By John Means
The “Sieg Heil” salute began, louder and more orchestrated than the previous impromptu chants–each repetition rumbling through the stadium structure like thunder claps. Echoes reverberated in between the chants, as if some god of the earth or the sky was working with us. With them, I mean.
Now practiced actors, we stood and joined—the performance which kept us safe. After what seemed a quarter of an hour, the chant gradually subsided, but with isolated pockets continuing here and there.
Hitler stood, waiting, a tiny figure, a speck in the distance, but his waiting was having its effect. Over several minutes the shouts gradually died off until the entire stadium was obediently hushed into silence. Still he waited. No one moved, not a whisper or even a cough in the entire stadium. It became just Hitler and me. Then he began.
When I heard his first words coming through the loud speakers, I did not immediately recognize their meanings because they seemed to be in the tongue of a supernatural power. It was only a momentary sensation, and then I was able to understand, but I will never forget the strangeness of those few moments (or were they even moments at all?) when I heard that other-worldly voice.
As he built into a rhythm of statements, I began to think that I had never heard such a human voice. It sounded like a trumpet, an artificially amplified one, giving orders in staccato. I had heard his voice on radio, but here it seemed to have no substance but command.
We all sat mesmerized, as if dead. We all sat motionless, as one. Ira, Simon, Nahum, Reb Benjamin, Father and I were no longer Jews. We were passive beings with no identity, like all the others.
I tried to listen to the content of his speech. “There are times in the history of nations when a decisive moment arrives. The coming election is a time to decide between a Germany divided by classes, parties, and religions; and a Germany of one will. The unemployment and misery of the last thirteen years have led to thirty political parties—all lined up against one another.” He then referred to paying a billion marks for a loaf of bread after the French and Belgians invaded and occupied the Ruhr in 1923. And we had to pay reparations. Reparations!
Was he suggesting, I wondered, that Germany should go to war against France and Belgium again? Father had told me several times that he thought Hitler’s ultimate plan was to do just that. France or Belgium, then, would not be a safe place for any expatriate German Jew when the “Nazi army” came sweeping through.
Here we all were, tens of thousands of us in a sports stadium, listening to one man tell us what to think. Was he the best or the worst among us? I began to look around and observe more faces of my “fellow” countrymen. They were transfixed. One man’s mouth gaped open. Another shook his head repeatedly in agreement in short bobs, almost resembling the Hasidim in prayer.
I wondered if this crowd was demonstrating the description of the Irish poet Yeats, whom I had read in English: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Father had quoted this line, written in 1920, many times. It was from “The Second Coming.”
My feeling that Hitler had hypnotized this mass of people into mute, obedient automatons was in stark contrast to my involuntary fascination with his guttural voice and his piercing, rhythmical emphasis on certain words. His rhetoric and his delivery could almost trick me into believing what he was saying. Those who were not Jewish were having no trouble deepening their loyalty to The Leader.
Hitler spoke of parties. Why not? After the lack of work and food and fuel, parties were the most prevalent topic of conversation throughout the country. Hitler said there were thirty-four parties here in one small country. Workers have three or four because one is not enough. The masses, who are not intelligent (he actually said this right in front of these masses), have to have even more. Management has its party; farmers, three or four; landlords; tenants. The Catholics have their party (Mother’s Zentrum); the Bavarians; the Thuringenians.
Each party that he named was accompanied by a different hand gesture, visible even from our great distance. I thought of Pepe, who had always noted and praised the great variety of people who could be found upon the earth and especially in Paris. However, Hitler was citing the great variety of political parties as a censure and condemnation an ugly divisiveness in the country.
He concluded that Germany needed only one party, the party of the German Volk, the party that will never give up the struggle, “the only party that has the courage and will to act.” He drove home, “we must not allow classes and cliques to develop among you.”
Were we Jews one of the “cliques” which must not be allowed to develop?
Suddenly I wanted to flee the stadium. It was worse than being jammed among the beery Nazis inside the train.
Hitler twice referred to the time when the party consisted of only seven members and to the approaching time when it would be the one and only power. He continued his theatrical (and rehearsed?) emphatic gestures, especially with his right hand raised through different sweeps into the air.
Then, with both hands raised over his head, backs of his hands toward the audience and fingers spread widely apart (visible from our great distance, even), he shook his hands toward the sky, his head and eyes upward (to God?!), and he ranted that the leadership of “the best blood” would never relinquish what it had taken years to attain. All around us, again the cheer, the chant, the salute went up, and spiritlessly, we followed.
