On that day in 1939, Ben was only ten years old. Yet, as he sat sipping cream soda in his father’s store, his legs dangling off the high wooden stool, Ben felt almost as old and wise as Heinrich Goldberg, the ancient bookstore owner who had fought in the great World War.
Yes, Heinrich knew everything, all right. He told terrific stories about how he had crouched in deep trenches, bullets whistling overhead, how he hadn’t even noticed the wound in his arm that had caused him to be sent away until his sleeve began to turn red . . . Ben wanted to be exactly like Heinrich when he grew up.
“Is everyone here?” came Father’s anxious whisper. Ben’s thoughts crashed to bits like the windows of their store had a month ago, when the Gestapo, or German Secret Police, had smashed them to pieces.
“Yeah, I think so,” Ben whispered back, glancing around the room excitedly. He was the only one there under eighteen, maybe even twenty.
Father listened intently for a few seconds, his eyes piercing the darkness to every corner of the room. The shades were pulled completely down, and the only light was that which filtered in under the door. Even so, now that the windows were gone, they had to be extremely careful of unwanted listeners at Father’s secret meetings.
Suddenly, Father began to speak. “As you all know,” he began, “and as we all suspected, Hitler’s aggression against us Jews has become more than unfair laws and yellow stars on our jackets.” Ben could hear murmurs of agreement and could faintly see people nodding as he squinted through the gloom.
“I could relate to you numerous incidents of terror and injustice, of damage done to property—and people.” Here, Father had to raise his voice slightly to be heard over the indignant muttering which undulated through the room. “We must take action!” declared Father, in a voice that was so full of passion that it would have been a yell had there not been a need for quiet. “We are gathered here to decide whether to flee to safety in Switzerland, or to stay and form a resistance group.”
“No decision there!” screeched the crackling voice of Heinrich Goldberg, oblivious to the alarmed chorus of “sshhh” all around him. “Would we run away like a bunch of stinking, lily-livered cowards?”
“Heinrich,” Father answered, trying not to smile, “even if we do decide to form a resistance, you will be sent to safety.”
“What about this, eh, eh?” said Heinrich angrily, pointing to his sleeve, which was carefully torn in the exact spot where his scar was.
Some people said Heinrich was a pompous old fool, but Ben admired him more than anyone else, except for Father. If he had as good a scar as that, he would make sure everyone could see it, too.
Meanwhile, restless murmurs rippled through the room. It seemed to Ben that Heinrich could have waited for a better time to voice his opinion. Perhaps it was true that Heinrich didn’t always think before he . . . No! How could Ben have thought such a thing? He was sure that Heinrich had a very good reason for speaking up when he did, and yet . . . Confusion spun in a dizzying wave through Ben’s head. His cream soda suddenly seemed bland and unappetizing.
Then, like an ice cube on your forehead on a summer afternoon, Father’s voice broke in, sending a calm coolness through the hot, restless mutterings. “Let’s not waste our valuable time on discussing the details of actions not yet decided upon, and on arguing a case upon which all present have already formed an opinion. And yet. . .” Father paused. “And yet, if we do decide to stay, I have a very special job in mind for you, Heinrich.”
Alight in the glow of Heinrich’s enormous beam, Father began the vote. “All in favor of a complete run for safety, say nay.”
There was a heavy silence.
“And all in favor of forming a resistance group, say aye—quietly.” This last was added as “ayes” began swelling through every corner of the room. They were quiet, as Father had suggested, yet determined.
They sound so brave, thought Ben excitedly. I bet any one of them could take on ten Nazis! Yet fear gripped his heart as the reality of what they were doing sank in. He remembered a film clip of Adolf Hitler he had once seen—the huge black moustache, the evil, glinting eyes, the harsh, cruel voice . . .
Ben shivered violently. Father must have felt it for, next to Ben, he whispered, “All right, son?” The terrible image blew away like a speck of dust. “All right there?” Father repeated.
