The day the German army opened fire on its own citizens in Blumental was the day of Pimpanella’s miracle. It was a cool summer morning, with the first promise of sun after four drizzly, cold days. Rosie woke early, hopped out of bed, and ran downstairs. Ever since she turned five, she had been allowed to check for eggs in the henhouse. She loved crawling into the small plywood hutch that housed the four chickens, reaching into each nest, and gently wiggling her fingers between the straw and the burlap, feeling around for that small, smooth oval, still warm from being under the hen’s puffed chest, the shell slightly soft.
Rosie also loved the hens, Pimpanella especially. Spindly little Pimpanella was the closest thing Rosie had to a pet; she was the only chicken who did not peck at Rosie’s feet in the outhouse. And Rosie protected Pimpanella against her grandfather. The last time Opa was home from Berlin, he declared Pimpanella useless because she had never been able to produce an egg. “A poor excuse for a fowl,” he called her. He chased Pimpanella around the yard with a stewpot lid, yelling at her to pull herself together and do her part for the war effort.
This morning, Rosie crawled up the short ladder and crept into the dusty coop. She made her way around the circle of nests: first Nina (one egg), then Rosamunde (also one), then Hanni (none, but she had a habit of laying her eggs any old place), and finally Pimpanella. Rosie’s older sisters, Lara and Sofia, didn’t even check Pimpanella’s nest anymore because in the entire year they’d had her, they had never found anything. But Rosie had faith in Pimpanella, even if no one else did. You had to believe, Rosie thought. You had to believe in good things because there were too many bad things to scare you if you didn’t. Like when you saw soldiers with only half a face at the bakery in Berlin. Or when you saw the soldiers missing an arm or a leg. Or both.
Rosie gently patted Pimpanella’s entire nest, starting at the side nearest to her. Nothing. Undiscouraged, she started over, this time digging down a bit deeper with her fingers. Halfway through, on the edge of the tamped-down hay where Pimpanella usually sat, there it was—an egg, buried under about three centimeters of straw. Then, to Rosie’s surprise and delight, she found another, right next to the first one. Two eggs! Twins!
It was a glorious day. Rosie would have to remember to bring Pimpanella some carrot tops as a special treat. For now, she gathered all the eggs up carefully in her pajama top and walked back uphill to the house. The small square building stood at the northern end of their property, right by the road that ran along the train tracks into town. Its stucco walls held layers of ivy and honeysuckle, which wound their way around the blackened oak window frames up to a clay tile roof. Given the green cloak of these vines, and how tiny the house was compared to the vast garden surrounding it, anyone passing by the property along the lake path to the south might overlook the structure altogether.
For the Eberhardt family, however, the house was enough. Though cramped, it could hold five people, sometimes six or seven if Rosie’s father came home from the eastern front, or if her grandfather came south from his job in Berlin. The last time Rosie’s father was home, he was so skinny he looked like a ghost, and he woke up every night screaming. He didn’t stay long. The war wanted him back.
When Rosie entered the kitchen, it was empty except for the smell of warm bread. She deposited the eggs in the basket on the table. From the big hand on the clock, she knew she was late.
Rosie ran outside to the front of the house, where Sofia was waiting for her. The 8:00 a.m. train whistled in the distance. The girls didn’t have much time. Their daily race to see who would be first to the underpass would have to start right now.
Sofia looked at Rosie. “You’re not even dressed yet.”
“There wasn’t time,” Rosie said. “Quick, the train is coming!”
“All right, but you don’t get a head start just because you’re barefoot. Ready . . . set . . . go!”
It did not take more than several seconds for Sofia, two years older and at least a head taller than Rosie, to pull out in front, blond braids flapping against her shoulders. Racing just a few steps behind her sister, Rosie balled her fingers into fists. Her grandfather had told her that helped your speed. She was almost at Sofia’s feet.
“Coming to get you, coming to get you,” Rosie taunted. Sofia took a quick glance backward, stuck her tongue out, and sped up for the final few meters. She rounded the corner at the base of the bridge a few steps before Rosie, just as the three-car train shook the steel girders over their heads. The girls stood there, bent over and breathing heavily.
“Look, Rosie,” Sofia said. “The barricade is gone!”
Two mornings ago, at the end of their race, Rosie and Sofia had almost crashed into an enormous pile of tree trunks that had been piled under the bridge. Someone had chopped down all the trees from a nearby thicket and stacked them on top of one another. Even today, the copse of trees that had yielded them still looked naked and embarrassed. Their leftover stumps stared blankly up at the stark sunlight, as if in shock from the trauma of decapitation.
For the past two days, that makeshift wall had blocked all traffic on the narrow road that ran along the Bodensee between the towns of Blumental and Meerfeld. Everyone knew the barricade was Captain Rodemann’s doing, and the smoldering hatred they already bore him for disrupting their lives grew to a blaze.
* * *
Captain Heinrich Rodemann, the seventeen-year-old leader of the Twenty-Sixth Battalion of the Hohenfeld foot patrol, had high expectations for his own military fame. He had always imagined he would make his name on a battlefield, even though he had entered the war only eight months earlier. Like the Führer whom he so proudly served, Heinrich Rodemann was not at all concerned about the recent Allied invasion of Normandy. He had great faith in the German military machine, for he shared with the Führer that intensity of ego that urged him to fight with greater strength and resistance the closer the end appeared to be.
