Now feelings ran wild and high. The conquerors felt an exuberance of victory; the conquered, the bitterness of defeat and loss. How could the loyal Hitler followers bear to see all their Führer's dreams of a mighty world empire dissolve in thunder, in rubble, and in blood? Many still persisted in fighting. Hitler had given his usual orders: "Victory or death!"
Whenever the soldiers could get liquor, they drank large quantities of it, and the results frightened everyone. One day drunken soldiers of the occupation forces came to the Gasthaus and demanded whiskey.
"There is no whiskey in this place," Father told them.
"You gave the German soldiers whiskey. Now give it to us!" One of them held a gun against Father's chest.
While this soldier continued to threaten Father with his gun, the other soldiers rampaged through the house, smashing doors, breaking windows, forcing open cupboards and tearing everything to pieces. When they failed to find whiskey they shouted again, "Whiskey! Whiskey! or we'll shoot you!"
Eric felt his blood trickle through his veins like icewater. He saw some of the soldiers rummaging through Mother's jewelry. She grabbed it out of their hands. Eric gasped. He had never seen Mother display such resistance, such courage. She defied the whole roomful of drunken soldiers.
"Come, there's nothing here," one of them, who seemed to be their leader, said. "Let's go."
They saw a basket of fresh eggs on the floor and grabbed it up. Others seized Father's bicycle and Eric's. They rode off, three on each bicycle, careening drunkenly down the street. They pelted one another with the eggs while their coarse laughter and blurred voices showed how much they enjoyed their joke.
A short distance down the street they met an old gentleman, also riding a bicycle. They knocked him under the chin, and he fell backward to the pavement. They grabbed his bicycle. Now more of them could ride.
Eric had endured everything up to this point with stunned terror; but when he saw his own bicycle rolling off down the street with three drunken soldiers on it, he became very upset. He remembered how hard he had worked to earn money for that bicycle. Even the thought--the certain knowledge--that thousands, even millions, of people in his own country had lost everything, had even been killed, could not stop his disappointment. His own loss blinded him to what others had suffered.
Then, while they all stood watching, a jeep came roaring down the road loaded with high-ranking British officers. Father waved them to a halt and explained what had just happened. Then a truckload of other British soldiers came up. They stopped and heard the story. Then they pursued the culprits and soon captured them. They even brought the bicycles back.
"Let's hide them in the attic." Father started to wheel his bicycle up the stairs. "We'll put them where they can't so easily find them." Eric followed, pushing his own bicycle and thinking how awful he'd felt a few minutes before and how glad and thankful he felt now.
"Those drunken wretches will be back," Father said. "When they come next time, they will be dangerous."
They shoved the two bicycles into an attic room and moved a heavy cabinet in front of the door. Father went all over the house tightening unbroken windows and locking doors. He finished his work not one minute too soon.
The first group of drunken soldiers came back in a fury. They cut telephone wires, smashed more windows and tore up everything they could break apart. In the midst of the tumult Father vanished. Eric didn't know where he had gone. Had some of these drunken soldiers dragged him off and killed him? Anything was possible.
Again Mother faced the vandals with steadfast courage. Eric saw a black pistol in one soldier's hand. "Tell me where your man is." He threatened Mother with the pistol.
She pointed down the road and said in a calm voice, "You will find him in that direction."
The soldiers were too befuddled to question her directions or mistrust her calm self-possession. Some of them set off in the direction she had pointed. Others crashed through the house. They found the locked room of the refugee family upstairs and kicked in the door. The refugees burst out through the broken door like frightened rabbits and fled down the stairs and out into the street.
Eric saw the soldiers fire on the terrified refugees as they ran helter skelter toward the baker's house down the road, screaming at every leap.
Eric caught a glimpse of Irmgard through the window. She was running toward a neighbor's house. Now only Mother and he faced the drink-maddened soldiers.
He looked at Mother and knew they had both thought of the same thing. He caught Mother's hand and together they rushed out into the early darkness. He thought he heard Irmgard scream, but he couldn't be sure. Through the pastures they raced toward the creek.
The night settled down over them; but they knew the land well, and they thanked God for the protection the night gave them. They did not slacken their pace until they reached Holtensen. They knew where the American troops were quartered.
They saw some soldiers near a fire. One of them called out to them. Then Mother, with the best English she could muster, told him what had happened.
The sentry wakened his sleeping comrades, and in a few moments an army truck started toward Unsen. Mother and Eric rode with the group of sober American soldiers.
They flashed their spotlights on both sides of the road, but the only unusual thing they saw was the old gentleman's bicycle with its frame twisted. It lay where it had been abandoned.
They found the Gasthaus quiet. The renegades had disappeared into the night. Eric thought of his own bicycle and ran to see if it had been taken again. He found the heavy cabinet still in place.
Then he saw Father coming out of Frau Hölscher's room. He looked dusty, rumpled and disheveled. "She hid me in her messy wardrobe," he explained.
In that moment Eric forgave Frau Hölscher for all her meanness and petty thefts. She had saved Father's life.
