Chapter 3 – Loyal Soldat
Two days later, Peppi stood alone in the DJ barracks where he took his weekly meetings. After months in the DJ, Peppi was now used to the drab and stern interior of the room where he listened to lectures from his Fähnleinführer about the sacred duty of all German boys to heed a calling that the bombs in the fountain square had taught him to understand. Inside those walls, the voice of his mother faded and a stern reassurance of a life more difficult enveloped him. He walked taller, with purpose, towards a destiny he could almost reach out and touch, a destiny which he now knew was more important than what had been waiting for him just a year before.
He stood stiffly, facing the door, waiting for the Fähnleinführer to arrive. All the Fähnleinführer had told him was that he had something important to say. The unstained wooden walls whispered to him of some triumph. The desks and benches neatly marching along the length of the room assured him of his indoctrination into a crusade that would one day anoint him as a savior of his people and the righteous reckoning of history.
He heard the door handle rattle and stretched himself upwards, standing as tall as he could. When he saw the man who entered, he reflexively extended his right hand, stiffening his wrist so that his hand was parallel with his arm, and heard himself nearly yell.
The man looked back at him sternly, his eyes set beneath furrowing black brows and nearly daring Peppi to breathe. The man responded quietly, “Heil Hitler.”
The Fähnleinführer had not told Peppi he would be meeting the man that now towered over him – the Stammführer himself, the regional leader of over 600 boys ranging from 10-14 adorned in neatly pressed winter blue shirt and trousers with a red banner wrapped around his arm proudly displaying a thick black swastika against a white circle. Peppi braced himself for either a dire fate he could not imagine or a great accolade that was even harder to imagine. It couldn’t be anything more or less.
“Follow me,” the Stammführer said, striding to the front of the room to sit down behind the instructor’s desk. “Stand there,” he said, casually pointing at the floor in front of the desk.
Peppi stood rigidly at attention, trying to ignore the sweat forming along his hairline and the quivering in his knees. He needed to be strong. He needed to be respectful and surely he was in due awe of the Stammführer. At the same time, he needed to not show the fear that was already making his mouth dry.
The man folded his hands neatly on the desk and leaned forward. “I understand you were involved in the recent bombing of our village.”
The man didn’t smile or frown. His eyes were steady as glass. Peppi couldn’t even tell if the man was breathing. He grit his teeth, trying to keep his knees from trembling any harder. Why had the Stammführer put it just that way? It almost felt like an accusation, as if Peppi had marked the target and waved the English in. For whatever reason, a lone crew had released bombs destined for the Ruhr on Peppi’s village instead. With the BF-110 closing in, its cannons already biting into the Lancaster’s wings, it seemed to Peppi that the English men in the bomber had simply shown their true colors and panicked in the heat of battle. Instead of striking at one of the factories in the Ruhr that churned out the Reich’s war machine, they had bombed rabbits and civilians. They had simply been cowards and Peppi nearly gnashed his teeth at the thought of avenging what they had done. He had been taught that the English were akin to the good German Volk, Aryans like him. But he wasn’t so sure.
The man took a slow deliberate breath, let it halfway out and said, “I’m concerned about some of the choices you made.”
For the first time since he had joined the DJ, Peppi felt a twinge of frustration at hearing one of his leaders speak. It might have been the way the man was talking more than what he said. The Stammführer hadn’t been there, after all. Maybe he had been given the wrong information. It felt like the Stammführer was talking to somebody else, not the little boy who had dragged his fellow citizens to the safety of his mother’s porch at the risk of his own young life.
“Do you know what I’m talking about?” the man asked.
“No, Stammführer.” Peppi gulped, wondering if he had made a mistake.
The Stammführer held Peppi’s gaze as he reached for the phone sitting on the desk. He let his hand hover over the black handset for a moment, as if giving Peppi one last chance to confess before formally charging him with some crime. His brow twitched and he plucked the receiver from its cradle. He waited a moment and said “come in now.” He gently hung up the phone and folded his hands, still staring at Peppi.
Peppi’s mind raced, trying to think of what the Stammführer could possibly think he had done wrong. While others cowered, he stood up. While others fled, he walked into the square and started pulling his neighbors to safety. Maybe it was because he hadn’t joined the effort to fight the fires – a task handily carried out by the mayor’s well-trained brigade who quickly brought the sparse fires under control. Or maybe it was because girls died along the Ruhr when it should have been Peppi gunning down English bombers. An absurd thought as it was not his fault he didn’t live there, but his own pride still stung at the thought of gold-braided girls actually fighting the enemy.
