The Nazis have forced Natia and Teodor from their Polish farm to a labor camp. Separated, Natia is chosen to be the housekeeper for the camp's overseer, and her husband Teodor is sent to work in the factory. Despite the strict camp rulesand the consequences for disobeying themNatia finds a way to communicate with Teodor by sending messages through song as she passes Teodor's dormitory.
But then Natia finds a Jewish orphan on the overseer's doorstep. She is determined to protect the boy and raise him as the child she and her husband were unable to bearbut if her German captors discover how much she's hiding, both she and Teodor may pay the ultimate price.
About the Author
Liz Tolsma’s specialty is historical fictionfrom WWII to prairie romance. Her debut novel was a finalist for the 2014 Selah and Carol Award. She prides herself in excellent storytelling, presenting accurate historical details, and creating persevering characters.
Liz is also a popular speaker on topics such as writing, marriage, living with courage, and adoption. She and her husband have adopted all their children internationally. Liz resides in semi-rural Wisconsin with her husband and two daughters; her son currently serves as a U.S. Marine. Liz is a breast cancer survivor and lives her life to the fullest. In her free time, she enjoys reading, working in her large perennial garden, kayaking, and camping with her family.
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Central Poland, Early Spring 1943
Pain ripped through Natia Palinska's midsection. She grasped the bedcovers as another contraction gripped her and stole her breath. "Nie, nie."
Her husband, Teodor, smoothed her hair from her damp forehead, his fingers calloused. "Moje slonce, it will be all right, my sunshine. Just hang on. Please, let me fetch a doctor."
She released the sheet and grasped him by the elbow. "Don't leave me. Our baby ..." Her heart pounded. She had failed him again.
"It's too soon. Not another one gone." The pain in her heart was greater than that in her abdomen. This time, she'd held on to the pregnancy longer. This time, their child had moved within her.
The contraction ended. She sucked in a deep breath.
"You need a doctor. You're bleeding so much." His voice cracked.
She did this to him. Caused him this sorrow. Tears blurred her vision. "What doctor? The Germans took them all."
"Then the babka at least. She'll know what to do. This delivery is different." He gripped her hand until he almost crushed it.
"Don't go. Please. What if I need you? I'll be alone." The back of her throat burned. If only Mama were here.
He caressed her cheek. "Pani Nowakowa is right down the road. I'll be back in less than five minutes."
Another pain racked her body. She returned Teodor's crushing grasp. If only the Lord would make it stop. The agony in her body. The agony in her soul.
She focused on breathing until the physical anguish passed. "Go, go. Before another pain comes."
Teodor kissed her brow and hurried from the small bedroom, the scent of the fresh outdoors lingering behind him. She stared at the small crucifix on the wall at the foot of the bed as she smoothed down the soft cotton sheet, hot tears racing down her face. "It's not fair, Lord. Do you hear me? It's not fair." The words tore from her, and she wrenched the sheets. "Why are you ripping this child from me? From us? Teodor hasn't done anything wrong. He doesn't deserve such a terrible thing. And neither do I. Please, please, just make it stop. Save our little one. That's all I want. All I have ever wanted."
Sobs consumed her, every bit as breath stealing as the labor pains. She fought for control as her abdomen tightened. Where were they? She needed her husband. She couldn't do this without him. Only his presence would give her the strength to continue.
The click of the door announced Teodor and Pani Nowakowa's arrival as another full-blown contraction hit. The floor creaked, and the two of them stood on the bedroom's threshold.
The stooped and wrinkled babka shooed Teodor from the room. "You stay outside."
"Nie. I want him here."
"The birth room is no place for a man." Pani Nowakowa lumbered to the bedside, turning sideways in the narrow passage between the bed and the wall. "There now, my dear, remember God is in control. He is the one you want."
Natia nodded. That was the truth, her head told her. But her heart, her soul, said something different. How could God have ordained this for them, all the hardships of these last few years?
Once the pain passed, Pani Nowakowa examined her. "You're almost there. Soon, you will remember your discomfort no more."
Nie, this agony would stay with her for the rest of her life. Just like twice before. Her heart hadn't healed then. This wouldn't be different. "Ah!" How could something so small hurt so much?
The tiny life slipped from her body.
At least not from the child.
"It's a boy. Too young to survive." Pani Nowakowa wrapped Natia's son in a towel and rubbed him. He didn't respond. Didn't squall. Oh, what Natia would give for even one tiny cry from him.
"All right, dear, let's finish up. You've had a rough go of it. You need your rest."
A short while later, with the bleeding stopped, fresh sheets, and a soft, clean nightgown, Pani Nowakowa handed Natia her child. A wisp of light hair, like his father's. Fists curled, fingers complete with the littlest of nails. She stroked his fragile, cold skin. If not for his blue tinge, she would think him just sleeping. So very, very small. Yet so very, very perfect.
Why did she have to lose him?
The babka opened the door and motioned for Teodor to enter before she slipped away.
"See our son." Natia held him out to her husband. "He's perfect."
Teodor's hands shook as he cradled the stillborn. "Beautiful. He looks so much like you."
