‘The German’

The dirt-road dust didn’t bother me; I’d long since given up polishing my shoes, and my lungs had grown accustomed. It was a moonless night, almost chilly if such a temperature were possible in northeastern Brazil. Once we’d arrived on the street the Spirit had indicated we began knocking doors, hoping to find the one the Lord had in mind. Rejection greeted us at every house, but some silent whisper said we’d shortly meet with success.

“I don’t believe you’re here!”

That’s the one.

“Please, please come in. Please, I must talk with you. I’m so terribly depressed.”

Her home was small but well kept. Darling angel statuettes sat upon her counter top, adorable figures with innocent eyes. Her shelf was so book-laden I thought it might collapse; a German textbook capped one of many sporadic piles. This was no ordinary woman.

“Mam, are you all right? Is there anything we can do to help?”

“I’m sorry for crying in front of you like this, Elders. I was just watching a Hitler documentary on TV. What a terrible, terrible man! I feel sick every time I think about him. Please, have a seat.”

Elders? How did she know we’re called Elders? The woman’s sobs deepened. Something was different here, something puzzling. She was so open, yet she didn’t even know our names. Why had a simple documentary so moved her?

“I was born in Germany sixty-two years ago, at the very time when Hitler was coming to power. My father didn’t accept what was happening to his Jewish neighbors, so he hid them in our attic.”

My eyes widened. I’d never met anyone that had had such personal contact with the holocaust.

“Yes,” she whispered, as if at any moment a German guard might march around the corner with a hand gun. “As a small child I prepared food for the sad creatures. When the Third Reich discovered what papa was doing, they sent him to a concentration camp. My heart broke when they wrenched him from us. I was afraid I’d never see him again.”

“Why didn’t they send you to the camp, Mam?”

“Daddy told them we had nothing to do with the Jews. They did terrible things to my father; the guards made him eat broken glass. But God never forgot us! We fled with dad when I was eight years old, fled to Brazil. It was hard at first, but after a few months I learned a little Portuguese. I made my way to the University of Porto Alegre where I studied law, and then two Elders knocked on our door. I was too busy studying–at least that was my excuse–to speak with them, but my parents payed close attention to their message.”

She rose to her feet, shuffled to a small drawer, and retrieved a cardboard box full of German castles and landscapes, full of memories.

“Let me see if they’re still here. Have you two ever seen such an unorganized photographic heap? I haven’t looked at these pictures in years. Oh! Found it!”

The faces were mysterious. Any one of them could have been my grandfather, but in black and white they were young and vibrant.

“This one’s Elder Johnson. He was the first to come to our house. Oh, you can’t imagine the banquets my parents prepared for him every Friday after they were baptized!”

“They were baptized?”

“Of course! Oh…and this one was Elder Peterson. Man alive was it ever hard to understand him! I had a secret crush on him, though, but I never let on. A sly fox, wasn’t I? Look at this! It’s an invitation to the Halloween Dance. Where did I put my glasses? Could you read it for me, Elder…what’s your name…Durant?”

I took the invitation carefully from her hands, an archaeologist handling an ancient parchment. It should have been in church archives. I should have informed the first presidency.

“You are formally invited to the Porto Alegre second ward’s first annual Dance of the Witches on October 31, 1959 in the Ponta Grossa chapel.”

“My parents tried so hard to get me to go,” she chuckled, “but I was a stubborn little brat. They never stopped throwing the church in my face, trying to get me to involve myself. Never thought I’d miss that harassment! Who knows, maybe papa’s up there right now, watching us all. I sure would love to know what he’s thinking! What do you think, Elders? Does he know you’re here? Does he know?”

Forty years from now those old black and white photographs will still be collecting dust. The gray picture of Elder Johnson will still make him look like a dignitary, though his eyes will give him away as but a boy. The ashen image of Elder Peterson will still reveal a clandestine smile that shows he knew about the secret crush after all. They never saw the fruits of their sacred work, never knew what they’d done. There’ll be another photograph tucked away in that box then, beneath the black and white images of Elder Johnson and Elder Peterson. Beneath those will be buried a picture in vibrant color, a picture with an elder on the right dressed in his finest navy blue suit, another on the left in dark gray, and an old stubborn German lady in the middle, in white.

(Note: Some artistic license taken.)

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