As he struggled to discern what lay behind the Stammführer’ s steady gaze, the door at the back of the room opened. As he was still standing at attention, he knew better than to look. He would have to wait, listening to the methodical clomping of boots growing nearer until he would finally see who wore them.
Peppi nearly gasped when he saw the Scharführer from the fountain square step behind the desk to stand next to the Stammführer.
“Have you met Scharführer Richter, Peppi?”
Peppi eyed the 16-year-old boy who represented what he would one day become as a member of the Hitlerjugand. The boy looked at him sternly, but not with the same glare of accusation as the Stammführer. His look seemed only to say to Peppi: Do better. But Peppi also knew that he wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for this one HJ who had decided to bring some meaningless detail to the attention of the Stammführer. What was anything this boy could say compared to the grueling ordeal of the night Peppi had just endured?
As if sensing what Peppi was thinking, the Stammführer said, “I am told you chose to save a resident of the Gypsy camp first.”
Peppi’s mind was a blur. The scene from two nights before came back to him – the fire, the screams, the people crawling along the ground. He hadn’t looked at any of them except to try and help those who were closest first. He did remember one thing that he thought might matter to the man staring at him from across the desk.
“Since he is from the camp, I guessed that he is probably a farmer and our men in Russia need as much food as we can send them. I didn’t think beyond that.”
The man stood up and came around to the side of the desk. Peppi kept his eyes fixed on the wall straight in front of him, but he couldn’t help his breathing coming in short choking gasps that he hoped the Stammführer didn’t notice.
“You must learn to think correctly, even in times of panic. That’s what it means to be a Deutsche Jungvolk.” The man let out a sigh, leaving no mistake that he was disappointed in Peppi. “The second man, the one your comrade saved, was a pure-blooded German, like you and I. Why didn’t you save him first?”
Peppi didn’t know why except that he was the next closest man. But, he couldn’t tell the Stammführer that. He had to think of something better. And fast.
“He had no legs, Stammführer.” Peppi took a breath and dared to shift his gaze to look at the man. “He would no longer be of any service to the German people.”
“Then why did your comrade save him at all?”
Peppi blinked. How could he answer such a question? What were they supposed to do, let the man bleed to death in the street and die? What was the word his mother used?
“Because it was the only humane thing to do.”
The man spoke in a low growl. “Humane is another word for mercy. No act of mercy is within the grasp of your sworn duty. A crippled German is still ten times more useful than the strongest Untermensche. You must train yourself to remember these things at all times, not just when you’re sitting in this hall listening to your instructors.”
The Stammführer nodded dismissively at Scharführer Richter. “You may go now.”
The boy nodded curtly and strode back towards the door. Peppi noticed that neither gave the proper Hitler salute. He wanted to say something, and maybe he was even supposed to, but he restrained himself. His leaders would have to atone for their own sins until he found his way out of his own troubles.
Turning back to Peppi, the Stammführer said, “Nevertheless, you have shown great courage and your actions set a fine example for others in this Stamm. Accordingly, it has been decided that you will be given a civil work assignment to further build on the commitment you have shown to your duty as a member of the Deutsche Jungvolk.”
The Stammführer smiled and Peppi understood that he was supposed to take all of this as a gesture of honor and pride. But he couldn’t get past the words – I’m concerned about some of the choices you made.
At least he wasn’t being punished, so he stood tall and said the only thing he could think of. “Thank you, Stammführer. I won’t let you down.” He then raised his arm and said with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, “Heil Hitler.”
The Stammführer gave a casual wave of his hand. “Heil. That is all for now, Peppi. Dismissed.”
The job selected to recognize Peppi for his heroism was the honor of accompanying the postman on his rounds – his first official community service assignment.
The postman walked briskly and Peppi found himself having to run a few steps from time to time to catch up. The postman pattered on about the minutia of delivering mail, how it was the lifeblood of communication in a civilized society and even some history of mail service going clear back to Roman times. Peppi didn’t hear most of it, but he did pay attention when the postman stopped in front of one house and stopped talking.
The postman gently pulled a letter from his leather satchel and told Peppi to hold his hand open. He gently laid the envelope in Peppi’s hand, as if were a thin sheet of crystal that could be broken by a whisper’s breath.
“Listen to me now, Peppi.”
Peppi looked at the man and nodded. “Yes sir.”