“Yes,” answered Ben. I’m fine.”
* * *
Switzerland. It was only just across the border, yet it seemed continents away. How could Father send him there? Why couldn’t he help with the fighting? It wasn’t fair!
Yet, in his heart, Ben knew that it was going to be very dangerous, staying and fighting the powerful Nazis. He knew that Father just wanted to keep him safe. Ben started to sigh, then caught himself just in time. Father and Heinrich might hear him.
He knew it was wrong, but couldn’t resist. He was listening at the door of a room. Inside, Father and Heinrich were arguing heatedly.
“I should have seen through your sneaky plan at once, Joseph!” Heinrich was screeching. “I have a very special job in mind for you,” he mocked bitterly. “You want to send me away, that’s all. You want to get rid of me.”
That same wave of dizzying confusion came over Ben again, this time stronger. How could Heinrich say those things about Father? There was something, something about Heinrich he hadn’t seen before and didn’t like. Yet he couldn’t think what it was. Ben put his ear to the door again and tried to shrug off his confusing thoughts.
“Heinrich,” Father was explaining in a slow, quiet voice. “Ever since Ben’s mother died when he was very young, he has been the most important thing in the world to me. He can’t go to Switzerland alone. I need someone I can trust, someone I know will take good care of Ben. You are that person, Heinrich. We’ve been friends ever since I can remember. I . . . I trust you more than anyone else.”
It seemed as if what Father was saying had just sunk in, as if Father’s calm voice had cooled Heinrich’s fiery outburst.
“All right,” Heinrich said after a pause. “I’ll do it for you, Joseph. I’ll do it for you.”
* * *
The clamor of people hurrying back and forth rang in Ben’s ears, and the smell of engine smoke singed his nostrils. It was all an unreal dream. He looked at Father standing beside him, tall and strong, brown-bearded and blue-eyed. Ben was leaving him. He was going to be in Switzerland with Heinrich Goldberg for . . . for years, perhaps. How could this be happening? He tried desperately to hold his tears back, and mostly succeeded, but one tear managed to sneak past his careful guard. It squeezed out of his left eye and rolled down his cheek, leaving a wet, salty trail behind it.
“It’s all right, Ben. Don’t be ashamed to cry,” said Father. “I know Heinrich will take good care of you. He would put his life on the line for you, I’m sure. But, in some ways, I want you to take care of Heinrich, too.”
“Wh- what do you mean?” stammered Ben in surprise. “Take care of Heinrich?”
“Yes. You see, in some ways, despite his age and experience, Heinrich is like a child. He is desperate for people to approve of him, for them to be impressed, and is angry when they aren’t. He’ll go to almost any means to make sure that people are impressed, even if it means stretching the truth. I want you to be gentle and understanding with him. I chose him to go with you not only because I know he’ll take good care of you, but because I know you can help him.”
A thought flashed through Ben’s mind. Father had voiced exactly what it was that Ben had been unable to figure out—what it was about Heinrich that Ben had just begun to see, that part of him that was so foreign to the image of a wise old veteran.
“Here comes Heinrich now,” broke in Father. Almost simultaneously, there was a screech of brakes and a rattle of wheels as their train pulled in.
“You ready to go, Sonny?” asked Heinrich, placing a bony hand on Ben’s shoulder with enthusiasm.
Ben nodded. Father clasped him in a strong hug and shook hands with Heinrich before Ben and Heinrich boarded. As the train pulled away, Father winked at Ben. Ben winked back. Father’s sturdy figure grew smaller and smaller as the train pulled away from the station. Ben resolved to remember it forever.
Yet as the station grew smaller and smaller, so did Ben’s courage. Soon the tears started to fill his eyes again, and this time they conquered. They covered his cheeks and blurred his vision as the country flashed past.
Heinrich’s cheerful voice broke in as Ben stared miserably out the window.
