When school opened in the autumn of 1941, Eric's father enrolled him in the Mittelschule in Hameln. He found Nazi teachers there too, but none so fanatical as Herr Meier.
Eric didn't like being separated from Dietrich and Heinz. Now he could see them only after school and on weekends. Both Dietrich and Eric attended the Jungvolk meetings in the exercise yard of Eric's old school in Holtensen.
One afternoon the Jungvolk meeting held special attraction for Eric and his friends. Heinz would be sworn in as a new member. Eric walked onto the exercise ground and saw the boys forming up into ranks. He hurried to join them. Then he saw Heinz out in front, dressed in his new uniform and looking so proud and important that Eric couldn't help smiling. The youth leader ordered Heinz to stand at attention and salute. "Now, repeat after me the Jungvolk oath."
In the presence of this blood banner
Which represents our Führer,
I swear that I will devote all my energies
And my strength to the savior of our country,
I am willing and ready
To give up my life for him....
As the three friends walked home that day, Eric felt as proud of Heinz as he had of himself when he had taken the same oath.
Hitler's advance through Russia had captured the boys' interest and enthusiasm. Hitler even boasted that within six weeks his armies would be in Moscow; but as the autumn days stiffened into winter, Eric began to hear that the Russian cold might be severe and the snow deep.
One morning in early December Father appeared at the breakfast table looking so grave that Eric felt his heart begin to pound. Mother came to stand at Father's side and laid her hand on his shoulder. "Boys," he began in a husky voice, "the Japanese have made a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands and have inflicted terrible damage on the United States fleet."
"What does this mean, Father, and why does it worry you?" Eric asked.
"Japan is Germany's ally. Now the United States will declare war on Japan--then on Germany and Italy."
"I'm sure Hitler expected that the United States would come into the war." Hans dished himself another big bowl of applesauce. "He'll know how to take care of those Yanks. Why, the war will be over before they can get started! What's the news from the Russian front this morning?"
Father turned to Hans, and Eric thought he saw a look of pity in Father's eyes. "My boy, every day of the Russian winter is a hell of agony for our Wehrmacht. War is hell!" Father got up without touching his breakfast and went out to the barn.
"Mother, why can't Father see that Hitler knows what he is doing?" Hans looked up with disappointment. "He has pushed ahead to quick success in almost every country in Europe. Remember Dunkirk?"
"Hush, Hans! Your father is a gentle person. He hates war. We lived in the United States for over ten years. If he had been able to choose, he would be there now. He knows much more about America than you do."
Eric had never heard his mother speak so defensively before. He put on his warm coat and mittens, pulled his furlined cap over his ears, and started for school.
In the streets of Holtensen he heard the loud blare of a radio from one of the houses. The windows had been flung wide open so everyone could hear. Hitler was making a fiery speech--a war-cry of exultant frenzy because Japan had caught a lot of United States warships by surprise and sunk them so that thousands of sailors must have drowned. As Hitler's powerful voice rose to a crescendo of wild defiance, Eric pulled his ear-tabs down tighter and hurried on toward Hameln. Would the whole world burn and bleed and perhaps be destroyed in this awful war?
Eric stopped in the middle of the road. A disturbing thought had come to him. Suppose Father had stayed in the United States? Then he would have been an American boy! Would he be somebody different? No, of course not. He'd still be Eric Kreye. He went on toward Hameln, but he began to understand more what Father meant. Men who fought wars were really fighting against themselves, because if they'd been born in some other village-- War never seemed the same to Eric again.
Four days later when the United States made formal declaration of war on Germany and Italy, demonstrations of German power took on a new dimension. The Nazi youth leaders whipped their young followers into a fury of excitement which seemed, even to Eric, to be compounded by hatred and fear. More and more Father's ideas came to be his own.
Now when Father suggested that he stay away from some of the Jungvolk meetings because farm work had become too pressing, he felt relieved.
Eric looked at the calendar--December 11th--only thirteen days till Christmas Eve. He tried to put all thoughts of war and bombings out of his mind. He tried to forget the freezing Russian winter and the splendid Wehrmacht soldiers on the eastern front. Christmas, the happiest time of the whole year in the Kreye home, would be here in thirteen days.
A week before Christmas the excitement began. Father cut a big pine tree and carried it into the cozy living room. Little Irmgard watched him with big wondering eyes. Even Eric felt a tremendous thrill to see that big tree being carried into the living room.
Mother kept the door locked, but the whole house seemed to shiver with joy over the things Father did behind that locked door. The children could only listen to Father whistling a tune as he worked. Eric knew that wonderful preparations were being made, but the children would not see any of the presents or the sparkly, glittery things until Christmas Eve.
He and Irmgard followed Mother around the kitchen begging to help while she worked her magic with cakes, cookies, candies, and other delicacies.
"When did people begin to have Christmas trees?" Irmgard asked.
"Some people say that the very first Christmas trees were used in Germany over four hundred years ago."
"Did they sing Christmas carols around the tree as we do?" asked Eric.
