In Zollverein, in the spring of Werner’s tenth year, the two oldest boys at Children’s House—thirteen-year-old Hans Schilzer and fourteen-year-old Herribert Pomsel—shoulder secondhand knapsacks and goose-step into the woods. When they come back, they are members of the Hitler Youth.
They carry slingshots, fashion spears, rehearse ambushes from behind snowbanks. They join a bristling gang of miners’ sons who sit in the market square, sleeves rolled up, shorts hiked to their hips. “Good evening,” they cry at passersby. “Or heil Hitler, if you prefer!”
They give each other matching haircuts and wrestle in the parlor and brag about the rifle training they’re preparing for, the gliders they’ll fly, the tank turrets they’ll operate. Our flag represents the new era, chant Hans and Herribert, our flag leads us to eternity. At meals they chide younger children for admiring anything foreign: a British car advertisement, a French picture book.
Their salutes are comical; their outfits verge on ridiculous. But Frau Elena watches the boys with wary eyes: not so long ago they were feral toddlers skulking in their cots and crying for their mothers. Now they’ve become adolescent thugs with split knuckles and postcards of the führer folded into their shirt pockets.
Frau Elena speaks French less and less frequently whenever Hans and Herribert are present. She finds herself conscious of her accent. The smallest glance from a neighbor can make her wonder.
Werner keeps his head down. Leaping over bonfires, rubbing ash beneath your eyes, picking on little kids? Crumpling Jutta’s drawings? Far better, he decides, to keep one’s presence small, inconspicuous. Werner has been reading the popular science magazines in the drugstore; he’s interested in wave turbulence, tunnels to the center of the earth, the Nigerian method of relaying news over distances with drums. He buys a notebook and draws up plans for cloud chambers, ion detectors, X-ray goggles. What about a little motor attached to the cradles to rock the
babies to sleep? How about springs stretched along the axles of his wagon to help him pull it up hills?
An official from the Labor Ministry visits Children’s House to speak about work opportunities at the mines. The children sit at his feet in their cleanest clothes. All boys, without exception, explains the man, will go to work for the mines once they turn fifteen. He speaks of glories and triumphs and how fortunate they’ll be to have fixed employment. When he picks up Werner’s radio and sets it back down without commenting, Werner feels the ceiling slip lower, the walls constrict.
His father down there, a mile beneath the house. Body never recovered. Haunting the tunnels still.
“From your neighborhood,” the official says, “from your soil, comes the might of our nation. Steel, coal, coke. Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich— they do not exist without this place. You supply the foundation of the new order, the bullets in its guns, the armor on its tanks.”
Hans and Herribert examine the man’s leather pistol belt with dazzled eyes. On the sideboard, Werner’s little radio chatters.
It says, Over these three years, our leader has had the courage to face a Europe that was in danger of collapse . . .
It says, He alone is to be thanked for the fact that, for German children, a German life has once again become worth living.