Mindel walked as fast as her little legs would carry her to keep up with her big sister. The unfriendly men in black uniforms used their usual “Schnell! Schnell!” shouts to propel the mass of women and children forward. From experience Mindel knew that they never hesitated to use their batons or whips on the people who were too slow.
But she had an entirely different problem: her shoelace had come undone during the long walk from the train ramp and she had to tread carefully so as not to fall over it.
“Hurry up, we need to stay together,” Rachel hissed and pulled at her arm.
“Ouch!” Mindel protested, since it felt as if her sister was tearing her limb from limb. Clenching her teeth, she carried on because the thought of being all alone, without her big sister to protect her, was so horrible she felt the panic creeping up inside of her.
More and more people were herded together. Mindel barely reached up to the hip of those surrounding her and suddenly felt as if a wall was closing in on her. She quickly looked up into the sky, but all she could see was a mass of bodies.
“You, get over there,” a guard barked and Mindel felt a sharp tug on her hand. She scrambled to follow in the direction where Rachel pulled her, but there were too many people blocking her way. Slowly, her hand slipped from her sister’s and she screamed at the top of her lungs, “Rachel! Wait!”
“Please, I can’t go! Not without my sister!” Rachel pleaded with the guard, although Mindel couldn’t hear a response.
In her desperation Mindel dropped to the ground and tried to crawl between the forest of legs in the direction where she heard Rachel calling her name. But there was no getting through. “Rachel! I’m here!” she screamed once more.
“I’ll find you,” Rachel yelled back, and then, much further away already, “Mindel, I love you. I promise, I’ll find you.”
Somehow Mindel managed to get back on her feet and was moved by the mass of bodies in one direction, when all she wanted to do was to turn around and rush after her sister, who’d been shoved in the opposite direction.
She pressed her doll, Paula—whom Mindel always carried beneath her dress—against her heart, tears flowing down her cheeks. “Don’t you worry, Paula, we’ll find her.”
Rachel Epstein sat with her mother in their cozy kitchen, peeling potatoes. The wooden tabletop, like the entire farmhouse, had seen better days and was in urgent need of repair, but to Rachel it was home. Sitting here, working side by side with her mother, always gave her a sense of belonging and safety, something the world outside didn’t provide anymore.
While Rachel peeled the potatoes, her mother hurried about with flour, butter and precious sugar to bake an apple cake for Rachel’s baby sister’s fourth birthday.
“Could you please run into the garden and get me another apple? It looks like I’m short a few slices and I want this cake to be perfect.” Her mother had always been petite, but she’d grown thin these past years, making her look older. Her dark brown hair showed ever more grey streaks and the brightness in her eyes had dimmed with all the hardships the family had had to endure.
“Of course, Mother, I’ll go right away.” Rachel stopped peeling potatoes for dinner and tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. She left the kitchen through the back door that opened directly into their vegetable and herb garden.
Being farmers they had always grown their own fruits, herbs and vegetables, but in the past few years when the restrictions for Jewish people had increased on a weekly—if not daily—basis, they had become dependent on their own produce to be able to eat at all. Rachel simply couldn’t fathom how Jews in the bigger cities, without the produce nature provided them with, could survive.
The farmhouse had definitely seen better days, despite their mother’s incessant cleaning and father’s repairs. There just wasn’t enough money, time, or materials to stay on top of all the repairs needed. But what could be expected from a nation at war?
Their farmhands had left many years ago, either because they’d joined the Wehrmacht or because they didn’t want to work for Jews anymore. Rachel sighed. Things had become so complicated. Walking into the orchard with the old apple trees, Rex, their Alsatian watchdog, greeted her with a wagging tail, and she patted him on the head, which he took as an invitation to follow her. She heard laughter and loud voices even before she saw her three younger siblings: Israel and Aron, ten and seven years old and inseparable as twins, and the birthday girl, Mindel.
A smile crossed Rachel’s lips. Thirteen years older than her, she treated Mindel more like a daughter than a sister, especially now that Father was working the fields day and night, and Mother had her hands full with running a household that used to have several maids, before the Nazis had come to power and changed everything.
