Night before Dawn: Grete's Story

Night before Dawn: Grete's Story

by Ilse Shea

ISBN: 9781480037762

Publisher CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Published in Biographies & Memoirs, Nonfiction

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Book Description

Nobody has ever written about this, no documentary has ever talked about it, and most people had no idea what was going on and how awful it was, except the ones who lived it.

This book is about my mother, Grete, one of millions of women, heroes all, who were left to pick up the pieces in a destroyed country after WWII, with most able-bodied men gone.

How did they survive and protect their children from rape and danger? What happened when the Americans left and the Russians marched in and spread their reign of terror?

With this book I attempt to put a human face on the horrors of war.

Sample Chapter

Grete couldn’t recall much about the day she and her brother, Erich, were taken away from their home. Four years old, her memories were already confused by the recent death of their mother, which had brought their father home briefly. Then he left again, and a little while later, one of Grete’s older sisters said that he, too, was dead, killed in the line of duty. It was the war, she had said, the Big One. For the first time, the whole world was at war.

Grete couldn’t remember much about her older sisters, either, except for the dark outlines their slight bodies made in the front window that day, when the tall, skinny man came and lifted her and Erich into the rickety black buggy. The horse’s hoofs set up a steady “click, click, click” as it unenthusiastically pulled the buggy down the road, leaving behind the little house with its young occupants, soon to be sent to entirely different orphanages.

Grete and her brother sat close together through the long journey, Erich quietly sucking on the fingers of one hand, Grete silently watching the man, who never spoke or smiled. Finally, they pulled up in front of a massive brick building. The man helped the two out of the buggy and put their matching little black suitcases next to them. “Wait here,” he ordered. The children clutched each other’s hands as he rang the bell.

Presently, a woman stepped out. She was dressed in flowing black robes, with a black winged hat held fast on her head by a stiff white hood that kept her chin high and wound around her neck as if to choke her. Down the front of her robes hung an enormous golden cross; on her face sat a heavy, smoldering anger. The horse shook its head wildly and neighed. Grete shivered. The woman in black stopped in front of her.

“What is your name?” she demanded.

“Grete,” the girl whispered, unable to find her full voice.

“I can’t hear you!” The woman forced a horrible smile. “What is your name, child?”

Paralyzed with fear, Grete could not turn her gaze away from the angry eyes. “My name is Grete!” she answered much more forcefully than she intended.

The black-clad woman showed her horrible smile again. “Grete. Good. I am Sister Sarah. I will be taking care of you. Come!”

“You may go,” she added to the man, who stood waiting a few feet away. He patted the children on their heads and muttered something inaudible, avoiding Grete’s eyes. “Follow me,” the nun commanded, snatching up the two little suitcases and walking briskly toward the door.

Grete stood rooted to the spot until the man climbed into his buggy. Then she began to scream.

“No, don’t leave!” she cried hysterically. The horse pulled away from the curb. “I want to go with you! Don’t leave us here!”

Erich, who had been standing motionless the entire time, began sobbing. “I’m scared,” he whimpered.

Suddenly Grete was spun around in a fierce grip. “Stop your wailing at once!” Sister snarled, bringing her face close to Grete’s. “Stop it, do you hear?”

Instinctively, Grete’s mouth snapped shut as her eyes stretched wide with pain. “Now start walking!” the nun hissed. “I don’t have all day!”

Grete groped for Erich’s hand. Together, they followed the sister through the dark hole into the dank, shadowy building.

Sister Sarah led the children down a long hallway with towering windows on one side. The linoleum-covered floor shined like scuffed glass; the air was rich with wax. The nun stopped in front of a wooden door that seemed to loom above her. Grete tightened her grip on her brother’s hand.

The door swung open to reveal a large room filled with rows of beds. Grete could hear her own heartbeat as she and Erich followed the nun down one of the rows.

“This is where you sleep,” Sister said, pointing to a bed that looked exactly like all the others. “Keep it clean! I do not allow clutter!”

Grete nodded as if the words made sense. Sister dropped her suitcase. “Empty it!” the nun commanded with an impatient gesture. “Stack it all neatly on the bed, and wait here until I come back to get you!” She took Erich’s hand and headed back out of the room.

“Where is he going?” Grete asked with alarm. Sister whirled around. Her eyes had narrowed into slits behind her glasses. Moving deliberately, she bent down to poke her face close to Grete’s.

“Boys and girls do not sleep in the same room,” she hissed. Her teeth gleamed cold like ice, her breath felt stale on Grete’s cheeks. “Attend to your things. I will be back for you.”

As Grete watched the nun’s retreating back, her knees began to shake and a pain gripped her insides.

Erich, squirming in Sister’s grip, reached his free hand toward Grete.

“I want to stay with you! I want to stay with you!” he screamed. Sister Sarah roughly yanked his little arm and dragged him out the door. It swung shut with a resounding boom that echoed briefly through the room. Alone, Grete stood trembling from the quiet, which settled like a weight on her shoulders. A moment later, she threw herself on the bed and sobbed uncontrollably, the strange-smelling pillow muffling her cries of “Mutti, Mutti, Mutti.” Finally, exhausted and heartbroken, she fell asleep.

“Now, isn’t that nice?” Grete awoke to a coarse shaking hand and a voice she was already coming to fear. “Didn’t I tell you to put all your things in order? I’ll let it go this time, but if it happens again, you will be punished. Do you hear me? Severely punished!”

Grete nodded, her eyes swollen with sleep and tears. The Sister’s face softened. “Let’s go! Wash your face, then I’ll comb your hair. It’s time for dinner.”

