This post is a bit different from previous Father’s Day posts. This story is loosely based on actual events that happened to my father. Names have been altered, but the basics are true. My father told me many stories of his life in Germany growing up, mostly good ones but some like this one had a darker side because of the politics of the time. I wrote the first draft while my father was still alive and was able to show it to him. It meant a lot to me that he was moved by it and told me he didn’t know how I’d done it, but as a work of fiction it had come eerily close to what had actually happened to him when he was 14 years old.
My father was a great man, though he never thought that about himself. I am proud to be his daughter, and strive every day to be someone who he would be proud of. In honor of my father, I share it with you now.
Where Conscience Leads
Night had fallen by the time Heinz Scheide and Erich Strauss left the movie theater. It was late March and winter lingered in the air like house guest who had over-stayed his welcome, but the teenagers were still so engrossed in the movie they hardly noticed the chill in the air as they walked home.
“I love American movies,” Heinz said, smiling broadly.
“Me too,” said Erich, pulling his cap down over his blond hair. “And American westerns are the best.”
“American westerns with John Wayne,” Heinz agreed. He pointed an index finger like it was a pistol, and pretended to shoot his friend. “Take that you red-skinned savage!”
Erich staggered and fell against the wall of a nearby building in mock death. When Heinz offered his hand to help him up, Erich twisted around and put him in a head-lock. After a few minutes of friendly wrestling, Heinz cried uncle and they started toward home once again, talking and laughing as they went.
Suddenly, Erich stopped and grabbed Heinz’s shoulder. “Do you hear that?”
Flag held high, ranks firmly closed,
SA marches with a quiet, firm step.
Nearby, voices were raised in the Horst Wessel song.
“Shit!” Erich hissed in a low voice. “I hate that Nazi song.” They could see the glow of the fires coming closer. People gathered in the street to watch. Others, in the buildings along the route, drew their curtains and quickly turned out the lights.
“The Brown Shirts must be having another torch parade.”
“From the sound of it, there must be a hundred of them,” Erich said.
The column of storm-troopers turned into the street, carrying Nazi flags high in front of them.
“What are we going to do?” Heinz looked at the crowd of people that now surrounded them. “There’s nowhere to run.”
Erich saw the fear in his friend’s face as the rows of torches marched past them. He took a deep breath, swallowing the fear that hammered his chest, and nodded resolutely. “We stand here and try not to be noticed.”
All around them the crowd stood rigid, arms stretched high above their heads, pointing to the sky. Voices shouted cheers into the night.
Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Heil Hitler!
Erich tugged Heinz’s sleeve to get his attention, then jerked his head to the side street where there seemed to be a small opening in the crowd. Without a word, they worked their way through the mob, slowly, so as not to draw attention to themselves.
Just as they stepped into the street and thought they were home free, rough hands grabbed them from behind.
“What do you think you’re doing, turning your back on the flag?” The swastika seemed to pulse on the Brown Shirt’s arm, and his eyes gleamed in the torchlight. He whipped around, pushing the boys to face the line of troopers carrying the flags with the broken cross.
“You will salute your flag now…”
To Erich the world had suddenly gone silent. He heard nothing but the Brown Shirt’s menacing words echoing in his head. He glanced at Heinz. Their eyes met for an instant, and he knew his friend would stand with him, no matter what happened.
“I won’t,” he said. “That isn’t my flag.”
“Not your flag?” the Brown Shirt said, in a deceptively calm voice of disbelief. Then he backhanded Erich across the face with his fist, and sent him sprawling in the street.
Erich struggled to his feet, tasting blood from a split lip. Another Brown Shirt had Heinz’s arms pinned behind his back. Now Heinz looked more angry than scared, and that gave Erich the courage to act when the Brown shirt again asked, “Not your flag? What are you? A Bolshevik?”
“No, I am a German. Not a Nazi.”
The Brown Shirt’s anger was palpable, a living thing ablaze in the torchlight. He grabbed Erich by his collar and shouted into his face, “You will salute the flag!” Erich flinched as much from the man’s fetid breath as from the noise.
