When the Nazis overran Poland in the fall of 1939, fifteen-year-old Stefan K.'s father was sent off to a German labor camp. Now, in the tense days of occupation, Stefan scrambles to help take care of his family. Yet when his brother, Mikolai, takes him out after curfew to celebrate his sixteenth birthday, Stefan makes a life-changing discovery: he yearns for men the way his brother does for women. As he juggles his time between his day job at a bakery and his evening work in the theater, Stefan becomes more aware of his desires. And then he meets Willi, his one true love.
Everything about Stefan's love affair with Willi is damned. They are both men. Willi is an Austrian airman, a Nazi soldier. Stefan's brother is actively fighting the Germans in the Polish Resistance. Yet Stefan and Willi's love sees no boundaries of nation, race, or gender. It is too strong to deny. And too passionate to survive. When the Gestapo discovers their affair, not only their love but their lives are in great danger.
Based on the true story of Stefan K., who has written a letter to readers at the end of the book Damned Strong Love is a novel that shows the power and importance of love even as it describes the terrible price of intolerance and hatred. Stefan and Willi's love was damned, but it was strong; Lutz van Dijk's powerful and humane novel is their legacy.
|Publisher:||Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)|
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About the Author
Lutz Van Dijk was born in Berlin. A writer and teacher in Hamburg, he is a member of the Educators for Peace Movement and the Anne Frank Institute in Amersterdam.
Elizabeth D. Crawford has translated many books from the German, including Peter Harling's Crutches, for which she won the Mildred Batchelder Award. She lives in Orange, Connecticut.
Lutz Van Dijk was born in Berlin. A writer and teacher in Hamburg, he is a member of the Educators for Peace Movement and the Anne Frank Institute in Amersterdam. She is the author of Damned Strong Love.
Read an Excerpt
Damned Strong Love
The True Story of Willi G. and Stefan K.
By Lutz Van Dijk, Elizabeth D. Crawford
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Elizabeth D. Crawford
All rights reserved.
THE LAST SUMMER
July 8, 1941. The second summer of war in Poland. A beautiful, really hot day — I'd gone with a few friends to swim in the Vistula after my early-morning job with Max Licht, the German baker.
We arrived at the bank of the river at about noon, our clothes sticking to us in the terrific heat. We hurriedly checked out the area for Germans, including any soldiers who might also be taking advantage of the hot day to swim.
Andrzej, a neighbor boy, was the first to reach the embankment. He threw his small knapsack and his shirt and short pants onto the grass, and disappeared into water over his head. Shortly afterward we joined him in the refreshing stream.
We splashed around in the water, ducking each other and yelling, unaware that two German soldiers were somewhere in the neighborhood. Maybe we were screaming so loudly because we had had so little time to play during the past two years of war and occupation by the German Army.
Each of us had had his own bad experiences. But now, playing in the Vistula, refreshed by the cool, clear water, we forgot all that for the moment.
And it was Andrzej who discovered a branch hanging out over the water and used it, naked as he was, as a springboard. Just as we were swimming toward the bank to get to the branch, a commanding voice suddenly bellowed: "Get out of there, get moving! Every man out of the water at once, and stand still!"
"Every man" — that was brave, skinny Andrzej; little Pavel; his even smaller brother, Marek; and I, Stefan, the tallest of our group. Dripping and shivering with fear, not with cold, we stumbled out of the water and looked toward the gruff voice. Only now did the roundish soldier emerge from behind some thick bushes, along with his companion, who looked even younger. The two Germans pointed their rifles at us.
"You know what happens to partisans in wartime?" the older one yelled before we were even out of the water. We tried to assume some kind of military-looking posture — hard to do when you're dripping wet and stark naked! Since I spoke the best German of the four of us, I timidly asked permission to speak.
"Partisans — the Polish Resistance — sir? We're only children who came here to swim. So please, give us our things and we'll go right home."
The soldier showed a smile, even if it was only a sneering one.
"Oh, 'swimming'— is that what you crooks call your plottings these days? Now, just tell me you don't know it's forbidden to use your Polack language in public."
