I SUPPORTED my family by stealing for three years. I was 9 years old when I entered this career and 12 when I retired. I was an innocent-looking girl with long blond pigtails, came from a middle-class family and did not steal for kicks or excitement, although I admit to having felt a certain sense of pride when I came home with a bag of pride when I had obtained in exchange for my loot.
Why did I steal? I was aware that it was absolutely necessary for me to steal. I was disillusioned and my sense of fairness told me that I was doing exactly what had to be done. Although today I am not a pyschiatrist and do not know much about children, I have observed that all children are born with a sense of fairness. The younger they are when that sense of fairness is disappointed, the poorer they are equipped to handle this disappointment. If the situation seems utterly hopeless, studying and working hard so that one day they may have a better life seem like very long-range solutions to young children. The ones with initiative will try to do something about their lot right now. I did.
I stole bottles of vodka and exchanged them for groceries. I stole potatoes directly from farmers' fields and apples from their orchards.
As far as the vodka was concerned, I used to sneak out of the house in the late afternoon, just as it was getting dark, and search the ground for freshly dug soil. The most promising sites were under bushes and low-hanging trees. Sometimes I would look under bridges and inside manholes.
I lived in a village in East Germany, a few feet from the border that separates the East from the West, Communist Germany from non-Communist Germany. When the Second World War came to an end, I was 9 years old, brainwashed by propaganda, and believed that the end of the Third Reich would also mean the end of the world, or at least the end of all Germans. When the Russian border guards set up barriers a few feet from my house, the barriers that are still there today, I was annoyed that I could no longer see my friends on the other side, but glad to be alive. Soon I was to find out that staying alive was not as easy I thought it would be.
WE WERE a family of four children with no father and practically no food, except for what we grew in the garden.
The vodka belonged to Russian soldiers guarding the border between East and West Germany. They had obtained the vodka in exchange for letting refugees from the East cross the border to the West. Vodka, even though not plentiful, was easier to obtain for East Germans that food, whereas in the West, the dispensing of alcoholic beverages was still prohibited.
During one of our illegal border crossings, my nother had managed to find an alcoholic baker as well as an alcoholic dairy woman on the other side of the border in the West.
I would take an old sand shovel, dig up the vodka from where the Russians had hidden it, put it into a small convas bag and find a place ot cross the border. Sometimes a friendly guard would let me across to the West, possibly the same one whose vodka I was carrying in my bag. Sometimes I had to run through the woods and risk being shot at, stopping only when I actually heard the bullets whistle through the air.
For each bottle of vodka, I would obtain 10 loaves of corn bread or 10 cans of evaporated milk, depending on which alcoholic I went to see.
Ah, someone will say, but that is not the same. You were stealing for food, not for dope, a new color TV or just candy money.
Under the circumstances, that was partly true. I did like to eat. But the eating itself, or the loot itself, was not what gave me my sense of pride after each successful heist. I was proud that I had licked the system. I had received what the world owed me.
I was too young to justify my thefts with the soothing possibility that I may have saved a few young Russians from succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver. I was a 9-year-old cynic. The adults, Hitler-Germany, had lied to me. The occupation forces did not give us enough food. So my sense of fairness told me that something had to be done about it.
WHEN I LEFT East Germany at the age of 12, I realized that the necessity to steal no longer existed. It took me a year to adjust. Life seemed strangely empty, the daily tasks routine and boring, although my stomach was full. But I never once thought that under these now normal conditions, stealing should be tolerated.
When can children draw the line?What do they consider necessary? In addition to having a sense of fairness, children also are naturally tolerant, up to a point. They will accept a lot, but not everything. Often they will not accept abject poverty.
I have sympathy with the owners of small stores that have been looted. But how can we expect children to be so particular about property if we as adults do not take honesty too seriously in many, more subtle respects?
We hope that at some time in children's lives, someone, perhaps a compassionate relative, friend or teacher, will help them overcome their cynicism, help them set up moral standards for thrmselves and teach them values that are not entirely based on materialism. If I had not had such adults around me when I needed them, I would still be looking for vodka in the manholes of Alexandria today.