Eric saw his father go off toward the train station in Hameln with the heavy suitcases. Little Irmgard clung to one of them because Father had no hand free to hold her. He needed both hands to carry the heavy luggage.
Irmgard laughed and waved good-bye, glad because she could go with Father. They must ride the bus that stopped at the Gasthaus door. Eric stood with Mother watching them board the bus; and he realized how dangerous a trip this one might be. They caught a flash of Irmgard's yellow braids and one little hand in a last wave of joy. Eric knew Irmgard had no clue why she had been allowed to go.
He looked at Mother. Her face had paled, and she ran into the house quickly. Eric thought he saw tears in her eyes, but half an hour later he heard her whistling as she tidied the Gasthaus kitchen and did her usual morning work.
A day passed and another day. The family waited. Father should have come back by now, and Eric could see that Mother worried. But she tried to encourage the boys. "God will take care of him. You mustn't be afraid."
On the third day Father returned with Irmgard and the empty suitcases. They all welcomed him with such relief and affection that Father declared he had no idea he would be so much missed. Eric thought he could never endure having Father make that trip again.
After the travelers had changed their clothes and the suitcases had been stowed away, Mother asked, "What did you do, and why were you a day late?"
"I'll tell you all about it." Father sat at the table with the family around him. "When we got to the eastern suburb of Bielefeld, an air-raid siren began to scream, and of course the train stopped. The engineer refused to take us into the city."
"Did you have to wait long?"
"No, Eric, I lugged my two suitcases clear down to the main part of Bielefeld where I could catch a train for Gütersloh. He drew Irmgard into his arms. "The little one got rather tired, but she is a good little guard." He sighed and pressed his face against Irmgard's soft hair. "I feared every moment that someone would take the suitcases from me and discover the food I carried in them. When I saw how much our loved ones there needed it and how thankful they were, all my worry and trouble seemed nothing." Father paused and Eric saw a determined look in his eyes. "We must not disappoint them. We are the only ones who have ways of getting food to them."
Then Eric knew that Father must go again. Several times that winter he made the trip to Gütersloh and each time he carried a heavy load of food. Each trip became more dangerous as food restrictions tightened and penalties of even greater severity were enforced.
Eric did guard duty for Father's butchering again and again before spring came.
Mother made food-carrying trips too. Her parents and her younger sister Hilde lived in Bad Pyrmont, and she took them bread, meat, and cooking fat. Sometimes Grandma came to visit at the Gasthaus and carried food away with her. Aunt Hilde pulled a little trailer behind her bicycle, and she came frequently to pick up food. She often stayed to help in the house and garden, for Mother had more work than she could handle looking after her family and the guests.
Spring came again, and wild flowers bloomed in the woods. Now Eric enjoyed a few wild strawberries that grew at the edge of the forest. One day he picked a big dish of berries from the patch in the garden and Mother made strawberry shortcake. She even set a pitcher of cream on the table.
Just as the family began to enjoy the delicious shortcake and the fresh cream, a loud knock on the front door disturbed them. Eric ran out to find their neighbor Albert Bergmann. He wondered if any marks of the shortcake or the forbidden cream might be showing around his mouth. Albert seemed to notice nothing unusual. He had come on a harmless errand, but when Eric returned to the table he pushed the dish of unfinished shortcake away. "It doesn't taste good, Mama," he said. "Don't make any more. It's much too mixed with danger."
That afternoon Herr Erhardt arrived at the Gasthaus with his wife and daughter. Eric held his breath waiting to see what Father would do.
He welcomed them with the same courtesy that he showed all his guests and showed them to their room on the second floor. After a few days Professor Erhardt left, but his wife and their daughter, Julia, stayed.
Now new peril menaced the Kreye household. Killing pigs at night and hiding the meat, running the cream separator before daylight, and churning butter had been terrifying enough; but now the Kreye family added another unlawful action to the rather long list. They sheltered an "enemy alien."
Father never told Eric not to speak of these illegal acts and situations. He trusted his family without laying a single restriction on them. Eric thought of his Jewish aunt and hoped that some kind person would protect and shelter her if the need should arise. Slowly but with terrible sureness, resistance had rooted and grown in Eric's mind until he would rather die than reveal any of the unlawful happenings in his father's house.
