“Voices in the Wilderness. Chapter One -1933
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Adolph Hitler, though he became one of the bloodiest dictators the world has known, came to power through the democratic process. He had tried the way of violence in 1923 and had failed. So he decided that his Nazi party would seek power through the electoral process. It won 107 seats in the Reichstag, the German parliament, in 1930, increasing that number to 230 two years later. On January 30, President Hindenburg, despite profound personal misgivings, had little choice but to appoint Hitler to the second highest position in the country, that of Chancellor.
On February 27, the German parliament building, the Reichstag went up in flames. Despite Nazi claims that it was the work of Communists, it is generally believed that the Nazis themselves were responsible. Others believe it was the work of a deranged Dutch Communist. Whatever the truth, it provided Hitler with the opportunity to convince Hindenburg to issue a Decree for the Protection of People and State. Democracy in Germany under the Nazis was about to end. The Decree gave them sweeping powers to deal with any situation in any way they chose. The foundations for a police state were being laid..
Within months of Hitler's appointment as Chancellor, the Dachau concentration camp was opened. The Nazis began arresting Communists, Socialists, and labour leaders. Dachau became a training center for concentration camp guards and commandants who were taught terror tactics to dehumanize their prisoners. Democracy finally ended when the Enabling Act was passed. This entitled Hitler to pass laws without consulting parliament. Hitler had finally become a dictator.
The Nazis created Special Courts to punish political dissenters. The regime passed laws that barred Jews from holding positions in the civil service, in legal and medical professions, schools and universities. The Nazis encouraged boycotts of Jewish-owned shops and businesses and began publicly burning books written by Jews and by others not approved by the Reich. These measures had the effect of isolating Jews from the rest of German society.
During the six years between his appointment as Chancellor and the outbreak of war in 1939, Hitler transformed Germany into a police state. Rearmament began in violation of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Internationally, Hitler skillfully negotiated with other European countries, publicly expressing his strong desire for peace
Eva Hoffman looked across at her daughter, Helga, who was sitting quietly by the fireside reading a book. Her mother smiled affectionately at the eight-years old. She was a pretty child and, as far as her mother could tell was developing quietly. The outside door opened and closed.
"There’s Daddy," Helga said, happily, looking up from her book..
The sitting-room door opened to admit Paul Hoffman. He was tall and slightly stooped. He looked weary, but, at the sight of his wife and daughter, he brightened. He crossed over to his wife, who raised her face for his kiss. He then gently stroked Helga's hair, giving her flaxen pigtail a gentle pull.
Eva looked anxiously at her husband. He seemed so tired, she thought. He put in long hours in his work as a salesman. Even though the worst days of the Depression were over, he still had to work hard.
"Daddy," said Helga, putting down her book and looking at her father anxiously, "I don't have to join the Jungmadel, do I?”
Husband and wife exchanged a quick glance.
"Don't worry Daddy about it now, darling. He's rather tired. Anyway, it's a year before you'll be old enough. "
"Has Hans been on to you again," asked her father, quietly.
Helga nodded. "Yes, he says I won't be a proper German, if I don't." She looked indignantly at her parents. "I am a German, aren't I?"
"Yes, of course you are," said her father, stooping and kissing her, "and a very pretty one you are as well."
Helga smiled with pleasure and returned to her book.
Later, in the kitchen, as Eva sat with her husband as he ate his supper, he said, “I'm going to have a word with that boy when he comes in. You'd think he'd have more sense. Fourteen years old and scaring the little one like that. She's only eight years old, for goodness' sake. Where is he anyway?"
"He’s at a Hitler Youth meeting."
Paul grunted. "I'm surprised he doesn't take his bed there. He spends more time down there than he does with his family."
"We are not the only ones that have this problem. I've heard other parents saying much the same. It seems as if the Hitler Youth is taking over the role of the family."
Eva reached across the table and placed her hand over her husband's.
"Promise me you won't have a row with him. He's developing into a strange boy. There is something about him that worries me."
Paul squeezed his wife's hand, reassuringly.
"I know what you mean," he said, thoughtfully. "I wouldn't mind it so much if we could have a row. It might clear the air a bit. All that happens is that I carry on at him and he just stands calmly and looks at me with those cold eyes." He sighed. "I wonder what's going on behind them. Perhaps it's just as well that I don't know."
After Helga had gone to bed, her mother went upstairs and sat beside her bed for their usual goodnight talk. For Eva, it was a precious moment in her day.
"Hans has been fighting with Karl again." Helga confided to her mother. "Karl made his nose bleed."
"Darling," she admonished. "You shouldn't carry tales."
"But Gretchen told me." Helga protested. "Hans had been nasty to her. So Karl hit him."
