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Faces of Courage, Noni’s Escape

Noni’s Escape

Peering out of the dusty window, Noni was looking for the birds that made their nests in the tall trees that ordered the state hospital, when she saw the big gray bus with blackened windows pull to a stop. Everyone in the hospital heard the rumors about the buses that came every day to take another group of people away from the hospital.
Everyone talked about the killing of people with mental handicaps that took place in Grafeneck, the psychiatric hospital in the next town. When Noni saw the bus, she knew the rumors were true.

Noni felt an icy stab of fear and silently watched the soldiers in black uniforms burst into the quiet room. The director of the hospital nodded to them and pointed out the girls who were to be taken. He pointed to Noni and a soldier pushed her into the line of girls, who were screaming and crying. Girls who could not walk were taken from
their beds and carried like sacks of potatoes outside to the waiting bus. Noni and the others were forced into a line-up and marched outdoors. Noni felt as if she were frozen and moved slowly. But when she saw the soldier standing at the door of the bus go inside, she quickly stepped out of the line and walked past the bus, the she turned and ran to the back of the building.

The door of an old shed filled with bags of garbage was open and Noni slipped inside and hid behind a barrel, the smell of garbage made her feel sick, but she forced herself to stay there. She heard the bus leaving and then she peered outside of the shed. Seeing no one, she made her way down the path away from the hospital. The path met a road and Noni began walking. She could feel her heart beating and she was breathless and very tired. She sat behind a tree to rest.

Noni’s mother died when she was an infant and her father left his tiny daughter with his mother. Small for her age, Noni had a crooked spine and her speech was slow to develop. A doctor told Noni’s grandmother that Noni was mentally handicapped and should be placed in an institution for children with mental handicaps. But her grandmother refused, she loved Noni and kept her at home. Feeling happy and safe, Noni did everything with her grandmother. She learned to cook, sew, and help with chores around the house.

When she was eight years old, her grandmother became very ill and died. A social worker brought Noni to an orphanage and the director sent her to a home for children who were mentally handicapped, run by an order of Catholic sisters. At first, Noni was so frightened that she dared not speak Her life was shattered by her grandmother’s death. One of the sisters reached out to the small girl, Noni called her Sister Kati. She comforted Noni and did not scold her when she cried. Sister Kati spent a lot of time with Kati and Noni began to talk again. Sister Kati knew how capable Noni was and gave her special things to do.

Some of the children in the Home were blind or deaf and others could not walk or talk. Sister Kati showed Noni how to feed and help the children who could not care for themselves. She made friends with the other girls, especially Berti who was her age. Berti’s arms and legs were thin as twigs and she could not walk. When Noni fed her, Bert always ate her food and when Bert was sad, Sister Kati always brought Noni to comfort her.

When Noni was 15 years old, the Nazi government closed the Home and moved all the children to a large state institution. Sister Kati told Noni to be brave and do as much for herself as she could. Noni clung to Sister Kati and they cried together. That was the last time Noni saw Sister Kati.

A bus took the children to a large hospital-like institution where Noni lived with forty other girls in a long narrow room. The beds were in two long rows with hardly any space between them. Everyone on the ward was given a short haircut and an ugly cotton smock. The girls own clothes and books, toys and other personal possessions were removed. There was no talking or laughter in the large dining room, where the only food was potatoes and turnips; the girls were always hungry.

More and more children were brought to the crowded wards and those who could walk had to work in the kitchen or in the laundry. Noni wanted to help the younger children, but the nurse on the ward would not let her and made her work in the laundry. Every day, Noni had to carry heavy bags of soiled clothing and sheets to the big steamy laundry room and carry the clean sheets back up to the wards. Noni’s back was never very strong and it began to ache. It was hard for her to carry the heavy bags of laundry. One morning her back hurt so much that she could not get out of bed.