“Every morning, before you pick up your satchel, you must check the casualty lists posted in the back office.” The man stared at Peppi, breathing easily, waiting for Peppi to understand.
Knowing that there was something he hadn’t caught in the man’s instruction, Peppi finally asked, “Why?”
“Because sometimes you will have to deliver a letter like this one.”
Peppi looked at the envelope. He didn’t recognize the return address, except that it said something about a division.
“It is from a man to his wife.” The postman lifted a brow and tilted his head. “A man who will never come home.”
Peppi looked at the envelope, blinking. Ever since the bombing, his blood had simmered with a thirst for revenge. All he had imagined was sending his enemies reeling before him. He had actually forgotten that German soldiers could – and, of course, did – die in battle. The sobering thought made him feel queasy. He thought of his father fighting on the eastern front, hunkered down in a foxhole, his hand still wrapped around the grip of an MG-42, his eyes forever staring towards an enemy that had beaten him. “Oh.”
“Now, take it up to the house and knock on the door. Gently.”
Peppi looked at the envelope as if it were a snake slithering across his hand. But he understood. It was his solemn duty to deliver a dead man’s final letter to his wife, and he wondered if she even knew what had happened. Peppi gulped. Surely she had already received her telegram, just like his mother had. Surely, he wouldn’t be the harbinger of the worst news she would ever know in her life. He looked at the postman with a pleading look. Please don’t make me do this.
The postman stared back sternly and held his hand out, pointing at the door. “Go. Do your duty now.”
Peppi closed his eyes and turned around. He took several deep breaths before opening them again to see the front door still staring back at him, beckoning him to ruin a young woman’s life. All he had to do was knock. Such was his power that day.
Peppi felt like he was going to be sick as he tread solemnly up the wooden steps and onto the porch. He looked up at the door and let out a quick breath. He knocked.
A thin woman with unkempt hair and eyes dulled by nights of no sleep opened the door and looked down at him in a vacuous stare. Defeat had wormed its way into her soul and he could see that she would never come back from that. Peppi looked at the envelope again, making sure he got the name right.
“Frau Wilhelm, this is for you.” He held out the letter and waited for her to take it. His heart sank as he saw her jaw clench and her mouth tighten into a thin line. Her eyes were suddenly wet, but she would not cry.
She took the letter, said “Thank you,” and then quietly closed the door. Peppi stood there, feeling his feet pressing down on the floorboards of the porch, listening to a distant bird chirping across the morning, and it made him vaguely angry. Birds were not supposed to sing when a German wife learned of her husband’s death in battle. The world was supposed to stop for a moment while she fought back tears so everyone could see how brave she was.
Finally, he turned around and walked back towards the postman, who was quietly toeing the ground with the tip of his boot. Peppi slowed down and then stopped, studying the man’s profile.
The postman called himself Hans, but his nose was curiously thick and his skin had a dark tint to it, as if he had just returned from a day at the ocean. Peppi had always assumed it was because he spent his days out in the sun, walking through the village delivering mail. But now that he had walked with the man, listened to his stories and spent hours watching him up close, he realized that the postman did not look like a Hans. Not at all.
He thought of the Stammführer staring at him, never letting him forget he had committed some sin, while the Scharführer stood next to him, subduing Peppi with shame and confusion without uttering a single word. The vision suddenly coalesced in his mind as he realized why they had shamed him for his decision. There was something unclean about this man who called himself Hans delivering the last letters from fallen German soldiers to their wives.
He still couldn’t shake the sense of humiliation that the Stammführer’s words draped over his consciousness like a veil, as if he needed to hide somehow from his own deeds. The assignment and the perfunctory compliment for his heroism had seemed empty, devoid of actual pride and honor, filled only by words which did little more than consume air. Peppi knew he deserved better than that. But he still had to prove it to the Stammführer in a way that the man would understand.
Now, this man who called himself Hans seemed to be a harbinger of a better destiny, an opportunity to show the Stammführer that Peppi did understand his duty. For, looking at the man, Peppi grew more and more convinced that he was not who he said he was. That he was, in fact, an Untermensche hiding in plain sight.
After Peppi and the postman had made their final rounds, the postman had walked Peppi back to his mother’s house and waved goodbye as he unshouldered his mail bag and disappeared across the fountain square. Fortunately for Peppi, the man had never looked back to see if Peppi had actually gone into his mother’s house.
