In late May 1942, the postman walked quietly up the front steps of his townhouse in a small village near the Ruhr, forcing his feet to slide along casually, as if he were only tired, as if there was nothing to hide. He groped for his own front door because the porch light was still dark. He glanced at the window above the meager awning over the porch to see that she hadn’t lit the kerosene lamp for the back window just yet. The murmuring sick yellow of light that would later spill across the room and out of its windows always made him feel sick. He huffed out a short breath, grateful for a quiet stomach. And then he frowned, because he worried about the money.
Out of habit, he opened the door slowly and poked his nose inside as if it weren’t his own home, because on those nights when the lamp was lit, it really wasn’t his own home and he didn’t want to startle whoever might be inside. “Patrina,” he whispered.
The gentle voice of his 12-year-old daughter sang out from the kitchen. “Here, Papa.” She stepped out from the kitchen carrying a plate with a steaming potato, sauerkraut and a slice of bread. There would be meat the next night. Except they would still eat bread and potatoes because he could sell the meat.
Her gray dress was frayed at the hem, which had crept another inch or two towards her knees in the past year. He frowned, because it had been six months now since he had planned to buy her a new one. Nothing fancy, but the demands on his meager wages had ruled out even one of the cheap field dresses the old matron across town sewed from what he still insisted was burlap. A white scarf adorned Patrina’s head, the front banding over the top of her head in a neat fold that brought out the arch in her brow. Her skin was a darker shade of olive than his own and glistened softly by the light of the lone candle on the small circular table where she set down his plate. The table had worn down to a half-painted state, dry graying shards of wood curling up from its surface.
He unshouldered his mailbag, sat down on one of two rickety wooden chairs at the table and stared at the empty fireplace. As it was late spring, they wouldn’t need a fire for several more months. By then, he hoped, Patrina would be able to go outside with him and they would be able to wander into the forest across from their back door and collect firewood together.
Patrina sat down in the other chair and smiled sheepishly. He knew she wanted to make him more for supper than bread and potatoes. And maybe some day she would make him a veritable gourmet of stuffed peppers, garlic-laden lamb, rice, onions and mushrooms in cabbage, then strawberries and lemons with black tea. His mouth watered as he thought of the dishes his wife had made for him when Patrina was a younger girl.
“Get the jar,” he said, then chomped down on a forkful of steaming potato and sucked in a quick breath. “Ow, hot.”
“You do that every time, Papa. You have to wait for it to cool.”
“I miss your mother’s cooking. I can’t remember what a garlic clove looks like.”
“You have sauerkraut, Papa. And bread. Are we not lucky?”
He grumbled and dug at the sauerkraut with his fork as Patrina stood up and walked to the shelves standing outside the kitchen. She looked over her shoulder and then reached up to pull the jar down from the top shelf. She carried it with both hands, a chalice to some altar, and then lay it gently on the table. There were a few folded up bills, but mostly it was full of coins that covered the ring and necklace lying at the bottom of the jar. Her grandmother had given her the ring and necklace. The rest, she and her father had scrimped together for the past year, knowing, somehow, that they would need it soon.
He looked sideways at the jar, gnawing slowly on his bread. He swallowed, took a breath and let his shoulders slump. “It’s not enough.”
He leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling. Patrina hung her head and stared at the floor. They let the silence settle between them until all they could hear was the sound of each other breathing.
“There will be more tonight,” she said.
He clenched his fists, hoping she wouldn’t notice, knowing she would. He sensed an urgency wafting through the room, as did she. They could never explain to people how they knew these things. It lived and breathed and slithered, a ghost shimmering just on the edge of their own consciousness. And it told them things that were as certain as a mathematical equation. But only to those who could feel it.
A huff of wind scattering auburn leaves along the road had told them to abandon their vardo and quietly slip into the outskirts of Munich where he got his first sedentary job in a warehouse delivering VE 301 Volksempfaenger radios to department stores so the Führer could visit every good German’s living room at will.