In late June, when Berlin sent Rodemann south to investigate rumors of a possible French incursion on German soil, the overeager captain took the assignment very seriously. He decided to establish headquarters in a small town on the west end of the Bodensee. Blumental was ideally located for his purposes. No one seemed to know exactly if or when French troops would appear, but Captain Rodemann was committed to the engagement, eager to exercise his pubescent military muscle. His foot soldiers set up camp in the vineyards around the Catholic church of Birnau, to the east of town, while he took the best room in the town’s only inn, the Gasthof zum Löwen. Twice a day, the captain sent out scouting teams to ascertain whether there was any sign of the French; twice a day, his hopes were dashed with negative reports. To pass the time, he marched his troops around the marketplace. They stomped past the pigeon-stained bronze statue of Albrecht Munter, first mayor of Blumental. They paraded through the small commercial district distinguished by one newsstand, one jeweler, a clothing store, a pharmacy, a butcher, and the bakery of the three Mecklen sisters. They strutted down the lake promenade, where the metal chairs and tables of outdoor cafés rested wearily against one another, resigned to the rust that claimed more of their frames with each summer storm.
To ease the pain of his frustrated ambitions, Captain Rodemann commandeered chickens, fresh milk, and local produce from the farmers, and he practically emptied the vintner’s wine cellar. But not even these amenities could assuage his growing impatience and mounting irritation. He sent daily telegrams to Berlin, describing in exaggerated detail the reconnaissance efforts undertaken in the previous twenty-four hours and bemoaning the continued absence of signs of a French offensive. After three weeks, Berlin had had enough, and Rodemann was ordered to move his troops out. On his own initiative, Rodemann decided to erect an impediment that would hinder the French, should they ever arrive. He ordered his men to set up a barricade. They filled the underpass with headless tree trunks.
Nobody dared to move them, at least not immediately, and not in daylight. Deliveries that usually arrived via the southeast road were rerouted along a smaller dirt path intended for the farmers and shepherds who used the grass fields near the Birnau forest. By the end of the barricade’s first day, a hay wagon had collided with a meat van, two oversize trucks were stuck in the mud next to the sheep pastures, and the bewildered sheep had been introduced to an entirely new vocabulary of epithets. Grumbling about the situation began quietly, in conversations between two or three people, then spread through flocks of women at Mecklen’s Bakery and six-packs of men at the town tavern. By the end of the second day, everyone had run out of patience, and a resolute group of Blumental citizens, fortified by several pints of beer, dismantled the pile of logs under cover of darkness.
* * *
Marina Thiessen was outside in the yard, talking to her neighbor across the fence, when Rosie ran up the gravel driveway.
“Mutti, Mutti! They unblocked the road!”
“Rosie, hush.” Marina held up her hand and gave her daughter a stern look. “I’m speaking with Frau Breckenmüller about it.”
Rosie liked Frau Breckenmüller. She lived next door and had the pink cheeks of a fairy-tale grandmother. Rosie also liked Herr Breckenmüller—even though he was a fisherman and often smelled like fish—because he had helped her grandfather hang a swing in the apple tree. Last summer, after Rosie pestered her opa all morning about the swing, Opa had marched over to the Breckenmüllers’ to borrow some rope. Rosie remembered Herr Breckenmüller leaning on the fence next to her, puffing quietly on his cigar, a half smile creeping up his cheek, while Opa threw the ropes over the apple tree branch to secure the wooden board.
“Sure those knots are tight, Oskar?” Herr Breckenmüller had asked.
“Stop yammering at me, old man,” Opa had growled. “Don’t you think I know how to tie a knot?” Herr Breckenmüller had smiled and winked at Rosie. He knew something he wasn’t telling.
“Okay, then,” Opa had said, grabbing the two ropes on each side of the swing. “Let me just try it once, Rosie, and then it’s all yours.” He took a few steps back, the seat of the swing dangling beneath him, then kicked up his feet and briefly pulled himself into the air before firmly depositing his bottom on the wooden plank. The knot in the rope unraveled immediately, landing Opa in the dirt with a loud thud.
“Scheisse und verdammt nochmal!”
Rosie had never seen her grandfather get so angry, and for an instant she had been afraid. He stood up slowly, still cursing loudly and rubbing his backside. But when he turned and saw Rosie, his face changed immediately. She saw the skin that had been fixed in tight ripples around his mouth and eyes become smooth and relax back into the sheepish smile of the Opa she knew.
Herr Breckenmüller tried hard not to laugh. Then he stamped out his cigar and walked slowly over to the apple tree. “It takes a fisherman to know his way around ropes,” he had said, winking at Rosie conspiratorially.
This morning, Rosie ran over to the apple tree so she could swing while her mother was talking.
“Yes, Karl helped them take down the barricade early this morning, before he went out in his boat,” Frau Breckenmüller said. “I tried to talk him out of it. I didn’t want him involved.”
“The authority of Captain Heinrich Rodemann is so sacrosanct.” Her mother clenched her fists and pushed them into the pockets of her apron. “Of course we should be careful not to disturb the grand military edifice of dead trees erected by that great officer, never mind that he is nothing more than a pig!” Marina spat out the word. Frau Breckenmüller gasped and quickly reached across the fence to cover Marina’s mouth with her hand. Rosie slowed the swing.
“You’re not immune, you know,” Frau Breckenmüller cautioned, “just because your father works for the Führer. Remember the Rosenbergs. People can disappear overnight.”
Marina nodded and removed Frau Breckenmüller’s fingers from her lips. “Come, Rosie. Let’s get you some breakfast.” She looked at Rosie’s bare feet and frowned. “Even better, let’s get you dressed.”
“Oooh, yes!” Rosie suddenly remembered Pimpanella’s eggs. “Come see the big surprise!”
Her grandmother was talking on the phone as Rosie and Marina walked into the kitchen. Any other day, Rosie would have run over to Oma and demanded to talk to whoever was on the line (usually her opa), because the telephone was still a novelty. Very few families in Blumental had one in their house, and most people had to use the telephone at the post office if they wanted to make a call. But her opa was an important person in Berlin, so they got one. Mostly they used it to call him.
Rosie wished Opa did not have to stay in Berlin to work while the rest of the family lived in Blumental, but as Oma often reminded her, everyone had to make sacrifices for the war. Long ago, when she was very little, they had all lived in Berlin. Then Sofia and Oma had almost died the night the bombs fell, and they moved to Blumental. Rosie didn’t remember anything about that night. Apparently Sofia didn’t either, because whenever Rosie asked about it, Sofia curled up into a little ball and whispered, “I don’t remember.”
