The girl’s parents had decided to go on a holiday without the children as her mother had only recently recovered from a serious illness and needed some time to recover. So for six weeks, the entire length of the summer school holidays, the girl and her brother had been booked into a children’s holiday home in the Black Forest.
How exciting! To spend six weeks with other children, go on walks and excursions, play in the forest, go swimming in the open-air pool in the nearby village – what could be more thrilling for an 8 year-old girl and a six year-old boy?
Their parents took them to the station where a group of children and their parents had already gathered. The girl and her mother were choked up when they said their good-byes and then the Protestant sisters, dressed in their severe looking grey and white habits, took the children to the train bound for Villingen in the Black Forest.
The impressive old building was surrounded by tall pine trees and conifers. The girl was looking for her brother but didn’t even see where he had been taken, as she was whisked off with some other girls her age to a six-bed dormitory in the vast expanse of the building.
After the girls had unpacked their things, they were taken to the dining hall at the other end of the building. Long tables were set for dozens of children in the austere looking room. The matron welcomed the children and told about the rules and regulations – which were strict. Naughtiness, backchat and bad behaviour would not be tolerated and the children were expected to eat what was put in front of them.
The girl’s stomach was rumbling, but before dinner was serviced, they had to say prayers. Not closing her eyes, the girl looked around the hall. What a strange place this was: The windows were high up on the wall, so you couldn’t look outside. The hall itself was L-shaped and in the middle, there was a sunken area, tiled in black and white, with several steps leading down. This part of the hall had an eerie look that reminded her of a small old indoor swimming pool. In the middle, she saw a solitary wooden table and chair and wondered who would be sitting there.
The girl didn’t have to wait for long to find out. She had nearly finished her dinner when she heard a commotion. Two sisters dragged a little boy from the table at the far end of the room into the sunken area and made him sit at the table. Then one of the dinner ladies arrived putting a plate of food in front of the frightened boy.
“This is what happens to children who don’t eat up”, one of the sisters said. “The good Lord provides our food and it’s a sin not to eat what’s being put in front of you!”
“Eat up!” she said to the little boy. “You will stay here on your own until your plate is empty.”
Everybody looked at the boy who had started sobbing, but nobody dared to speak up. Then the children were marched out of the dining hall in their own little groups and left the little boy behind.
Before bedtime, the sisters did the rounds of the bedrooms and pray with the children before switching off the light.
The next morning, before breakfast, the children were told to make their beds and tidy up their belongings. The girl had always slept with a comfortable quilt at home and wasn’t used to sleeping in sheets and rough spun woollen blankets. While she was struggling to pull the bedding into place, she suddenly felt an awful pain as one of the sisters jerked her upright pinching her ear.
“What do you call this?” the sister said to the girl. “You’re nearly 9 years old! Ddidn’t your mother teach you anything? And what about your things? Tidy them up immediately!”
The girl’s ear felt hot and sore and she could feel tears welling up in her eyes, but the sister didn’t allow her to explain herself.
After morning prayers, breakfast was a welcome diversion and the children were encouraged to eat as much as they could possibly manage, of dark brown rye bread, butter and chocolate spread or jam.
Then, finally, the sisters took the children out walking – divided into groups, each accompanied by two sisters. The sun was out and the air smelled of pine trees and wood sap. The girl was looking forward to her holiday in the Black Forest.