Autumn of 1944 threw darker shadows over the world and over Germany. Now, during daylight hours, Eric saw large formations of American bombers darken the sky over the valley where Unsen nestled among its gardens and meadows. And British bombers filled the night skies with terror.
The air-raid alert sounded often these days, and the school children ran for the shelter a block away or, as Eric frequently did, leaped on their bicycles and pedaled for open country and home as fast as they could.
One day after Eric had left the school grounds and walked his bicycle a short distance, he heard the air-raid alert. He looked up and tried to count the bombers flying overhead. They filled the sky like a shining river flowing east. Eric knew that each one of them carried a load of bombs for Berlin or other targets in northeastern Germany. The roar of their engines was deafening.
He realized that he had stopped right near the army barracks. Suppose one of those bombers decided to drop a bomb on those army barracks. He might not have much time.
He hurried to the air-raid shelter and found a lot of people already there. Most of them had become so accustomed to running for their lives that they had prepared packages of things they might need in the shelter. They also carried suitcases where they had packed their most valuable possessions. They grabbed these things when the air-raid alert sounded and raced to the protection of the underground bunker.
Eric hadn't thought much about air-raid shelters in the cities. At home the family ran for the basement if they felt it too dangerous to stay outside or upstairs. He had never been in one of the air-raid shelters before.
He looked at the people around him. Some of them lay on the floor. Others sat leaning against the cold walls of the bunker. "How long will this torment last?" one woman asked.
No one replied, because each of them asked the same question in his or her mind.
"I wonder if our house will be hit today," one sad-looking woman with a baby in her arms remarked.
Again no one answered. Eric knew that all of them wondered the same thing.
A panicky voice shrilled above the others, "Will we be killed today?"
"Better for us if we are," a man's gruff voice replied. "Then we'll be out of our misery."
Eric looked at all the worried, tearful faces. He heard the frightened children cry and saw the parents' desperate efforts to comfort them. He began to feel sick. The air in the bunker had become foul. He thought how fortunate he was to have a home in the country where there were wide open places to run and plenty of food and fresh air. He found himself panting to get out of the shelter.
Then a tremendous noise startled everyone. What could it be? Had a bomb struck the army barracks–a likely target?
The all-clear signal came at last, and Eric bounded out of the shelter and looked all around. He couldn't see any smoke or fire. Surely if the school or the army barracks had been hit there would be something to see.
He jumped on his bicycle and rode out of the city, all the time scanning wider and wider circles to discover what terrible thing had happened. Something big had been hit, he felt sure.
Then he saw it–a Flying Fortress down in a field at the edge of the city. German guards had begun to gather around it. There must be dead people inside that twisted mass of metal. With a rising sickness in his stomach Eric pedaled home.
Next morning before school he rode out to have another look at the wrecked plane. Only one soldier remained on guard this morning, and he stood on the other side of the wreckage with his face turned the other way.
Eric managed to loosen a few pieces of plexiglass, and he picked up a tracer bullet. He'd have fun with these things.
After school he rode through Holtensen looking for Dietrich and Heinz. He overtook them on the road home. He divided the plexiglass with them, and they agreed to meet later in the Kreye pasture where they set off the tracer bullet and enjoyed a display of fireworks.
One December evening Eric thought about the approaching Christmas season. He knew that Father and Mother would have some surprises for the children. Mother had saved sugar, flour, and butter. He felt sure she had cookies in mind. Cookies had become a rare treat. Maybe Mother would even bake a fruitcake.
He knew that Father had already marked the pine tree he intended to cut. Pine trees grew in the woods about Unsen, and some of them were exactly right for Christmas trees. Next week Father would bring it in and decorate the tree with the ornaments which Mother always saved from year to year. She wrapped each one in soft paper and stored them in a big box in the attic.
The children had learned to value the old familiar bits of glitter, strings of shining balls, and tinsel. Eric remembered that the year before they had no tinsel for their tree.
The next morning as Eric walked along the street through the soft snow, he looked down at his feet and saw a bright shred of tinsel. What could have happened? More of the glittering pieces floated down like strange bright snowflakes.
He ran to call Irmgard, and together they collected all they could hold in their hands and went back for more. They smoothed it with loving care and tied it in bunches. At Christmastime they would have plenty of tinsel on their tree.
"Who sent it?" Eric asked as he and Irmgard showed Father their tinsel.
"Allied planes must have dropped it." He looked at little Irmgard who clutched a bundle of the silver strips in her hands. "They drop it because these thin shreds of metal disturb radar."
For days after, Eric saw the tinsel scattered over the snowy fields and meadows, along the public roads, even on the housetops. He wondered why the big bombers sailing by the thousands through the skies over the Fatherland should think it worthwhile to drop these bits of silver tinsel to "disturb radar." Radar must be an important thing. Someday he'd find out about radar–someday when this war ended.
The need for food continued to distress the city dwellers. Eric could see the anxiety his parents felt for their relatives in the big cities. He knew that Hamburg had suffered many air raids. The gasoline refineries, the harbor, the railway yards, and the manufacturing plants offered many targets for Allied bombing. Now much of the city lay in ruins.
"We must get some food to Uncle Karl and Aunt Edith." Father sat by the kitchen table and looked at Mother with worried eyes. "They may be in desperate need. I'll have to go."
"No, it is too dangerous. You will surely be caught and imprisoned–perhaps executed." She clasped her hands tight to control their shaking. "Eric must go. He is so young. Perhaps people will not notice him. What else can we do?"