Pulling her mother past the telephone room, Rosie stopped at the kitchen table.
“Look, Mutti.” She pointed at the basket. “Eggs!”
Marina smiled hesitantly. “One, two, three . . . four eggs. That’s wonderful, Rosie. Nina, Rosamunde, and Hanni are working very hard.”
“No, no, only two of the eggs are from Nina and Rosamunde,” Rosie interrupted. “The other two are from Pimpanella. They were right in her nest under the straw. Both of them.”
“She probably stole them from the other chickens when they weren’t looking,” Lara said, shuffling into the kitchen in her slippers.
“She did not! She laid those eggs all by herself.” Rosie ran over to her older sister and pummeled her in the stomach. Lara laughed and easily pushed Rosie away. Just then, Edith walked into the kitchen, her telephone conversation with Oskar ended.
“What does Oskar say?” Marina asked. She placed a pot of milk on the stove. “What’s the news from Berlin?”
“Oskar is in Fürchtesgaden, not Berlin,” Edith said. “Apparently the Führer felt the need for mountain air and asked the cabinet to join him for its weekly meeting.”
“Hm. Sounds like our Führer, uprooting everyone from their normal lives because he ‘felt the need,’ ” Marina said with a sniff, just as the porch door flew open and Sofia dashed into the kitchen.
“Irene Nagel’s cat had kittens!” she said.
“Kittens!” Rosie thrust the basket of eggs into Edith’s hands. Kittens were fluffy and warm and bouncy. Like a ball made out of feathers. “Can we go see them, Mutti? Oma? Please, can we?” Rosie ran over to her mother and put on her saddest, most pleading face.
“Actually, Rosie, your opa told me he needs your help with a special project this morning.” Edith put her arms on Rosie’s shoulders and addressed all three girls. “Everyone can help. We need to make a new flag for our window. A red, white, and blue one.”
Marina looked up. So did Lara, who had been examining the fingernails on her right hand.
“Those are the colors of France,” Lara said.
* * *
It turned out that the French army’s approach was not a complete fabrication of Captain Rodemann’s mind. One German intelligence dispatch reported sighting a small French battalion marching southeast to the German border, toward the lake. In their telephone conversation, Oskar told Edith that it was still many days away and probably not something to be overly concerned about. Nevertheless, he urged her to take precautions. Change the flag, he advised.
The flag flying from the second-floor window of the Eberhardt home was, like every other flag displayed outside Blumental homes, the national flag of the Third Reich. One of the Führer’s earliest laws required all German homes to display that flag in a prominent location. In Blumental, unanimous compliance with this decree was less a demonstration of the town’s civic loyalty and unerring faith in the nation than a triumph of the efforts of the bürgermeister to safeguard his person.
On the day the law went into effect, long before the war began, the mayor of Blumental, Bürgermeister Hans Munter, almost choked on the soft-boiled egg he had been enjoying with his morning newspaper. The government, he read, would hold the mayor of every city and town accountable for any transgression by any citizen. This was a shock to Munter, whose own mayoral approach to civic governance was laissez-faire, rooted in his conviction that everyone should be left alone and confrontation should be avoided at all costs. But could all of his citizens be trusted to comply with this law without his intervention? He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to find out.
Through expeditious use of the municipality’s emergency fund, Munter soon ensured that full-size replicas of the national flag of the Third Reich were distributed to each Blumental family and hung prominently in front of every home. What Oskar feared, and what he shared with Edith over the phone, was that an invading French battalion might not feel generously inclined toward a town where swastikas flapped outside every window. Would it not be more prudent to substitute a French flag, or, if one could not be found, a white flag of surrender? Weighing strict compliance with the Führer’s edicts against concern for public safety—primarily the safety of his family—Oskar thought the balance tipped in favor of changing the flags.
Edith agreed. After breakfast, she hurried over to the home of the Duponts, who had relatives in Paris, to share Oskar’s news and request their help. Digging into the supply of French flags they had saved from Bastille Day celebrations, the Dupont family generously donated them to many of their neighbors. Families that did not receive French flags borrowed white cloth diapers from families with babies. By lunchtime, Blumental had successfully transformed itself into an apparent Francophile oasis, and everyone awaited the possibility of French occupation with trepidation.
* * *
When Captain Rodemann, marching east from Blumental with his battalion, received a telegram containing the same report that prompted Oskar’s telephone call, he was so elated, he almost fell off his horse. The French army was finally marching toward the northern shore of the lake! Of course, if they were still in France, as the report indicated, it would be at least a week before they reached the Bodensee. They might head through the Black Forest or follow the Rhine along the Swiss border until it reached the lake. Either way, Rodemann was determined to intercept them and thus, as he imagined the consequences, to solidify his place in military history—first for restoring and holding the southern front and then for turning the tide of the war inexorably toward German victory. Veering west, the captain ordered his men to march at double time.
Captain Rodemann and his troops reentered Blumental poised for battle. In fact, Rodemann was so intent upon his upcoming victory that he did not immediately notice the red, white, and blue stripes hanging on each building the battalion passed on its way down the main street. Nevertheless, the flags wove in and out of his consciousness with steady regularity, slowly but firmly knitting a pernicious banner of dissension and rebellion, a banner of popular support for the enemy. Captain Rodemann turned the corner to where he had built the perfect roadblock, where he had constructed out of tree trunks alone an impregnable barrier, and where now stood . . . nothing. He turned around and looked up the street he had just marched down. Flags flapped at him, mocked him, laughed at him in white, blue, and red. Captain Rodemann exploded in anger.
* * *
Rosie and Sofia had spent the morning staining a white cloth diaper with red currant and blackberry juices, trying to make a French flag for the upstairs window. They had just hung the finished product outside the second-floor dormer when their grandmother called them down to lunch.