Noni was moved to an even more crowded ward with girls who had severe physical disabilities. Some were in wheelchairs and others were never taken from their beds. But there were a few girls like Noni who were able to walk. After a few weeks, Noni began to feel better but she was forbidden to leave the ward. There was nothing to do on the ward, there were no toys or books or games. Sensing the loneliness and fear of the younger children, Noni kept herself busy making up games and trying to play with them. She comforted and sang to them. Noni also spent a great deal of time gazing out of the dusty window. The hospital was once a castle and was built on the top of a hill and Noni could see the countryside below dotted with trees and flowers. It was a sunny morning in late spring when the gray bus with its darkened windows pulled up in front of the hospital.

Sitting beneath the tall tree at the bottom of the path, Noni saw a bird fly to a nest high in the tree. Watching birds always reminded Noni of Sister Kati who always kept little bags of seeds in her pockets and every time the girls took a walk, Sister Kati gave them seeds to Sprinkle on the ground. Noni loved to watch the birds come to eat them. Thinking about Sister Kati made Noni feel better and she got up and began walking by the side of the road. Whenever she heard the sound of an automobile or truck, she hid behind a bush or tree.

Passing the marketplace, Noni saw barrels filled with red and green apples; potatoes and onions and realized that she was hungry. As she neared a barrel of apples, she reached in to take one and then remembered her grandmother telling her not to take food from the barrels if you had no money. A half-eaten apple lay on the ground and Noni picked it up and ate it.

Two small boys standing nearby saw her and began pointing and laughing at her. That made Noni feel afraid again and she quickly left the marketplace and went back to the road. She passed a large park; a crowd of people was standing around a man who was tossing red, green and blue balls into the air. The juggler was smiling and laughing as he tossed the balls into the air. Noni could not take her eyes off the juggler and the balls that seemed to be dancing in the air. When the juggler had finished, the crowd left. Noni watched the juggler put the balls into a canvas bag. He saw Noni, smiled at her, and began to speak. Not wanting to talk, Noni turned away and began walking again.

Feeling tired again, she lay down beneath a tree to rest and did not see the old woman approach her. Then she heard the footsteps and quickly scrambled to her feet and began to run away. The woman grabbed her arm, “Girl, help me carry these sacks to my cottage. It’s not far from here.”

Noni began to pull away. “Don’t me afraid,” the woman said, “I won’t hurt you”, the woman spoke kindly. Noni felt trapped and when the woman pushed a large bag into her arms, Noni took the bag and followed to a small cottage by the side of the road.

The woman opened the door to the cottage and took Noni inside. When she put her bundle down, the old woman looked at Noni, “Did you run away from the hospital?” she asked. Noni did not know what to say and burst into tears, “No go on bus,” Noni cried.

“Don’t worry. I won’t make you go back. You did the right thing. You can stay here for the night and I’ll give you some supper”.

The woman’s calm voice calmed Noni and she wiped her eyes.

“I glad to help you”.

The woman smiled and did not say anything as she began to take potatoes and onions out of the bag. Noni helped her to peel them and put them in a soup pot. While the soup was cooking, Noni took a broom and swept the floor. “I good worker” she told the old lady.

When the soup was ready, Noni sat at the table with the woman and ate the soup quickly. She did not realize how hungry she was. The woman gave her another bowl and a big chunk of bread. After dinner, the old woman fell asleep in her chair and Noni was careful not to waken her. She washed the dishes in a pail of water and dried them and when she had finished, she lay down on the floor and fell fast asleep.

The next morning the woman woke her up and gave her bread and tea. Then she told her she could not stay there.

“Please, I stay with you and work for you. I slow, but I not dumb”, Noni pleaded.

But the old woman refused. She told Noni, “It is better for you to get away from here and find work on a farm.” She gave Noni an old cotton skirt, a blouse and a sweater and told her to change her clothes. She explained that she would be recognized as a run away from the hospital if she wore the institution dress.

Noni did as she was told, but the clothes were too large for Noni’s small frame. The woman trimmed the skirt with a pair of scissors and tied a rope around Noni’s waist.