He wiped the man’s spittle off his face with one hand, his eyes never leaving his attacker’s, and with a quiet firmness said, “I will not.”
Suddenly, sound returned to the world around him. Utter chaos as fists pummeled his face and stomach. Somewhere behind him, Heinz shouted his name, only to be cut off with a scream. Then Erich was on the ground, curling into a ball as polished boots kicked him in the ribs. With each kick, they hurled obscenities down on him. Commie. Bolshevik. Unpatriotic piece of shit.
Erich didn’t realize the beating had stopped until he heard the singing again. The hated Horst Wessel song began to fade as the parade continued along its route, and the crowd dispersed. Every inch of his body screamed with pain. He slowly lifted his head to see where Heinz was, but it was dark and his eyes were swollen to slits.
“Heinz?” His voice rasped painfully.
A low moan sounded off to his left.
“I’m coming, Heinz,” he said, forcing himself onto his hands and knees. He crawled to the dark lump in the street that was his friend. When he reached him, he put a hand on his arm, but before he could say anything, Heinz screamed and Erich fell backward.
“They broke my arm,” Heinz groaned. Then, after they’d both caught their breath, he added, “I guess we were the Indians this time.”
Erich tried to smile, but it hurt too much. “We’ll get them back at the Little Big Horn.” He struggled to his feet, then helped Heinz up, taking care this time not to touch the broken arm. “Let’s go home.”
“God in heaven! What happened?” Erich’s mother shrieked when she saw him standing in the doorway, bruised and covered with blood. She ran to help him as he staggered inside.
“Nazis.” The word slurred through his swollen lips, and he winced in pain as she steered him toward his bedroom. Then his father was there too, and Erich sagged against him in relief. His brother and sister came out of kitchen to see what the commotion was. His mother’s voice was sharp and in control when she spoke.
“Greta, fetch hot water and towels. Herbert, run to Dr. Braun’s house. Tell him to come right away. Go now! Run!”
Two hours later, the doctor had come and gone. Erich had two black eyes, a broken nose, and assorted cuts and bruises. The doctor thought he might have a cracked rib or two, and had tightly bound his rib cage with strips from one of his mother’s old bed sheets.
His mother kissed him lightly on the forehead, and left the room to comfort his sister, who had been crying ever since she’d seen first him in the hallway. Now his father sat next to him on the edge of the bed, and even through his swollen eyelids Erich could see the concern on his face. There hadn’t been time to fully explain what had happened; all his father knew was that his youngest son had been brutally beaten by Nazis.
“The doctor says you’ll live. Do you feel up to telling me what happened?”
Erich told his father everything. He watched the emotions play across father’s face as he listened: frustration, anger, pride, pain, and love. When he finished his story, his father sighed and took hold of his hand.
“What you did took a lot of courage, and I am very proud of you. But it was also very stupid. Two young boys against a mob!” He shook his head at this sign of insanity. “You’re lucky you weren’t killed. And what if they had hauled you away to their jail? You must think before you act, Erich, not only of yourself, but of your family.
“You know what happens to people who resist–they disappear and their loved ones pay the price. The Nazis rule with fear and fear is a powerful weapon. With fear a handful of madmen can rule the world. You must promise me that you won’t do anything so foolish again.” His father squeezed his hand, and Erich thought he suddenly looked very old.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen, Papa. They were there before we realized it.”
“I understand, but these are dangerous times and we must all be vigilant.” Then a wistful smile softened his face. “You must take care, my son. I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
Tears burned at the back of Erich’s eyes, but he wouldn’t let them fall. “I promise to be more careful, Papa. And I’ll do my best to keep out of the Nazi’s way.”
“Good,” his father said, and kissed his forehead. “That’s a good boy. Sleep now. You need your rest.”
I will be careful, Erich thought. But I won’t let the Nazis rule me with fear either. They will never make me Sieg Heil.
Elise Skidmore ©2018