It was a quiet meal of fish with small yellow potatoes from Edith’s garden. Rosie sat next to Sofia on the oak bench, opposite Lara, who insisted on sitting in her own chair. Rosie had eaten very quickly today because she wanted to get to Irene Nagel’s kittens. Irene had told Sofia there were five. Certainly no house needed that many cats. Sooner or later, Irene’s mother would be giving away some of those kittens, and Rosie and Sofia wanted to be first in line to claim one. Rosie fiddled with the lace curtains and plucked one of the African violets from the little potted plants on the windowsill. She pulled off its petals one by one and looked around the table.
Her mother and grandmother were silent, but that often happened after Opa called. Sometimes he told them news about Rosie’s father, who was away fighting in France. He used to be away fighting in Russia, but then he got stuck in that Russian city, and every time Opa called, her mother grabbed the phone, and when she was done talking to Opa, she would bite her lip. She bit her lip all winter.
Rosie looked to see if her mother was biting her lip now. But today, her mother was only pressing her lips together. Rosie jiggled her legs impatiently. Sofia’s plate still had two potatoes and a lot of fish on it. She kicked Sofia under the table. “Eat faster,” she urged.
Noticing Rosie’s impatience, Edith stood up from her chair and walked over to the chocolate cabinet. “Tell you what, Rosie,” she said. “Why don’t you have a peppermint while you wait?”
Rosie loved peppermints. She unwrapped this one from its crinkly pink paper and held it between her thumb and forefinger and licked it slowly to make it last longer. She only put the whole thing in her mouth later, when lunch was finally over and she needed her hands to dry the dishes. Sofia washed and Rosie dried, sweeping the dish towel over the wet plate at the same time that she swirled her tongue around the peppermint.
Pecka pecka pecka. Rosie looked up when she heard the noise. It sounded like a woodpecker. A loud one, and very close. She usually only heard woodpeckers during walks through the Birnau forest with her mother. But there it was again. Rosie went to the kitchen window to try to see it, but at that moment, three things happened simultaneously: one of the empty milk bottles that was sitting on the front door stoop shattered, Sofia dropped a pot that she had been washing, and Marina came thundering down the stairs and through the kitchen, shouting, “Into the reeds! Now! Into the reeds!”
The Eberhardt family response to air raids and other military dangers was the same as that of every family living along the lakefront: leave the house immediately and hide in the thicket of willow reeds on the shore. Though air raids were rare this far south, there had been a few bombings in nearby Friedrichshafen that had required them to put this escape plan into effect. The girls hated hiding in the reeds. It was wet and scary and uncomfortable to stand in the water motionless for up to an hour and a half. In the summer, the water was warm and home to leeches; in the winter, it was unbearably cold.
In less than a minute, Edith and Lara were already outside the French doors and running down the lawn toward the lake. Neighbors all around were doing the same, shrieking and shouting and scrambling as quickly as possible to get to the relative safety of the thick, camouflaging reeds. Sofia was still near the sink, curling herself into a ball next to the pile of pots Rosie had just dried. Rosie knew that Sofia was trying to make herself as small as possible so that the danger would overlook her and move on. It had worked for her in Berlin.
But Marina knew where to find her. “Out! Out!” Marina screamed, grabbing Sofia’s arm and pulling her up from the stone floor where she was cowering. She pushed Sofia’s stiff form out of the house, and then—awkwardly, because Sofia was getting too big for Marina to carry—gathered her up and ran haltingly down to the lake.
Rosie recognized the look of panic on her mother’s face when she ran through the kitchen. The look said, Run! Now! For an instant, Rosie was confused because she did not understand why a woodpecker would be dangerous, but now there were other sounds coming up the street, sounds that Rosie had heard in Berlin at night, before they moved. Guns. Yes, Rosie concluded as her feet began to run, it must be gunfire that was peppering the stone houses. Rosie knew that machine guns meant follow the exit drill, and Rosie was very good at the exit drill.
She had just reached the French doors heading to the backyard when she remembered Hans-Jürg. He was still upstairs in her bed. Hans-Jürg the bear had always been with Rosie. She was devoted to him, in part because he was the only other member of the family with brown eyes, just like hers. Rosie could not leave Hans-Jürg alone with gunfire going off all around him. So as Marina was running out of the house dragging Sofia behind her, Rosie ran through the living room to the staircase.
Rosie knew, with each step upward, that she should not let herself feel scared or listen to the increasing volume of the machine-gun sounds, which meant that the soldiers, whoever they were, were now on their street, getting closer to their house. She should not, could not, let any of that into her mind. Instead, she thought about Hans-Jürg. Hans-Jürg. Hans, putting her right foot on one step, Jürg, her left foot on the next one. Hans, right, Jürg, left. Hans, Jürg. Hans, Jürg. At the top of the staircase, she half tripped over the old throw rug, put her hand down briefly to catch her balance, and ran to the left into her room. She could tell immediately that Hans-Jürg was grateful to her for coming back. He sat on the faded pink quilt, smiling at her with his thick-threaded, slightly crooked black mouth.
Wrapping Hans-Jürg in her arms to protect him, Rosie ran back down through the house and yard, so quickly she did not have time to feel scared. She ran straight through her grandmother’s pansies, past the ripening cherry tree—where just yesterday she and Sofia had practiced spitting pits into the Breckenmüllers’ yard—over the molehills and through the back fence gate. It did not matter this time that she left it open.
Rosie ran from the bullets, across the pebbles of the shallow beach, into the tall willow reeds, through the water, the mud sucking at her sandals. Unable to pull up her foot, she stopped, panting. She had ignored her terror until now. Now it clamped onto her rib cage and paralyzed her lungs. She had to fight to suck in air. Finally she began to sob and clutched her bear to her heaving chest.