An SA brownshirt collaring a Jewish man who had eluded the party’s deportation in 1938 was his cue to again slip away, this time travelling north to a sanctuary of sorts where the vortex of war met the grim determination of those few who knew better.
By all outward appearances, it was just another village, prostrate to the will of the Führer. But they had sensed something else as they came into town one early morning. The waters of the National Socialist tirade had flowed around the village like a stone in a river, a small island of pause in an otherwise mad world. To be sure, it still had its Kripo and rules and warnings. People dutifully listened to their radios. The young boys attended their Hitlerjugand meetings religiously and beat their drums as they marched through the streets singing songs of sacrifice and glory. Because of these things, nobody could really see what lay beneath the surface. Sanity. But now they both sensed that it was a fluid thing, air swirling around itself to collapse and rise into the storm again, gone and thunderous all at once.
Ever since they had arrived, two officers from the local Kripo office had stood guard outside the Gypsy camp that lay far enough away from town that its inhabitants were easily ignored. Itinerant Gypsies who had been forced to settle down after Hitler’s legions had crossed into Poland, the camp residents daily loaded onto trucks that took them to nearby farms where they toiled in fields and barns to help feed the Wehrmacht’s crusade. The village mayor was a decent man who made sure that the reports to the various offices that vied for power in Berlin said that his Gypsies were orderly and continued to provide work valuable to the war effort. He made sure they had adequate rations, gave them blankets in the winter and had, through some political miracle, negotiated a collaborative deténte with the Kripo office. In return, his Gypsies worked hard, generally stayed out of trouble and, most importantly, stayed to themselves. Rarely were any of them sent to work education camps. Only one had ever been sent to an actual concentration camp. The rest had learned from that, and endeavored to give the mayor every reason to make his timely reports that allowed them to be left alone in relative peace.
Even so, the postman and his daughter had not registered. He was still officially missing from work in Munich, a crime which would most certainly earn him a trip to Buchenwald or, even worse, Mauthausen. Because of that, he couldn’t risk his name showing up on a list. As long as the mayor could continue to persuade the Kripo office to look the other way, they would be alright.
But something had changed in the past week. Now, two men from the Allgemeine Shutzstaffel stood guard outside the camp, flapping their arms in their heavy black coats, the slick metal of the MP-40 sub-machine guns slung over their shoulders bristling in the bright tower lights overlooking the camp.
“We don’t have much time,” he said, still staring at the ceiling.
“I know, Papa.”
“Don’t you have a plate?” he asked.
“I’ve already eaten today.”
“You’re a growing girl, you need -“
Patrina shook her head and smiled. “You need your strength for all the walking you do.” What she didn’t tell him, but he already knew because she was still standing between him and the small kitchen and its bare pantry, was that there was no more food in the house. He would have to buy some the next day. Freedom was one thing. Starving was another.
He looked at his daughter, her almond eyes glinting with a promise to always remember. Even though she was just a girl, her mouth was full and succulent in a way that could draw men to their doom. Or to eternal bliss. Or both. He nudged his plate away as he thought of all the men he knew that saw her just that way.
Looking to some place far away, He said mostly to himself, “So much they have taken that they’ll never understand.” He looked at Patrina, studying her face.
He reached over and took her hand. Her fingers were tender and clumsy with innocence, a lie he knew she saved especially for him. Her eyes were so beautiful and her hair, which she still washed every day, flowed in a cascading ebony sheen over her shoulders. Just the year before, he and Patrina’s mother already had their eye on a nice boy in the clan that would suit their Patrina. But they had seen him and his family less often as the roads they could safely travel had diminished. Now, he couldn’t even remember what the boy looked like.
Since then, they had lost Patrina’s mother, their vardo and, he was sure, even their Romanipen. Except that they hadn’t lost it as much as it had been ripped from them and ground in the mud, along with so much that a war he still didn’t understand seemed intent on destroying. But the hint of it remained in his daughter’s eyes, her beckoning promise to never forget.