Peppi twisted his head around and looked through the living room window, making sure his mother wasn’t there. She was probably standing in front of the fireplace, just across from the front door. Maybe she had seen them walk up, but he was careful to make sure she wouldn’t see him easing back down the porch steps.
The postman had gone across the square and around the corner, so Peppi wasn’t sure exactly where he was. The sun had already ducked behind the hills outside of town and darkness was already falling over the village like a blanket. Peppi shuddered as a chill swept through the streets. Still dressed in his uniform, he felt the tingle of goosebumps on his legs and arms as he walked briskly across the fountain square.
When he reached the other side, he looked over his shoulder one last time, a twinge of remorse aching in his chest as he thought of his mother standing next to the fireplace waiting for him to come home. How long before her brow furrowed with worry? How long before she unfolded her hands and wrung them as she paced back and forth in front of the fireplace?
The next thought sent a chill through him. How long before his mother ran for the constable to report that Peppi was missing? He quickened his pace, a new sense of urgency pushing him further into his self-imposed mission.
He rounded a corner onto a long street leading to the other side of the village and saw the postman ambling along the cobblestone sidewalk that ran next to the cramped townhouses lining the street. Peppi ducked into a doorway and peered out from the tiny porch when the postman turned and walked up to one of the townhouses further down the street. Peppi couldn’t make out the address in the twilight, so he quickly counted how many townhouses lay between him and the postman.
It couldn’t be that simple. The postman couldn’t just live right there in the village, among the rank and file of regular Germans. The more Peppi thought about it, the more out of place the man seemed. Hadn’t anyone noticed until now? Then again, who would notice the postman, stepping out from his house early in the morning before anyone saw and returning after dark when nobody was watching?
And if the man kept his head down and nobody looked too hard, he looked more or less German, especially in the guise of his uniform. If the state saw fit to give the man a job, wasn’t that enough? Who would question such a man?
He started to wonder if he should just go back home. After all, what business was it of an aspiring Hitlerjunge who the postman was? Especially when, even in the finest hour he had ever known, he had still somehow managed to get it wrong. Grownups who knew better than he, a boy floundering in his duty, had already decided.
But – had they seen the man the same way Peppi had? Something just wasn’t right.
On a whim, he ran back to the end of the block and around to the back side of the townhouses. Some had small back yards cordoned off by low stone walls. Others just had low picket fences. Peppi counted the townhouses, then surveyed the landscape behind them. A sloping field like the one next to his own house spilled out from the back yards and then ran up into a nest of low-lying hills. The bomb craters wounding the fields staggered into the trees. On the other side of those, he knew the train tracks wound through a shallow valley.
Gauging the distance to the tree line of the first hill, Peppi took a sharp breath and darted out into the field, hoping nobody would see him as he ran for the trees, where he would be able to watch the postman’s townhouse. He cringed at the sound of his feet stomping across the ground as he ran, sure that the people in every townhouse along the block could hear him. Still, he ran, his breath raging in his chest as he sprinted across the uneven ground, dodging the bomb craters that threatened to break his ankle and hurl him to the ground. He would have to learn how to run through them one day, but this wasn’t the time to test himself.
He swung around the first tree and scampered to a halt, crouching down behind it. He was breathing so hard that he was sure everyone could hear that, too. Once his breathing had subsided, he peeked out from behind his tree and studied the back yard of the townhouse he was sure the postman had entered. At least, he was pretty sure. He counted the townhouses again, but then wondered if he had counted the right number. He gritted his teeth, frustrated with the haphazard way he had concocted his plan. He should have counted twice. He should have made sure.
All he could do now was watch the townhouse, hoping it was the right one. Hoping that he had guessed right. Hoping that, somehow, he was thinking correctly.
The sun’s halo disappeared completely, leaving behind a rich purple haze along the silhouette of the hills. The village was now in complete darkness and it was only by the meager splash of lamplight glowing in a scant few windows that he was able to just keep the townhouse in view. He couldn’t see much, but he would know if somebody came out. If somebody moved. If a man who wasn’t who he said he was decided to come back outside.
After an hour, his legs ached from crouching behind his tree. He shivered from the night that was even colder now. Again. He quietly rubbed his arms and wiggled his toes which were starting to numb from the cold. He clenched his jaw, relishing the challenge – proving himself worthy of one day becoming a Hitlerjunge. Was it enough that he would be able to say that he tried? Over and over, he played the Stammführer’s words out in his mind, rebuking him for saving the Untermensche before his own countryman. Untermenschen like the postman. Peppi was sure of that now. He was paying the price for not understanding that before – with the cold aching into his bones and burning his eyes as he stared at the townhouse. He understood that he was paying penance for not understanding before. And because of that, he also knew that he had to be right.
