Read an Excerpt
June 1942: Lidice, Czechoslovakia
A few weeks after my birthday, Terezie and I got permission to stay up late, look at stars, and plan her upcoming party. The night was warm and clear, and it seemed that every star in the universe could be seen. I showed Terezie how to use the telescope, and after looking through it for a while, we lay down on the grass to talk. “I want dessert too, of course,” Terezie said when we began to talk about the food for her party. “But I’d really like a cake,—a cake with frosting. I don’t know if that will be possible with so little sugar, but . . .” She stopped talking when Jaroslav suddenly appeared. “Don’t let me interrupt your dreams of sugar and cakes,” he said with a smile.
“I just came outside to enjoy the night air.” “Go away, Jaro. We’re talking about Terezie’s birthday.” Despite how nice he had been to me at my party, he could still be a pest. “No, Milada, let him stay.” Even though I couldn’t see in the dark, I knew Terezie was blushing. It was no secret she had a crush on Jaroslav. He sat on the grass quietly as we finished planning. By then it was late, so Terezie and I said good-bye. After she left, I went to bed and fell asleep, thinking about stars and birthday parties.
A few hours later I was awakened by a loud, angry pounding on our front door that sent a sickening feeling down into my stomach. Something was very wrong. Suddenly, the door banged open and the pounding was replaced by the sounds of heavy boots, barking dogs, and fierce shouting in German. Throwing my covers aside, I jumped out of bed and raced downstairs to find our living room filled with Nazi soldiers.
“Papa!” I cried. He held out a hand to stop me from coming any farther. I felt my whole body shaking. Nazis. Up close they were even more frightening than when I had seen them in Prague. And now they were in our living room.
Jaro stood quietly next to Babichka, with an arm around her shoulders. In the other room I could hear Mama taking Anechka out of her crib. I looked from Jaro to the Nazis. The soldiers seemed almost as young as my brother, and a few of them swayed on wobbly legs. The reek of stale whiskey hung in the air. The Nazi nearest me barked a command in German, pointing upstairs with his gun.
“Go upstairs to your room, Milada,” Mama said as she entered the room with Anechka in her arms. “They are saying we must leave the house. Get dressed and take some of your things. Pack enough for three days.” I couldn’t understand the soldier’s words, just the fear he was causing, but Mama understood German. I turned to go upstairs, trying to get my legs to move, and suddenly the soldiers and dogs were gone. They had left the front door open, and silence stood in their place. In school Terezie and I had once read a poem about “loud silence,” and we had laughed at what the author had written.
How could silence be loud? But that night, right after the Nazis left, a loud silence was what stayed behind in our house as if it was a real thing, just as in the poem. Everything was completely quiet, but the terrifying presence of the soldiers lingered behind. Jaro was the first to speak. “Why are they here?” He looked from Mama to Papa, then back to Papa again. “What’s going on?” “We are being arrested and taken for interrogation.” Papa’s voice was quiet.
“What? Why? I don’t—” Jaro began, but Papa interrupted.
“I don’t know, Jaro. Just follow their orders and it will get sorted out. Now pack. Go.” I dressed quickly, still not believing that Nazis had actually been in our living room and that I was packing to leave my home. I put some clothes into a bag and tucked Mrs. Doll under one arm, even though I knew I was too old for her.
Then I gently lifted my telescope down from the shelf. It would come with me wherever I went. Downstairs, Anechka rested quietly in Mama’s arms. Papa was holding a suitcase in one hand and Mama’s hand in the other. Jaro stood with his traveling bag too, and a stubborn look on his face.
Babichka carried nothing other than the small framed wedding picture of herself and Grandfather, who had been dead many years, and her crystal rosary beads. I stared at her, wondering where her bag was. Why didn’t she have her silver candlesticks or her crucifix? Where was her hand-stitched shawl? She pulled me to her and grasped my hand in hers. Gently, she pressed her garnet pin into my palm. It had always been my favorite. It was shaped like a star, with tiny red stones around it that twinkled up at me in the light. I shook my head and tried to give it back. “No, Milada.” Shee took it out of my hand and pinned it on the inside of my blouse, her hands trembling slightly.
“You must keep this and remember,” she whispered, bending close to my ear.