Her smile faltered when she spotted Mindel hanging precariously from one of the apple tree’s branches, while her brothers were sitting comfortably a few yards up and looking down at her.
“What do you think you are doing?” Rachel yelled at them.
“Nothing,” her three siblings replied in unison.
“It doesn’t look like nothing to me. Israel, you should know better than to get Mindel to climb up there. She could fall down and break her neck!”
“We didn’t tell her to, she wanted to follow us all by herself,” Aron defended his older brother.
“Why do we even have to drag her around? She always spoils our games.” It was Israel who complained and Rachel had to suppress a smile. She doted on Mindel as much as she could, and had done so since her birth, but the two boys wanted to have time alone. A part of her could understand that: while they loved Mindel as much as Rachel did—although they would never admit to such a female emotion—they were boys and wanted to play wild games where a little girl would only bother them. Unfortunately both she and Mother were too occupied with the household and garden chores to constantly keep an eye on her, and thus this task had fallen on the two boys.
“You should be cleaning the pigsty, not gallivanting through the orchard and eating the apples we need to preserve for winter.”
“I already finished my chores,” Israel protested and looking at the dirt-smeared faces of all three children it was clear that he’d enlisted the younger ones’ help with his chores, most probably promising apples from the tree in exchange or some other gift he wasn’t actually allowed to dole out.
She sighed. Times were hard enough, maybe they should have some fun. “Can you at least hand me another apple for Mindel’s birthday cake?”
Mindel’s eyes shone with pride. “I’m gonna be four tomorrow. Then you can’t say I’m little anymore.”
“Little baby!” came the yells from further up the tree.
“Stop teasing her!” Rachel scolded them. “And now hand me an apple, but one that’s nice and ripe.”
Mindel tossed one down to Rachel, but Israel said, “Not from down there, the ones up here taste much better.” Giggling, he tossed another one down to Rachel. She shook her head disapprovingly; at seventeen years old she was much too mature to participate in these kinds of shenanigans.
Returning to the kitchen, she felt a wave of nostalgia wash over her. Back when she had been their age, life had been good. But that was before the Nazis came to power, when Jewish people had possessed the same rights as all other ordinary German citizens, and when the farm had still truly belonged to her parents.
Over the years, things had gradually worsened for them. Almost imperceptibly at first and then faster and faster, until it was like a snowball crashing downhill. As of now, they, like so many of their fellow Jews, had lost all civilian rights and privileges. Rachel had been forced to leave school, and—as her parents liked to remind her when she complained about their life—it was only thanks to living in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, that their family had not been deported to some ugly place like most of the Jews who lived in bigger cities.
Israel and Aron had an inkling about the general situation in Germany, but never seemed to give it more than a passing thought. They were too occupied roaming the fields and forest, while Mindel at her young age was completely oblivious to what was going on outside the farm.
Rachel wasn’t entirely sure it was good to shield Mindel from the happenings in the world, but she had no say in this. It was entirely her parents’ decision. She entered the kitchen through the back door, exchanging her sturdy boots for house slippers before doing so.
At the sight of her father in the kitchen—a place he rarely frequented outside mealtimes—she stopped in her tracks, staring at him. His lips were pressed into a thin line, a deep furrow creasing his forehead.
Holding up the two apples in her hands like a shield, she asked with a barely audible whisper, “What has happened?”
“Old Hans has died.”
Mother didn’t even look up from the cutting board, but Rachel clearly observed her shaking shoulders. The news must be worse than she’d thought. Old Hans was the kindly elderly man who’d bought their farm years ago after it had been declared that Jews could possess no land. Then he had immediately employed them as his farmhands, effectively giving their family the opportunity to live on the property as if it was still theirs.
Rachel looked at her father. “What will become of us?”
“Hans doesn’t have children and in his will he left the property to me, although I had hoped he wouldn’t die until after the war,” Father said.
Mother’s eyes got a dreamy look. “Then the farm will belong to us again.”
