From international bestselling author Mario Escobar comes a story of escape, sacrifice, and hope amid the perils of the Second World War.
August 1942. Jacob and Moses Stein, two young Jewish brothers, are staying with their aunt in Paris amid the Nazi occupation. The boys’ parents, well-known German playwrights, have left the brothers in their aunt’s care until they can find safe harbor for their family. But before the Steins can reunite, a great and terrifying roundup occurs. The French gendarmes, under Nazi order, arrest the boys and take them to the Vélodrome d’Hiver—a massive, bleak structure in Paris where thousands of France’s Jews are being forcibly detained.
Jacob and Moses know they must flee in order to survive, but they only have a set of letters sent from the South of France to guide them to their parents. Danger lurks around every corner as the boys, with nothing but each other, trek across the occupied country. Along their remarkable journey, they meet strangers and brave souls who put themselves at risk to protect the children—some of whom pay the ultimate price for helping these young refugees of war.
This inspiring novel, now available for the first time in English, demonstrates the power of family and the endurance of the human spirit—even through the darkest moments of human history.
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Sold by:||HarperCollins Publishing|
|File size:||2 MB|
Read an Excerpt
Paris July 16, 1942
Jacob helped his brother get ready. He had been doing it for so long he went through the motions mechanically. They hardly talked as Jacob pulled off Moses's pajamas and helped him into his pants, shirt, and shoes. Moses was quiet with a lost, indifferent expression that sometimes broke Jacob's heart. Jacob knew Moses was old enough to get dressed on his own, but this was one way he could show his younger brother he was not alone, that they would stay together until the end and would be back with their parents as soon as possible.
Spring had gone by quickly enough, but the hot summer promised to drag on. Today was the first day of summer vacation. Aunt Judith left very early in the morning for work, and they were to fix breakfast, straighten up the apartment, buy food at the market, and go to the synagogue for bar mitzvah preparation. Their aunt insisted on it since Jacob was almost old enough to assume the bar mitzvah responsibilities of Jewish laws. He, however, thought it was all nonsense. Their parents had never taken them to the synagogue, and Eleazar and Jana themselves had known practically nothing about Judaism until they got to Paris. But Aunt Judith had always been devout and became even more so after her husband died in the Great War.
Jacob got his brother dressed and helped him wash his face. Then they both went to the kitchen, whose blue tiles were now dull from decades of scrubbing. The table, painted sky blue, had seen better days, but it held a basket with a few slices of black bread and cheese. Jacob poured some milk, heated it over the sputtering gas stove, and served it in two steaming bowls.
Moses ate as if safeguarding his breakfast from bread robbers all around. At eight years old, hardly a moment went by when he did not feel rapaciously hungry. Jacob was just as capable of eating everything in sight, which forced Judith to keep the pantry locked. Each day she set out their humble rations for breakfast and lunch and at night prepared a frugal supper of soup light on noodles or vegetables in a cream sauce. It was scant fare for two boys in their prime growing years, but the German occupation was exhausting the country's reserves.
In the summer of 1940, the French, especially Parisians, had fled en masse to the southern parts of the country, but most had returned home months later as they saw that the German occupation was not as barbaric as they had imagined. Jacob's family had not left the city then, despite being German exiles, but his father had taken the precaution of seeking refuge in his sister's house, hoping they would not easily raise Nazi suspicion.
Jacob knew that his family was doubly cursed: his father had been active in the socialist party and had written satirical tracts against the Nazis for years, not to mention that both Eleazar and Jana were Jewish — a damnable race according to the national socialists.
Paris was under the direct control of the Germans, represented by field marshal Wilhelm Keitel, and the Nazis had exploited and exhausted the populace. By the spring of 1942, it was nearly impossible to find coffee, sugar, soap, bread, oil, or butter. Fortunately, Aunt Judith worked for an aristocratic family that, compliments of the black market, was always well stocked and gave her some of the basic supplies that would have been impossible to acquire with her ration card.
After their meager breakfast, the brothers headed out. The previous night had been muggy, and the morning foretold an infernal heat. The boys ran down the stairs. The intense yellow of the Star of David shone brightly against their worn-out shirts, endlessly mended by their aunt.
The four sections of the apartment building, lined with windows, walled in the interior courtyard. From there they would pass through an archway and an outer gate leading to the street. Each side of the square building had its own staircase. As soon as Moses and Jacob stepped into the courtyard, they sensed something was wrong. They ran to the street. More than twenty dark buses with white roofs stood parked up and down the sidewalks. People swirled around as French police officers with white gloves and nightsticks herded them into the buses.
A chill ran all the way up Jacob's spine, and he grabbed hold of Moses's hand so tightly the younger child made a noise and tried to pull away.
"Don't let go of my hand!" Jacob growled, yanking his brother back toward the building. He knit his eyebrows together.
They were reentering the building when the doorwoman, leaning on her broom, sneered down at them and hollered to the gendarmes, "Aren't you going to take these Jewish rats?"