"Nie. Like you." The lump in her throat swelled until it all but cut off her breath. "I'm sorry. I can't give you a child."
He leaned over and whispered in her hair, "At least I have you and we're together. That's all that matters." Yet his voice was husky, and moisture gathered in his eyes.
* * *
Teodor sat on their bed beside Natia, who held the body of their son. A thin, colorful quilt covered her skinny legs. Light streamed into the bedroom window, over Reverend Jankowski's shoulder, and illuminated the baby's face. The once-retired pastor sprinkled water over the child's forehead. "In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I baptize you Andrzej Ludwik Palinski."
Teodor's heart clenched at the words. At the stillness of his son. His hands shook as he wiped the moisture from Andrzej's eyes with a handkerchief and then dabbed Natia's tears.
"He is in heaven. His suffering is over." Pastor Jankowski rubbed Teodor's shoulder.
Natia gave a small, single nod.
Teodor swallowed hard. "Thank you, Reverend. We cling to the Lord's goodness in such times as these." The right words to say, but did he believe them? They'd had so much pain and suffering. This would be their third little mound on the hill.
What if the Germans hadn't killed their village doctor at the beginning of the war? Would this child have survived if he had medical care? Teodor fisted his hands.
With trembling, age-spotted fingers, the good reverend capped the bottle of baptismal water with a clink. "Such faith like that will sustain you. It's all we have these days. Let me know if there is anything I can do. The church is always open for prayer, and I would be happy to share words of comfort."
Natia kissed their son's damp forehead. "You have been good to us, Pastor. We're in your debt."
"Nonsense. That is what the Lord has called me to do." He made the sign of the cross and then showed himself to the door.
"Let me take him now." Teodor held out his hands, and Natia placed the tiny, lightweight child in his arms. If not for the Nazis, this child might have lived.
She was pale, her green eyes shimmering with unshed tears. "What might he have grown up to be? What would his life have looked like?"
Teodor closed his eyes, trying to imagine this little, still boy bursting with life and exuberance. "He would have climbed every tree in the village, come home wet every evening after playing in the creek, and would have snatched every kolaczki cookie you baked."
Natia sniffed. "He would have followed you everywhere. He would have helped you in the fields and would have milked the cow. With him around, you wouldn't have to work so hard."
He opened his eyes and rubbed his wife's soft hand, his eyes burning. "You work hard too. Maybe God will grant us a girl to help you in the kitchen and around the house."
"I can't go through this again. Three times we've lost a child. Two little markers in the field, and soon another one. My heart can't endure another loss." She stroked her still-swollen belly.
His heart couldn't take much more either. Her soft eyes, the downturn of her mouth almost undid him. How could he have prevented this? She did work too much. He should have helped her more around the house and lightened her load.
Natia bit her full, red lips. "And I'm about to suffer another loss when that German family comes from Ukraine and takes over Tata's farm."
Lebensraum. Living space for the Germans, colonists who would push out and enslave the native Slavs.
By all outward appearances, the Lord had forsaken them. Taken their children and their food. They had to produce more and more to stay alive. Made it impossible for him to care for his family. Now they were about to take their farm. Their livelihood. The letter from the Germans lay unopened on the cracked and faded kitchen counter. He didn't have to read the contents to know what it said. But he couldn't tell her.
"Teodor?" She touched the back of his hand, and a tingle raced up his arm.
"You grew so quiet. What's wrong?"
"Nothing." Everything. He stared at his son's flawless, tiny face. Soon, they would have to leave this child and their others behind. But how did he tell her?
Now was not the time. That much he knew. She would need to prepare to leave their home, the only place they'd ever known, but first, she needed to heal, both in body and spirit.
He scrubbed his face as heat built in his chest.
When the Nazis forced them out, would they ever come home?
* * *
The rolling hills spread out in front of Teodor, the expansive sky blue above him, a tree line in the distance. From across the adjoining farm fields, Teodor's father-in-law, Filip Gorecki, waved at him as he picked his way over rough clumps of dirt, sturdy work boots on his feet, a gray cap covering his dark, curly hair.
Teodor waved back and trod over the furrows, the stubble of last year's rye crop rubbing against his brown wool pants. Though the weather had warmed and tiny green sprouts burst from the soil, he hadn't plowed under his fields. There was no point. A weight pressed on his chest. He shook his head to clear away his thoughts and met Filip halfway between their small houses. "Good morning to you."
"Good morning, Teodor." Filip clapped him on the shoulder. "How are you and Natia doing?" He glanced at the three crosses on the hill. His grandchildren. He held up a basket covered with a white napkin. "Helena made some sausage and cabbage soup to help Natia regain her strength."
Teodor took the rustic woven basket, the spice of the sausage tickling his nose. "Dzieki. Natia will like to taste it and see how her sister is coming along as a cook."
"How is she holding up?"
"For two days now, she just lies in bed and stares at the wall."
"Natia's a strong woman, just like my Berta." Filip stared beyond Teodor and into the past. "We lost two children between Natia and Helena. Each time, Berta pulled herself from bed and returned to her life. God was her strength. Even when the cancer ravaged her body, she was the strongest woman I knew. Natia is much like her." Filip shook his head. "What about you?"
