one after the other, down we went. I cannot remember how long the fun lasted. I came home tired and hungry. As I was sitting down at the table for my tea, my father said: ‘Come here, please’. He had looked at my new trousers and seen something that caught his eye. He had called me to him so that he could have a better look. ‘Mother,’ he cried, ‘Come here and have a look. This confounded boy has already got a hole in his new trousers.’ Mother was shocked. ‘What on earth have you done?’ she asked. This was beginning to look like a serious matter. So, I burst into tears. ‘You scamp,’ scolded father, ‘Tell me what you did.’ So, sobbing, I told them about our game. ‘Just wait here,’ said father, ‘I’ll teach you a lesson.’ He went for the cane and aimed a few blows at me over my trousers, before mother took them off. A patch was needed. ‘Tomorrow,’ my father said, ‘I’ll go to the smithy and order from Mjerwa (Moerbe) the smith a tin bottom for your trousers like the chimney-sweep has. Then you can slide on your bottom as much as you like. That was a terrible threat and it frightened me more than any scolding or spanking. In trousers like that I could not have allowed myself to be seen by my friends. So, I earnestly begged first my mother and then my father not to carry out this threat, and so I was spared this punishment. Never again did I do any more sliding on my bottom.

            We had a woman in the village we used to call ‘aunty.’ She was very friendly. I was often sent to her on errands. She was not particularly generous. One day I had to call on her around Christmas time. When I had carried out my errand, aunty brought me from her living room a slice of Stollen. ‘Here’s a piece of Stollen for you,’ she said, ‘because you always carry out your errands so nicely.’ I was surprised that aunty was giving me so much. I took a bite straight away. Aunty was looking at me intently. But eugh! What a strange taste! I could scarcely swallow what I had bitten off. Aunty urged me to eat more, but I excused myself by saying that mother had said I must not be too long, and with that I slipped through the door. I ran straight home. ‘Who gave you that crust of Stollen?’ my mother asked. ‘It was aunty,’ I answered, ‘But there’s something wrong with it.’ ‘You silly boy,’ said mother, ‘What could possibly by wrong with it?’ ‘You try it, mummy,’ I said, holding it up to her mouth. Mother took a bite, but she quickly spat it out saying: ‘God forgive me for my sins, but I can’t eat that; it tastes of kerosene.’ Later it was discovered how the kerosene taste got into the Stollen. Aunty had left some sugar on the table, where the previous evening a kerosene lamp had spilled over. I do not know who ate Aunty’s other Stollen. I did not visit her again as long as I still thought she might have some left.

            Our neighbour was a German. He had a bakery and a general store. I used to hang about there almost every day after lessons. I learned German there. But when I gave my German its first test at my step-sister’s house in Radeburg, the result was pitiful. Germans, it seemed to me, spoke too quickly, so I could not understand most of what they said, whereas they could not make much sense of my German. So, I would have soon gone straight home, but for the fact that my sister could still speak Wendish and my mother and aunt were there with me. I was very sorry that people thought so little of my German skills. My old aunt, who was with us, had never been on a train before, though she was nearly sixty. As we were approaching the station, she was always alarmed whenever the locomotive whistled. ‘Good Lord,’ she kept saying, ‘Now our train is leaving.’ But fortunately, we still got home on time.

            The neighbour I mentioned had a son, aged about twelve, called Julius. He was my bad friend. He made use of me, whenever he could. He was not a friend when it came to work. Whenever he could, he would tell me what to do. I had to tend his geese, while he sat in the shade of a pear tree. Once I had to plant potatoes for him. I was not expected to do that at home. I put the potatoes in rows, as it seemed to me. Julius was lying on the bank. After tea the master baker appeared and Julius scrambled up to start work. But when the baker looked at the rows which I had sown he said: ‘What sort of sowing is this, oh my goodness! Gather up all the potatoes again immediately! Some are nearly a yard apart, others only a few inches.’ Julius was angry with me and threatened me with his fists, but I made my escape without delay.

            Once he accompanied me to the doctor, who lived in a village about three-quarters of an hour’s walk distant. I had to fetch a medicinal powder for my mother, who was ill. Julius persuaded me to open the box. We wanted to taste the powder. It was sweet, so we licked it until the box was half empty.