“We are Gadjo now,” he said. “I don’t think we can ever go back.” He waved his other hand through the air. “If this all ever ends, remember who you are. Where you come from.”
“Better to grow old,” she said.
He allowed a hint of a smile. “You’re too young to be so smart.”
“And yet, here I am. Still.” She squeezed his hand. “I won’t forget, Papa. I promise.”
He knew she meant it, but she hadn’t yet learned all there was to being one of her own people. Half-grown and then thrust into the maelstrom of a world that said she had to be somebody else, she was learning to be many people at once. Her eyes glinted in the candlelight and in one moment, he saw his daughter, a Gypsy with no clan, in the next, a shadow of her Sinti ancestors, then, somehow, a German. And all the while, just Patrina, her own luminescent self that no word would ever be able to define.
“And yet, here you are. Still.” He smiled sadly. “Thank God.”
Peppi walked along the railroad tracks just across the field outside the village. Even though he was wearing the black shorts and brown shirt of his uniform, reminding him he wasn’t a little boy any more, he still liked the feel of wildflowers brushing against his legs as he walked away from the tracks and through the open field towards his house. He imagined the petals looking up into the sky, not knowing what they saw there.
The air was vaguely cool with the last breath of winter receding before the tide of spring and his mind turned to the snows that would return in six months time and what it would be like to tromp through them wearing that same uniform, his bare legs encased in the icy drifts that would hide the flowers so they no longer watched the sky. Would he be strong enough to stand it?
It was on odd thought that would never have occurred to him just a year before. But he was ten now, and a new member of the Deutsches Jungvolk. That meant that he had to grow up and join the legions that would protect the Fatherland. Little boy no more, he would have to stand that icy cold and prove that he was just as strong as the other boys. And so he closed his eyes and imagined the snow scraping along his legs, cold at first, then stinging and sharp and finally numb. Still, in his mind, he would walk on, never faltering, never allowing any of them to see the pain in his expression.
When he reached the house, he strode stiffly up the porch steps, with purpose. Just a year before, he had scampered up those steps after a day of frolicking in the fields or chasing rabbits like the ones he and his mother kept in the back yard. But it had been five months since he had taken his oath, so no longer did he scamper or chase rabbits.
He flung the door open and stepped into the modest but immaculate interior of the house his mother cleaned every day. The wooden floor, though scuffed and worn, shone from the daily polish she applied. The furniture, also old and worn, was otherwise clean and polished. A family portrait hung proudly over the mantle in an austere frame. Peppi gazed at the fireplace, the grate empty and the ashes cleaned away. Later that night, he would bring in firewood and his mother would set the fire. On some nights, when the fire burned low, his mother would tell Peppi stories about his father, who had frozen to death, his hand still gripping the trigger of his MG-42 as he guarded his squad’s line against the approaching infantry of General Vlasov’s army in the waning days of operation Barbarossa.
A single vase with flowers from the field he had just walked through adorned a cherry-wood end table next to the dull green couch facing the fireplace. The end table was the one good piece of furniture in the house and his mother tended to it as a shrine to a life that she would never know again.
Standing in front of the fireplace with her hands folded in front of her, Peppi’s mother was a diminutive woman wearing a modest house dress. She had short blond hair, blue eyes and a slender nose. He hadn’t thought of how his mother looked in these exact terms, but now he understood that she, like him, was properly Aryan, one of the first things he had learned since swearing in to the ranks of the DJ that January. Since then, he had also learned that you could tell this sort of thing just by looking at somebody. He noticed something else – and he didn’t know if it was because he was becoming more astute or if he simply hadn’t noticed before. She looked tired.
Her gaze followed his hand as he set down his new copy of Wille und Macht on the end table. “Go upstairs and change your clothes,” she said. Again. She said this every day when he got home from school and he was beginning to realize that he was proper to feel annoyed by this.
