By Michele E. Gwynn
Copyright (C) 2017, All Rights Reserved
Copyright (C) 2017, All Rights Reserved
It was cold that morning when Misha awoke. He got dressed quickly, and pulled on his wool coat, cap, and scarf. He was very excited, and had rushed through his breakfast of a boiled egg, a ham slice, and a glass of milk. He picked up his blue rucksack as he raced through the kitchen out the back door.
"Slow down, Misha!" His mother chuckled to herself to see such enthusiasm.
Misha didn't even respond. He jumped off the porch landing on the cobble stones below, and picked up his bike from the yard. Before the rooster could even crow, he was sitting on the seat and pedaling down the lane. It was the first day of school following the Christmas holiday, and he couldn't wait to see his friends again.
Clumps of snow dotted the lane here and there, but it wasn't too bad. Unseasonably warmer weather had melted the snowfall from the Friday before, and this morning, the air was crisp, cold, and clear. The sun was coming up, painting the sky in shades of orange from sienna to palest apricot. As he entered the village proper, he could smell the aroma of fresh bread coming from the Bakerei. The scent of strong coffee followed.
"Guten Morgen, Misha." The boy turned his head to see Frau Eiller waving from the butcher shop. "Tell your mother to come by. I have fresh beef from Mueller’s farm."
"I will, but I am on my way to school now."
Frau Eiller noted how smartly he was dressed and the blue rucksack on his back. "So I see! Well, tell her when you get home, and study hard. You don't want to be a butcher like Herr Eiller. He smells like rotten carcass every day." She laughed to herself as she waved the boy on.
Another bicycle pulled up alongside of Misha. It was Erik. He and Erik sat next to each other in Frau Hausmann's fourth grade class. Erik lived closer than all his other friends, but had been out of town over the holiday season visiting his aunt and uncle in Potsdam.
"Miss me?" Erik's grin showed he was missing a new tooth. The one he lost at the beginning of the year hadn't quite finished growing back in yet.
"You look like a Jack-O-Lantern," Misha observed.
"Maybe, but I got five pfennigs for it. If I lose two more teeth before school ends, I can buy a new football for summer. Then we will practice together."
Misha's brown hair fell over his blue eyes, and he laughed as he reached up to push it back. "Want me to punch you in the mouth? You could buy us both a new football then."
Erik considered this seriously for a moment. "If it gets closer to summer and no more teeth have loosened, then I might let you."
Misha's eyes grew wide in surprise. "I was only joking, Erik. Gosh, you're strange."
"No, I just really want a new football, and papa said I had to earn the money." Erik pedaled ahead, then coasted.
Misha thought about that. His own father would just buy him a new football. It seemed like some kind of punishment that Erik's father made his friend sell his own teeth for a toy. But Erik never had anything new. His clothes were second-hand, and his bicycle once belonged to his older sister, Talia. Erik's father purchased a can of green paint and painted over the bright pink that it used to be. The other kids had made fun of him for a while, but when they saw that Erik ignored them, never offering a response, they finally quit their taunting.
"What did you do over Christmas break?" Erik slowed up, riding alongside him again.
"Well, my American cousins came to visit. The whole house was full of them. Papa took my uncle with him to his job every day. Mama and my aunt just stayed home with us. When they left, they had four other kinder with them. Papa said Uncle Henry was taking them back to New York where they were going to be adopted by rich American families. It was really strange, too, Erik."
"Why is that?" Erik watched Misha's face. He was looking ahead at the road, but he could tell his friend was remembering something.
"They all had shaved heads, even the girls. Really, Erik, they were bald. I never saw a girl with her hair shaved before."
"I don't know. Papa said it was because children cannot go to America unless they shave their hair off. Something to do with lice and stuff."
Erik stopped, planting his feet on the pavement. Misha noticed and slid to a halt looking back over his shoulder.
"What is it?"
Erik's face grew serious again. "Did any of them have a gold star on their clothing?"
Misha looked confused. "I don't remember seeing any. Why?"
Erik shook his head. He could see his friend had no idea what he was talking about. "Nothing, I guess." He started to pedal again. "So they all left together?"
Misha caught up. "Yep. In the middle of the night, too. I suppose ships have to leave very early for America."
Erik nodded. "Yes, I guess they do."
They arrived at the schoolyard and parked their bikes. Erik tied a length of rope through the tire and the make-shift bike stand, which was part of an old fence, making knots to help prevent anyone from stealing it. Misha watched, wondering why Erik went through such trouble for such an old, ugly bike. Still, he waited patiently, and then together, they ran all the way to Frau Hausmann's classroom. It was going to be a great day!
That night, Misha followed his father to the backyard where he grabbed a stack of wood for the fireplace.
"And how was the first day back, son?" His father's gray mustache wiggled like a comical villain in a Talkie when spoke.
"It was good, papa." Misha picked up two cut logs to help. "Papa, why doesn't Erik's father buy him stuff like you do for me and mother?" He looked at his new bike leaning against the house, his cricket bat, and his football laying discarded in the dead winter grass.
