Let me tell you a story. A tale of a day seventy-seven years ago. It’s not exactly a true story – not everything happened just the way I tell it here. But certainly some of it did, even if not precisely on that day; those it happened to told me of it themselves. It’s a bit longer than some of the stories I usually put down here, and far more serious – I’m really sticking out my neck here. But I had to write this story, and I had to share it with you. So please bear with me – I think you’ll get the picture.
Johanna ran down the Friedrichstrasse, her blonde braids flying out behind her, her school satchel bouncing on her back. She cast a quick glance up at the church clock, visible between two of the brown tile roofs of the houses. Ten to eight—she had to hurry, or she’d be late again!
Neumeier’s bakery at the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Glockenweg was releasing some delicious smells of fresh bread and pastries. As she ran past, Johanna cast a longing glance at the apple turnovers that were on display behind the front window panes. The display window had only just been fixed a month or so ago; for most of the past year, since Crystal Night in November of last year, the window had been boarded up. Johanna could still remember the glitter of the glass shards that had littered the cobble stones in front of the shop, like the crystals that dangled from the chandelier in Grandmother’s parlour. The shop was Stern’s bakery then, but it wasn’t long afterwards that the Sterns had gone away. Johanna didn’t know where they’d gone, but probably back to wherever it was that Jews belonged. She had felt sorry for them having their shop window smashed up—she didn’t think it was quite fair, attacking people’s shops and houses. The synagogue at the Goetheplatz was a different matter, though; that’s where the Jews used to gather together, and everyone knew that their strange religion had them plotting all sorts of vicious things against the Fatherland. Johanna was glad that that place had been destroyed, to keep them all safe. Sometimes now the farmers temporarily stabled their pigs in there when they were taken them through on their way to the sausage factory on the other side of town; Father said that was just as well, as the smell of a dozen or so pigs all gathered in the middle of the Goetheplatz was really revolting.
Johanna missed the Sterns, though. Baker Stern had made the best breakfast rolls—white, soft and chewy on the inside, golden brown and crispy on the outside. There was nothing like fresh rolls, picked up from the baker’s just before breakfast so they were still warm, spread with butter and a bit of Mother’s apple jelly. Johanna’s mouth watered just thinking about it. While Baker Neumeier’s rolls weren’t bad, Johanna had never tasted one as good as the ones Herr Stern used to make. And when Johanna was little and had gone into the bakery with Mother or Tante Gerda to get their bread for the day, or maybe a pastry if there was company for afternoon coffee, Frau Stern had always given her a treat—a cookie, or the trimmings from a cake they’d been icing. When Mother protested that she really didn’t need to do that, Frau Stern had smiled and said, “Ach, the cookie was broken anyway,” and then she’d winked at Johanna. The Neumeiers weren’t nearly as nice; Johanna’s little brother Karl never got any free cookies, broken or otherwise. Ah well—Johanna hoped that wherever the Sterns had gone, Herr Stern was still baking his amazing rolls, and little kids got “broken” cookies from Frau Stern.
Johanna hitched her satchel higher on her back, and rounded the corner by the church yard. She ran through the stone arch that marked the entrance to the Kirchweg, the path that led up between the church and the cemetery, and mentally counted off the big trunks of the pairs of chestnut trees that were facing each other across the path. One, two, three… if she got to to the sixth pair by the time the church clock struck eight, she would make it to her seat in the classroom before the school bell rang. But just as she got to five, the deep tone of the church bell reverberated. Bong, bong, bong… And there was the shrill ringing of the school bell!
Johanna panted up the last few meters of the path, took the stairs to the school entrance two at a time, shoved open the big double doors and raced over the shining brown linoleum of the high-ceilinged hallway. She shuddered to a stop in front of the door of classroom 7B and caught her breath. She listened for a second—she could faintly hear Herr Schultheiss’ voice through the door. Softly, she pushed down the door handle, opened the door not much more than a crack, and slipped through into the classroom. Herr Schultheiss had his back to the class; he was writing on the blackboard, the bald patch on the back of his head shining in the morning sun that fell through the tall windows. Johanna raised a flat hand in the required salute. “Heil Hitler!” she said quietly, and she quickly stepped over and slid into her seat in the third row. There was definitely something to be said for having a soft voice; more than once she had been able to slip in late without the teacher even noticing, because he never heard her give the greeting.