“Rosie!” her mother called out. Marina brushed aside willow stalks and thrust her way through the defiant sludge and water of the lake. “Shh, shh! I’m here, Rosie, I’m here.” Rosie felt her mother’s arms wrap around her and hold her tightly. She pressed her head into her mother’s body, burrowing her face into the coarse wool of her mother’s skirt. Gradually, the air Rosie breathed in became warm and minty, a reminder of her peppermint.
“This is crazy,” Frau Dachmaier said as Marina and Rosie waded over to the group. “I thought the French were civilized. Why would they shoot at civilians?”
The older Dachmaier boys, Boris and Jan, had broken off two of the longer reeds and were engaged in a mock machine-gun shootout, splashing about in the shallow sections of the beach. “Stop it!” Lara hissed at them. “Keep quiet!” She reached over, grabbed Boris’s reed, and snapped it in half. The boys glared at her in fury.
“I . . . don’t . . . think . . . it’s . . . the . . . French . . . who . . . are . . . shooting.” Old Herr Schmidt spoke in a measured, ruminative way, as if he were one of the clocks that he had spent his lifetime fixing and could issue only one word per second. He shook his graying head for a moment, then looked over at Edith and raised his eyebrows, inviting her speculation.
“Well, it can’t be the Russians, can it?” Frau Dachmaier continued. “They’ve never gotten this far south. Or west, for that matter.”
Rosie watched her grandmother study Herr Schmidt’s face. “No,” Edith said finally. “It’s not the Russians either. There’s only one army battalion nearby, and it doesn’t belong to the enemy. It’s us. It’s Rodemann.”
The neighbors fell silent and let Edith’s words float among the reeds.
* * *
Captain Rodemann was furious. The removal of the barricade constituted flagrant contempt for his authority, criminal disrespect for a military officer. There was no question that removal of this barrier aided and abetted the enemy in its incursion onto German soil. And there were all those French flags too, flapping from the town’s windows like derisive tongues taunting him as he passed by. The more the captain considered the situation, the more the whole thing looked like treason. It appeared that Blumental was a hitherto undiscovered haven for the Resistance. Someone would have to answer for this, someone visible to the entire community. The bürgermeister.
On his way to the bürgermeister’s home, Rodemann allowed his men to fire their rifles and machine guns into rose gardens and playgrounds and living rooms, chasing everyone into hiding. If their weapons were somewhat indiscriminately discharged, Rodemann did not worry about it, for the residents of Blumental needed a lesson in the consequences of disloyalty. Eventually he found his target, for poor Hans Munter’s fringe of dwindling blond curls was not dense enough to camouflage him in the middle of his neighbor’s herd of sheep.
* * *
Captain Rodemann marched Hans Munter at riflepoint through the town and up the hill to the Catholic church. It was a steep hill, and Hans found that he could do little better than stumble his way up—years of sausages and strawberry schnapps had taken their toll, and he seemed to have lost complete control of his legs.
Hans Munter had spent his entire life successfully avoiding his country’s wars—too young for the first and exempted from the second because, as bürgermeister, he was in charge of sending a roster of military-eligible Blumental men to Berlin, and he conveniently forgot to add his own name. He had read with sorrow and heartache many of those same names on monthly casualty lists sent to the town, and personally visited each family that had lost a young son or father to offer his condolences. Each spring, on Remembrance Day, he lit candles for those lost men. Thus did Hans try to give to the war effort without actually offering his life.
But the war could not be fooled, he realized now. It had come to extract payment, in the form of a rifle butt that kept prodding him to move forward. He was no more ready to give up his life today than he’d been four years ago. Only one small glimmer of hope flickered amid the panic that had seized his brain: negotiation through abject apology.
Hans could tell that Captain Rodemann was angry. He could also tell that he himself was, in some way that he didn’t understand, at fault. He decided that he must look for an opportunity to apologize to the captain for whatever it was that was irking him. Surely if Hans took responsibility for whatever this transgression was, if he was contrite and sincere and offered the captain whatever amends might be demanded, surely—possibly—everything could be straightened out.
Hans shuffled on, willing his feet to keep moving. Why the apology had to take place on top of the highest hill in the village, in front of the church, he didn’t know. Perhaps the captain was religious.
* * *
The machine guns had been quiet for some time. Rosie waited with her sisters while the adults pushed their way through the reeds and looked up and down the lake path, listening for danger. After several minutes, Marina came back through the water and waved them to shore. The children stood still while their parents checked them for leeches.
Rosie was too impatient to wait for her mother, so she lifted her pants leg herself. She was neither surprised nor upset to find a small leech attached to her calf. She plucked it off and threw it back into the reeds, then grabbed Sofia’s hand.
“Come on, Sofia, Mutti and Oma are going to the marketplace to make sure everyone else is okay,” Rosie said, pulling her sister forward and stomping her feet to get the mud off her shoes.
By the time they all arrived at the town center, most of the residents had come out of hiding. They emerged from linen closets and bathtubs. They threw off potato sacks in cellars. They left haylofts and chicken coops, picking bits of dried grass and feathers from their shirts. They climbed down from apple trees. And they walked over to the marketplace. The instinct to establish contact with friends and neighbors, to take stock, to shake hands, slap shoulders, and hug children, was universal. It appeared that everyone was safe.
The only two who were unaccounted for were Hans Munter and young Max Fuchs. And just as Johann Wiessmeyer, the Protestant minister, was comforting and reassuring Max’s mother, Max himself came running back into town from the Birnau forest, where he had been hiding. “They’re going to hang the bürgermeister!” he shouted. “Come quickly, they’re going to hang him!”
* * *
Hans Munter kept waiting for his opportunity to clarify the situation. When Captain Rodemann stopped underneath the old yew tree on the perimeter of the graveyard, Hans tried to speak, despite the fact that he could scarcely control his bladder and that his arms were forcefully held by two burly soldiers.
“Pardon, Herr Captain, if I could just have a—” he began.
