Eric got little schooling that winter. Although the teachers tried to conduct classes, they were so often interrupted by the air-raid sirens that sometimes school lasted but an hour or less.
As winter began to melt into early spring, Hitler issued an order for all able-bodied men between the ages of fifty-one and sixty to join the armed forces.
Father disregarded this order and continued on his little farm. He lamented that Hitler had wasted over a million men--the flower of the German youth--in Russia.
Now the Luftwaffe appeared no more in force in the skies. The deadly Stukas and Messerschmitts sat on the ground helpless. Many of the young pilots who had hurled such planes into English skies to rain fury on English cities occupied hero's graves. There were no pilots to take their places.
Recruiters appeared in Hameln and Holtensen. With brave speeches and patriotic war cries, they urged the youth to come to the aid of the Fatherland in one final push to glorious victory.
Hans was among those who at 16 were drafted into the Arbeitsdienst. The family grieved to see him go marching away with his fellow youth. Where would they go? What was their future? Nobody could foresee.
Eric often caught a look of sadness in Mother's eyes, but she did her work about the farm and the house with unfailing patience, thankful that Father did not have to go to the front. The increasing food shortage demanded that farmers of Father's status keep on producing as much as possible.
One afternoon in spring Eric and his two friends put a few washed potatoes in their pockets and went up on the hillside where they intended to build a fire and have a potato roast. Dietrich gathered tiny twigs and dead tree branches while Eric and Heinz cleared a good place to build a fire. They let the fire burn for quite a while; then they prepared a bed of hot coals and dropped the potatoes into the ashes. Eric heard the sound of a plane.
He looked up and recognized it as a P-38. Everyone dreaded the P-38's because they moved so fast that nothing could get away from one if it decided to give chase.
The boys dashed up the hillside and then turned to look back. Eric saw an army truck just entering Unsen. "Look, the P-38 is after that truck!" He grabbed Heinz by the shoulder. "See it dive!"
Two times the pursuit plane dived low over the truck and strafed it with all its guns. The truck stopped, and the boys started to run down the hill. There must be soldiers in that truck--German soldiers.
As they got nearer Eric could see several soldiers hiding in the ditch beside the road. The boys hurried until they stood by the truck. Then they saw that it carried office equipment; beautiful desks, cabinets, chairs, files, and other things. All of it had been riddled with machine-gun fire. Nothing in the truck could be worth a Pfennig except perhaps for kindling wood.
Three sober boys went back to their homes. They had forgotten all about the potato roast.
That spring few of the farmers could plow their land. They could sow no seed. So suddenly and so swiftly did enemy planes sweep out of the skies that no living thing was safe anywhere in the fields, pastures, or meadows.
"I think Hitler is about finished," Father said one day in April. "For a long time the Allies have been attacking the heavy industry, the oil refineries, and the railway centers." Then he told them how Allied bombers had almost obliterated Germany's chief source of oil--the great refining plant at Ploesti far back in conquered Romania. The great munition manufacturing plants had suffered massive damage.
Eric had seen for himself the destruction in Hamburg, and the fire in the sky over the Süntel had become so common that they had come to accept it as a regular occurrence.
Refugees from both east and west continued to come in large numbers. As the defenses of the Fatherland crumbled and the Allied armies drove deeper into German territory, the government diverted the refugees into areas where they might find enough food to keep them alive.
But what could happen now? Russian armies pushed in from the east. Allied armies pressed toward German heartland from the west. Hitler and his boastful generals had holed-up in his bunker in Berlin, Father supposed, although no one seemed to know for sure.
Eric watched the ragged, weary, discouraged lines of people that straggled through the Gasthaus gardens. He saw how Mother and Aunt Hilde and Ursula worked to provide nourishing soup and bread for them. Then they passed on and other suffering people took their places.
One woman from Aachen spent a few days in the third story of the Gasthaus. So shattered were her nerves that even a spring thundershower would send her flying down the three flights of stairs to the basement where she would huddle in whimpering terror. Eric could only guess at what the poor woman must have been through to make her panic at the sound of thunder.
On a spring evening Eric came into the kitchen and found everything quiet. Not a good kind of quiet, he thought. Father looked grave, and Eric could see that Mother had been crying.
"Oh, Eric, Hans was shot!" Irmgard ran to him and hung onto his hand sobbing. Eric felt something inside him twist into a hard knot. He could not speak.
"A man came to tell us today," Father explained. "He said that Hans was working with other young men preparing our defense lines up on the Elbe. Enemy planes came over and killed most of the young men in the company." He hesitated, seemed to take a firmer grip on his emotions, and went on. "Now, I don't think we should give up hope. The man didn't see Hans shot. Maybe he got away."
Eric could see that Mother took no comfort from Father's good words and that Father himself had little hope that he would see his strong handsome son again.
Now each night as Eric looked at Hans's empty bed, he felt the grief grow in his heart until he found it hard to remember that he had ever been young or happy. The leaves came out on the beech trees. New grass carpeted the meadow, and flowers sprang up even where machine guns had torn the black soil with destruction.
The renewed beauty of nature seemed to be trying to tell him something, but he couldn't figure what it was. Perhaps he still grieved too much about Hans. Maybe he had become too weary of war and its continual strain. Could the sweet sights and sounds of springtime be only a hypocritical smile that concealed some deadly threat?
Now the stealing of food became a common occurrence. Hungry people closed in from every direction. The bombing began to come closer, even as close as Hameln. The German army had formed pockets of resistance where soldiers disputed every square foot of German soil and drenched it with their blood before surrendering it to the invaders. When bombs began to fall on Hameln, and artillery shells over-shot their mark in the direction of Unsen, the Kreye family, and all the people in the Gasthaus, hurried to the basement.
