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Not So Different
They sat in the drab basement together, playing cards to distract themselves from their growling stomachs, the wailing air-raid sirens overhead, and their fear of what might follow. Allied bombers flew over the city as vengeful blasts in the distance rattled the frame of the house. They huddled quietly in the corner, legs drawn to their chests, clutching cards in their trembling hands.
Elise laid down the five of clubs, glancing shyly at the unfamiliar girl sitting in front of her. In any other setting, the two could be mistaken for sisters. Their thin brown hair was neatly braided, and their dark, piercing eyes both reflected the somber wisdom that the times had pressed upon them. Elise knew little about her other than what her parents had told her. The girl’s name was Clara, and she was to stay with the Shultz family until arrangements could be made for her to leave the country. Elise was seventeen, old enough to understand what was happening and take an active role in it. She wondered what it would feel like to be separated from her family, mercilessly abandoned by her nation. Her glance turned into a polite and curious stare as she stood in awe of Clara’s courage and strength.
Clara noticed Elise’s gaze and timidly smiled, embarrassed. She pulled the ill-fitting brown sweater closer to her body, and laid down her cards. Elise returned the smile. “So,” Elise said, trying to break the silence, “did you play cards often before you...” her voice trailed off as she realized that talking about the past might upset Clara.
If Clara took offense, she showed no sign of it. “Ja, I used to play with my father during the evening.” Sadness flickered in her eyes at the mention of her father, “Do you?” she inquired politely.
“Probably not as much as you, but yes. We used to sit out on the porch and listen to the radio.” She sighed, “Man, those were the days.” They continued playing cards for several more minutes without speaking. Gradually, the roar of the planes receded into a cheerless silence. Elise looked at the old grandfather clock on the wall next to the blacked-out window. “We can go upstairs now and eat, if you want.” Clara nodded, and the two went upstairs.
The Schultz family gathered around the small table, squished together to make room for Clara. Both of Elise’s older brothers, Hans and James, were home from the university on break. As medical students, they were exempt from military service. They talked about their studies over a meager meal of diluted stew, served for the fourth time this week. Elise picked at her stew, dismayed by the lack of meat. Rations stretched the groceries as far as they could go, and as much as Mrs. Schultz tried, potatoes could only do so much to conceal the lack of substance. She glanced over at Clara, who was gulping down the stew gratefully. With a twinge of guilt, Elise realized that this may have been the best meal that Clara had had since she went into hiding.
Everyone went rigid at the sharp sound of knuckles on the door. Frantic glances were exchanged, and everyone stirred in their seats. “Relax,” murmured Mr. Schultz as he fumbled with his glasses.
“Öffen! Open up!” came a gruff command. As calmly as possible, Mr. Schultz got up and opened the door. A young SS officer strode in, arms stiff at his sides. Three more followed behind him in matching uniforms, and Elise recognized one of them as Leo, her former classmate from primary school. Leo’s cruel brown eyes glinted in the light. He has not changed one bit from the bully he was, Elise thought to herself. Clara also noticed his stiff demeanor, but tried to hide her fear, so as not to arouse suspicion.
Mr. Schultz, as friendly as possible, tried to greet the officers. “Guten abend, good evening. How can we help you?”
Leo stepped forward to answer for the group. “Good evening,” he said, although he hardly meant it, “We are looking for any Jews who may be avoiding their summons. All Jews on this street are to report to the old theater on the corner with a suitcase containing clothing and any necessary belongings. They will then be transported to labor facilities to help with the war effort. Roll will be taken one hour from now, and anyone failing to report will be forcibly apprehended.”
“Ah, yes, I see,” replied Mr. Schultz, “but we are not Jews. Why are you here?” He struggled, torn between his desire to be direct and maintaining the appropriate politeness.
“We are to search all the houses on this block and bring any Jews who resist by force to the theater. Will you please show your identification cards?” Obediently, the Schultzes pulled out their cards. Elise looked at Clara, and slipped her the false papers underneath the table. As a member of the resistance, Elise had been able to arrange for them to be made just earlier that afternoon. Leo stepped forward, his polished, expensive black shoes clicking against the wooden floorboards. Each member of the family silently handed him their card. He examined each in turn, carefully scrutinizing their features to ensure that they matched those described on the card. He handed each one back to its owner, begrudgingly satisfied. However, he paused when he came to Clara’s card.
“Clara Schmidt. Born in Aulendorf.” He gazed at her with masked emotions. “I know you,” he looked at Elise, “And I recognize you as esteemed medical students from the university,” his gaze settled upon Clara once more, “but this city of Lubeck is too small for me to have never met you. And still, I do not recognize you as one of them.” He rubbed his meaty hands together. “Why have I not seen you before?”
Clara met his gaze with unwavering courage. “I am their cousin. I transferred to the university last semester, and am staying with them for the school year.”
“I do not believe you.” Rage burned in his eyes. Their paperwork pointed only to the truth of their story, but his lust for violence spurred him on. Leo turned to the other officers. “Search the house,” he commanded, “and see to it that no stone is left unturned. There will be none of that lazy Jewish filth escaping under my watch.”
With that, the officers dispersed into the living room. Although the Schultzes remained in the dining room under the supervision of Leo, the angry footfalls of the officers could be heard throughout the house. They heard the crash of an overturned bookcase, and Mrs. Schultz gripped her husband’s hand, barely suppressing a gasp. A pitiless, cruel smile stretched over Leo’s face.
A few minutes later, the officers returned. “No one else is here,” said the younger officer. “We should move on to the next house.” Nodding, Leo and the officers processed out the door, leaving it wide open. Mr. Schultz hurried to close it. Clara stood perfectly still, frightened and ghostly pale. A shocked Mrs. Schultz stood nearby, silently weeping at the state of their home. Elise squeezed Clara’s hand, relief flooding through her. Had any of them been caught, they would have been deported alongside everyone else. Hans and James exchanged somber glances, and Mr. Schultz rushed over to comfort his wife.
After finishing the now-cold stew, they silently set about to cleaning up the mess the officers had made. The rocking chair was overturned, a painting lay torn on the floor, and the books had been knocked off the broken bookshelf. After James rectified the bookshelf, Clara and Elise set about to reorganizing the books. As she gathered a collection of volumes in her arms, Elise noticed the worn family bible splayed open on the floor. She abandoned the other books and went over to it. It was open to the story of Ruth, a young woman who helped her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi. She turned the pages, recalling the familiar story of the two gleaning leftover wheat in the fields together.
She glanced up at Clara, who continued collecting the books, still shaken from the close call. She remembered anew why she had agreed to take in Clara, and the compassion that Ruth showed to Naomi in her time of need. Ruth was under no obligation to help Naomi, but chose to stay with her and bear the hardship together out of compassion. Elise smiled to herself, putting the last of the books back onto the shelf.