Then, it happened. The back door of the townhouse creaked open and somebody poked their head out, looking one way, then the other. Again. Then, slowly, they came out through the door and took a few steps into the back yard. Whoever it was turned around and started talking to another person standing in the doorway. For a moment, he thought he saw a girl’s eyes in the flickering glow from a lamp in the back window above the door. The eyes moved back into the darkness, but he knew she was still there.
He heard muffled words float out over the field towards him. He couldn’t hear the words exactly, but one thing was certain. They weren’t German. His chest thumped with anticipation and he clenched his fists, invigorated by the reward that came in those foreign words. He was right!
Peppi furrowed his brow and squinted hard, trying to make out the form of the person standing with his back to Peppi, still talking to whoever was standing in the doorway. Then, two spindly arms came up around the man’s neck as he bent down. The girl hugged the man. Then, the arms fell away and Peppi caught his breath as the man turned away from the door and seemed, for just a moment, to be looking directly at Peppi. The man walked away from the door and Peppi saw the eyes of the girl standing in the doorway. In that moment, he didn’t know why, but for those few seconds frozen in time that he would play out in his mind for the rest of his life, Peppi fell into a trance, staring at those wet almond eyes that would haunt him forever. They were not at all like the flowers that opened their petals to the sky. Whoever was looking out from behind those eyes knew exactly what she saw. The lamplight caught the shadows of her face, trickled along the outline of her cheeks, flickered across half of her mouth, facing into the dark, not smiling, not frowning. Just – alive.
The girl stepped back and her eyes disappeared into the darkness as she closed the door. The man looked both ways again, making sure nobody was watching, and then stepped into the field and walked quickly to the tree line.
Peppi held his breath, willing his body to be as still as stone as he watched the man head for the tree line not ten feet away from him. The man came close enough that Peppi recognized the mail satchel slung over his shoulder. The postman looked over his shoulder and then ducked into the tree line and turned towards the crest of the hill.
Inside the small forest, it was too dark for Peppi to see the postman. Instead, he groped after him, following the sound of the man’s feet swishing along the forest floor, the sound of his breathing. Peppi sniffed the air and discovered he could even detect the faint scent the man left behind as he traipsed up the hill.
Peppi ducked from tree to tree, keeping a fix on his prey as he followed him up the hill. When Peppi crested the hill, he gasped and froze in place at the sight of what lay on the other side.
Fires licking the insides of empty oil drums illuminated a small gathering of tents. Some were made from various colors of burlap. A few made from dingy striped cloth stood out like beaten clowns in a carnival that had long ago lost its way. Most had rips and tears. A few had gaping holes in their tops. None of them were new.
Realizing that he could be seen in the flickering firelight, Peppi slammed his body to the ground, lying as flat as he could against the half-frozen mud and dead leaves at the top of the hill. His eyes darted back and forth, looking for the postman and he couldn’t help letting out small grunts as he crawled his way to the nearest tree. He half stood up behind the tree and peered into the encampment.
He had heard of the Gypsy camp outside town, but had never seen it before. The official party line the Fähnleinführer had explained was simple enough. These were sedentary Gypsies, those who had held a job and a permanent residence but weren’t essential to the war effort. Thus, they were given the opportunity to work for the Reich rather than be sent to work education camps. Instead, they had been assigned to camps like this one where they were well-fed and protected by the Kripo so that they wouldn’t come to harm at the hands of those who might mistake them for Jews. Except that now they were guarded by the SS. Even so, Peppi had heard whispers of some being sent to concentration camps, but he was told those were unusual cases for the most hardened criminals.
It was all part of the maze of determining who was fit and who was not that Peppi still struggled to understand, but he thought he understood it well enough. The Nuremburg laws, Alpine Aryans, Oriental Aryans – which was why they were allied with Japan. But Slavs, and Jews most of all, were the enemy. Their local Sinti Gypsies, whom nobody ever really talked about, were not. But Romani from eastern Europe were. Jenesche were the worst of all the Gypsies, but this was only a rumor that he heard older boys talk about in hushed moments outside the barracks.
Peppi grinned, proud of himself for his discovery of the postman’s nocturnal journey to the camp. He knew that being a Gypsy wasn’t a crime.
That the postman had lied about it was.