“Son, I’ve been thinking . . .” (I wish he wouldn’t call me “son,” thought Ben.) “I’ve been thinking that I would like to publish a book about my experiences during the World War and call it Memoirs of a Soldier. But . . . well . . . what with my arthritic hand and all, I’d like to ask a big favor of you: I would like you to write down my memoirs for me. I dictate and you write. How ’bout it, son? Will you do it for me?”
Suddenly, before he had time to think, all Ben’s tears and anguish burst forth.
“No!” he screamed. “Just be quiet, will you?”
Heinrich sat in stunned silence for a full five seconds, then turned away. Ben leaned back in his seat, realizing miserably that he had just done the exact opposite of what Father would have wanted him to do. Before he knew it, he fell into a troubled sleep as the train flew along, mile after mile.
* * *
The next months were like a hazy nightmare for Ben: exiting the train, staying in a plain, rented room that was shabbily furnished . . . Ben spent hours on end staring out the window at the bare, majestic Alps. He wished that he lived on one of those mountains—just him and Father. They would be all alone, and they wouldn’t have to worry about Hitler, or the Nazis, or anyone.
Heinrich kept a safe distance from Ben now. Sometimes he would forget and start telling one of his old stories, then stop abruptly. Ben avoided him, partly out of guilt, partly because he sometimes felt he simply couldn’t stand him. And to think he had admired him once!
The only thing that kept Ben from going crazy was the letters from Father. Every few weeks the smiling, blue-eyed landlady would tap on the door and hand Ben a crisp envelope. He would breathlessly tear it open and read Father’s letter over and over again, savoring each word. Most of the time, Ben felt like a cooped-up chicken or goat. But when he read Father’s letters, that feeling changed to brave heroism, and he remembered he was doing his part in the war just as all the soldiers and members of the Resistance, like Father, were doing theirs.
One day, a particularly brilliant and sunny one, Ben was staring out at the nearly blinding white snow on the tops of the mountains. The sun danced and sparkled like magnificent diamonds. The trees created rich, dark green spots against the vivid whiteness.
Tap tap. What was that? Tap tap, came the sound again. Ben raced to the door and yanked it open. There stood the pretty landlady, her bright hair coiled in a bun, an envelope in her hand. It was dirty and smudged, but to Ben it shone more than all the snow in the world.
“A letter from Father!” Ben exclaimed. The landlady gave him a kind, almost pitying smile, then turned and left, her polished boots making a thumping sound on the wooden staircase.
Ben ripped the envelope open. Heinrich looked up from the newspaper he had been reading and tried to hide his interest. The letter read as follows:
This may be the last letter you receive from me for a very long time, perhaps until the end of the war. You see, the Nazis have been after me and I must go into hiding. Some very kind non-Jews have taken me in; I mustn’t say where. It is a safe place, and there’s a good chance we’ll see each other again. In the meantime, keep your chin up. Be brave.
No letters from Father from now on? Not knowing if he was alive or dead? Ben was devastated. Yet no tears came this time; only a hollow, empty feeling.
Without asking permission, Ben noted bitterly, Heinrich leaned over and read the letter. “Be glad your father escaped death,” he said cheerfully. “I had a narrow escape, too. Did I ever tell you . . .”
Ben wanted to shriek at Heinrich to just be quiet. But before the words escaped his throat, Father’s reminder came to mind. “I chose Heinrich to go with you not only because I know he’ll take good care of you, but because I know you can help him.”
“Heinrich,” Ben said suddenly, trying to talk quietly and gently, like Father did, “I’m sorry about what I said on the train. You know what? I’ll help you with Memoirs of a Soldier after all.” Ben picked up a piece of paper and a pen. “Now, what would you like me to put?”
Heinrich thought a moment, then dictated, “Once there was a brave man, loyal and true, who was dedicated to the cause of freedom.”
Ben wrote it down:
Once there was a brave man, loyal and true, who was dedicated to the cause of freedom . . .