Father turned to Eric. "Son, are you willing to carry some food to your uncle and aunt in Hamburg? You know the danger." He clenched his fists. "What good are our lives to us if we allow our own flesh and blood to starve when we have food?"
Father got up and paced the kitchen floor. Eric could see his anxiety, but he did not know whether it was for Uncle Karl and Aunt Edith or for himself--perhaps for the whole desperate situation.
Then Father came and put his hand on Eric's shoulder. "Maybe they will not suspect a schoolboy with a Rucksack [backpack] on his back."
The next day Father stood with Eric at the station in Hameln. He placed the heavy Rucksack on Eric's back. "Do not be afraid, Son. Fear is a bad thing and makes a man look as if something is chasing him."
"Don't worry, Father. I will walk straight and with light feet as if the Rucksack is stuffed with goose-down."
Eric saw the train coming. Father said good-bye and hurried toward home.
When the train came into the station, it looked so crowded that Eric decided to wait for the next one; but when it came, he could see that even more people had packed into it. They leaned out the windows and hung on the sides. Eric knew that if he expected to reach Hamburg that day he must push into this one. So he forced his way into the train as he had seen others do.
He had to stand up. At least, he thought, there was no danger of falling. People wedged in so close about him that he could scarcely breathe. The heavy Rucksack fastened about his shoulders pressed into his back. Cigarettes concocted from noxious weeds seemed to be in every passenger's mouth, and the smoke from them filled the air with a horrible stench. He wondered if he could endure the long trip to Hamburg.
The train pulled into another station, and Eric saw a lad about his own age trying to crowd into the coach. The boy carried a nice-looking suitcase which he handed in through the window. Several hands reached out to pull in the fine leather suitcase and then the boy. Before the new passenger could plant his feet on the floor, someone had jerked off his shoes and the suitcase had disappeared.
Eric felt the sickness in his stomach grow. What if he should faint? What would happen to the precious food he carried? What would become of him? The thought terrified him and made him feel worse. He gave a little gasp.
One of the passengers drew him over to an open window. "Rest here a little. You are tired of standing so long."
Eric came to himself with a violent start. Had he fainted? Had he been unconscious? For how long? He felt for his Rucksack. He could tell by its weight that no one had disturbed it.
When he got down from the train in Hamburg, he decided to walk to his uncle's apartment. He knew it wasn't far, and he wanted to breathe the fresh air.
Could this city be Hamburg? Eric's eyes darted from rubble heap to rubble heap, from desolation to desolation. What lay under the concealing snow, he could only imagine. Shaken and tired he marched in the direction of his uncle's apartment. Would he find it standing when such awful destruction had wasted so much of the city? Maybe Aunt Edith and Uncle Karl weren't even alive!
Eric had started from Unsen in the early morning. The sunset glowed along the western sky when he knocked on his relatives' door. He noticed with gladness that the area had not yet been hit by bombs.
Aunt Edith threw the door open and welcomed Eric with surprise and affection. "Oh, Eric, how you have grown! What a brave boy you are to come all the way from Unsen."
Eric took off his Rucksack and set it on the floor. "A little food for you and Uncle Karl," he said.
She lifted it to the table. "Eric! What a heavy load. How could you carry it all that way? And the danger-- What if someone had discovered what you were carrying?"
When Uncle Karl closed his goldsmith shop and was ready for supper and saw meat on the table and butter for his bread, the look on his face repaid Eric many times over for all the danger and terror of the trip.
"Uncle Karl," Eric asked, "do bombers come every night?"
"No, not every night, but often enough, my boy. They came last night. We know they are after military targets, but those blockbusters don't pick and choose. They fall on lots of homes too."
Eric didn't sleep well that night. In his dreams he saw bombers roar across the sky like swarming bees, and under them the cities turned to twisted wire and metal and broken brick. In his dreams he heard the wail of countless air-raid sirens and heard the sobbing of children and the wailing of women. He saw the sky blaze and smelled the smoke of burning buildings.
He wakened at last, and Uncle Karl put him on a train that would take him home to Unsen. Again he felt his heart swell in a great surge of thankfulness for his country home. Then the swell rolled back in a crest of anger at the injustice and wickedness of war. Father's words rang in his ears, "War is hell!" He wondered how human beings could deliberately choose to inflict such horror on their fellowmen.
He walked into the kitchen at home that evening, and Mother looked at him. "Oh, Eric, you are home!" Her face lighted up with relief and pride. "You are a brave boy. Now tell us about your trip to Hamburg."
The family gathered around the supper table and listened as Eric described his journey, but for some reason there seemed little to tell. All that he had seen and felt in the last thirty-six hours millions of other people were seeing and feeling every day. His own small terror and grief seemed over-shadowed--caught up in the darkness of a world horror which he had just begun to comprehend.
"Hannover suffered another heavy raid last night," Father said. "I think the end must not be far away."
Later when Eric went to the barn with Father to help with the chores, Father told him about the Battle of the Bulge and how it had ended. "And the Russians have opened a massive offensive on our eastern border," Father went on. "Already they are on German soil." Father explained how he had learned all this news from listening to the BBC from London.
Eric looked at the solid walls of the
barn and thought of the thick brick walls of his father's house and wondered
how long before a bomb would fall close enough to shatter the Gasthaus
to a mass of broken brick and tile.
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