I am only a youth, but I can read the writing on the wall. It says, “Death to the Jews,” and in reality we have all seen it already scrawled in red on walls everywhere. We Jews are certainly not the ones with “the best blood.”
I thought of Mother. She, a French Catholic but mistaken for a Jew, had been beaten senseless on a crowded railway platform by three boys of my age in uniform. And no one had raised a voice. The Nazis were already above the law. When would all of the Jews, and all of those considered to be Jews, be murdered without a murmur of protest against “the only party that has the courage and will to act”?
When the people on the station platform saw the three uniformed Hitler Youth beating a woman, they no doubt said to themselves, “it’s only a Jew,” and they might not have been National Socialists but Social Democrats, Communists, or even Catholic Zentrum.
Hitler ended his speech abruptly and walked from the podium, out of sight. Everyone erupted wildly.
Goebbels appeared, spoke briefly, and then the entire stadium went up into the Horst Wessel Song. When they sang “the ranks close tightly” of the first line, Father took my arm and led me out. The rest of our group followed closely, and we cleared the stadium well before the song was finished. We broke into a jog for the station in order to beat the crowd. We could still hear the singing hundreds of meters behind us. Then I remembered my vow not to board the train.
“Father, I am not getting on that train. I mean it,” I said, but he paid no attention and kept leading us on our jog through the town. As we came within a few blocks of the station, we found the streets already clogged with people who had come there from another part of the stadium. I did not want to go another step into another mob of Nazis.
“Father,” I said more emphatically, “I mean it. I am walking and running home from here.” He slowed to a stop, and the others did, too.
“David, don’t be ridiculous. It’s a hundred kilometers.”
“Haven’t we talked about my running to France to escape the pogrom? What do you think this is? I want to escape the Nazis. I know the way. I can be home by noon tomorrow.”
Father stared at me for about ten seconds. He knew that I meant what I was saying.
“Go ahead,” he said to the others, “get on the train. We’re coming later, after the crowd has passed.”
After several exchanges, they left us, and Father said, “I remember riding in the wagons up to the trenches. I know how you feel, David, and there is no reason we have to do that. You make a good point about escaping the Nazi mob, but tonight with hundreds or thousands of them driving on the road, I do not want you out there running. I do not want you ending up like Mother. Come on, follow me. I just remembered something.”
He went up a side street, perpendicular to the flow of the crowd. We walked several blocks through streets that were nearly empty and then another two kilometers around a ring road. Father walked quickly, and I was surprised at his stamina.
“If we move quickly, we might just get lucky.”
Finally Father stopped at an intersection of the ring road and one of the main roads from town. Along this main road, people were lined up, as if waiting for a parade.
“I thought so,” Father said and worked us to a relatively quiet spot next to a light pole on the street.
“Hitler’s entourage will be coming out this way to the airport. You can get a good look at him up close–something you can remember for the rest of your life.”
Father was being facetious but truthful.
After about half of an hour, three trucks passed by, two filled with SA and the last with SS. These were followed by cars filled with men in Nazi uniforms. Then we heard wild cheering. About a half of a block away, we saw an open car approaching. It was Hitler, standing and giving his Nazi salute to the adoring crowd. He looked quite proud of himself. Slowly, gradually, he moved toward us. We did not have a direct sight line but had to catch glimpses through the obstructions of crowd and Nazi flags. He looked a bit like a marble statue propped up in the front seat. Resembling a minor god?
As he neared us, Father said, “We do not need to give the salute this time, David.”
“What?! We’re still in the same crowd,” I whispered.
“No, we’re safe here.”
I thought Father had lost his senses, but I was not going to question him.
I do not know what I was expecting to see, but I could not believe my eyes when I saw the open Mercedes-Benz move into full, unobstructed view only about 20 meters away.
Hitler was standing in the front passenger area holding onto the top of the windscreen and onto his hat with his left hand, and giving his Nazi salute with his right. He seemed to be looking at each face on our side of the street, at some longer than others. When the car was only five meters away, he looked directly at me. He had very good posture, but he looked exhausted. A strand of slick hair lay across his forehead. His eyes, however, were not tired. They had a strange, bluish “glow” (I do not know what word to use) which held my gaze. Although I knew that his car was moving, it seemed as if he had stopped and suspended himself there to look at me. Everything else in my peripheral vision blurred away, and time seemed to stop.