Just then, Peppi saw the postman approach one of the two helmeted SS soldiers that casually stood guard just outside the camp. He took the satchel from his shoulder and placed it on a wooden table lit by one of the electric tower lights overlooking the camp. The postman reached into the bag and laid out its contents. A tin of crackers. A loaf of bread. Some wrinkled apples and a half-wheel of cheese. The guard eyed the postman for a moment, waiting for something. The postman’s shoulders slumped and he nodded – just once. The guard shoed him away with a wave of his hand and stood up, turning his back as if he hadn’t seen any of it.
The postman quickly stuffed the food back into his bag and disappeared into the camp.
Peppi sat back against his tree as he tried to understand what he had just seen. His own mother couldn’t get that much food in a single day with her ration card, and yet here was the postman bringing food into the camp. Peppi knew it had to be stolen. How else could he have brought that much?
But what really confused him was the SS guard who let it happen. There were good German soldiers starving on the eastern front, cold, hungry and fighting for their lives. For the life of Germany. This was why he and his mother had ration cards. Peppi understood that, even on those nights when he went to bed hungry because they had to wait for their next ration to come out and the rabbits in the back yard were thinning out.
So why did this man have a right to more food than Peppi and his mother? And what right did he have to bring it back to the Gypsy camp?
Peppi wanted to run down to the guards and scream at them. What are you doing? Instinctively, he knew this would not be the smartest thing and so he did the things that had worked for him that night. He waited. And he watched.
He knew his mother had to be sick with worry by then. In fact, he was certain she had called the constable and they were probably out looking for him. But this was too important to worry about all that. Once he explained everything, he knew she would understand. And if she didn’t understand, it wouldn’t matter because one thing he knew for certain – theStammführerwould no longer see him as the young boy who had made the wrong choice in pulling survivors from the street. No, after tonight, his reputation as an aspiring Hitlerjunge who thought correctly would be beyond reproach.
As he was daydreaming about the Stammführer smiling down at him, clasping his shoulder and firmly shaking his hand with hearty congratulations, Peppi stopped breathing when he saw the SS guard button his overcoat and start walking towards him.
He froze in place, certain that he had been discovered. He quietly crawled to a tree further back in the line and peered out from behind it. The soldier kept his head down as he tromped up the hill, over the crest and back the way the postman had come.
As he had with the postman, Peppi kept back just far enough that he could still hear the soldier’s boots swishing through the leaves and his steady breathing as he worked his way down the hill. Dodging from tree to tree, Peppi was able to see glimpses of the soldier as he kept a bearing on the man. Already, his skills at tracking a man in the dark had improved and he let a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. One day, such a skill would serve him well as a soldier.
He heard the sound shift and realized the man was now walking back across the field. Peppi counted the townhouses and felt his chest shudder when he realized the soldier was walking back to the exact same townhouse the postman had left.
He watched intently, barely breathing, as the soldier stepped into the backyard and up to the door. Unlike the postman, he did not look either way – he simply marched through the yard as if he belonged there. The soldier stopped in front of the door and then yanked his head around and seemed to look straight at Peppi.
Peppi stopped breathing and froze in place, instinctively knowing that in the dark, the most noticeable thing was motion. Still, the soldier’s gaze pierced him like a bayonet and Peppi couldn’t help thinking the man really did see him. If the man started towards him, Peppi would have to run. He would have to run deeper into the woods, towards the train tracks and even further into the forests beyond, which he had not visited since his father had left for the war.
And then he would have to find his way home. Alone, cold and hungry. By then, his mother would undoubtedly have the entire village up and stomping through the fields with torches, looking for her little boy.
But the man did not come closer. Instead, he turned back around and rapped lightly on the door three times and waited. Before the soldier had finished knocking, the door opened and Peppi saw the girl’s eyes emerge from the darkness. Peppi’s own eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness and now he could see the full outline of her face in the glow of the lamplight from the window above. Her round cheeks, her full red mouth smiling sadly at the soldier. Peppi felt a twinge in his heart at seeing just how pretty she was.
She wasn’t much older than Peppi and he couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to be standing at that door, looking into those glinting almond eyes, not knowing what to say. He had already caught the eye of a few girls at school, especially after his exploits on the night of the bombing. But this was different. This was the fire smoke that simmered in the night air, seeking the sky so that it would be above everything as it looked down at the world. This was the fleeting trickle of a stream that Peppi and his father had found in the Alps after two days of hard hiking, wondering if any other human eyes had ever seen it exactly as they had. This was the flowers in the fields looking up at the sky, finally knowing what they saw and reveling in the sight of it, because nobody saw exactly what they had.
