Some references to war and its atrocities.
Papa was a university professor before the war— before we were forced to build a bomb shelter in the woods behind our home— before that dark day, when we were forced to use it to hide from those who said they were there to protect us.
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The relentless tramping of boots on the other side of the door had been with us for weeks, as troops had been stationed just a few miles outside of town, yet Papa continued to read quietly by the lamplight, seemingly undisturbed.
Mama brought him a cup of coffee, but unlike Papa, her face was strained, an anxious tone in her voice as she sat across from us, picking up her knitting.
“The wireless says there may be bombings in the area tonight.” she spoke softly.
“Yes,” Papa replied without looking up from his book, “wherever the troops go, we can expect the bombings to follow.”
I understood this to mean that after it was dark we would move from our comfortable home to the woods where we would sleep in the bunker Papa and his brother had built last summer.
The shelter consisted of one good sized room, dug out under a hill amongst the trees. Being only partially underground, it would not be strong enough to withstand a direct hit, but it was further away from town, making it less likely to be targeted, and safer than going to the cellar, which was what most people did when the air raid sirens went off in the night.
As the evening wore on I played quietly in the corner with my set of wooden animals and a big boat, pretending it was Noah’s Ark. As young as I was, I could feel the tension in the room, and knew this was no time to be running about making loud noises.
As the clock struck the hour, Papa put down his book and called me to him. Hoisting me up, he took me over to the big bookshelf on the western wall and told me to pick out a bedtime story.
The colorful bindings of the children’s books contrasted with the more serious and stately spines of my parent’s choices of reading material, but Papa never treated them as if they were less important than theirs.
We sat down with a book of German fairy tales, the pages filled with colorful illustrations of dwarves, princesses, and other magical beings. Papa read for half an hour and then closing the book sent me upstairs to put on my bed clothes.
When I was ready, I came down to find them waiting for me. Mama had her shopping bag, filled with a variety of items, and Papa had his satchel, stuffed with books, and a rucksack on his back. I knew from previous forays into the bunker that the rucksack had two days’ worth of clothing in it, and Mama’s bag was filled with food and medical items just in case the worst should happen.
Arriving at the shelter we settled in for the night, and shortly after, Onkel Kurt and his family came also.
It was not a large space for so many people, but it was big enough. Two sets of extra wide bunk beds had been built on either side of the shelter. Mama and Papa, and Onkel Kurt and Tante Minna slept on the bottom, while my two cousins and I slept above.
There was a table between the beds and support beams with a hanging lamp betwixt them. Not an electric one, but rather the kind that required some kind of oil to burn. Papa would light the lamp first thing, and Mama would put their bags on the table.
The adults would talk, or play card games. My cousins, Willi and Berta would play with me on the floor with whatever small toys we had been allowed to bring with us, but soon it would be time for bed, and I would drift off to the sounds of Mama singing softly from her place at the table.
At some point in the night, I was awoken by the bed rocking, amidst the loud booming sounds from outside. Crying out in the dark room, I felt my mother’s comforting hands reach for me, her soothing voice softly shushing me, telling me not to be frightened as she held me close.
Whimpering, I asked her to turn on the light, but she quieted me gently saying we couldn’t have anything that might cause a fire, but she was there, and I would be alright.
Across the room, Tante Minna was comforting Berta in a similar fashion. Willi was older, but whether he wasn’t scared, or was trying to pretend that he wasn’t, I was never sure.
Papa and his brother were talking quietly near the door.
The rumblings went on for several hours, sometimes close, but more often at a distance. Eventually, they ceased and we all went back to bed. There was nothing else we could do. We would see in the morning if they had been close enough to damage our home, or the homes of our neighbors.
This pattern repeated itself frequently throughout that month, then for a time it ceased.
One day Papa came home from town. Unlike his usual steady self, he hurried past me calling for Mama. Finding her in the kitchen he told her to gather some food, quickly, and take me to the shelter.
She began to protest, but he silenced her with a look, and told her there was no time. Mutely nodding, she quickly filled a basket and taking my hand hurried out the back door.
Standing for a moment in the shadow of the porch she closed her eyes, taking a deep shuddering breath, then slowly releasing it, smiling at me, and saying that we were going to go to the woods to pick wildflowers.
Walking through the field, we heard the tramp of boots in the distance, and I thought of my father at the house. Why hadn’t he come with us?
She held my hand, gently swinging her basket as though she hadn’t a care in the world, and we continued to walk, away from the sounds of the street, away from Papa, who stood waiting.
