Making Faces

Photo by Scott Webb

Otto Schneider worked to the natural music of the wind off the Baltic. Since the war, it became a more pronounced tune as it hummed and whistled through the ruins of what once was the Prora Kamp resort on Rügen Island.

It wasn’t quite the Strauss symphonies or accordions and brass of the folk bands the Nazis would pump through the speakers up and down the island, but it served its purpose as musical accompaniment for his efforts as well as it did for theirs. 

He recalled how Hitler’s “Strength Through Joy” organizers came to the island and told locals like Otto how they would build their spare hotels in an effort to provide affordable vacation space for the average German worker. 

“Every working German deserves a day at the beach,” they told Otto and his neighbors. So he and other local business owners quickly mobilized their meager concerns to support the coming throngs seeking a seaside holiday from their smoky factory towns, the packed cities and boring farms. 

His oldest son, young Otto, and the younger boy, Kurt, became his second pair of craftsman’s hands, carving little boats, guns and doll heads, doubling his production of those toys. His wife Magda and older daughter Maria, sewed the little outfits for the dolls. In addition to the carving, Otto painted the faces of the dolls, giving them life and a certain sparkling magic that rivaled the sunlight on the waves of the Baltic.

“How do you do that, Father?” his youngest daughter Dorothea would ask as she watched every step of her father turning blocks of wood into lively kindchen and frauleins. “It’s like magic.”

“It is, in a way, Dotte,” Otto would say. “And perhaps one day you will make such magic, turning the plain into the amazing.”

“Really, Father,” she would say. “When?”

“In time, liebchen. When you a get just a little older and the Kamp opens.”

“I will make dolls magical, Father. Just you wait and see.”

But the Prora Kamp never opened. It’s building slowed as Strength Through Joy became superseded by the Aufrüstung rearmament. And by 1939 young Otto left Rügen Island to become part of the Wehrmacht, followed in two years by Kurt.

“Otto!” Magda screamed in her sleep one night in December of 1942. 

“What, my darling? I’m here.”

“No, Papa, our Otto, our boy.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s gone, I just know it,” Magda said, burying her head into her husband’s chest and sobbing.

“How do you know that, Magda. The last word we had, he was safely in reserve of the major armies. Here, you just rest upon me and go back to sleep. I’m sure you’ve had the fright of any mother of a soldier.” 

“He’s dead, Otto. Our boy is dead,” Magda said and quietly cried for the rest of the night.

The word came to the island two months later. Otto died that winter night of 1942 outside Stalingrad. 

Meanwhile, Otto kept making his dolls. 

Magda never was the same. Maria left Rügen Island to be near her fiancé’s family in Dresden in summer of 1943. Then letters stopped coming home from Kurt after the Allied invasion of France in 1944. He became just another German soldier who disappeared without a trace.

With the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945, Magda’s heart finally gave out. Dorothea found her mother at her sewing machine where she had been mending and old dress of Maria’s for her younger daughter.

“Father, what will we do? It is only you and I left. No one is ever coming to this stupid island on holiday. There’s never going to be another holiday. There are no men, no husbands, no fathers. There will be no ladies and children coming to this ghost Kamp sitting on the shore,” Dorothea said. 

“We will do as we always have, Dotte. We will make or toys, give magic to our dolls, bring them to life. Someday, I know not when, the people will come back and our lives will be better. Look how well you can paint the dolls’ faces now. You have become better than I at giving them their special magic,” Otto said as he held up the spectacularly painted head of a doll Otto had carved the day before.

“Father, this a waste of our time. We must leave Germany. Perhaps to America. That is where the future lies, even for toymakers and their daughters.”

“Don’t be silly, Dorothea. What could we do there? I am an Old World craftsman. Americans have no need for that skill. And you are only seventeen. Who would hire a girl whose only skill is painting doll faces? No, we’re staying here,” Otto said with finality, taking Dorothea’s latest creation back into his shop.

“I will not sit here waiting for something to happen that never will like you, Father. I will not die here like Mother, waiting for someone to come back here that I know never will. I will go to America and make a new life for myself,” Dorothea said. But her father didn’t hear her. He only hummed along with the winds coming off the Baltic.

Otto was sure Dorothea would always be what he was, what his father had been and his father before him. She was a Schneider and that’s what Schneiders did.

Five years later, as she just finished painting the magical face on another of her dolls, Dot Snyder felt a chill as she thought of the man who had taught her the skill she now used to make a living in America. And she knew, she just knew as her mother knew, that Otto was gone.

But before she could give it another thought, one of her dolls called her from across the dressing room at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

“Dot, can you fix my face?” she said.

“Coming, Dolly. Can’t let you go out there without your magic, can we?” Otto Schneider’s daughter replied.

Here’s the final story from my Six Weeks, Six Senses project in concert with prompts from Canadian writer and teacher Sarah Salecky. This final week was to write about a sixth sense — the magic of intuition. I had a choice of photos to help guide me in terms of a character, a setting and an object. I write this today while crippled up with a painfully messed up back. Been down with it since Saturday. But I had to do this, even if I didn’t feel like it, or even feel like I could or not. So here you go. The story is a first draft flash fiction that may or may not grow up or grow better. But it grew. Thanks, Sarah.

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