Jana Lutken — Frechen, Germany, October 1938
We jumped at the violent sound of glass shattering. An axe crashed through the window, ricocheted off the kitchen wall, and landed within inches of my back. It was close. Too close. Papa tightened his protective grip around us.
I began to cry and Papa hushed me straightaway. “Shush, Jana. Keep quiet. Not a noise.” I had never seen my father so alarmed. The look in his eyes was frightening.
“Nobody move... nobody!” Papa warned us.
Papa, my brother Max, my Aunt Gertie, and my two cousins huddled with me in our neighbor’s darkened kitchen alcove. My papa’s strong arms encircled us. He held us so tight I could not breathe.
The angry voices of a mob got louder as they neared the house. There were shouts of “Juden! Juden!” I trembled with fear. Yelling, screaming, pounding at doors—it sounded as if it was happening throughout the whole neighborhood.
Herr Schenkel, our kind neighbor who owned this home in which we had sought safety, grabbed a rifle and rushed to the front door. Enraged, he could no longer restrain himself.
“Franz, no!” Papa cried out.
With no regard for his own safety, Herr Schenkel stepped defiantly onto his front porch.
There was an exchange of threats, but my heart’s pounding deafened me, and I could not hear what they said.
Shots fired into the air forced the small mob to flee. They spewed, “Jew lover! Jew lover!” The group continued down the street, only stopping to inflict their abuse on yet another home.
Herr Schenkel came into the kitchen visibly shaken, still holding his rifle tightly. He wiped the sweat from his brow. “They are gone now. You are safe, my friends.”
Papa let go his hold on us, and we all exhaled. “We may be safe for the moment, but I’m afraid we have put you in a terrible position, Franz. For that, I am sorry and will forever be in your debt.”
My father and Franz Schenkel had been neighbors and friends as far back as my memories allowed. They had met seventeen years earlier when they’d purchased their homes within one week of each other. It had been three years since the Great War ended. Both houses were abandoned and neglected. Just by coincidence and fortune, our Herr Schenkel’s family and our own had moved into our respective houses in the same week and had helped refurbish each other’s.
Our home was small but warm and inviting. One large room acted as our living room, dining room and kitchen. It was where we spent most of our time eating, talking, playing games and telling stories. Mother and Frau Schenkel made it pretty.
We had colorful curtains with a grassy forest pattern on them and a nice big chair that Papa always sat in. It had lots of padding and was fun to jump up and down on when Max and I were alone in that room.
My parents had a bedroom with a small chest where they kept their clothes and personal things. Max and I shared a room that was barren except for two small beds and one bureau. My clothes occupied the first three drawers and Max’s the bottom three. We had a secret hiding place in the wall behind the beds. Max and I shared the small opening. We put some of our favorite keepsakes in there. Nothing was valuable, but we liked having a place to keep things that only we knew about.
Our bedroom wasn’t fancy, but it was ours, and we loved lying in our beds talking and sharing secrets just before we said goodnight. Max would make me laugh often. He was very witty and spent a lot of time changing the words to songs and poems just to make me laugh. And I did laugh almost every night and sometimes for a long enough time that Mama would yell, “Quiet in there! Schlafen! You two go to sleep now!” We would giggle for a short time more and gradually our eyes would close.
The Schenkel family’s house was bigger and grander than ours. They had more rooms that seemed fancy compared to ours. They even had a separate kitchen where Frau Schenkel spent most of her time preparing meals for their family. Max and I loved spending time in there with all of those wonderful smells. If we were lucky, Frau Schenkel, who was like a second mother to us, would sneak Max and me a pastry just out of the oven. She would hand it to us with a wink and tell us to keep it between us. Mama didn’t like us to eat before our supper, but it was an irresistible treat.
My brother Max and Dieter, the eldest of the three Schenkel boys, were the same age and became inseparable friends. They shared the same birth month, and we combined parties for the two of them. Throughout the years, we shared many meals and happy occasions. When they were young, the boys played war games for hours on end, as boys do. Then it was for fun. This night was real, and it frightened both of them terribly.