He fondled the blank epaulet on his shoulder, wishing it held the simple black insignia of a Hitlerjunge, the lowest rank in the Hitlerjugand. He wouldn’t achieve that rank until he was 14, and he didn’t know how he would endure the four long years it would take to get there.
“Why should I?” he asked, still thumbing the bare epaulets.
His mother narrowed her eyes, trying to intimidate him in a way that didn’t work as well as it once did. “At school, you may be an aspiring Hitlerjunge,” she said, “but in this home, you are still just Peppi. And I am your mother. And I said go change your clothes.”
He eyed her for a moment and then slowly lowered his hand – a gesture offering a concession that was his to give, not a resignation that was hers to demand. And yet, a tic of fear rose up inside him. Defying his mother wasn’t something he was used to. He wasn’t quite ready to be somebody other than her only little boy. Not yet.
When Peppi came down for dinner, he noticed the magazine he’d left on the end table was gone. He wanted to say something, but the familiar glow of being home fell over him as he passed the fireplace, already crackling with sparks twirling up the chimney to fight off the darkening cold outside. The smell of sauerkraut, potatoes and rabbit wafted in from the small dining area next to the kitchen. His mother gently poured water from a pitcher into his glass as he sat down. The water from their well was crisp and sweet – there was nothing like it anywhere else and as he took a long drink, the feeling of home flowed through him like an elixir.
She sat down across from him, her face gently lit by flickering waves of yellow from the candles on the table as she poured herself a glass of wine. He bowed his head as she whispered a gentle prayer. When she was done, she looked at him with soft eyes that no longer looked tired, and smiled.
“That’s better,” she said.
He knew that she meant it was better now that he had changed out of his uniform and, at least for the moment, was just Peppi, having dinner with his mother on a cool evening in late May. He took another drink of the crisp well water, not wanting to disturb the quiet solace that was his mother’s dinner table. But something he had just learned in the DJ session that afternoon tickled the back of his mind. And then it barked, faintly urging him on, and he understood for the first time what it meant to do one’s duty, even when it wasn’t what he really wanted.
As his mother took her first bite of stewed rabbit, he asked, “Mama?”
He folded his hands on the table. He hadn’t yet started to eat and his mother eyed him carefully as she lay her own silverware back down. She took a sip of wine. “Yes, what is it Peppi?”
“Why am I the only one?” he asked. The question wasn’t entirely out of place in the warm embrace of home, totally detached from the lecture his Fähnleinführer had belted out while stomping around the barracks – about the duty of all German women to produce offspring for the Reich. Peppi had always longed for a little brother, or even a sister. Somebody to grow up with. Somebody to scamper away from his mother with and hide in the woods with. Somebody to blame for spilt milk and help with the chores. To share the flowers that stared into the sky, not knowing what they saw. Somebody like him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean -” He stopped to make sure that he was speaking softly. This was his question and it didn’t feel quite right to have the Fähnleinführer’s voice barking from the back of his mind to push him into asking it. No, he just wanted to be Peppi, a little boy asking his mother a question he longed to know the answer to.
“Why don’t I have a brother? Or sister?”
She took another sip of wine and set the glass down carefully. She leaned forward and studied him with an intensity he hadn’t seen in her eyes before. “How long have you wanted to ask that?” she asked.
“I’ve always wondered. All the other boys have a brother or sister and I – I just wondered why I don’t.”
Her smile faded and she looked away, as if to remember something that she wasn’t ready to explain. She sucked in a short breath. “Is it really you asking, or the Stammführer?”
“The Fähnleinführer gives our lectures, not the Stammführer. Remember, the ranks I showed you?”
A quizzical look ran across her face and then she winced. “You mean Jannick?”
“Yes, Fähnleinführer Diefenbach.”
She nodded slightly. “Of course. He would have to tell you these things. He wouldn’t have a choice.” She looked back into his eyes. “But, your question, Peppi, is it you asking, or – them?”
