“Come out!” barked a gruff voice from behind the powerful beam of light. “Give yourself up.”
Sonovabitch. I had let my guard down. Darkness surprised me with its swiftness, and the Allied curfew patrol closed in. Pinned in the shadow of a rubble pile in war-ravaged Berlin, I calculated the distance to the alley, my only chance of escape; I could make a run for it and hope to avoid a bullet if caught in the beam of the spotlight. Decision made, I sprang to my feet and ran, a determined soldier hot on my heels. Damn! I stumbled, clambered, clawed over mounds of broken bricks and mangled beams. My lungs threatened to explode when, without warning, bright headlights shone from the far end of the alley, ending my sprint and, perhaps my freedom.
Two American soldiers leapt from the jeep to block my escape. The one chasing me wrenched my arm behind my back. “Achtung! You’re coming with us,” he hissed.
My mind raced. ‘You bastard,’ I thought. ‘You’re in for a hell of a fight!’ I twisted my upper body to upset the soldier’s balance and slammed him into a bullet-scarred brick wall. Spittle on the rush of his expended breath spattered my face as his knees buckled and he flowed to the ground like warm honey. As I grabbed the next soldier, his partner bashed my head with a nightstick; an explosion of stars clouded my vision.
I regained consciousness sprawled on a dirt floor, a ring of inquisitive faces staring down over the edges of multi-tiered bunks. A scrawny man stretched out an arm and pointed to a lower bunk. In the flicker of light cast by a kerosene lantern, I crawled across the floor, my brain throbbing in time with the beat of my heart, pulled myself upright against the rough timber frame and flopped onto the thin mattress.
Although my eyes sagged, my predicament kept sleep at bay. How could I search for my precious seventeen-year-old daughter, Ami, from the confines of this refugee camp? Near the end of World War II, the Soviet Army had swiftly pushed Hitler’s demoralized ranks back from Poland to Germany and I lost contact with Ami during our flight from the communist onslaught. For sixty-two wretched days, I scoured the countryside and the German towns bordered by Poland, then combed the destroyed streets of Dresden and Cottbus before moving on to Berlin. My thoughts, my energy, my everything had gone into searching for her—she was all I had left to live for.
While tallying the suffering that had shaped my life, it seemed as if I were cursed. What did the future hold for me—more hardship, more pain? Triggered by self-pity, my life escaped the confines of my soul, and played out in my mind as a vivid dream, a dream beginning in the bliss of my youth.
SAY YOU’RE SORRY
Good fortune shone upon me on July 10, 1903, the day I came into this world. My family loved me, although I questioned the affection of my father when he would correct my behavior. I had a cozy home in South Russia, where, strictly speaking, the majority of people in the village of Chornov and the neighboring communities were German immigrants, ‘foreigners.’ Our ambitious, hardworking ancestors had lived in relative peace and harmony on the vast steppe north of the Black Sea after settling there more than a century ago.
None of it mattered to me at the moment. The idea to search a linden tree for crows’ eggs had seemed exciting while I stood on the ground, but high in the tree, and eager to prove myself to my older friends watching from below, I mumbled to myself, “I can do it … just a little higher.” I wrapped my left hand around a thin overhead branch swaying in the breeze and leaned closer to the nest than the laws of equilibrium would allow. My leather-soled boots loosened a patch of dead bark, slippery as goose grease, tumbling me from my precarious perch. I landed with a ‘thud’ on the bed of dried leaves and twigs, stunned, unable to catch my breath.
My older brother’s voice rang in my ears. “Hans! Open your eyes, you idiot. Mama will kill us if you’re dead.” He held out a mud-streaked hand. “Here. Get up.”
“Twelve years old and still a Dummkopf,” Lothar blustered. “First see if he’s breathing.”
Kurt brushed away a sharp twig, then knelt and placed his ear to my lips. “I can hear his guts working.” Of their own volition, my arms shot skyward and locked around my brother’s slender neck. We writhed on the damp soil until he wriggled free.