On a pleasant summer day Eric, Dietrich, and Heinz marched toward Holtensen to attend a Jungvolk meeting. "Today we are going to gather herbs and seeds for our Führer," Dietrich said. "I think they will be used for medicine--for soldiers."
At the schoolhouse the boys separated into teams, each with a leader. Under the leader's direction they scattered through the woodland, alert for plants that might be useful. The leader held several samples in his hands, and the boys ran back to him every few minutes to compare some plant they had found.
Eric looked around the forest with keen eyes. He'd never realized how many valuable and useful things grew wild in the woods.
When they returned to the exercise ground at Holtensen, the boys piled the sacks of herbs and plants in a heap--quite an imposing pile. Their leader had taught them some valuable things about plants. Now he held up his hand for attention. "A new rule has been made for all Jungvolk," he told the boys. "From now on, we will collect beechnuts to be used by our government to make 'margarine' and cooking oil."
"I wonder how long it'll take us to gather a pound of those nuts. They're so small," Heinz said to Eric.
On the way home, the boys found some beechnuts. As Heinz had said, they were tiny, about half an inch long and shaped like a teardrop with three ridges on it.
Dietrich explained that his father had seen the machines that the government used to press the oil from the beechnuts. "It is good for cooking. I suppose they want it for the army."
That summer and fall the boys gathered things from the forest that they had never hunted before. Eric collected several pounds of the tiny beechnuts, and in return he got precious oil which Father took to their loved ones.
The boys gathered different kinds of mushrooms, the white-topped ones with pink gills that grew in the open meadows and pastures, the clumps of bright yellow ones that flourished in the deep woods, and the big gray mushrooms that liked moist shady places among the beech trees.
The government had issued food ration stamps. Without these stamps one could not buy many necessary foods such as oil, margarine, sugar, flour, and meat. Even with the food stamps many of the city people never had enough food. In Unsen the Kreye family had their basement storeroom stocked with canned fruits and vegetables. They had their own milk and meat. They had grain which they could grind into meal or flour.
Father often told them, "We work hard, but we are better off than most people."
Because Mother served excellent home-cooked meals at the Gasthaus, Nazi leaders sometimes held their meetings there. Almost all the neighbors respected Father as a fine, patriotic gentleman, but sometimes the Nazis who attended these meetings behaved in such a greedy and boisterous manner that Eric heard Father condemn them in private as "pigs."
One evening four gentlemen came from Hameln to eat supper in the Gasthaus dining room. One of them Eric recognized as a teacher, the others he had never seen before. The men drank liquor along with their meal, and they grew more and more boisterous as the evening advanced. Finally at a late hour one of them called to Father, "Herr Kreye, come and join us here at our table. We want to talk to you."
Father sat down with them, and the five of them began to discuss politics. Hitler's Wehrmacht seemed to be in a difficult position on the eastern front again. Father, who thought the whole Hitler plan a bunch of deadly nonsense, drank with the men and began to express his opinions with unusual freedom. He referred to the "Hitler gang" as "das Gemüse" [the vegetables--a term of derision].
One of the men bristled with anger, and Father realized that he had offended a dangerous Nazi fanatic. The threatening situation startled him, and he talked with all the diplomacy and tact he could muster to extricate himself from the dangerous predicament. He exerted all his charm. The session ended two hours later with Father completely sober and thankful beyond measure for deliverance from what might have been certain death to himself and his family.
"Remember, boys," he told Eric and Hans the next day, "liquor and politics do not mix well. Never befuddle your brains, because your tongue is fastened in your head too."
A few weeks later when Father was ordered to present himself for Gestapo training, he went unwillingly. He dared not refuse, because he did not know what lay behind the summons. For three months he trained for the secret police, but at the end of that time he got permission to return to pressing work on his farm.