He hadn’t meant it that way, but the way she asked him unleashed the Fähnleinführer’s barking voice that now filled his mind. “I didn’t mean it that way, Mama.” He studied her, wondering for the first time if she didn’t understand her own duty – something he was only just learning to understand himself. “But, I am learning about Lebensborn. Don’t you know about it?”
She took in a deep breath, picked up her plate and set it down loudly, the silverware hopping off her plate and clattering on the table. Leaning forward, she glared at him the same way as when he stole cookies for the neighborhood boys or tramped mud on her freshly polished floor. Her voice was steady as ice. “I know whatLebensbornis.” She spat the word out as if it were a forbidden curse. “Harlots who go off to camp to conceive fatherless children. They don’t even have the decency to teach my own little boy to just lecture me about Kinder, Küche and Kirche.”
“Well, yes,” he said brightly, delighted that he could talk to her about what he was learning in the ranks of the DJ. Even though she was upset, he hoped she would explain to him why he was the only one. He was old enough to understand, even if she didn’t think so. Instead, she huffed, stood up and picked up her plate. As she walked back to the kitchen, he asked, “Aren’t you going to eat?” Her back was to him and he couldn’t see her struggling to hold back the tears welling in her eyes.
She set the plate in the sink and leaned against it for a moment, bowing her head. Peppi looked down at his own meal, and realized he was no longer hungry, either. He grabbed his glass of water and took a long drink, hoping the sweetness would drown out the confusion numbing his mind. He was just trying to be a good German boy. Once again, that didn’t seem to make his mother happy. He still didn’t understand why and now all he could hear was the admonition that the Fähnleinführer had given Peppi and the other boys at the end of every meeting: “Your mother may not understand these things. Your father may not understand these things. In time, you will teach them, as well. But for now, just make sure you understand them yourself.” He didn’t understand how important those words were until just then.
He tried to take another drink, but the glass was empty.
His mother turned around and threw her head back, her eyes fluttering as she looked up towards the ceiling. “Come here, Peppi,” she said. He slid out of his chair and walked to her carefully, focusing on her eyes glistening in the candlelight. She crouched down in front of him, the way she did whenever she was going to say something important. Something he knew he had to understand and remember. When the mayor had sent for his father to join the army, she had crouched down to talk to him. When he had found her sitting on the couch months later, crying as she held the telegram in her hand, she had crouched down to talk to him and explain why Papa wasn’t ever coming home again.
She put her hand on his shoulder and said, “You must listen to me now, Peppi.”
He nodded. “Yes, Mama.”
“I would die for you, Peppi. Did you know that?”
He blinked. Because he did not know that. His father had died for the Reich and, in a way he didn’t quite understand yet, for him and his mother. Surprised by her declaration, his mind offered up an uninvited image of what his life would be like without his mother. The house, dark and uncleaned. The table, empty, without the steam wafting from a home-cooked meal and his mother smiling at him in the candlelight. The fireplace a small cavern of ashes that would never glow again. He thought of the empty house without her and felt the wetness building up behind his eyes. He fought it back, because he was too old for that kind of sentimentality now. “No, Mama, you can’t die.”
“Oh, but I would Peppi.” She held him at arm’s length and looked straight into his eyes. “For you, I would lay down in the street and let them trample me to death if it meant I could save you.”
His lip quivered as he tried to steady himself. She shook him by the shoulders and said, “Now, listen to me.”
He sniffled. “Yes, Mama.”
She didn’t smile. Her eyes were hard in the flickering candlelight as she stared into his. “I know some of what they teach you in the Deutsches Jungvolk. And I know that they tell you to watch me.” She nodded grimly. “I know what happened to Anna and her husband. And I know that it could happen to me.”