Fritz Ripplinger, our timid friend, bent over me. “Hans, are you hurt? Maybe we should carry you—”
“That sissy’s alright,” said the bully Lothar, watching me struggle to my feet. “Come on, guys. Let’s go home.”
We paraded down the gentle bank and my companions crossed Chornov Creek by leap-frogging on moss-covered rocks. Still dizzy from the fall, I teetered precariously on the first rock, then slipped into the shallow water, tiny geysers erupting from the lacing eyelets on my ankle-high boots.
As we crested a low hill, Saint Gustav’s Church steeple came into view before the entire village spread out in the shallow green valley. The bright sun reflected off the horse-drawn carriages in front of the shops on Church Street, the main boulevard. Squat thatched-roof houses on long narrow lots lined two secondary lanes, while the homes on River Street, including ours at the far end, had somewhat larger yards and faced the creek meandering along the opposite side of the road.
The church bell pealed six notes as we, four disheveled boys, scattered toward our homes. My brother’s pace matched that of his friends; being the youngest, I brought up the rear—slosh ... slosh.
The rusty hinges of the wrought iron gate creaked, but held firm in the stone fence when Fritz entered his yard. Lothar left us at the next intersection, while Kurt and I continued to our yard. ‘My home is the nicest place in the village,’ I thought, as I followed the irregular-shaped flagstones past a row of blooming plum trees. A sturdy barn formed the rear of a dated single-storey house of limestone blocks, the thatched roof draped over the eaves obscuring the tops of multi-paned windows in the kitchen and the living room; a single-seat wooden outhouse, often considered our most important building, stood near the porch. A short distance beyond, crushed oats and barley filled a small granary, while between the old threshing floor and three mounds of dusty hay, a weathered chicken coop leaned precariously to the east. Mama’s vegetable garden, partially hidden by the summer kitchen, fronted onto the orchard, really only six rows of cherry and apricot trees stretching across the rear of the yard. A high stone fence encircled the one home I had ever known.
Our older sister Loni’s auburn hair bounced as she skipped rope to meet us. “You boys didn’t do your chores after school. Papa’s gonna box your ears ’til the dust flies.” She turned up her nose in disgust. “And Hans, you’re filthy. Boy, I pity you.”
My stomach knotted. I knew from experience Papa’s reaction to dirtied school clothes.
We hung our jackets and caps on a hook in the enclosed porch before Kurt pushed me ahead of him toward our modest kitchen. Although not a large man, Papa dominated the room. His full dark hair, showing a tinge of grey, covered one side of his furrowed forehead, and a prominent nose projected above thin, colorless lips that seldom parted in a smile. “Warte mal,” he bellowed from his chair at the head of a wooden table pockmarked from years of use. “Why isn’t the henhouse cleaned out? He slammed his fist on the table with such force the silverware rattled. “Johannes! Where did you get so dirty? And look at me when I talk to you.”
Kurt bolted out the door. My knees quivered as I raised only my eyes and answered in a small voice, “I-in the creek.”
His face clouded over as he sprang from his chair, took two long strides, grasped me by the collar and dragged me to the porch. I stifled a groan when his huge calloused hand reached for the strap, a torn length of horse harness hanging on a metal hook high in a corner. The initial surge of pain forced a moan from my lips; the second blow landed with a loud smack where the legs of my short pants still seeped creek water.
“Karl!” Mama called in a sharp voice from the kitchen.
Papa took hold of my suspenders, unceremoniously dumped me into the yard and swung shut the door.
I brushed a snotty drip from my nose and rubbed the sticky hand across my throbbing bum. Why was it always me in trouble? I limped to the henhouse to help Kurt shovel chicken manure into a wheelbarrow.
“How many did Papa give you?” he asked.
I picked up the short-handled pitchfork and squirmed under the wooden roost. Suddenly, Kurt grabbed my arm and whispered in my ear, “We’ve still got our school clothes on and we’ll really get a licking if there’s chicken crap all over them.”