            Julius was especially fond of chocolate. He did not get much of it at home. So, he persuaded me: ‘Go home. There’s a drawer, where your mother leaves her purse. Take a coin, buy a bar of chocolate from our shop and bring it here into the garden.’ Off I went. Mother was not in. And indeed, in her purse there were several coins. So, I did as Julius had said. I got less than half of the bar. The procedure was repeated. I did not realize that what I had done was wrong, but one day mother suspected that money was missing from her purse. She told me and I admitted my transgression. Mother was sad that I had stolen from her; now I too was sorry that I had done wrong and told her everything. I was punished. She shut me in the tool-shed. There I wept bitterly. Soon mother was sorry for me and I was released. I never touched her purse again.

            I learned many more nasty things from Julius. When I reached the age of reason, I had a lot of trouble removing the weeds he had sown in my heart. I have never had pleasant memories of my ‘bad friend’. He became a mechanic. Later he emigrated to America. I never heard any more about his subsequent fate. May God protect you, young reader, from such bad friends. When they approach you, run away!

            One night our neighbour’s place was on fire. Our living-room was filled with light. Had the chestnut-tree in our yard not protected us from the sparks, our house and dwellings would also have gone up in flames. From that night on I have had a horror of fire. I have always been afraid to sleep under s straw roof. In the spring our neighbour began to build. Building work of that kind is always particularly interesting for little boys. So I too used to stand there for hours watching, helping with pleasure whenever I could. One day a goose fell into the lime-pit and perished there. Aunty Piskar (that was the name of the family who had lost their house in the fire) was very angry and complained that I had chased the goose into the pit. But I was completely innocent; I had not even seen the goose in the yard. This accusation without the slightest justification hurt me badly, which is why I remember it even today. But there was worse to come.

            In my native village the Albrecht Brook joins the River Lubata. Then a channel goes to the mill and the rest runs over a wooden weir. Beside this barrier we would often stand and watch the water rushing onwards. The most interesting time was the spring, when there were ice floes floating down. The more daring boys – of whom I was never one – would jump onto the floes below the weir and float on them. One day – when I happened not to be there – my school-fellow, Gustav Östreich, was at the weir. He fell into the water and drowned. The news quickly spread and when I heard it I was sad, because I was fond of Gustav. I was still more upset, however, when our maid brought news from the village that people were saying that I had pushed him in. I cried. It was a comfort to me that mother knew that at the time I had not left the room. But bad people would not be silenced by mother’s testimony. It was only on the next day that some people pulled little Gustav from the water. I wanted to see him, but because of the stupid gossip I dared not go there. So, Gustav’s mother sent us a message asking if I would like to see my friend in his coffin. So, I went with my sister. Today I can still see his little body in my mind’s eye. I wept a lot. Gustav’s mother stroked me. So, I wailed out to her how some people were blaming me. She comforted me and said that she knew for certain that I had not been there. That calmed me down. Children have an acute sense of what is true and what is not. That is why the false accusation so pierced my heart.

            They often held spinning evenings in our village. That was always a great treat for me. I used to listen with attentive ears to everything that was said. I used to like the fables, but also stories about ghosts and superstitions. Later I was so afraid of ghosts that I did not dare go outside after dark. Only when I was about twenty years old did I manage to overcome my fears. Once there was talk of money being buried here and there in the ground. If in a dream someone saw a chicken sitting somewhere, it was a sure sign that was where there was money in the ground. Soon after that I dreamed that under our big pear-tree a chicken was sitting on its nest. Getting out of bed I ran to my good friend Arnošt Šumbak and told him about my dream. He was ready immediately to help me raise the buried treasure. So off we went to the field, each with a sharp mattock, and started digging. But it was hopeless task because the ground was frozen. With great effort we had dug a hole about nine inches deep before our arms were hurting us so much that we gave up. We had not seen a single coin and sadly we went home. Everyone laughed at us.

            One Sunday I was with Jan Brězank looking after the cows in the pasture. It was not hard work. We were sitting among the bushes beside the pasture and could not think of anything to do. Jan had shown me how you could milk a cow straight into your mouth. But we could not do that today, because Aunty Kejžor was sitting in her window darning. She could see right across the pasture. I had been given ten pfennigs by my mother for tending the cows. What could we do with so much money? Jan had the idea that we might buy ourselves cigars. So we agreed that I would buy five cigars at two pfennigs each. I ran to Jank’s and soon returned. Jan hurried home for matches and in no time from the bushes around us smoke was rising as if from a poor man’s bakery. Smoking did not make me feel ill, unfortunately, for otherwise I might have been put off smoking for the rest of my life; that would have been a blessing. But at that stage I had not yet taken up smoking. I cannot remember giving it another try soon afterwards. A few years later I made myself a cigar from a few cigar-ends, but it would not draw properly, and I did not like the flavour of cornflowers, potato leaves, or leaves of a nut-tree, all of which had been recommended to me for smoking; so I gave up smoking until I was about eighteen. At that time, we were permitted in school to smoke from time to time.