The boys looked at each other and took off running toward their stairway. Three of the policemen heard the doorwoman's raucous calling and saw the boys dashing toward the other side of the courtyard. The corporal gestured with his hand, and the other two ran after the boys, blowing their whistles and waving their nightsticks all the while.
The boys raced along the unvarnished wooden floor and the worn-down steps with broken boards, unable to keep their feet from pounding with terrible volume. The police looked up when they got to the stairwell. The corporal took the elevator and the other two agents started up the stairs.
Jacob and Moses panted as they approached the apartment door. Moses reached for the doorknob, but Jacob pulled him, and they ran toward the roof. They had spent countless hours there among the clotheslines, hiding among the hanging sheets, shooting doves with their slingshot, and staring at the city on the other side of the Seine. When they reached the wooden door that led to the roof, they paused past the threshold, hands on their knees as they gasped for air. Then Jacob led them to the edge of the building. The roofs stretched out in an interminable succession of flat black spaces, terra-cotta tiles, and spacious terraces some Parisians utilized for growing vegetables. The brothers climbed up a rusted ladder attached to an adjacent wall and walked tentatively among the roof tiles of a neighboring building.
The police watched them from the roof of Judith's apartment building. The corporal, winded despite having taken the elevator, blew his whistle again.
Jacob turned for a moment to judge the distance between the men dressed in black and themselves — instinctively, like a deer wondering how close the hounds are.
The younger two gendarmes awkwardly climbed up the ladder and resumed the chase, breaking half a dozen roof tiles as they closed the gap second by second.
Jacob stepped between two tiles and felt something crack. His leg fell through a hole, and searing pain shot up his shin. When he managed to pull his leg out, blood poured down into his dingy white socks. Moses helped him get to his feet again, and they kept running to the last building on the block. A chasm of more than seven feet separated the last rooftop from the next building.
Moses glanced at their pursuers and then at the abyss shining with the intense light of summer. Despite the light of day, a cavernous darkness below seemed eager to swallow anything that dared fall into it. Moses turned his bewildered look to Jacob, at a loss for what to do.
His brother reacted quickly. Just below them there was a small terrace. From there, a ledge circled the building toward the main road. Perhaps they could reach a house, then the street, then try to get lost in the crowd. Without a second thought, Joseph jumped and turned to help Moses, arms outstretched. Just as the younger child began to leap, a pair of hands grabbed his legs. He twisted and hit the rooftop hard.
"Jacob!" Moses screamed, trapped.
For a moment, Jacob did not know what to do. He could not abandon his brother, but if he went back up on the rooftop, they would both fall into the police's hands. He did not understand why, but his parents had warned him about the Nazis sending Jews to concentration camps in Germany and Poland.
The corporal leaned out over the rooftop and saw Moses from the ledge.
"Stop it, you brat!" he bellowed as he grabbed the younger boy from the other policeman, held him by an ankle, and dangled him over the roof.
"No!" Jacob yelled.
His brother's face was purple with terror, and he flailed like a fish yanked out of water.
"Come back up here. You don't want your brother to fall, do you?" the corporal called with mocking as he held Moses a little farther over the edge.
Jacob's heart beat harder and faster than ever in his life. He could feel it in his temples and in the tips of his fingers through his clenched fists. His breath abandoned him. He raised his hands and tried to scream, but nothing came out.
"Get up here now! You and your people have wasted enough of our time today!"
In the sunken eyes of the corporal the boy could see a hatred he could not understand, but he had seen it often over the past few months. He climbed back up the wall toward the roof and stood before the corporal.
The corporal was a tall, heavy-set man whose stomach threatened to burst from his uniform jacket with every breath. His hat sagged to the side, and the knot of his tie was half undone. In his red face, his brown mustache quivered as his lips frowned and spat out words.
Once Jacob came up from the terrace, the corporal let Moses fall with a thud onto the rooftop. The other two gendarmes grabbed both boys by the arms and carried them between them back to the first building. They descended in the elevator and returned to the courtyard.
The doorwoman smiled as they passed, as if the capture of the two brothers had brightened her day. The old woman spat at them and shrieked, "Foreign communist scum! I won't have another Jew in my building!"
Jacob gave her a hard, defiant stare. He knew her well. She was a lying busybody. A few months prior, Aunt Judith had helped the doorwoman acquire ration cards. The woman could neither read nor write and had a disabled son who rarely left their apartment. Occasionally on a nice afternoon, she would labor to get him out to the courtyard and sit him down while the boy, crippled and blind, shook all the while.
Moses had not yet recovered from the terror of dangling over the roof, and he turned his eyes toward the woman. Though she always yelled at them when they ran in and out of the building or bothered the neighbors with their shouts or the noise of pounding up and down the stairs, they had never done anything to her.
The street still teemed with people, and the buses were already half full. The gendarmes shoved the women, hit the children, and brusquely hurried the older people along. There were very few young men. Most had been in hiding for months. The helpless throng, compelled by fear and uncertainty, moved like a flock of silent sheep about to be sacrificed, unable to imagine that the police of the freest country on earth were sending them off to the slaughter-house before the impassive gaze of friends and neighbors.