"It never gets easier. I thought maybe this time ..." Teodor sucked in a steadying breath and rubbed his rough cheek. How long had it been since he shaved?
The older man stroked his graying mustache. "You look like the horse trampled you."
"I haven't slept much. My mind replays what I could have done differently."
"Don't blame yourself. You're still young. You never know what the Lord has in store."
"Especially these days. How are the preparations for your departure going?"
Filip's features sank, as if he grew a year older with each passing second. "How are we supposed to pack up and leave everything we know and love? I was born on this farm. I brought my new bride here, and she gave birth to our children here. And here I buried her. Now, because the Nazis don't like us, they force us from our homes and into camps."
"I understand." Teodor glanced at the cemetery at the end of the field. "We got our notices the day the baby came. We leave with you."
"Oh, Teodor. How awful. This surely isn't helping Natia."
"I haven't told her."
"You can't put it off."
"How can I deal her this blow when she is in mourning? Right now, she can't handle the news." Right now, he can't handle it. Loss piled on top of loss and threatened to rip him open. How could he walk away from the land that cradled his children?
"The German settlers will arrive no matter what. Give her time to say good-bye."
"I'm worried about her fragile nerves." If he couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, what about his wife? She would shatter, and he wouldn't be able to pick up the pieces. She'd never survive the camp.
"I understand. You'll have to be gentle, but you must tell her. Either you go peacefully, or they force you out. That would be much worse."
"The trauma of not being able to say her farewells might be her undoing. But why now? Why not after she's healed?" As if the wounds from the loss of each child would ever scab over for either of them.
"It's never convenient to leave the only life you've ever known."
Teodor forced himself to breathe in and out. Their tiny blue stucco house lay behind him. In front of him stretched their few acres of farmland where they grew potatoes, beets, and cabbage. The small, red barn stood empty to his left. Not much, but it was theirs.
"If I can do anything, let me know." Filip's voice was husky.
How much worse for him to leave, an old man with two younger children at home. "If only I could stay on my farm." He would go to any lengths to spare Natia the pain of leaving.
"You could if you signed the Volksdeutsche paper stating you're willing to denounce your Polish roots and become Germanized."
"Never. That equals betrayal of our nation, the highest form of treason. I love Poland and would give my life to protect her. I cannot turn my back on her."
"Not even for your wife?"
Teodor strode in a circle, kicking at stones. Could he do that to shield Natia and save their home? "It goes against all I've ever believed. And everyone in Piosenka would hate me. In doing so, I would make myself and my wife outcasts."
"I'm not sure there will be many Poles left here soon."
"And I doubt the ethnic Germans would accept us. In the end, we would lose all we've worked for anyway. Not even for Natia could I sign that paper. We must be willing to suffer to remain loyal to Poland."
Filip stared at the brown earth for a long while and then sighed. "I'll send Helena over later to sit with Natia. Heart wrenching as it is, she'll come out on the other side."
A small smile tugged at Teodor's lips. "And as stubborn as the winter's snows. But two blows in quick succession could be too much for her."
"I'll pray the Lord will give you the right words to say at the right time."
The men parted, and Teodor carried the basket with the soup back to the house. He entered the cool interior and pulled off his heavy dark-brown wool coat, his eyes needing several seconds to adjust to the dimness. "Natia, look what Helena made for us. Some cabbage soup, according to your father. It smells delicious. She didn't burn it this time." At the enticing aroma, his stomach rumbled.
After a few moments, Natia shuffled from the bedroom, still in her housecoat, her brown hair disheveled, a curl over one eye. "Do you want me to heat it for your lunch?" Dark half-moons underscored her green eyes.
"Nie, you sit down. I'll warm it." He moved about the kitchen, so small that a few steps took him from the door to the little stove on the far side of the room. Within moments, heat bathed them, and the sweet aroma of sausage filled the air. Teodor sat beside her while they waited for it to warm. "I'm glad to see you up."
"I want to stay in bed forever. But I can't. There are chores to be done. You'll be planting soon."
"You're remarkable." He rubbed her shoulder.
"Like Mama. Life hit her hard, but until her final illness, she always got back up. I also know there is something you are keeping from me."
He shook his head, probably more than necessary.
"You're not sleeping. In the middle of the night, I hear you pacing. You tread on that squeaky floorboard in front of the sink."
"If Poland ever needs spies, I'll give them your name."
A brief flash of amusement lit her eyes and then faded like the sunset. "What is it?"
"There is time. Right now, you concentrate on getting your health back, and let me do the worrying."
"So whatever you have to tell me isn't good?"
He should have his tongue cut from his mouth for not watching his words. "Don't press me." He rose and stirred the thick soup.
She came behind him and wrapped him in an embrace. Her touch was warm. He should be comforting her, but instead, she did the soothing. "Please, tell me. Don't leave me to wonder."
His stomach fluttered, and not from hunger. "Your family is almost ready to leave. Tata told me they have packed what they could and given away what they couldn't." He was a coward for not saying the words, but maybe she would catch his meaning and he wouldn't have to utter them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "When the Heart Sings"
Copyright © 2018 Christine Cain.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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