            In my home village there was a fair twice a year. It was an important event for us boys. We used to watch some ten or twelve booths being constructed in two rows the day before. Then the next day the stallholders arrived with carts full of boxes containing precious objects. We watched intently as they unloaded gingerbread and other tasty things. But the problem was money. I had been promised twenty pfennigs – ten by mother and ten by father. Compared with what I wanted to buy that was very little. At midday mother and father gave me the money they had promised. Although I complained that that was very little, I could get no more out of them. Only our maid Hana had a soft heart and gave me five pfennigs more. And so with this great fortune in my pocket I set off for the fair; I held the money firmly in my hand to make sure I did not drop any and I walked up and down in front of the booths. What was I going to buy? That was something I could not decide so quickly. Jan Rječk, who had five pfennigs more than me, began with liquorice. He let me taste it, but it did not take my fancy. I went to the roundabout. A ride on a horse cost five pfennigs, a ride in a boat cost three. I sat on a horse and in two minutes I was five pfennigs lighter. Then I saw that the bigger boys on top were turning the roundabout. So I asked them to let me go up on top with them. ‘Yes. If you bring a bag of sweets with you, you can come up,’ was the reply. So that’s what I did. Now I was allowed to help them push and when it rang we would sit on the poles and thus we could be spun round free of charge. Before evening I went down ro the fair again with the firm intention to make good use of my remaining fifteen pfennigs. Because everyone at home expected me to bring them something from the fair, I bought a bag of gingerbread balls for ten pfennigs and a whole gingerbread for five pfennigs. Now my pocket was empty and I went home. Everyone at home got two gingerbread balls. The whole gingerbread had been eaten by me on the way home. I went straight to bed, asking mother to call me early the next day. Why? The next day they were taking down the stalls and we boys would be looking for money. Once I had found two pfennigs and that encouraged me at every fair to go looking for money. But such luck as that first time never returned to me.

            Where I lived there is no forest, so the children used to go to the Teichnitz woods to gather berries. I was about five years old when my sister allowed me to go with her for the first time. I could not get a jug big enough to satisfy me. But the work was hard! My awkward fingers could not pick many berries and what they did pick tended to go into my mouth rather than into the jug. In the end my sister admonished me severely to pick the berries straight into the jug. So I did. The bottom of the jug was well covered when we set off home. But again and again my hand found its way into the jug and the stock of berries got smaller and smaller. Shortly before we reached the village the berries had all gone and all I brought home was an empty jug and a black mouth. How they laughed at me!

            At Easter 1873 I was expected – or rather I was permitted – to start school. It was like this. The 1836 School Law stated that children who by Michaelmas would complete their sixth year must start attending school the previous Easter. Because I was born in September I would have been permitted to start school in accordance with this statute. But a new school law had been passed in 1873 which said that only those children could be accepted who had reached the age of six by 30 June. So really I should not have started school, but the Cantor (who was also the village schoolmaster) accepted me. I am to this day grateful to him for that. Consequently, I was later able to start work a year early.

            I cannot remember much about my first school day apart from the fact that I slept badly the night before from excitement and, contrary to my previous habit, rose early. After breakfast I began making preparations for this important step, although the time for reception was fixed at one o’clock (so after lunch). I did not have much trouble getting my things together. I only had two slate pencils and a slate. My father considered a satchel was not necessary and I did not yet have a reading-book. But I kept brushing my jacket and smoothing my hair down, so that the looking-glass in the living room was on that day only for me. The hands on the clock, in my opinion, were not moving. I was already good at telling the time. My eldest sister was due to accompany me to school on the first day. Why mother was not going with me, I can no longer remember. At half past twelve we set out; my sister was cross with me because I could not wait; I was frightened we would be late. What we did in the school, I cannot remember. We received bags of dainties, but by today’s standards they were poor and stingy. When we children entered the building we were frightened; our guardians had surreptitiously disappeared. Many of the children began to cry and call for their mothers. My eyes too began to fill with tears when I could no longer see my sister. Suddenly, however, all the women were back. They had only been in the other room, which at that time was not in use. I went home with the others, firmly holding my sister’s hand. I asked my sister, who already went to school, about the new things I had seen there. I was especially interested in the map on the wall, whose meaning and purpose I could not understand. It seems I liked going to school. When the first fair took place, in the middle of June, I received twenty pfennigs from the Kantor, because I could read nicely. The equivalent gift for the girls went to Hana, the daughter of the estate-owner in Brösa. There was great joy on that day and the fair seemed better and more important to me than at any other time.