“But Jews can’t own property,” Rachel said.
“The authorities might not notice.”
Rachel thought that was wishful thinking, especially because the ghastly mayor, Herr Keller, had had his eyes on the farm for years, and had pestered Old Hans many times already to sell it to him—or at least to get rid of the Epstein family. As far as she knew the only person who’d been standing between them and deportation had been Old Hans, who’d been in his nineties already and cared little about Keller’s strong-arm tactics, knowing that he’d lived most of his time on earth. Hans’ fierce protection, along with the fact that farmworkers were scarce and Herr Keller as the mayor of the nearby town had to fulfill quotas of produce, had allowed them the tiniest window of freedom.
But now that the kind old man was dead, what would the horrible Nazi do?
No, Rachel certainly didn’t share her mother’s opinion that he’d not notice when Father retook possession of his own farm. And being the mayor of the nearby town, he was going to find out soon enough, because everything that was important in the entire region went across his desk.
“There’s nothing we can do but wait,” Father said.
“Maybe nothing will happen,” Mother replied.
Rachel wanted to scream at them. How could they be so oblivious to the dangers? Hadn’t they impressed on her and Israel never to venture out into town, not to attract unwanted attention? Hadn’t they had the idea to sell the farm to Old Hans in the first place? And now they suddenly believed everything would be just fine?
In their village there’d only been two other Jewish families and both of them had left many years ago. One of them emigrated when it was still possible; the other one had disappeared in the night, never to be seen again. Since then she’d heard about others taken away and not coming back, but her parents preferred to stick their heads into the sand and pretend they were safe on the farm, since it was too far away even from the tiny village of Kleindorf to be of the Nazis’ interest. Despite her parents’ warnings to keep away from any and all other people, she’d kept a very loose contact with her former classmate, Irmhild, who now worked in the town hall with Herr Keller. Nothing that Irmhild had told her over the past years had indicated there was a reason to feel safe. If the decision had been hers to make, she and her family would have left a long time ago.
“We should leave the country,” she blurted out.
Her mother raised her head and cast Rachel a scolding gaze. “And where do you think we should go?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere other than here… Maybe England?” Rachel’s shoulders sagged. She shouldn’t have spoken out against her parents.
“We don’t speak English!” Mother said, as if this was reason enough to stay in the precarious situation they were in, only able to hang onto their old life because of the kindness of a man who’d died recently.
“We could learn.”
Mother glared daggers at Rachel as if the mere mention of learning another language was insult enough. “I’m not going to leave this place. This is my home, where I grew up, where my grandparents and parents lived for years, where I married your father. Upstairs is the bedroom where I gave birth to you four children. I won’t go just because some Nazis decided they don’t want us here.”
“Your mother is right. Besides, that ship sailed years ago. As you know it’s forbidden to emigrate for the likes of us. Even if it were still allowed, we wouldn’t have the money to pay all the fees and bribes.” Her father rarely talked that much and now he looked outright exhausted. “No, staying here is the safest course of action. Much better than taking the gamble of leaving for who knows where and being exposed to all kinds of danger while trying to escape Germany. I never want to hear another word about this.”
Mindel was excitedly running from tree to tree, the doll Rachel had given her for her fourth birthday strapped to her back. She happily thought back to her big day with the sweetest apple cake she’d eaten in her life and all the wonderful gifts. Her parents had given her a new dress with a beautiful flower pattern, and even her brothers had been on their best behavior the entire day and had let Mindel decide which games to play. But Rachel had taken the biscuit with the gift of the wonderful rag doll she’d made with her own hands.
“Now you have a special friend who’ll always be there for you,” Rachel had said as she’d given her the doll.
For once, Mindel had been rendered speechless. Such a wonderful gift, a friend only for her. She’d wrapped her arms around her big sister and told her, “I love you so much, you’re simply the best big sister in the world.”
Rachel in turn had smiled in the happy way she used to but nowadays rarely did, though Mindel couldn’t understand why, and had said, “I love you too, sweetie. What shall we call your friend?”
