It had become dangerous for the universities to remain open. Still, I begged my parents to let me attend. In the end, my relentless begging broke down their resistance and they let me go. The day I left, there were many tears on both of their parts, and I swore to them repeatedly that I would be extremely cautious and watch for any signs that would suggest I might, as a student, be in danger.
My classes were all assigned; I had no choice in the matter. One of them was German language, and I thought this strange since we all spoke it. It became clear on the first day of class, however, that although we spoke it, we did not understand the mechanics of the language, so we were there to learn it almost from scratch, as it were, the purpose being to turn all into grammarians.
One of the exercises in the class was to pull a word from a hat passed around at the end of the hour. The hat contained scraps of paper with vocabulary words on them. We were to write down the definition of the word and a sentence utilizing that word.
Our professor said that this way, if we learned nothing else in the class, which, he said, was sometimes the case with a few students, we would at least have a stronger acquaintance with and attachment to the words we looked up, and even if we had known the words before, we would have them forever tattooed on our brains.
The word I pulled from the hat the first day was Scham. The definition is “shame,” the feeling of shame, and the gender feminine. I used it in the simple sentence: He hung his head in shame.
A few students were called on each day to tell the class their word and spell it aloud, then read their sentence. As it happened, I was called upon the next day, so I gave the definition of Scham, then spelled it and read my sentence.
After I gave my example, a girl who’d caught my eye during the first class the day before, and who sat opposite me in the circle of students, smiled at me. I wasn’t sure how to interpret this, but I managed a small smile back at her, and I’m ashamed to say that I blushed.
Two weeks later, at what was supposed to kick off a one-night-a-week cultural event, two dozen or so girls from all the first-year language classes performed a folk dance. The music was provided by a single accordion, and the tune, in three-four time, reminded me a bit of Strauss’s “Blue Danube.”
The costumes consisted of a simple white blouse and a skirt made from subtly colored patches, rather like those small squares you would use to make a quilt. The girls held the skirts with their left hands and danced swaying across the floor with their right forearms covering their breasts. Had they worn no blouses then, they would have been covering their nipples.
This gesture, I gathered, was supposed to symbolize modesty, the kind, I suppose, that would also represent virginity. I thought this ironic because, if anything, their arms across their breasts, at least for someone my age, immediately brought having sex to mind.
At any rate, as the tune wound down, then came to an end, that girl from my language class, Gretchen – we’d all learned each other’s names in class — happened to stop almost in front of me. After they took their bow, their arms still shielding their untouchable nipples, Gretchen caught my eye, and as I looked at her and smiled another pathetically blushing smile, she dropped her arm quickly, winked at me, and then swayed away with the others, all still in their protective pose, out through the stage curtains, their arms symbolically shielding their virginity until the end.
If I had been blushing before, you can bet that I was a bright red now. Had I been better versed in the ways of romance, I would have jumped at this demonstration of interest on her part, and been chomping at the bit to ask her out the first chance I had. But I was still pathetically naive at 18, and the scene only made me wonder if this meant she might in any way be attracted to me.
This naiveté particularly saddened me in hindsight over the years, for that was the last night the university was allowed to remain open. The following day, just before dawn, the Nazis descended on the place en masse, forcing everyone from their dorms and disbursing us so quickly that we had to leave without our possessions.
I looked about for Gretchen, but to no avail. There were just too many students, and I had no idea in which dormitory she lived. There were many nights during the war that I remembered that night, pictured her sweeping across the floor, and in my memory, I did not blush when I saw that wink, and I longed to have connected with her.
Those visions of Gretchen helped keep me sane, maybe even kept me alive through the war years. I often wonder if she survived and hope desperately in my heart of hearts that she did. I like to picture her now, a mother beaming over her beautiful children, the sun always shining brightly upon her in some blissful place.