“Now, no one will know you come from the hospital,” the woman said patting Noni on her shoulder. Handing her a bag with fruit and bread, the woman told her. “Go back to the road and you will soon come to a farm. Farmers always need good workers. Tell them you will work for food and a place to sleep. You will be safe on a farm”, she said.

Noni walked for a long time and did not see any farms. Feeling uneasy again, she sat down to rest next to a stream, washed her hands and face in the cool water, and ate some of the fruit and the bread. Then she began walking again and saw a farmhouse in the distance. A farmer was working in the field and remembering the old woman’s advice she went to speak to him.

Taking a deep breath, Noni spoke to the farmer, “I look for work. I good worker. I work for food and a place to sleep.”

The farmer was surprised to see the small girl and he spoke softly. “Where do you come from?” he asked.

Noni did not know what to say, but she looked up at him and repeated, “I live not far from here”.

“You are not running away from home, are you?” the man asked her.

Noni did not expect to answer questions and she looked down on the ground. Then she raised her head and said, “My grandmother got sick and she die. I have no home now.” Noni repeated.

“Who is your grandmother?”

“Her name Noni just like me” she answered. “Please. I do good work.”

“I don’t know any woman called Noni”, the farmer replied not knowing what to make of the small girl.

“Come with me”, the farmer said, I will take you to my wife and see of she has work for you”.

Noni followed the farmer to the farmhouse. The farmer’s wife was working in the kitchen. The farmer asked his wife to give Noni some work. Noni spoke with confidence, ” I good worker. I work for you. I work only for food and place to sleep.”

The farmer’s wife nodded and told Noni she could use some help on the farm and asked Noni if she was willing to scrub the kitchen floor and sweep and dust. Noni nodded her head vigorously. The woman gave her a pail of soapy water and a scrub brush. Noni scrubbed the kitchen floor as hard as she could, then she washed dishes and dried them. She did everything the woman asked. It was late in the afternoon when the woman gave Noni some food and a blanket to take with her to the shed.

Noni was very tired, but she ate every drop of the food and wrapped herself in the blanket and fell into a sound sleep. In the morning, she went back to the house.

The farmer and his wife were eating breakfast and the wife gave Noni a sausage and eggs. Noni licked her lips. She had not eaten so well in a long time. When she was cleaning the breakfast dishes, a neighbor woman came by. She looked at Noni a long time and did not say anything to her. Then Noni heard the woman tell the farmer’s wife. “You should call the police. That girl looks like she is running away from someplace.”

The farmer’s wife asked her if she had run away from home and Noni did not answer her. “Tell me the truth”, the woman insisted. “Where are you from?”

“My grandmother die and I have no home” Noni said in a small voice.

“Then you should be in an orphan home”, the woman said. “I can take you to the church. They will find a home for you. ”

Noni was afraid that the church would find out she ran away from the hospital and would bring her back to the hospital and she began to sob. ” I not tell you true. I run away from hospital. I not go on bus. I not be killed,” she cried out.

The neighbor said, “I told you she was a run away. You will have to report her. Then the woman left.

The farmer’s wife called her husband and told him. The farmer did not want trouble, they were afraid the neighbor woman would report them to the police. The farmer’s wife gave Noni a package of food and a purse with a few coins in it and told her she had to leave.

“You can find work on another farm” the farmer’s wife told her and showed her which way to walk.

Noni took the parcel and the purse and walked for a long time. When she came to the next farm, she knocked on the door. A few children were in the house and they laughed when they saw her. She felt too frightened to stay and went back to the road. Her back began to ache and she sat down beside a small pond to rest. It was already late afternoon and Noni watched tiny ducks swimming in a straight line behind their mother in the pond. One duck was swimming alone. “I like that duck, I all alone” she thought, munching on the sandwich the woman had given
her. She did not know what to do.

She wrapped the old sweater around her and lay down beside the pond. Then she thought Sister Kati would be proud of her. She did not get on the bus and she was free. She had come a long way from the hospital and she even got some work. A feeling of calm washed over her. She would rest now and then begin to search for another farm. Somewhere, she would find a new home, she thought as she fell asleep.