When we reached the shelter of the trees Mama stopped smiling and, scooping me up, ran for the dugout.
Our hideout was well concealed, only someone who knew what to look for would have spotted it. As Mama reached between the branches of what appeared to be a cluster of shrubs, we heard shouts and gun fire. I felt her cringe momentarily, but with determination she pulled open the secret door and quickly we scuttled to safety.
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Mama sat down on the bed and held me tightly, her shaky breathing the only indication of the terror she must have been feeling. Once she had composed herself she brought out some bread and cheese and gave me my lunch.
Being a child, I ate hungrily, unaware of the true gravity of our situation, only wondering now and then when Papa would be coming.
I played quietly as the day wore on, until Mama laid me on the bed for my nap. I woke with the sound of the door opening and Onkel Kurt slipping in to tell Mama in a whispered conversation that it was safe to go home.
To me this was wonderful news, I was tired of staying inside with only a few small toys to keep me occupied, and I couldn’t understand why he looked so sober, or why there were tears in Mama’s eyes.
Approaching the house, we saw a thin stream of smoke curling up from the street and, grabbing my hand, Mama dragged me faster through the field. Bursting into the house she began calling for Papa, finding him standing alone by the parlor window, shoulders slumped in defeat, hands in his pockets—— simply staring.
Mama gasped, and ran to him where they kissed in a desperate sort of way. I was happy to be home again, but there was something strange about it all. Chairs had been pushed back or overturned, and muddy footprints soiled the carpet. Gazing about openmouthed, I realized the books were gone. Something was terribly wrong, as row upon row of empty shelves met my eyes.
“Papa,” I stammered uncertainly.
Crouching down, he reached out his arms to me, and I ran to him crying. We were all crying, but it was Mama who found her voice first.
“It is heartbreaking to be sure,” she said soothingly, “but we can replace them in time.”
Shaking his head sadly, Papa walked to the window. I followed him, and that’s when I saw it, the smoldering pile that had once been my father’s prized possession, his library.
“I was watching from the upstairs window,” he began, “they were going house to house, tossing books into the street, and I knew what was coming.”
“Darling don’t,” Mama began, walking over to him, but he waved her off.
“I couldn’t think,” his voice began to tremble.
“Where could I hide even a fraction of them? Where wouldn’t they think to look? Before I could act they were here, walking in as if they owned the place, taking whatever they wanted— and I did nothing.”
“There was nothing you could do,” she spoke in a whisper.
Papa began to walk about the room slowly putting furniture back in place.
Sitting down with a sigh, his face sinking into his outstretched hands. He looked beaten.
“I saved the family albums,” he managed to tell us, a small smile forming at the corners of his mouth. I had just enough time to put them under our mattress.
“We are safe,” Mama reminded him, taking both of his hands in hers.
“Yes, we are safe, for now,” he murmured. “but for how long? Today it was our books, what will it be next time?”
“Papa,” I asked, shyly coming up to him, “Why do the soldiers hate books?”
“Well bübchen,” he said thoughtfully, “they are afraid.”
Afraid— I found that concept confusing. They had guns, and could take whatever they wanted.
“What are they afraid of?”
Thinking for a minute, Papa replied, “Ideas. People who are educated, who can think for themselves, are not easily led. They fear this, so they must take away people’s ideas, telling them what to think instead. Anyone who has a problem with that, must be silenced.”
Getting up he walked to the door, stepping out onto the porch. Following along behind him I picked up a stick and began poking into the ground, as he went closer to the pile to see if anything could be salvaged.
“Nothing,” he said sadly as he returned.
“But Papa,” I said looking under the stairs, “here is a book!”
Coming down to my child’s level Papa gasped as he beheld the small volume. One book which must have fallen, and bounced under the stairs, out of the sight of those who would have destroyed it.
Reaching for it with a trembling hand, Papa tucked it quickly out of sight, and taking my arm walked back into the house.
Drawing the curtains shut, he pulled it out and displayed it to Mama’s disbelieving eyes.
“Utopia,” was all he said as they embraced.
It was many years later, after we had made our escape from Nazi Germany, that I realized the significance of that book being spared.
So many great books had been destroyed, and too many voices had been silenced.
For my Papa, Utopia by Sir Thomas Moore, represented hope at a time when there seemed to be little of it left in the world. That little glimmer of hope gave him the strength he needed to be bold, and taking only what we could carry, we escaped before it was too late.