Mindel hadn’t hesitated for a single second as she blurted out, “Paula.”
“She does look like a Paula to me,” her mother had said, and Rex had barked his approval as well.
Since then, Mindel never went anywhere without Paula, who had become a trusted friend, someone to play with, besides her often-annoying brothers. She loved her even more than Rex who wasn’t allowed inside the house because, like everyone on the farm, he had chores to do.
She didn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to play with the children they sometimes saw at the neighboring farms when out on one of Aron’s discovery expeditions. But none of her whining and complaining had softened Father’s determination to keep her away from the other children in the village.
Even Aron—who’d become her only real playmate since Israel nowadays barely had time, due to his increasing share of chores on the farm—was adamant about staying away from other people.
He never told her the reason why, but always said in an important voice, “It’s not good to meet others.”
“You’re too young to understand.”
She hated when he did this, but reluctantly gritted her teeth and obeyed, fully aware of the good smacking both of them would receive if Father found out they’d ventured into the village.
Since Aron loved to be the boss and order her around, she usually stuck out her tongue at him. “I’m only doing it, because Father said so, not because of you.”
Paula, in contrast, understood her and liked to play girls’ games. She never wanted to be the boss and rarely disagreed with Mindel. Paula truly was a special friend and the best companion Mindel could have wished for.
Today, though, Rachel had taken them out into the woods all day to search for mushrooms and blueberries. Mindel loved being out and about and picking berries, but she loved it even more when she got to stuff the sweet delights directly into her mouth, so her little basket was still half empty, while Rachel had already filled a second one.
“Stop dawdling, and come here,” Rachel called out.
Mindel stopped talking to Paula, picked up her basket and rushed toward her big sister, who talked and behaved like an adult most of the time. When she was grown up Mindel wanted to be just like her. Knowing the answer to everything, while still being kind, unlike her brothers. She adored her big sister, who always made her smile. When she scratched her knee, Rachel would blow on the scratch and say a few healing words or sing a silly song to make Mindel laugh. And just like that, the pain was forgotten and she could rush away to play some more.
On her birthday she’d secretly wished for it to only be Rachel and herself, because she could very well do without the constant nagging, badgering and fighting from her brothers.
“We need to return home, it’s late already and we have lots of work to do.”
“Work, always work,” Mindel complained, looking around for her brothers who came walking toward them, their baskets filled to the brim with chanterelles.
“Look what we found, there’s a great spot over there,” Israel said.
“Well done. Mother will be so pleased.”
“Can we go back and collect more?” Aron asked.
Rachel shook her head. “No, it’s a long walk home and we are supposed to be back before dinner.”
As soon as Rachel had spoken the words, Mindel remembered just how long the walk out here this morning had been and her legs suddenly felt tired. “I can’t walk that long. I’m tired,” she complained.
Rachel only laughed. “You’re young and have healthy legs. You’ll manage.”
Pouting, Mindel whispered to Paula, “You have it good, being carried around all day.”
Rachel must have overheard her, because she said, “Do you want me to carry Paula for you?”
“No. She wants to stay with me,” Mindel said and then looked down at the basket in her hand. “But maybe you could carry my basket? It’s really heavy.”
“I can certainly do that for you.” Rachel took the basket and hung it across her arm next to the other two. Her sister was so strong, Mindel really wanted to be like her when she was grown up.
After about an hour’s march, they passed the hut of an old woman who lived at the forest edge. From there it wasn’t that far to her farm and squinting her eyes she believed she could see a plume of smoke from their farmhouse. Their mother must be heating the range. Mindel sidled up to Rachel holding onto her sister’s skirt.
“She’s not a real witch you know?” Rachel said with a laugh, as if there was no reason to be afraid of the ancient woman her brothers called the old witch and insisted could do magic. One of the witch’s favorite tricks was to turn people she didn’t like into a toad.
Aron turned around to stare at Mindel and said, “Ribbet.”
“Why do you always have to scare her?” Rachel scolded him.
Mindel shivered. She surely didn’t want to be turne. . .
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