“Remember who you are, Milada. Remember where you are from. Always.” I opeeeeened my mouth to protest further. “Shh, little one. Don’t say anything.
Shh.” She put a finger to my lips and ran a hand through my hair. “All right,” Papa said, turning off the living-room light and turning on the porch light. “All right,” he repeated, and together the six of us left our house. Two Nazis waited in the yard with dogs.
The porch light spilled across their faces, changing their features so it looked as if they were wearing masks. One guard used his gun to direct Babichka and me to the right side of the house. The other guard grabbed Papa roughly and pulled him from Mama. I watched as Mama’s and Papa’s intertwined hands stretched and stretched, until at last they had to let go and Papa, his eyes filled with tears, was pulled away from Mama. “I love you, Antonín!” Mama cried.
“I love you, Jana!” Papa’s voice cracked. The other Nazi grabbed Jaro by the arm and shoved him behind Papa, away from where Mama, Babichka, and I were standing. Jaro looked at us, blowing Mama and Babichka a kiss and winking at me. I felt myself being pushed farther and farther away from Papa and Jaro. I opened my mouth to say something, but no words came out. I could only watch them being led away, until Mama turned me in the direction the Nazis’ guns pointed. I was shaking all over and looked up, noticing the stars tucked into the folds of night. They twinkled but looked dull and listless to me and offered no comfort. Other women and children, our neighbors, began to join us. They, too, were led by Nazis, and I realized it wasn’t just my family that was being arrested. The night air filled with the sound of our feet crunching on the gravel path as every house in Lidice was emptied. Mama kissed Anechka lightly on her forehead, and I shifted the telescope in my arm, beginning to feel its weight. “Milada!” I turned to see Terezie and her mother running to catch up to us. “Terezie!” I cried, grabbing her in a hug. Mama gave Terezie’s mother a brief kiss on the cheek, tears wetting both their faces. “Do you know what is happening?” Terezie asked. Her eyes were puffy, and she looked scared as she slipped her hand into mine. Like us, they had no men with them. It was just Terezie and her mother. “Papa said we’re being arrested,” I whispered. “All of us? Why?” Terezie whispered back.
“I don’t know,” I answered. We were stopped at the entrance to our school, where the soldiers’ German commands mixed with the sounds of children sniffling and women whispering.
Prodding us with their guns, the soldiers led us into the gymnasium and directed us to stand along a wall in a long single-file line. I stood close to Mama and Babichka, while Terezie sandwiched between me and her own mama. Casually, the soldiers began grabbing our bags and suitcases, all the things we had been told to pack. A mix of fear and anger ran through me. Why had we packed just to have everything taken away from us?
As the soldiers approached Babichka, she stared straight ahead. She didn’t move or show any emotion when the black-gloved hands took her wedding picture from her. It flew soundlessly, end over end, toward one of the growing piles of possessions, finally landing with a loud, splintering crash as the glass shattered.
My doll was torn from me and thrown through the air toward the same pile.
But when the Nazis reached for my telescope, I felt tears come to my eyes.
I shook my head, pulling away from the Nazi soldier whose hand was reaching for my precious birthday gift. “Milada!” Mama whispered. “Obey.” I looked at her but didn’t move. How could I watch my new telescope get tossed onto one of the piles like a useless rag? I looked up at the guard, trying one last time to use my eyes to plead with him. But with a rough yank he pulled the telescope free from my hand. Instead of throwing it on the pile, though, he handed it to another Nazi, who was walking up and down the aisle, clicking his heels with importance. That guard took it and quickly disappeared into the gym locker room. I breathed a small sigh of relief. At least it hadn’t been broken. The guard barked another order in an angry, rushed tone. Quickly we were led back outside, where large trucks waited with their engines growling loudly. Each was covered with thick fabric that billowed up like a tent. Even in the dark I could see the black swastikas boldly glaring down at us. Everyone huddled close together as we were led up the ramps like animals into the waiting trucks. Inside, guards motioned for us to sit on the small benches lining either side of the truck bed. I sat down, suddenly tired. My arm throbbed from having held my telescope, and I could no longer keep the tears back.
“Where are we going?” I whispered to Mama as the truck lurched away from our school. “I don’t know.” She brushed a tear away from my face and swept my bangs out of my eyes. Anechka was almost asleep on her shoulder. “Where are Papa and Jaroslav?” I asked.