Sister sat down on a chair, and positioned Grete in front of her to comb Grete’s blonder-than-blonde hair. “All right,” she sighed. “That’s better. Let’s go.”

Even walking as fast as her legs would go, Grete had trouble keeping up with the nun, who strode briskly toward the door of the sleeping hall. When she caught up, Grete reached out for a comforting hand. Without so much as a look at the child, Sister Sarah yanked her fingers away, buried them in a pocket of her robe, and quickened her pace.

Grete trailed behind the straight back of the sister through a labyrinth of long hallways. Finally the nun stopped and threw open another door. Dozens of eyes turned on Grete, whose face grew hot. “Listen, all of you!” Sister’s voice boomed out. “This is Grete!”

Grete stared down at her nervously twisting fingers, unable to face all those eyes. She was determined not to let them see her cry. Suddenly a small voice cried out, “Grete! Grete!”


Forgetting her fears, Grete quickly searched the room, then ran to meet her brother.

“Stop that!” Sister bellowed. “Come back here right this minute!”

Ignoring her, Grete and Erich clung to each other as if they had been apart for months instead of hours.

“Grete, you come back here at once!” the nun growled. She stomped over and ripped them apart. “You, young man, go back to your table and sit down!” her voice quivered. “And you!” The nun’s face reddened cheeks quivered with fury.

“But I want to stay with my brother,” Grete gulped, trying to forestall the tears she somehow instinctively knew would only anger the nun even more. “Please,” she whimpered. “Please.”

“What did you say?” The nun snarled, each word hanging in the air separately. Her rage seemed to echo through the terrifying hush of the room.

“Please,” Grete’s mouth formed, but no sound came out. “Please,” she said again, louder. “I want to stay with my brother.”

A silent gasp spread through the children watching from the tables.

Sister released Grete and Erich, and took a shaky step back. Her eyes were burning slits in her face. She seemed to grow six feet taller as she glared down on them. Awed by her immense fury, they stood transfixed, mouths open.

“Evil!” The word exploded out of Sister’s mouth, and she was suddenly in motion again. Grabbing Grete in one hand, Erich in the other, she took off toward the far end of the dining hall. “Wicked, wicked girl! The devil lives in your soul! You have no discipline! You have no obedience! You must learn! Oh, you will learn!”

She dragged the children out of the hall to another dark, heavy door, letting go only to fumble for the right key on a huge keychain. Her breath was heavy; the red circles on her cheeks had grown dark. She opened the door and pushed the children inside a forbiddingly black room.

“You want to be together? Please, can you be together?” the sister mocked. “Now you be together!” She slammed the door. The key turned in the lock. Through the heavy wood she growled, “You would be wise to think about your disobedience, wicked children who want to be together!”

Stuffed into little more than a large closet, with barely enough space to sit down, Grete and Erich clung to each other until their wails dwindled into whimpers. Eventually, they fell asleep, one head resting atop the other.

September, 1920

Days turned into months, the months into years. Grete’s life got no better. The boys were strictly separated from the girls except at mealtime, so she did not see Erich very often. They learned to smile at each other from a distance when no one else was watching.

Grete learned a lot of other things. She learned about discipline and obedience, and how to stay out of Sister Sarah’s way. She also learned about God and Jesus, and how much He loved all people. Often, she would lie in bed at night and think about the strangeness of the things she was learning. If God loved all people, why didn’t He love her? If Sister served God, why did she hate Grete so? If Jesus had died for all their sins, why was her punishment in life so harsh?

“Come closer!” Sister was impatient, her voice angry. She tightened her hand around Grete’s skinny arm. “Closer, I said!” Her knees pushed against Grete’s legs as she yanked the girl close.

Grete squeezed her eyes shut and clutched her hands together as Sister scraped the fine comb across her scalp, opening anew the thin scabs that had not had time enough to heal. Whimpering in spite of her resolve, Grete shuddered as the comb struck a particularly sore spot, and ripped off the new, delicate knot of skin.

“Stay still!” Sister almost shouted. Grete let out a scream as Sister took her ear and began twisting it. “Will you stand still now?”

“, I will, I will! Please! Let go!” The girls in line behind Grete were silent, watching Grete’s torment and awaiting their own

“Lice! That’s all we need!” Sister screamed as she had every day for the past three days. “Lice, of all vermin! Which one of you brought this pest in here? Which one? Which one?”

She released Grete’s ear and reached once more for the comb.

“Nothing but trouble, nothing but trouble! What you put me through, trying to get a handle on this mess! Nothing but trouble!” Sister continued her task with every angry word until blood tainted Grete’s blonde hair. Finally, she put the comb down and pushed Grete away. “Go clean yourself! Go on! Next!”

Her head pounding, Grete dragged herself slowly down the corridor, its shiny glass-like linoleum reflecting back her misery.


Excerpted from "Night before Dawn: Grete's Story" by Ilse Shea. Copyright © 0 by Ilse Shea. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Ilse Shea

Ilse Shea

I was born and raised in what became communist Germany after WWII. In 1953 we escaped to West Germany where I finished school and learned my trade as a podiatrist. I ultimately moved to the city of Hamburg where my sister had settled after escaping to the West before my mother and I did. It was there that I fell in love with a young man from Iran, and after four years of courtship I followed him to his native Iran and got married there. We had two boys, but sadly the marriage ended in divorce. In 1972 I came to America and became a citizen in 1980. After six years alone, I married again, this time a great American man. I live in Idaho now, and have three grandchildren and seven step-grandchildren. I'm very involved in my church, love gardening and travel. I have written two books so far, both true stories. The first book talks about the plight of women in Communist Germany after WWII, and my second book tells my story as a wife and mother in Iran.

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