“Then you go in the house to get our work clothes. Y-you haven’t been licked yet.”
“He wouldn’t belt you twice, would he?”
“Sure, he would.”
Darkness had settled like a winter fog when my brother and I finally sat down at the kitchen table to eat a cold supper. Papa frowned, tapped out his pipe in the ashtray, and without a word, went to the barn to repair a harness.
A look of pity for her sons filled Mama’s bright brown eyes. At thirty-four years of age, and the mother of five children, she was a short, plump woman with hair drawn flat into a tight bun. A blue-checkered apron that drooped over her ample abdomen and hung straight to her ankles partially hid her full-length black dress. A small golden cross, a wedding gift from her parents, dangled from a delicate chain around her neck. Her life had not been easy; a few years ago, she had buried Daniel, a six-year old son, and Lilli, a two-year old daughter, typhoid fever the culprit. “Now, off to bed with both of you,” she ordered after applying goose grease salve to the welts across my buttocks.
A privacy curtain separated our simple wood-framed bed at the far end of the chilly room from Loni’s smaller version in the corner nearest the kitchen. My brother and I curled up on the corn-straw mattress and pulled the goose tick comforter to our chins. Papa’s hammer echoed from the barn. Tap, tap, tap. “I h-hate him,” I whispered through chattering teeth. “Wasn’t my fault I slipped in the creek. Besides, we could buy eggs from Hoffer’s Store instead of looking after those shittin’ squawkers.”
When heavy footsteps sounded in the hallway connecting the house to the attached barn, we cowered like cornered mice. “Shh, pretend you’re asleep,” my brother whispered.
The door creaked open. Papa paused at the foot of our bed and cleared his throat as if to speak.
‘Say you’re sorry,’ I thought. ‘Say you didn’t mean to strap me so hard.’ Instead, he continued on to the kitchen, closing the door behind him.
Our rooster, for no particular reason named ‘Sammy,’ crowed moments before Mama drew back the heavy drapes from the bedroom window. Loni, always enthusiastic about school, was already in the kitchen. Afraid of our father’s wrath if we were late, Kurt and I hastily pulled on our red plaid cotton shirts, brown short pants gathered below the knees, and long wool socks. Had Kurt been slightly heavier, we could have passed for twins, although his hair was fairer than mine, and his eyes were a deeper shade of blue.
When the church bell rang eight times, we gulped our porridge, grabbed our brown narrow-brimmed caps and headed out the door. My buttocks, sore from yesterday’s strapping, throbbed as we dashed down River Street. Our neighbor, Herr Gus Vetter, a slight man, only his temper outmatching his quick movements akin to those of a weasel, flicked a hand in greeting from behind his gate.
The strong odor of tobacco drifting from our grandparents’ yard at the end of the block indicated that Grandfather Wilhelm Gerein, or perhaps Uncle Heinz, unmarried and living with his parents, was enjoying a morning smoke. Heinz was my grandparents’ youngest child, with Papa in the middle; the eldest, Pius, along with his wife, Francisca and their sons Barnie and Erwin, lived in Mannheim, a large town thirteen miles south of Chornov. On the other hand, my mother, an only child, suffered the loss of her parents due to influenza several years after she married Papa.
Grandpa, leaning against the stone fence, tipped his black military-style cap in our direction. Sleek white hair accented his weathered features. “Gutten Morgen,” he said in a groggy voice. Deep wrinkles spiderwebbed from the corners of his eyes and mouth.
I forced myself to sound cheerful. “Good morning, Grampa.”
His pipe waggled between sparse yellowed teeth. “Well, off to school. And listen to the teacher so you’ll be smart when you grow up”
That was our grandfather—always giving a lesson. Although I loved my parents, he was my favorite person in the world, next to Kurt. But that was different—Kurt was my brother.
