On a bright afternoon in late June, 1941, Eric and his two friends, Heinz and Dietrich, crossed the fields and pastures toward the Süntel where they meant to climb the tower, called the Süntelturm, that stood just beyond the mountain's crest. From Unsen they could see the top of the tower rising like a crown into the sky.
The hike usually took an hour, but on this afternoon the boys made it in less time. Startling news had come over the radio at home the night before. Father had told the family at breakfast. At school there had been such excitement and rejoicing that the boys could think and talk of nothing else. The German Wehrmacht [armies] had crossed the Russian border!
No place, Eric told the other boys, could be so fitting for their own celebration of such news as the Süntelturm. They burst in on the owner who conducted his business on the ground floor of the tower. They greeted him and each boy gave him five Pfennige [coins] which bought them the right to climb to the tower's upper platform.
"Well, well! I see that the good news has already reached your ears." The man smiled as though he understood just how enthusiastic Jungvolk should celebrate such an important event. He opened the door to the spiral staircase, and the boys, following their usual custom, began to run up the stone steps. Perhaps today, spurred by Hitler's advance into Russia, they could run up the one-hundred-eight steps without stopping.
Halfway up and completely out of breath, they paused to rest. Eric noticed how old and worn the steps looked. He wondered how many people had climbed them since the year 1900 when the tower was built. It had stood there ever since pointing its serrated crown to the sky, and everyone knew it as the chief landmark of the area. It could be seen from the valleys on both sides of the Süntel.
Eric looked down on the lower slope of the mountain toward Unsen and saw Hitler's Hakenkreuz, a mighty memorial he had erected to commemorate the rise of the Third Reich. A huge metal swastika set in stone towered above the rocky amphitheater where Nazi meetings and rallies often took place.
Beyond and below lay the whole sunny valley. Beech and pine forests, pastures and meadowland, grainfields, gardens, and orchards stretched across the valley floor. Fruit trees marked the country roads that ran toward Holtensen and Hameln to the south and toward Hannover to the northeast as well as the road that ran from Hasperde to Welliehausen through Unsen and passed in front of his father's Gasthaus.
Eric's chest swelled with a wonder he could not explain. The sight of beauty always moved him, and his village home had never looked more enchanting or more peaceful than today.
"Hitler has kept his promise," Dietrich said, still a little out of breath from the climb. "Already this year he has conquered Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece--"
"And now soldiers of the Wehrmacht are marching east into Russia." Eric could see in his mind thousands of soldiers advancing in orderly ranks into the huge Russian territory. He could hear their marching song:
The rickety bones of the world
Are shivering with fear.
But to us, this fear
Means a great victory.
Today Germany belongs to us--
Tomorrow the whole world!
Somehow Eric wished he'd come alone. His friends couldn't be nicer fellows, and he always had fun with them; but today he needed to be alone to wrestle with the great thoughts that struggled up inside him. He gazed out at the calm loveliness of the scene before him and knew for the first time that love for the Fatherland could be a big thing with a boy.
He would grow up to be a man, and he would defend his country with his strong arms and his stout heart. He felt of his arm muscles, hardened through months of training, and wished that he could grow up faster. The Führer would have conquered the world before he grew old enough to help.
"Come, we must go." Eric started for the stairway. "We must hurry if we want to get home before dark."
"Remember, tomorrow is Jungvolk meeting," Dietrich said. "We're going to practice battle maneuvers--sneak attacks and defense." Heinz's brown eyes glistened with enthusiasm. "That will be great fun."
"I'm going to be old enough for the Jungvolk this autumn." Heinz looked wistfully at the two older boys.
Eric thought Heinz looked like a boy that would enjoy himself and do well in the Jungvolk.
Eric slapped him on the shoulder. "Good, Heinz, we'll be there to clap and shout for you."
The boys did run all the way down the hundred-and-eight stone steps. After an enthusiastic exchange of greetings with the owner of the tower they hurried home.