The place next to me at school was occupied by Arnošt B., the present-day owner of the estate. He was a good-natured boy. He brought sandwiches to school every day. I did not have any, because I came from the village. But Arnošt was generous, so every day he gave me half his sandwich. His mother spread the butter fairly thick, so it is no surprise that I liked her sandwiches better than those I got home. In the winter Arnošt always had apples in his satchel, small and green ones, it is true, but very tasty; my mouth still waters when I think of them. After we were grown up, we would still often talk of those times.

For administering punishment the Kantor had a short ruler. He would use it from time to correct us. One day my school-friend stabbed me in the hand with a pen. To this day I still have a scar on my hand. The wound bled profusely, and, like all children when they see blood, I was alarmed. The Kantor was not there yet. He entered the noisy classroom in a rage and, because all the children were standing around me, he made straight for me with his ruler to punish me. But my classmates, in particular my friend Arnošt, confirmed that I was not guilty. And so I avoided being punished. I had to wash my wound in the brook which ran near the school, until it stopped bleeding.

Some events I have described in the ‘Zahrodka.’ Others I have completely forgotten. I only went to school in Guttau for a year and a quarter. Then a difficult change intervened in my life, of which I shall write next time.

Before I proceed to the more serious experiences, here are two further memories. Where the Lubata leaves Guttau it forms the boundary between properties in our village and the neighbouring village. The fields there are very low-lying. There is a risk of flooding. For that reason a high bank has been built there. On the bank osiers have been planted. These osiers were cut every spring. They were leased to a Mr Weber, a basket-maker from Bautzen. He had his store in our barn. Every morning he would go out and cut the osiers with a curved knife. The children who did not have to be school would go there with wooden tongs, take an armful of green osiers, sit down on the bank, and plant the tongs in the ground between their feet. Herr Rječk used to make the tongs. He would take an oak post and split it lengthwise with a thin blade into four down to about half its length. He cut out two of the four quarters opposite each other, so that two quarters opposite each other remained. The osier was pushed between them and pulled through the tongs from one end to the other. Its skin would burst and was then peeled off with the fingers. Each batch of threescore osiers was bound separately with the osier skins. We little boys could peel about thirty score osiers in half a day. In the evening we would hand them over to Mr Weber and receive two pfennigs for threescore. I remember Mr Weber was the first person to bring the new German state coins into the village. There was a great scramble to get hold of them and anyone who got one of these coins was happy.

The parish pastor in those days was Mr Sommer, born in Malschwitz. He was a fine figure of a man with a friendly face and was apparently particularly fond of children. His study was on an upper floor directly above the front door. When he saw children in the road leading past the manse, he would open the window and throw down coins, pieces of sugar, little pieces of gingerbread, or any other titbits he happened to have. The boys came running and collected everything up. One got more, another less, depending on luck. ‘The pastor is throwing things,’ one boy would say to another, and the little crowd of collectors would grow rapidly. Twice, sometimes even three times, the pastor would repeat his generosity. Then he would close the window and the fun was over for that day. We boys used think all clergymen did the same thing. When later on I went to the Malschwitz parish, I enquired when ‘the pastor threw things’ and was utterly astounded that the Malschwitz boys knew nothing about that.

I have a further memory of the kindness of our pastor. One day mother sent me and my sister to him with a basket of potatoes. He came down to answer the door himself and allowed us to enter his garden and eat our fill of the berries growing there. That was a treat for us. At home we did not have a single berry growing in the entire garden.

When I was six, my mother began to fall ill. Once on a warm day she came in from the field feeling thirsty and she was sweating a lot. She drank some cold water from the well. After drinking she was seized by a fever; a few days later she had a cough and could not get rid of it. The sickness grew and the frightful cough tormented her increasingly day by day. The doctor from Klix used come often, but he could not help her. Although she was growing weaker and weaker, she constantly comforted us, assuring me and my sister that she would be better before Father Christmas came. One day she wished us a particularly touching ‘good night’. We slept upstairs. As every evening, my sister with her clear voice was singing in bed ‘The bright sun has gone to rest.’ As well as I could, I was singing with her. Then we both fell asleep and did not notice how the angel of death approached mother’s bed. She could feel that the end was near. Her last prayer was for the two of us, especially for me, her little one. And if in life things have always gone well for me, I have often thought to myself: ‘That’s the effect of mother’s prayer on her deathbed.’ When they asked her if she wanted to see us children once again, she shook her head and whispered: ‘Let them sleep.’ When we got up in the morning, she lay stiff and cold in her bed. Her loving heart had stopped.