Eva hid a smile. She knew that her little daughter idolised Karl Richter. Not surprising, for Karl was a handsome, well-built youngster of fourteen, only a few weeks older than her own son. Whatever day-dreams her little girl had, she kept them to herself. All the girls in the school knew that Karl Richter had eyes for only one girl. That girl was Gretchen Neumann.
Eva kissed her daughter goodnight and closed the bedroom door behind her, leaving her to her day-dreams. She returned to the sitting room, to find her husband dozing by the fireside. She sat and took up her knitting. She quietly allowed her mind to drift back into the past. Helga had been such a pretty baby............
* * *
Full of milk, she'd slept peacefully in her mother’s arms. Eva Hoffman, herself very much at peace smiled down at her baby daughter. Gently, she wiped away a drop of milk that adhered to the baby's lower lip. It had not been an easy birth. She was no longer a young woman, as she had been when she had given birth to Hans, some six years earlier. Still, it was all over now and she had a beautiful little baby. As if she could read her mother's thoughts, the baby's eyelids flickered and she opened her eyes, clear blue eyes which gazed up at her mother. Eva Hoffman tickled her daughter under the chin and was rewarded with a gummy smile. Eva bent and kissed the little pink face.
Eva glanced down at the floor where her six-year old son was playing with his toys. “Look, Hans,” she said, showing him the baby, “she’s smiling.”
The boy stopped, gave her a brief, emotionless glance, then turned away and continued playing with his toys, a tank and several soldiers. Eva Hoffman sighed. She had never known such an unresponsive child as her son. Even as a baby, he had not responded to her kisses and cuddles, resisting them as he grew older. She felt, for some reason she could not fathom, that her son was growing inwards, shutting out everyone else. Thinking that he might be lonely, his anxious parents had arranged for other children of his own age to be brought into the house to play with him. But he either ignored them or bullied them. The visits had long been discontinued. His parents continued to love him and care for him, but were frustrated in their efforts to get through to their withdrawn son. Eva said little to her husband, but she worried about how her son was going to develop. She could still remember, as a small child, her maternal grandfather, a grim, moustachioed man, who had never, to her recollection, ever spoken kindly to her or showed her any sign of affection. Her mother had told her that, several years later, he had developed severe depression and had died in a mental home. To make matters worse, Eva’s elder brother had always suffered from depression. He had, inexplicably, committed suicide when he was a teenager. Was there a weakness in her side of the family that was going to blight the life of her son?
Hans made it quite plain that he did not care for his baby sister. He made it clear that he thought she was a nuisance, resentful when she interrupted his routine, with her crying and the constant need for attention. At first, he had pinched her a few times. She had cried and this had brought him instant retribution in the form of a slap. He soon decided that she was just too much trouble. So he ignored her. His parents gave him all the attention they could, but even from an early age, he had shut them out. Eva often wondered whether that was what he was going to do with people throughout his life.
* * *
The front door slammed, jerking Eva back into the present. Hans came into the room. At the age of fourteen, he was beginning to gain height and was showing signs of becoming quite well-built. Whatever reservations Eva might have about the Hitler Youth as a movement, she had to admit that Hans looked rather handsome in his brown uniform. If only he was different inside, she thought. That's where it really matters.
Her husband had woken from his nap and was reading his newspaper. He looked up and sternly addressed his son. "I hear you've been frightening Helga about joining the Jungmadel , Hans," he said, coldly, "I've already told you to leave her alone. She's only a child."
Hans looked at his father coolly. "When she's old enough to join, there will be other girls of her own age. You should be proud that there will be at least two of the family serving the Fuhrer."
His father flushed at his son's implicit reference to the fact that he had refused to join the Nazi Party. Seeing he had scored a point, Hans pressed home his advantage.
"I hope you will be proud,” he said, insolently. “I wouldn't like to think, father, that you were not enthusiastic about the Fuhrer." Paul Hoffman saw the look in his son's eyes and heard the hidden menace in his voice. He did not drop his eyes.
"Darling," said Eva, nervously, sensing an imminent confrontation between father and son, "of course, your father is proud......"
Hans turned on his heel and walked out of the room.
"Don't you dare ignore your mother like that," shouted his father, "AND DON'T SLAM THE DOOR."
Once inside his bedroom, Hans stood taking deep breaths. He was determined to control the red rage that, from time to time, threatened to overwhelm him. The Fuhrer had said, repeatedly, that emotions were not important, that the will was everything. He would not let his father bait him. The time would come, a time of his own choosing, when he would get his revenge.
He started to take off his uniform, something he always regretted having to do. He folded up his brown shirt and put it away together with his cloth cap, leather belt and buckle and neck-scarf. Bare to the waist, he inspected himself critically in the mirror. As he had been promised, the rigorous training and the outdoor life provided by the Hitler Youth was helping him to develop physically. He'd need to be in good trim, he told himself, for next weekend. He was joining a platoon to play "Trapper and Indian," against another platoon. Described as "hide and seek", it was, in reality, an excuse for an officially sanctioned brawl. If it was anything like some others in which he taken part recently, there might even be a few fist fights as the members of the two platoons tried to hunt down the 'enemy' and rip off their arm bands.
