Southern France, 1942
In a remote corner of France, Jewish refugee Ella Rosenthal has finally found a safe haven. It has been three years since she and her little sister, Hanni, left their parents to flee Nazi Germany, and they have been pursued and adrift in the chaos of war ever since. Now, they shelter among one hundred other young refugees in a derelict castle overseen by the Swiss Red Cross.
Swiss volunteers Rösli Näf and Anne-Marie Piguet uphold a common mission: to protect children in peril. Rösli, a stubborn and resourceful nurse, directs the colony of Château de la Hille, and has created a thriving community against all odds. Anne-Marie, raised by Swiss foresters, becomes both caretaker and friend to the children, and she vows to do whatever is necessary to keep them safe.
However, when Germany invades southern France, safeguarding Jewish refugees becomes impossible. Château de la Hille faces unrelenting danger, and Rösli and Anne-Marie realize that the only way to protect the eldest of their charges is to smuggle them out of France. Relying on Rösli's fierce will and Anne-Marie's knowledge of secret mountain paths, they plot escape routes through vast Nazi-occupied territory to the distant border. Amid staggering risk, Ella and Hanni embark on a journey that, if successful, could change the course of their lives and grant them a future.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Château de la Hille, Southern France, August 1942
Rösli stood upright, a hammock of green beans weighting her apron, and filled her lungs with bright morning air. She'd been working in the garden since breakfast, but now she paused, stretching her lower back and assessing the tidy patch of vegetables painstakingly maintained in the château's shadow. Nearby, a handful of little girls and boys crouched in the speckled shade of trellises, snapping beans off vines and chatting as they filled baskets. Despite this rainless summer, the garden thrived. Rösli smiled. Nothing satisfied her more than watching the children wade among its loamy, leafy rows.
So much had changed in just one year.
She squinted in the sunlight, thinking of the day she'd arrived in France, newly appointed by the Swiss Red Cross to take over this colony of one hundred refugee children. That first afternoon, she'd faced a wary, wide-eyed crowd, fearing she wasn't up to the task. It was difficult, at first, to tell the boys from the girls: their heads were shorn, and from the general odor of kerosene, Rösli knew they'd suffered one lice infestation after another. They were thin as saplings, with open, weeping boils on their arms and legs. What had they been through? Could Rösli restore them to some level of well-being? Misgivings murmured, but she'd silenced them and gripped hands with the few adult caretakers, organizing a mental task list. She'd said she would manage this refugee colony, and so she would.
"Where is your garden?" she'd demanded following introductions, glancing at the building behind them. At the time, the group lived in an old granary barn. They'd left Germany and Austria after Kristallnacht, propelled into Belgium by their desperate parents, and had been fleeing invasions ever since. Eventually they'd washed up in France, sleeping on hay and eating cornmeal and rotten potatoes until one of the adults contacted the Red Cross for support. The colony came under Swiss care, and Ršsli found herself standing before them.
"Our garden?" The adults had swapped glances, thrown off by her question.
"Yes," she'd said, frustration slipping into her voice. "Where is it?" She'd known, instantly, what was wrong with the children's skin: a diet lacking in green vegetables. When it became apparent that no garden existed, Rösli had cast about that desolate barnyard, seeking someone to reprimand, and then she'd sighed. She would have to change everything. The children had blinked up at their new directrice from the Swiss Red Cross, stunned, and she had merely turned and gone looking for a hoe.
Rösli shook away her memories of the previous summer, letting her gaze rise to the derelict castle they now called home. La Hille rested like an old gentleman in the sun, sand colored and guarded by medieval towers on each of its four corners. The Red Cross had rented it shortly after discovering the children struggling in their granary barn, and Rösli recruited the teenagers to make the neglected château habitable. They'd tilled the earth within the stone-walled courtyard, piling compost into muddy furrows and planting seeds. With hammers and donated wood, they'd built benches and tables, arranging them alongside the garden for summer meals, and moving them into a dining hall with parquet floors and a fireplace when the weather turned. Upstairs, each child slept in a real cot with bedding shipped over from Switzerland. They'd transformed La Hille in a single season, and within its ancient walls the children thrived.
Beyond the castle, rumpled green foothills rolled all the way south to the Pyrénées. Mist rose from their crevices, evaporating into a peerless blue sky. Somewhere in the forest, the voices of a dozen boys rebounded now and again as they tramped down to the river to bathe. Rösli pinched back a smile. Everyone called those boys les Moyens, the Middles, and they were as noisy and dirty as bear cubs no matter how often she sent them off to collect wood and swim.
