Hans could hear his heart thumping in his ears as he crouched down, making himself as small as possible. Even though he was almost nine, he was slight for his age and had maneuvered himself into a narrow space between the wood-beamed walls and stacked boxes.
He held his breath as footsteps approached. The enemy was near! A shaft of light coming in from the high window above the boxes illuminated a shadowed figure moving stealthily down a long corridor. Jumping from his hiding place, Hans ran towards the old freight elevator as fast as he could, dashed inside, and rang the fire bell triumphantly. A young boy emerged from the dusty gloom.
“I guess you won!” he laughed. “I couldn’t find you anywhere! I thought I knew all the good hiding places.”
The boys sat down together, each catching his breath. Suddenly, the lift lurched down to the lower floor and the doors that opened into the store. Standing at the entrance were two men, the owner, Herr Less, and Hans’ father, Georg Lehmann, the lead warehouseman. Herr Less was shaking his head and smiling; Herr Lehmann was clearly displeased.
“Walter, what have I told you about ringing the bell?” Herr Less’ tone was mildly reproving.
Herr Lehmann joined in. “And you, Hans, what have I told you about wasting time? You had a job to do!”
Hans hung his head so he did not have to meet his father’s eyes. “Ach, Georg, don’t be so hard on him,” Herr Less reached out and pulled on Hans’ cap. “Boys should have time to play, nicht wahr, yes? I’m sure Hans got his work done, didn’t he?”
Hans nodded shyly. Herr Less pulled some coins from his pocket.
“This is what I owe you for today and the work you did last week, too. Now why don’t both of you go and get some candy from the counter. Walter, please don’t ring the bell again. You know it’s only for emergencies. And boys, what’s the other thing I always warn you about? Remember how old this building is and…”
“No matches! No matches!” both boys interrupted laughing as they sprinted towards the candy.
“That boy shouldn’t be playing,” Herr Lehmann remarked gruffly, as he lifted a heavy box and put it on the lift. “He needs to work. And he shouldn’t be bothering you and your family either, Mein Herr.”
“No problem, no problem at all! Hans is a good companion for Walter. Walter’s brother and sister are so much older and away at school. It’s like he’s an only child sometimes. And your son is very well-behaved. You can be proud of him. I like having him around.”
“Papa, can I ask you something?” Walter had reappeared and was pulling his father’s hand with sticky fingers, his blue eyes wide with anticipation. “Can Hans come to my birthday party next week? I’ll be seven!” he announced proudly to Herr Lehmann. “We’re having cake and chocolate-covered marzipan, and my favorite cherry tarts, and there will be games and everything! Please, Papa? Can he?”
Hans saw his father scowl at him and shake his head, but before Herr Lehmann could speak, Herr Less responded, “Of course, of course! We’d love to have him. Georg, you can spare Hans for Sunday afternoon, can’t you? It’s a week after Walter’s real birthday, but it’s the only date we could arrange to make sure all his friends from school could come.”
“Certainly, mein Herr, very kind of you, sir. Well, we’d better be off now. Thank you, sir.”
Georg Lehmann tugged at his cap and quickly hustled his son out through the side delivery door, his hand gripping Hans’ shoulder.
Once outside, Herr Lehmann grabbed Hans roughly by the collar.
“Who do you think you are? First, you stop your work to play with the boss’s son, now you’re going to his party? You think you’re better than us? Worming an invitation?”
“But Walter wanted me to come! I didn’t ask! Besides, what’s wrong with going to his party?”
“Wrong? I’ll tell you what’s wrong! You have to know your place in this world. We’ve been in a depression since the war. I’ve got seven mouths to feed, and now you’re going to fancy parties? Where do you think we’re going to get the money to buy a gift for such a wealthy boy? Did you ever think of that?”
“Then I won’t go,” Hans said defiantly, twisting out of his father’s grip.
“And so now we insult Herr Less and his family and turn down his hospitality? Nein! You know how lucky I am to have this job? Herr Less is an honorable man. He pays me better wages than I could get anywhere. He’s been kind to our family. He is a good German, a veteran. We both served in the war. No, you have to go, unless we tell him you got sick or something…”
After a long silence, Herr Lehmann let out a heavy sigh and leaned against the warehouse wall.
“I’m sorry I got so angry, Hans. It’s not your fault. I just wish things could be different, the way they were before the war. All the politicians are promising a way out of this mess, but nothing has changed. There’s one man, this Adolf Hitler, who claims he’ll fix everything, but I don’t know what to think of him. I do know I’m tired of being poor. I can’t even afford to let you go to a birthday party.”
He sighed again. “Come on, son, let’s go. Your mother’s waiting.”
As they slowly walked home together, Hans slipped a piece of peppermint candy into his father’s hand.