The Jewish lady, Frau Erhardt, brought her daughter, Julia, and put her in the coal bin because she had contracted scarlet fever. There she remained, shivering and alone.
Each burst of shell-fire seemed louder and nearer than the last. So close were the detonations that a sudden shift of air-pressure flicked out every candle in the basement and struck terror to Eric's heart.
The refugees crowded into the darkened room were totally silent. They had fled their bombed-out homes only to meet the frightful thing in Germany's heartland where they had expected to be safe.
The shells fell so close that the walls seemed ready to collapse and fall in on them. In that terrible moment Eric felt such a need of God as he had never known before. Father and Mother had taught him about God from early childhood, but now at this awful moment he needed to know for himself that behind all the terror and the noise, behind all the destruction in the world, God still existed. Surely somewhere there must be an answer of peace to all this frightful fear and grief. But no answer came.
Eric felt sure that this day must be the last day of his life, and he knew that the most important thing must be to understand that God cares. God cares even for terrified boys in basements being shelled.
At last the hideous noise subsided into silence, and the people could hear Julia crying softly in the coal bin.
They knew that the attack on Hameln must be over. They came up out of the basement and found the Gasthaus still standing. They walked out into the streets of Unsen where they found their neighbors wandering about as dazed as they were themselves.
For five years this murderous and desperate war had plagued the Fatherland, first by taking young men away to die in distant lands. Now even small villages like Unsen in country places suffered constant fear. All the inhabitants lived every day in terror of death from the skies. Now, added to the accumulated terror of the past five years, loomed this new anguish.
The Kreye family suffered fear of discovery because of the food situation--the pigs they must butcher during the darkest hours of night, the cream that must be separated before dawn with the squeakiest separator in all of Germany.
Father took deadly risks on every trip to carry food to his sister's family in Gütersloh. Eric's heart almost failed when he thought about all the secret stores of provisions that lay hidden in the barn under machinery, in the woodshed, or under piles of wood or rubbish about the place.
Added to these constant dangers, the radio with its shortwave band brought foreign news to them every night, and Father persisted in listening to it.
What if some inspector should find out the truth about the illegal activities in the Gasthaus? Eric dared not think of the consequences.
Father still sheltered Frau Erhardt and her daughter in one of the upstairs guest rooms. Frau Bergmann and her son, Albert, grown more fanatical with every year of the war, kept sharp eyes open at all times. The refugees from both the eastern borders and the western could not be trusted. They were nearly crazed by hunger, grief, and terror. Children cried for no apparent reason. Older folk jerked at the most harmless sounds. The nerves of the whole population had been on edge for a long time.
Now, with Russian armies on the outskirts of Berlin and American troops on the Elbe, Father did not see how the final violence could be long delayed. He told the family his opinion and added, "Hitler has issued an order. I heard it a few days ago and I wrote it down."
Lay waste the country....
Destroy all food and clothing.
Father looked around at them with a grave face. "This directive has not been carried out. No one has obeyed that madman's orders. Hitler has lost his power over Germany."
Eric knew that another of Hitler's orders had not been enforced. On March 25 Hitler had commanded all the German people to gather in the central area of the Fatherland. What would they eat? Where would they sleep? What would they wear? Now Eric knew beyond any doubt that Father had spoken the truth–Hitler had gone mad!
The final break-up seemed close, and anxious to prevent any additional violence and also to allay suspicion from any quarter, Father told Eric to take the two old guns, the swords, and the rifle and bury them in the backyard. Eric carried out his Father's wish, but he felt sorry indeed to see the beautiful old weapons placed in their grave and felt as though some good friends had died.
One day in April a neighbor passed the Gasthaus and told Father that the Americans had reached Holtensen, a mile away.
Father went to his room and came back with a small American flag which he had kept hidden in an old trunk ever since he had come from America.
"Come, Eric." He handed him the flag. "We will go to meet them."
Eric hid the flag under his jacket, the same jacket that had kept him warm on those hideous nights of pig-butchering. He and Father got on their bicycles and rode into the crisp spring day.
Near Holtensen they saw tanks and knew that they must be American.
"Quick, Eric! Bring out the flag. Hold it high!"
For an instant Eric saw the soldiers hesitate. Then they recognized the Stars and Stripes and hurried forward. Father shook hands with them and talked to them in English. They gathered around him with smiles and kind greetings. They gave Eric a chocolate bar and he began eating it at once. He had not eaten chocolate for so long that he had forgotten how delicious it was.
He watched Father. He had never admired his Father so much. To Eric he had become a much greater hero than Adolf Hitler had ever been. The things Father had predicted had come true; while all the things Hitler had promised had failed--every one of them.
The soldiers said how surprised they were to find a man from Michigan here in Germany. Finally Father shook hands with them and said, "When you get to our area, we will have some refreshments for you."
Later that day someone from their village stopped at the Gasthaus. He spoke to Father. "Did you hear about the Americans who went toward Hessisch-Oldendorf? They were ambushed in Höfingen and all but one were killed. The only survivor is badly wounded, and he is calling for you--the man at the hotel who speaks English."
"Are you sure about this?" Father asked. Eric could see that Father could not believe that the young American soldiers they had so recently seen could now be dead and wounded.
"I'm sure he means you," the neighbor insisted. "He called you the man from Michigan."
Eric looked out the window and saw that people were bringing the wounded soldier to the first-aid station half a block away. Father ran out, and Eric followed him. He saw Father bend over the young soldier and heard him say, "Pray for me, Mr. Kreye."
Later as Eric waited, he noticed an army
boot in the ditch, bloody and riddled with shrapnel. He picked it up. As
he thought of his new friend and all the others who died, he felt sick.
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