So that's what he was driving at. I had to refrain from clapping my hands to my head at this nonsense. Yes, it was true, there was a regulation that we weren't allowed to speak Polish in the presence of Germans — but until a few moments ago there hadn't been any Germans around! Maybe the older soldier just thought it was fun to terrorize a few Polish boys. But what was going to happen now?
Luckily, his companion seemed to be losing interest in us. He whispered something in the older soldier's ear, whereupon that one nodded. Then he screamed at us again in his parade-ground voice:
"We'll let you go this time. But note this for the future: There's no Poland anymore! This is now West Prussia and it belongs to the Greater German Reich! Understand?"
Andrzej and I nodded. When we saw that Pavel and Marek were just staring dumbly straight ahead, we poked them in the sides, and they nodded too.
The two soldiers had had enough of us, but they had one last bright idea. They'd caught sight of Andrzej's knapsack, and now they stuffed into it all the pieces of clothing they saw lying around. One of them grabbed a heavy stone and tied that in too. Finally they slung the bulging knapsack as far as they could into the middle of the Vistula, where after letting out a great bubbling blast of air it sank.
Why am I telling this in such detail, anyhow? Afterward it all went rather well again. Marek and Pavel cried a little of course, but Andrzej and I were able, after more than an hour, to pull our knapsack treasure out of the water with a piece of rope. Best of all was that the soldiers had missed Pavel's little box camera, which he'd carefully laid in a shady place before going swimming. And so in the late afternoon, some hundred yards farther along, we took pictures of ourselves. Little Marek was stationed on a hill to watch while the rest of us spread out a few dampened crusts of bread and ate fresh raspberries.
While we sat in the grass in our almost-dry clothes and enjoyed the tasty meal, I couldn't stop thinking about what the soldier had bellowed: "There's no Poland anymore!"
There's no Poland anymore! There's no Poland anymore! That sentence is firmly tied in my memory to the day two years previous, in the late summer of 1939, when I learned that I would never again be allowed to go to school. ...
* * *
Early summer, 1939. At age fourteen, I'd just graduated from the seventh grade. I'd been quite a good student — I can say that today, as an old man. At least in school there was always something going on. Besides, I really liked to read, and most of all I liked music. In the music room of our school stood an ancient concert grand piano that our cheerful young teacher had inherited from a distant relative and bestowed on us. He could play it so beautifully and with such great feeling that sometimes the whole class missed hearing the bell and forgot to go home.
It was this young Herr Scibarski who one day summoned my father to school and said to him: "Do you know that your son has musical talent? He really ought to go to the upper school so all his abilities can be properly developed!"
"Aha," my father boomed. He scratched the back of his head somewhat uncertainly, then carefully folded and unfolded his battered railroad cap. He looked at me: "And what do you want, boy?"
I was as uncertain as Father, but unfortunately I had no cap to fold. Neither Father nor Mother had learned to read and write properly in the four elementary-school years of their childhood. At least they'd gone to a German school, and so we were raised to be bilingual from early on. Father had later learned the railroad trade at the freight yards in Torun. Mother had remained an unskilled worker.
Both had taught us the Catholic religion, which from the earliest, I associated with nice and not-so-nice experiences: Every evening before bedtime, Mother prayed with each of us five children. Afterward she always had a few minutes to listen to our large and small cares and counsel us on what should be done about them on the coming day. That was the nice experience.
Not so nice was that every Sunday we were stuck into so-called good clothes for going to church. Not only did the stiff pants and collars scratch our skins horribly, but the moment we were imprisoned in the torture garments, all of Mother's amiability vanished. She would bustle nervously around us, pulling on crooked cuffs and collars and issuing the wildest threats about the tiniest bits of dirt. I could never believe the good Lord wanted that when He created Sunday.
So now I looked at my father helplessly and finally said something that would most likely have horrified any other poor father who had to turn every penny around twice: "I would love to learn to sing properly and become a singer someday!"
Unlike Mother, who got into panics every now and then because of our lack of money, Father had always preserved a feeling for "the true life," as he called it. "The true life isn't just fields and working and scratching money together," he would sometimes say, to Mother's annoyance, "but the true life, that's the beautiful things." Then he would grin like a schoolboy, and it was left to our imaginations which "beautiful things" he meant at the time. Now I found out that for him, to my good fortune, singing was one of them.
