Ingeborg Hoffmann (Her mama made sure Inga always put the second “n” on her last name; she assured her that it made a difference) was born in Faurndau (Swabia) in 1938. Ingeborg, red-headed and strong-tempered, persistently and constantly asked a litany of questions much to her mother’s annoyance. The 1940’s version of time-out was to be sent to your room; Ms. Inga spent a lot of time in her room.
Even now when Ms. Inga talks to me, I hear her voice, riveted in places with remnants of her native German. I see this sepia photograph in my mind of this auburn-haired little girl stamping her feet before her brothers (she followed them everywhere), her hands on her hips, brown eyes flashing. Ms. Inga assures me that this redheaded trait got her into trouble more often than not. But this precocious child surely made an impression on an American soldier.
|Thirteen year old Ms. Inga on left with her younger sister on right. |
The little girl in the middle was an American child the sisters babysat.
By Ingeborg LaBella
Early one morning my brother Hans woke me up. He wanted me to listen to the noise outside our house. What is it? I asked him.
He said, “Come and look out my window, and you will see.” As I looked out the window, on the street were the biggest trucks we had ever seen. The fumes they expelled were awful. Once they shut their motors off, the noise and fumes subsided.
Many of the soldiers sat on the sidewalk, but some of them laid on the sidewalk. My brother explained to me that they drove all night long to reach their destination.
“What is the destination?” I asked him.
“A town or city, just a place,” He answered.
I didn’t know why the soldiers were in our little town. I hurried back upstairs and got dressed. I tried to comb my curly hair the best way I could.
Some of my friends were there, and made fun of the black soldiers, but the men just ignored them. Out of the first truck came the biggest black man I had ever seen. Most of the children ran away to hide; we had never seen a black man before. All I could do was stare at him. He spoke, and I was very surprised. He spoke almost perfect German.
I had a picture book that I got from my Aunt Martha (my mother’s younger sister). I couldn’t read yet, but I looked at the pages of pictures of Africa. The title of the book was Der Schowarze Mohr (The Black Mohr). I thought Sarge looked like the men in the pictures.
“Habekeine angst,” He told us don’t be afraid. He assured us that he and the soldiers would not harm us.
My brother Hans stepped forward and asked, “Are you the Americans? How come you speak German?”
Of course, I was in the front, and the Sarge asked me in German what my name was. I told him my name was Ingeborg. He picked me up and smiled at me. I noticed his big white teeth and his big lips.
“That is a beautiful name, but much too long for a such a little girl like you. I will call you Inga, that’s the right name for you. Do you like it? ”
I told him, “I don’t know, I will have to ask my mother.”
My mother came out of the house with a basket of clothes she just washed. She saw us, and, of course, she was curious about what was going on. He told her my new name was Inga. She wasn’t mad or anything, and she even shook Sarge’s hand.
My mother told us to go and play in the yard, and she and the soldier talked for a very long time. Later I learned she asked Sarge where he learned to speak German. He told my mother he had to learn German because he was a scout. He and the rest of his platoon were always the first soldiers to occupy the towns or cities. The soldiers were given instructions to talk to the children in the villages first. They considered this the best way to find out the local news. Children don’t lie; they are brutally honest. My mother was not sure if she could believe him or not. But she told us that we didn’t have to be afraid him.
Later on the street Sarge pulled something out of his jacket pocket, and he explained that it was schokolade (chocolate). He offered it to us. None of us had ever tasted it before, and we were hesitant and wary.
He looked at me and said, “You look like a brave girl, here put this little piece in your mouth and let it melt slowly.” Several of the kids shouted that it was poison, and they didn’t want anyone to die. But Sarge laughed and assured me that we would not die. He broke a piece off and let it melt in his mouth and told us how good it tasted. I stepped toward him and took the piece he offered me. It was just the best thing I ever ate. I whispered to him that this schokolade was good. He told us that he would still be here tomorrow.
I said, “Gute Nacht, Herr Mohr.”
“The same to you, Redhead,” He replied.
I was awake most of the night. When I got up the next day, I had to eat oatmeal and half of an apple before I could go downstairs. Outside at last Sarge offered us another surprise: a few pieces of chewing gum. The others were still a little afraid to take it, but I went first. He told me I could chew on it as long as I wanted, then spit it out.
He said, “Don’t swallow it, Inga, it will get stuck in your throat.”
Sarge asked me if he could swing on my swing. I told him he was much too big for my swing.
“I will be careful, and if I break your swing, you will get a new one, but I will keep all the apples that fall from the tree.”
Well, the apples fell from the tree, and Sarge was lying on the ground holding a part of my swing in his big hand. I cried, and he laughed. I told him that he couldn’t call me Inga anymore. He teased me, “Can I call you Redhead?”
“Nein. What about my swing?” I asked.
“It will be there, don’t you worry. Just wait and see.”
He explained that he and the other soldiers had to move along and that he would see me tomorrow and say goodbye.
I cried myself to sleep that night. In the early morning hours, I heard the motors of the big trucks start. I hurried downstairs and outside; I wanted to say aufwiedersehn (goodbye).
I sat on the sidewalk for a long time until someone woke up in the truck. Several soldiers slept in the back. Sarge came out and told me they were getting ready to leave soon. I told him about my book and that I had decided his name was Mr. Mohr. He laughed and told me to call him Sarge. I asked Sarge if I would ever see him again.
“Maybe,” He said.
He pulled his wallet out and showed me a picture of his wife and two little girls. He told me that they lived far away in America, not in Africa. I was confused. He asked me if I would like to blow the horn on the truck, but he had to help me because my hands were too small and not strong enough.
Then he asked me if I wanted to take a look at the apple tree. I was so surprised! There on my apple tree was a new swing. The other soldiers helped Sarge make it.
Sarge told me it was now time for him to leave, and asked if he could give me a hug. I told him it was ok, but that I hoped I wouldn’t get black like him. He laughed. “I will miss you, Inga.” He hugged me and then got into his truck.
“Aufwiedersehn,” he yelled and waved at me from the window. I shouted for him to come back again.
I don’t know if he could hear me anymore because of the noise of the trucks. I waved goodbye.
Ms. Inga never saw Sarge again. But I have a few questions to ponder. When Sarge returned to America and to his family, I wonder if he sat his two little girls on his knee and told them about the brave little German girl. Was there a time he considered returning to the village to see the bold red-headed girl? Did he talk to his wife about the little girl’s innocence and forthrightness? About her candor and honesty? When Sarge unwrapped a chocolate bar or bit into an apple did he think about the little girl he nicknamed Inga?
One thing we know for sure, his nickname for her remains; we still call her Inga.