One morning in October Eric watched Hans put on his Hitler-Jugend uniform. He dressed with unusual care and checked his appearance in front of the mirror. Eric thought he had never seen a finer looking fellow than his brother Hans. Dressed in his neat uniform, he looked splendid. Eric asked him, "Where are you going today, Hans?"
"To Bückeburg near Hameln." Hans twisted his neck to get his tie on just right. "I will see Hitler and hear him speak."
"Oh, Hans, let me go with you." Eric had heard of the great outdoor rally to be held in Bückeburg when thousands of the party faithful would gather from all over Germany.
"Of course you can't go," said Hans. "This celebration is not for children. Only men will be there."
Eric listened to Hans's quick step on the stairs. Why did Hans always talk to him as if he were a small child?
All that day Eric thought about Hans and all the wonderful things he must be seeing and hearing.
At the supper table that evening Mother asked, "Did you have a good day, Hans?"
"Oh, yes, Mother!" Hans was very excited. "Thousands of people came. Hitler, Goebbels, Baldur von Schirach, and other great leaders stood on the platform, flags were everywhere." Hans paused as though even the memory of it overwhelmed him. "Oh, Mother, you should have seen the flags all around the base of the mountain."
Eric shut his eyes and tried to imagine what the rally had looked like with all those flags--red, bright red, with the round white circle and the black swastika in the center. Surely no flag could be so beautiful as the flag of the Third Reich. He tried to picture thousands of flags, enough to make a fence around Bückeburg mountain.
Hans continued his story. "They had built a village out of cardboard, but it looked real. You should have seen our tanks attack! You should have heard the Stukas [dive bombers] scream when they dived! You should have seen the Storm Troopers march! They demolished that village in a moment of time."
Hans stood up, and a proud look spread over his handsome face. "Just so, our Wehrmacht will destroy every village in Russia, every village in England, and," he looked at Father, "every village in any other country that dares oppose our Führer."
Father dropped his fork beside his plate and a desolate look came over his face. He regarded his older son, as he often did these days, with pity in his eyes. He left the table and went out into the autumn evening. Eric had a curious feeling that something very sad had happened, but he couldn't explain what it was.
One afternoon a few days later as Eric played in the Gasthaus garden, he looked down and saw some food ration stamps at his feet. Someone must have dropped them while walking between the flowerbeds. He picked them up. Ration stamps meant butter, meat, sugar, and other things that had become scarce in Germany these last months. The pangs of hunger pinched everyone now. Even in Unsen people felt it, and in the big cities so many suffered hunger that Eric couldn't bear to think about it.
Something fluttered past his eyes, and he saw more ration stamps lying on the grass. These stamps must be coming from the sky. Could they be real? Now he saw a few more beside the Gasthaus.
Eric gathered up a handful and took them into the house to show Mother. "Do you think they are true ration stamps?"
"They look all right to me, Eric," Mother said. "Why don't you take them over to the baker? He will know."
In the baker's shop Eric laid the stamps on the counter. "Sir, I found these in our garden. I even found a few here by your shop. Are they good food stamps?"
With a startled look the baker reached for them. He examined them with care. "No, Eric, I think they are counterfeit; but they are made so cleverly that they might fool some people."
"Where did they come from?"
"Allied planes must have dropped them."
"How can they make our ration stamps?"
"I don't know. Someone must have sneaked some of them out of Germany, and they copied them in England or America." The baker laid the food stamps back on the counter. "I will call the police, and they will warn the people about these false ration stamps."
Eric left the baker's shop feeling proud and important. He had done a service for the Fatherland.
Christmas came again, but now the peace of Unsen suffered nightly disturbance from flights of bombers flying high overhead on their way to targets in eastern Germany.
Then one evening early in 1943 Eric looked out the window toward the northeast over the Süntel and saw a red glow in the sky. He called the whole family. They grabbed warm clothing and ran out to the road in front of the Gasthaus to watch the display grow and spread until the sky over the mountain blazed with light.
"Hannover!" Father caught his breath with a quick sound like a sob. "They are bombing Hannover!"