"Yes, some of the most beautiful carols were written and sung first of all here in Germany."
"Mother, will Sankt Nikolaus come to our house this year?"
"Wait and see. Have you been such a good boy that you want him to come?"
Eric thought back over the past months and didn't feel too sure that the "good saint" would approve his behavior. He couldn't forget the beatings he had gotten from Herr Meier or the trouble he'd had with the mayor when he built that fire last summer. He decided to say no more about Sankt Nikolaus, but he couldn't help wondering if the saint was a Nazi. Probably not. Sankt Nikolaus believed in having boys pray and go to church and be kind to everyone. Hitler believed only in fighting and war.
The exciting days seemed to crawl while the children wondered if Christmas Eve would ever come.
When Eric awakened on the morning of December 24, he leaped out of bed, hurried into his clothes, and ran down to the kitchen shouting his delight all the way. Hans and Irmgard already sat at the table.
"We are going to eat lightly today so you will have a good appetite for supper and special treats tonight." Mother filled their plates; and Eric felt sure that no matter how much breakfast he ate, he would still have room for the treats that night.
He knew that Father had eaten his breakfast already and would be in the living room now, putting the last ornaments on the tree. Eric and Irmgard took turns all morning trying to look through the keyhole, but they could see only bits of sparkle and glitter and green pine needles which made them even more eager for the day to pass.
About four in the afternoon Mother told them to get dressed for church. They must have time to walk to church in Holtensen for the Christmas service. Father and Mother did not go. Eric knew that while he and his brother and sister were gone to church his parents would spread the table with Christmas surprises.
Irmgard could not walk. She jumped, skipped, whirled, and danced all the way to the short service and back. Eric almost skipped with her, and even Hans hurried along faster than usual.
As they came down the hill from Holtensen, they could see the dark and silent village spread out before them in the dimness of cloud-filtered winter moonlight. Eric felt a sharp twinge of grief for the lights that used to be in every window. Now the blackout curtains revealed not a glimmer of candlelight.
He knew that a Christmas tree with candles and ornaments decorated every house in the village, but they were hidden now. Just like the kindness in people's hearts. The black war hides it, he thought.
The softly falling snow touched his cheeks gently. He breathed in the fresh cold air and took hold of Irmgard's hand.
Mother waited for the children in the kitchen and gave them a light supper. "You are hungry after your walk to the church, and I don't want you so starved that you can think of nothing but food."
Suddenly a bell rang out loud and clear. The sound seemed to come from outside. They all looked at each other. "I know who rang that bell," Eric said.
Father came up from the basement. "I heard it too. Who do you suppose it was?"
"Sankt Nikolaus maybe!" Irmgard danced up and down in glad excitement.
Mother unlocked the door and they filed in, Irmgard first, then the rest of the family in the order of their ages.
Fragrance of pine rushed out to meet them. Candlelight dazzled their eyes. Eric knew that nothing in the world could be more beautiful than that Christmas tree. It touched the ceiling, and glistening ornaments and tinsel hung from every twig.
Then Eric's attention shifted to the long table with its snowy cloth. A small gift had been placed by each plate, while Mama's Christmas treats decorated each plate.
For a moment the children stood dazed by so much warmth and tender love springing up in this wonder of Christmas.
Then Father motioned the children to sit down while Mother read the Christmas story from the Bible. When she came to the words, "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men," she paused for a moment and looked at Father.
With a start, Eric realized what lay behind that quiet look. He could almost read their thoughts. The whole world struggled in the grip of a terrible war. The radio, silent now and covered with green boughs, blared forth hate and defiance every day. Nations bared their teeth and snarled and tore at one another like savage wolves.
Mother paused only a moment. Then she smiled around on them all and went on with the story. Tonight they would enjoy another safe and joyous Christmas together. She finished the reading, and they sat around the tree singing Christmas carols until Mother told them that the time had come for the Christmas treats.
A thunderous knock sounded on the door and jerked everyone to instant attention. "Sankt Nikolaus! Sankt Nikolaus!" The children shouted and clapped their hands as the jolly bewhiskered fellow burst into the room with a huge pack on his back. After questioning the sober children, he rewarded them with small gifts from his pack. Then, after admonishing them to be good and obedient during the coming year, he vanished in a flurry of snow and a tinkle of bells. Eric saw that he dragged a heavy iron chain behind him, and it made a solemn clank as it clattered over the frozen ground.
Then everyone began to open their simple gifts. Eric forgot everything else in the pleasure of the suspenseful moment. When he saw Irmgard and Hans, Mother and Father open their packages, his delight in his own gift made his heart skip with joy.
With hugs and kisses the gifts were finally
all opened and admired. The hands on the clock pointed to a late hour--much
later than the children's usual bedtime. Gathering up their gifts, they
prepared to leave. Father snuffed the candles, and for the first time in
a week Eric felt tired. He followed Hans upstairs to their cold bedroom
and snuggled under the feather bed. He reached his feet for the hot-water
bottle that Mother never forgot to provide, and then he fell into deep
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