Mama and Frau Schenkel became the best of friends and often relied on one another to watch us children. They shared recipes, advice, and womanly secrets. Each of our homes became a comfortable haven for children in the neighborhood. No one ever needed to knock; the door always remained open, as did the pantry.
Our world collapsed in February 1935. Mama got sick. When she passed away from pneumonia a few weeks later, the Schenkel family helped us out, especially Frau Schenkel, who made dinners for us and helped with the cleaning. She missed Mama almost as much as we did.
A few months later my uncle died, and Papa’s sister Aunt Gertie moved into our home with her two girls, both a couple of years older than me. Aunt Gertie took over the household duties. She was small in stature yet was as strong as an ox and had the rosiest of cheeks.
Max joked privately, “Aunt Gertie looks like a perfect square. She’s as wide as she is tall.”
Adelheid and Mathilde, my two cousins, became like sisters to me. It was good having other girls in the house. We played with our dolls, made up stories and whispered many secrets.
Great sadness had filled our home after Mama died. Papa became depressed and didn’t speak much, but Aunt Gertie and the girls brought life back into our home. The house became crowded and full of commotion. She brought laughter, love and a feeling of normalcy with her. Danke Gott. Thank the Lord for Aunt Gertie.
Herr Schenkel paced back and forth. “We must find you a safe place to hide. At least until this lunacy is over. Until people come back to their senses.”
Papa shook his head, still in disbelief. “Franz, I’m not sure that will happen anytime soon. The papers have been warning us for months that this day would come. Last week at the town pool, while my children were swimming, boys no older than Max posted a sign that read NO JEWS ALLOWED. Max said people were pointing and laughing as he hurried Jana away. The Nazi Party wants Jews out of the country. They blame us for everything wrong with the world. That group out there was a... a hunting party.” Papa’s voice rose, and anger reddened his face. “I recognized some of their voices. There were people I have known all my life. People I have worked—” His voice cracked. He eased himself onto a kitchen chair.
Aunt Gertie asked, “What shall we do, Henrik? Where shall we go?”
“Go? Leave Frechen? This is our home. We were born in this town, when it was just a tiny village, Gert. A small group of people who hate Jews are running us out? No. No. This is unbelievable. Unimaginable.” He pounded the table with his fist. “Unacceptable!”
Frau Schenkel, who was sheltering her children in the back room, quietly entered the room. Her husband continued. “I do not think they will return this evening. Henrik, you must start planning. They were a small group tonight, but hatred breeds hatred. It will grow. There is much talk in the town center. That lunatic in Berlin is stirring up a frenzy of hate. It is growing throughout this country and other countries, too. People are getting hurt.”
Herr Schenkel pulled my father aside. “Henrik, three Jewish families were tarred and feathered in Essen. In the town square! People laughed at them, and the soldiers shot the families. One by one, shot in the head, and still the people laughed. No, my friend, this is expanding into a firestorm of hate. Please, please consider leaving Frechen. Go. Be safe.”
“Go? To where?”
“Amsterdam. I have a cousin there who writes me that the Nazis have not entered Holland. It is safe in Amsterdam. My cousin will employ you. I will write you a letter of introduction. Leave Germany!”
“Think of your Kinder, Henrik.” Frau Schenkel gently placed her hand on Papa’s shoulder. “This is only a town. This is only a house. Your family... they are your valuables. Keep them safe.”
“I will do all I can to protect your house until you return,” Herr Schenkel vowed.
I held my breath as Papa focused slowly on each of our faces. He nodded and sighed. “Go collect your things. Pack two bags each. We will leave after midnight. Gertie and I will pack food and family items. We must fit the six of us and our belongings into the car.”
He walked over to Herr Schenkel, and they locked in an embraced. Neither said a word. There was nothing left to say.
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