What had happened to me when mother closed her eyes in the sleep of death, I did not yet realize. Of the funeral I can remember very little. The coffin, however, I can still see in my mind’s eye. It was standing before the front-door and was still open as we stepped out into the yard. We had to take our leave of our dead mother. My father and my sister took her hand. I had to do the same. But how shocked I was, because mother’s hand, which had so often stroked me lovingly, was ice-cold! I was so frightened that I burst into tears. And the pale, yellowish face with closed, deeply sunken eyes! No, that could not be my mother. The coffin was sealed and taken to the cemetery. The grave had been dug close to the church by the west door. There mother was buried. When we had all returned home and the grieving relatives had dispersed, everything seemed so empty in the house, although there was only one pair of hands less than there had been. My sister, who was five years older than me, wept constantly and sang repeatedly:

Away, away the orphan went

Home to seek her mother.

I knelt beside a chair and laid my face on it, constantly weeping. What could we do now without mother?

The property had belonged to mother, so it had to be sold by the court. My sister and I asked father to buy it, so that we would not need to leave our home. I remember very well the day when a crowd of men gathered in our living room. The representative of the court, a certain Mr Dracha, arrived in a carriage. We children had to leave the room and we went to Aunty Nowak. The sale did not take long. Father had bought the property. It was a happy moment when he told us that we were staying in Guttau. But the happiness did not last long. Why father without mother could not cope with running the place, I do not know. One day two men came to our house. One of them was a certain Pawlik from Eutrich. They were a pair of brokers. They persuaded father to sell the property, which was something over thirty Scheffel (bushels) in size. The sale of the family house made me and my sister very sad. With all my might I hated the two men who were responsible for this. What now? The buyers divided the property and the second of them by the purchase of the fields enlarged his fortune. Father decided to move to Bautzen and find a job there. He could not find a use there for us children. For my sister a refuge was soon found. Our eldest step-sister, who had married a man in Radeburg, wrote asking for her and father drove her there – to Germany. And she never returned to the Wendei. She married a German and after many hardships and struggles died in Meissen at a relatively young age after grievous suffering. There she rests now in foreign soil.

But what was to be done with this boy? That was father’s constant worry. Nobody could make anything out of me, because I was not yet capable of work, and father did not want to spend much on me. Well, he had heard that a certain Patok in Kleinsaubernitz had once said he could take on a goose-boy. Father had promised him he could have me for that job and the two men had come to an agreement. On Sunday I was to go with father to the Patoks to be introduced. So off I went with him. To be sure, the Patoks were good, kind people and gave me a warm welcome. But everything was so alien. I was to stay there straight away. The next day father would send on my everyday clothes and whatever else I needed. In the evening father said goodbye to me, reminding me to be a good boy. When father had gone my heart was ready to break. I wept bitterly and the Patoks comforted me. For a moment they left me alone and I used that moment to escape. I ran for all I was worth after father to Guttau and caught him up before he got home. He was extremely disappointed, but when I told him in tears that I could not stay there, he did not scold, but took me in again.

I had a married step-sister who lived in Wartha. I had often been there. They had a copy of Beckar’s bible stories there. I loved reading them. I was pleased that I could read there for myself what the Kantor had told us about in school. My step-sister had always been kind to me; I was especially fond of her, because she was very similar to my late mother. She could sing beautifully. I had a grandma there too, who was, it was true, very strict; but at the same time she was also kind. So I asked father to send me Wartha and he agreed. Whether he had to pay them anything for me, I do not know; I think he probably did. One January day in 1876 I had to say goodbye to my father and to my home. That was the most difficult experience of my whole life. With a bundle under my arm I left father and the house. I called in on Aunty Nowak, with whom I had spent a large part of my childhood. Pětk‘s smithy was another house I could not pass by without calling. There I had often been permitted to make nails or turn the whetstone. That was the reason why I had firmly decided to become a blacksmith. It was the last house in the village; after that the road led between the fields and ponds to Lömischau. I reached the road in tears, frequently looking back in sorrow at the house. The last part of it to remain visible was the barn. Whether I first visited my mother’s grave, I cannot remember; but Aunty Nowak would probably have reminded me to do so. There were now no other women in the house and father was not a man of fine feelings. The road to Wartha normally took half an hour, but I do not know how long I took to cover it. Wartha is a comparatively long village. I took a long and careful look at every house, more than I had before, because now I was one of the people of Wartha. My sister’s place stood in the middle of the village, near the school. I only had a short journey to school, which did not suit me, because it meant I did not need a satchel, though I very much wanted one. I entered the living-room. Sitting on the sofa was my grandpa, my brother-in-law’s father. I have forgotten how he welcomed me; I remember only that he immediately told me to sweep the room, so that I should not be idle. ‘The broom’s in the porch,’ said grandpa. I fetched it and started sweeping – for the first time in my life! At home I had not needed to do much work. So I was fairly unskilled. Grandpa scolded me for my awkwardness; whether I was hungry, he had not asked.