He heard her soft voice, clearly speaking German now. “Willkommen, Soldat.” The soldier removed his helmet and stepped inside. Then closed the door behind him.
And the girl was gone.
Peppi stood at the foot of the steps leading up to the porch. Through the window, he could see the firelight dancing in the living room. That meant his mother was still up.
He took a breath, huffed it out and forced himself to walk up the steps and open the door. He tried to do it quietly, slowly turning the knob, which gave off an insistent squeak. The door opened with a light thump and groaned on hinges that announced his arrival.
Peppi cringed when he saw his mother standing in front of the fireplace, still wearing her house dress and clasping her hands tightly together. Her face was haggard, etched in a tight scowl. Her hair was unkempt. The red around her eyes betrayed tears from the hours of waiting.
He braced himself, waiting for her to lunge at him, drag him onto her lap, beat him. Or maybe she would just slap him and yell. He was prepared for all of that because he knew that after what he had done that night, he had entered a world she could never understand. He had tracked grown men, seen what they had done, had pulled back the curtain to see the ugly truth behind the world. He had seen, for the first time in his life, that traitors littered the ranks of his people. He had witnessed these crimes and it would be his duty to see them punished.
He had been right about the postman, of course. But to see an SS soldier betray his duty – that’s what angered him the most. Already, he had formulated how he would present his findings to the Stammführer – a man who would finally see that he was a true patriot, worthy of his trust, and more.
His mother’s voice, coarse and somber, interrupted his reverie. “Where have you been?”
He had thought about this, too. There was no going back, not now. She knew who he was now. And, if she didn’t, it was time for her to find out. He couldn’t be her little boy any longer. Not after what he had seen. He belonged to the Deutsches Jungvolk in heart, mind and soul. This was the duty that came to ten-year-old little boys when their country was at war. When history called for him and his comrades to stand and take, finally, what rightfully belonged to Germany. He understood what all of that meant now.
So there was no point in lying to his mother.
He let his face relax so his words would come out plainly, like the soldier he knew he would some day become. “I found a traitor to the Reich tonight, Mama.”
Her lip quivered and she closed her eyes. Peppi watched the fire flickering behind her, the sparks chasing up the flue when one of the logs settled into the rest with a sharp crackle that reminded him of a time before a night like this was even possible. A time he had already locked away like toys in a chest. A time when he was a little boy. A time he knew he had to leave behind.
She half-closed her eyes as her face sagged into a soft scowl. He had the sense that she was letting the past go, as well. Except for her it was a surrender, not an embrace of the future to come. “Who?” she asked softly.
He had thought about this, too. She was still his mother, but he was beyond the reach of some questions, especially this one. “I can’t say. I need to report this directly to the Stammführer.“
“You must not hide from me, Peppi. Especially now.” She stepped towards him, draping her hands at her side. “I know you don’t believe this, but you must trust me now. This is a dangerous time for you.”
He was pleased with himself for what he said next, for thinking of it so quickly, so calmly, as if it were obvious. “It is a dangerous time for us all.”
She stepped closer and knelt down in front of him. She lifted her hands and then paused, letting her hands hang in the space between them as she studied his eyes. She looked as if she were searching for something that she could no longer find. She pursed her lips and nodded somberly, then gently grabbed both shoulders. “Are you thinking rightly, Peppi?” she asked.
He wasn’t expecting this question and now that he saw his mother searching his eyes, desperately looking for the little boy she couldn’t find, he was suddenly lost.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he vaguely remembered that he had been trained for this moment. The Stammführer himself had told them all that there would be a time when it was going to be hard to remember their duty, when those around them would not understand and would try to convince them they were wrong. This was the moment, he had told them, that they would have to be strong.
“Yes, Mama, I am.”
Her mouth fell open and then she clamped her mouth shut. Her eyes narrowed until she was glaring at him and he felt a twinge of fear in his belly because his mother had never looked at him so fiercely as she did at that moment.
She reset her grip on his shoulder and he felt her fingers closing around them like crab’s claws. She cleared her throat and said, “Listen to me now.”
Even though she was a gentle soul most of the time, he knew that she could be strong when she had to be. He had seen her lifting logs, hoisting baskets of wet laundry. He knew better than to try to escape her grasp. She leaned close enough for him to feel her breath on his neck and he knew that it would be best to just let her talk. It wouldn’t matter, anyway. Nothing would change.
