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Whys and What Ifs
December 14, 2000
“Happy Birthday Thomas!”
Everyone cheered as I blew out all seventy-five candles that were bunched together on top of my birthday fruitcake. I smiled as I looked at the faces of my family- my daughter Leah was cutting the cake while her kids Sandy and Amanda were playing games with their father, David, my son Alex and his girlfriend Jacqueline were pouring wine into glasses and handing them to the adults, and my lovely wife, Elisa, came out of the kitchen carrying plates piled high with steaming food. I don't recall ever feeling this happy. I am 75 years old, surrounded by people who love me and care about me.I'm really sorry that one person I love couldn't be here with me though - and this sends a pang of bitterness through me for a while as I remember why my brother couldn't celebrate my 75th birthday with me.
It was the fall of 1943. I was a strong, sturdy boy of 18 at the time, thinking that I knew all there was to know about the world when I really didn't have a clue about what was going on around me. I was on my way to town to run some errands for Mama when out of nowhere I was knocked to the floor by a skinny boy with a shock of blond hair on his head.
“Rudy, get off!” I yelled, trying to push my brother away, but he was persistent, laughing as he pulled at my hair and and pounded his scrawny fists against my chest. I couldn't help but laugh as well and because of my size gained the upper hand in our mock fight, squeezing Rudy so tight that he couldn't breathe and tousling his hair until it resembled a bird's nest.
“Alright, alright, you win Thomas!” Rudy gasped, and I released him from my grasp. I struggled to my feet and helped him up, still laughing, and saw Mama standing in the doorway, shaking her head.
“Honestly Thomas, I thought you would know better. You're eighteen now for goodness' sake.” she said.
“Who started the fight in the first place? I had no other option than to defend myself.” I retorted, then grinned. “But I don't think I need to do anything to beat this puny chicken.” Rudy made a face and punched me in the arm. Mama looked at Rudy sternly, saying,
“You, Rudy Himmel, have some growing up to do.” She boxed him on the ears and went into the house. Rudy touched his ear gingerly, wincing, then scowled at me.
“Thanks a lot. I was showing you some new skills I learned in the Hitler Youth and now I get punished for it!” he said. I burst out laughing.
“I don't think they teach you to pull someone's hair out in the Hitler Youth!” I said, laughing. Rudy crossed his arms, dead serious now. He was fifteen, but thin and small for his age, with a huge bunch of lemon-coloured hair on his head.
“I am the best in my class”, he bragged, flexing his would-be muscles, “no one can run faster than I can.” I shook my head and rolled my eyes.
“You may run fast, but you fight like a girl!” I teased. Rudy pushed me, and we fought our way happily into the house.
But as soon as we were inside, we immediately fell silent. Two men in military uniforms were sitting at our dining room table. Mama and Papa were sitting across from them, worry lines creasing their faces. Papa caressed his stiff leg underneath the table, slowly tracing with his finger the long scar that ran from his thigh to his knee. Papa was on the ground during World War I when a bomb fell from above, destroying everything in sight. He was around 10 miles from the actual point of impact, but the tremors made him lose his balance and fall. A chunk of debris fell on his leg and scarred it for life. Papa saw us and beckoned us over to the table. One of the soldiers grinned at us, his white teeth glaring brightly in the lamplight.
“How would one of you like to fight for Germany in the army?” he said. Several emotions exploded all over the house. Mama and Papa tensed, their muscles taut as if they were ready to spring into action. Rudy's face lit up, his eyes glowing with anticipation. As for me, my throat was parched and dry. I hated the very idea of war, but I knew I would be the likely one to go because I was the oldest. I will never forget what the officer said next because it changed my life forever.
“We want the younger boy. His records in the Hitler Youth are outstanding-best scores in the class.” Rudy's eyeballs nearly popped out of their sockets. He wriggled with delight and pinched himself to make sure he wasn't dreaming. He cleared his throat and said,
“ I would love that opportunity sir.”
Suddenly, Papa slammed his fists down on the table.
“Absolutely not!” he shouted, his voice filled with rage, “Rudy is only fifteen years old! He's just a boy who's still in school!” Mama started to cry.
“Please, don't take my baby away from me!” she screamed. I couldn't say anything at all but only watched the scene as it unfurled before me.
