Herr Meier looked over the twenty children at the desks before him. "Eric, you will recite the life story of our Führer, Adolf Hitler." He pointed a stubby finger at a fair-haired boy of ten.
"Sir, I do not know the story of Adolf Hitler's life." Eric's voice trembled.
A crimson flush spread over Herr Meier's face and up over his bald head. Anger flashed in his eyes. "You, then, Heinz!" The stabbing finger selected another boy, this one with dark hair and brown eyes. "The story of our Führer from childhood to leadership of the German people, and be quick about it!"
"I can't tell it either, sir." Heinz cringed, and Eric could see that his friend's terror exceeded his own.
"Come to the front, both of you." Rage and fear hung in the room like evil odors.
Eric darted a look at Heinz. He knew that his friend felt just as he did. He'd like to dive out that door into the early June springtime and never come back anymore; but neither of them dared. They came forward while the frightened eyes of their schoolmates followed them and every child in the room sat still. Eric could hear them breathing.
"Bend over!" Herr Meier laid three strokes of his tough bamboo rod on Eric's back--then on Heinz's. The sharp pain and the shame cut Eric with savage force. He did not cry. He looked at Heinz. Both of them were too big to cry, and they had felt the cruel stick before.
Eric didn't know why Heinz hadn't learned about Adolf Hitler's history, but he knew why he himself hadn't. In the Kreye home, Father did not admire Hitler. Eric had heard Father say many times that he wished his boys could have grown up in the United States where he had lived for over ten years.
Eric returned to his desk. His back still smarted from the schoolmaster's rod, and he felt confused. Many German people regarded Adolf Hitler as a great hero. His picture was everywhere--in classrooms, offices, railroad stations, on street corners. A German could scarcely go anywhere without seeing the face of the Führer staring down at him. But Father condemned Hitler as a dangerous fanatic. With half of his mind Eric wanted to follow Hitler, but the other half kept telling him that Father could be right.
After school he walked with Heinz and his other friend, Dietrich, along the country road that led past the big Lutheran church in Holtensen and through lush country meadows and blooming orchards. They swung along under a row of blossoming apple trees following the country road toward the small village of Unsen. Eric could see his own house standing three stories high. When he got nearer, he could read the sign in front of it, Hölscher's Gasthaus. Early flowers--crocuses, tulips, and daffodils--nodded and swayed their bright colors in the front gardens.
The Gasthaus had room for a few guests upstairs. On the main floor was a room for public dining where Mother served the best home-cooked food.
The Kreye family in the early days
of the war, with Eric on the left.
The little farm, orchard, and garden provided an abundance of delicious food. The village of Unsen itself lay in a resort area where people came to enjoy vacations in the quiet country atmosphere.
The house and barn were connected by a passageway so that in severe weather no one needed to go outside to do chores, not even to carry in firewood and coal.
Eric felt proud of his home, and he couldn't think of a better place for a boy to live.
He said good-bye to his friends and went around the house to the animal barn. He found Father and the farmhand, Ludwig, preparing the cows' evening meal.
"Father," he said, "I got another beating at school today."
"And what for this time?" Father looked down at him with a stern face. "I hope you were not discourteous to your teacher."
"I couldn't recite the story of Hitler's life."
Father's blue eyes darkened, and a look of sadness drew sharp lines on his face. He left his work and motioned Eric to follow him outside. Eric knew that Father did not want Ludwig to hear what he intended to say.
"The history of Adolf Hitler can do you no good," Father spoke in whispers. "He is an evil man, and before he has finished with his folly we shall see Germany ruined."
Father looked around with sharp eyes. Eric knew that such talk must not be heard--no, not by anyone. He thought of Frau Bergmann and her one-armed son who lived just across the street. Both of them were rabid Nazis, always looking for some disrespect to the Führer's name or position, always listening to catch any word against the Führer's plans and to note any person's failure to say, "Heil Hitler."
Eric looked up the back wall of the Gasthaus to Frau Hölscher's window. She didn't have it open, so he felt easier. Frau Hölscher's son had leased the Gasthaus to the Kreye family, and the old woman had been allowed to keep her room on the second floor of the building. Eric knew that she could be mean. She even stole things sometimes. He had no idea what the limits of her meanness might be. He knew Father had good reason for not wanting Frau Hölscher to hear any of his private business, and Father's opinions about Hitler needed to be kept private indeed.
He turned and saw Father looking up at Frau Hölscher's window. Could it be that Father had the same fear he did? Eric felt a cold fist grab his vital organs and twist them into a knot of anxiety. Ever since Hitler's armies invaded Poland and war came to Germany, one fear seemed to crowd another.
Father took hold of the boy's shoulder, and for an instant Eric felt the strength and comfort of his father's hand, warm through his light jacket. "If you are ever punished for discourtesy or cheating or other kinds of misbehavior, I will have to punish you myself. But a beating for ignorance of Adolf Hitler's life story is an honor. I am proud of you." Father went back to the barn.
Eric carried his books into the kitchen where Mother was cooking supper on the big stove. "Oh, you are home, Eric!" She turned to smile at him. "How did school go today?"
"As always, Mama." Eric took a sweet cake from a plate on the table. Then he ran out into the back garden toward the huge pear tree now in full bloom. Wild laughter burst from his throat. He scurried up the trunk of the old tree and swung from one of its higher branches.
