Christmas Kindness Along the Perilous Way
Please, Opa, will you take me down the hill and push me on the swing?'' pleads my younger daughter.
As we arrive at my in-laws' house there are hugs all around. The smell of my mother-in-law's veal roast fills the air, mingled with my father-in-law's butterkuchen, the same cake his mother used to make at holiday time.
``Let's have the cake first, then go swing,'' says my older daughter as she sniffs appreciatively. The swing, suspended down the hill on an old oak tree, was put up when my husband was a boy.
There is something especially tender in these family traditions - the hand-knit sweaters, the heirloom gifts - because my in-laws are Holocaust survivors.
Egon Katz was 22 years old in 1938. A baker's apprentice living in Hitler's Germany, he was well aware of the new laws designed to make daily living more difficult for the Jews. Of particular concern was the fact that Jewish people were no longer allowed driver's licenses. Delivering bread and pastries early each morning on a motorized tricycle was a part of his job.
Egon ignored the new law, just as he tried to ignore the growing oppression in the country of his birth. He lived quietly in Bremen with the family of his master baker, working hard, defying the unjust laws, and quietly swallowing the words ``Heil Hitler'' whenever he was forced into the military salute.
On Dec. 3, 1938, however, Egon's life changed forever. As he turned onto a major street, his delivery cycle was hit by a Nazi businessman. Although unhurt, Egon realized that life as he knew it was over.
At the trial a week later, Egon was fined a month's salary. He made his deliveries on a creaky bicycle, praying that that would be the end of it. Back at the bakery, however, the baker's wife was wringing her hands. ``They came for you, Egon.''
It was what he feared most - the Gestapo. Unable to serve their arrest warrant, they'd left orders for Egon to appear at Gestapo headquarters at 6 o'clock the next morning. Terrified, Egon sneaked out the back door and into the underground.
Nearby cousins helped make arrangements. Egon would travel to a town near the Dutch border and, at a certain address, meet a Herr Ritter who would smuggle him into Holland as a miner.
Egon spent the night on a train to the border town on the Rhine. Then he spent three bitter days in an unheated room before Herr Ritter could meet with him.
Egon Katz stood tall, his future in the hands of this man.
``The guards are getting tougher.''
Egon said nothing. Although his broad, strong shoulders looked like those of a miner, his hands had the strength and grace of a baker. And his face - young, wide, with pale blue eyes and a nose too short to be thought Jewish - was now deemed too delicate to belong to a miner.
Becoming numb with hopelessness, Egon traveled by train to Hamburg where his brother, Bruno, taught at a Jewish school. Several days later, his brother learned of another young man, Heinz, who had to leave Germany immediately.
Heinz and Egon would cross the Danish border near Flensburg. They would ride local transportation to the village of Ellund, about a mile and a half from the Danish border, and then walk to Tinglev, a village inside Denmark.
They wore their Sunday suits, city shoes, light overcoats, and hats that gave little warmth. They took no food, extra clothing, or possessions that might spark suspicion.
It was Dec. 24, 1938.
On the bus to Ellund there were only two other passengers, middle-aged women carrying Christmas bundles.
They got off the bus and the women walked ahead. Heinz and Egon were struck, for the moment, by the beauty of the place. The small sturdy houses in the snowy landscape looked inviting, with smoke from the chimneys promising warmth.
Suddenly they stopped, frozen with fear.
A few hundred yards away a German guard stood at the entrance to the border zone. Desperation brought Egon an idea. Casually he attached himself to the two women. ``Merry Christmas,'' he called.
``Merry Christmas,'' they said, returning the greeting.
``I am a baker and Heinz is a blacksmith.'' Egon struggled to think of the most common nickname he could. ``Does Heini still live in Ellund? We knew him from Flensburg.''
``Ach, you mean Heini Gertsner, the innkeeper's son? He was a locksmith apprentice in Flensburg.''
``Ja, that's the one I mean.''
Egon rejoined his companion. The guard waved on the women, whom he obviously knew. He stared at Heinz and Egon.
``Heil Hitler,'' the guard addressed them.
``Heil Hitler,'' they said.
``Who are you and where are you heading?''