The buses roared to life as Moses stared mesmerized out the window. He felt the odd sensation of going on a field trip. Beside him, Jacob studied the terrified faces of the other passengers, all of whom avoided one another's eyes, as if they felt invisible under the scorn of a world to which they no longer belonged.CHAPTER 2
Paris July 16, 1942
The buses came to a stop in front of a large building. The gendarmes jumped out of their cars and stood in a line to prevent the Jews from slipping off to nearby streets. The sun was beating down on the buses, draining the passengers' energy. Yet Jacob and Moses kept their eyes on the Eiffel Tower, situated behind them. Looking at it made their present reality seem less real.
The French police beat the metal doors of the buses for the drivers to open up. The passengers looked around. No one wanted to be the first to get off the bus. They had held collective silence on the way there, and now uncertainty had taken such hold of their souls that resignation seemed the only viable response to their unexpected arrest. Most were foreigners, though some French Jews had fallen into the spiderweb woven around them. An elderly gentleman dressed in a work uniform stood and addressed the frightened passengers.
"We need to stay calm. Surely the French are bringing us here to protect us. This country would never let them deport us to Germany. We may be occupied and the German hordes may rule our lives, but the values of the Republic still stand."
One of the few young men on the bus pushed the older man aside and stared defiantly at the rest of the passengers. "Are you stupid sheep or human beings? Haven't you noticed that since the occupation began the French government has registered us in their files, forbidden us from working in most trades, and forced us to wear these stars like they do in Germany? What's waiting for us in there is prison. Then they will send us north by train."
A woman dressed in a nice gray suit and blue hat made to leave the bus. The younger man stood in her way, but she pushed him aside. "Let me by. Don't intimidate these poor people. We have no idea what's waiting for us, but haven't we always been persecuted? Yet somehow we survive?"
The rest of the passengers filled the aisle and pushed and shoved their way toward the door. Outside the buses, a long line of women, men, and children marched slowly toward a set of enormous doors. Above them hung a sign with stylized letters: VÉL D'HIV.
Jacob and Moses knew the place. Their father had taken them there once to watch a bicycle race. The velodrome allowed Parisians to enjoy cycling competitions throughout the winter, and all sorts of events were held there.
A boy sitting behind them leaned forward and asked, "You're the Stein brothers, aren't you?"
Jacob and Moses turned to look at him. It was a relief to know someone in the crowd of strangers. "Yes," Jacob said, getting to his feet. They were the last ones in the line that had formed in the bus aisle.
"I'm Joseph, the plumber's son," the boy said. "We used to study together in the synagogue, but lately my father has let me go with him to his jobs. You haven't seen him here, have you?"
"No, you're the only person we've recognized today," Jacob said.
"This morning they beat on the door of our house. My father went out with a wrench in his hands, but he left it in the foyer when he saw it was the gendarmes. They told us to bring one blanket and one shirt per person, nothing else. But we got separated when we got to the buses."
Jacob answered in kind. "They didn't come looking for us, but the doorwoman of our building started hollering, and a few policemen ran after us. We tried to get away on the rooftops, but they chased us down."
A gendarme stuck his head through the door and shouted, "Get out here, you little rats!"
Terrified, the boys ran to the door. Moses caught the eyes of the bus driver for a moment before the man lowered his head. It had been the worst job the man had ever had to do. He did not know what the gendarmes planned to do with these people, but he was ashamed that the French collaborated with the Nazis. Since occupation, he had tried to slip under the radar. Union members and anyone who spoke out for other political parties were accused of high treason against France.
Jacob exited the bus first and faced the gendarme. The policeman scowled and indicated with his nightstick where they should walk. In the brief moments the boys had remained on the bus, most people had already entered the stadium. Moses clung to his brother's hand, and Joseph followed the rest of the crowd down a wide hallway. As they reached the end, they heard a murmur that grew to a deafening roar. They entered the enormous dome and looked at the stands. Then their eyes wandered to the slanted racetrack and the long rectangle in the center where a few Red Cross tents stood.
"Oh no," Moses whimpered. His jaw dropped, and his eyes struggled to take in the enormous space. He only vaguely remembered the time they had come to the velodrome with their father.
"There are thousands of people here," Joseph said, incredulous. It would be nigh impossible to find his family.
A government worker seated at a wooden desk motioned to them. The three boys walked toward him in single file.
"First and last name," the man demanded without looking up. Round spectacles attached to his jacket by a chain balanced precariously on his narrow nose. "Are you deaf?" he barked when they did not answer immediately.
"Why have you brought us here?" Jacob asked. The man set down his pen and crossed his arms at the boy's insolence. He finally looked at them.
"Where are your parents? Didn't they teach you any respect?" he growled.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Children of the Stars"
Copyright © 2020 Mario Escobar Golderos.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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