Near the sofa stood a cradle, in which a little boy and a little girl were sleeping. Later I had to look after them and to push them here and there. In the evening my brother-in-law, sister, and grandma came home. Where they had been, I have forgotten. Probably my brother-in-law and grandma had been in the wood. In the winter my brother-in-law used to go to work in the forest. Now it was time for the evening meal. But here there was no sandwich cut the whole way through the loaf, as I was accustomed to have at home, but only a small half slice with rather salty butter spread thinly. I did not know at that time that my brother-in-law was struggling with economic difficulties. In the evening we used to sit in darkness until my sister and grandma had finished their work in the cowshed. Then they would take a kerosene lamp from the lantern and stand it in the middle of the table on an upturned pot. There was not much light in the room. We all used to sit round the table. My sister brought a pot of potatoes and emptied them out straight onto the table. Everyone put his arms on the table edge to stop the potatoes rolling onto the floor. Then she brought a saucepan or enamel bowl with brown gravy and put it down beside the lamp. Each of us would stick half a potato onto the end of his knife, dip it into the gravy, then quickly put it into his mouth. If someone was particularly lucky he might now and again get a lump of fat, but deliberately fishing for lumps was forbidden. If grandma detected attempts of that kind, someone was in for a scolding. We went to bed early.

The next morning two loads of corn had to be threshed before my brother-in-law went to work. ‘Can you thresh?’ he asked me. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘Then you must learn,’ he said. In the morning soon after six I was called and had to go with the others to the barn. I had to learn how to thresh and I obeyed quite blindly, though there was no way of avoiding scoldings, especially when I banged someone with the flail. When the two loads had been threshed, it was time for breakfast. Potatoes again, as at supper.         

I did not like the potatoes in that thin gravy. So grandma lectured me: ‘Eat it up! Eat it up! You won’t get a slice of bread until ten o’clock. It isn’t here like it was at your previous home, where you used to keep asking for slices.’ So I ate up. In the morning I had to look after the two children. At the appointed hour I received a slice of bread in the same form as the previous day. At midday it was potatoes again. Then I got ready for school, which began at one o’clock.

I did not like the school in Wartha, which at that time was still in the old building, but with time I grew used to it. The teacher was Herr Krawc. He was stricter than Kantor Bayer, but I made friends with him too. I was surprised to see how Herr Krawc, after school, would pick up a mattock or rake and go into his school fields to cultivate them. When he moved to Rodewitz, we got a really young teacher, Herr Lukaš, who later was the teacher in Döbeln. I was not often punished at school. Only once Herr Lukaš struck me a few times on the head with the bow of his violin, because I was singing badly. Whether that improved the tune I cannot say.

For a long time I felt homesick. I missed my Guttau friends. So I was overjoyed when my sister sent me to Guttau one day to exchange some butter for a few things from the Janks. I ran quickly and, when I had completed my errand, I went to see Arnošt Šumberg. That was a joyful meeting.

It was at a time of flooding. So we walked to the dyke protecting the Guttau fields from the waters of the Lubata. The water only needed to rise a foot or two before it would flow over the dyke. We two boys were thinking to ourselves: ‘Just imagine if that were to happen now!’ Whose idea it was I can no longer remember. We took a stick and tried to pierce the dyke. Fortunately, however, we achieved nothing with our sticks. We did not think what an unimaginable disaster we would have caused, if our crime had been successful. – Thus children in their silliness can do things which cause great harm to people.

Sunset was not far off, so it was time for me to set off home. First, however, I had to walk through ‘our’ yard. The front door was closed. Father, who was still living in Guttau, was not at home. So I could only look through the window into the living room. Everything was still standing there as before – but what I had most loved was no longer there. Now it was time for home, quickly.

