Choosing Sides

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October 1934

Prologue: Hi Mom! I'm Home!

Karl-Heinz backed out of the crowded sweet shop slowly, ever so slowly, as if that might help. He forced a smile onto his face, as if that would be enough. He made sure to close the door completely, praying that would keep them from following him. Turning toward home, he breathed a quick sigh of relief, then started to walk briskly, eager to believe the danger had passed.

After a few paces, he glanced over his shoulder, hoping against hope they were not coming after him. Maybe, just maybe, they would stay inside, content they had made their point.

But such was not the case. The door of the shop opened, and all three boys stepped out. They stood for a moment, laughing and admiring their reflection in the window. In their starched tan shirts, black kerchiefs with brown leather slipknots, dark corduroy shorts, mid-length white socks and leather shoes, they could be poster children for the Party youth group. But then again, so could Karl-Heinz, who wore the same uniform and had golden blonde hair and brilliant blue eyes.

In near perfect unison the trio looked to the right, then to the left, looking for him.

“There he is,” the oldest boy cried out. “Let’s go teach him a lesson.”

Karl-Heinz quickened his pace, hopeful they would lose interest in teaching him anything. With another backward glance, though, he saw they were gaining on him, marching faster than he was.

He sped up, going from a walk to a trot to a full-on run by the time he reached the edge of town. His pursuers matched his pace until all four boys, the hunters and the hunted, were in the open countryside. They sprinted over the one lane bridge where the straight, paved roadway turned into a winding road of hard-packed gravel, slowing them down and causing their legs to strain harder. Sweat began to stream down their foreheads and darken their backs and underarms as they hurried on.

Sensing his lead was shrinking, Karl-Heinz ran as fast as he was able. But he continued to lose ground, especially to Konrad, the fastest of the three. He turned off the road to go up the hill, toward the cemetery, hoping he could outdistance them on the steeper terrain. But he did not.

He heard the heavy breath of his pursuers coming closer. Ever closer. As he reached the graveyard entrance, he raced down the gravel lane between two rows of tall elm trees. He raced past row after row of neatly manicured plots, many decorated with mementos and flowering shrubbery.

Hilfe! Hilfe!” he shouted, “Help! Help!” though he was sure no one would hear him, no one would come to his aid. He felt his antagonist’s hands grasp his shoulders, forcing him to a stop. The stocky, red-faced Konrad spun him around and spit in his face as the two other boys caught up.

“Take this as a warning, you American rat, you Ausländer!” Konrad bellowed as he punched Karl-Heinz in the stomach and pushed him to the ground.

“We’re watching you, Yankee,” he added, kicking Karl-Heinz in the side to help make his point. Then kicked him again; and yet again. “We’re watching you good! Now stand and show us how to do a proper salute!”

Fighting the pain in his side and stomach, and a strong desire to smash Konrad in the face, Karl-Heinz rose reluctantly to his feet, thinking he’d better do as they say. He hoped they’d be satisfied and let him go with this warning.

Still winded from the run up the steep slope, Karl-Heinz could not stand very straight. But he managed to raise his right arm toward the heavens. He winced a bit, but shouted “Sieg Heil” as loudly as his laboring lungs would allow. Then he grimaced and fell to his hands and knees, his head hanging down.

Konrad barked a command to the other two boys. “Hit this stupid little Scheisse so he will know how to show proper respect from now on!”

Each of the boys delivered a blow, one to Karl-Heinz’s right shoulder and the other to his left. With a final kick in the buttocks from Konrad, the three attackers turned their backs on their victim and returned to town. Konrad whistled a marching song to celebrate their stellar accomplishment. The other two boys walked down the hill with him: silently, two paces behind their leader.


With the afternoon chill settling in, Karl-Heinz now sat alone, outside the old hilltop cemetery, gazing upon the empty graveyard and the village below. He looked up at the stone memorial to those who had fallen in the Great War, his uncle, Albert Wessel, 1894-1917, among them. A violet carpet of autumn crocuses accented the faded red brick walkways between each section of tombstones. Tall, pyramid shaped linden trees provided shade and shelter over the sturdy black wrought iron benches in each corner of the yard.

The grand sugar maple in the center of the cemetery caught his eye; its brilliant red and burnt orange leaves momentarily distracted him from the pain of his wounds. A smile came to his face as he eyed the potted chrysanthemums of pink and yellow and orange set amongst the white crosses and the gray granite headstones. He felt comforted and safe, sitting here alone, surrounded by so many markers carved with his family name.

He rose and tucked the now grass-stained tail of his tan shirt back into his black lederhosen as he limped over to the nearest bench. Here he could see the family plot with his surname carved in a bold Gothic font. He reached for a cluster of tiny cream flowers and smelled the sweet, honey-like fragrance as he rubbed their soothing nectar on his bruises.

Mom is sure to see this, he thought to himself.

He rubbed his sore shoulder and fought back tears as he took stock of the things he knew, and the things he did not, ticking them off on his fingers.

He knew that two of the boys who had chased him were classmates and were normally quite nice to him. But they were clearly afraid of, and following the lead of, Konrad.

Willi and Ludwig each hit me pretty hard, but without the same force and delight as that Konrad had.

They had called him names during the chase, but he did not know why they think of him as an Ausländer. He was not a foreigner. True, he had lived in America for a few years, but now he was back; back in the town of his birth. He had been born right here, as had generations of family before him, in the large red brick house at the edge of town. He lived there even now with his grandparents, his mother and baby brother.

I’m no outsider, not an Ausländer. I’m from here.

Karl-Heinz knew, too, his father would be coming back to Germany in a month or two.

Pop will be anxious to see Oma and Opa, his sister and brothers, all the nieces and nephews, and cousins living nearby. I hope, but can’t say for sure, Pop will be happy to be back home.

His mother, Mimi, would be upset when she saw his soiled shirt, his grass-stained shorts and the bruises growing on his shoulder and ribs.

She’ll be so angry! Not with me, but with the way things are these days. And she’ll do something about it! But I can’t be sure what.

He knew there were a lot of problems in the town; everyone talked about the changes going on. His aunts and uncles grumbled constantly about kids joining gangs and the minister complained about them acting like bullies and hooligans.

He was not sure how much his schoolmates really liked die Hitlerjugend, but he certainly did not. Today’s beating made this quite clear to him, again.

There are certain to be more days like this if I don’t somehow turn things around. I would quit the Hitler Youth if I could, but I know I cannot.

He knew there were bigger problems than his in the world. The screaming headlines and stark photographs in the morning newspaper told him that; so did the evening radio broadcasts.

It seems everyone is more angry and bitter each day. God forbid, there is even talk another war will be coming along .

His thoughts reflected the growing darkness enveloping the headstones. With the sun’s golden rays lighting his path, he made his way back toward the village and into the house, where his mother was waiting.

Karl-Heinz opened the door and called out in both German and English, “Hallo Mami! Ich bin zuhause! Hi Mom! I’m home!”

As he closed the door behind him, he wondered if this was true.


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