“Wilhelmstrasse 23,” Ensign, Jan. 1978, 65
I looked over at my companion, who was struggling through the New Testament in German. He was sitting on the other side of the one table we had in our room. It was blanketed with a collection of the standard works in English and German, Cochrans’ German Review Grammar, Jesus der Christus by Talmage, the last letter from home—which didn’t have the check I needed—and my worn-out missionary handbook. Perched on the far corner was a partially emptied yogurt carton protected by a Trinkmilch carton. Some of the streusel we had eaten for breakfast lay on the flattened bakery sack. A trail of crumbs led to the airmail pad with a half-written letter.
I looked down at the card I had found in a file on the inactive members in the area, then reached over and dropped it in front of Elder Holmes.
“Know where this is at?”
“Wilhelmstrasse? No, Elder Johnson never took me over there.”
“I think it’s welfare housing. We’ll go over sometime this afternoon or tonight.”
About five o’clock that evening we stepped off the bus at the Tannenstrasse stop. As we started down the street I felt in my suit coat, laden with Joseph Smith and Which Church is Right? pamphlets, my wallet, appointment calendar, and the key to our room, for an opened roll of mints.
“Little warm, isn’t it.”
I glanced over at Elder Holmes. “Yes, it is, but you’ll get used to it. September it’ll cool off.”
We came to Wilhelmstrasse and turned left. The street was flanked on both sides by run-down apartment houses, cement sidewalks, and dirt lawns. The first house to greet us as we came down the pavement was lined with garbage cans along the side wall. Some of the garbage that had not made it inside was being investigated by a ragged, black-and-white spotted dog. He looked up at us as we passed, dirt clinging to his moist nose, then turned back to continue his search. The clotheslines standing between buildings displayed blue and red shirts and faded blue pants.
Farther down the street an assortment of dirty-faced children was kicking up clouds of dust in an attempt at a game of Fussball. A wild kick sent the ball rolling in our direction, followed by the shabby army. Elder Holmes stooped and picked up the ball. The little crowd slowed and stared at us with wide eyes. He tossed it back in their general direction, and the soiled throng absorbed the sphere and scurried back to the game.
Some of the people who lived in the apartment houses were leaning out of their windows watching the street and the action below. A few were talking to each other from one perch to another. An old woman on the third floor of a blue plaster house was shouting something down to a teenaged girl with long, matted hair.
My companion pointed to one of the buildings. “I think number twenty-three is down there where that bike is at.”
Wilhelmstrasse 23 was a four-story apartment house. The side facing the street consisted of a wall, a door, and eight windows. At one time an attempt had been made to paint the plaster surface with a light blue color, but by now patches of paint and plaster had fallen off, leaving small pits in the wall. A few of the windows sported curtains; and two of them—one on the second floor, one on the third—displayed an array of flower pots, most of them filled only with soil. The door was made of a rusted metal that had been deformed by weather and age, causing it to bind against the frame. The handle had been taken by someone, an open hole the only trace of its once having been there.
I pushed open the door and stepped into the dingy hallway. Seated at the bottom of the stairway in a wooden chair was an old man. He had a small rounded head topped by a gray wool cap. Strands of white hair rested on his wrinkled forehead. Silver blue eyes looked out over the bridge of a small nose. His toothless gums were slowly wearing down a wad of bread in his mouth; his ears moved in time with the rhythm of his jaw. He was dressed in a gray shirt with a faded red-and-black checked vest. His black wool trousers were covered with tiny specks of white lint.
“Guten Abend,” I said.
He gazed at us, then slowly said, “Abend.”
“Does Herr Heinz Dittman live here?”
His mouth moved a few times before he spoke.
“Third floor, left side.”
We started up a flight of stairs that was worn and smoothed in the middle. The cement floor in front of the doors was covered with cracked, brittle tile. Our shoes made a crunching noise as we walked over it. Each doorstep had a mat in front of it: brown, red, or black. The handrail was rusted.
We came to the third floor and stopped in front of Brother Dittman’s door. It was one solid piece of wood with a crack running straight up from the bottom to the small peephole that stood at a height of about five feet. I knocked lightly. We heard a noise from inside, but no one came to open the door. I knocked again. Someone on the other side moved closer.
“Who is it?”
“Brother Dittman?” I paused for a few moments to see if there was any response. “We’re the missionaries, from the Church.” I paused again. “We’d like to talk to you for a few minutes. May we come in?”