Catching sight of my sister’s place from far off, I could see that she was in front of the yard waiting for me. When I came closer, I noticed that she had her right hand under her apron. When I came close to her, she drew it out and suddenly a stick was dancing on my back. ‘Take that for your endless delay in Guttau!’ she thundered at me. ‘I’ve been waiting for you for hours.’ And so my first trip to my old home ended in tears. – The next time I did not stay there so long, because I had been told in advance that I would never be allowed to go to Guttau again, if I did not hurry back.

In the summer I had to tend the cows on the grass verges between the fields. I did not like this job, because I continually had to struggle with the animals who were attracted by the young green crops in the fields, whereas they did not like the dry grass on the margins. In the autumn in the meadows they were much easier to tend. Then I could lie on my back and look at the sky. When the stars came out, I counted them. Once the teacher asked how many stars there were in the sky. I quickly raised my hand and said: ‘Sometimes four, five, etc.’ There was laughter. The teacher laughed most. The ‘stupid’ children, who often could not answer as well as I could, of course, laughed most of all. That upset me terribly and for a long time I did not put my hand up any more.

One autumn we had visitors. These people were eager to get their hands on some mushrooms. It was not a good year for mushrooms, but they still sent me into the woods with a basket hoping I would find some. I covered a fair distance without finding a single mushroom. So I asked God to help me fill my basket. And behold, my prayer was heard. I came across a thicket. I crawled on my belly into the baby fir-trees and caught sight of the first mushroom. What joy! I pressed on, and there were more and more of them. I reached the far side of the thicket and, when I had finished, the basket was almost full. Contented, I sauntered home.

There was a game that was once popular among boys called ‘fenglowanje.’ A round hole was sunk into the firm ground. A button had to be thrown into the hole from a distance. The one who managed this or whose button lay nearest to the hole was the first to be allowed to attempt to flip the button into the hole with a bent rod. Whoever succeeded was allowed to keep the button. Luck, even in those days, was fickle. One day I had gambled my buttons and lost them all. A sad Sunday afternoon awaited, because I did not possess a single button. But wait! In an upstairs room my brother-in-law’s trousers were lying. I did not know he still liked to wear them, so I cut off all the buttons. Now I could participate in the game again! But Monday morning came! My brother-in-law put his trousers on – but there were no buttons on them. He showed the unfortunate trousers to my sister, who grumbled a good deal because she had to drop all her work to sew buttons on. I confessed my crime and had my ears boxed. I never cut any buttons off again.

Shortly after my move to Wartha there was a wedding in Aunty Krušwica’s house in Guttau. I thought that I, as a relative, would be invited, but nothing came of that. While my sister and brother-in-law went to the wedding I had to stay at home to look after this and that. But I wanted desperately to go to Guttau, so after a few hindrances, while grandma was looking after the children, off I went. When I arrived at the house where the wedding reception was taking place, the guests had just risen from the table and they were walking in the gardens. Most of the guests did not notice the arrival of a little boy. My sister and brother-in-law, however, were surprised to see me and loudly asked me where I had come from and what I wanted there, and said I should lose no time in getting back to Guttau. Had it not been for the bride, Hana Krušwica, who took care of me, I might have returned home without a bite to eat, but she told the fat old braška (wedding-organizer) Kmoch from Quatitz to give me something to eat and he did so. So I tucked in to my heart’s content until my sister said: ‘Now hurry home, while it’s still daylight.’ I would have so liked to spend more time with my Guttau friends and acquaintances, but fear of the dark drove me home. I can no longer remember what sort of welcome I received from my Wartha grandma, so it cannot have been too bad.

Even when I was bigger I was easily frightened. I would not even cross the yard in the dark. I had heard so many tales and legends about ghosts, while I was little, and for me they all came alive in the dark. I was surrounded by ghostly shapes and my hair stood on end. I did not give up these foolish fears until I was a man.

My father was no longer living in Guttau; he had become an agricultural labourer and moved to Bautzen, where he lived in Ziegelei Street with a Mr Schmidt. They used to go to work together. One day I received a message from him that he wanted me to visit him. But how was I to get from Wartha to Bautzen, a journey of three and a half hours? Grandma had a solution. Evert afternoon the postman drove his trap with letters and parcels from Guttau to Bautzen, stayed there overnight and came back the next morning to Guttau. I accompanied him. I stayed the night with my father. He bought me whatever I needed. On further visits I made the journey on my own. I would set out on Sunday after lunch. Sometimes father accompanied me for part of the way. Afterwards I covered the whole journey on foot.

