August, the first short story in this slim volume of three, was written in 2011, and was the last short story written by Christa Wolf before her death in December of that year. She catapults the reader straight in to the heart of the story in the opening sentence: August remembers that just like all the children arriving by train in Mecklenburg at the end of the war without his parents, he was asked when and where he’d lost his mother. And he couldn’t remember whether the air raid had happened before or after the train crossed over the Oder and he was pulled out of it by a strange woman, hiding then in the undergrowth until the all clear, climbing back on to the train, never again to find the stranger nor his mother. He remembered his mother weeping on receiving a letter saying his father was missing in action- but he didn’t tell the Red Cross lady that, certain his father would come looking for him. He could tell her though that he was 8 years old and after examination by a doctor was sent off to a TB hospital with a cardboard sign saying ‘orphan’ around his neck.
The story then continues in the TB hospital where children and adults are being treated in desperate conditions at the end of the war: not enough food, inadequate medical facilities and treatment, children orphaned and traumatised. The one shining light for August in all this is Lilo, an older girl who stands up to the strict head nurse, cares for the other children, sings the younger ones to sleep and helps in the rudimentary schoolroom. He develops a huge crush on her, follows her everywhere, burns up with jealousy when she favours other children and especially when he sees her flirting with Harry. As the female patients laugh kindly to themselves – he is the page to her princess.
Parallel to the story of this small child at the end of the war runs the story of the adult August, now a coach driver approaching retirement and driving a coach load of pensioners home to Berlin after a holiday in Prague. As he drives northwards he reflects on periods of his life and we learn that he feels lucky to be trained as a driver, to have work and later to meet his wife Trude. Places on route such as Dresden trigger memories of Germany’s past but also of his life with Trude who has recently died. Thinking back to Lilo, he remembers the last time he saw her as she waved to him from the ambulance taking her, now cured, off to the station. He felt as if he would never again feel joy. As he returns to his flat in Marzahn at the end of the trip, he dreads the emptiness he’ll find- he has still not adjusted to living alone. But, still, he feels thankful to have known, just once in his life, happiness. Happiness with Trude or the joy he felt with Lilo? This is left open.
This beautiful story paints a sobering and heart rending picture of the lives of ordinary German civilians at the end of the war- and unlike much fiction set at this time gives us the longer view of what actually happened to those civilians who lost so much in the rest of their lives. The story is made all the more poignant by the child’s perspective through which it is told-we adult readers can all too easily interpret the signs of deteriorating health observed by the little boy in the other children and the overheard conversations between medical staff. And August’s devotion to Lilo, the compassionate and brave, in these circumstances is both utterly believable and unbearably touching. This is Christa Wolf’s last story and must be one of her finest- it will stay with me for a long time.