by Ute Carson
34th Parallel Magazine, Issue 47, October 2017

It is 1942. Miriam leans against an inside wall of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. Daily roundups and deportations have depleted the population and it is rumored that soon the ghetto will be burned down. All checkpoints are heavily guarded and anyone attempting to escape is shot on the spot. Hunger and exhaustion have wasted Miriam's body. Her precious three month-old daughter Rachel has sucked her breasts dry. Miriam presses her slumbering child to her heart one last time and wets her sleeping face with a flood of tears. The mild sedative for her daughter has cost Miriam the last keepsake from her grandparents, a gold pendant with a crest of tiny diamonds. She pins a note to the baby's shirt: Rachel, my love. Live! Then she tenderly wraps her infant firmly between two cushions, lashes them together with a scarf and heaves them with the last of her strength over the wires atop the wall. Then Miriam sinks to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably. An SS man who has watched the spectacle from across the prison yard approaches and summarily executes her where she kneels. Outside the ghetto wall a passing stranger, happening upon the whimpering bundle, instinctively snatches it up and hurries home. As the ghetto goes up in flames days later, the Polish man and his wife keep Rachel safe and vow to raise her as their own.

Two years later in a small coastal town on the Baltic Sea Inge and Karl pack a rucksack for their only living son, Henrik, who has just turned 15. Their oldest son was killed at the beginning of the war in France and two other sons fell in the battle at Stalingrad. Inge, a busy mother and enthusiastic sports instructor, and Karl, a respected judge, are prominent members of their community. Though not fond of Hitler and his ilk, as patriotic German Nationalists they want to believe the government's promise to make Germany great again after the humiliating Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. They willingly supported their sons' desire to serve their country. But now with the situation on the Eastern front worsening and the regime announcing plans to conscript youngsters from high school, doubts and fear have crept in. Huddled together around roaring flames in the big brick fireplace in their villa, Inge and Karl's conversations grow heated and lengthy. Unable to sleep, Inge wanders the corridor between their upstairs bedrooms. Only the wind rattling the icicles on the eves of the roof picks up her lament. "I have lost three sons. I can't lose another."

A few nights later they resolve to send Henrik to visit relatives in Sweden for the Christmas break. Henrik has been raised in comfortable surroundings but his passion is for long hikes along the unspoiled dunes of the Baltic Coast. He is not thrilled at the thought of spending the holidays away from his friends who are organizing a winter campout. Besides, he is ready to volunteer in the youth organization which will soon join the fight for the Fatherland. Inge and Karl reassure Henrik that Sweden in winter offers unique opportunities for forays into nature.

An attempt to bribe the captain of a fully booked boat to Stockholm to make room for an unaccompanied minor falls on deaf ears. But an invitation from a prominent Swedish cousin stating that the family was in need of a hardy young geology student to join them on an expedition to gather ice samples from frozen springs near Uppsala secures Henrik passage in steerage. The prospect of adventure excites Henrik and softens his reluctance to leave. And he is convinced that he will be back in time to start his final school semester. On the evening before his departure Henrik notices that his mother rumples his hair a bit longer than usual before bedtime and hands him her favorite collection of Schiller's dramas for the trip. It unnerves him momentarily when he glimpses his mother dabbing her eyes as she leaves the room, but he gives it no further thought. His father has bought him a fancy camera and encourages him to take as many pictures as he likes to show them when he comes home. The next morning when Henrik boards the ship and stands at the railing vigorously waving a red-and-white checkered handkerchief, Inge clutches Karl's arm so forcefully that he winces.

Henrik feels betrayed when his Swedish aunt informs him that there is no return ticket and explains in great detail the increasingly dangerous situation in Germany. Retreating to his room, Henrik buries his head in a pillow and cries hot tears of fury. He harbors thoughts of running away but quickly realizes that he has no other place to go. He does not speak Swedish and has no money. He desperately misses his parents and feels like a kid again, imagining his mother's gentle fingers softly tousling his hair.

In the autumn of 1944 Inge and Karl decide to remain in their hometown even as a swarm of refugees treks through from farther east, telling of atrocities and plunder. When the Soviet army marches through their town, the family villa is sacked. As with other women in the town, Inge is repeatedly raped by rampaging soldiers. A lifelong swimmer, she makes her way to a nearby lake to wash away the traces of violation. Like a water turtle she plunges deep beneath the surface of the water. When she comes up for air a sniper's bullet strikes her forehead.

Now alone and bereft, Karl sets out from what remains of the villa on a cold February night in 1945, warmly dressed in fur but without luggage. He walks to the train station and joins the throng of waiting travelers, but no trains rumble through. As the temperature drops well below freezing, a mother carrying a child begs him for his coat. Karl hands it to her. When a crippled man hobbles up and points at his boots, Karl takes them off. Finally, with nothing on except his shirt and trousers, he slumps against a barren tree and sinks to the frozen ground. When a servant from the old days happens upon him and tries to drag him to safety, he realizes that Karl has died of the cold. In his hand he clutches a note: To my beloved son, Henrik. Live!

- ~ -