-Lee Strauss, author of the Playing with Matches
PROLOGUE - PLAYING WITH MATCHES
The pillar of smoke rising on the horizon could only mean one thing: a farm, which meant food. Emil Radle limped across the sloping field that was brittle and dry from lack of rain and irrigation. He lost his footing twice, falling, grabbing at his leg, his mouth opening in a wide teeth-baring groan. The first time he beat the pain, pulling himself back onto his feet, hunger pushing him on. The second time he gave into the primal urge to scream and cry, until sleep threatened to take him again. The warm sun beat down, heavy, his mind lapsing into a drug-like state.
Somewhere in his subconscious, he knew he couldn't stay there; if he did he would die. He pulled himself up Tagain, shaky and quivering. Finally, a house came into view. Out of breath, he slipped through the narrow opening of a stiff iron gate and knocked on the door.
It opened and a thin, elderly man with an unshaven face looked him up and down. “Not another one,” he muttered.
“Please, do you have a piece of bread? Anything?”
The man frowned. “How old are you, boy?”
“Sixteen.” Emil wondered what he must look like to the man. He hadn’t bathed or had a change of clothes in weeks. He knew his hair was too long. He shifted his weight nervously, rubbing his bad knee.
The man noticed. “What’s wrong with your leg?”
“Injured on the front.” The man sighed. “I don’t have anything left. Someone knocks on my door every hour looking to eat.”
As if on cue, Emil's stomach growled. “Please, I beg you. I’m starving.”
The man’s shoulders slumped. His face was drawn, fatigued, and his eyes were watery, as if he were about to cry. “Wait here.” He pointed to a rickety chair on the patio, and Emil let his weary body drop into it. The man returned with a coffee cup and handed it to Emil. “I have a cow out back. She doesn’t give much. It’s all I have.”
Emil slurped it up. It was like a drop in a very large bucket, but it would keep him going for a while.
“Where are you headed?” the man said.
“Passau.” The man whistled.
“That’s a long way from here. At least two hundred kilometers.”
“Yes,” Emil said, handing the cup back. “But it’s my home. I have to find my family.”
“All the trains are out,” the man said. “The roads are too damaged in most places for automobiles.”
“I know. I’m walking.”
“That will take you weeks.” The man glanced at Emil's bad leg and sighed again. “At least you are young. I wish you the best.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The man offered his hand, pulling Emil to his feet. Emil said goodbye then turned to the road. Step, limp, step, limp, he headed south.
Behind him, Nuremberg lay in ruins, a beaten down giant.
CHAPTER 1 - PLAYING WITH MATCHES
1938 OCTOBER Passau, Germany
Heinz Schultz’s word could send a man to prison. Though only a youth of fifteen, he was strong, tall, and blond. The boys in his Deutsches Jungvolk unit esteemed him and feared him.
And they wanted to be just like him.
Mesmerized, Emil sat straight and attentive. He didn’t want to miss a thing Heinz might say or an opportunity to be noticed by him.
Heinz grabbed a pointing stick and tapped a well-worn map of Europe that was thumb-tacked to the wall. “This is a map of Europe from 1871.”
He stopped abruptly in front of another, newer map. “And this is a map of Europe as she looks now. What is the striking difference?” His eyes scanned the room before landing on Emil. “Emil?”
Emil squeaked, “Germany is too small?”
“YES!” Heinz shouted. “Germany is too small. Much, much too small.” He pointed again to the first map. “Here we were larger, though not yet great enough. And here,” he swiveled back to the second map. “We are so tiny, you need a magnifying glass to see us. This is injustice!”
The severity of Heinz’s convictions had grown since his voice had changed. It seemed to Emil that Heinz’s voice came from his gut now rather than his head and he couldn't wait until his own voice finally changed. Not yet eleven, Emil knew he had a while to wait which frustrated him. It was hard to act tough when you sounded like a girl.
Heinz stood stiff, hands behind his back, studying each of his students until they were all white in the face with fear. He whispered, “Who is to blame?”
Friedrich slowly raised his long, skinny arm. Though the same age as the rest of the boys, he was much taller, with long, thin legs. He reminded Emil of an ostrich. “The Jews,” Friedrich answered.
Heinz’s head bobbed in affirmation. “Correct. The Jews. And how do we know this?” Friedrich continued, “They hurt the war effort by stirring up bad feelings against the government. We lost the Great War because people lost heart when they heard these lies.”
“Jews and Communists,” Heinz said. “They are the real enemies of Germany.”
Emil tried to remember what his father had told him. Germany had lost the Great War because they thought they could win it quickly. They had underestimated their enemies. In the end, they hadn’t enough soldiers left to finish the job.
But according to Heinz, his father was wrong. Germany’s defeat was actually due to these other people, though, he still didn’t fully understand what they did to cause their fall.
“We were a great nation,” Heinz continued. “We are a great nation. And one day we will be an even greater nation.”
Emil felt like a strong wind was pressing him against the wall.
After a long meaningful pause, Heinz said. “Give me examples of our superiority.”
Emil’s hand shot up, and then realizing he wasn’t sure what answer Heinz wanted, quickly brought it down again. Heinz called on his own younger brother, Rolf.
“We are white, Aryan, and not Jewish.”
Rolf said this like he was better than the rest of them, Emil thought, just because he was Heinz’s brother.
Heinz nodded in agreement. “Others?”
Friedrich thrust his arm up again. “We are athletic and fit.”
Moritz shifted uneasily in his chair; Emil knew his hefty friend wasn’t exactly the most coordinated person. This time Emil raised his hand and left it up.
“We are intelligent.” All eyes were on him. Heinz waited. Why? Should he present an example? A model glider hung above the table prompting him. “We built the Luftwaffe.”
“Indeed,” said Heinz. “The mightiest air force in the world!”