“Silence!” screamed Rodemann. He pointed to a soldier behind the bürgermeister. “You there, get a rope. Throw it around that tree branch.” As the lanky blond boy ran back down the hill, Rodemann sighed with irritation, then took a knife from the sheath on his hip and began cleaning his fingernails.
“Captain, I think—” Hans tried again.
Rodemann turned on the bürgermeister, knifepoint extended menacingly. “Did I not tell you to be quiet? Did I not ask for silence? Must I stuff a potato in your mouth?” Rodemann could not abide these interruptions. He needed to keep his anger alive. From the time he had discovered the dismantled barricade to the moment his men had located Munter, his fury had been reliably constant. He had a plan that had come to him at the height of his rage, and he required rage to carry it out. But this interminable march up the hill, and now the delay in finding a strong piece of rope—all this had deflected his anger, allowed it to subside. His anger was like a wave that had swelled and risen, promising to crest and crash, but now instead it was emptying slowly onto the shore and threatening to creep back to the ocean. Rodemann wanted his anger to crash; he needed a collision, a catharsis of some kind. He was determined not to let his anger go, not until he had completed his plan.
By the time his soldier returned with a long section of hemp—stolen, in the end, from a pair of horses tied to an untended plow—Max’s urgent report had brought the townspeople of Blumental from the marketplace to the foot of the Birnau hill. Rodemann saw them coming and didn’t stop them. In fact, he was pleased that they’d come of their own accord. It was better to have an audience for things like this.
* * *
Rosie wanted to go to Birnau with Marina and the Breckenmüllers. So did Lara. But Marina told the girls to go home with Edith, and Edith said that it was no spectacle for children, not even—she looked pointedly at Marina—for adults. Sofia had been silent.
It took Rosie less than fifteen minutes to sneak back out of the house. Lara had stomped up to the girls’ bedroom in a huff the moment the front door shut behind them, despite Edith’s suggestion that the girls all join her in the living room for cookies and tea and a story from the illustrated Adventures of Kasperle that she kept next to the sofa. Sofia happily agreed, but Rosie said she was tired. “Hans-Jürg and I need a little quiet time,” she said, turning toward the stairs. To allay suspicion, she warned Sofia, “But don’t eat all the cookies! We’ll come down later.”
At the top of the stairs, Rosie waited for what seemed like hours while her grandmother heated water on the cast-iron stove. When she finally heard the familiar singsong of Edith’s gentle storytelling voice, she tiptoed into Oma and Opa’s bedroom, climbed onto the big bed under the skylight, reached up to unlatch it, and pulled herself through the window onto the sloping roof. She left Hans-Jürg behind. He was afraid of heights.
Rosie knew the route well, since she and Sofia had used it countless times to make naptime pass more quickly. Across the roof tiles, down the unused attic ladder, with a short drop onto the back porch. Then she had to keep her head down as she crept past the French doors and around the kitchen side of the house. She unlatched the iron gate to the street and let it swing back into the anemones while she ran to the hill that led to Birnau.
Weaving her way among all the people, Rosie slowed as she approached the small group where her mother was standing next to Frau and Herr Breckenmüller. Marina and Myra were tightly grasping each other’s hands. Just below them on the hill, near the vineyard, stood a wheelbarrow piled high with grapevines. Rosie quickly ran behind it so she could see and hear everything that happened without herself being seen.
Three soldiers were securing a thick rope to one of the lower branches of the old yew tree at the top of the hill, leaving a long loop hanging down in a makeshift noose. Rosie had seen nooses in newspaper photographs, but this one looked different. It hung crookedly and the coil did not look very tight. The soldiers exchanged curses as they tried to secure one of the rope ends. Rosie saw Karl Breckenmüller lean over to his wife. “Bad knot,” he said, in a whisper heavy with condescension and relief.
Captain Rodemann ordered his men to bring the bürgermeister over to the tree. Hans Munter had been dutifully holding his tongue, but he had nothing more to lose.
“Please, Herr Captain, this is unnecessary,” he pleaded. Rodemann ignored him. “It was all a mistake,” the bürgermeister continued, his voice breaking. A soldier pushed him over to a milking stool that the others had placed under the noose and motioned for him to climb up on it. “I apologize for whatever it is that has angered you. I apologize. I am so, so sorry,” Herr Munter begged while the noose was placed over his head. A trickle of liquid ran down his exposed ankle. Captain Rodemann watched it drip onto the ground and then slowly walked over to him. “Apology accepted,” he said, and kicked the stool out from under the bürgermeister’s feet.
Hans Munter never had a moment to feel the rope tighten around his neck. The noose unraveled almost immediately upon bearing his weight, and he fell to the ground with a heavy thud. He lay there quietly, breathing in the dirt. He did not feel like moving; he hoped that if he lay still enough, everyone might think he was dead. Sudden heart attack or stroke caused by the stress of the situation—surely that was possible. In any case, there was no need to call attention to himself.
Captain Rodemann rediscovered his anger. “Fools!” he barked at his soldiers. “Can none of you make a proper noose?” Rodemann spat in the direction of his battalion and strode over to the townspeople, now gathered at the top of the path. He leaned into Gerhard Mainz, the butcher, and hissed, “Is there no one here who knows how to tie a knot?” Rosie saw Myra Breckenmüller tug on her husband’s arm, pulling him farther back into the crowd. “Well?” Rodemann’s eyes fastened onto the butcher’s and would not let go.
“Th-the f-fisherman,” the butcher whispered.
“The fisherman!” Rodemann crooned, and scanned the crowd. “Where, oh where is the fisherman?”
Rosie held her breath, hoping no one would identify her friend. But, though some of the Blumentalers managed to look down at their feet in response to the question, many of them instinctively turned their heads in Herr Breckenmüller’s direction. Rosie watched with fear and horror as he pried his wife’s fingers from his arm, kissed her on the cheek, and quietly pushed his way through the crowd. No, don’t go! Rosie screamed in her head. She saw her mother put her arms around Myra Breckenmüller’s shoulders. “Nothing will happen to him,” her mother said. “He will be fine.”