The younger children, les Petits, flocked around Rösli in the courtyard. Most were still finishing morning chores, plucking weeds and filling baskets as they'd been asked to. A few played, and again Rösli suppressed a smile. The warm breeze loosened wisps of hair from her bun, tickling her face. She combed the blond strands back with her soil-stained fingers, watching the two youngest children race through tall grass just outside the garden walls. Little Hanni chased and Antoinette ran, passing the open gates. Seed heads whipped their knees as they darted back and forth, then Hanni caught Antoinette and they fell together, bare feet in the air, laughter rising toward the sun.
"Du bist so langsam," Hanni exclaimed, pushing up onto her elbows, her dark eyes lively as she teased her friend.
Rösli glanced toward the sun, already high overhead and growing hotter. It would soon be time for lunch. They had to finish the work.
"Children!" she called, waving a hand toward those who'd strayed from their chores. "Come and finish your jobs, please. Free time isn't until afternoon."
But Hanni and Antoinette continued to giggle in the grass, knees up, sun on their faces, and Ršsli frowned. As much as she wanted to, she couldn't let them skip their chores. What would happen if other children followed suit, questioning their schedule, shirking responsibilities? If everyone didn't chip in, the community would fall apart, descending into disorder, like it obviously had in that foul granary barn.
She called out again, louder this time. "Hanni! Antoinette!" Clutching the green beans in her apron, she made her way through the courtyard gates, striding into the tall grass beyond. She sensed a pair of dark eyes, the same limitless brown as Hanni's, following her from a bench in the shadow of the château. She hadn't noticed Ella there earlier, patching faded clothes with a needle and thread, her ever-present sketchbook by her hip. But the girl was like that; she often drifted from the other teenagers, settling on the fringes with a solitary chore, her eyes on her sister.
"Hanni and Antoinette," Rösli said as her shadow fell over them. "If you don't come back to the garden, I'll have to double your chores tomorrow."
Antoinette scrambled to her feet, but Hanni gazed up from the grass, her eyes round and dark as chestnuts. She shook her head, chopped hair swinging. "No, Mademoiselle Näf. I want to finish our game."
No? Irritation pinched inside Rösli's chest, but she made an effort to remain patient. It wasn't her strong suit. "Don't be stubborn, Hanni. Now, go and finish in the garden."
"I don't want to," Hanni countered. Antoinette looked at the grass between her toes, taking a cautious step back, but Hanni held Rösli's stare. She was so tiny in her Red Cross dress, the cotton sleeves hanging like bells over her skinny, sunbrowned arms. But there was something fierce in her eyes.
Rösli puffed air from her lips, exasperated. "If you don't hustle into the garden, you'll scrub pots for Frau Schlesinger after lunch. And after dinner, too-"
Rösli spun around to find Ella striding over, her narrow shoulders back, glaring. Rösli wanted to sigh, but she held it in. Showing frustration would get her nowhere with les Grands, the teenagers. She'd yet to figure out what would inspire their allegiance, however. There were over forty at the château, and most of them chafed at her, just as her peers had when she was an adolescent herself. It stung, but she'd never let them know it.
"Yes, Hanni's seven," Rösli repeated when Ella stepped into the space between her and the little girls. "And she needs to do her share. We all must do our part to keep our community strong."
Ella's jaw hardened. "Our community." She said the word with derision, as if community were a myth nobody believed in anymore. A breeze whipped up, blowing Ella's bobbed hair into her face. She swiped it away, maintaining her glare, and Rösli straightened in defense. With her freckle-dusted cheekbones and wide brown eyes, Ella looked so much like her younger sister-but their personalities couldn't be more different. Ella, pretty and slight for a seventeen-year-old, was normally quiet, even compliant, while Hanni seemed driven by spirit alone.
"All you care about is this garden, this place." Ella gestured toward the château. "It's all rules and chores-"
"How do you think food appears on your plate every day?"
"You should care about us," Ella persisted, color flushing her cheeks as her voice climbed. "Hanni and I haven't had a letter from our parents all summer. We don't even know what's happened to them, if they're still in Germany, or . . ." She glanced at her sister as if momentarily sorry, and Hanni's unblinking gaze dropped to the grass. But Ella went on, undeterred. "Let her play. The world's collapsing, Mademoiselle Näf. Germany will soon control all of Europe. I'm sure of it now. Where will we go? Nobody wants us. Not Germany, not France. We have nobody."
"You have me-"
"Don't you see that our hearts are breaking?" Ella's voice cracked and she looked Ršsli right in the eyes, searchingly. "You know nothing about what kids actually need."