Rudy begged and pleaded with Mama and Papa, saying that he wanted to go and fight for Germany and for the Führer, but they adamantly refused to send him. The military officers grew exasperated, trying to convince Mama and Papa that Rudy would be doing a great thing for his country and that fighting in the war was an honour. Finally, one of Hitler's officers shouted something which silenced everyone once and for all:
“You must send us one of your boys to us on the morning train tomorrow, or there will be consequences.” They got up and stormed out of the house. The word “consequences” hung heavy in the air, thick with worry and panic. Rudy huffed and stormed off to his room. I sank into a chair, holding my head in my hands. The room seemed to spin around me, and my head throbbed. I had two options: should I go to war or stay behind? This was the very reason why I hated war- it tore families apart for unnecessary reasons. If I went, I would leave many things behind: my family, Elisa, the girl I was courting, and my chance for me to go to university and become a doctor. On the other hand, if I let Rudy go, I would keep all that but lose my best friend in the entire world. There were two roads I could travel. I could be selfish or I could be practical. There was no doubt in my mind who was going to leave on the morning train tomorrow.
“Thomas, you are brave and strong.” Papa said, his eyes sad and full of pain, “If I had it my way I would go to war myself, but they don't want old people like me.” I gulped and looked at my father in the eye.
“I've been to war, Thomas, and it's not a pretty sight. Consequences are there everywhere you look. But the meaning of the word is tripled when you're talking about war.” Papa sighed, and continued, “If I had to choose between the two of you, it would be you, Thomas. Rudy is too headstrong and proud, he uses his brawn instead of his brains. I know this isn't an easy decision for you to make. But I'm proud of you, my son, no matter what happens.” Papa smiled, tears brimming from his eyes.
“I'll fight hard for Germany, Pa.” I whispered.
“I know you will Thomas, I know you will.” said Papa, the tears spilling down his cheeks now.
I left the next morning, and never looked back. I never got to say good-bye to Rudy, as he refused to even look at me. My life swept by in a whirlwind from that moment, and all I can remember is the endless hours of training I endured, the exhaustion, the meagre portions of our rations. I often wondered what it would've been like if I had stayed behind at home. I wouldn't be fighting this hard and this long, pining for my family. But I knew that Rudy wouldn't have survived a week at the army camp, and every time I thought of that, I grew stronger and fought harder, knowing I had made the right decision.
A year flew by, and my birthday came and went. There was a happy celebration for me in spite of our circumstances, and I received a telegram from Elisa which made my day. I was touched that she still thought of me. However, there was no word from my parents and Rudy.
I will never forget the last day I fought for the German army. We knew that a liberation for the Jews was coming, but when it finally came, we were caught off guard. I know that many of the men actually were weary and willing to surrender since we had lost so many of us. The funny thing is that I didn't realize the true impact that the war had made on the world until after it had ended. While World War II was over and done with, the war inside me was just beginning.
It was winter in 1945. I was looking forward to seeing my family again after 2 long years. Suddenly, my comrade Hans Hermann ran towards me, holding a folded piece of paper in his hand. He handed it to me, his face grave.
“I'm so sorry, Thomas.” I opened the telegram.
“WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT STEFAN, GERTRUDE AND RUDY HIMMEL HAVE PERISHED IN A BOMBING ON SCHUTZ STREET ON DECEMBER 14, 1944 STOP-”
I couldn't read anymore. I might as well have died along with them.
The months after that were filled with whys and what ifs. Why didn't they get to the bombing shelter in time? What if I had stayed behind and died instead of Rudy? Would things be different? If only I had stayed and died beside my family. I could've saved at least one member of my family if I had stayed! Anguish and frustration welled up inside me. Everyone else had a family to go back to and visit. They had no idea what I was going through. No one could relate to my situation-who could sympathize with a man whose family had died on his birthday? I had joined the army to save Rudy, but I had ended up killing him.
There were some dark days after my family's death. I did end up returning home in order to say my proper goodbyes to them, and after visiting their memorial I saw a familiar figure racing towards me.
“Thomas! Thomas!” she shouted eagerly.
“Elisa?” I cried in disbelief. I took her in my arms and suddenly hope was in the world once again.
Nearly 60 years later, that same Elisa sits beside me as we say good-bye to the birthday guests.
“Are you thinking about Rudy?” she asks gently. I nod, and feel the tears pricking my eyes which are still there after more than five decades.
“Wasn't there anything I could've done to save them?” I ask her, shaking my head.
“Thomas, everything happens for a reason. You did what you thought was best for your family at the time. There was nothing else you could've done.”
“Yes, I know you're right. But sometimes I still wonder whether I deserve to live while they had to die.”
Elisa took my hand.
“Sometimes, we proceed along a road not knowing where it will take us.” she said, “but we hope for the best and get on with our life. Sometimes, taking a bad road will teach us many lessons.”
I smiled at my wise and beautiful wife. We sat in silence. The same whys and what ifs still whirl around in my head, but they are justified now. I know that I did the best I could do with the options I had available to me.
Hope you're having a great time up there Rudy.I thought silently, I'll see you soon someday.