At age ten, I was in Form Five. Kurt and his classmates, one year ahead of me, shared our spartan room. When we aligned ourselves according to age in the schoolyard, Kurt immediately whispered in Lothar’s ear, and I knew he was relaying my misfortune of the previous evening. “He can’t be that sore,” Lothar mocked, kicking my left buttock.
A sharp cry escaped my lips. That bully! I tolerated Lothar’s arrogance only to be part of the group. Last summer, the government paid a small bounty for crows’ feet, apparently to rid the area of the pests. When my friends and I explored the grove of linden trees near the creek, I climbed to the highest branch, the one supporting a crudely constructed nest. Two immature crows turned their beady eyes to me, hopped off the edge and fluttered to the ground. Without hesitation, Lothar grabbed their tails and clubbed the helpless creatures with a rock. I felt queasy when he ripped off their legs and waved them above his head like trophies. At that moment, it became clear why he and I were not close friends.
Headmaster Slava Blokin peered over his glasses. “There is to be absolute quiet and order during assembly. Johannes Gerein, why did you shout out?”
I fought to stem my tears. “I-I don’t know, sir.”
Katie Frey, a shy freckle-faced girl in my grade, raised her hand. “Please, sir, I know. Lothar kicked him.”
The stern man waved his gnarled walking stick. “All students into class! You, too, Johannes. As for Mister Troublemaker, you come with me.”
One of the older students held open the outside door of the schoolhouse, and Lothar, grim-faced and trembling, followed the headmaster into his cluttered office, while the rest of us filed down the hallway to our respective classrooms. I heard, “Hold out your right hand,” before three distinct smacks and three escalating wails echoed into our classroom. I cringed, afraid the headmaster would call me next. Katie sat poker straight in the front row. Why had she been so foolish? Tattling on a classmate was frowned upon—tattling on Lothar Degenstein was a grave error in judgment. Certainly, he would seek revenge on Katie … and me, more for his humiliation in front of his classmates than for the pain of the lashes.
The day dragged on, and I closed my ragged-edged notebook the minute the dismissal bell rang. Fritz begged Kurt and me to come see his newborn puppies, adding that afterwards we could look at motorcars in a magazine his father received from America. I didn’t care much about the puppies, but anything to do with motorcars and America interested me.
At the first corner of the street just past the church, we saw Katie struggle with Lothar, who had a firm grip on one of her braids. “Stop it! Let ’er go,” I yelled, feeling my face flush with anger. I clenched my fists and squared off in front of him, putting all my energy into one blow. Lothar, a year older and a head taller than me, did not expect my swift attack. Stunned, he released Katie’s hair and fell to the ground, blood gushing from his nose.
After he rose to his feet and staggered down Middle Avenue, he turned and with a nasal drawl threatened, “I’m gonna ged you, Hans Gerein, and damn good!”
“He really is gonna kill you now. You know that, don’t you?” Kurt said.
Katie stepped forward, a smile exposing the gap between her front teeth. “Dankeshon, Hans,” she said, then kissed my cheek. She blushed and ran toward home.
Fritz slapped me on the back. “Kisser, that’s what we’ll call you from now on. Hans Kisser!”
I scrubbed my assaulted face with the back of my hand and muttered, “Stoopid girls.” However, in that moment, a strange revelation arose within me: girls were different from boys, and they possessed an indescribable power over us—and I liked it! I liked Katie.
DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT REASON
Grandma and Uncle Heinz followed Grandpa inside as he opened our porch door one warm, windy Saturday. When the men paused beside my father, I noticed that Grandpa and Papa matched in height and breadth, their posture stooped. Uncle Heinz, taller and thinner with a skinny caterpillar mustache, stood more erect. To me, he was the most handsome man in Chornov.
“I heard talk today at Squeaky Hoffer’s store,” my grandfather said. The shrill voice of Herr Hoffer, a man of short stature, indeed nearly as wide as he was tall, had gained him the nickname ‘Squeaky.’ Grandpa continued, “Something about the trouble between Austria and Bosnia starting a war in Western Europe. What do you think, Karl?”
