"I've told very few people this," she said shyly. "They might not believe me." My curiosity piqued, I encouraged Aunt Anna to continue.
....Three weeks before Christmas 1944--the memory is as vivid today as though it happened yesterday--I was a refugee from the Ukraine living in an old house high up in the Alps near Ratkersburg, Yugoslavia.
World War II had unleashed its fury upon my village of Nieder-Chortitza, west of the Dnieper River in Ukraine. After many months of bombing and shelling, we had fled for our lives. In the dim interior of a freight car, we tried to calm our pounding hearts by singing hymns. Our train, crammed with refugees, had inched its way across the Ukrainian steppes and through Poland. Sometimes the Russian army opened fire on the train. Bombs exploded and rocked the cars. The staccato of machine guns drummed in our heads. We clung to each other.
But we had made it safely to Yugoslavia, now occupied by the Germans. Since the Germans had brought us and treated us favourably, the Yugoslavs hated us. We feared *partisan activity against us. Wild stories circulated about how these men, dressed as firemen, had raped refugee women and plundered their homes at night. Some of our boys had been shot at by them. For that reason we kept our doors bolted shut. Women never travelled alone.
Added to this peril, the fighting front was again too close for comfort. Many nights searchlights fanned the night skies, then explosions rocked the windows as the Russian bombers dropped their deadly cargo.
Once more we feared for our lives and thought about evacuation.
"Come to Germany," my sister Tina had written. "You'll be safer here."
So, on this particular day, a friend and I took a train to Graz, Austria, to fill out application forms for a visa. The long, dangerous journey took all day. On the return trip to Ratkersburg, I noticed how quickly daylight was fading. Then sleet pelted the window.
"A miserable night to be out walking," my friend muttered.
"I'm getting off at the next station to spend the night at my son's house," she said. "Anna, you're welcome to come too."
I shook my head no. My friends at home would worry if I didn't arrive tonight, and I had no way of telling them about a change in plans.
The train slowed and my friend got off. Watching her receding back as she hurried away, I felt desolate. Should I have gone with her? The train lurched and began to move again. At 8 p.m. it chugged into my station. As I descended, an icy wind tore at my threadbare coat and thin kerchief. The sleet stung my face. I hurried into the dimly lit station, sat down on a wooden bench, and deliberated what to do.
To get back to my home up the mountain, I would have to walk ten kilometres, alone, in the pitch darkness. I had no flashlight, and I would have to find my way. Even worse, the narrow path ran past a cemetery, vineyards, and dense forest--the kinds of places partisans might be hiding in. Only a few houses lay scattered on the lonely terrain. Then, too, I would have to ford a rushing mountain stream.
There's no way I can make that trip tonight, I thought.
A middle-aged man busied himself behind the wicket. Timidly I approached him: "Sir, could I spend the night here, please?"
"No, ma'am," he said emphatically.
"I have far to walk..." I began.
"Ma'am, I can't allow it," he said abruptly. He grabbed his coat and hat and fished for the keys in his pocket. Then he headed for the door. Panic kept me rooted to the floor. I can't go up that mountain alone.
At the door the man turned and said impatiently, "C'mon. I'm locking this place up." He must have seen the panic in my eyes, for he said more kindly, "During an air raid, you'll be safer up the mountain anyway."
As I listened to the receding crunch of his boots on gravel, the knot of fear in my stomach tightened. The only man who could have helped me vanished into the night.
What was I to do? For a few moments, I stood under the eaves of the straw roof. Then I lifted my face to the sky and spoke to the only Person who could help me now. "Father," I whispered, "I'm so scared. Take away this terror. Walk with me."
Suddenly a light fanned across the sky.
Oh, no, the bombers! I thought. Knowing that train stations are targeted, I moved away from the building.
The light moved with me, clearly shining on my path.
I waited for the screeching of planes, then the explosion of bombs. Nothing. Instead, a deep quietness. An indescribable peace filled my heart, dispelling every trace of fear. The path lay bright at my feet.
Hymns of praise welled up inside me: "Lass die Herzen immer froehlich und mit Dank erfuellet sein"; (May our hearts be ever joyful and filled with thankfulness.) "So nimm denn meine Haende und fuehre mich." (Take Thou my hand, O Father, and lead me on.) Song after joyous song filled me with praise. I fought a strong urge to sing out loud--after all, one had to be prudent--but I began to hum softly.
Then I realized the wind had stopped--and the rain. In fact, it was as warm as a summer's night. I began to loosen my kerchief. How strange to be so warm in December, I thought.
When I reached the swollen stream, the water glistened like a myriad of diamonds. Sure-footed, I stepped onto the flat rocks sticking out of the foaming water and forded it.
The light guided and cheered me all the way up the mountain. As I neared the old house, I looked back over the treacherous mountain path I had taken. Like a ribbon of light it lay behind me.
Excitedly, I knocked on the door. I wanted my friends to see this awesome sight.
The door opened. A gust of wind grabbed it, almost tearing it off its hinges. "Anna, come in," my friend yelled, pulling me inside.
My friends crowded around me. "Such a terrible storm. Weren't you afraid?" they asked.
"No," I shook my head. "There was no storm."
But I could say no more, for now I could hear it too: the howling wind, the sleet pelting the window panes, the moaning of the house.
While one friend busied herself with my supper, another took my coat. "It's dry," she said. "Anna, your coat is dry."
"I know," I said. I did my best to explain, but my friends looked at me strangely as though they were trying to make sense out of it all.
Aunt Anna finished her story and searched my face. "You do believe this really happened to me, don't you?".
"Yes, I believe you." I took her hand and squeezed it. "I guess what you're telling me is that we've got nothing to be afraid of--ever."
"Yes, yes ," Aunt Anna smiled. "What is there to be afraid of?"