Turning to Herr Scibarski, he said cheerily, "Good, Herr Scibarski, then Stefan should develop his musical talent, shouldn't he?" And he added seriously, "But you must help him a little too! My wife and I will clothe him and feed him, but we can't help him with school."
So it came about that in the summer of 1939 I often sat with Herr Scibarski in his small, dark, rented room while the other children were enjoying their vacation outdoors. I was cramming for the entrance examinations of the Torun upper school, and Herr Scibarski wouldn't take a zloty from my parents for it, although after all it was his vacation, too.
The entrance examination took place at the beginning of August. I hadn't shut an eye the whole night before, and that morning, pale and with sweaty palms, I slipped through the impressive gateway of the upper school for the first time. Inside there was a note chalked on an easel blackboard: ENTRANCE EXAMINATION IN DRAWING ROOM. I had no idea where the drawing room was, but I looked around curiously and saw a small group of pale boys going up one of the great staircases. Since there was no one else in the building, I just ran after them.
In the drawing room each person was seated at a table that was a good distance from the next table, so no one could whisper anything. I scarcely remember the faces of any of the other children now. It seemed to me that we all looked the same — at any rate anxiety about the examination had made us all into similarly mouse-gray, intimidated ghosts.
I also have no memory of what was actually on the test, though to this day I can still feel how sweaty my fingers were. I had trouble holding the pencil properly, and all my papers, when I finally handed them in, showed slight ripples from the dampness of my hands. By the end I hardly knew my name.
Of the following two weeks I know only that I went around in complete exhaustion. I kept doing my normal work, like carrying out newspapers and helping a gardener from whom I earned a little for our family, but I did it all numbly. Only thus can I explain how, in that hot summer of 1939, I didn't really take in what was happening all around me.
I awakened from this condition when, during the next-to-last week of August, I finally received the results of the examination. At first it was merely a relief that the time of waiting was over — gradually it also penetrated that I'd passed the exam and was admitted for the new school year.
Father and Mother and even my brother and sisters looked at me so proudly that I was almost a little ashamed.
"Just be glad, Stefan!" my father said to me. "One is certainly not a better person because of a better school. But perhaps one has it a little easier in life all the same. ..."
And Mother, who was usually anxious because of the lack of money, said in a firm voice, "Tomorrow we'll go to the tailor and order you a new school uniform. No one is going to see that you come from a poor family!"
Slowly I thawed out of my numbness. Most of all I rejoiced that my older brother, Mikolai, who really was a much more ambitious person than I was and unfortunately had not been recommended for higher schooling, was not at all hurt or jealous. One evening before we went to sleep, he came over to my bed, knelt down beside it, and laid a small envelope on my pillow.
"Here, take it — I'm already earning a bit of money, and you're going to stay a poor student for a while and can certainly use it!"
In the envelope were a few coins — no large sum, but still enough that I knew he'd had to work for it for almost a week.
"Thanks, Mikolai. I'll never forget this!"
He just thumped me gently on the shoulder. "I'm glad for you, really! You know I'd have loved to go on to school too, but in the last few weeks, sometimes I think these days it's better if a person's learns a trade."
Then he got up and went back to his own bed. In the dark I heard him lie down on the bed without pulling up the covers.
"Mikolai, what do you mean by 'these days'?" I softly called over to him.
"There's so much hate and tension in the world — lately, mainly between Germany and Poland. With big Germany to the west and the big Soviet Union to the east, we're a tiny country caught in the middle. I just hope the politicians will calm down and not carry out their threats."
My older brother rarely said so much at one time. I sensed that he'd come to his own conclusions about life, and suddenly I felt quite naive in my narrow-minded preparations for the upper school — it had become my entire world in the last weeks. I didn't suspect that in just a few days that world would no longer exist.
On August 30, 1939, two days before the beginning of the new school year, my school uniform arrived. The tailor was allowing my parents to pay off the suit in twenty-four monthly installments. Mother insisted that I try it on immediately. Happy and more relaxed than I'd ever seen her around "good clothes," she kept circling me and stroking the "wonderful fabric" on all sides.