Myra shook her head. “If he has to tie the noose that hangs and kills Hans Munter, he will not be fine.”
Rosie watched as Karl Breckenmüller slowly made his way up the hill to the old yew tree. He picked up the loose end of the swinging rope, made a large loop, and began winding it tightly around itself. By the time he finished tying the knots that would hold the loop in place, the entire thing looked to Rosie like a coiled snake with a wide-open mouth. The bürgermeister was huddled underneath it. He did not look happy. He did not even look to Rosie as if he was fully awake. He swayed from side to side, his hands tied behind his back. Two soldiers kept prodding him to stay upright. Another was yelling at them and at the bürgermeister. Then, just as the mouth of the snake-coil rope was being positioned over the bürgermeister’s head, she saw the approaching horse.
It came from the opposite side of the church plaza, its hooves clacking across the cobblestones. There was a tall soldier sitting on it. A general, Rosie knew, because he wore a uniform just like the kind her opa had hanging in his closet. The horse had been galloping, but the general slowed it to a walk as he neared the yew tree. His gaze was fixed on Captain Rodemann. As he came closer, Rosie saw that the general had dark hair, and as he came closer still, she recognized his dark eyes and thick eyebrows, those wonderful fuzzy brows that she loved to stroke.
* * *
General Erich Wolf rode his horse right up to Captain Rodemann and did not dismount. He was grateful now that he was still wearing the uniform he’d had on for his meeting with the Führer in Fürchtesgaden that morning. Erich did not like wearing his uniform any more than he absolutely had to, but he had been in a hurry, so he had not taken the time to change. Sitting comfortably up on the horse, he appreciated the poetic justice of being able literally to look down on a captain who thought so highly of himself. He was pleased when he saw Rodemann flinch.
Captain Rodemann was already acquainted with General Wolf. He did not like to remember the brief time he had spent working in the general’s office in Berlin, before he was assigned to field duty. The general had had an extremely attractive secretary, a woman who rejected Rodemann’s advances (unthinkable; she was probably a Sapphist) and tried thereafter to tarnish his good reputation with the general by blaming Rodemann for oversights that were undoubtedly her own responsibility. Despite all subsequent efforts by Rodemann to ingratiate himself with the general, he was fairly certain that the man had a poor opinion of him.
Raising a hand, Captain Rodemann gestured to one of his men to suspend the hanging for the moment. Freed from the restraining hold of the soldiers, Hans Munter slumped to the ground again. General Wolf glanced briefly at the bürgermeister, then positioned his horse broadside between the captain and his subordinates, so that, should the man dare to give another command, they would not be able to see him.
“Captain Rodemann,” General Wolf barked. “What exactly is going on here?”
The captain looked stricken, and for a brief moment was speechless. Then, inhaling deeply, he squared his shoulders and shouted out, in as imperious a voice as he could manage, “Insurrection, sir! I have discovered, singlehandedly, that the town of Blumental is a hotbed of resistance and—”
“Stop!” The general cut Rodemann off. He moved his horse one step closer and leaned down to stare the captain in the eye. “Do you wonder why the Third Reich is struggling to win this war when commanders such as yourself disobey direct orders? When they stray from their duties and try to lighten their boredom by mixing themselves in the affairs of the very people they should be trying to protect?” He held the captain’s gaze for a long moment, then slowly straightened back up. “I am not concerned with this town or its people. Nor is it clear to me why you should be, given that you have strict orders from the Führer to intercept the French army, which is approaching this town as we speak!”
At this, General Wolf reached into his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper. He slapped it open with a quick snap of his wrist and waved it before Rodemann’s stunned face. “This is a telegram from Berlin, containing an order that was reiterated to me by the Führer in Fürchtesgaden this morning. Do you know what it says?” Rodemann opened his mouth, but nothing came out. The general did not wait for him. “It instructs you and your men to repel the French incursion. Not that I understand either Berlin’s or the Führer’s confidence in your ability to accomplish this. Nothing I have seen in you, either today or in the past, suggests that you possess an iota of competence.” He refolded the telegram. “Nevertheless, it is not my place to second-guess the Führer, who has given you a direct order. And I daresay—no, I am certain—that he would not approve of this . . .” He leaned down again, to within a handbreadth of the captain, as if his snarling teeth might take a bite out of him. “This digression.”
Captain Rodemann was shocked. It was true, he had completely forgotten about the French. How could he have let that happen? The French army was his instrument of triumph, his weapon of glory, his catalyst to fame, and he had lost sight of his grand objective because of some petty little villagers? He called himself to attention. Looking to the soldiers who were still standing next to Munter’s now-prostrate and apparently unconscious body, he swept his hand through the air and announced, “Yes, sir, General! We will engage the enemy immediately!” Then, in a tempest of loud commands and clattering boots, Captain Rodemann and his regiment were gone, marching west toward the enemy.
* * *
Rosie ran over to Erich Wolf’s horse. “Erich! Erich! Will you let me sit up there with you?”
“Rosie!” Though surprised to see her, Erich Wolf dismounted and picked her up, kissing her mop of brown curls as he placed her on top of the horse. “Does your mother know you’re here?”
“No, but she’s here somewhere, and now she’ll see that I’m with you. Oooh! I’m so tall up here! I can see everything!” Rosie looked over to the yew tree, where Dr. Schufeldt was bent over Hans Munter, checking his breathing and heart rate. Frau Breckenmüller was helping him, cradling the bürgermeister’s head in her lap and murmuring reassuring words. Rosie was not certain, but she thought she heard Frau Breckenmüller naming various kinds of sausages and meats. Turning her head downhill to where the crowd was gathered, Rosie saw Marina striding toward them. Fortunately, she did not look angry.