``We are friends of Heini Gertsner, from Flensburg,'' said Egon. ``My friend here is a locksmith, like Heini, and I am a baker'' - a truth in the latter part anyway.
``That's right. Heil Hitler,'' Heinz said.
The guard paused and then said, ``Heil Hitler.''
They allowed themselves only a faint sigh of relief. If they headed north toward Denmark, the guard would see them and have ample opportunity to use his rifle. So they went to the inn.
The swastika blazed from the innkeeper's jacket, but he brought their coffee without comment. Obviously the two young men didn't belong here. ``Are you here to look at the new road?'' the innkeeper asked.
Living in a hostile environment had forced Egon to become an excellent judge of character, to look for the inherent goodwill that transcends religion and politics. That Christmas Eve at that inn, Egon sensed compassion in the gruff innkeeper and chose to believe that for this man the swastika was simply an expression of national pride.
The moment of truth had come.
The older man sighed wearily as he heard their desperate story. ``I am a member of the party, but what they are doing to you is wrong. I'm sorry I cannot help you. The only thing I can say is that the Danish border is one kilometer straight north behind my barn.''
``Vielen Dank. Auf Weidersehn,'' the two younger men said.
Heinz and Egon huddled behind the barn, waiting for dark. The snow was a foot deep, but the only barriers were pasture fences. They set off, moving quickly, as best they could in city shoes.
They walked undisturbed into the forest. The weather was bitter, their shoes and socks long since soaked through. But as the temperature dropped, their hearts warmed.
Finally their smiles could no longer express their happiness, and so, alone in the woods, they began to sing....
``Halt.'' The language was German and the voice was curt. ``Where are you coming from?''
``Where are you going?''
``No you don't.'' The guard appeared from behind a tree. He was Danish, not German. Still, his rifle was steady, pointed at their chests.
``Please. We are fleeing the Gestapo.''
``I'm sorry,'' the man shouldered the rifle, ``but I must take you to my superior.'' The guard apologized over and over as they walked toward Tinglev, but he gave Egon and Heinz no opportunity to escape.
At the home of Sergeant Thompson, the two uniformed men spoke Danish. When Mr. Thompson smiled at them, Egon and Heinz breathed more easily. They relaxed even more when he invited them inside.
The Christmas tree was decorated with candles. On the wall were colored ribbons bearing the Danish holiday greeting, Gladelid Jul. The fireplace added cheer, but the nicest sight of all was the welcoming smiles of the Thompsons. Marrike, the teenage daughter, smiled the most of all. She was obviously taken with Egon.
Sergeant Thompson called his superiors. But before he hung up the telephone his face had tightened.
``I have orders to take you back to Germany.''
Roast goose was Egon's favorite, but he ate little. The prospects were too gloomy.
Marrike, however, was busy. She spoke quickly, gesturing, pleading, and glancing occasionally at Egon. Soon Mrs. Thompson joined in. They considered and rejected alternatives. Finally, however, the sergeant's craggy face opened into a grin.
Now the food tasted good. Tomorrow was as uncertain as ever, but for tonight he and Heinz were the welcome beneficiaries of the Christmas spirit.
After dinner, the sergeant took the two men outside and led them back. Mr. Thompson stopped every few minutes.
``I must take you back to Germany ... but see that bright star? Keep two fingers to the right of that star the next time you go to Denmark and you will not get caught. Our patrol does not cross that area for another three hours.''
The sergeant stopped again and again, making sure the young men understood how to avoid getting caught. Each time he repeated the official line: ``Of course you have to go back to Germany.''
At an isolated section of the border there was one last set of directions and handshakes. ``Farewell,'' Mr. Thompson said. ``My duty is complete.''
Heinz and Egon turned to follow.
``At least wait until I'm gone.''
And so they did.
Egon Katz and his companion had many more close calls. They spent one evening doing knee bends in a chicken coop to keep from freezing. Once they were mistaken for Nazis. Each time when the worst appeared imminent, a bit of that Christmas kindness would save them. Eventually, they split up. Egon spent most of the war in China and finally came to the United States. He is now a retired certified public accountant living in California.
Egon changed his first name to Eugene, but to the grandchildren who swing with him on the tire swing down the hill he is, simply, ``Opa.''