The flaming menace in the sky could mean nothing else. Even as they watched, they saw powerful searchlights over Hannover. They could hear the distant anti-aircraft fire and the rumble of exploding bombs muffled by the distance. Then suddenly a burst of flame erupted just over the Süntel, and they saw a plane arch toward the ground leaving a flaming trail. Then, with a harsh and mournful wail, it spun around like a mortally wounded bird and spiraled faster and faster until the mountain hid its final death plunge.
Shivering with anxiety more than cold, the Kreye family went back into their comfortable home. For a moment no one spoke. Eric could feel that something had changed. Father had told them that when the United States came into the war the bombing attacks would be stepped up. This night bombing planes had attacked Hannover less than thirty miles away!
Would the war planes come to Unsen too? Eric felt sure that they would. The wail of the dying airplane still whined in his ears. He had never heard such a sad, such a terrifying sound.
Father finally spoke. "It is sad that our cities must be destroyed in this way, but I can't see that the Allies have any other choice. Hannover has many likely targets: heavy industry, oil installations, and railway yards."
Now everything seemed to move faster. More bombers appeared in the skies. Fleets of warplanes streamed over the pleasant valley where Eric lived. More regulations began to affect the Kreye family.
Although newscasts over the radio announced a constant series of victories for Hitler's Wehrmacht, the flaming sky told the country people that while the Luftwaffe [German air force] might be pounding enemy cities, Allied bombers roared across the Fatherland almost every night to leave a trail of blazing destruction.
As the winter wore on, news from Russia became so discouraging that nothing Hitler could say concealed the catastrophe that had engulfed the Sixth Army at Stalingrad on the Volga. From listening to foreign broadcasts, Father knew that General Paulus and his troops had run into desperate trouble. Russian troops had closed in on them from two sides.
One January morning Eric saw that Father seemed to be shocked with grief. His face looked gray and his eyes sunken as though he hadn't slept for a long time. He wondered what could have happened to distress Father so much. Eric followed him to the barn to help with the morning chores.
"Father, did you hear some bad news over the radio?"
"I heard that Hitler has just squandered three-hundred-thousand men with General Paulus in Stalingrad." His eyes blazed with grievous hurt and furious anger. "Hitler is mad!"
Eric learned later how the Führer had refused to let General Paulus save his men while retreat was still possible and had issued his order, "Victory or death!" So the soldiers had died--almost all of them. Only a few had been taken prisoner.
Now the tide of battle rolled back over the hundreds of miles which the Wehrmacht had wrested from Russia. City after city was retaken, and when summer lay again on the tortured land, refugees from the eastern front began to appear in the villages of the valley where Eric lived.
"Must we feed them?" Mother asked Father. "There are so many, and they are desperate, frightened people whose homes have been destroyed. They have nothing but the rags they are wearing."
Father considered the question. "Yes, we must feed all of them we can. War has made them what they are. What we can give seems so little for so many, but let us do what we can."
Not all the wandering people could be fed, and groups of them roamed the valley, sleeping out in the warm weather and stealing what food they could find.
One night the dog, Wolf, began barking loudly behind the Gasthaus. Father stirred in his sleep. "Must be a cat," he muttered. "Yes, that squeaking noise is surely some prowling cat."
Next morning Eric found that the basement window right below his own upstairs window had been pried open. "Now I know what that squeaking noise was," he told Father.
They hurried down to the basement and found that thieves had taken a lot of Mother's canned fruit. They must have used some kind of heavy tool to remove the bars that covered the window.
"Look!" Eric pointed to a pile of prune pits. "They stopped right here and ate a whole jar of fruit." He kicked around in the shrubbery and found more pits. "Those rascals must have had a real feast--and right here where I could have looked down from my bedroom window and seen them!" Eric didn't know why, but those piles of fruit pits angered him more than anything else he had seen for a long time.
"Be patient, Son," Father said. "These people are starving. I am sure we shall have much more of this thieving. What can you expect when hundreds of thousands of people are robbed of everything they possess by a senseless war?"
The displaced persons from the eastern
borders of the Fatherland continued to come, and the government insisted
that the village people take care of them. Some were sheltered in the Gasthaus,
even on the third floor where no guests had ever stayed before. Mother
fed as many of the refugees as she could.
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