Eric hurried to the basement to see what damage had been done there and found Ursula pale and trembling beside the coal-bin door.
"What's the matter?" Eric almost panicked at seeing her look so frightened.
"One of them came down here looking for whiskey."
"Yes, I know. That's what they tore the house apart for--to find whiskey."
"Eric-- I had a bottle of liquid soap-- A brown bottle nearly full-- I gave it to him."
"He tipped back his head and took a long gulping drink-- And then-- He seemed to sober up-- He ran out of here coughing and spitting bubbles like nothing you ever saw!"
Eric still trembled, but he couldn't help laughing. He laughed until tears choked him. "That must be why they left in such a hurry," he managed to say. "That's why they didn't do more damage. Oh, Ursula, I think that's great, just great! Too bad you couldn't have given them all a drink."
Ursula did not laugh. "But what if they come back?" He saw her lips tremble. "Next time they will kill us all."
But the drunken soldiers did not come back.
The April days crowded each other full of confusion and excitement. Then came the morning when Father announced to the family, "Hitler is dead!"
"How do you know?"
"I heard it over the London broadcast. He killed himself in Berlin on the twenty-first--one day after his fifty-fifth birthday."
No one spoke. No one moved. Eric thought of the two million people who had once rallied to cheer Adolf Hitler's birthday in Nürnberg. Now he had died by his own hand, and a Russian bomb had already obliterated his grave.
Then he thought of Hans, Hans who had been willing and ready to go anywhere, even to die for his country. Hans must be dead too. The story they had heard must be true.
Eric had thought that when the Allied troops occupied Germany everything would be all right. He soon discovered how mistaken he had been. He began to understand that war is not only a terrible and a destructive thing while it rages, but war also leaves the countries who have fought each other with terrible wounds that cannot heal for many years--maybe never.
Father explained to him that the world would never be the same again. The millions of young soldiers who had fought on both sides and had been destroyed had robbed the future of all the children they might have had and all the useful work they might have done. This great crime, Father said, rested mostly on Adolf Hitler. History had never known such a scourge.
Food became even scarcer. Farmers had not been able to sow any seed that spring, and now they faced an autumn without harvest. Refugees and displaced people roamed through the desolated land stealing everything they could find. The danger of starvation loomed larger now than during the war years. Hitler had escaped into a dishonored grave, but the fruits of his madness plagued his country with increasing severity.
One day, soon after Allied troops entered their valley, Eric saw a familiar figure at the Gasthaus door. "Hans!" He sprang forward to welcome his brother. "Oh, Hans! We thought you had been killed."
Mother came running from the kitchen and Father from the barn. They enfolded his gaunt figure in such a warm embrace that Eric could see unshed tears glisten in the eyes of his brother.
He must sit up to the table. Mother must bring him something good to eat. Irmgard must hold onto his hand and gaze at him with adoring eyes, while Father said, in a husky voice, "Well, Son, tell us about it."
So Hans began his story:
"Of course, you know that our group went to join the Arbeitsdienst near the Elbe. We prepared fortifications, dug trenches, and did other work like that." Hans began to eat the Kuchen [sweet bread] Mother had brought with a glass of milk. "The Americans had reached our area. We knew that, but planes flew overhead all the time. We didn't pay too much attention to them. Then, one day when we were marching down the road, we saw some of the planes leave their formation, and we knew they meant to attack us. I suppose they thought we were a column of regular soldiers. The attack planes circled in closer. We broke ranks and scattered into the forest. Bombs were dropped all over the forest."
"What did you do, Hans?" Irmgard looked at him with wondering eyes.
"Boys were being killed all around me. I ran."
"Where could you run?"
"Well, I decided right then that the best place to run would be toward the American lines." Hans hesitated. "I knew that the Allies had already won this war. Hitler had lost too many soldiers on the Russian front and on the western battlefields, and I too could have died for the Third Reich!"
"Did they make you a prisoner?" Mother asked.
"Of course they did. But they had too much heavy fighting on their hands to take much notice of one boy who had given himself up. Later--quite a while later--the American officers called me in for questioning." A slow grin spread over Hans's face. "You know what? When they found out I had been born in Michigan, they told me I was a United States citizen, and they let me go."
For a moment the whole family sat in stunned silence.
Hans looked at Eric. "You are an American citizen too. You were born in United States. Even though you left America when you were a small child, you are still a citizen."
Eric looked at Father, then at Mother. He couldn't believe what Hans had just told them.
"I'm sure Hans is correct," Father said. "I remember now that all persons born in United States are citizens by right of birth."
"Then will we go to America?" Eric asked.
"Nothing could please me more than to have my boys make their future in the United States." Father looked happier than Eric had seen him in years.
But going to America proved to be a delayed
and difficult matter for Eric and Hans. The farm must be cared for and
restored to its pre-war production. The Gasthaus patronage, which
had suffered much during the final years of the war, must be built again.
The war years had impoverished the whole country, and the Kreye household
felt the pinch along with all other German families.
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