The programme provided by the Hitler Youth was certainly far more interesting than anything his stupid school could offer. Hans knew that he was not popular at school. This neither surprised him, nor worried him. It did not surprise him, for he knew that he made no efforts to make himself popular. The other boys did not bully him. They had learnt that he was quite capable of looking after himself in a fight.
He was glad it was a boys' school. That meant he has little to do with girls. Largely, he ignored them, as they ignored him. One girl did come into his mind. Gretchen Neumann. He viewed her without any of the lurid images that would have been normal for a boy of his age. Instead, he saw her as an instrument of revenge. Revenge against Karl Richter. For several years, there had been a continual rivalry between himself and Richter. This had intensified when they both joined the Hitler Youth. What infuriated him was that Richter was always just that one step ahead of him, always managed to score the winning goal, earn those few extra few points in competition, get in the lucky punch when a conflict broke out between them.
For a few moments, he allowed himself to indulge in fantasy. This time it was of a closed cell containing just the three of them. Richter was chained helpless to the wall, the girl pleading for him as Hans unleashed his whip…
Hans forced himself back to reality. There would be more realistic opportunities for him to get even with Richter. All he had to do was to wait. Hans Hoffman was good at waiting. He was good at being patient.
He turned his mind back to thinking about the school. He reminded himself not to let Gruber off the hook. The fat little Jew had tried to hurry past him that very afternoon in the playground, but he didn't get away He'd seized the boy, pushed him against a fence and quickly twisted his arm behind his back. There was some cock-and-bull story about not having any money, about having his pocket money confiscated.
The bell had sounded for the next lesson and he'd had to release his victim, settling for a promise of payment the following week. Gruber was only one of a number of victims in the school, mainly Jewish, who paid him small sums of money, just to keep out of trouble. Hans Hoffman smiled as he reached out to switch off his bedroom light. He knew he was on to a good thing. They were only Jews. It was only a foretaste of what they could expect in the future, according to the Fuhrer.
He lay, looking into the darkness. Not even he could visual just how dense the darkness was that soon would envelop his whole life..
* * *
Gretchen Neumann was fourteen years old. She was attractive in a gentle sort of way, chestnut hair and brown eyes. She was told that she was mature for her age. She realised that she had to thank her father for that. They were very close and he had always had a formative influence upon her. He had, at first, welcomed the improvements that the Nazis had brought to the country, especially with regard to reducing unemployment. However, lately, he had become one of those who were rather cautious. He had come under a little pressure from local officials to join the Nazi Party, but had always declined to do so. He had always taught his daughter never to rush into hasty decisions, but to calmly evaluate the evidence before acting. She had used this approach in thinking about the new regime. As a result, she shared in her father’s sense of uneasiness.
She noticed the ways in which the atmosphere had changed in her school since Hitler's appointment as Chancellor. Teachers of a liberal inclination suddenly became evasive and silent. Among the student body, some students stridently promoted Nazi doctrine. She was one of those who were silent. Or, in Gretchen's case, she was fairly silent. She was well-known for her outspokenness. A testing time came when the Hitler salute became obligatory. Gretchen joined the ranks of those pupils who were reluctant to use it. Their ranks were quickly diminished as they became the objects of suspicion and hostility. Gretchen was one of the last to succumb. She found out that she was not the only one to use mental reservations and inner ridicule. One girl told her she always muttered "Heil, Mickey Mouse".
Among the victims of the changed atmosphere were a number of Jewish girls who were still pupils at the school, many having been withdrawn by their parents. From becoming mere objects of suspicion, they started to attract persecution and derision. Gretchen decided that she had to make a stand somewhere. This seemed as good a place as any. She refused to ignore the Jewish children and was kind to them whenever the opportunity arose. She was particularly friendly with Rachael, a quiet girl, a year older than herself. Rachael’s parents were highly educated, her father a prominent lawyer with a practice in Bonn. They were proud to be Jews, but still considered themselves to be loyal Germans. Their family status had given Rachael a sense of quiet confidence. As their homes were not all that far apart, Gretchen made a point of waiting for the girl after school and walking home with her.
One day, after some nasty remarks had been hurled at them as they walked down the street together, Rachael said, anxiously:
"Gretchen, I'm very grateful for what you are doing, but I don't want to get you into trouble. Don't wait for me after school. I'll understand."
"Don't you worry about me," said Gretchen with a grin, "I can look after myself "
"Well," murmured Rachael, "here's your opportunity."