"Why do you ask?" The mustache wibble-wobbled.
"Erik is trying to earn money to buy a new football. His father is making him sell his teeth."
His papa chuckled. "He's not 'selling' his teeth, Misha. They're just coming loose and the tooth fairy collects them leaving money behind. Yours will start falling out soon as well."
Misha looked horrified and covered his mouth with one hand. "But, papa. His father doesn't buy him anything. All his clothes are old, and he has an ugly bicycle. It’s a girl’s bicycle!"
His father stopped, setting the logs down on the back porch. He sat on the steps and pulled Misha down next to him. "Son, he's not being mean. It's simply that Erik's father cannot afford new things."
"But why not?"
His father placed an arm around his shoulders. "Because, Misha, he's a Jew. And right now, being a Jew is a bad thing to be. They are losing their jobs, and it is getting harder to get hired anywhere. I fear that soon they will be run out of town altogether."
"I don't understand. What's so bad about that? Does this mean Erik would have to leave?"
"There's nothing bad about it, and I want you to always know that. The problem is state government, and the new leader. The Reich is targeting Jews." He sighed. "Sometimes, people can be very cruel, and when cruel people are in powerful positions, they do cruel things."
Misha thought about this. He'd heard the news on the radio about Kristallnacht, the night that past November when Nazi soldiers ransacked Jewish businesses and Synagogues, but he was in fourth grade. He didn't pay any attention to such things. It had all sounded like a radio drama, and not something that was really happening. Still, he felt terrible that his friend and his family were being treated badly. It wasn’t right. Maybe the soldiers just needed to have a friend like Erik. Then they wouldn’t be mean to the Jews.
"Papa, can I give my football to Erik, would that be okay?"
His father mussed his hair and smiled. "That would be more than okay, son."
Misha smiled. He ran to pick up the football, and took it inside where he cleaned it off and then stuffed it into his blue rucksack. Tomorrow, he would give it to his friend as a late Christmas present. Feeling better, he got ready for bed, and fell asleep smiling.
The next day, Misha arose, dressed, and ate his breakfast at break-neck speed. Then he put on his coat, hat, and scarf, and grabbing his blue sack, ran out the back door to his bike. He pedaled fast, eager to meet up with his friend in the village. When he neared the Bakerei, he looked around. Usually, Erik joined up with him from the south side street. He waited. More than thirty minutes passed, and no Erik. Concerned that he may have raced ahead and was already at the schoolhouse, Misha rode his bicycle as fast as he dared.
When he arrived at the schoolyard, he looked for Erik's ugly, green-painted bike at the rack. It wasn't there. Misha's shoulders drooped in disappointment. He was looking forward to giving the football to him. Now it looked like Erik was either late or out sick for the day, and he would have to wait.
He wandered into class, dejected. Inside, Frau Hausmann sat at her desk, head down, her face in her hands. The principal, Herr Strauss, stood next to her desk speaking in hushed tones. They both looked up when he walked in. His teacher's eyes were red as if she'd been crying. When she saw Misha, a sob escaped her lips.
Herr Strauss shuffled his feet, and then slowly approached. "Guten Morgen, Misha. Please, come sit here with me. I need to talk to you."
Misha wondered what he'd done to earn a 'talk' from the principal. He was sure he hadn't committed any infractions, but a feeling of dread sat like a heavy stone in his stomach.
"Son, something has happened, something very bad," he began.
"Whatever it is, I'm sure I didn't do it. I swear!" Misha's earnest gaze cause Frau Hausmann to turn away as another sob filled the air.
Herr Strauss's lips lifted at one corner, but never fully turned into a smile. His face was somber, and his words, halting. "No, Misha, you've done nothing wrong. It's Erik."
"Erik did something wrong?" He asked.
"No. No, he did nothing wrong, either, unless you call being born a Jew wrong.” He paused. “No, last night, the SS came, and took him and his family away. Not just his family, but several families here in our village. I'm afraid he won't be coming back."
Misha tried to take this all in, but it just didn't make sense. He thought about what his father told him the night before. He thought about Erik saving money from his loose teeth for a new football. He thought about how his friend never had anything new or nice, and about the football in his rucksack that he would now never be able to give to him. It wasn't right. It just wasn't right that the Nazis could force his friend to leave. Without thinking, Misha got up and ran out of class. He ran to his bike, and jumped on, pedaling furiously back toward town. He rode all the way home where he abandoned his bike in the yard along with the rucksack. He ran up the steps, into the house and straight into the arms of his mother where he burst into tears.
His mother held him tight. Somehow, she knew. Misha cried uncontrollably, heartbroken and grieving.
He never saw Erik again. Misha never had the chance to give a gift from his heart, never understood the cruelty of man against his fellow man, not in this moment, nor in the years that followed.
This story cannot be reprinted or copied in whole or in part. All parts of this story are copyrighted by the author, Michele E. Gwynn.