Rösli froze as if she'd been slapped. Doubt welled in her chest while she fought back a rise of questions. She wasn't good with feelings, it was true. But how could anyone tend invisible, broken hearts? That puzzle was beyond her. So she checked the long rows of beds each morning, ensuring they were made. She checked that the rooms were tidy, that the children had completed their tasks, that they met expectations. Was Ella right? Had Rösli gone about this all wrong? She'd drawn on her experience as a nurse, working in places more challenging even than wartime France. Rules had worked when she served a hospital in Africa, hadn't they? And they had worked here. The children were no longer malnourished. They were no longer listless. They had schedules, chores, lessons, and food from their own gardens at every meal. And yet, the teenagers despised her.
"That's enough," Rösli declared, squaring her shoulders. Doubt and anger would serve nobody. "If your sister or anyone else doesn't contribute, they will face consequences. That's the rule, and I don't want it questioned." She tried to erase the unease from her face. She didn't need to be liked here. In all her thirty-one years she'd never been liked much, anywhere. Respect was far more potent. "Do you understand me?"
Ella blinked the shine from her eyes, but she didn't move a muscle. Rösli stood her ground, too, still clutching the hammock of green beans in her apron. Despite the way she'd hardened her rhetoric, she felt momentarily awkward; too tall, all elbows and shoulders and flyaway hair. A familiar sensation washed over her-that she was missing something, that invisible something that hung in the air between people.
A noise echoed faintly over the trees, halting whatever Ella might have said. The girl's frown softened as she cocked her head, listening. The anger fell away from her eyes, replaced with a question.
Rösli held her breath, trying to make out the sound. Yes. It was an engine, still far away. She gripped the bundle of green beans with one hand and used the other to loosen the apron's knot at the small of her back. "Here," she said breathlessly, lifting the apron over her head and handing the bundle of beans to the girl. "Take these to Frau Schlesinger in the kitchen. I'll intercept whoever's coming." Rösli pivoted without waiting for a response, glancing at the rest of the children in the courtyard. They'd all stilled instinctively, listening to the sound of the distant engine. "Children," she called out, "go inside, please. Wash up and help Frau Schlesinger prepare for lunch."
She didn't have to say more. The children stood, dusting their knees and hoisting vegetables in their dresses and baskets. They clumped from the garden in their wooden clogs and bare feet, moving toward the heavy doors of the medieval building that had become their home. Rösli exhaled. They were used to following orders, mostly.
She set off for the narrow dirt road leading away from the château. She trotted briskly, stretching her long gait, until she was around a curve and could only see La Hille between gaps in the trees. The sound of the engine grew, ricocheting off distant hills and stone canyons and close banks of trees as it neared.
Rösli waited in the road at the hem of the property, branches whispering overhead, her heart accelerating. There wasn't anything to fear, really. What could anyone want with a derelict castle full of refugee children, after all? And it could be a friend in the car. Maurice Dubois, perhaps, who ran several children's homes like La Hille for the Swiss Red Cross. She warmed at the thought of him, a charismatic man who sometimes drove down from his office in Toulouse, visiting them in the wilds like a benevolent godfather.
But as the vehicle rounded a bend in the road, the knot in her stomach tightened. It was as she suspected. A police car bumped toward her, grinding to a stop where she blocked its way, hands on her hips, buffeted by a wave of dust as the engine died out.
Lieutenant Danielle stepped from the car, and Ršsli remained planted where she was.
"Mademoiselle Näf, isn't that a strange place to stand-the middle of the road?"
"Directrice Näf, please. What's strange is that you continue to visit without an invitation," she countered, pursing her lips. She kept her hands on her hips as the gendarme approached. He was a head shorter than her, and he looked up with what she felt was an irredeemably unlikable face. He had big, pale eyes with dark pouches under them, as if instead of sleeping he drank every night away. A thin mustache crawled across his lip like a centipede.
"Police don't need invitations, mademoiselle. Why don't we go on up to La Hille to discuss the reason for my visit, oui? You might offer me something to drink. Some of that Swiss food and a little hospitality."
"Whatever food we have is for the children," Rösli said. "Not for well-fed gendarmes."
"Ah. While our own French children go hungry? I simply cannot understand why you Swiss would rather help foreign Jews than the many French children whose fathers-"
"We help plenty of French children, too, and you know it. The Swiss Red Cross-"
"The Swiss Red Cross is operating on our soil, mademoiselle. As I see it, that compels you to comply with our ordinances."
"I've complied with every ordinance."
"Très bien!" Without breaking eye contact, he smiled and untucked a pad of paper from under his armpit. "Then you won't mind providing an updated list. Once again, s’il vous plait. Name all foreign Jews over the age of sixteen residing in your residence, and I'll confirm the accuracy of my list, oui?" He smiled with false cheer, as if he were the teacher and she were his student.