Babichka took my hand in hers and squeezed. “Hush now, Milada,” Mama said. “Just close your eyes and try to sleep.” She pulled my head gently against her shoulder. Babichka was praying softly next to me, using her free hand to finger the rosary that she had managed to keep by hiding it in her dress sleeve. Terezie and her mother sat together farther down the bench. I closed my eyes, feeling the bumpy gravel of the road, and tried not to breathe in the rancid smell of engine exhaust.
I jerked when the truck lurched to a stop a few minutes later. Whispers ran up and down the benches, passing along the message that we were in Kladno, a town close to Lidice. Nazi soldiers appeared and placed ramps at the backs of the trucks. Then we were herded into another school. This one was bigger than our school in Lidice, and we found ourselves in an even larger gymnasium. There was hay spread across the floor, filling the air with a soft, sweet scent. Using their guns, the soldiers directed us to a place on the hay, and Mama spread out Anechka’s blanket for us to sit on. My sister awoke, and her wail mixed with our hushed voices as we settled down on the floor. Suddenly, I felt immensely tired. It was as if sleep was the only important thing. Despite the fear, the worry, and the itchiness of the hay, I fell asleep as soon as I put my head down.
Rays of sun poking through the gymnasium windows woke me with a start. My body felt stiff and sore, and at first I couldn’t remember where I was. But then the rustling of children awakening and the sound of women whispering brought back the events of the night before in a sickening rush. I sat up, looking around the gym.
Terezie and her mother were next to us, and my friend Hana was with her mother and sister not far away. Nearby sat her grandmother and aunt. Our widowed neighbor Mrs. Kucera was on the other side of Terezie. Across the gym I saw my teacher from last year, and near her was Zelenka with her three sisters and their mother, sitting against one of the walls. Ruzha sat with her aunt on a blanket near Zelenka, looking pale and tired. “They can’t arrest all of us,” Mrs.
Hanak said to her neighbor. “For what crime?” she asked to no one in particular. Terezie’s mama pleaded with a guard as he patrolled near our space, his gun held ready. “Please, sir, what has happened to my husband? When will I be able to see him again?” He responded in clipped German without looking at her, his eyes continuing to sweep the gym. I turned to see if Mama had heard. A thin smile crossed her face, and she translated for me. “All the men are being held at a work camp. We will go soon to join them.” Soon. That was what the guard had said.
Soon I could see Papa and Jaroslav, and we would all be together again. “None of us are Jews,” Mrs. Janec?ek whispered loudly, trying to get one of us to talk to her. Her three children, all boys older than Jaro, had been left behind with her husband. She was alone.
“Do they know this?” Her voice rose in pitch, and her eyes darted from side to side. “We are not Jews. Why are they taking us away?” “Hush, Helena, hush.” One of her neighbors patted her hand. “Hush. It will be fine. Don’t start trouble.
Please, please. It will be fine.” The hours passed slowly. I tried to hurry them by counting things; how many windows were at the top of the gym; how many basketballs sat on shelves along one wall; how many doors led outside; how many Nazi soldiers patrolled the rows of women and children. Almost fifty soldiers walked among us, different ones from the night before.
These men didn’t look like small boys playing soldier. They were older, and they carried their guns differently.
Their expressions were fixed more firmly on their faces, their eyes more focused and alert. The sounds of women and children whispering and babies fussing echoed around us. If I closed my eyes, I could almost pretend we were at a church picnic or a school festival, rather than being held prisoner in a gym. But then I would hear someone crying or catch the scent of hay and open my eyes again to what was really happening. Babichka continued to pray, using her crystal rosary beads. Her dress hung wrinkled on her small frame, and pieces of gray hair had begun to escape her bun. Anechka seemed unaware of the fearful things happening around her. She played patty-cake with Mama, who kept smiling and telling me everything would be fine. I smiled back, but I could see the tightness in her mouth, the worry in her eyes. Terezie’s mother joined Mama on the blanket, and they whispered back and forth to each other, their eyes avoiding both Terezie’s and mine. I sat next to Terezie on her blanket, and we talked about what we were going to do when we were allowed to go back home. “I’m going to change clothes,” Terezie whispered, “and then go for a long bicycle ride.” “That sounds nice,” I said. I liked the thought of riding free through the streets of Lidice on a bicycle instead of sitting in a gym on a blanket. “I think I’ll do the same.” “I’ll come get you and we can go together,” Terezie said, nudging me with her elbow as I smiled at her. “Yes. Then we’ll make some more plans for your party. We haven’t decided on dessert yet.” “I want a cake, a chocolate cake,” Terezie said. “That would be nice. We’ll find the sugar somehow,” I said, and Terezie nodded, smiling back at me.