“If it does, you can bet your boots Germany will side with Austria. And if France gets involved, Russia will take their side. With so many of our boys in the Russian Army, Germans would be fighting Germans.”
Grandma’s face turned white. “If Russia goes to war, Heinz might be conscripted and he wants to get married …”
Uncle Heinz had announced last week that he intended to ask Monica Kraft from Mannheim for her hand in marriage, but her father didn’t like him. “For one thing, compared to the Krafts, we’re penniless,” my uncle had said. “For another, he considers me a physical weakling, not strapping like his son.” Kurt and I had laughed when our uncle flexed his muscles and puffed out his chest. “The only thing going for me is that I love Monica and she loves me.” Grandpa had replied that if her father is rich, every eligible man in Mannheim must be eager to marry her, too. “The wheat of the poor and the daughters of the rich are soon ripe. If you’re serious, you shouldn’t wait to ask her,” he had said. My uncle announced a few days later that he and Monica would be married on May 25 in Mannheim.
Grandpa reached over and patted his wife’s arm. “Ya-naih, don’t worry so much. There won’t be any war.”
Uncle Heinz deftly changed the subject. “Karl, I heard that old man Andrew Boser and his sons Young Andy and Rochus are selling their land so they can move to America in October. I’m sure Benedict Bauman’s going to buy the thirty acres along Pototski Road, but if we buy the twenty south of—”
“Talk about business at a better time, not when we want to visit,” Grandma grumbled. “In fact, why don’t we have dinner at our house after church tomorrow? Hans, come over later and help me catch some chickens. Kurt, bring the small axe … and the chopping block.”
After our relatives returned home, my family relaxed on a bench in the shade of an apricot tree. Papa stretched out his legs and leaned back. “Rosina,” he said, “I think it would be good for us to own more land. I can’t believe Kurt is twelve and Hans is almost eleven, but they are, and someday we’ll want to give them a start in farming, too.”
‘Leave me out of it,’ I thought, ‘because America will one day be my home.’
“There’s both Heinz and me to make the payments. We each have a hundred roubles for the down payment, and only need to borrow fourteen hundred from the bank. Herr Boser wants to sell now, and if we don’t hurry, somebody else will take it.”
“We have enough to eat and everybody’s clothed,” Mama said, sounding skeptical. “What if we don’t get a crop and still have to make the payment? But Karl, if you think you can manage it, I won’t interfere.”
“Then Heinz and I will meet with Old Andy this afternoon.” He rose from the bench and hooked his thumbs under his suspenders. “Let’s hope we can agree on the terms.”
When Uncle Heinz and Papa came through our gate later that day, I prayed Herr Boser had sold the land to someone else, however, my uncle playfully caught me under the arms and swung me in a circle. No doubt, he was a happy landowner.
Papa beamed as he told Mama that the deal, although unconventional, was sealed. “The Bosers need the money within ten days to pay for their passage to America,” he said, “but we’ll only take title to the land when they leave in October.”
Mama’s frown confirmed she did not share Papa’s enthusiasm.
That Friday, Papa and Kurt combed the horses’ manes and tails, and polished their hooves with a dab of axle grease. Loni, Mama, and I entered the summer kitchen as Grandma rolled out a lump of dough. “What’s a wedding without Kuchen?” she said. “And when my mother baked cakes for special occasions, she added a little brandy to the cream filling. Hans, go and bring up the bottle of apricot brandy. You can read which one is apricot, can’t you?”
I hurried across the yard and dragged open the heavy plank door of the limestone block passageway, then eased my way down the creaky stairs into the root cellar, where shadows cast long gnarled fingers across the rough timbers. Next to the potato bin stood a large earthenware sauerkraut crock and a wine barrel on the packed-earth floor, perhaps with monsters hiding behind them. On the opposite side, Grandma had aligned various flasks on a low shelf, her writing on each barely legible. “Plum,” I read aloud and pushed the bottle aside. “Gooseberry.” An acrid taste arose in my mouth. “A-p-r-i-” I pried the cork from the amber bottle with my thumb and index finger and held it to my nose. “It smells like apricots … better try a sip.” I downed a large swallow, burped loudly, then scampered up the stairs without checking the sauerkraut crock’s shadow.
