Playing With Matches


1945 July

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.

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Chapter 1

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!”

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Chapter 2

It only took a flick of his wrist, a quick masterful nudge that propelled the beech wood piano lid in motion, dropping it shut.

The scream that ensued caused Mother to spring from her chair in the kitchen where she enjoyed her Saturday morning coffee, fresh cream no sugar.

“Ach du Schreck!” Mother said, her house shoes click-clacking across the wooden floor. “What happened?”

Helmut’s small face erupted, fluid springing from his eyes and nose. He raised his purpling finger as evidence, wide sobs preventing him from creating words. With his other hand he pointed.

“Emil, what did you do this time?” Mother squatted low and wrapped Helmut’s bruised finger in a tea towel. “Come to the kitchen, Helmut,” she said. “Let’s get some ice.”

Fleetingly, Emil felt something similar to remorse. Still, it was the younger boy’s fault. “He should’ve moved his hands. He saw me coming. He’s so slow.”

Helmut’s eyes flashed angrily, and with small hiccups he defended himself. “I didn’t see you, Emil, you idiot!”

Helmut’s incessant, talent-less plunking had driven Emil mad, probably drove the whole neighborhood mad. He’d pointed this out earlier to his Father. It was his fault. If he had done something, Emil wouldn’t have taken such drastic measures for peace and quiet.

Helmut continued to whimper, curled up on a chair with his left index finger wrapped in ice. He looked so small there and Emil fought an uncomfortable growing sense of regret. He pushed it aside.

Father entered the house at that moment, newspaper under one arm. He wore what he usually did on a Saturday, trousers and a white undershirt. “What’s going on here?” he said, taking in the red face of his youngest son and the defiant look of his eldest.

Helmut, his lips still quivering said, “Emil, slammed the piano lid down on my finger.”

“Father, he was making a racket. I couldn’t stand it any longer. You should’ve stopped him.”

Father and Emil locked glares. “Yes,” Father said, slowly. “If anyone was to stop him, it should have been me. I am head of this house.”

“Only under the Fuehrer.” Mother gasped.

She braced herself against the counter before systematically depositing dirty dishes into the sink one by one.

Father dropped the newspaper on the table.

“The Fuehrer doesn’t yet live in this house with us, Emil.”

“Mother,” Emil said, avoiding his Father’s last comment. “Where is my uniform?”

Mother’s shoulders stiffened. She sighed, long and steady, a sound like air escaping a tire, and turned back to Emil. The skin around her dull grey eyes gathered at the corners. “You’re not going to Deutsches Jungvolk again today, are you?” She wiped her reddened hands on her apron. “That’s the third time this week.”

“That’s hardly too often. Heinz Schultz says we have much to learn and prepare for. Today there is a test of courage.”

Mother’s gaze landed on Father. Emil felt like they shared a secret language they spoke together with their eyes. “Peter?”

Father lifted his chin, darkened by yesterday’s stubble. “Really, Emil? Don’t you think it’s a bit much? Family time is important, too.”

Emil hated it when he sided with her. It was a weakness. Father had become weak. And Mother could be so suffocating.

“Heinz Schultz says all of Germany is our family now. What is best for the Fatherland must come first.”

“But, we are still your blood family, Emil. Don’t forget that.” The muscle in Father’s jaw twitched. He picked up his paper and settled on the sofa.

Mother let out another pointed sigh. “What do you do with so much time there, anyway?”

“Lots of stuff.” Emil felt the tightening of short patience in his chest. “We sing and march, play sports, hike, read maps.” Mother’s weary expression didn’t change. “And we learn about the greatness of Germany and our Fuehrer. It’s fun. I don’t see why you and Father are so concerned.”

Helmut moaned and Mother rushed to his side. Anything to avoid his point, Emil thought.

“Come upstairs with Mama,” she said.

Emil grimaced. Helmut was five years old, yet he still clung to Mother like a baby. Emil was in no real need of his mother anymore. He cleared his throat as they started up the stairs.

“Mother, my uniform?” She paused, studying him through the railings. “It’s hanging out on the line.” Then as an afterthought, she added, “And, while you’re out there, bring in the potatoes I dug up this morning and take them down to the cellar.”

Outside, Emil unpinned his uniform–brown shirt, black pants–and stuffed them under his arm. Ignoring the basket of potatoes by the door, he went back into the house.

Father had the radio on: “…unemployment in Germany is the lowest it has been in years, thanks to our good Fuehrer. The creation of the autobahn promises more jobs for more men, and we await the day when, as our great Fuehrer has promised, there is an automobile for every family…”

“See?” Emil said, pointing at the radio. Why didn’t they get it? Adolf Hitler was the hope of their great nation. If it weren’t for him, they’d still be a people lining up in soup lines and oppressed by France and Britain. At least that’s what Heinz had said.

Emil went to his room, put on his uniform, and expertly donned a thin black tie. He tightened his belt, taking a moment to run his finger over the embossed image on the rectangle buckle: an in-flight eagle with the swastika gripped firmly in its claws, the words Blood and Honor engraved above. The final touch was an armband, shiny and black with a striking swastika on it. Emil gazed in the mirror and admired himself. Not bad, he thought, grinning at his wiry image.

Father and Mother were still in the living room listening to the radio when he returned. They huddled near the device, practically shoulder to shoulder, concentrating on every word. Mother’s face had paled to the same color of the putty on the walls, her mouth forming a small O. “…the Jewish problem is being addressed…”

“I’m going now.”

They jerked upright.