But not today. Herr Schultheiss finished writing on the blackboard and turned around to face the class, dusting chalk off his fingers. His gaze sought out Johanna, and his mouth twisted in that sardonic expression Johanna disliked so much.
“Ah, Fräulein Hamel has finally deigned to grace us with her presence,” he said. “Now we can begin. It would be a shame if everyone had to miss today’s geography test because of tardiness.”
He limped over to his desk and picked up a stack of exercise books, looking like a shabby penguin as he did so. A shabby, sarcastic penguin.
Johanna supposed she should have more respect for her teacher—after all, he was a war hero who had lost a limb in the service to the Fatherland, defending Germany against its suppressors. But she couldn’t quite help wishing that Class 7 was still taught by Herr Hartmann, a man who was known throughout the whole town for being one of the best teachers around. Johanna still blushed at the memory of how she had met him on the street last November, and she’d raised her hand to greet him with “Heil Hitler!”—and Herr Hartmann had just given her a nod and simply said, “Good morning, Johanna.” She had felt so ashamed. Though why should she feel like that when she was only honouring their country’s leader—the Führer who had brought Germany out of the poverty and shame that the world had heaped on it after the War, the Führer who made their country great again? But, somehow, Herr Hartmann’s pointed avoidance of the Hitler salute had burned itself on her memory. Not long after that, he had been taken from his position of teaching Class 7, and now he was only allowed to teach Class 1, the little ABC-Shooters who needed to be taught their letters and numbers and had no understanding of politics and patriotism. Father said he supposed that’s where Hartmann could do the least damage to impressionable young minds.
Herr Schultheiss handed out the exercise books, calling out the students’ names as he did so. “Margarete Gaubach!” “Here.” “Fritz Gehringer!” “Here!” “Gloria Giuliano!” “Yes.” The quiet voice came from Johanna’s left. She looked over to see Gloria quickly glance up as Herr Schultheiss gave her her exercise book, then drop her brown-eyed gaze to the table again, a lock of her short black hair dropping down over her forehead. Johanna knew that Gloria hated how Herr Schultheiss mispronounced her last name—he always said it as if it was German, Ghee-yoo-lee-ahno, instead of the way it was supposed to be said, Dshoo-lee-ahno. But there was nothing Gloria could do about it. She was a half-foreigner; her father was Italian, and foreigners didn’t belong in Germany. They only took jobs away from hard-working Germans. At least that’s what Father always said. Fortunately, the job situation was a lot better than it had been just a few years ago; the Führer had made a big change to that—when Adolf Hitler got voted in in 1933, the unemployment rate had been staggering, but soon, anyone who wanted to work had been able to have work. Well, any German. Any German man, anyway. The economy had never been this strong, Father said; the Führer had done wonders for the country. Father was a machinist in the wire factory; he’d been working there for five years already. Herr Giuliano used to have a job there, too, but last week Johanna had seen him in town with a broom in his hand, sweeping up the debris after the weekly market stalls had packed up. Johanna had recognised him because he had the same black wavy hair as Gloria, who wore her hair cut short, not long in the proper German style. The Führer preferred to see a more feminine style on women; he was adamant that women should be women and men should be men. Johanna flicked her own blonde braid back over her shoulder.