Then I wondered if he might be waiting for me to give the salute, but I obeyed Father, not Hitler.
He looked over at Father, sternly. To rebuke the parent, I thought. But then his head tilted back in surprise and recognition. He immediately leaned down to his driver, and the Mercedes stopped, right in front of us.
Hitler let himself out the car. The crowd pressed in from the sides and back for a closer view and fell silent as he walked directly toward Father with a very military bearing. His hair shined from perspiration. I was surprised he was only about a meter and three-quarters in height. He was looking straight at Father, but the sternness changed quickly to a smile of what looked like brotherly recognition. Was this really Hitler? He walked slowly, and except for the intensity of his eyes, he looked very ordinary. I was incredulous that he should.
Was he going to denounce Father because he and his son had not given the salute? Certainly Hitler could do as he wished, just as any Nazi could, just as the Hitler Youth had done on the station platform. But Hitler was looking pleased. He looked like a nice man.
As he stepped up to Father, he extended his right hand and said, “Johann.”
“Adi,” Father said and shook his hand.
Hitler’s head was shaking “yes” up and down ever so slightly as he and Father held their clasp and looked one another in the eye.
“You always took very good care of Foxl. I remember.”
Then Hitler let go, pivoted about, and returned to his car, which immediately moved away.
Everyone on the street near us was looking at Father rather than Hitler as the car pulled away. When Father took my arm to lead me away, everyone stepped aside to make way for us, and a murmur followed us for almost half of a block.
I was too utterly astonished to ask Father about it. Hitler had called Father “Johann,” the name under which Father had enlisted in order to hide his Jewish name of Hezekiah. I knew that Foxl was Hitler’s dog when he was a corporal in the trenches. Father had told me he had often watched the dog when Adi had been running messages. Apparently, Hitler did not know that his friend from the trenches was a Jew.
“What just happened would not count a jot,” I imagined Father instructing me, “if the SA in our Gau decided to initiate a pogrom or just decided they wanted to give me or you or Mother again a good beating in the street.”
I wanted to ask Father specific questions about his experiences with Hitler, but I could not do so in the confusion of the streets. We heard people saying, “The streets to the station are dark. The Marxists cut the power to the street lamps.”
“The trains are probably still too crowded, anyway,” Father said. “We’ll stop and get something to eat.”
We boarded the last train, and it was practically empty. I expected Father to talk and to ask me about my reactions to the rally and the meeting with “Adi,” but he was silent until we slowed for Bingen station.
“Hitler cared more for Foxl than he did for any of the other men, and I am reasonably certain that he has not changed. I know that he ranks us below dogs, and you must remember, David, that behind the glorious and resounding pomp and worship that we saw Hitler’s Party stage today are the iron fists of ugly murderers. The Hitler who would never harm his dog is The Leader of the three boys of the station platform, The Leader who sets the tone and the opportunities for all of his followers.”
We arrived at Alzey station very late. As we walked back through town, Father said to me, “David, I know that I have told you many times that we must leave Germany. Your Mother might one day soon be able to use crutches or even walk with a cane. We will wait one week and see the election results. Everyone is saying that the Nazis will add to their power, but elections are always unpredictable. If the results put Hitler in power, I want to be packed up and ready to leave before he formally becomes Chancellor. If we have to leave furniture behind, if we have to carry Mother onto the train–yes, we will have to take a train, David–we are going, and not to Belgium or France. It has got to be England. Very soon we could come to the juncture where we must ask, ‘do we want to live, or do we want to die?’ It is that simple. Remember, Hitler said that his Party would never give up the struggle. Hitler will not change. We are the ones who must take up our lives and our will and make a change.”
Now everything is hanging in suspension, just as Hitler had seemed to do when he was looking at me.
I think of the cliffs of Lorelei and the moment of suspension I had expected when I was trying to picture what it would be like to jump out from the cliff edge.
I do not know what to do. There is nothing I can do. Even Father does not know what is going to happen. Mother is still semi-comatose. I cannot talk with her. I must trust Father. It could be that, even with all of his worldly wisdom and experience, he will not be able to save us.
I do hate to think this, to write this, but it could very well be, “Death to the Jews.”
John Means has published poems, haiku, short stories, and two geological guide books: Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Parks, and Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D. C. He taught English and Geology at Hagerstown Community College for thirty-five years.