Eric left his friends at their turning-off points along the way. At the Gasthaus he ran into the kitchen where he found Mother putting supper on the table. The thick pea soup and fresh-baked bread smelled so good that he hardly heard Mother's voice. "You are home, Eric. Where have you been since school?"
"Oh, Mother, we climbed the Süntelturm, and we shouted and sang for all our victories and for Hitler's ordering our Wehrmacht into Russia." He gave his face a few swipes and sat up to the table.
Father had come in now. He washed his hands and looked at Eric with sober sadness in his face, but he said nothing until the whole family sat in their places. Then he spoke in a serious tone. "War is not a happy thing to shout and sing about, Eric. War brings sorrow, pain, and death to many people who have never done us any wrong, and who have as much right to live as we have."
"But, Father, aren't you glad for our Führer's victories? Doesn't it make you proud to hear it on the radio?"
Again Eric caught that look of sorrow in Father's eyes. "Nothing about war makes me glad or proud."
Hans looked up, and Eric could see how love for Father and loyalty to Hitler struggled together in his older brother. But Hans said nothing.
The following afternoon when Eric put on his uniform for the Jungvolk meeting he thought about Father's words. Why did Father think of war in such a different way? Someone might report Father to the secret police. Then-- He dare not think what might happen. He knew that children often reported their parents to the Gestapo [secret police]. How could a boy do that to his own father?
He drew on the short black trousers and the khaki-colored shirt. He buckled the wide black leather belt with the swastika buckle and arranged his black scarf with great care. He pulled on long socks that reached almost to his knees, and last of all he slipped into his heavy boots.
He looked at himself in the mirror and saw a neat figure--a fair-haired youth with blue eyes and an eager look on his face. Mother always saw to it that his uniform was washed, ironed, and laid out for him on the days when he attended Jungvolk meetings. He could always count on Mother. He wondered if she felt as Father did about war.
He started down the stairs and paused for a moment to look at the two old guns that stood in the angle of the stairway. The guns must be very old--muzzle-loaders, both of them. Father had other weapons too, two old swords and a modern rifle.
In the downstairs hall his little sister Irmgard caught his hand. "Oh, Eric, you look so smart and handsome. I wish I could be a boy. I'd make such a good fighter."
Eric laughed and patted her soft braids. "I'm sure you would."
He met Dietrich on the way to Holtensen, and the two boys marched along together. They held their shoulders straight and behaved with great dignity. They knew that every villager who saw them felt proud of the Jungvolk.
This afternoon the Jungvolk boys separated into two teams of about twenty-five boys each. The leader of each group carried a compass. Guided by that instrument he led his boys into the forest.
One group concealed themselves in a spot that could be defended. Eric's group were the "attackers." They would try to sneak up on the "enemy" position and take the "defenders" prisoners.
Eric strode along behind his leader keeping his eyes and ears alert for any telltale movement or any slight noise that might reveal the "enemy's" location.
"We are marching north." The leader called all the boys to look at the compass, and he explained how to read directions from it. "Now we will turn east, and I will show you again how the compass works."
As the boys penetrated deeper into the forest, they tried not to make any noise. When they passed through heavily wooded sections, they stepped with care and lifted tree branches or stepped over dead limbs that might crackle and betray them.
Eric watched for grassy places that might have been trampled and for broken twigs or tracks of any kind.
A short distance after the "attackers" turned east they topped a small knoll. The leader held up his hand in a gesture commanding caution. Along the creek, directly below them, Eric saw something move. He stiffened. The "enemy!"
With stealthy haste the team leader assigned them their "attack" positions. He sent two groups of five boys each to creep up on the "enemy" from behind. They must cross the creek without noise or any awkward movement. Three boys he placed on the left and three more on the right of the "enemy" position. The other boys waited until their teammates were ready. Then they made a frontal attack, leaping forward and shouting, "Sieg, Heil! Sieg, Heil!"