"We absolutely must have a picture taken of Stefan on his first school day!" she said, turning to Father, who immediately and enthusiastically agreed.
"Yes, dear, but I've also wanted a picture of you for a long time, and our other children shouldn't be left out."
A brief, grave shadow slipped across Mother's face. Then it passed, and she laughed and said, "Only this one time, though!"
My first school day at the upper school never took place. Instead it passed into history. On September 1, 1939, we were still lying in our beds, unknowing, when north of our city of Torun, at the mouth of the Vistula — specifically, in the harbor of Danzig — the German ship Schleswig-Holstein fired on the Polish mainland without a declaration of war.
A few hours later the head of the German government, Adolf Hitler, the so-called Führer, announced on the radio: "Since five forty-five this morning we have been returning fire!" In so saying, he lied twice, but the first was probably out of plain ignorance. It was not at 5:45 A.M. but at 4:45 A.M. that the attack in Danzig harbor took place, for which he had given the secret order on the previous day at 12:40 P.M.
The second lie was deliberate: The Germans were mounting an attack, not a defense, as he implied with the words "returning fire." The Nazis themselves had supplied the pretext for the attack: During the night of August 31 there had been an armed attack on German border guards in Gleiwitz. After the war it came out that the attack had been staged by bandits hired by the Germans.
On this morning we were awakened not with the usual gentle shaking by our mother but by the droning of German heavy military aircraft thundering over our houses. Mikolai was first on his feet and stared out the wide-open window at the sky.
"Now it's started, Stefan!" he said softly to me as I stood beside him and saw how he tried to conceal his excitement with deep breathing in and out. His powerful rib cage rose and fell, but he never said another word all morning long.
But Mother was even more agitated. "What's going to happen now? Dear God, have people finally gone completely crazy?" At some point she remembered what we had planned for the day. "Well, that can't be helped — we have to go to the photographer today! Stefan, you go put on your new school uniform now!"
I looked inquiringly at Father. Silent and grave, he indicated that I should leave him alone with Mother for a little while. Shortly afterward we five children, who were all crouching in the next room, heard Mother sobbing aloud and Father's voice interposing, over and over, sharp and decisive. When they finally came out, Father said, "I'm going over to our neighbors' now. They have a radio, and I hope we'll soon know more details. Comfort your mother — excitement is out of place now."
Mother sat quietly on their bed and sniffled into a handkerchief.
Finally Father came back.
"War! It's actually war! The government has ordered all men to report immediately. There are 120,000 men being called up to defend Warsaw alone. I'm going to report to city hall today." Then he looked at Mikolai.
"I'll stay with Mother," Mikolai said very softly and seriously. He said it with such conviction that Father hesitated only a moment, then gave him his hand with unaccustomed solemnity: "Good, my boy. I can go in peace if I know that you're here!"
My new school uniform remained hanging in the closet that day. It also remained there for the following six weeks. In these weeks some 70,000 Poles died in the fighting. We had no news from Father the whole time. On September 17 the former Polish government fled abroad. They took with them the 116 air-force planes still remaining. Nevertheless many Polish soldiers kept on fighting till the beginning of October, because it was clear to everyone what would happen after the defeat. The last Polish units surrendered on October 6, 1939.
On the evening of October 6, Mother handed me my school uniform from the wardrobe, after carefully wrapping it in a swathe of brown paper.
"Stefan, Polish children are forbidden to attend all the higher schools, and their places are being given to German students. Run to the tailor and tell him the uniform is completely unworn. Since the Germans won't let you or any other Polish children go to school, we can't use this. Maybe he'll take it back and we'll just lose the first month's payment. ..."
Excerpted from Damned Strong Love by Lutz Van Dijk, Elizabeth D. Crawford. Copyright © 2015 Elizabeth D. Crawford. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
THE LAST SUMMER,
NIGHTS IN THE CITY,
THE SECRET SHED,
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE,
FLIGHT ACROSS THE RIVER,
I AM STEFAN K.,
NOTES ON THE STORY,