“Sorry I took so long, Grandma,” I said as she snatched the bottle from me. “The words, they’re kinda rubbed off.”
“Did you take a drink?”
She slapped me. “Don’t lie, Johannes. That’s a big sin.”
I nodded, but dared not rub my burning cheek.
She caught me by the ear and led me to the corner behind the stove. “Kneel here for an hour, you rascal.”
“Please, can I move to a different spot?” I asked. “It’s too hot here.”
“Not nearly as hot as you’ll be in hell if you keep telling lies.”
After Kurt and I crawled into bed that evening, I began to recite my prayer for a second time. “What are you doing, Kisser?” Kurt asked. “We already prayed.”
‘Mind your own business,’ I thought, before continuing, “When I lay down to sleep on the Good Mother’s lap, I ask her to tuck me in and make the sign of the cross over me.” I fluffed my feather pillow. “Kurt, how hot do you think it’d be in hell?”
“Hot as being in the sun all day, I bet. Naih, it’d prob’ly be hot as inside a Bachofen. Or maybe hotter than a blacksmith’s fire. Or even …”
I poked him in the ribs with my elbow. “Shut up already.”
“Well, you asked.” He turned and faced the wall. Soon his breathing settled into a deep steady rhythm, however, I lay awake trying to rid my mind of horned devils and red-hot pitchforks.
Early the next morning, Grandpa, who appeared tired and sweaty, carried wooden crates of food to his wagon. “Genoveva, if you add one more item to the list, we’ll need two wagons,” he said.
Grandma sniffled into a white linen handkerchief. “We don’t want to seem stingy to the new in-laws. They already look down their noses at us,” she said, while Uncle Heinz and I spread an old bed sheet on top of the bulging wagon to protect the precious cargo from road dust.
We set out for Mannheim, a family sharing the excitement of the day. Papa laughed heartily and ruffled my hair when I declared that this was going to be the best day ever. Why couldn’t he always be in such a good mood?
After the lengthy wedding service in the Catholic Church of Mary, the well-wishers formed a procession to the Kraft yard. An impressive house sprawled behind the manicured lilac hedge, a monstrous threshing machine stood next to three towering granaries, and five wagons occupied the space beyond the water trough. Overwhelmed, I wondered how people got the money to buy all that stuff. I wandered around the back yard admiring the opulence of the property when the sound of voices from the rear of the house attracted me to an open window. I peeked in and saw Grandpa and Grandma seated on matching wingback chairs in a spacious room. They faced Monica’s parents, who were relaxing on an elegant royal blue sofa. Uncle Pius and Aunt Francisca stood to one side near a teakwood cabinet with lion heads carved into the legs.
“Did you hear that the Archduke of Austria was murdered in Bosnia not long ago?” said Herr Paul Kraft, taking a sip of wine from his glass. “I’m afraid that might mean trouble for us. Russia has problems, too, and the politicians have been saying for years that the Germans are to blame. And they mean us, not the ones in Germany.”
Grandpa shrugged his shoulders. “But what can we do—”
Uncle Pius stepped in front of him. “We wouldn’t have to worry about that if you hadn’t been so damn stubborn ten years ago when so many families moved to America. I thought we should go with them, but you refused.” He slammed his clenched fist into his hand.
“Pius, you want to go to America,” Grandma said, raising her voice. “And if Heinz is taken into the army, I can’t see what reason they—”
“Ya-naih, Heinz and Monica are young and in love,” Grandpa said, reaching for his wife’s hand. “Genoveva, remember when we were that age? Good reasoning was the last thing we used. So just let them have—”
Frau Kraft jumped to her feet. “Don’t talk to me about reason! If you had used some reasoning with your son, he’d have seen the craziness of getting married now. What if Monica gets pregnant, then he’s taken away and never comes back? You should have just told Heinz he can’t get married, and that would be …” Frau Kraft trailed off, then pressed her apron to her mouth and fled the room.