From his high perch he could see the rolling land around Unsen ribboned with the green of new crops--rye, barley, wheat. Fields covered with Raps [plants grown for the oily seed] flung deep yellow blankets against the hillsides. He could see where the creek trailed a line of fresh green trees as it curved through the pastures and farmland.
Here in the old pear tree the terrible war seemed far away. He saw only the peaceful beauty of his village home, the bright flowers and orchards heavy with blossom. He tried to shut from his mind the thought of battles and bombed enemy cities and swarms of war planes that Father heard about every night from the radio on the old black piano.
Eric knew that a law had been proclaimed forbidding any person to listen to foreign broadcasts. Such listening would be punished as treason. While most of the country people had short-wave bands on their radios, not many of them understood English. In defiance of Hitler's law Father listened to the British Broadcasting Company every night.
The news from Berlin blared forth on nearly every street corner and from many shops and private homes. Eric had become so familiar with Hitler's voice that it often wakened him in his dreams at night with some fierce threat. Hitler always used violent words. He always spoke in exaggerated terms. Young as he was, Eric knew that much, and he feared to do anything that might displease the Führer.
When Mother called him to supper, he scrambled down from his refuge in the pear tree and went in to take his place between his older brother, Hans, and his little sister, Irmgard.
After an early supper Hans hurried off to his Hitler-Jugend [Hitler Youth] meeting, and Eric didn't see him again until the older brother crawled into the other bed in the room the boys shared. "What did you do today, Hans?"
"We sang songs, listened to stories, drilled and marched with packs on our backs. You know--what we usually do."
"Do you think I'll do well in the Hitler-Jugend?
"Yes, of course." Hans turned his head on his pillow ready for sleep.
"Hans, why does Father object so vigorously to Hitler's plans?"
Hans' voice sounded muffled and sleepy. "He spent too many years in America. He can't forget what he calls 'the free life' over there."
Long after Hans's deep breathing showed that he slept, Eric lay thinking and listening until the whole village quieted and he could feel how Hölscher's Gasthaus lay naked under the sharp stars hiding secrets too dangerous for any house to support.
He fell at last into uneasy sleep where he dreamed of Herr Meier and his mighty bamboo stick; dreamed of running along the open roads and lanes with some frightening thing in pursuit; dreamed of bombs dropping on the roof. He woke to hear Mother calling, "Hans! Eric! Breakfast is ready."
At breakfast Father looked thoughtful. "I'm sure Hitler will make an attack on Russia before long. He is already established in the Scandinavian countries. He has overrun the Balkans and occupied Greece. The Vichy government in France jumps every time Hitler whistles. Russia is his next move." He stabbed a thick slice of bread with his fork. "War is terrible! Great armies go out to kill other armies of men they don't know and can't possibly hate."
Eric ate his pancakes and applesauce while his mind struggled with Father's ideas of war and tried to compare them with Hitler's. All the German youth leaders pictured war as glorious, honorable, and necessary for the future growth and success of the Fatherland. One of Adolf Hitler's sayings darted into Eric's mind:
There will be no peace in Europe until a body
is hanging from every lamppost!
He picked up his books and started for school, but he kept thinking about how much Father's ideas differed from Adolf Hitler's and Herr Meier's. He wondered about America. He couldn't remember anything about it because he'd been too young when his parents came back to Germany. One thing he knew, America could not possibly be more beautiful than his home here in Unsen. He looked from the lacy pink apple blossoms along the road to the growing grain fields and beyond to the Süntel [a low mountain] where the new green of the beech trees swept up the slopes to meet the dark green of pine forests on its heights.
Eric wondered if other boys felt the same pulse of exquisite pleasure inside--all that color! Those soft green curves and the blue sky tipped like an amethyst bowl overhead.
He reached the corner where his two friends, Heinz and Dietrich, joined him. The three friends hurried along toward the schoolhouse, but not because they felt eagerness or anticipation for a pleasant day. They carried sharp memories of Herr Meier's stick and his fierce tongue.
"Heil Hitler!" they greeted their teacher. He returned their salutation in full voice, but Eric could see that he seemed to be in no happier mood than yesterday. The boys went to their desks which were sturdy tables placed close together around the room.
Eric felt some unseen, unnamed presence press down on him. The sunny June morning darkened and chilled.
During arithmetic class one boy made a mistake in reciting the multiplication table. He said, "Six times seven is thirty-six."
"Next!" the teacher roared in such a threatening voice that Dietrich, who was next in line, mumbled, "Six times seven is forty-five."
Herr Meier leaped onto his stout oak desk, crashed several books, rulers, and pencils to the floor, then jumped about on all the desk-tables where the pupils sat. He stamped his heavy booted feet and shook his bamboo rod over the cowering children before him. "Dummköpfe [fools]!" he raged. "Why do I waste my time on you?"
Before Herr Meier's fit of anger had cooled, every boy in the arithmetic class had felt the stick, and all the girls were sobbing. None of the boys cried out or showed in any way how much the stick hurt. They had trained in Hitler's Jungvolk. Not one of them would admit that he suffered under the teacher's blows or his savage talk.
At home that evening when Eric related the day's happenings, Father looked at him and said, "School is going to be over for this term in just two more weeks. I will try to have you transferred to the Mittelschule [middle school] in Hameln before school begins next fall. I'm sure you can pass the entrance examinations."
Eric endured the remaining days of school cheered
by the thought that next term he would go to a larger school with a bigger
playground and more students. Most of all he hoped that the teachers would
not be like Herr Meier.
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