“Don’t you see that you’re wrong, Peppi?” she asked. He knew she didn’t expect him to answer. She just wanted him to listen now. “One day, you will be rejected. One day, you will be condemned. Every National Socialist, right down the youngest boy in the ranks of the Deutsches Jungvolk will be flung into the fires of a world that will judge you for what you have done. Here. Today.”
He blinked, as if her words were a gust of wind in a thunderstorm, knocking him off balance. She wasn’t going to just scold him for making her worry and then let him go. This was different.
“Not if the world bows to us, as it must,” Peppi said.
She shook his shoulders and dragged him onto the porch. Pointing to the sky, she asked, “Do you remember? The bombs fell just outside our home, the sky blackened by the RAF. Soon, it will be the B-17s of America.” She spun him around and leaned down behind him pointing over his shoulder towards the horizon. “One day, they will come in droves. With tanks and mortars and artillery and rifles and bayonets. An endless throng of enemies, driven by one simple idea, that they are right and we are wrong.”
Peppi felt a part of him fall away into some abyss. Tried as he might, he just wasn’t strong enough to withstand the onslaught of his mother’s tirade. His own voice slipped away until all he could hear in his mind was the Fähnleinführer barking at him, teaching him everything he needed to know. Teaching him everything he had to forget. He flung the words he had been taught out into the air and hid behind them, using them as a shield. All he had left was his duty, that the Stammführerhimself had bestowed. A duty he had worked so hard to fulfill. So, he fought now, using words like arrows, fighting off an enemy who was trying to strip him of everything that had become important to him. What else could he do? He was Deutsches Jungvolk now. And duty called.
With his back still turned to her, he said, “History teaches us that the strong are always right. And we are stronger than the Americans.” He practically spat the word to the ground. “They are decadent, indulgent and lazy. They weigh themselves down with the weak and the incompetent, while the Jew capitalists steal everything around them. They are the ones who will fall on the ash heap of history. And the world will know that we are right, and they are wrong.” He paused, and smiled at the wistful thought that came to him next. “Because we will be the world.”
She turned him back around so she could stare straight into his eyes. “The reason they will come are the words you speak today and the things your Stammführer has poured into that gullible head of yours. The horror that leads to. The people that you will condemn to slavery, death and worse. Peppi -” She stroked his hair and then pulled him to her. “They will come because you beckon them to. They are 130 million strong and we are growing weaker by the day, weaker still because we kill so many who could help this country. And every one of them fights the war in their own way. Every one of them sacrifices just as much as you and I. And their factories are too far away to bomb.” She pointed back at the horizon, towards the fires that still smoldered along the Ruhr, embers of shame echoing his mothers words. “Ours, they bomb at will. You are right, Peppi. Wars are won by the strong. We Germans, we are strong.” She stopped for a moment, her eyes flitting back and forth, desperate to find a part of him that he hoped she couldn’t find. A part of him that might never come back. He realized, in that moment, what sacrifice truly meant. To give up a part of yourself for something greater. What surprised him about that was the sudden urge to cry. An urge he swallowed down and kept burning in his belly.
She let out an exasperated sigh. “But we are not strong enough to beat the Americans, and the British, and the Russians. Just look into the eyes of the men returning from the east. They strut from their homes, bellies full of the same fire you have in your eyes now. They return with a different look in their eyes. Don’t ask the ones who are just leaving why we fight. Ask the ones who come back home.” Her eyes softened, and he saw in the way she looked at him that this was her final plea. A desperate whisper. “Ask them.”
She pulled him close and hugged him tight. Peppi felt her tears splashing against his neck and he knew that she didn’t cry because she was weak. She cried because she was afraid of what she had lost that night. What he had lost, too. But that was the way of war. Even so, he did wonder, for just a moment, if taking him away from her – taking his spirit away from her – was truly necessary for his Fatherland to survive.
But he would not waiver. He was too old for that now, and his country needed him to learn and understand how to fight the very throngs his mother was talking about. Because the Fähnleinführerhad said the same thing: The Americans would come one day. And it was his duty to be ready to fight them when they did. He wondered, too, if his mother understood that he would not just fight for the Führer and the Reich. That when the time came, he would fight to protect her and their home and the rabbits that scampered in the back yard, oblivious to it all. That he would fight to save the field where the wildflowers stared at the open sky, not knowing what they saw.
copyright 2020 Michael J Lawrence
All Rights Reserved