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Choose the Right
Heide squeezed her eyes shut to block out the images. Images that filmed over her eyes and pounded in her ears. Pale, ghostly faces, children crying, the gunshots of angry soldiers. A long line of people being herded like cattle to Buchenwald. Of course, Buchenwald. The nearest camp. The whole town of Weimar knew about it. But why should they speak about it? Why should they dwell on something so unpleasant, when they could be celebrating about the cleansing of the country? At least, that’s what Hitler called it. Cleansing. The Jews were vermin, and as you would exterminate rats or bugs, you exterminated the Jews. Common sense. But those children…. Heide stood up and began washing the dishes. Scrub clean, then leave out to dry. Scrub again. Heide scrubbed until her knuckles turned white and her jaw hurt from clenching her teeth. She decided to go out in the barn. Yes, the animals would calm her down.
“Animals!” the town’s people had proclaimed of the Jews when they had been told of Hitler’s plan. They cheered him. Heide and her family had cheered him. They had been so caught up in the moment, finally they would be rid of….. of what? The Jews had been their friends. Heide had traded with them at market, even went to school with a few of them. She stormed furiously outside. How could she doubt Hitler, Germany’s savior? How could she question her family’s beliefs?
Darkness had just begun to settle over the town, like a flock of ravens. Yet it wasn’t that late. Heide shivered, imagining it was the clouds of ash that blotted out the sky. Perhaps that was why night seemed to come earlier and earlier these days. Everyone knew about the dark clouds that rose above Buchenwald. Everyone knew that they contained remains of fragile bones and flesh, cartilage of ears and noses, keratin of hair and finger nails. Finger nails. But that belonged in the category of unpleasant things, so the people pushed it away to the back of their heads. Now, as she made her way to the small barn hidden in the bushes, Heide did the same.
She stepped inside, immediately at ease. The barn was her haven. Straw crunched underfoot as she ventured farther. A small lantern lit her way. Horses snorted and a few chickens squawked at her arrival. But amidst the usual sounds… Heide paused, the lantern swinging from her hand. Was that…. Sniffling? Yes, as the yellow light flooded the corner, Heide could see them. Two small bodies curled up in the straw.
“Wer ist da? Who’s there?” Heide approached them. The lantern’s light revealed two ghostly faces staring up at Heide with visible fear. They were children, girl children. But how old or where they came from was a mystery. “Aufstehen! Get up!” There was a movement in the straw as the two girls stood up, clinging to one another. Bones jutted out from their clothing, concealed only by translucent skin. And their clothing… striped uniforms that hung loosely from their skeletal shoulders. “Wo kommst du her? So where do you come from?” Heide asked, a little more kindly. “Nun? Well?” she raised an eyebrow when they failed to answer.
The taller one spoke. “Please… from Buchenwald. We had too… tomorrow we were going to be sent to the furnace.” Her voice was surprisingly strong for her body, but still in danger of being lost in the wind.
“I- I’m sorry, but I’ll have to turn you in.” Heide was shaking as she turned away.
“My name is Chodel. And my sister is Sarah.” The girl called out. Heide stopped. Why did she have to know their names? A simple name gave life to a body, gave a past, present, and future. And Heide was about to take that future away.
“Please Miss. We mean no harm. We’ll be on our way, just don’t tell. They don’t even know we’re gone. Please.” The girl pleaded, desperate now.
Heide sighed. There was one thing she wanted to know. “How did you escape? What about the barbed wire?”
Chodel-no, Heide would not give a name to her. The girl answered promptly. “Every day during meal time, we took our soup and ate by the fence. No one paid any attention. We dug a little each day, and today, it was finally big enough. We dug a hole right underneath the fence, and nobody noticed.” She seemed proud of her act, the traitor. But she did say she was about to be killed… Heide inhaled sharply. Would she really sacrifice her family for two strangers? Two Jews? Two criminals? Two helpless girls trying to survive?
Heide glanced over her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.” she whispered. “With food.” She added, which caused the girls to gasp with joy.
“Thank you! Bless you!” Chodel cried, falling to the ground.
Heide searched the kitchen for something her parents wouldn’t miss. They were currently visiting relatives, and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. By then, hopefully, the Jews would be gone. Hopefully. But Heide didn’t know where to send them. Surely they would be found if they traveled along the road. Should they take their chances in the forest? But why did Heide care? Was it because Chodel had shown so much bravery? No. It was because Chodel reminded her of Bertel. Heide’s younger sister that had died of influenza.
Heide had just finished wrapping a loaf of bread in cloth when a loud knock pounded at her door. She froze, instantly imagining the worse. Quickly hiding the bread, Heide tried to calm herself. Please don’t let them have gone into the barn. Please. She inhaled and opened the door.
Uniform. That’s the first word that came to mind when Heide saw them. The second was monster.
“Heil Hitler.” She said immediately, raising her hand to her forehead in a solute. The two soldiers did the same. “What can I help you with?” Heide hoped she wasn’t visibly nervous.
“Where are your parents?” The short one asked. He had a long, drooping mustache and deep eye sockets that reminded Heide of a tramp dog.
“Visiting relatives in Berlin. What can I help you with?” She repeated firmly.
The soldier replied “Just a routine check. We have soldiers searching every house for some run away prisoners. May we search yours? Standard protocol.”
Heide nodded, and gestured for the soldiers to enter. Her mind spun like clockwork. Inevitably, after they checked the house, the soldiers would check the barn. Unless if they somehow forgot to….
“Please,” Heide said, hurrying to fetch glasses. “ have some ale. You’ve worked so hard tonight, and you really deserve some rest.” She quickly poured them drinks. When they looked doubtful, she smiled. “I must insist. It would be rude to have guests over without giving them some nourishment. Oh, and I have food too.” Before they could deny it, she peered into the cabinet for the saltiest cheese they had. She carved thick chunks for each soldier.
They didn’t refuse, and even made a toast with the ale. “To Hitler.” The clink of glasses set Heide at ease.
She diligently watched their cups, and whenever one was half-full, she poured more ale. When her father asked, she would make up an excuse for the missing ale, Heide decided. She could say a neighbor had asked for it. Or she could tell the truth, and say that soldiers had come and drunken it. Many soldiers. For her soldiers were certainly drinking enough for the whole German army.
Finally, the short one, who was apparently the leader, staggered to his feet. “No more. No more.” He slurred, waving away Heide’s attempt to fill his cup. “We must check the house…” He stumbled, catching himself on the table.
“Certainly.” Heide agreed. “But I’m afraid you’re much too tired to search. But if you must, you must.”
The taller one swayed on his way to the stairs. Mustache man decided that they didn’t need to search this house. They staggered to the door and down the path. Heide watched from the window, holding her breath. And a miracle happened. They continued down the path, passing the barn.
Heide grinned. Perhaps all was not lost. Perhaps Chodel and Sarah would live on after this dreadful war. Perhaps they could marry nice men and have families and live out their dreams, whatever they may be. But at this moment, Heide needed to find bread.