“I told Moritz I would meet him at the Dome.”

Father stood. “Son, you should stay home today.”

“Heinz Schultz says we are sons of Germany first.”

Emil couldn’t help but notice Mother’s stricken face. He almost felt sorry for her. “Really, you are worrying too much.”

 He forced a smile, grabbed his jacket and satchel, and left.

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Chapter 3

Emil zipped up his newly issued Deutsches Jungvolk winter jacket, feeling handsome and confident. And warm. He could see his breath shoot out in little ghost-like puffs.

Across the narrow cobble-stone street, old Frau Fellner swept stubborn wet leaves off her step. She wore an ancient winter coat with a silk scarf on her head, and she ducked when Emil appeared, pretending not to see him.

Emil chose to overlook this slight and shouted heartily, “Heil Hitler, Frau Fellner,” thrusting his right hand in salute. Frau Fellner examined his new jacket with her dark little eyes before responding quietly, “Heil Hitler.” She didn’t salute, but again, Emil overlooked it, for now, anyway. She was a sad old lady who’d lost both her husband and her son in the Great War, and besides, she’d been their neighbor for years.

With his satchel firmly over his shoulder, Emil straddled his bicycle and rode passed the flat-faced, stucco row-houses painted pastel shades of yellow, green and red that lined his street, and down narrow, bumpy cobblestone lanes to the park near Saint Stephen’s cathedral. Passau was a small city located on the tip of a narrow peninsula hugged by two rivers that merged at the eastern peak: the Danube to the north and the Inn to the south. A third smaller river, the Ilz, flowed into the Danube nearby.

Emil slowed when a waft of sweet warm bread coming from Silbermann’s Bakery met his nose. Though he had eaten breakfast, suddenly he felt hungry again.

Plus, there was Anne. She had been his friend since kindergarten. Anne Silbermann had cute little dimples and dark ringlets that fell around her sweet chubby cheeks. The teacher used to put their desks together so they could share word books when the supply was short.

He remembered how Anne would offer to share her pencils with him when he’d forgotten his at home and how sometimes that translated into sharing sweets during rest break.

When he’d gotten older he’d learned to dislike girls, like his friends Moritz and Johann had, and he stopped sharing desks, pencils or sweets with Anne. Now the only times he ever saw her was at the bakery.

Someone had written on the window, Juden, Jews, in case there was a person left in Passau who didn’t know the Silbermann’s were Jewish. Beside the word was a childish profile drawing of a man with an extraordinarily large nose. The message was clear: don’t shop here.

This was The Jewish Problem that troubled his parents. Emil understood why it troubled them; his parents had several Jewish acquaintances. It was impossible not to, as many of the stores in town were owned and run by Jews, and not shopping from them would be difficult.

Emil remembered how Heinz Schultz had blamed the Jews for all of Germany’s problems. Perhaps he was right, but surely Anne Silbermann never did anything to hurt their country?

A strange sensation washed over Emil as he rode by. Suddenly he felt nervous for Anne. He wanted to see her again. Even though she was a Jew, he wanted to make sure she was okay. It was foolish, he knew, but he couldn’t help himself. He turned the corner and stopped to check his watch. He still had time before he had to meet Moritz.

Emil reasoned that the scent of the fresh bread was too tempting to resist and the next non-Jewish bakery was too far out of the way and would make him late. Not shopping at the Silbermann Bakery would definitely be an inconvenience to those who lived in this neighborhood. Now his mother would have to walk to the other side of town to buy bread.

Emil glanced carefully in every direction before slipping inside the bakery. When he saw Anne he smiled. “Grüss Gott.”

She had changed since he’d seen her last. Taller, slimmer, her dark curls pulled back in a long braid. But she still had the dimples.

Grüss Gott, Emil,” she said with clipped feigned politeness. She regarded Emil’s Deutsches Jungvolk uniform and sharp new jacket with thinly veiled contempt.

She hated him. He could see it in her eyes. He was one of them.

Emil’s smile fell into a stiff line. All business-like he said, “Eine Semmel.” He couldn’t let himself say please.

He watched as she selected a bun from the bin and put it into a bag. Instead of the small talk and friendly jokes they used to make when he’d come to the bakery for his mother, it was painfully silent.

“How are your father and mother?” he blurted.

She seemed stunned by his question; her eyes flickered with emotion. Was it fear? Emil wondered briefly if she’d answer.

“They’re fine, thank you.”

Anne placed the bun into a paper wrap and handed it to Emil, and he in turn presented payment.

A shadow from outside blocked the sunlight coming through the window. An SS officer stood outside and peered in. A little quiver shot up Emil’s spine. He knew he shouldn’t have entered the shop. What now? Emil turned back to Anne; she’d seen the officer, too.

Emil side stepped away from the window and stuffed the bun into his satchel.

“I have to go,” he said.

The bell above the door rang before he’d made it outside. The officer eyed Emil and then Anne.

“Did you make a purchase here?” he said to Emil. Emil trembled. If he admitted it, he’d be reprimanded for entering a shop that was clearly marked Jewish. If he lied, the officer may demand to see inside his satchel and he’d be caught.

The officer seemed to read the dilemma on his face. He faced Anne. “Give the boy his money back.” Anne opened the cash drawer and handed the coin over with a shaky hand. The officer in turn passed it to Emil. Emil accepted and waited for the officer to demand he returned the bun. Instead he opened the door and gave Emil a look that said, get out.

Forgetting about his bike, Emil ran up the hill to the park without looking back.

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