He hadn’t known this – that she already knew what could happen, even before he himself understood what that really meant. Before he had even thought of an empty house. He heard the Fähnleinführer barking in his mind and his hand started to tremble as confusion overwhelmed him. A sudden urge to protect her welled up and he latched on to the words that came tumbling out of him. “No, Mama, I would never let them take you.” He wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her soft neck, the same as when she had told him what had happened to his father.
She pushed him away, forcing him to stand and look at her. “I know you feel that way now, Peppi. But you must come to a place where you believe that, even when you are quiet. Even when you are not at home. And especially when you are at your weekly meetings with the Deutsches Jungvolk.”
He didn’t understand why a simple question about why he was her only son had boiled into a storm where he lived alone and his mother was trampled in the street. He looked around the room, trying to understand why. It was just a question. Then, looking back at her, he noticed the creases at the corners of her eyes deepening and her mouth whitening as her jaw tightened. She was scared. That was not in any of the Fähnleinführer’s lectures. Understand, follow, teach. These things he understood. But scaring his mother was the furthest thing from his mind. And in no world could he ever imagine allowing anybody to take her from him. Nor did his oath call on him to allow such a thing to happen.
“I will never let them take you, Mama. I promise.” And he meant it, too. He didn’t dare realize just how hard it would be when he remembered the Fähnleinführertelling them how somebody like his mother was a traitor to her people because she dared to tell her own son what she said next.
“Oh, Peppi, I know you believe that now.” She stared hard at him, letting the words sink in as he fought back from the verge of crying. She seemed disappointed that he didn’t actually let the tears come so she could gently blow them away until only the soft tracks of salt were left on his cheeks. “But if you really mean that, then you must be strong. I am going to tell you the most important thing you must always remember. Are you ready?”
“What I want you to do, Peppi, is think. I know that you must always talk correctly, but you must also always think rightly. Do you know the difference?”
He blinked, his mind stopping because he couldn’t truly understand what she was trying to tell him. “Isn’t that what they’re teaching me?”
His mother bowed her head and for a moment looked as if she were going to be sick.
“All they have said, you do not understand. You must think harder, Peppi.”
“I – I -” He just shook his head, not knowing what to say.
“For now, all you have to do is remember what I have taught you. Do you still remember? Can you tell me anything I have taught you?”
He thought back to a time when he was still just a little boy, a time before he was an aspiring Hitlerjunge thinking of what it meant to stride through cold snow to prove he could take it. He was surprised at how long ago that seemed. Different words, from a different world that the Fähnleinführer was telling him to let fade and wither. Words that, when he thought of them, were like crisp sweet well water.
He spoke softly. “Be kind to your neighbor. Keep clean in house, body and mind. Tend to the rabbits that they will tend to you. Always keep fresh firewood for you never know when the night will be cold. Remember that everyone stumbles and to forgive them when they do, just as they forgive me. Help somebody once every day and let pride allow them to help you back.” The words flowed through him, a herald calling out from the recesses of a part of his mind he had forgotten. “Live well the moment and let God run the universe” A shy smile crept onto his face. That was his favorite among his mother’s dollops of wisdom. And he hadn’t thought of it for months now. Then he said something that made her eyes soften and he could see the pride that only a mother can know for her son wash over her face. “Stand on your own, even if it means standing alone.” But he knew this was particularly contrary to what he was being taught by the Fähnleinführer. No man stood alone. Ever. He followed. He obeyed. And if he was loyal enough and strong enough, he led.
“That’s good, Peppi. Remember those things. Always.” She pulled him back to her, wrapped her arms around him and kissed the top of his head.
The Fähnleinführerand his mother stood across from each other in a room in his mind. The Fähnleinführer barking about the impending rise of the great German nation until his blood boiled with pride. His mother’s words flowing through him like cool well-water that cherished life. And in the middle, he stood between them, lost as the flowers looking to the sky, not knowing what they saw.
All he could think of to say was, “I don’t want you to die, Mama.”
“I know, Peppi. I know.”
©2020 Michael J Lawrence