In autumn the old river, which flows through the Wartha meadows from Zubornička to Lemišow, would often burst its banks and flood the meadows. If winter came early the meadows were covered by ice and invited skaters. The teacher’s daughter Liza was outstanding among the skaters. People were amazed that girls too should go skating, but I was of the opinion that her prominence should have belonged to me rather than to a girl. My sister, however, could not afford to buy me skates. So I was overjoyed one day, when I received from my father the good news that I could go to the cobbler in Guttau and get myself a pair of skates. I did not need telling twice! I went for them on Sunday. It was thawing. From midday there was a strong wind blowing. On reaching the first pond I put my skates on and stepped out. I could not skate yet, but that was not necessary, because the wind was blowing me along with considerable force. I crossed the edge of the first pond. On the second I allowed myself to be driven further, but what was this? Here there were a lot of round holes bored into the ice. A managed to steer round the first, but there were more and more of them. So I could not help avoid skating into one and plunged into the cold water up to and over my knees. It was not so easy to climb out, because the ice was soft and brittle; but finally I made it and came home crying and shivering from my first skating exploit. I was chased up to bed immediately.

My brother-in-law in Wartha used to work in the forest, The men felled the timber and then worked on it. In the evening each of them was allowed to take home as much wood as he could carry. At midday the women and children would carry a meal into the woods; and they too would not go home without a few logs. ‘It’s a stupid woodsman that buys his own wood,’ said the old senior forester Sachsa one day, and that was the principle the workers followed. Of course, they always took pieces of resinous pine-wood home. But there was a disadvantage to that. Resinous pine-wood alone is not suitable for heating. For heating not much is needed. So grandma had another idea. In the loft there still lay the old flue, made of cloth, and the fireplace was beside the door. ‘In the evening we can light up the flue while spinning.’ said grandma. The next day grandpa had repaired it. I had to cut little, thin spills from the resinous pine-wood.

In the evening there were four spinners sitting round the fireplace. Above the fireplace hung the cloth flue, just like a big funnel. It was intended to catch the smoke and lead it to the chimney. I sat on a chair with my bunch of spills. Grandpa kept the fire going and I had to add spills, if possible, so steadily that the lighting of the room was always the same. Of course, I could not always manage that, so there was no lack of scolding. It was not a good light for working, but for spinning it was adequate. It would probably have been really good for an artist who could see the faces of the spinners in the red-yellow light of the resinous flame. While performing this duty I was doing my homework, which was often far from easy.

The Malschwitz school about fifty years ago was famous, among other things, because every year it had a school festival. One of the tenants of the manor-house had left a bequest and the interest was to be used for this festival. It was always held around Whitsun at the Gleina windmill. That was in the days when so much sand had not yet been extracted from the hill, so that there was enough room for the children to play their games. Herr Pjech, the Malschwitz cantor, was already an elderly but very jolly man, who knew how to organize fun and games for his children. When the Malschwitz children ‘went to hill’ – as they used to say – the whole region was on its feet, because at the windmill there was a little fair or a little shooting gallery. I too had agreed with three comrades to ‘go to the hill’. The way was long – over an hour – and we did not have much money – fifteen new pfennigs – but we just had to go. The main concern was always how to invest our money – on a piece of gingerbread, a piece of cake, a whistle, or on little balls – the decision was hard and hunger was growing, until finally I decided on half a roll with little fishes for ten new pfennigs. For the remaining five new pfennigs I bought gingerbread balls. I kept counting them again and again, so as not to eat more than would leave two for everyone at home. And so we arrived home in the half dark, tired out – but we had been ‘on the hill.’

When I had been two years in Wartha, my sister let me know one day that my father was getting remarried and I was to have a new mother. I have forgotten with what feelings I received this news, but I can still remember my first visit to my new home. It must have been at the beginning of August. The plums were ripe. So I went one afternoon to Pließkowitz. This was to be my new home. They all welcomed me very warmly there, so I was not afraid to move in, — but it was not yet time for that. After coffee my Pließkowitz grandpa took me out to the plum tree and said: ‘Now it is time for you to shake down the plums, as many as you like, and put them into your pockets, as many as you can get in.’ That was not a bad idea! So up I went into the fat tree. Then came the picking and shaking. Oh, those sweet plums! Further out along the branch. The further the sweeter. Yes, yes! And suddenly it fell. The branch and the boy were both lying on the ground. The boy said nothing because he had been winded. After a while he stood up. Otherwise he had suffered no harm. He picked everything of the broken branch. So there was still a little prize for the Wartha team! My first visit to my future home – both happy and sad.


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