There was silence, then the sound of a key in a lock and the sliding of a chain. I looked at Elder Holmes. I knew he was wondering if every one in the building had heard what was going on. The door opened part way and Brother Dittman peered out at us.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“We just wanted to drop by and get acquainted. I’m new here and I’d like to get to know all the members in the branch. I’m Elder Davis and this is my companion, Elder Holmes.”
“Uh, come in,” said Brother Dittman.
We entered and he closed the door behind us.
Heinz Dittman was different from what I had expected. The records said fifty-three but he looked sixty-five. He was bald to about three inches back on top of his head and his skin shone from the oil that he used on his silver-white hair. It was straight and combed to about the middle of his neck. His face had at one time been large and well rounded, but now was much thinner than it should be. He had thin eyebrows and large gray eyes. His ears, brown and slightly wrinkled, were peppered with red and white spots. His left cheekbone had a small crater under the eye. (I learned later it happened during the war.) He had a large, well-formed nose, a small mouth, and gray teeth.
His head rested on a large body. The sleeveless undershirt he had on showed broad shoulders and once muscular arms. He was wearing black wool pants held up by limp suspenders. His feet were covered with thin gray socks and worn gray slippers.
The room we were in had a small yellow table in the center. Two wooden chairs stood by the side. One of the corners of the room sported a small gas stove and oven. The other held a pot-bellied heater. The window in between, draped with a gray curtain, was open to the stagnant heat outside. The rest of the room was filled with old wooden odds and ends sitting on the yellow sink, two cabinets, and an end table. The floor was covered with pock-marked tile, which led into the two other rooms of the apartment.
Brother Dittman had gone to get another chair. He came back, slid it up to the table, and motioned for us to sit down. As we seated ourselves I turned to him. “Weather’s a little warm, isn’t it?”
I was sitting at the table looking at the fifty cent copy of the Book of Mormon we had decided to take over to him. It was a Sunday morning about four months after our first meeting with Heinz Dittman. We were going over to visit before church. It was his birthday.
The words that Elder Holmes had written were resting in blue ink in the upper right-hand corner of the inside cover. As I was thinking of something to write, I remembered the conversations we had had with Brother Dittman as he talked about his life. We heard what it was like before the war, of the comforts he had once had, of his marriage and the start of a family. Then he told us how he lost everything: his wife and son during a bombing raid on Berlin, his wealth and possessions to the Russian armies. We heard how he had found the Church, only to fall into temptation, self-pity, and inactivity. Of how he had nothing; no family, no possessions, no faith, no friends. I picked up the pen and wrote a few lines.
New snow had fallen during the night. It was early enough in the day to see the whiteness before it had turned gray and mushy in the roads and on the sidewalks. Since it was early Sunday morning and the bus wasn’t crowded, we easily found a seat.
We got off at Tannenstrasse just as the sun came out from behind the clouds. It reflected off the snow, and we had to squint until we got used to the brightness. The little throng of children was having a snowball fight on one of the white-covered dirt lawns. Farther down, the ragged black and white dog looked up from his search, a small crust of ice on his nose.
We came to Wilhemstrasse 23 and pushed open the door. The old man was sitting at the bottom of the stairs in his wooden chair. He was wearing a heavy black wool overcoat sprinkled with flecks of white thread. He was working on a wad of bread in his mouth. We walked past him and on up the stairs to Brother Dittman’s door. Elder Holmes knocked. We heard the voice from inside. “Who is it?” “It’s the missionaries.”
He opened the door. “Come in.”
I looked at my watch. It was time to go. We had spent half an hour talking with Brother Dittman. The book we had brought for him was on the table next to me. I reached over and picked it up.
“Brother Dittman, we want to wish you a happy birthday.” I handed him the book.
He took the book in his right hand and opened it with his left. As he read the words we had written, tears formed on his cheeks.
Elder Holmes and I stood up. “We have to leave now.” He was silent as he read the words at the bottom of the page again. “Will you be at church today?”
He looked up at us. “Yes, I’ll be in church today.”
He stood up and came over to where we were standing by the door. He shook my companion’s hand. “Danke.” He took my hand and held it firmly. “Thank you, thank you for what you wrote.”
I smiled at him. “You’re welcome.”
We left and walked down the stairs, past the old man, and out onto the snow-covered sidewalk. The sun had started to melt some of the snow and it began to pack on the bottom of our shoes. We came to the corner and stopped to kick it off.
Elder Holmes turned and asked, “What did you write?”
I stopped kicking and looked at him. “I told him that we were his friends.”