“Erich, how wonderful that you’re here!” Her mother seemed not to notice Rosie at all. She looked at Erich as if she hadn’t seen him in many, many years, when actually they had seen each other in Meerfeld just last summer. Rosie knew because she had been there too, with Sofia, and they’d fed bread crusts to the swans. Lara had stayed home with Oma, who said she wasn’t ready to see Erich. Rosie did not understand that. What would Oma need to do to be ready to see him?
Back when they lived in Berlin, Erich used to come to the playground near Lara’s school to push Rosie in the swings. He was there every weekday, standing next to the swing set in his ribboned uniform, waiting for Marina and Sofia and Rosie after they dropped Lara off. Marina referred to him as “Onkel Erich,” but she said that he wasn’t really an uncle because he wasn’t Oma and Opa’s son. He had just lived in their house, before her mother got married. All of that was too confusing for Rosie, so she simply referred to him as Erich. And he was a great swing pusher. He pushed her as hard as she asked him to, so Rosie could swing higher and higher. After swinging, Marina usually let Rosie and Sofia play in the sandbox while she and Erich sat on a bench nearby.
Now Rosie looked down from the horse at her mother and Erich. They were facing each other, Erich with his hands on Marina’s arms.
“I was heading this way anyway,” he was saying. “Though I had no idea when I left Fürchtesgaden this morning that Rodemann was marching about. As I got closer, I heard rumors about a German attack on one of the towns on the lake. So I stepped up my pace.” He smiled. “My car broke down back in Schwanfeld. But I was able to borrow a horse. My preferred means of transportation, as you know.”
“Well, it’s a miracle, really. Who knows what would have happened if you hadn’t intervened,” Marina said. “You must have galloped over here at full speed. It’s a good thing you’re in shape, or you’d be in a hospital bed right next to Hans Munter, recovering from a heart attack or exhaustion.”
“Yes, if nothing else, the Third Reich keeps me fit.” Erich patted the horse on its side. “This mare did her best, poor thing. I imagine she hasn’t had such a workout in a long time.”
Rosie perked up. “Then she deserves a reward! We can give her some of our carrots.”
“Yes, Rosie, I’m certain she would love that,” Erich said.
“And the French, Erich?” Marina was looking out toward the lake, as if searching for signs of men marching in the distance. Rosie followed her gaze, but she saw nothing.
Erich shrugged. “We’re getting conflicting reports. This morning, they were definitely heading toward the southeast border, but the telegram I picked up in Schwanfeld had them reversing course. Perhaps they heard that Captain Rodemann had been sent to engage them.” He smiled. “I wouldn’t worry too much about the French, Marina. Oskar regrets alarming everyone. He’s en route and should be here tomorrow.”
“Opa’s coming?” Rosie gleefully bounced up and down on the horse’s back. “We need to tell Oma! Erich, will you ride me to my house? Can he, Mutti? And can he stay for dinner? Please?”
“Rosie, I would be honored to accompany you to your destination. But about dinner . . .” He hesitated and glanced at Marina. “I’m not sure I should stay. I don’t know how Edith would feel about it.”
Rosie readied a harsh glare and protest, but Marina was nodding. “It’s been long enough, don’t you think?”
Rosie’s happiness was complete. She was riding a horse, a real horse, with her favorite uncle and her Mutti walking next to her. And Sofia would see her on the horse when they got home. And Erich would stay for dinner. And he could have Pimpanella’s last egg.
“Mutti, can Erich have one of Pimpanella’s eggs?” she asked.
“Pimpanella’s eggs?” Erich looked amazed. “That suggests she laid more than one.”
“Two! It’s another miracle.” Marina laughed. “Probably all she has in her, but don’t tell Oskar that.”
They made their way home. The horse’s hooves kicked up puffs of fine gray dust that swirled behind them in eddies of haze. Rosie took a moment on her high perch to look back at the yew tree. She had to squint through the small atmospheric tempests of dirt to see the dangling rope. It was still there, swinging slowly back and forth, a reminder of how suddenly things could change.
The Good at Heart
When World War II breaks out, Edith and Oskar Eberhardt move their family—their daughter, Marina; son-in-law, Franz; and their granddaughters—out of Berlin and into a small house in the quiet town of Blumental, near Switzerland. A member of Hitler’s cabinet, Oskar is gone most of the time, and Franz begins fighting in the war, so the women of the house are left to their quiet lives in the picturesque village.
But life in Blumental isn’t as idyllic as it appears. An egotistical Nazi captain terrorizes the citizens he’s assigned to protect. Neighbors spy on each other. Some mysteriously disappear. Marina has a lover who also has close ties to her family and the government. Thinking none of them share her hatred of the Reich, she joins a Protestant priest smuggling Jewish refugees over the nearby Swiss border. The latest “package” is two Polish girls who’ve lost the rest of their family, and against her better judgment, Marina finds she must hide them in the Eberhardt’s cellar. Everything is set to go smoothly until Oskar comes home with the news that the Führer will be visiting the area for a concert, and he will be making a house call on the Eberhardts.
Based on the author’s discoveries about her great-grandfather, this extraordinary debut, full of love, tragedy, and suspense, is a sensitive portrait of a family torn between doing their duty for their country and doing what’s right for their country, and especially for those they love.
Ursula Werner Explores her Family's Past in Debut Novel, THE GOOD AT HEART
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Reading Group Guide
Set in the quiet town of Blumental in southern Germany during World War II, The Good at Heart tells the story of one family, the Eberhardts, and their complicated quest to do right by one another during a time of turmoil, confusion, and terror. Narrated from the perspective of multiple characters, including Edith, the matriarch of the family, and Rosie, her spirited five-year-old granddaughter—this story considers the complications of life for ordinary Germans living in a police state. The Good at Heart is partly a love story, partly a wartime thriller, and partly a meditation on good, evil, and the space between good and evil, where so many of the characters exist.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Good at Heart opens with a famous epigraph from The Diary of Anne Frank: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. . . . if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that pe see more