Approaching them, on his way home, was Hans Hoffman. As soon as they were almost level, Gretchen went on the offensive. "Well, if it isn't the Reichfuhrer himself." She raised her hand in a mock salute. "Heil,Hoffman.". Before he could reply, Gretchen went on, conversationally, "did you know that Karl won the boxing final, last night. Oh, but of course you do, I saw you there."
Hoffman glared at her. "One of these days, my girl, you'll laugh on the other side of your face. You'll be sorry you keep company with Jews." He stormed past them.
As they continued on their way, Rachael asked,
"What was all that about?"
Gretchen laughed. "The Hitler Youth held a boxing tournament last night. Karl and Hoffman were in separate semi-finals. Karl won his and went on to win the final. Hoffman lost his semi-final. As you know, Hoffman is wildly jealous of Karl. As well he should be."
Rachael smiled. "Of course, you’re not prejudiced, are you?”
Gretchen grinned. “Of course I’m not. Karl is the most wonderful boy in the world. Everyone knows that. Except Hoffman, that is.”
“He’s is a bad enemy to make, though, “mused Rachael.
"Don't worry about him," said Gretchen, dismissively. "Listen, I've been meaning to say this for some time. These are not easy times for you. If ever you get into any kind of trouble, please come to me. I mean it. Promise?"
The atmosphere in the country gradually worsened. There were sudden arrests in the middle of the night, people disappearing, and reports of unexplained deaths. There was talk of a special camp, just outside of Hamburg, with high walls, topped with barbed wire. While her father dismissed these things as unsubstantiated rumours, Gretchen could tell that he was uneasy.
Despite her bravado, Gretchen felt isolated. She couldn’t even turn to Karl for advice. He had been her companion and confidant since babyhood. But he had been swept up in the tide of excitement over the regime that was gripping the country. He had joined the Hitler Youth at the first opportunity. She was just grateful that he was so taken up with boxing and other sporting activities. She knew that he was exposed to the indoctrination that was part of it, but felt that his interest was somewhat superficial. He parroted the normal phrases that one heard on everyone's lips, but seemed to lack the inner fervour that motivated people like Hoffman. She hoped that he stayed that way. When she tried to consult her father, he was evasive and just said, “Make up your own mind, but be careful.”
There were certainly reasons to make the thoughtful person concerned. There were attacks on groups whose outlook or beliefs did not please the Nazi regime. The Fuehrer's approach was one of caution. He targeted the groups one by one. When one had been picked off, he went for the next one. The Church, the intelligentsia, the unions, the Jews, were all targets of Hitler’s wrath.
* * *
One summer day, some six months after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Gretchen was preparing to leave the school at the end of the last lesson. She heard someone call her name as she walked along the main corridor towards the exit. She turned and saw the headteacher, Magda Langer beckoning her.
“Gretchen, my dear.” She smiled pleasantly, “Could you spare me a few moments?”
Gretchen returned the smile. “Certainly, Fraulein.”
The headteacher led Gretchen into her office, a small study, heaped high with books, teaching manuals and assorted papers. She motioned Gretchen to sit down.
Magda Langer was a woman of average height, her hair drawn tightly behind her head in a bun. She had a sharp pointed nose which, together with enquiring eyes, gave her a very intelligent appearance. This was not a mistaken impression. Gretchen had always respected her, appreciating the encouragement she received from her on frequent occasions during her time at school.
Today, however, Magda's eyes had a worried look. She opened her desk and took our some papers. Gretchen recognised them as being an essay she had recently written for the history teacher.
Magda sighed and gave Gretchen the essay.
“It hasn’t been given a mark, Fraulein,” said Gretchen, examining it.
“ Herr Schwenk is anxious that you should rewrite it. I'm inclined to agree with him.” Magda said, quietly, “Your approach to the Treaty of Versailles is interesting, but…….” She hesitated, showing her embarrassment. “It doesn’t fit in with…….current ideological thinking.”
Gretchen bit her lower lip and was silent. Yet one more example of the repressive atmosphere we live in.
“My dear, I’ve always admired your independent spirit.” Magda smiled. “It reminds me of what I was like at your age. But now…..” The gesture of her outspread hands expressed her frustration. “Now, independence of spirit is likely to get you into trouble. Not just yourself, either. If that essay fell into the wrong hands, Herr Schwenk and I could easily be dismissed from our posts, accused of teaching subversion.”
“You see, Gretchen, when the National Socialists took over the government, Hitler was seen as just one more Chancellor, the third in a very short span of time. Governments come and governments go. But something very different is happening. It’s become almost a dictatorship since the Reichstag fire. There are changes coming about in every sphere of life, nowhere more than in education.”
Gretchen nodded. “I’m beginning to realise that. My father talks to me in the same way that you are doing. Thank you, Fraulein. I promise that I’ll be more careful in future.”
She took the essay, put it in her schoolbag, got up and wished Magda “goodnight.” Magda watched her go with a heavy heart.