No one ventured far from their blanket or assigned spot. Children stayed close to their mamas, and everyone sat waiting. We were frozen in that gym like some sort of photograph, unable to do anything except wait until we could return to our homes and see our fathers and brothers again.
I wanted to hug Papa hard, harder than I ever had. I wanted to feel the roughness of his beard and hear his deep voice and gravelly laugh. I wanted him to know about my telescope. I wanted to hear him say that he was proud I had tried to keep it from the Nazis, and that somehow we would get a new one so I could continue to look at the stars. I wanted to see Jaro, too. To give him a hug and let him tease me about the doll I had brought with me. And to see Terezie blush in front of him again. Instead, all of us sat and waited. The minutes ticked away into hours, the hours turning into another day. The air was hot and sticky by then, and the hay had become itchy and thin. My stomach had grown impatient with hunger. We had been given nothing to eat but cold coffee and pieces of dry bread, and there had been hardly enough for everyone. I watched with envy as Anechka sucked her bottle, wishing Mama had brought food for me, too. Women had begun to move about more freely, stopping to talk with neighbors or sitting in small huddled groups to pray quietly. But all the while, we were being watched carefully by the Nazis with their guns. Toward the end of our second afternoon of waiting, two men with clipboards and white coats came down a small set of stairs at the back of the gym. The guards ignored the men as they walked through the rows of women and children.
But we watched warily as they moved from blanket to blanket, looking at each child and muttering in German while writing notes on their clipboards.
Occasionally, one of the men would call over a guard, who would use his gun to direct a child to stand and walk up the same set of stairs at the back of the gym. When one of the men came to Terezie, he looked at her briefly, wrote something on his clipboard, and quickly moved on.
He came to my blanket next and stopped, taking a strand of my hair in his hand.
Gently he rubbed it between two fingers, murmuring softly to himself. “Ja.” He nodded with a quick smile and scribbled something on his clipboard.
Then he motioned to a guard, who pulled me up from the blanket. I was to follow the other children up the stairs.
“Mama?” I asked, looking down at her and Anechka sitting on the blanket. Even though it was very warm in the gym, I suddenly felt cold. Anechka reached up for me, her little fingers opening and closing.
“Go with them, Milada. You must obey.” Babichka was the one who spoke, pointing to the place where her pin lay under my shirt. I had forgotten about the pin, and I looked into her face, trying to gather courage. “Go, Milada. Do as they say. I love you,” Mama said, squeezing my hand in hers. With a deep breath I joined the line of children walking to the back of the gym.
Terezie’s eyes met mine briefly as I walked by her blanket.
A Nazi led us up the stairs and into a small room at the end of a hall. Two boys younger than me and a girl closer to Jaro’s age followed me, and we joined about a dozen other Lidice children already standing in what looked like a science classroom. I stopped in the doorway, amazed by what I saw. It wasn’t who was in the room that surprised me. I recognized most everyone from school, although there was only one other person from my class: Ruzha. She stood on the other side of the room.
Boys and girls from the lower grades through year six had been gathered and were standing at the front of the room by the blackboard. But all of us had one thing in common, something I would not have noticed had we not been put together in one room.
Each of us had blond hair and light-colored eyes. My thoughts were interrupted by the snap of a Nazi command. There was a pause; then the guard repeated his command, sending the same sickening feeling into my stomach as when I hadn’t been able to understand the Nazis in our living room. I looked around, seeing a puzzled expression in the eyes of others. None of us knew what the guard wanted us to do as we stood shaking by the blackboard, underneath a model of the solar system. Books were scattered around the shelves, and animal cages stood empty in the corner, adding to the feeling of desolation in the room. Two men with white coats and stethoscopes stood on the opposite side of the room. They held clipboards and were laughing and talking in German, ignoring what was happening at the front of the room. A woman in a uniform stood on one side of the blackboard, staring blankly into the open room. The two men in white coats from the gym had also arrived, and were standing with the other men, talking quietly. I had not seen them wearing stethoscopes in the gym. Perhaps they were doctors. They all seemed very bored, as if what they were doing was a normal part of every day. One doctor smoked a cigarette casually. Another yawned, looked over at us, then turned back and continued laughing with the others. None of them even seemed to care that we had been taken from our homes and couldn’t understand their language or intentions. “What do they want?” I whispered to a year-six girl standing next to me.
