(The following is an excerpt from a longer work.)
I remember walking through the woods on the hill above the city, listening to morning traffic and wondering where I would be in ten or twenty years. The memory has been with me since I was eleven, and it reappears whenever I hear the wind in the trees and, sometimes, the sound of a car on a distant road. I see myself in navy-blue shorts, a white shirt and the strap of a schoolbag slung over one shoulder. I hurry along the path toward my eight o’clock class where, even now, I hear the bell, the voices and the scuffing of shoes on the wooden floor. We students slide into place at our desks and wait for our teacher to walk through the door. He wears a black robe and under his graying beard a two-flapped white collar. We stand: Bonjour cher frère. He leads us in prayer. We recite a Hail Mary, make the sign of the cross and sit down. A picture of the Virgin hangs on the wall above the desk, her bleeding heart transpierced by a sword.
It is the French lycée in Sofia, a school for boys run by Franciscans, junior high through college. One classmate, André Tarnowsky, the son of the Polish ambassador, speaks fluent French. His governess is French. Another classmate, Théophile Kelchinsky, is the son of the Polish cultural attaché. I remember Théo’s broad shoulders, red face and brown hair, cut short, straight up. André has blond hair, Hitler’s ideal. Théo wears black shorts that are too tight around the thighs, and he cries when his academic ranking fails to meet his expectations. Sometimes, when he is at the blackboard working on a math problem, cher frère switches a slender baton across a bear leg. There are now red marks on his calf, and tears running down his cheeks.
Berlin, August 22, 1939. Hitler says: I will kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of the Polish race. On September 1, he attacks Poland with one and a half million German soldiers. On September 17, Russia invades Poland from the East. October 5, the last remnants of the Polish army surrender.
The brightest student in our class is Julien. At the end of each week’s academic ranking he is always first. We line up next to him, all twenty-one of us. Alexei is last. He is taller than we are, and older, the son of a White Russian émigré. He does not know where his father is, and he worries about his mother because she is ill. One day, exulting, he says he is no longer a virgin. He and his girlfriend have done it. A smile creases the corners of his mouth and eyes. His ears wiggle.
Joseph, a brown-eyed boy, sits at the desk next to mine, on the right, in row four. We call him Jo. Jo and I look at each other with complicity because we want to displace Julien on the academic ladder. Week after week Jo places second and I third, or vice-versa. Julien, however, is always first, although sometimes Jo and I manage to outclass him. Then Julien gazes at us reproachfully, scolding us for the conspiracy that has dislodged him from the spot he considers rightfully his.
Jo and Julien are chubby, and neither is good at sports, nor are they interested, whereas the highlight for me is a game of soccer during the free period after lunch. I am the striker, and I know how to stay with the ball, almost on top of it, feint one way or the other, dribble to the right and to the left on the green grass, swivel, glide by a defender and kick a goal. Pure joy.
Except for Alexei, we are not interested in girls or politics and, for the moment, we are unaware of Hitler’s machinations. We have not heard of Kristallnacht–the first national German pogrom–or the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria that leaves 20,000 Jews stateless. They are expelled by Hungary in 1941, and become the victims of the first large-scale shooting of the Holocaust. We know that Germany has invaded Poland, and later, that France has fallen. We hear about the British humiliation at Dunkirk, but know nothing about the Vichy government’s collaboration with the German authorities, rounding up Jews and deporting them to death camps.
Closer to home, intimations of tragedy when Floyd Black, President of the American College, hires a German academic. Herr Professor Doctor Schneider and his wife arrive with their two children, Mariana and Borkhart. We call him Boka, and he joins our group. He introduces us to a new game–a carryover from the burning of the Reichstag in the early 1930s, the arson that was blamed on the communists. The game is Hitlerists versus communists. Lyubcho, my Bulgarian friend, likes to play oddball, and he wants to be a communist. He has a melodious voice and, when he is not running from the Hitlerists, he sings “I’ll take the high road.” So, Lyubcho is the communist, and we chase him to exhaustion, capture him and try him in a kangaroo court. We condemn him. When Poland falls in 1939, and France in 1940, the Schneiders leave for America because they believe that Hitler will invade the Balkans. We no longer play Boka’s game.
September 1, 1940. Théo says: The Germans are coming. André says: They are already here. That afternoon going home from school on my bicycle, I see them. First, the sidecar motorcycles, then the automobiles in camouflage paint, then the trucks with soldiers in the back, in rows, wearing gray-green uniforms. Their faces are covered with dust, a fine ocher dust from the roads and the distance they have traveled. The vehicles force my bicycle off the road into the ditch. I pick myself up. One wheel turns slowly. The next day Lyubcho and I see two German airplanes streaking across a blue sky. Never have we seen such speed. They fly over the wheat fields, and our eyes and ears adjust to the new sound–a roar that lags far behind the planes.
Soldiers are goose-stepping through the newsreels. The airwaves broadcast Hitler’s speeches. We hear many sieg heils and Deutschland Über Alles. The Führer’s voice exhorts the Folk to work for the Fatherland: Germany is an organism, and there has been an invasion of the body politic by bacteria, viruses and parasites. There is a disease in our midst–a cancer that must be excised. I am the doctor of the German people and I will save the nation. I will prevent it from dying.
Despite the arrival of German soldiers in Sofia, Ambassador George H. Earle, head of the American Legation, remains at his post. He is the former governor of Pennsylvania. His private plane and pet cheetah are the talk of the capital. He has an aura about him, and my classmates marvel at his swashbuckling style. They say he is a rich man, like Clark Gable or Gary Cooper– legendary figures–Americans. The ambassador has two sons, my age, and they are staying at the Hotel Bulgaria. I visit them sometimes after school, and we sit by the open window on the second floor eating bonbons. Stan, the older brother, throws a chocolate out the window. It bounces off the hat of a man on the sidewalk below. He looks up. We hide behind the curtain.
That evening in the Hotel Bulgaria nightclub the band plays Alexander’s Rag Time. A German general and four Nazi officers come in and sit down. They order drinks. The lights glow dimly through a blue haze of cigarette smoke. Glasses clink. The general says something to one of the officers. He gets up and weaves his way around the tables toward the bandstand. He says something to the bandleader. The band stops playing Rag Time, and plays Deutschland Über Alles. Ambassador Earl gets up from his table and walks to the bandstand. He gives the bandleader one thousand leva to play The Star-Spangled Banner. Deutschland stops, the general stands, clicks his heels and salutes: Heil Hitler. The ambassador mumbles an obscenity and returns to his table. The band is now playing the American National Anthem. The general stands, approaches the bandleader and orders him, once again, to play Deutschland. Again, the ambassador bribes the leader of the band to play The Star-Spangled Banner. The general walks across the room and slaps the ambassador on the face with his black glove. Ambassador Earle says: Fuck you. The two men exchange blows as partisans from each side shout invectives. A melee follows. A glass flies through the air, chairs are overturned, fists fly. A German officer hits the ambassador on the arm with a bottle of champagne. The ambassador swings around and punches the general. Policemen arrive, blow whistles and break up the fight. The band plays The Stars and Stripes Forever.
By Ben Stoltzfus