“Johanna Hamel!” “Here,” replied Johanna and took the blue-paper-covered exercise book from Herr Schultheiss’ hand. She opened it to the first clean page, picked up the pen, dipped it in the inkwell on her desk, and wrote the date across the top of the page. 1st September, 1939. Mmh, there would be special hazelnut squares for coffee at home that afternoon. They always had hazelnut squares on September 1st, because that was when Onkel Karl’s birthday would have been, and hazelnuts had been his favourite. He would be—Johanna quickly did the math in her head—forty-one today. Would be—if he hadn’t died in the Battle of the Somme when he was just eighteen years old. In fact, September 1st wasn’t just his birthday, it was his death day, too. Some terrible Tommy shell had mowed him down, right where he stood. Mother and Tante Gerda, who were twins, had been twelve, the same age Johanna was now, and they had never gotten over the death of their adored big brother. “Never again,” Mother often said, “never again must there be a war to kill our men—our brothers, our fathers, our sons…” And she usually ran her hand over Little Karlchen’s blond head when she said that, sadness in her grey eyes. Johanna was glad they had the Führer to protect them, to make Germany so strong that no one would dare threaten or attack them. A strong country was a safe country.
Johanna turned to the blackboard and copied the first of the geography test questions into her exercise book.
“1.) What is the extent of the borders of the German Empire?”
That was easy. Johanna let the tune of the Deutschlandlied, the Song of Germany, play in her head. “From the Maas unto the Memel,”—the far West, in France, to the far East, the border of East Prussia with Poland—“From the Etsch,”—a river in South Tyrol, which was almost Italy—“unto the Belt,”—that was the North, where Denmark started.
Johanna nibbled the end of her pen and went on to Question 2: “What is the justification for drawing the borders this way?”
Easy again. It was all the German-speaking peoples. And after the Anschluss of 1938, even Austria properly belonged to the German Empire again. Thomas Müller in Class 6 had claimed that the Austrians hadn’t wanted to become part of the German Empire and that the Anschluss was an unjust act of aggression on the part of Germany, but Johanna didn’t believe it. Why wouldn’t the Austrians want to be part of the Empire, where they could have all the advantages of belonging to a wonderful country under the strong leadership of a man who didn’t put up with nonsense and always had the best of the Nation at the forefront of his mind? Besides, what did Thomas know, anyhow? His parents were Socialists, and everyone knew that Socialism was a sure way to the ruination of a country.
Herr Schultheiss pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at it; Johanna caught a glimpse of its face. Only half past eight… She sighed. Another four-and-a-half hours before she could go home for dinner.
Mother ladled another spoonful of thick lentil soup onto Johanna’s soup plate, a small piece of sausage landing amidst the brown legumes with a little plop.
“You too, Karlchen,” she said, and she reached for the little boy’s plate.
“No, Mama! Don’t want more soup! I want…”
“Hush!” said Tante Gerda, who was fiddling with the dial on the Volksempfänger, the square brown radio box with its round cloth speaker in the middle, which sat on the dresser in the corner of the dining room. “There is a special broadcast on from Berlin!”
They all fell silent as Tante Gerda turned up the volume. There was that squeaking, hissing noise of the radio warming up, and suddenly the Führer’s voice filled the room.
“I have given my Luftwaffe the task to restrict its attack to military targets. But if the enemy thinks to take this as permission to fight, on their part, with methods that are the exact opposite, they will receive an answer that will set their ears ringing!” Johanna could hear the loud, long applause coming from the people who listened to the Führer in the Reichstag. “For the first time last night Poland attacked on our own territory with regular soldiers. Since 5:45 AM, we are shooting back! From now on, bombs will be met with bombs! He who fights with poison will be fought with poison gas! He who moves away from the rules of humane warfare cannot expect anything else from us but that we take the same step. I will wage this battle, no matter against whom, until the safety of the Empire is assured and its rights guaranteed!” There was another storm of applause coming over the crackling radio waves, but Johanna’s attention was caught by Mother, whose face was chalk white as she looked at her sister.
“It can’t be,” Tante Gerda whispered as she reached out a shaking hand to click off the radio, “for heaven’s sake, it can’t be true! Not war again—dear God, not war…”
Little Karl tugged on Mother’s apron.
“Mama? Mama? Mama, why are you crying? Mama?”