The French artist Jean Cocteau was once asked what he would save from a burning house. He replied: ''The fire.'' It was a witty, eccentric answer, one quite in character with Cocteau.
Many years ago, I found myself in a situation where I had to abandon a house, only there were no flames licking at my heels quite yet. But the house was to sink into ashes in a matter of days, and the only item I ended up saving was a spoon.
The house belonged to my family and stood in the historic part of Elbing, a city in what used to be East Prussia, in eastern Germany. The spoon was my Kinderloffel, my child spoon, as it was known in the family. It was somewhere between the size of a teaspoon and a tablespoon; its handle showed a simple design, and imprinted on the back of its neck was the word Rostfrei, German for stainless steel.
The time was the end of World War II. I was too young then to be a Hitler youth, but I was impressionable enough to be taken in by Nazi posters of steel-helmeted soldiers gazing steely-eyed at an invisible enemy. I admired German battleships and other fighting apparatus shown in vivid detail in picture books, also the dashing uniforms whose insignias of rank I memorized.
The pictures awakened patriotic feelings in me, along with the notion that the German Army was invincible.
Reality presented me with a different picture, however, as the German eastern front kept receding, crossing onto German territory and moving in our direction. Nazi propaganda tried to boost morale among the population, branding those who dared voice their apprehension as treasonous. But the signs of approaching disaster stared us in the face as our streets began filling up with ragged, weary refugees. The unasked question of whether we would have to join them hung in the air, and the answer became clear as the fighting closed in on Elbing.
WHEN the time came to pack up and leave, my mother decided that our sterling silverware was ''too good'' to be taken on a trip. In the name of practicality, the stainless steel got the nod, and with it my Kinderloffel. I remember how my mother took one last walk through our rooms before we left our 350-year-old home. She remarked that she had locked the wardrobes but left the keys in the doors, ''so nobody would have to bash them in.'' Water, gas, and electricity were all turned off. In the basement, with its vaulted ceiling, our fruit preserves and the storage bin full of potatoes would be waiting for us when we returned. Like others, we expected this to be a temporary leave.
Years later, when it became clear that East Prussia was permanently lost to Germany, my mother commented ruefully on our naivete. From an aerial photo of Elbing, now bearing the Polish name of Elblag, we could make out our house as a burned-out shell, together with the rest of the block.
Our westward trek came to a stop in the Pomeranian hamlet of Kalkvitz, home to about seven families whose houses lined a dead-end dirt road. It was here that we lived through the final days of the war. This was my first stay in the countryside, and here I dug my spoon into food I had never tasted before. Today, I am not quite sure whether it was common Pomeranian fare or a wartime diet, because we ate such things as beef-lung hash and beef brain, and I didn't even balk at it.
My sisters and I, lacking in perspective on the events in the adult world, took the turbulent goings-on around us quite in stride. The only fear we had during our flight was to be separated from one another, the lot of many a family.
Most often, we had to sleep fully dressed on layers of straw or rows of chairs in crowded train stations with people milling around looking for information on the erratic train schedules, for news about a hoped-for turning of events, or for the soup kitchen. My spoon got to know a lot of potato and bean soups of varying thicknesses.
Only many years later, as we were able to look beyond what had happened to us, did we realize what extraordinary times we had lived through -- the final days of a regime we came to recognize as barbaric. The recognition came only by degrees, for it involved seeing through a delusion we all had labored under, and being freed from it took longer than getting over the loss.
We moved a few more times after the war, and when I was old enough to strike out on my own, my sisters gave me my own set of tableware. My Kinderloffel stayed behind with my mother during the time my nostalgia had yet to reach critical mass. It was not until after I had emigrated to the United States and settled there that I was reunited with my Kinderloffel.
My humble spoon managed to survive by virtue of its plain usefulness. Today, it doesn't see action as a tablespoon anymore. It has been regulated to service as a kitchen utensil and does duty as a stirring spoon and for scooping cat food out of cans. One could say it has made the upstairs-downstairs move -- in that direction. Yet here it is with nary a dent, and with its shine -- never an ostentatious one -- dulled only a wee bit perhaps.
It happens to be my only keepsake from our house in Elbing. To me, its sentimental value is worth more than the silverware we left behind.