Grandma’s blazing eyes followed her. “Wait a minute! Did that kind of thinking work with your daughter?”
I rested my back against the cool wall of the house. The argument was alarming, but the talk of America excited me. I returned to the wedding celebration, and decided that when the time was right, I would swear Kurt to secrecy before telling him about Uncle Pius and America. If Papa learned of my eavesdropping, he would certainly punish me.
NO LOVING GOD WOULD BE SO CRUEL
I lay in bed, every muscle relaxed, my hands folded behind my head. Summer vacation had begun and my friends and I could play stickball all day at Pototski Field, a playground at the edge of Chornov. And it was only a week until my eleventh birthday. The one small cloud over my life was that Kurt merely shrugged his shoulders when I repeated the conversation about America.
My fantasy of a leisurely summer ended when Papa announced that our family’s assignment was to cut the hay on the communal property a mile beyond Chornov. All German villagers shared the proceeds from the crops on communal land granted to the village by the Czar a century ago, but throughout the years, the more progressive farmers purchased their own property from Russian Counts.
Several times over the course of the hot day, Papa guided the horses pulling the mushroomed wagon to our yard. Eventually, we formed a round stack of hay next to the old threshing floor. The dust created from stomping down the hay made me cough, but I wasn’t excused from the job. Though I supposed Papa was proud of his boys, of how hard we worked, we knew better than to expect any favors or words of praise.
Shortly before sunset, we took the last load of hay to the local inn as payment for Loni’s friend, Alma Goldstein, helping her with chores on the days we were busy in the field. On the way, Papa explained to us that Herr Ira Goldstein’s grandfather initially shared a land grant in Neufeld, a distant town, but Ira didn’t like farming, so he forfeited his share in any communal crop and built the Goldstein Inn in Chornov. When I asked if they didn’t come to church because they weren’t from Chornov, he replied they were Jewish, not Catholic.
“Jewish? What’s that?” I said. “They look the same as us. And I thought everybody in the world was Catholic.”
I failed to see the humor, but Papa threw back his head and laughed.
One Sunday morning in September, Father Heisser climbed the creaking stairs and laid his horn-rimmed glasses on the ledge of the pulpit. Twice he began to speak, and twice he hesitated. Finally, drawing a deep breath, the good priest said, “Brethren, I do not know a gentle way to tell you this, so I will be blunt. Germany and Austria have declared war on Russia!”
In the ensuing bedlam, men shouted at the priest, at each other, at the Lord Himself; the women cried that we were doomed, that we would all die. Frau Vetter rushed forward and dragged her sons, Albert and Josef, from their seats next to Kurt. She flew down the aisle, chanting a litany of regrets: “Why didn’t we go to America with my brother? Why didn’t we all go? Now it’s too late to get visas.”
Father Heisser shouted above the din. “Quiet! Everyone!” A hush settled over the congregation. “This is terrible news, but we must remain calm. Germany and Austria are far away. We will be safe here. The Lord will not forget us if we are fervent in our prayer and truly believe in Him.” He bowed his head. “Our Father, who art in Heaven …”
I moved my lips in prayer, but worried the army would come for Uncle Heinz, just as my grandmother had suspected.
On the following Saturday, the bright sunshine seemed to bless the German villagers as they set aside their concerns and carried on with the yearly tradition of husking corn for pig feed. In an adjoining field, Oleg Golubov, a Russian laborer, waved to us from an iron-wheeled tractor towing a plough across land privately owned by Benedict Bauman of Pototski Estate. Due to his large landholdings—and pompous sense of superiority—Herr Bauman did not participate in the communal harvest.
“Damn noisy contraption,” Papa muttered. “Just like that motorcar of his.”