“I don’t know,” she whispered back, her eyes wide. “Undress. Now!” the female Nazi finally screamed in Czech. She stepped over to grab each of us by the arm, pulling us out of our huddled group and into a crooked single-file line in front of the blackboard. I felt my face grow warm.
“Undress!” the woman repeated, reaching over and ripping down one boy’s pants.
Immediately, the rest of us began to undress, afraid of what would happen if we didn’t.
I threw off my blouse and skirt, trying to keep my eyes on a poster hanging on the opposite wall and ignore the shame I felt as I stripped to my underwear. Not even Jaro had seen me undressed before.
I dropped my clothes in a pile at my feet and stood waiting. After everyone was undressed, the woman who had given the order grabbed each of us again and divided us up into four lines. The four men with the stethoscopes stopped talking, and each took a position at the head of a line.
The woman pointed to the lines, indicating that we were to travel from one to the next. The doctor in the first line asked me my name. “Milada Kralic?ek,” I answered quietly.
He nodded, running his finger down his clipboard and making a note with his pen. Then he checked my mouth, nose, and eyes, using the same kind of instruments my own doctor used. He listened to my heart with his stethoscope and made me cough and do jumping jacks. He ran his finger up and down my back, then bent over his clipboard and scribbled some more with his pen. I relaxed a little as he continued. This was just a doctor’s exam after all. But in the second line the exam changed. Even though the doctor had a stethoscope and wore a white coat, he seemed interested only in my hair.
Guiding me toward the wall, he placed me in front of posters, each showing a different hair color. Next he picked up a long narrow board that had small bundles of blond hair attached to it.
Carefully, he took each of my braids and laid it flat against the different hair bundles, then wrote notes on his clipboard. I had a sudden urge to take the pair of scissors on the table near him and cut off all of my hair. I didn’t like the way the doctor touched it. In the next line the doctor stood near a table that had strange metal instruments on it. One of them reminded me of the silver salad tongs Mama used on special occasions, but unlike Mama’s, these came to a very small point at each end. The man carefully placed each of the points on either side of my nose, pressed slightly, then wrote something down on his clipboard. He seemed to be measuring my nose. How was the size of my nose part of a doctor’s exam? Next, he took another instrument that looked like a pair of knitting needles connected by a piece of metal. He put one pole on either side of my forehead. “Perfect!” he said in Czech, and scribbled more notes. The female Nazi stood watching that line. She smiled at the man and then at me. I turned my eyes downward, not sure what I had done to please these people, but knowing I didn’t like it. In the last line the doctor stood in front of two posters covered with pictures of eyes. He was short, bald, and fat, and he smiled at me when it was my turn. I looked away, avoiding his gaze. In his hand he held something that looked like a ruler, but it had small glass eyes in different colors glued to it. Taking my chin in one hand, he placed the ruler near my cheek with his other hand and moved it beneath my eyes until he seemed to find a matching color. Making clicking noises with his tongue, he smiled again, this time to himself, and wrote some notes on his clipboard. With a wave he dismissed me, and the female Nazi directed me back to my clothes. I dressed quickly and was led downstairs and back into the gym.
Everything looked the same. The Nazis still patrolled. The women and the other children still sat on their blankets, waiting. I could barely keep from running back to the blanket where Mama and Babichka sat playing with Anechka. “Milada!” Terezie grabbed me in a hug, and Anechka reached out a small hand to touch my face as I collapsed on our blanket. My whole body shook uncontrollably. Terezie was called back to her blanket by her mama, and Babichka put her arm around me, letting me rest my head against her shoulder. Mama stroked my hair. “Mama,” I said.
“Yes, Milada?” “There were doctors there. They listened to my heart and looked in my mouth, but then they looked at my hair and my eyes and measured my nose. Did they do that here, too?” “No, Milada,” she answered.
