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"Werner, Werner Berlinger,” called Frau Schutz, matron of the orphanage.
“Uh oh,” Werner muttered to his friends.
It was late August. Rain had fallen for three straight days. The grey skies and chill in the air meant winter was not far off. Their bones ached from being inside all day and doing nothing. The boys had lapped up some thin gruel for breakfast. Then they had started playing checkers, with Werner winning as usual.
He wondered why Frau Schutz was calling his name. Was it because the night before he had snuck into the kitchen? Had someone snitched on him? He glanced around at his buddies, Victor,Sammel, Lutz and Mandel. Not one of them, surely.
Punishment at that orphanage was no joke. Frau Schutz made the children stand in a dark closet for hours or miss dinner. Missing out on food was worse than standing in the dark. Though even when they ate, it wasn’t much. Some watery soup and a little stale crummy bread, the kind the baker throws out if he can’t sell it.
Germany’s ruler, Adolf Hitler, had made his opinion clear. The more Jewish orphans (or sick or blind or aged or handicapped people) that starved to death, the better. So children in the orphanage were hungry all the time. Werner didn’t remember one day or one hour of one day when his stomach wasn’t growling. Often he got in trouble for stealing food – a piece of wormy cheese or fatty meat. Not worth stealing unless you’re starving.
He strolled over to Frau Schutz, trying to seem bold but expecting the worse. She surprised him. “Your father has written,” she said. “He instructs me to send you home.”
Werner’s mouth dropped open. He stared at her like a little kid, not a scrawny twelve year old. Home? Home? He was finally going home?
He glanced down the hallway at his gang of friends. Most kids at the orphanage didn’t have a parent but he did. And he had wanted – dreamed – of this news for a whole year.
“It is good your father wants you home, Werner,” Frau Schutz said. “You know the way, don’t you?”
He nodded. She wasn’t a bad person, he thought, just worn out, like a coin that’s been passed around too long. She didn’t like to punish the boys for stealing food, but there wasn’t enough for everyone and no child could get extra.
Werner stumbled down the hall, barely glancing at his friends. Still, they followed as he entered the long narrow room where their cots stood in a row. He knelt and reached underneath for the small wooden box with his things. Hands trembling, he took out the contents – a pencil, a little notebook and a precious photograph of his mother. Her soft round face and gentle eyes smiled up at him as always. The picture was smudged from the many tears that had splashed on the fading print in the years since she had died. He carefully put the picture in his pocket, then dumped the other stuff and a few clothes into a worn knapsack
“Yagoingsome place?” asked LutzChaimenin a squeaky voice. Just a little guy, he wanted to go too.
“Home,” Werner muttered, without looking up. He didn’t want to see the envy in the small boy’s eyes.
A minute later, ready to leave, he gave Lutz a squeeze, feeling the sharp bones beneath his skin. Victor,Sammeland Mandel were closer to his age, so he just nodded to them, not sure what to say. The boys had shared so many moments haunted by hunger and loneliness, they were like brothers in a ghost family.
“You’re notgonnafinish the game?” Lutz trailed him down the dim hallway to the heavy front door.
“Nah, not today.” Werner paused and reached deep into his pocket. Months ago, he had discovered a large green and black marble in the dirt at the corner of the playground. He hadn’t told a soul, fearing it would be stolen. Now he handed the marble to Lutz, glad to see a smile flash across the youngster’s face.
A few minutes later, he was running down the road away from the orphanage. He didn’t glance back, but murmured a quick prayer. Please, God, please, help Lutz and the other boys get out too.
Then he recalled how he had gotten to that dismal place.
Reading Group Guide
It is a fact that approximately 1400 unaccompanied children came to theUnited Statesduring the years 1934 to 1941. These children fromGermany,Austria, andCzechoslovakiawere fleeing the Nazi regime. It is also a fact that many of these children became teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers. One even became a rock star and another a Nobel Prize winner. What is little known is how these children reacted to being forced to leave their parents and family behind and to grow up in theUnited States, in many cases never to see one or both parents again. On the one hand, there was little that they could do to control their lives until they reachedAmerica’s shores On the other hand, once they had arrived here, they were pretty much on their own and that’s the basis for the fascinating tale spun by RosemaryZibartinForced Journey.
It is a challenging task, considering the range of ages and backgrounds of these young boys and girls, to distill their stories into the saga of Werner Berlinger, but Ms.Zibarthas done so with empathy and understanding. It is not only an interesting read but there were many times in the story when I felt that what happened to Werner was what had happened to me.
One Thousand Children