Papa was referring to the day last week when he and I stepped out of Hoffer’s Store and heard a soft putt, putt, putt interrupted by an occasional muffled boom. Black metal reflected the bright sunshine at the intersection of Church Street and Middle Avenue. A motorcar! Most of the villagers had never seen a motorcar and the commotion drew a large crowd. Herr Bauman sat tall behind the steering wheel, while his son Hubert, one of my classmates, smiled at me from the back seat. The arrogant man slid from the seat and strutted into the store. Upon returning, he spun a shiny crank mounted low on the front of the motorcar until the engine chugged to life, then jumped into the vehicle and flapped his hat. “Get out of the way, you gawkers,” he said to the curious onlookers, his eyes gleaming with contempt before speeding down Pototski Road toward his estate.
“Karl, just forget about Showman Bauman. He’ll never change,” Mama said as she selected corncobs from a huge pile beside the communal granary.
A male’s voice sounded from across the yard. “Mathias found a red ear of corn! Now show us your sweetheart!”
Mathias Klatt’s shoulders twitched as he searched for Margot Hoffer. When he found her sitting on the ground next to Loni and bent to kiss her burning cheeks, she pushed him away and covered her face with her hands. The tradition complete, the huskers cheered loudly.
“I hope you find one of those cobs,” Kurt said. “Can’t you see it now, Hans Kisser? Katie would be so happy.”
I wrestled him to the ground, but, in truth, I had hoped to see her today.
My brother broke loose, and his mouth dropped open as he pointed over my shoulder. “H-Hans …”
I jumped to my feet and watched five uniformed men, their horses cantering alongside the stone fence. My heart fluttered and I swallowed hard when the expressionless soldiers brought their mounts to a halt near the gate. They dismounted and snapped to attention, polished rifles high on their squared shoulders. The captain, a row of medals adorning his tunic, remained straight-backed on a glistening black horse and silenced everyone with the intensity of his gaze. “I am Captain Stransky of the Czar’s Imperial Army. I have draft orders for several young men from this village.”
A murmur like buzzing bees rippled through the yard.
“When I call your name, step forward.” He withdrew a paper from his saddlebag. “Alois, Jacob.”
The crowd fell silent. A heavy-set young man shuffled nervously beside his weeping mother.
The officer rose in his stirrups. “Step lively!”
Jacob sprang forward.
The captain surveyed the paper. “Blatz, Johannes. Faust, Georg. Gerein, Heinz.”
Aunt Monica gasped and clung to Uncle Heinz, who had to pry her fingers from his arm before stepping into line.
My eyes filled with tears. At my uncle and aunt’s wedding, Frau Meier had said he might not come back from the war.
Gus stomped toward the captain. “My son’s only turning twenty-one next week. He’s not old enough to recruit.”
The captain’s face turned dark. “One lousy week? You dare sham the regulations on a technicality? Private, shut that man up!”
A burly soldier lifted his rifle butt and struck Gus on the head, knocking him to the ground. When he kicked Gus in the face, a knot of angry village men immediately pushed forward, but the captain drew his pistol and shot once into the air. The shoving stopped. Bile rose in my throat as Gus dragged himself back to the crowd, spitting broken teeth and gobs of blood.
Jacob glanced first to his father, then to the impatient captain, and hurried over to the other reluctant recruits.
“All of you report at the train station in Karpowa at seven o’clock tonight, or face a court-martial,” bellowed the captain so loudly that his horse flared his nostrils and pranced in a circle. He jerked on the reins and ordered the soldiers to their horses. Within seconds, they had trotted out of our sight.
Despondent beyond words, Grandpa and Uncle Heinz packed a duffle bag, while Aunt Monica and Grandma prepared lunch to take along on the journey. Uncle Heinz kissed each member of my family before he climbed alongside his mother and his wife on the rear seat of the carriage. With a wave of his hand, he was gone. I would miss him, his jokes and his antics, but I looked forward to hearing the exciting war stories he would tell when he returned home.