I looked closely at her. “I didn’t like the way they touched my hair, Mama. All the children there had blond hair.” A look passed between Mama and Babichka. “Perhaps they were examining the children to make sure you are healthy for a work camp,” Babichka said. “But . . .” It was difficult to ask the question I needed to. “We’re not going back home, are we?” I felt a lump in my throat. “I don’t know, Milada. I don’t know,” Babichka answered, looking away from me and my question.
We stayed in the gym the rest of that day and night and into a third day.
Tension grew high. The hay that had at first smelled sweet and inviting was now pungent, having absorbed the sour smell of our worry and fear. Everyone was growing angry and impatient.
“I want to see my husband!” Mrs.
Janec?ek yelled at her neighbor. “I want to see my sons. Waiting, waiting. I am tired of this waiting!” I was tired of counting things, tired of talking to friends, tired of pretending we would still have Terezie’s birthday party. Every part of me was tired. I had been in the same clothes for three days with hardly anything to eat. Mama had snapped at me because I had not come quickly enough when she called me away from Terezie. And even Anechka was getting fussy. I didn’t think I could stand another day of waiting in the gym. Finally, as the sun was crawling down the windows, the Nazis started shouting orders. Everyone stood, gathering the few things they had. Mama pulled me up, taking Anechka’s blanket. “We are going now, Milada.” I felt a rush of relief. I just wanted to leave, to be able to move around, to see Papa and Jaro, maybe even to sleep in my own bed again. I stood eagerly, feeling almost cheerful suddenly. I helped Mama to fold the blanket and Babichka to brush bits of hay from her dress. Perhaps we were at the end of this nightmare. One of the guards yelled another command in German, and Mama stopped, frozen, her face tightening. “What did he say, Mama? What did he say?” I asked, frustrated that I could never understand the Nazis’ words. “He said we are all going to the work camp to see our husbands, but the children will go separately, in a more comfortable bus.” She bit her lower lip, and I felt my stomach tighten. I didn’t care about riding in comfort. I would stay with Mama and Babichka and Anechka.
I grabbed Mama’s hand and squeezed.
Around us mothers pulled children toward them, and everyone stood, waiting again, like a giant cuckoo clock that had stopped in mid chime. Then a Nazi grabbed a little girl away from her mother. “No! No! My baby!” her mother screamed, and the spell was broken. Everyone began running and screaming, the cuckoo clock erupting back into chaotic motion. Mothers grasped their children while Nazis tried to pull them away.
Everything was blurry movement and roaring noise until a gunshot, loud and pure and pointed, rang out through the gym. We all dropped to the ground in immediate silence. The Nazi who had fired the gun spoke slowly and loudly, making it clear we had no choice. Every guard had his gun drawn and ready. Babichka squeezed me hard, touching the place on my shirt where she had pinned her garnet star, and kissed my forehead. Then Mama pulled me to her. “I love you, Milada.” “I love you, Mama.” As she grasped my hand, I felt a soldier take hold of me around the waist, pulling me away from her. “No!” I screamed. But my feet were lifted from the ground, and this time it was my hand, not Papa’s, that was being stretched and stretched, until I could no longer touch Mama’s. I continued reaching for her even as the soldier carried me out the door of the gym, into the late-afternoon sun, and onto a waiting bus. I stood at the front of the bus on wobbly knees, feeling dizzy and sick to my stomach. The bus was entirely empty except for two Nazi women, the driver, and one other girl from Lidice, who sat staring at me from a seat at the back.
It was Ruzha. I stayed where I was, unable to move.
Where were all the other Lidice children? Again I wished I knew German, so I could explain that there had been a mistake. They had said in the gym that all the children would ride the bus, but there were only two of us. Where were Terezie and Zelenka and Hana? What was happening to Mama and Babichka and Anechka? One of the Nazi women walked up the aisle toward me and led me to a seat near the front, where I fell into the comfort of crushed velvet. I was glad she had not taken me to sit near Ruzha.
There had already been one mistake.
Sitting with Ruzha would just be another. The bus pulled away from the curb, and I sat staring out the window, driving away from everyone I had ever known. My whole world was changing, and I was filled with dread about the new one unfolding before me.
Copyright © 2007 by Joan M. Wolf.
Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.