The boys who had been hiding dashed out in a fierce counterattack, but the leaders declared them "prisoners," and then they all laughed and shouted, "Heil Hitler!" They turned toward Holtensen singing the song of the Hitler Youth:
Our flag flutters before us, as into the future
We move man for man.
We are marching for Hitler through night
And through danger,
With the flag of youth for freedom and bread.
Two boys marched in front of each team carrying the swastika flags. Eric thought no flag could be more beautiful than the flag of the Third Reich with its brilliant red background and its white circle with the black Hakenkreuz [swastika]--the "blood banner" under which all Hitler's armies marched and fought.
The boys marched through the streets of Holtensen. The villagers stood in their gardens or looked from their windows and waved to the Jungvolk. Eric knew that all the other boys must feel just as he did--proud, important, and successful.
They reached the exercise ground at the school, and one of the leaders announced, "At our next meeting we will hold a swimming contest and a discus-throwing competition." He stiffened, and every boy came smartly to attention, his right hand raised. "The Oath! Repeat the Oath of the Sword."
Jungvolk boys are hard, silent, faithful.
Jungvolk boys are comrades.
The highest honor of a Jungvolk boy is honor.
Sieg, Heil! Sieg, Heil! Sieg, Heil!
They dispersed, each to go to his own home.
Eric thought how much he enjoyed the activities of the Jungvolk: the hikes, the games, the songs and stories, and the battle exercises like today. He looked forward to the swimming contest and all the other exciting competitions the future offered. He wore the uniform with pride and repeated the Oath of the Sword with fervor. But today had seemed different. Could it be that he had begun to grow up, to know more, to enter into a man's feelings? Today the war-like exercises had stirred new depths in his mind. They had seemed real!
With the exciting melody of the song still ringing in his head and the words of the Oath still on his tongue, Eric left his friend, Dietrich, and turned toward home.
Eric longed for his fourteenth birthday so that he could join the Hitler-Jugend. Hans belonged, and Eric knew that they did a lot of grown-up things, much more serious and important than the Jungvolk. Eric knew that Hans would soon be a part of the Arbeitsdienst [the work corps]. He'd seen pictures of the handsome young men with shovels (or guns) over their shoulders. He knew they must be an important part of the army. They cleared landing fields, built barracks, dug trenches, and did other necessary work to help and support the fighting men. He'd do that too.
Eric's mind jumped ahead, and he saw himself already a uniformed soldier marching with Hitler's Wehrmacht toward Stalingrad.
Shouts roused him from his dreamy thoughts, and he saw both Dietrich and Heinz running to overtake him. "Can't we celebrate some more?" Heinz's dark eyes sparkled with mischief, and Eric knew that Heinz would feel left out until he was old enough to join the Jungvolk in the fall.
"Come to my house," Eric suggested. "It'll be a long time until sundown, and I've got a good idea for a celebration."
The three walked along the Holtensen road until they came to the curve that led past the Gasthaus. They passed their neighbor's farm and the fence that enclosed the Gasthaus garden. Eric led them beyond the barn where they turned off the road and went around behind a brick firehouse that stood near the creek.
Celebration of Hitler's invasion of Russia urged them on to still more exciting demonstrations. The trip to the Süntelturm the day before and the exercise of the Jungvolk battle maneuvers had not diminished their energy. Eric still bubbled with jubilant emotion.
"Has anyone got a match?" He looked at the other two boys. They began to empty their pockets. Dietrich found a couple of matches, and Eric explained that a bonfire must be the finest celebration that boys could have.
They scurried around collecting sticks and twigs and small pieces of wood until they had built quite a pile against the back wall of the firehouse.
"Won't the building burn?" Heinz's black eyes sparkled with excitement.
"It's brick. How can brick burn?" Eric replied. And Dietrich also declared that brick couldn't burn.
Dietrich scratched a match and held it under a handful of dried grass. Smoke came out, then a small flame. He thrust it among the dry twigs and fire licked up the wall.
The boys danced around their bonfire. Now and again they scattered to scoop up more fuel for their blaze. A brisk wind sprang up, and the fire became a snapping success. Then the boys saw someone coming.
Eric knew him. They all knew him--the mayor of Unsen! His farm lay just a short distance west. The mayor seemed to have something on his mind. He strode forward and broke into a run. Something in the manner of his coming convinced Eric that he should run too.
He sprinted for the fence and the creek. Every instant he could hear the mayor's heavy feet pounding nearer. He could hear the mayor puffing for breath, and also certain unkind and threatening words spouting from the mayor's mouth. Eric ran fast, but he had run and marched and climbed several miles already that day. The mayor's legs must be twice as long as his. In the midst of a wild leap forward, he felt a heavy hand clutch his shoulder. The hand spun him around to face the angry mayor.
"Foolish boy!" the man snorted and mopped his forehead. "What mischief will you think of next? With this wind you could have burned the whole village."
Then Eric heard other footsteps more familiar to his ears. "I've put out the fire," Father told the mayor. "I was working in the backyard when I saw the smoke."
Eric saw that Father carried a willow switch. He could never decide, afterward, which hurt the worst, the angry words from the mayor or the flogging with Father's switch. He wondered about Heinz and Dietrich. Had they suffered for their celebration? Eric thought it hardly fair that they should be punished for celebrating Hitler's glorious new thrust into Russia.
That night after Mother had come up to hear their prayers, he talked to Hans about it.
Hans raised himself up on his elbow. "On my way home I saw Heinz and Dietrich at Heinz's home. They got punished just as you did. I guess you boys better grow up enough not to start fires. We have enough problems without you boys destroying property with your stupid foolishness."
"But, Hans, the firehouse is brick and--"
"The woodwork inside isn't brick, and neither are the beams in the roof. I'm disgusted with you. You act like a baby instead of like a Jungvolk boy."
No punishment could hurt so much as Hans's scorn. Never again would Eric start any fire near a building. He tried to sleep, but his legs and back felt miserable. He couldn't tell whether he ached from the beating, the battle exercises today, or the climb up the Süntelturm the evening before.
He thought of Father's words at supper the night before. Perhaps war was not so good and glorious. If he felt so distressed from a beating, what must the wounded soldiers feel on the battlefield? What must the people feel whose homes were being burned, looted, and destroyed?
A few days later at breakfast Father said, "Well, Hitler boasts this morning that the greatest battle of annihilation of the war or of all history has taken place east of Kiev."
A few mornings later, in the streets of Holtensen, Eric himself heard the voice of Hitler broadcast over Radio Berlin:
"Our forces have dealt Russia a paralyzing blow. We have between five and six million troops in the U.S.S.R."
He wondered if Father had heard. He tried to imagine how many five or six million soldiers could be, but his mind failed before the huge figure. His thoughts seemed to reel-- Then he remembered the formations of planes that flew over Unsen every day and probably at night as well. He wondered how many millions of men were fighting in this war on both sides. He felt sick. Would anyone survive this madness and destruction?
He hurried home and found Father in the barn. Yes, Father had heard Hitler's broadcast.
"Why does God let them do it?" Eric asked.
"I cannot answer that question. I do not know the mind of God, but I'm sure He doesn't force anyone to do right. We must choose whether we will do right or wrong and take the responsibility for it." Father looked down at Eric and laid his hand on his shoulder. "Cheer up, Son. This war cannot last forever. There are powerful forces on the other side, and they are pushing hard on Hitler's Wehrmacht. They will sweep Hitler and his gang of murdering fools to destruction. Wait and see."
"Did you hear something on the radio?"
"Never ask such questions. Just trust my word."
After that day, Eric listened to Hitler's broadcasts
with less fear. He knew there were two sides to this war. Father had told
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